That Championship Season

That Championship Season

 

From this day to the ending of the world,

But we in it shall be remember’d;

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;

For he to-day that sheds his blood with me

Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,

This day shall gentle his condition:

And gentlemen in England now a-bed

Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,

And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks

That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

 

Henry V, William Shakespeare

 

There is a weathered show box in my den that hides inconspicuously behind uneven, dusty piles of rubber banded baseball card and old Sports Illustrated magazines.  The contents of this magical ark are talismans of my youth – awards, medals, merit badges and obscure honors bestowed for noble deeds and feats of athleticism and academic excellence. The artifacts have miraculously survived my teenaged years, college, first apartment, starter home, as well as moves to and from Europe.  Each time I pack and unpack the things that I choose to define my material world, I cannot help but open that one time capsule that vaults me back to a vulnerable and powerful time where the mythology of world and all its possibilities stretched before me like a great, dark wood. There is one particular object of enormous sentimental value that rests silently within this box – an odd felt patch that simply says 1973 Green Hornet Award – Champions 1973. It represents the one time in all my years of competitive sports that I played on a championship team. 

 

At 12, I had been part of an eleventh hour trade – the kind of transaction that is often borne out of the larceny of a parent coach who cannot help taking advantage of a more chaste opposing coach.  I was dealt to a new baseball team, (presumably for two pitchers and a kid still in his diapers), that had lost all but one game the prior season.  My new coach wanted to win badly but insisted on starting his child at pitcher and shortstop when in fact, his son was already exhibiting signs that he would rather be braiding the hair of his sister’s Barbies than throwing strikes.  We all understood in our own way that our coach was attempting to defy Mother Nature at our expense and she was paying us back cruelly with lopsided losses.  Son and father finally answered our prayers and quit the team after a spectacular confrontation in the dugout, possibly over shoes that did not match his belt. 

 

A white knight volunteer coach whose children had long since outgrown the confines of a 60-foot diamond rescued us.  He was tough – making us run laps and field ground balls off our chest.  He yelled. He used running as a cruel reprisal for the simplest infraction.  I hated him at first and complained bitterly to my father.  After my describing my tormentor, my father chuckled and said, “sounds like Bobby Knight.  I like him already.”

 

After all, I was a pacifist.  I wasn’t sure exactly what a pacifist was but it sounded like they never had to run and spent a lot of time in the Pacific ocean.  The fact is, if I had been born ten years earlier, I would have been one of those turtle necked peaceniks putting daisies into the barrels of National Guardsman guns at Kent State.  I was a heavy kid with a strong arm and big swing but a suburban soft constitution.  The coach figured me out as lazy but also pegged me correctly as competitive, people pleaser. At our next practice, he introduced the concept of the “Green Hornet”, an award for the player that exhibited the greatest hustle.  “Hustling” to me was walking very fast when everyone else was running.  The first evening, I pushed myself hard to win the award.  I was thrilled at my ability to avoid being dead last in our sprints. When the award was being presented, I stood up humbly ready to give my acceptance speech.  Instead, the award went to Charlie Meagher, a skinny second baseman who insisted on finishing every sprint in first place.  He couldn’t even hit and made at least two errors an inning.

 

For the first few weeks, I decided to be indifferent to winning the coveted Green Hornet – a stupid piece of forest green felt cut into an incomprehensible shape.  But I secretly wanted that award.  I needed to have it. I asked coach why I had not received the recognition.  He looked at me for a long time, choosing the right words.  “Because you only give the minimum, Mike.  I want 100% from you.” I felt like saying, “I am a kid. We don’t even do percentages until the 8th grade!” But I understood clearly what he was saying.  Over the next several weeks, I pushed myself and finally won one of those Green badges. That season, we transformed from the Bad News Bears to a bad neighborhood.  Teams dreaded playing us.  Some opposing parents resented our success and immediately started to talk about our coach. “He’s so intense!” ” He takes things too seriously.  He doesn’t get that this is youth sports.”

 

We saw it differently.  My coach was trying to teach us how to succeed.  He never denigrated a single kid. He treated us equally, yet individually administered his theology of competition based on our ability.  It was not about winning.  It was about giving it everything you had. In sports as in life, the man who wanted it more was the man who usually prevailed.  He never took a swing, threw a pitch or fielded a grounder in a single game.  It was all us.  The day we won the championship, everyone celebrated.  He made a point of sharing how every kid had his fingerprints on that trophy.  He told us that we would remember this game and this championship forever because he knew a championship is the harmonic convergence of many things – talent, opportunity, heart, preparation, will and character. I can remember each kid at each position, with eye black and caked red dust streaked with sweat.  Champions.

 

It was interesting for me this year to watch as both of my sons’ football teams won hard fought championships.  Each boy played his heart out.  Both played for tough and demanding coaches.  They responded by rising to the occasion and pushing themselves. They wanted a championship – bad.  They wanted to don that laurel that the number one man wears, the FCFL Champions jacket with their own name and number embroidered on the sleeve.  To wear a jacket like that is to prove you exist.  It is the red badge of courage, the uniform of the accomplished. The boys wanted to be part of a tribe that had achieved the very best.  Each boy spent over 95 hours on the practice field. I never heard a peep out of them.  One night, one of them threw up during a grueling practice.  He only expressed astonishment from the fact that one could actually exercise so hard that one could get sick. If it had been me, I would have been calling my attorney, if I had one. 

 

Both championship games were nail biters and will forever be remembered in the folklore of these young men as the 6-0 defensive win over Westport and the 19-12 Ice Bowl victory at Darien. When the gun sounded at the end of the game, the boys celebrated in a manner that only coaches and players know, the boy moving closer to manhood and the coach now a surrogate parent for life.

 

As our lives sweep into adulthood, we accumulate many things and often lose that shoebox full of treasured memories and mementos.  The roar of a crowd, the crack of a bat or the squeaking of high tops on a gymnasium floor triggers a familiar feeling.  It is the echo of lost youth and past accomplishments – an energy that never dissipates. The soul of that exact moment lingers.  It is the spirit of a time where for once in your life, you gave it everything you had and you were rewarded the ultimate prize.  As I listen to my boys preen and recount their accomplishment and as I watch them hug and high five their teammates and coaches, I smile.  I mentally open my shoebox and caress that tired scrap of green felt and think, what a season that was …that championship season.

 

Turkey Bowl

Thanksgiving postcard circa 1900 showing a tur...
Image via Wikipedia

Turkey Bowl

Lucy van Pelt: Charlie Brown, I’ll hold the ball and you run up and kick it.

Charlie Brown: Hold it? Ha! You’ll just pull it away and I’ll fall flat on my back and kill myself.

Lucy van Pelt: I wouldn’t do that. It’s Thanksgiving.

Charlie Brown: What does Thanksgiving have to do with anything?

Lucy van Pelt: One of our most cherished traditions is the Thanksgiving football game.

Charlie Brown: Gee, I guess if it is a tradition, it would be an honor. She wouldn’t pull it away if it is a tradition. This time I’m gonna kick that ball clear to the moon!

[he runs to kick the ball, but Lucy pulls it away]

Charlie Brown: Aaauuugh! [falls flat on his back]

Lucy van Pelt: Isn’t it peculiar how some traditions just fade away?   – Charles Schultz, “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving”

The Thanksgiving Day football game is a rich side dish served on a day where each American consumes an average of 16,000 calories while at the same time giving thanks for life’s simplest pleasures.  On this gilded holiday, we are reminded of the blessings that we often take for granted such as proton pump inhibitors, analgesic heat rubs, knee braces and a gluteus minimus that does not swell into a gluteus maximus after a long touchdown run.  The Turkey Bowl is a ritual whose championship trophy is forged from silver bragging rites and golden nostalgia.  It’s principle ingredients are any ambulatory human aged 6-60, a beat up football and most importantly, mud – – caked, brown malleable clay, a symbol of our temporal toil and a timeless tribute to our agrarian DNA.  As Americans, we landed in the mud, we rose out of the mud, we fought in the mud, eventually we hired other people to work for us in the mud and then we invented Tide to eliminate any evidence that we ever actually consorted with mud.  But, each Thanksgiving morning, we return to the peat bogs of our past to refresh old rivalries and lay claim to another year of bragging rites and hyperbole.

In California, Thanksgiving arrived unceremoniously on a warm desert wind sweeping down across silent, vacant freeways and empty schools.  Our house fashioned out of Marine Corps dogma and the testosterone of five men grew restless at the percussion of chopping knives and the regular entreaties for someone to “please peel the potatoes and green beans.”  The low dulcet tones and punctuated spikes of laughter from a generation of kitchen matriarchs mixed with the reassuring aroma of sautéed onions and baking turkey.  A football suddenly bounced off the den window.  Outside, a boy in sweats had appeared, grinning in a tear away shirt and cleats.  There was a sudden rush of motion as we mustered outside ready to bike the two blocks to our local junior high school where a sea of jerseys and baseball caps pitched and argued over the balance of talent and rules of engagement.

The local Turkey Bowl was a one time annual opportunity to run with the larger dogs of our neighborhood – – siblings home from college and older kids that would normally look right past you as too small or too insignificant to join them in any sport.  Yet, on this day, a spirited tackle or timely body block might win a rare compliment from an older idol that would be gratefully deposited in one’s shoebox of memorabilia and taken out many times over a lifetime of self reflection.  There were broken bones and stitches – -badges of honor and fodder for the bragging rite debates that would ensue later in the winter.  As in life, there were broken plays, personal fouls, selfless acts, winners and losers.  There was instant acceptance when one was picked to play on a team.  It was a Christmas morning thrill to watch as an older teenager opened his muddy, catcher’s glove palm and designed a play, especially for you – “Turp, go five yards out and turn around.”  It was the old button hook and it was my play, designed exclusively for me like a jewel encrusted Faberge egg.  Me! – a mere 11 year old paramecium was deemed worthy of possibly receiving a pass from this multi-celled seventeen year old God.  Just one problem, I was being guarded by a sixteen year old with bad acne, mood swings and suborbital ridges that suggested that someone in his family was discovered by Dr Leakey.

“Ready, set, you bet, go Charlie go, hike!”

As I sprinted to my spot, the older defender shoved me roughly to the ground like a rag doll.  “Sorry kid” he flipped with a smirk.  Back in the huddle, everyone was hissing that they were open. I was busy rubbing the dirt out of my eyes. Each down, I was repeatedly tossed to the ground unable to complete my “button hook.” By the fourth quarter, I had eaten more mud than an earthworm. The score was tied 49-49.  I had not touched the ball.

Someone’s sibling rode up with a summons from home and there was talk of ending this year’s grudge match in a tie. “That’s like kissin’ yer sister” someone yelled.  Another shouted,” One more set of downs!”  I was once again lined up against my delinquent tormentor but instead of running my assigned button-hook, I turned suddenly and sprinted long as if the devil himself was chasing me.  I screamed and waved my hands.  The ball was launched in my direction and my heart leapt as I stumbled through the mud never taking my eye off the spiraling pigskin. My opponent had fallen down and I was alone behind the defense.  The pass seemed to hang in the autumn air for an eternity.  It fell into my arms and bounced off my chest careening away from my body.  I dove forward grasping like a drowning man, my arms and fingers straining for the deflection.  My fingers clawed under the muddy ball preventing it from hitting the dirt.  I fell awkwardly feeling a white flash of pain in my knee.  But I held on.  Celebratory screams from down field confirmed my reception and as I rose grimacing, I spiked the ball.  With the TD, the game disintegrated. But, our team had won.

As I limped to my bike, I heard the deep baritone of the seventeen year old icon, “great catch, Turp”.  I blushed with self conscious satisfaction and weaved my way home, tossing the ball in the air and catching it.  Later, as I donned my dreaded holiday dinner ensemble, the shirt collar did not feel so tight, and the gray wool slacks did not itch so much, and the hand me down loafers did not bite my heels   That night, turkey never tasted so good.  The mashed potatoes melted on my tongue like butter on a hot skillet. The pumpkin pie seemed snatched straight from the open window sill of an Amish farmhouse.

On this day, I had much to be thankful for.  I had entered the pantheon of Turkey Bowl heroes, scoring the winning touchdown.  Me, the single cell amoeba.  Perhaps, I was on my way to evolving into something bigger, and more noble.  Alas, I would have to wait until next Thanksgiving.  Only 364 days to go.

A Pirate King

Capture of the Pirate, Blackbeard, 1718 depict...
Capture of the Pirate, Blackbeard, 1718 depicting the battle between Blackbeard the Pirate and Lieutenant Maynard in Ocracoke Bay (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Pirate King Henry Lytton denounces Major-Gener...
Pirate King Henry Lytton denounces Major-General C. H. Workman (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For I am a Pirate King! And it is, it is a glorious thing to be a Pirate King!

The Pirates of Penzance, Gilbert & Sullivan

 

After 25 years of laboring on the great, sweaty iron dreadnoughts of insurance and healthcare, I recently decided to jump ship.  My plan was several months in the making and every step had to be meticulously detailed.  Yet, even with maps, charts, compass and provisions, it would require a leap of faith to relinquish my role as first mate in a for profit navy to become an adventurer.  Like most fair weather sailors, I was unnerved by sailing solo and tended to lose my emotional nerve when the economic seas got too rough or my ship drifted too far from the shore.  Yet, the lure of new ports of call and the thrill of no longer being under the yoke of a distant monarchy compelled me to resign my station.  I would leave my decks in good order to embark on a summer as a ronin privateer.  For three months, I would be beholding to no master.  I would wait until the Fall when the days shortened and the winds shifted to seek out a new fleet.

 

I made a log of everything I wanted to accomplish in ninety days.  Upon further review, I realized I was being a bit delusional in thinking that in a mere three months I could explore the vast open ocean of my life’s unfulfilled ambitions.   My first mate/chief petty officer gently suggested a course correction.  It was clear she did not want me rooting around the galley every day disrupting the routines of the other sailors.  She had enlisted with me for breakfast and dinner, not for lunch.  “Why don’t you just spend the time fishing, hiking, writing, golfing and spending time with the troops.” She was on to something.  Why could I not reinvent myself from ship’s captain to pirate king.

 

“NOW his future lay plain before him, and glowing with unimaginable splendor. …How gloriously he would go plowing the dancing seas, in his long, low, black-hulled racer, the Spirit of the Storm, with his grisly flag flying at the fore! And at the zenith of his fame, how he would suddenly appear at the old village and stalk into church, brown and weather-beaten, in his black velvet doublet and trunks, his great jack-boots, his crimson sash, his belt bristling with horse-pistols, his crime-rusted at his side, his slouch hat with waving plumes, his black flag unfurled, with the skull and crossbones on it, and hear with swelling ecstasy the whisperings, “It’s Tom Sawyer the Pirate!—the Black Avenger of the Spanish Main!” The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain

 

My first official week of being a pirate king was a blend of seasickness and excitement.  I was still gaining my sea legs learning the first mate’s regimen of feeding the crew, cleaning the main sails and delighting in the endless archipelago of activities that a pirate king could explore. I watched as the shoreline disappeared and was amazed at how quickly the breach that I had left in my old ship’s lines had closed.  I felt guilty for leaving my station but knew this was a rare opportunity to be in the company of adventurers.  It was summer with long lingering twilights and warm sunny days.  I had to adjust my senses from constant battle and hand to hand fighting to once again being in touch with the subtle indulgences of life – the distant slap of a fish as it rose in the afternoon shallows, the youthful ambition to explore a deserted island or the patience to rest quietly in a hammock buffeted by an early morning breeze.  My time was limited.  I knew September was out there, hunting me like an English Man of War.  My first mate wisely suggested that I needed a star to steer by.  She suggested a special “ Pirate King and Me“ trip that might forge a lifetime memory and conveniently get me out of the way.

 

 

Yes I am a pirate, two hundred years too late
The cannons don’t thunder, there’s nothin’ to plunder
I’m an over-forty victim of fate
Arriving too late, arriving too late,  
Jimmy Buffet, A Pirate Looks at Forty

 

My youngest son was the first beneficiary of Operation Pirate King.  I suggested that we drive up to the White Mountains in Northern New Hampshire to attempt to climb Mt. Washington.  Over the course of four days, we would become Long John Silver and Captain Kidd, modern day buccaneers – – pillaging pop tarts, tossing back pints of Sprite grog, raiding room service, playing poker, and recklessly racing past our bedtime like hobos easily eluding a one legged rail yard policeman.  The spontaneity of the adventure took us both by surprise as we suddenly graduated from maps and graphs to sailing up Highway 93 past signs alerting us to watch for moose, bear and deer.  The Presidential Range loomed above us atop a great sea of pine trees.  We anchored in the harbor of the Mountain View Grand, a 19th century hotel gilded with a rich history of generational reunions, presidential visits and simpler times.  On our first full day, we attacked the “Tuck” trail, a 2200 foot vertical ascent to Tuckerman’s ravine, the most vertical route up Mt Washington. At the base camp, a 700 foot headwall climbed above the timber line to a serpentine spine of rock trail that gained another 1000 feet to the summit. To these two free-booting pirates, the gray gathering rain clouds and the fact that we had consumed our last Pop Tart an hour earlier proved too daunting.  The tallest peak in New England would not hoist our flag today but we would be return to take the granite citadel.

 

Over the next three days, we competed as only plunderers can, fighting for bragging rights in fishing, swimming, billiards, gin rummy, poker, golf, and ping pong.  The hotel staff negotiated a détente with us, giving us free reign in the restaurant and assigning us stature by allowing us the same table each evening where we inventoried our spoils and mapped out our plans to loot the following day for all that it was worth.  Our expedition was quickly coming to an end. While bike riding on a trail in Franconia Notch State Park, we saw a large black dog running toward us, presumably off leash with no owner in sight.  My fellow buccaneer excitedly turned to me, “Dad, I think that is a bear”.  Lacking a spyglass and unencumbered by our matriarchal risk manager, we inched closer, watching the bear cub as he ambled towards us and then disappeared into the wild north woods.  It was a classic moment — wild kindred spirits coursing past one another in a great ocean of forest and woods, hurdling toward some unknown fate. That last evening, we sat in the dark talking, in glorious violation of our bedtime curfew sharing tales of treasure, murder and betrayal.  He asked me to once again tell him the story of black hearted pirates.  When we got to the part about the blood thirsty Blackbeard, my son became very still.  I presumed that he was contemplating a misshapen, seven foot, hulking sociopath who robbed, pillaged and killed his confederates for the slightest infraction.  As with all scary summertime stories, the conclusion brought a long pregnant pause and the timeless question:

 

 

“Dad, where did Blackbeard live?”

 

 

“I think……right….. around……. HERE!”

 

 

“Sure” he laughed with the bravado of the unconvinced.  He laid motionless, a still, frozen shadow on an adjacent bunk.

 

 

“Don’t worry pal.  The pirate king won’t let anything bad happen to you.”

 

 

He relaxed. “ ‘Night dad.  I had a fun day”…As my sailor slipped off into the land of nigh, I smiled.  It was a wonderful thing to be a pirate king….