Dad Duty

There are three stages of a man’s life:  he believes in Santa Claus, he doesn’t believe in Santa Claus, he is Santa Claus. ~Author Unknown

It was a chilly Northern California evening, as I finally settled into the great green chair in the family room.  It had been a long day – church school, hiking, playgrounds, muddy dogs and an avalanche of diapers, nuks and mushy Wheat-A-Bix crackers.  It was now 9 p.m. and it was my time.  The second half of the 49ers game was kicking off, and the last of my feral children was nodding off.  As I fell into the deep cushions, a blood curdling scream echoed down the hall.  “Pi-yo-yoke!”  “Pi-yo-yoke!”  It was my two-year-old and it sounded as if the furies of hell had been unleashed in his room.  I rushed down the narrow corridor just behind my wife.  It was worse than I had expected.  His beloved companion Pinocchio, the stuffed toy purchased during our fall visit to Disneyland that was never, ever far from his side, was missing.  He was an inconsolable knot of anger, thrashing like a worm on a hot sidewalk and then suddenly going stiff with a form of frustrated rigor mortis.  As my wife tried to gently lay him down in his crib, I made a move to slip unnoticed out of the room and sneak back to watch the 49ers game.  I’ll just leave you two to sort this out…

“I can’t find his stuffed Pinocchio,” my spouse yelled frantically.  She turned and whispered reassuringly to the apoplectic child, “Here’s kitty, honey.”  He shrieked louder, tossing the tabby away with agitation, and fell back into the crib in twisted agony.  “Shhhhhhh, sweetie.  You’re going to wake up your brother and sister.”  I stood there, helpless, the UN observer – well intentioned but overmatched.  “Don’t just stand there, Michael.  Go find Pinocchio!”

As she tried to console him, I tore apart the car and house.  I could hear the cries from inside and cringed when new voices join the chorus.  I rushed back inside with one of the stupid faces I wear when I am adding no value to a situation.  “Wait” my wife blurted. “I know where Pinocchio is.”  She hesitated as if retracing footsteps.  “We left him at the reservoir today when we went for our walk with the kids.  We have to go get him.”  I knew instantly what it meant when we was used in this context.  It meant I (we) was about to drive through a frigid, muddy night to a rural reservoir and go hunting for a stuffed toy.

Thirty minutes later, I was trudging up a steep slope choked with weeds and soft mud.  The state park had long since closed and there was no access except by foot.  I slipped and drove my knee six inches into the soft dirt.  My foot suddenly disappeared into a mire of fresh mud, finally yielding my sock but keeping my loafer as a memento of the journey.  I pulled the destroyed shoe from the wet swamp with a heave and a few choice words.  I stumbled on to the hillside plateau and was soon moving along the ribbon of walking trail that paralleled the ebony water.  I spied the play structure, but my imagination started to play tricks on me.  It was, as the poet Frost described, “a night of dark intent.”  It was the perfect place for a serial killing.  I could just see the shadow of the 6’8” sociopath with a hook for a hand, dangling Pinocchio from his sharpened prosthesis.  “Looking for something, mister?” The probability of a serial killer actually swinging on the sets near my son’s toy was close to zero, but that did not deter my paranoia.  I rushed to every corner of the play area with no success.  As I dejectedly turned to hike back to my car, I noticed the silhouette of an alpine hat and a jutting proboscis propped up on the picnic table.  Geppetto had found his wooden boy.

Eager to be home, I fell down the hill, ripping my sweats on a rock after getting tangled in the roots of an oak tree.  As I tumbled on to the street, I approached my car to find a parking ticket tucked neatly under the wiper blade.  I grabbed it in disgust and drove silently home.  As I crept into the house, I heard the familiar splash of the kitchen faucet and the tinkling of dishes being cleaned.  “Great,” she whispered, ignoring my ripped pants and single shoe.  She walked down the quiet hall to place the stuffed boy in Cole’s crib.  “He fell asleep just after you left.”  They say “comedy is tragedy plus time” and I can now chuckle about my winter midnight hike at the Lafayette Reservoir.  I was not laughing at the time; I was feeling totally put out.  I now realize it was all part of dad duty.

Dad duty changes with each generation as society and social patterns shift.  I love to take the starch out of my Father by dredging the comedy and mild dysfunction that has settled deep in the tributary of our lives.  Yet, I’ve always known he had no higher priority than his family.  I often refer to his generation as the “Dad’s With the Big D.”  They were benevolent dictators, masters and commanders.  Martial law, a strong hand and absolute respect were prerequisites to survival on their tightly run ship.  A Big D Dad was shaped by hands scarred from a Great Depression, world wars and the sense that each generation could improve on the work of those that preceded it.  Life outside his neighborhood was reported through newspapers, magazines and an illuminated radio dial.  Fear was a stranger always lurking in the shadows as polio, communism, war and poverty made a person conservative, patriotic and self-reliant.  My Dad intuitively knew that anything worthwhile was earned and that only hard work could overcome limitations and barriers.  The price he and other Dads paid was occasionally missing milestones that marked their children’s progress in the world.  Yet, they never wavered.  It was their duty.

Dad duty now dictates that a “good” father make every recital, sporting event, choral concert and life moment to be certain we’re supporting our kids.  The commanding general has morphed into a more benign therapist who hovers in a helicopter above each child broadcasting carefully crafted messages over a PA system.  These dads are modern-day wranglers who must actively participate in guiding every head of the herd as it moves inevitably west.  While the new age dad’s job description may have more fine print, the pay remains the same.  Your compensation?  A first dance with your daughter at an Indian Princess outing.  That first hit in tee ball.  Introducing a new book or place to your child and watching them revel in the experience.  The realization that vicarious joy is deeper than personal satisfaction and that being dad means loving unconditionally; your heart has bandwidth that you never imagined.  It crystallizes a concept of the universe where a higher power loves you, blemishes and all, and wants only the best for you.  It helps you understand the precious gift of being responsible for another person and it magnifies your respect for other parents.  Having my own children finally helped me clearly see the man who was my Father.  He was, and still is, a parent with enormous integrity who refused to ever forget that his family was his top priority.  His greatest joy was vicarious as he helped guide and support the success and happiness of his four boys.

They may call it dad duty, that’s an oxymoron.  The chance to serve as a father is perhaps the greatest gift any man can experience.

A Veteran’s Day for Red Ormsby

Ty Cobb (297 triples) and Shoeless Joe Jackson...
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This nation will remain the land of the free only so long as it is the home of the brave.  ~Elmer Davis

In 1934, the Great Depression had cast a shadow across the entire United States like the great plumes of scorched earth that choked out the sun in the dust bowl of Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas panhandle.  An estimated 20% of the US population was unemployed.  Agrarian and industrial communities alike were struggling to stay afloat – swimming against the riptide of geographic turmoil and economic uncertainty.

It was a hard time to be a veteran – particularly a veteran of WWI where a nation’s memory of war was fading to be replaced by more domestic and immediate concerns.  Names like the Somme, Verdun and Ypres that had carved deep and visible scars across the psyches of an entire generation of Europeans were but distant echos and accoustic shadows from fairy-tale, haunted lands with names like  Belleau Wood and The Argonne.   The fighting had taken its toll on our young country whose brawny idealism had been wounded by the machinery of modern warfare. This was a new kind of conflict fought in trenches and against an unseen and lethal enemy.  There were battles with 90% casualty rates fought with such vicious ferocity that men often simply disappeared under a barrage of artillery.  Victories were sometimes measured in yards of ground. It was a new generation of guns, germs and steel that would serve as a chilling prelude to a next great war that would claim 20m souls. Yet, for those who lived through it, The Great War was like a brief and violent storm whose lessons were endured and then set aside like so many badges of youth, tucked away and forgotten – along with the memories of 320,000 casualties marked by monuments of those missing, killed and wounded.  It spared no one including those young immortals in pinstripes playing America’s greatest game – baseball.

Emmit “Red” Ormsby was born on April 3, 1895 in Chicago, Illinois.  He grew up as a physical force of nature – enjoyig all sports but excelling at baseball.  As a strapping right hander who mixed an above average fastball with a delightfully wicked spitball, he opted to play semi-pro ball in 1912 for Green Bay in the Wisconsin-Illinois Minor Leagues. Red pitched well enough to graduate into a starting rotation of St Paul in the American Association. That year, he shined hurling several complete games while racking up impressive stats  – – a dominant ratio of strikeouts to hits and fewer earned runs. Red was going places and baseball was his meal ticket.

In 1914, war broke out in  far off places like the Dardenalles of Turkey and along wispy meandering rivers in Belgium and France.  By 1917, the US had been drawn into the conflict and Red had not hesitated to do his duty – he joined the Marines.  At Quantico, he briefly played on an armed forces baseball team along another green recruit, all-star second baseman Eddie Collins.  He was quickly shipped off to France with the Fifth Corps– a fighting unit that would soon be decorated for valor in several battles including the decisive Argonne Forest campaign. 

In the Argonne, Red’s strong arm earned him a spot on the grenade throwers roster.   Grenaders  were essential elements to bolster the conventional fire power of infantry units.  The massive Allied offensive in the Argonne would include confusingly close hand to hand combat with trench lines sometimes exchanging hands multiple times across a no man’s land as short as 25 feet.  If the bloody stalemate was to be broken, the Allied Expeditionary Force under General “Black Jack” Pershing would need to be its catalyst.

In what would go down as the bloodiest campaign to date in Marine Corps history, the Argonne became a killing field shattered by unsurvivable enfilading machine gun fire, errant artillery and a deadly swirling ground fog of poison mustard and phosgene gas.  On a late Autumn afternoon, Ormsby had infiltrated toward the front lines of the fighting — preparing for a suicidal offensive when he was wounded in the back.  In addition to this injury, he was overwhelmed by poison gas which partially seared the lining of his lungs.

Ormsby would survive his encounter with the Germans and return to the US as a decorated veteran.  His injuries eliminated any possibility of his continuing to compete as a player.  Yet, his love of the game, could not move him away from the cut grass and red dust diamond.  Red Ormsby decided to become an umpire.

Over the next 19 years, Ormsby would rise to become one of baseball’s premiere umpires including presiding over four world series and league championship series.  Ormsby had a booming voice that sounded “ like two steam ships bickering for their right of way along a lakefront.” He was also master and commander at home marrying and fathering a dozen children. Like many veterans, his injuries never fully healed and he spent his entire career suffering from severe back pain.  In the days before unions or employment protections, workers understood that the inability to perform one’s job –  even as a result of temporary disability or illness – essentially meant unemployment.

According to his grandson, Red secretly donned “a back brace in almost every game he umpired for 19 years. Nobody in the American League, except the other umpires knew about his back. If the league front office had known about it, he wouldn’t have been umpiring. If they had checked the records at Hines Veterans Hospital they would have seen that he was listed as 74 percent incapacitated. But with straps and braces of an umpire, nobody could tell and if they did, they never said anything.”

On this day at Chicago’s Comiskey Park, it was hard to tell that the depression was still raging like a fever across America’s working class. The stands were filled to capacity as the White Sox were squaring off against the hated Detroit Tigers. Birdie Tebetts was catching for Detroit with catcher Mike Tresh catching for the White Sox. Ormsby was calling the game from behind home plate and he was in pain. Author and historian C. Brian Kelly chronicled Ormsby’s story in a November, 2006  Military History magazine article that described the veteran umpire’s difficult circumstances. “During the depression, an injured day off work was tantamount to a pink slip. A good American League umpire could make up to $300 a month, according to catcher Birdie Tebbets – a tidy sum in those days. ‘With 12 mouths to feed, we all knew that Red Ormsby needed his job. On that particular day, we were not about to see him lose it.”

Tebbets could tell that Ormsby was hurting and laboring to breathe.  The scarring on his lungs from the phosgene gas was now regularly impeding his ability to catch his wind. It was on this day, according to Kelly, that Tebbets and Tresh caught the best games of their careers when they threw this disabled veteran ump a lifeline.

“A guy hit a ball up the right field line and Emmett ran up the line to make the play. When he came back to home plate, he said, ‘‘Birdie, I’m getting very dizzy and can’t see the ball right now. It’s  from my Army (injury) thing and don’t know what to do about it. I don’t want to quit as I’ll probably lose my job.”  For the first time in Tebetts career, an umpire was actually admitting to being blind.

“I said, ‘look Red, you just sit tight and when I raise my right hand after the pitch, it’s going to be a  strike. If I raise my left glove, it’s gonna be a ball.’ Sure enough, the pitch came in and I raised my right hand. ‘ S-T-R-I-K-E!’  bellowed the veteran umpire. And we went through the hitters this way until the end of the inning. “

It was now Tresh’s turn and he did not hesitate to replicate the secret pitch call code for Ormsby.  For the next several innings, both catchers called the game until Ormsby recovered his breath and vision.  At one point in the sixth inning, Tebbets saw Ormsby lean in and whisper something to the White Sox catcher.  The following pitch, Tresh did not raise his hand.  Red Ormsby was back in charge of the game.

Years later, Tebbets revealed this story in an amusing biography,  Birdie: Confessions of a Baseball Nomad.  Tebbets shared that he would never expect that kind of relationship between players and umpires to exist in today’s free agent, self-centered game.  “But in the 30’s and 40’s, it was a different place and time.  We looked out for each other.”

For Red Ormsby, father of 12 and World War I veteran, there was never any doubt about duty – – to his family, to his country and to his sport. He ruled across a 19 year diamond studded universe of all-stars like “Lou Gehrig, Ty Cobb, Bitsy Bobby Shantz, Leo Durocher, Lefty Gomez, Connie Mack, Babe Ruth, Jack Dittmer, Joe DiMaggio and others. ‘Ty Cobb,” he would say, was the greatest of them all.”

Emmit “ Red” Ormsby was just one of many veterans who gave so much and then came home just to “get on” with his life.  He did not expect anything in return for his service – except  perhaps a chance to work.  On that day, Red’s umpiring career was in jeopardy at Comiskey Park. It was only when two wily catchers found a way of paying back an aging veteran that they added yet another colorful footnote to humanity and to the grand narrative of America’s greatest game.

Hard Times

(The Depression) The Single Men's Unemployed A...
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Hard Times

“Gore Vidal uses the phrase, the United States of amnesia. Well, I say United States of the big A — Alzheimer’s, because what happened yesterday is forgotten today.” Studs Terkel

Studs Terkel will forever be remembered as an apostle to our past. The actor, radio host and biographer dedicated his life to chronicling diverse aspects of our American experience so that we might not lose sight of ourselves.  Terkel lived the images that he projected – – a child of Russian immigrants, a student of journalism and theatre, a blacklisted artist who would not inform on friends and a present day Tom Joad, advocating for the disenfranchised, bullied and under represented.  In an interview just before his death, Terkel lamented our sound bite society’s inability to reflect and learn from even our most recent current events.

In his award winning oral history of the Great Depression, Hard Times, Terkel conducted a symphony of history – trumpets, trombones and saxophones of the 1920’s, the melancholy deep bass of the Black Tuesday stock market crash and the chaotic syncopation of economic and social hardships of the 1930’s.

Terkel left us more than narratives, he guided us through heartache, human endurance and history and through this experience, we learned to sing a richer anthem about American living and learning.  His recording of American’s personal Depression stories revealed not only our failings but our triumphs and the human instinct to persevere in the face of great crisis.    Immigrants, minorities, investment bankers, union activists, musicians and working class families all related the ordinary and extraordinary circumstances that carved deep psychological lines into the rouged, youthful cheeks of a nation emerging from the prosperity of the early 20th century.

The Blues of our current economic uncertainty are not unique sounds to our generation.  Every society faces periods of uncertainty that threaten prosperity.  These challenges in hindsight often become the defining moments for a generation.  Those that choose to dismiss the factors that precipitated the Great Depression as singular and unique ignore the past.  CS Lewis referred to this indifference as a “snobbery of chronology”, a syndrome where descendents armed with hindsight often view themselves as impervious to replicating the missteps of their predecessors.  The arrogance that develops as a culture achieves advances in medicine, technology and science often impedes our spiritual and social progress.  The lack of heavy lifting tends to atrophy the muscles of character that people need in times of challenge.

In 1929, the stock market crashed.  Entire fortunes were lost.  People committed suicide rather than face the humiliation of total material ruin.  In the late 20’s, the Dow was soaring. Everyone became a stock speculator and could indulge their irrational exuberance with easy credit and margin purchasing of equities.  Gains were kept of the table to double down on even bigger bets. Consider the echoes of Martin Devries, a prominent Chicago and NY broker as he reflected on Wall Street in 1928.

“There were a great many warnings.  The country was crazy.  Everybody was in the stock market, whether they could afford to be or not.  You had no governmental control of margins, so people could buy on a shoestring.  And when they began to pull the plug..you had a deluge of weakness.  You also had short selling and a lack of rules.   It wasn’t just the brokers involved in margin accounts.  It was the banks.  They had a lot of stinking loans.  The banks worked in as casual a way as the brokers did.”

Herbert Hoover and the Republican party held the White House and governed with laissez faire fiscal policy and a populist view that periodic downturns were the natural fires that needed to be allowed to burn themselves out within the forests of our endlessly promising economy.

By raising taxes at a time of tight unemployment, the US government took more money out of the hands of consumers thereby reducing consumer consumption – which is critical to economic growth.  The Fed’s reaction to the crisis was to tighten policy and drive a kind of Darwinian cleansing of weaker financial institutions.  Confronted with the embarrassment of a sudden financial tailspin, the government under reacted and then overreacted.  When banks failed, the Fed did not lend the failing bank money or afford additional money to other banks to compensate for the shrinkage in money supply.  The Fed instead squeezed monetary policy and tore at the deep fissure in the economy. Lack of credit led to banks failing at an astounding rate. Frenzied queues of depositors attempting to withdraw their savings from uninsured banks “ran” to withdraw savings that were either illiquid or nonexistent.  The lack of liquidity caused mortgage defaults, bankruptcies and financial ruin.

To add insult to injury, in 1932, a Democratic Congress and a worried, willing Republican Hoover administration passed the largest peacetime tax increase in history.  According to web based financial writers Gold Ocean, “Marginal income tax rates were raised from 1.5% to 4% at the low end and from 25% to 63% at the top of the scale. A huge tax increase by any measure.”  As US consumption shrank and unemployment rose, Smoot Hawley was passed to stimulate jobs at home by reducing imports, This lead to a global trade war that debilitated the world economy.  Most historians agree that it was only WWII that got us back on the economic track.

The level of financial hardship was unprecedented. There was no place to hide as our parents and grandparents were pulled down into an economic sink-hole that stretched from China to Chile, and New York to Melbourne.  Families were fractured as fathers left to try to find employment in far off cities.  Some families were never reunited.  Mothers went back to work doing odd jobs while older siblings raised younger brothers and sisters.  Aunts, uncles, and grand parents moved in to offset expenses.  People became infinitely more dependent on one another resulting in stronger, more tightly knit communities of common interest.There was a gracious humility in many towns that hung like the sweet smell of lilacs in spring as people accepted life on life’s terms and understood that gifts were to be shared with those closer to the abyss of poverty.

Life was about making ends meet.  Basic necessities were rationed and would remain precious indulgences for over a decade.  A new sense of social justice emerged in America as dust bowl minstrel Woody Guthrie and social activist/writer John Steinbeck chronicled the inequities and humanity that blossomed in the miasma of depression. The anvil of hardship pounded an entire generation and out of it, there emerged an alloy of American values – – resilience, dedication, community, empathy and equity.  These attributes would be put to good use in 1941 as a generation rose up to defeat global fascism, stand up to communism and to form the foundation for a benevolent world power.  The lessons of the depression taught those who endured it to live within their means, and not take on massive amounts of personal debt.  They understood it meant relying on your own initiative to solve personal problems, not abdicating this responsibility to large government.

We now find ourselves in the midst of another financial crisis.  We are worried.  Oil is at an all time high.  People are losing jobs.  The Dow teeters each day like a four foot Jenga stack.  Most do not remember that it took the Dow until 1954 to match its high of 312 that it had held in 1929.  Credit is tight. Those who watched the missteps of the Fed in the 1930s know that the supply of credit is the issue, not money supply.  We have learned that there can be abundant money in the system, but if a conservative paranoia swings the pendulum too far to where banks hesitate to lend, business can’t expand. With over massive and ever expanding public debt and an economic recovery shored up by rotten timbers of cheap creidt , we know there is more pain to come and that scares us.  Anxiety and lack of faith opens up the Pandora’s box of society’s self interest.  Self-centered fear triggers many character defects – the penchant to hoard, to be selfish, to be ignorant of others in need and to prioritize oneself above all others.  The exact opposite of how history has taught us to survive catastrophe.

If Studs were sitting with us by a summer camp fire, he would surely tell us of hard times and hobos, migrant workers, dust bowl farmers and soup lines.  He would also reassure us with personal stories of compassion and love, attributes that he believes are the ties that lash the broken boats of any society and help protect against the ravages of indifferent dark passages.  He may even suggest as Dickens once mused, that we are in for “the best of times and the worst of times”.  The question is whether we can find critical perspective, strength and wisdom from the words and actions of others who survived the Great Depression or whether we dismiss these personal memorials as trite, gilded nostalgia.  Terkel would urge us to faithfully learn from the past, carefully nurture the present and actively participate in making the future.  Sometimes, he would argue, the things we fear most, are the things we most desperately need.

Character, after all, is found in the hard times.