Goodbye, Dad

It’s a weekend afternoon, in sunny, hot midsummer. I’m three years old, lounging on the living room rug, placidly choo-chooing a wooden locomotive. I can hear, in the kitchen nearby, familiar sounds of my Mom, bustling about, doing whatever it is Mom does in the kitchen.

The front door is open, letting bright, warm air in through the screen door, carrying other familiar sounds to my little ears. The ever-present din of cars and trucks whizzing past on our busy four-lane street is there, so constant that it’s an aural backdrop, almost unheard. Above this sonic foundation two other resonances reach me and comfort me: one is the clackety-clack of the old-fashioned mower my Dad pushes back and forth across the front lawn, and the other is the tinny baritone of a man’s voice emanating from the transistor radio resting on the small concrete front porch.

I don’t know exactly what the voice is saying, but it’s a voice I know well, its presence almost as constant on these summertime afternoons as the Newhall Street traffic. I do know that the voice on the radio is called Russodgis, and what he’s talking about is The Jyunsgame. One thing Russodgis often says, that I find funny, is “Flea flew.” “Flea flew” this, and “flea flew” that. It’s silly and funny. I lie on my side, and suck my thumb. The peaceful splendor of summer afternoon sleep gently overtakes me.

Dad was a baseball fan. He wasn’t a baseball nut, by any means. He never paid much attention to batting averages, earned run averages, that kind of stuff. If he had ever used a personal computer and perused the Internet, a site such as this one wouldn’t have captured much of his interest. He just loved the game, loved watching ball games, loved listening to them on the radio.

Dad didn’t teach me to play ball. My next-eldest brother was the one who took me through the basics of throwing and catching, swinging a bat and sliding into a base. Dad took far more interest in woodworking, and in camping and fishing, than he did in playing ball, though I was surprised and delighted one time, in a father-son softball game at my elementary school, to see Dad playing first base, displaying a quaint 1920s-style two-handed gracefulness.

Dad wasn’t a sports fan in general, by any means. He didn’t follow football, or basketball, or the Olympics, or any other sport of any kind. But something about baseball, alone among the panoply of athletic entertainments, deeply appealed to him.

Dad’s own dad—my paternal grandfather—was a son of Polish immigrants. (Kashubian immigrants, to be precise; Kashubians are a distinct ethnic and linguistic group from the far north coastal region of Poland). He was born in central Wisconsin (near Stevens Point) in 1890. I don’t know how much baseball he was exposed to, but I doubt it was much, in a Polish/Kashubian dairy-farming ethnic enclave. But as a teenager, he took out on his own, making his way west to California. He joined the Marines and served a tour of duty in China, in the aftermath of the Boxer Rebellion. Undoubtedly during these adventures my grandfather was exposed to baseball, as so many other first-generation Americans were in that period.

Following his honorable discharge from the Marine Corps, he met and married a young woman who like himself had moved from the Midwest to California—she had been born in Iowa—and they settled in California and started a family. Their first child, a son, was born in the late summer of 1916, in the Central Valley farming town of Lodi. The young family soon moved to the fast-growing city of Oakland, where my grandfather started a tire-repair business—a thriving trade as the preponderance of automobiles skyrocketed. In 1919, a daughter was born to the young family.

Perhaps my young grandfather was too busy with his business and family responsibilities to have much leisure time; I don’t know. Perhaps he took no interest in baseball; I don’t know. But perhaps my young grandfather enjoyed throwing a baseball around with his friends on summer evenings. Perhaps he sometimes took in an Oakland Oaks game at Oaks Park, down by the bay in Emeryville. Perhaps he took his toddling son along with him, kindling a shared love of the game between father and son that might last a lifetime. I don’t know any of this, because in May 1920, volatile fluids in the tire-repair shop ignited and exploded. My grandfather was killed, a month before his 30th birthday. My Dad, not yet four years old, was left with only the sketchiest memories of his father.

My grandmother was a 25-year-old widow with an infant daughter and a pre-school-aged son. She found work cleaning houses, and she received help from many family members, and though it was a difficult life, my single-parent grandmother raised her children through the decade of the 1920s and through the Depression years of the 1930s. Dad played sandlot baseball with his friends, and he became an Oaks fan. He grew to be a big, strong guy, and he played guard on his high school football team (Fremont High, in the Fruitvale neighborhood of Oakland, not far from the present-day McAfee Coliseum).

Dad grew up fatherless and poor, but perhaps because of his circumstances as much as despite them, he was imbued with a strong work ethic. With the financial assistance of relatives, after high school he was able to attend a small technical college in Oakland, where he received a degree in electrical engineering. In 1938, he got a job with Westinghouse in Emeryville (not far from Oaks Park, in fact), and he would remain employed by Westinghouse (outside of a short hitch in the Navy during World War II) for 43 years.

He married Mom in 1939, and together they raised a family of seven (yours truly the youngest). In 1948, Westinghouse transferred Dad to its operation in Sunnyvale, California (near the south end of the San Francisco Bay). He and Mom bought a brand-new 1,000-square-foot house in neighboring Santa Clara, the house in which their youngest child blissfully napped in the summer of 1961, while Dad mowed the lawn out front, listening to the Giants game on the radio: the action described by broadcaster Russ Hodges, including the exploits of right fielder Felipe Alou, whose incomprehensible name was jolly fun to a three-year-old.

Dad was three when his own father met his sudden and horrific death. The shock and sadness of that event is something I can only imagine, and (gratefully) not truly know. The large, quiet, strong, slightly-scary-but-also-comforting presence Dad was to me as a three-year-old would have been a catastrophic loss to bear. Worse even than that would have been the loss of all the many things he meant to me in the four and a half decades since.

Dad died last week, at the age of 89. He and I had a good relationship, one which became closer and gentler over the final several years of his life, in which he quietly struggled with the annoyances and agonies of gradually failing health. I visited him regularly, most every weekend, and we would sit together. Though we weren’t particular conversationalists, we would, in our way, talk about the interests we shared: rose gardening, jazz and Broadway show music, local history, family history and, of course, baseball. During baseball season, the Giants game was guaranteed to be loudly blaring on the radio.

At the same age I was enthralled by Giants stars Willie Mays, Juan Marichal, Willie McCovey and Bobby Bonds, he was enthralled by Oaks stars Buzz Arlett, Lou McEvoy, Ernie Lombardi and Johnny Vergez. Our baseball fandom was a touchpoint, a shared experience that helped to bind us, an important element in our common-but-different life experience.

Dad developed a wide variety of hobbies over the years. He took great pleasure in woodworking, audio recording, photography, travel, all kinds of stuff. But all that notwithstanding, I’m quite sure I can describe Dad being just about as happy as he could be.

A comparative study on an unwritten rule of baseball.

It’s late afternoon, early evening. It’s been a warm sunny day, and now the Bay Area’s uncanny natural air conditioning is wafting a gentle cooling breeze Dad’s way. He’s in his back yard, on the concrete patio he poured himself, sheltered by the high, sturdy redwood-and-aluminum patio cover he designed and built himself.

When he looks to his right, he sees the trees that shade his yard: the spreading, fragrant Meyer lemon, and the dark, towering redwood, trees he planted as saplings many years ago. When he looks to his left, he sees his thriving little rose garden, in vibrant bloom.

Charcoal smoke curls from Dad’s hibachi, upon which steaks are sizzling. He has a stopwatch perched next to the hibachi, ticking away: in his precise (one might properly say nerdy) engineer’s manner, Dad grills his steaks to the very second of an exact time per side. He seasons the steaks with garlic salt and coarse-ground black pepper. He sips from his cocktail glass of Jim Beam on ice.

Inside his house, in the kitchen, his wife—to whom he has been utterly devoted for his entire adult life—is preparing the baked potatoes and the green salad that will accompany their exquisite steaks.

On a small table next to the hibachi, Dad’s transistor radio is loudly reporting the Giants game.

All is right with the world.

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