My father's passions were football, golf, my mother, gin (the drink and the game), baseball and newspapers. His philosophy for raising children was that they should be treated like thoroughbreds—allow them to run until they go too fast for their own good, then pull in the reins. While I appreciate the independence his method gave me, his third colt, my father's stance was that of a trainer, not a jockey. The closeness between jockey and horse was missing in our relationship.
In the struggle to gain my father's love, I went to great lengths. As soon as I was seven I joined the Little League team he was coaching, and Dad, not one to favor his own children—at least not me—made me the second-string second baseman. I played one inning all season and performed so poorly that after the game I took off my cap and put it on the top shelf of my closet. The next summer I took up golf; my father never asked why I quit baseball.
I liked golf better because the ball stayed in one place until I hit it. I even won a few trophies because I was good at extricating myself from the nearly unplayable lies I'd hit myself into. My irons were tops. I was, of course, taught to play by the club pro, not by Dad, but he and I did play a twosome once. He was hooking that day, while I was slicing. We were in talking territory only on the tees and greens, and then my father would be engrossed with his caddie (I carried my own bag), asking him what club to play, where to hit it or how much the putt would break. From across the fairways I'd hear them laughing.
I was 12 when I lost interest in golf and gave up hope of ever connecting with my father. That autumn he sent me to a Christian Brothers boys school. Many of my schoolmates' fathers had season tickets to the New York Giants games, as did my father—eight seats, in fact. I couldn't believe, though, that my classmates usually attended games with their fathers, and not just the bad games, like when the Giants were playing the Eagles. When my brothers and I were invited to a game—which didn't happen often—we sat in one box and my father sat with his friends in another that was 12 or so sections away. I rationalized my friends' good fortune by telling myself how awful their fathers must be if they had nobody else to take to the games except their sons. But by November I'd been embarrassed too many times by someone saying on Monday morning, "You mean you weren't at the game? I thought your father had eight tickets." So, in mid-November, when my father asked my brothers and me if we wanted to go to the Army-Navy game with him, I jumped. The tickets were my grandfather's (Naval Academy class of 1912), and he'd outlived enough of his classmates to get some of the best seats.
Those humiliating Mondays faded from my memory. This was the Army-Navy game. As far as I knew, none of my school friends had ever been to one, and while neither team was a powerhouse that year, Army-Navy was the game to see on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. Even President Kennedy was going to be there. I was the envy of my class, and I was going to sit with my father. I couldn't wait.
The morning of the game I woke up to rain, and I saw my father in his bathrobe, his hairless neon-white legs spread duck-like below.
"You boys awake?" he asked.
"I am," I said, bolting upright. My brothers, who shared the room with me, groaned and rolled over.
"It's raining cats and dogs out there," my father said. "Why don't you guys get some sleep and we'll watch the game on TV."
"What!" I said, my voice cracking. "No, Dad, we have to go."
"You don't want to sit in the rain," he said. "That's no fun."
"We'll bring an umbrella. Dad, you promised," I said. Yes, he admitted, he had promised, but he offered instead a future Giant game as well as deli sandwiches and beer for all, including me, while we watched Army-Navy on TV. My brothers said "Great!" and Dad seemed satisfied.
"No, it's not great," I whined as my father left. I got out of my bed and ran to the top of the stairs. "You said we could go," I called through my tears. Dad didn't answer. As I came back into the room my oldest brother told me to go back to sleep. "I'm gonna be the laughingstock," I said. "Ooooh" was my brothers' immediate response. I cursed them, and went from one to the other, first pushing them to upset their sleep, then punching. They rolled up in their blankets to protect themselves and covered their laughter with pillows. The more I punched, the harder they laughed.
I was still in tears and trying to turn Peter's mattress over—with him in it—when my father returned to announce that anyone who wanted to go to the game had better hurry up and get dressed. My pants were on before he left the room. My brothers tried to change my mind. They said they still weren't going, and that the only reason Dad said he'd go was because I was crying. I didn't care. He was going.
My mother was pouring hot bouillon for bullshots into a plaid thermos as I came into the kitchen, and I could tell by the way my father said, as he appeared with the vodka. "We'd better make a couple of thermoses" that he didn't want to go at all. I then realized that it would be my father and me, alone, and part of me wanted to tell him to forget it, but the thought of explaining to my friends on Monday why I hadn't gone to the game made me hold my ground. What would we talk about? Terror silenced me.
Well, what to talk about wasn't a problem. We didn't talk. Our quiet was broken only after a half-hour train ride into New York City (he read a newspaper. I looked out the window), a cab ride from Grand Central to Penn Station (he talked to the driver, I looked out the window and noticed the rain had stopped) and a long walk down a platform to the private cars we were to take to Philadelphia. The owner of a restaurant in New York where my father spent much of his time had rented the trains, and we were greeted with choruses of "Hey. George" and "Never thought we'd see you out in this weather." My father cheered up considerably, introduced me as the tough one in the family, the one responsible for our being there, and said that my brothers were supposed to have come but had "chickened out." I beamed, but turned red at hearing the truth.
The railroad cars had maroon velvet seats and polished-wood interiors. I stood by my father at one of the bars and listened as a man told us that Navy had a sophomore quarterback he'd seen play in the Cornell game. He said he was someone to watch. The whistle blew, and we were on our way.
We broke out of the dark of the Hudson River tunnel into New Jersey sunshine. A cheer went up, and I pretended to join in. My father told me to sit down while he went into the other car. I tried to act like a man; I drank my Shirley Temple, watched the sun play off the fields of New Jersey, answered all questions from the men who knew I was lonely, returned all winks and listened in on war stories, talk of the Giants and the upcoming game.
My father finally came back and asked if I'd mind if we gave away one of our extra tickets, and then took me in to meet the man who'd sit next to us. The other car was filled with cigar smoke. There was raucous laughter, and men were playing cards for what seemed like lots of money. We went up to five or six men who were standing.
"Sky," my father said. "I'd like you to meet Joe DiMaggio. Mr. DiMaggio's going to be sitting with us."
"How do you do." was all I could get out. These were the days before Joe DiMaggio did TV commercials, the days when he lived only in legend—on baseball cards and in articles about Marilyn Monroe.
"How are you, Son?" was all he said. My stunned, sincere "You mean you couldn't get a ticket?" cracked them all up. and before I knew it I was in the next car with my father, who said, "Don't mention Marilyn Monroe to Mr. DiMaggio. O.K.?"
The weather was springlike that day in Philadelphia; Joe DiMaggio did sit with us; and I got my only in-person glimpse of President Kennedy when he tossed the coin. Navy's sophomore quarterback was Roger Staubach, who was such a spectacular player that I'm sure even the Army rooters were secretly wishing him well. He was all the talk at halftime.
The only other words I said to DiMaggio were "Yes, sir" and "No, thank you" to his offers of hot dogs and peanuts. He left at halftime and didn't return, and later on another man came to use his seat. When the newcomer told us that DiMaggio had gone to sit somewhere else, my father's face, like mine, fell. I'd had my disappointments before, but looking at my father I realized that he, too, was disappointed. He looked from the man to me and managed a smile as we stood to let the stranger pass. "Well." Dad said, "it'll be a good second half anyway, right, Sky?" I agreed with him, but when we sat down I said, "That was pretty rotten of him, wasn't it? Not to even thank us or say goodby."
"Yeah, it was." Dad said tentatively, then, with the force of truth, "It was real rotten." We looked at each other in a way we never had. Both snubbed, both pained, but both stronger. Something happened on the field that caused Navy to erupt. We both stood up to cheer, an outlet I was grateful for. It was a great second half, if you were rooting for Navy, which won 34-14.
On the train home my father was asked to join some men in the other car, but he declined, saying he wanted to sit with me. I said I was glad to hear that DiMaggio had decided not to come back on the train. Dad agreed, and he told me I'd probably have a great many more disappointments like that. I asked him what it was like for him growing up. He told me about his lonely, orphaned youth. He told me about the trouble he'd gotten into and what life had been like for him. I said what I could about me. We talked for the first time.
Of course, there were long stretches when we weren't as close as we were that day, but there were others when we were. The connection had been made, an understanding had been born in shared pain. And for the rest of his life, whenever we'd be watching a game on TV—even after chemotherapy had caused his mind to deteriorate so much that he would be watching a football game and ask who was pitching—my father would say, "Hey, Sky, you remember that Army-Navy game we weren't going to go to, but you made us go, and Roger Staubach and.... That was the best damn game I've ever been to. You remember that?"
How could I forget.