To Be, or Not to Be. a Father. . .
© Copyright 2022 by Carl Winderl
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.
For years in my writing classes, whether at the college Back East, at the university on the West Coast, or on-board ship for Semester-at-Sea – in fact, even where I taught abroad in London, China, or Japan – I used the word “father” to illustrate the concept of ‘denotation.’
I also used the word “dad” to illustrate the concept of ‘connotation.’
It didn’t matter whether the class was “First-Year Composition” or any of my upper-division creative writing classes: “Poetry,” “Non-Fiction,” or “Short Fiction. Early on in the semester I’d write those 4 words on the board: father – denotation; dad – connotation.
Even when I was teaching abroad, in all of those classes too I stepped to the board to write those 4 words; it didn’t matter whether the students’ first language was Japanese, Mandarin, or British English. I wrote those 4 words and figured they’d translate them and whatever else I wrote about them into their own first language, if need be. But always in English I wrote. And they’d sort it out, or translate it or parts of it, if necessary, because that’s what they did, could do; afterall, that’s how they’d arrived at my university-level classroom in their homeland where I was hired to teach them in my first language the universal concepts of writing, reading, speaking, thinking, and knowing.
And as a special bonus sidelight: the universal concept of “being” is what I especially taught. Teach.
After I wrote the word “father” on the board, I’d turn around to face them, pause, surveying their ranks before re-turning to write after it: “the male progenitor of a species that produces offspring.”
Then I’d re-turn to face them, to read out loud what I’d just written. Usually twice.
When I was way back there in Teacher School somewhere, to paraphrase a crooning Jim Morrison, a person put forth the proposition, ‘never talk to the board while writing on it.’ For a number of reasons.
Mostly because students, like people, which they sometimes are, receive visual clues to the content of spoken words from the facial expressions of the speaker, while sub-consciously reading the speaker’s lips. Students also attend better when the speaker’s looking at them. And it’s just plain easier to hear and thus “listen” when the sound’s not ricocheting off a blackboard. Or even a newfangled whiteboard.
Still facing them I’d say, “What I just wrote on the board is the ‘denotative aspect’ of the word ‘father.’” Then I’d write the word ‘denotation’ on the board.
Facing them again, I’d say, “Denotation refers to the dictionary definition of a word; it’s objective, clinical, an agreed-upon way of defining a term. If you look up the word ‘father’ in any dictionary, I suppose you’ll find some definition that more or less resembles what I wrote on the board.
“It’s relatively easy to remember how ‘denotation’ works. Just think – denotation is the dictionary definition of a word, a term, or concept.
“De-notation is the Dic-tionary Def-inition of a word. Think 3 D’s. You can’t go wrong. Keeping that in mind. That’s just a little mnemonic device to help you remember the concept.
“Oh, and just this too: ‘denotation provides second-hand information.’
“Keep that in mind too.”
Then I’d write again on the board “dad.” I’d pause to look over my shoulder at them to say, “One connotation of ‘dad’ might be this,” re-turning to write on the board, “A dad could be the man who comes home everyday promptly after work – ” usually at that point I’d stop writing to turn and face the class but would continue to speak, “come home from work just about dinner time. He’d step through the front door to leave his briefcase, overcoat, and hat either hanging on or next to the etegere in the foyer of your home. Then he’d stroll down the entryway to see you hard at work in his study and would sweep you up into his arms before plopping down the two of you on his leather, over-stuffed armchair to ask, ‘And how was your day at school today, darlin’?’ Then after a sumptuous meal prepared by your Mrs. Cleaver/Donna Reed look-alike stay-at-home mom, you’d spend the evening with your dad playing your favorite boardgame and watching only 1 of your favorite shows on television, then he’d sweep you off your feet to carry you giggling and laughing up the staircase to your bedroom where he’d help you get ready for bed and then read to you, all snuggled warm and soft and comfy cozy under your bedspread. He’d regale you with his improvisational character skills as he read you one of your favorite bed-time stories, always ending his reading just-so at the right point when you were about to drop off to sleep, so that your last remembrances of him and your day would be his feather-light kiss on your forehead, before he turned off all the lights except for your Care Bear nighty-night lite®. But he’d pause in the doorway to turn for one last adoring look at you, and blow 1 more soft kiss your way before he stepped backward through the doorway to pull the door not closed but ajar just enough so that a sliver of the hall-light silvered in moonlight your room as you could just make out his quiet confident manly form padding noiselessly down the hall.”
That’s pretty much how I’d define ‘that’ connotation. I got pretty good at it after a couple of decades or so using it a couple/three times a semester; I’d even act out some of it, especially the sweeping up into the arms part, waltzing down the hall at bedtime, and in particular the last blown kiss of the night, as I slowly pulled the door not quite shut. I’d survey the class as a whole for a few quiet moments, to make sure they got it, which they all usually did, no matter which language they were thinking in.
A dad is universal.
I’d always pause after all of ‘that,’ to then write on the board ‘connotation,’ take a couple of deep breaths, and begin again, “What I just regaled you with is a ‘connotative’ definition, one that we ‘conceive’ or ‘conceptualize’ because of what we experience first-hand.
“A word’s ‘connotation’ arrives usually over time, is subjective, and is based on personal experience. It often includes a bias, even prejudice, or an extremely preferential way of thinking about a person, place, or thing.
“And like I said it’s something we ‘conceive’ or ‘conceptualize.’
“So, like the mnemonic device for ‘denotation,’ we have one for ‘connotation.’ Here it is: a ‘connotation’ is meaning we have arrived at because of a ‘con-cept’ or a ‘con-ception’ or an emotional ‘con-nection’ we have formed around an idea about a term, based on information we have gathered first-hand about it.
“And here’s another important difference between ‘denotation’ and ‘connotation’ – whereas a ‘denotation’ has one agreed-upon definition, a ‘connotation’ can have many different definitions that not everyone has to agree upon. In fact, often there might not be any agreed-upon definition.
“For example, here’s another ‘connotation’ for the term ‘dad.’” Again I’d re-turn to the board to write, ‘dad.’ Then I’d pause to look over my shoulder again at them to say, “Someone else’s connotation for ‘dad’ might be this,” and then looking again at the board I’d begin to write anew, “A dad could be the man who comes home sometimes unexpectedly, maybe after all hours of the night – ” and at about this point I’d stop writing to turn and face again the class, continuing to speak, to them “maybe he had worked that day, maybe it was payday, maybe he went out after work and drank up all his week’s paycheck, in one drunken binge, only to come home blasting and blaring through the front door of your little 2-bedroom apartment, announcing his god-given presence as the man of the house and daring to dispute his right to do whatever he damn well wanted with whatever he had damn well worked hard for. And maybe he’d see your mom wringing her hands not knowing what to say but fearing what to expect, which would come true as he started slapping her around for just ‘looking at me with those eyes!’; and send her reeling into the corner where she’d cower, kneeling, trying to shield herself from his kicks and slaps, while you scampered down the hallway to hide under your bed or deep in some closet with your two younger sisters, hearing his roaring. And maybe he’d blow himself out to collapse in the corner passed out, from his drunken stupor, lying face-down in a puddle of his puke, or maybe he made it back out the front door to vomit in the bushes or on the sidewalk and down his pantleg onto his shoes, or maybe he crawled into the family car and threw up all over himself and the front seat to pass out there, til mid-morning the next day, when the day’s heat would wake him up coated in his sticky putrid mess. Or maybe he somehow managed to start the car, pull away crazily from the house down the street weaving bizarrely out into the pre-dawn night, not to return for a day or two, or a week or two, or a month or two. Or better – no, best yet – not to come back at all for a year or two. Or longer even sometimes.”
Then I’d stop and pause again, to catch a couple of quick breaths and gather myself, before continuing. “So, maybe that first dad I described was a lot like your dad. And I hope and pray to God, that it was.”
Pausing again, even longer this time. “Or maybe for someone like me, the second dad is the one I had. The one who first-hand taught me what that kind of dad is. The one who gave me so very much personal information to formulate my connotative definition for the word ‘dad.’
“So, when someone mentions the word ‘dad’ to you those positive associations of that first dad resonate inside of you, while – well, you can imagine what I associate with the word ‘dad’ when someone mentions that word around me.
“And imagine my response too, when my little old Sunday School teacher, Mrs. Mabel Edwards, used to say to me on some bright sunny Sunday morning, ‘Why, Carlie, your father up heaven wants to love you and care for you and do for you just like your earthly daddy wants to do for you – and just love you all over exactly like your daddy down here on earth does.’
“Poor, Mrs. Edwards, she just didn’t have a clue about what kind of earthly dad I had.
“And I suppose you now might know why some of you and some of your friends don’t get along quite so famously or maybe notoriously with certain ‘male authority figures’ in your lives. And when that happens, the psychological term for that is called ‘transference.’”
And I would pause, usually in mock surprise, to say as if shocked to the class, “Oh, the things you have been learning in this ‘writing’ class today! I know, I know, – what you really want to know is, will any of this be on the test – the Final Exam at the end of the semester?
“Well, to be honest, I don’t know – which is strange because I’ll be the one making up that test. However, what you should be much more concerned about is, ‘will this information be required of me or be helpful to me on the Grand Test of Life?’”
I really did from very early on in my teaching career start using those definitions, explanations, & applications.
To great effect, or so I thought – no, assumed – in those days.
I first walked into a college classroom as an Instructor in English when I was 24, fresh from the University of Chicago, with the ink still damp on my M.A. degree in American Literature and Creative Writing, or that’s what I thought I’d specialized in back in those halcyon days of my course-taking.
And at first when I was a very green and wet-behind-the-ears professor, after I’d dramatically acted out the definition and application for those terms, I’d ask the class, by show of hands, how many of them identified with the “1st dad” and his “Honey, I’m home!” ways, and then I’d ask, again by show of hands, how many of them identified with the “2nd dad” and his “Rasputin Holy Terror!” ways, and as I finished that I’d say, “And, yeah, my hand’s up for this 2nd dad myself.”
In those early days, usually a few tentative but brave hands would be held up sort of high for the 2nd dad-type, while clearly the majority were held up high and long for the 1st dad-type.
I wasn’t that bright in those early days in the classroom, and am probably still dimmer than I ought to be, but after a few years of the hand raising I realized two things. First, that I was really putting the 2nd hand-raisers on the spot for identifying themselves in front of their classmates. It was one thing for me to lay my bleeding heart out there on my sleeve, but it was too chancey, too dicey for them, even if my motives for my own hand-raising were mostly pure: I wanted then, and still do now, to know that just because they weren’t born with a silver spoon in their mouths, did grow up on the wrong side of town, were dirt poor, had no lineage to speak of or to be proud about, and about a hundred-million other pieces of discarded family hand-me-downs in the baggage from life they felt compelled to drag around, that they couldn’t be a success, or at least reasonably successful as I liked to think of myself in those days.
Yes, in those days too, I was well aware that I stood in front of a classroom to instruct them on how to write, read, speak, think, and know. But especially how to be.
And so secondly I quit with the hand-raising already when I began to notice too that with each passing year the number began to switch sides, until after about a decade, fewer raised hands went up for the 1st dad-type and more and more started being raised for the 2nd dad-type.
The majority and the minority had switched places.
Either one of two things must have happened: more students were being honest about being in the 2nd dad-type group, or more students were growing up in wildly dysfunctional alcohol-saturated homes.
I suspected then, as I do now, that both things were happening.
So, going into my senior year at Pompano Beach Senior High School I was definitely in the minority of the 2nd dad-type, but looking on the bright side, when I showed up at school for that very 1st day of school I left a home where a dad hadn’t lived for almost 2 years. And my sisters and I were happy with that.
We’d gotten to the place where we much preferred a poor home without a father to a home with a live-in father likely to go off on a mad drunken rage and rampage for reasons only he knew too well. And that we feared only too well.
Unlike so many of our peers, we lived far too well with the binary answer to the question posed in whether ‘tis nobler to be or not to be a father . . . or a dad.
And which kind of dad.
So, with a relatively light heart on that first Tuesday after Labor Day, September, 1966, I walked onto the schoolgrounds with guarded optimism for the year, because I knew that for the 1st time in a long while all was still quiet on the home front.
No father at home certainly posed its own set of dilemmas & problems, but I’d been used to confronting and surmounting them, most of the time.
One problem that would hit me soon in the face, like it always had ever since junior varsity basketball days at PBSHS, was not having a father around to schmooze with the coaches after practices and before & after ball games. Not having a schmoozer dad was a decided disadvantage.
Although I was generally and genuinely happy that my coaches didn’t know that I had an alcoholic for a father, I knew that I was clearly missing out on an off-court edge that several teammates enjoyed.
I suppose I’d’ve not felt so slighted and left out if those players whose dads were the schmoozers were the best, most talented players on the team. At least 2 or 3 of the dads who constantly hung around the coaches had sons who were generally marginal players at best, when it came to having real talent and ability. Of course during my sophomore & junior years they were better than I was or taller or faster or more experienced, but I felt that any available playing that might have been accorded to me went to them instead, just so the coaches wouldn’t have to answer to the dads after a game for why their son hadn’t played more.
I had no one around to lobby for me to gain some minimal playing time, even garbage time. Except in practice. Where I continued to feel little more than a practice dummy for the practice squad scrambling around the floor as some cast-off expendable on the scout team.
More like a whetstone for the starters to sharpen their blades upon.
One player I thought who really stole any possible time for me was Dick Kennedy. He of course made the 9th grade team at Deerfield Beach Junior High School, the team I’d been cut from, but I made the junior varsity team at PBSHS as a sophomore, the first real team I’d managed to make and was actually quite delighted to have made it as the 12th man. Despite my tenacious and long-suffering efforts all season long I clasped a death-grip on that position, and finished the season still as 12th man.
At least I had my foot in the locker room door.
Dick Kennedy though had his death-grip on about the 8th or 9th man slot on the team, which should have been seen by him as an improvement, since he’d occupied about the same slot on the 9th-grade team a year before.
He should have looked at it like I did: 4 junior highs fed into PBSHS which meant possibly 48 9th-grade junior high players would try out for 12 slots on the 10th-grade senior high team. Make that 49, since I’d not played in junior high. So for me to even make the jayvee squad was a quantam leap forward from my perspective. But, no, Dick Kennedy felt and told anyone who’d listen that he deserved to be starting, that he’d played his ass off all summer and that he’d even grown an inch, and that he’d someday soon be 6’4” like his dad – or taller, once he got his growth spurt.
As he stood then, Dick Kennedy was 6’1”, while I’d grown from 3 inches but was only 5’9”, not bad for the guard position I was struggling at, but he was a forward.
He just didn’t get that he had improved and that 8th or 9th man on this team was an improvement.
But he was a whiner, and a crybaby. Literally.
He whined if he got fouled and nobody called it. He whined if he fouled somebody and got called for it. He whined when his shots wouldn’t fall, when his man beat him on defense, when nobody played help defense for him, and especially whenever I’d rarely but sometimes beat him to a loose ball or would step in front of him to steal the ball because he was too lazy or undisciplined to meet his pass.
And he cried for real on the court the first time he quit the team.
He’d been having, for him, I thought, a rather typical shoddy practice, and we were at the end of practice running our conditioning drills to get us good and tired so we’d be ready to be really good and tired to run our suicides.
Because of our heights, I ran with the guards, and he ran with the other forwards and centers.
As Jim Phipps, our jayvee coach ran us through our suicides, the guards ran one first, then the ‘big men’ ran theirs. We ran another, then they ran another, and so on, depending on how good and tired Coach Phipps wanted us to feel.
We ran them though with a twist and an incentive. Everybody in both groups ran them the first time. The second time we ran a suicide, the person who won that “heat” was done for the day, didn’t have to run anymore, could shower out, and go home.
The rest of us ran it a third time, and then the winner of that heat was done for the day. And the heats continued with the winner dropping out until only one player was left to run a last suicide all by himself.
Coach Phipps’ system worked out quite nicely. We had 5 guards and 7 ‘big men,’ but he switched over one of the forwards, Keith Finley, to be a guard although technically he was a forward, at 5’10”. Keith was the fastest of the ‘big men’ and usually the 3rd fastest among the guards, so he didn’t mind the change-over.
So on that shoddy practice day for Dick Kennedy, actually could have been just another one of many he’d had, but during that first particular cry-baby “I quit!” practice, we’d all run one, then we ran the 2nd, which quite naturally Bill Brooks won, the perennial fastest of the guards; Danny Smith won the 3rd, and Keith Finley the 4th. That left just Bob DeBeltrand & Bob Morgan and me to run still another suicide, the 5th, to see who’d battle it out to run the next-to-last one in our suicidal demolition derby to see who’d get to run the very last one all by his lonesome. About 50% of the time I was the lone suicidal maniac, but that didn’t bother me all that much: one, because we got to run the last one at our pace – we could’ve trotted it out and Coach wouldn’t’ve minded; and two, because I was on a real basketball team for the first time in my life, and I was really okay with all the punishing running and conditioning and even some of the humiliating 12th man stuff I had to endure.
I just didn’t let on that I was okay with it. Oh, I’d grumble and look all hang-dog at my lot in basketball life, but just enough so to be convincing.
Usually, even though the ‘winners’ of their heats had permission to leave the court and the gym to go shower out, they’d hang around and lollygag to see the suicide missions to the bitter end. I think it was part solidarity and part amusement. Plus, they were usually still trying to catch their breath and figure out a way to stand up straight without gasping for air all bent over with their hands on their knees.
So, on that day while DeBeltrand and I awaited our run-off, we all stood eyeing Dick Kennedy, Brian Vincent, and Paul Lambert toeing the end line getting ready for the whistle to start their heat. Coach Phipps blew it, and Brian took off first with Lambert loping not far behind but Kennedy labored in third. He was such a pansy.
When it became clear that Brian was going to come in first and Lambert second, which meant Kennedy, who was seriously dogging it, would come in last, and would run again, against Lambert, who always beat him if not outright then through intimidation by crowding him on the turnarounds and stepping in front of him if he could, Kennedy at mid-court on the last full-court length of the heat flailed his arms like Quixote at a windmill and stomping his feet like Sisyphus nearing the top of a hill, crying out, “I quit! I quit!! I frigging quit!!!”
And so he did, literally crying real tears and uttering various imprecations of hate toward basketball and our team using curious and ridiculous combinations of hell, crap, damn, bitch, ass, cock, & piss as if spilled forth out of a Boggle® cup.
We were accustomed to his tantrums when the ball didn’t bounce his way, but we’d never witnessed anything like this before.
His meltdown was epic. Three-Mile Island Epic. No, Chernobyl to the China Syndrome-Nth.
It clearly surpassed by light years anyone’s 19th Nervous Breakdown.
Most of the players fought back outright laughter but let hysterical mirth sparkle in their eyes, while Coach Phipps tried to save some of Kennedy’s face by cajoling him to return, saying. “Damn, Kennedy – get your ass back over here. You think you’re the first player who ever got winded from running a half dozen suicides!”
To which Kennedy’s reply was still, “I quit! I quit!! I told you ‘I frigging quit!!!’” as he exited the court and ran into the tunnel leading to our locker room.
Leave it to Bill Brooks, team captain, floor leader, & ex-officio maestro of nick-names, to pronounce, hand on hips, “Kennedy – what a candy-ass.” And so it stuck. Even Smitty joined in with, “Yeah, good riddance – now I don’t have to pass to old cement hands anymore.”
Meanwhile, the other players laughed anew and shook their heads, feeling over-jovial having more fully caught their breaths during the tantrum and possibly thought of life without Kennedy, which was of course first and foremost on my mind. Except that the visions that danced in my head were of me as the new 11th man on the team.
I was going to move up on the bench one spot, even if it was just a promotion by subtraction, I didn’t care: I was moving up.
And with that thought happily in mind I raced out to a narrow lead in my heat with DeBeltrand and narrowly won that suicide, by about the same length I’d gained from my quick jump start. So, on that day DeBeltrand got to run the last suicide solo.
While Dick Kennedy sulked and pouted in the locker room, and was still crybaby at it, we all finally traipsed in; he was slamming locker room doors and throwing towels and kicked over a couple of trash cans, as he finally and mercilessly stomped out of the locker room – “This is It!!! Never Again!!!” and “I ain’t Damn Never Comin’ Back!!!”
All the while he was still crying, real tears, runny gross snot-nosed drippings and everything.
But, he was back the next day.
When I’d left the locker room through the gym to try to catch a ride after practice that day, there was Kennedy’s dad, in a huddle with both Coach Phipps and Coach Morris, talking very seriously while Kennedy’s dad kept holding up his hands waist high, waving them back and forth sideways and vigorously nodding and shaking his head.
And as I walked through the parking lot and saw the Kennedys’ car, a bright shiny new forest green Ford Fairlane station wagon, parked just off the street I saw Dick Kennedy slumped way down in the passenger seat, still sniffling and snuffling and wiping at his nose with the back of his hand.
I remember thinking as I walked by, would my dad go to bat like that for me if I’d acted that way.
And I remember thinking too, nah, he wouldn’t have to – cause I wouldn’t act that way.
Truth be told, he would’ve whupped my ass – for embarrassing him. First though he would’ve had to be around to whup me, and be sober enough to know what he was whupping me for.
Still I remember reflecting it’d be nice to have the kind of dad who’d go to bat for his son.
As it turned out, Dick Kennedy quit the team 2 more times before the season was over.
He was re-instated each time. Thanks to his dad.
And when the season ended he was still on the team, but as a junior the next year when he tried out for the varsity – he didn’t make it. He was among the first to get cut.
But I made the team. As the 12th man on the varsity. And I was okay with that too.
I was still improving.
Dick Kennedy’s dad wasn’t the only schmoozer dad. Paul Lambert’s dad probably had his Olan Mills® portrait in the dictionary next to the word “schmoozer.” While Kennedy’s dad only schmoozed the basketball coaches, Lambert’s dad schmoozed not only the basketball coaches but also all the football & track coaches. Fortunately for me I only played hoop so I wasn’t witness to his father’s techniques for all three sports. One was enough.
I assumed what he did for 1 set of coaches he did for all 3.
In his own way then, Lambert’s dad was a truer-than-true adult version of being a Triple Threat. A real three-letter man, with a Capital S. Which did not stand for Superman.
Paul Lambert was another player who had played on the 9th-grade team I was cut from. He always made every team he played for because of his size. He was 6’1” as a freshman, 6’2” as a sophomore, and 6’3” as a junior. He didn’t grow any taller as a senior; he’d topped out at his adult height, but he weighed in at about 220. He was bulk and girth and took up a lot of space, which was an asset on defense, especially on the boards, but was a liability on offense. As Coach Morris pointed out, not often enough in my books, “Goll-ee damn, Lambert – you can’t even get out of your own fat-assed way! Damn, son – pick up your feet. And watch the hell out – or you’re gonna trip over the damn lines – crap, son – we had ‘em painted las’ summer. Gollee-damn, Lambert – pick up your fat-ass feet!”
Lambert also played like he had a catcher’s mitt on each hand, and yet he played tight end on the football team. His “best” sport, which his dad was plenty happy to tell all about, to anyone who cared to listen, or who cared not to. And he added that Paul only played basketball to enhance his eye-hand coordination and his agility and only ran track to increase his endurance.
But those of us on the court with him knew the real reasons he was a starter every year that he played: he took up a lot of space, wasn’t afraid to crash the boards, and didn’t mind mixing it up with the big men on any team he played. Of course we on the floor with him knew the real reasons behind the reasons: just because he was taking up a lot of a space, didn’t mean he was always taking up the right space; just because he crashed the boards like a madman didn’t mean he’d always hang on to the ball once it hit his hands; and when he mixed it up with the big boys, as he was plenty happy to call them while looking down at the rest of us, he usually ended up in foul trouble before half-time.
All of which didn’t entirely guarantee him a spot on the team and a sure place in the starting line-up, except for 2 other reasons. He was our only certifiable big man on the team, and his dad was certifiable to talk to the coaches every day after practice and after every game to remind them, and thus too lucky us -- thanks to the trickle-down effect -- that we were damn well lucky to have Paul playing his heart out for us, that someday we’d see him playing football for the Fightin’ Irish of Notre Dame. And that eventually we’d all read about him some day and be proud to say we knew Paul back in the early days.
How very clairvoyant Lambert’s dad was also.
Unlike Kennedy’s dad, Lambert’s dad wasn’t about making sure his son was on the Big End of Preferential Treatment. Lambert’s dad was really all about Lambert’s dad.
I picked up on that from my front row seat as 12th man on the jayvee team. Yes, during games Lambert screamed at the officials, occasionally screamed at Paul – for good things he’d done, for things he should’ve done, and very infrequently for something dumb he’d done – and it wasn’t beneath his dad to even scream at Paul’s teammates, usually for something they hadn’t done to make him look good or had done something to make him look bad.
Layered and packed into all the screaming though 2 things everybody seemed to catch on to: 1 – everybody in the gym knew Paul was his son, that he was the Dad; and 2 – everybody eventually caught on, I think, that Lambert’s Dad was living his life through Paul. Kinda sad, I thought.
In those days then, I had mixed emotions about not having a dad; maybe not having a dad was better than having one like Lambert’s.
No. I had no mixed emotions about Lambert’s dad. He was a jerk. And his son was a jerk. And when I treated his son like the jerk he was, the dad would stand up and scream at me from the stands. That would only be during my senior year, the only year when I’d actually be out on the court with Paul, because that year we were both starters.
That didn’t mean there was any love lost between Paul and me, and by extension his dad. I know they saw me as some kind of interloper, usurping playing time, press coverage, and distractions to the scouts in the stands who were looking more at me than Paul, even though Lambert’s dad was plenty happy to tell anyone who’d listen, or not listen, that Paul was going to get a scholarship to play football at Notre Dame. The scouts wanted to allow Paul to finish his senior season in peace playing basketball before making his decision without distractions. Or so his dad said.
Yeah, right – we all thought. Bill Brooks of course said it out loud all the time, just to taunt Paul. Bill didn’t care, even though he was only 5’9”; he could still kick Paul’s ass, any time he wanted to. And Paul knew it too.
One of the nights Lambert’s dad screamed like a madman at me during a game was when I bounced a pass high off the back of Paul’s head that caromed crazily & bizarrely enough right into Keith Finley’s hands for an easy lay-up because all the Stranahan players were shocked into non-action by my obviously intentional beaning of a teammate.
The play was all put in motion by Lambert, according to the play Brooks signaled: Lambert was to plant himself midway up the side of the lane for me to dribble my man off of Lambert’s pick. If I rubbed my man off on Lambert, his man would have to jump-switch and pick me up; otherwise I’d have a clear path to the hoop: option #1. But Lambert’s man did jump-switch and picked me up, thus Option #2: my man, a guard, was forced to pick up Lambert, a big forward, and we’d have the mis-match we were looking for. All I had to do was pass the ball to Lambert as he rolled free and clear to the basket with the guy guarding him now on his back, behind Lambert, leaving Paul with a clear path to the basket and an easy lay-up.
Except Paul didn’t roll to the basket. He “turned” to the basket, which meant instead of facing me as he spun, he turned the back of his head to me and rotated his body into the lane, not out of it. And so, Lambert lost track of me and the ball in the process. Not how Coach taught us to run the pick ‘n’ roll.
So I whipped a 2-handed overhead pass smack dab in the middle of Lambert’s head that snapped his head down almost to his chest while the ball careened into the air across the lane where Finley caught it on the fly for an easy uncontested lay-up.
Lambert staggered, dazed, for a few steps trying to get his bearings, but his dad was immediately on his feet screaming at the top of his lungs at me, like – “What the hell is wrong with you?!! What the hell kind of pass was that?!! You have no business being on the court, on the team, wearing a Golden Tornado uniform!!! You are an embarrassment to basketball!!! Who ever taught you – ” and other such pleasantries and hoop compliments and happy returns of the day.
Meanwhile, Coach Morris was up on his feet too, and for once he wasn’t lambasting me for something. He was blasting Lambert for turning and not rolling and to “Get your damn fat head out of your damn fat ass – and play some gollee-damn basketball!” Among other things, I’m sure, as I recall.
I knew why Coach was screaming at Lambert and not me. He had us practicing pick ‘n’ rolls every day so that we could do it perfectly in our sleep, as he commanded. He even did the drills with us, and when we would scrimmage he would sometimes join in. Oh and woe to the big man who didn’t roll but turned instead, and left the back of his head wide open with a bull’s eye targeted on it, because every time Coach Morris, if he was playing the guard on the play, would bounce a pass off the offending big man’s head. And he bounced it hard. Like I did.
I never played for Bobby Knight, but I played with one of his classmates. Or at least a devotee of his.
And I was just doing what Coach Morris had literally been drilling into our heads.
In fact, in practice, if I as a guard was running a pick ‘n’ roll and the big man turned his head away and I didn’t hit him – or even try to hit him – then I had to run an extra suicide after practice. Coach Morris always kept track, which meant we always had that suicide to run.
Just as he was unforgiving, he was also unforgetting.
So I knew I was in the right on that play and didn’t have to pay no nevermind to all of Lambert’s dad’s screaming.
I was actually tuning both of them out because, as Brooks and I were back-pedaling down the court to get ready to play defense after Finley’s easy bucket, he was smirking unabashedly at me, saying, “Damn, Windy – I hope that felt as good as it looked – to lace that ball off old Lam-Dam’s head like that.
“Holy Damn!, that was one helluva assist – they oughta put that down as a capital Red ‘A’ in the scorer’s book.”
“Yeah,” I half muttered once we settled in at the top of the key, in place as the 2 in our
2 – 3 zone defense, “they’ll probably give it to Lambert though – since he touched it last.”
And they did. I checked with our stats guy the next day after practice.
In the long run, they very long run, it didn’t matter.
Cause it did feel everso good to bounce a high hard one off of Lambert’s fat ass head. In Coach Morris parlance.
That wasn’t the only time I brought Lambert’s dad to his feet over something his son and I clashed over on the court.
In a game against Plantation High School, an opponent we could count on offering up 2 certifiable & guaranteed W’s a season, Lambert and I really mixed it up. It started with a missed shot I took from the freethrow line extended on his side of the lane.
The ball caromed long off the rim toward both of us. I of course was following up my shot, as had also been drilled into my head, figuratively, not literally, in practice by Coach Morris, so once again I was in the right on this another clash with Lambert.
He, as usual, had been boxed out by the defender so had no chance at an offensive rebound that might’ve fallen right off the rim on a normal missed shot. But since the ball carried long and actually landed on the court next to the baseline, he should’ve been in perfect position to take two steps back and grab the ball on the bounce, if he’d hustled over.
But he didn’t. Hustle was not a strength in Lambert’s repertoire of playing skills. In fact, Coach Morris often berated him saying, “Gollee-damn, Lambert – why is it the word ‘hustle’ and your name never get said in the same sentence? What the hell?! Move your fat ass!!!” That was in practice one day.
So, Brooks quickly piped up with, “Hey, Coach – you just used both of those words in the same sentence – ”
“Shut the hell up, Brooksie – if I want any of your lip I’ll have it kissing the lines on an extra suicide after practice.”
Bill was one of Coach’s favorites, maybe his all-time favorite, and deservedly so. And I was very okay with that. Bill was the Reggie Jackson of our team: he was the straw that stirred the drink. He couldn’t put up the numbers that he used to when everyone else was nearer his size, and ability level. But that didn’t keep him from being the heart and soul of the team, and our on-court coach and floor general.
I was a much better player because of Bill, and he was probably the one player on the team who was genuinely happy for me and my recently gained ‘stardom’ and the least jealous of any other player of me also, even though he had the most to lose from the prominence of my rise.
In any situation then, any situation, I knew he’d have my back, like in this one.
So, on that long rebound I was the one who got to the ball first, because I was the one who hustled. Not Lambert.
I didn’t have to dive to the floor to get it, but I did reach way down, bending way over, to catch the ball off the floor on the short hop. In the process I guess I grazed Lambert’s leg and knocked him off-balance; it didn’t take a lot, truth be told, to make that happen.
From the stands then it possibly looked like I “stole” it from him, but I’d grown up thinking, knowing, & acting as if all loose balls on the floor were “up for grabs.” As I used to hear around the dinner table: “First come, First Served.” I assumed that applied to the court as well, so I went after every loose ball, as if it were mine – to go after; to get; and to keep.
Which I did that time too. The ball came off the short hop into my left hand, and in stride I dribbled it past Lambert’s stunned defender and into the lane where I faked a pass out to the top of the key to Brooks then used my step-and-a-half to put in an easy reverse lay-up although on the follow-through in the air I collided with the backside forward sliding over to help, too late to stop my shot, but early enough to clunk into my body.
No blood, no foul, so I shook it off and backed into the lane to head up court when Lambert came over and rough-shouldered me sideways, as if he was throwing a block on me. I kept my feet and staggered to regain my balance.
He chased after me, screaming, “That was My Ball! That was My Rebound!! You stole it from me!!!” And he shoved me with both hands, knocking me off balance again.
And somewhere in the cheers and applause of the crowd I could hear his dad roaring away at me, as if egging on his son.
Emboldened, probably by his dad’s voice, Lambert came at me again, but I’d regained my balance and turned to face him. He reached out to shove me again, and I shoved at him first, actually getting one hand between his two and landing the heel of one hand planted on his sternum while my other hand luckily enough deflected both of his hands.
That stunned him and sort of surprised me.
Brooks jumped in between us and pushed Lambert back with both hands, yelling, “Shut the hell up, Lambert! Back off, back off!!”
One of the officials, Steve Strein, a guy I actually knew and had played a lot of pick-up hoop with, also interceded, but he muscled me off to the side, taking the whistle out of his mouth with one hand while the other palmed a handful of my jersey, nudging me toward the sidelines and getting his face right up beside of mine.
To anybody in the stands, or even nearby on court, it looked like the official was giving me holy hell – or something worse. But because I knew Steve and because I could see the twinkle in his eye and because he was hoarsely whispering only inches of my face, I knew what he was up to.
He wasn’t lecturing me for my mis-behavior with a teammate; he was giving me advice.
“Dammit, Carl – don’t let him bully you like that. Next time he pulls that crap on you – you bust him one right on the nose, hard as you can. Draw a bucket of blood out of that sucker. That’ll cool his jets. You hear me?”
I nodded, seriously as I could, biting my lip and swallowing a smile.
He relaxed his push on my jersey, “Kick his ass, right here – he’s nothing but a bully. You know that.’
“And what – get a technical? Are you kiddin’ – ”
“I’ll whistle you a technical if you don’t hit him!” and with that he dropped his hand away from my jersey, put his whistle back in his mouth, and stepped back to make the starting motion of calling a technical foul with both hands, held just inches apart, and looking angrily at me, but still with the twinkle in his eye that only I could see, from such close proximity.
I held my hands up, palms out, chest high, as I slowly backed away, trying everso hard not to smile.
Lambert’s dad was still roaring at me somewhere in the crowd, and Coach Morris stood hands on hips in front of the bench, glaring at me, while Lambert fussed and fumed and pouted in front of the scorer’s table, but well on the other side of the court. But Brooks was standing at the top of the key, ready to play defense, and grinning so widely the Cheshire Cat’d be jealous.
That was not to be the end of it.
After the game, in the foyer of the gym, as I was making my way outside to the bus for the ride back to Pompano, Lambert’s dad strode all self-important like to accost me before I could reach the door.
“Who the hell do you think you are, you little pip-squeak, son of a bitch, cheap-ass, little – ” he boomed at me in an otherwise mostly silent foyer, except for a few muted conversations. At his first swear word, the foyer went deathly still & quiet, which probably caused him to stop his tirade. It actually only slightly slowed it down. Since he had everyone’s attention, and mostly mine, he got right into my face, down at it actually, since he was his son’s height but probably closer to 300+ pounds. He was an imposing sight to behold, especially in his shirt and pants that always looked 2 sizes too small.
“I don’t know who you think you are – sassy-assing yourself on the court like your some kind of big shot. But you don’t – you don’t ever cross my son, you hear?” jabbing me in the sternum, touché, for emphasis. “Don’t you ever take a ball away from him again – never take a ball out of his hands. You hear?!!”
“Uh, uhm, -- uh, it wasn’t his ball to begin with, sir.” I so brilliantly replied.
“Not his ball?!!” He bellowed.
Then his demeanor instantly changed. He went from bellicose to almost blithely indifferent. And glared holes through me, or tried to.
I was puzzled, still working up my next haymaker of a response.
Sensing someone behind me, I checked in my periphery and realized the coaching staff was standing behind me.
Instantly, the dynamics shifted, conversations started up again in the foyer, and I sort of felt what it might be like for a dad to come to his son’s aid.
Instead, it was someone I would have least expected to go to bat for me: Coach Morris; and his assistants, Coach Hall & Coach Phipps. I didn’t need a dad to save the day for me; they would. Although I’d never considered them father figures before, didn’t really then at that time, nor would later either, still it was nice to know someone had my back.
And so I just slipped away, sidling my way through the sparse crowd to find a seat at the back of the team bus, ready and waiting for the ride home to Pompano.
I probably didn’t think about it at the time in my muddled head while sitting in my seat across the aisle from Lambert who had initiated a glare-down contest with me, but I’d get a measure of revenge on the Lambert’s and the Kennedy’s, in the short run, and the long run.
I’d simply “Chaucer” them, or better yet “Danté” them all.
That foyer scenario should have probably given me some closure on how to relate to male authority figures, but it only compounded my dilemma, I know now for sure. Up until that rescue from Lambert’s dad I’d mostly viewed Coach Morris as just a sober version of my dad: a male authority figure ready to berate me at a whipstitch for any the least real or imagined offense, shortcoming, failure, or sad disappointment; short on kind words, long on harsh words; and someone I could never measure up to no matter how hard I tried nor no matter whatever I achieved.
And then Coach Morris had to show up that night saving the day so that I would wrestle later long into the night like some Jacobean WWF action figure. With probably only a sore hip & stiff limp to show for it the next morning.
It didn’t help that I’d have to insert, fold, and stack Sun Sentinels a couple/three short hours after the bus dropped the team off in front of the gym. First though I’d get to read the write-up on our game, see what Jon Madden had to say about us, and me, too. Then I could start the wrestling match, and probably Warren would be in my corner. He usually was.
No matter the resolution late that Saturday night, early early Sunday morning, back on the court at practice Monday afternoon, Coach Morris would be his usual irascible self, doing his best verisimilitudinous impersonation of a semi-sober dad. Mine. . . .
now that I really think about it I should’ve gone to Hemingway,
not Shakespeare, for the title to this piece. What would that better
title be now? Of course,
To Have and Have Not,
a Father . . .
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