Monday, August 27, 2012

Jahrzeit, and the Man in the Moon

The Jewish people have a tradition of remembering their beloved dead on the anniversary of their death, which they call (in Yiddish), Jahrzeit (YART-site), literally, 'Time of the Year'.

It was a year ago today that my dad died.  Without going into morbid detail, the images of his final days and hours are still pretty fresh in my mind.  But the images of 54 years that his life and mine coincided have, I don't know, taken on a fuller perspective?  The final chapter having been written, I can now appreciate the entirety of his life, and his effect on mine.

It's good for me to step back and take a bit of time to remember him, to recall with gratitude all that he gave me, and taught me, by his own admirable example much more than any specific instruction.  Of course, I still miss him; I suppose I always will.  But, a year having passed, the starkness of losing him has softened a bit.  I have more of a sense of perspective - of the completion of his life, and his central place in my own life, of his humanity, and what a good man he was, and how fortunate I am to have been his son.

Thanks, Dad.  Requiescat In Pace. . .\


Dad, being the engineer that he was, would probably get a bit of enjoyment from knowing that Neil Armstrong died within two days of the anniversary of his own death.  Armstrong was not a pioneer in the sense of Columbus, or Lewis and Clark, but he was a great, brave man in his own test-pilot, engineer way, and the circumstances of history have assigned him, perhaps along with John Glenn, an emblematic role among the early astronauts, and the American space program of the 60s more generally.  Of course, he was the first human being to set foot on the surface of the moon, and his "One small step. . ." quote is indelibly etched in history.  Even today, more than forty years later,only eleven men besides Neil Armstrong have ever walked on the moon.  What an incredible experience. . . I can only imagine.

RIP, Neil Armstrong. . .

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Baseball in '68

I've mentioned before, on more than one occasion, that I grew up a baseball fan, in a baseball town.  But I also grew up way Up North in Michigan, which meant that I was (and still am) a devout follower of the Detroit Tigers.  But in those days, in that place, it was something on the order of a five-hour drive to Detroit, so we didn't go to Tiger games very often; maybe once a year.  Maybe.

In 1968, I was twelve years old.  Also in 1968, my beloved Tigers had a very good team, eventually winning the World Series.  The '68 Tigers were comprised of one Hall-of-Famer (Al Kaline) a few perennial, or at least occasional, All-Stars (Bill Freehan, Willie Horton, Norm Cash, Dick McAulliffe, Mickey Lolich, Earl Wilson). . . and Denny McLain.

In recent years, it has become painfully clear that Denny McLain is one of the great a**holes in the entire history of professional sports.  But for 1968, Denny, the pitcher, was in a class all by himself.  He won 31 games, which, even in those days, was an absurd number (from 1934 to the present day, he is the only pitcher to surpass 30 wins; just to give an idea).  Every four days, all summer, Denny took the mound, allowing hardly any runs to the other team, striking out a lot of them, and almost always coming away with the win. 

Everything Denny touched in 1968 turned to gold for him.  Heck, I recall a game he pitched against the Baltimore Orioles, which was one of the few televised games we got Up North in those days.  He had runners on first and second, with nobody out and Boog Powell at the plate (and you just have to hold a special place in your heart for a guy named 'Boog', dontcha?).  Well, Mr. Powell crushed the pitch Denny sent him, sending a screaming line drive heading directly toward a spot somewhere between Denny's belly-button and. . . a bit lower than that.  Reflexively, Denny coiled up, just trying to protect himself from the projectile whistling toward him, and the ball lodged in his glove.  For a split second, you could practically see Denny do a double-take - "You mean, I'm not dead?  Oh, look - the ball is in my glove!"  Both runners had broken with the pitch, so Denny whirled and threw to second, doubling off the runner, and the shortstop threw the ball to first, beating the runner who was desperately trying to get back there.  So Denny went from his life flashing before his eyes to a triple play in about a second.  It was that kind of year for him.

But honestly, as incredible as his '68 season was, I didn't come here to talk about Denny McLain (about whom, the less said, the better, as a general rule)


In 1968, the one game I went to was on the night of August 21, a Wednesday, against the Chicago White Sox.  I'm not sure why we'd have gone to a Wednesday night game; we almost always went to Saturday afternoon games, since that gave us the time to get to Detroit, watch a game, and get back home on more-or-less the same calendar day.  I vaguely recall that my dad had some manner of business in Detroit, so he took my brother and me with him, and dropped us at Tiger Stadium while he took care of his business.

As a twelve-year-old boy, walking into a major-league stadium was almost a transcendent experience.  We walked to the gate, gave the usher our tickets, and then walked up the ramp into the stadium, trying to locate our seats.  Up a long concrete ramp, turn a corner, climb another ramp, and then a sign saying 'Section XYZ', with an arrow.  At the top of the ramp, we emerged onto a concourse.  Looking to our left, we saw it - a bright, well-lit expanse of luminescent green grass.  The ball field at Tiger Stadium.  It bore a superficial resemblance to the fields we played on back home, but I think the grass at Tiger Stadium that night was the purest, greenest grass I'd ever seen.

Our seats weren't great - we were in the lower deck, near the top row, on the first-base side.  Which meant that we were well behind the posts - roughly every 30 feet or so - supporting the upper deck.  It also meant that the upper deck hung down low in front of us, so any ball hit reasonably high in the air disappeared behind the upper-deck overhang.  Then we'd follow the movements of the fielders to try to gage where the ball was headed, craning our necks and swiveling our heads to see around the posts.  If the fielder moved a few feet, then settled into a spot, looking up, we knew it was an easy fly ball.  If the fielder took off running, glancing over his shoulder as he ran, that meant trouble.  But we didn't care - it was just great to be watching the Tigers - the first-place Tigers - play ball, in their great green cathedral.

The game itself was a fairly low-scoring affair (as were many games in '68), and frustrating to watch.  Pat Dobson started for the Tigers, and pitched very well, but midway through the 8th inning, the Tigers trailed, 2-1.  Then in the bottom of the 8th, Mickey Stanley hit a home run to tie the score at 2, which is where the game stood at the end of nine innings.

The White Sox didn't score in the top of the 10th, and with one out in the bottom of the 10th, the pitcher (by that time, Darryl Patterson had relieved Dobson) was due up, so Mayo Smith, the Tigers' manager, sent Jim Price up to pinch-hit (and don't you just have to wonder a little, about parents who would name their infant son 'Mayo'?).

Now, every team has its role-players - guys who aren't the big stars, but who fill an important role on the team, and make a valuable contribution, even if they aren't the 'big dogs'. And there are many more role-players than stars.  Every twelve-year-old boy will generally have one or two of those 'role players' that, for whatever inscrutable reason, they take a liking to.  Jim Price was one of those guys for me.  Don't even ask me to explain it; he just was.  Or maybe he became one that night.  But I'm getting ahead of myself. . .

Anyway, Jim Price, who was nominally the Tigers' backup catcher, came into the game to pinch-hit for the pitcher in the bottom of the 10th inning, with the game tied at 2-2.  And he hit the ball into the lower-deck seats in left-field.  As I described above, the ball left his bat and, from my vantage-point, quickly disappeared behind the upper-deck overhang, at an angle and speed that suggested that this could be really good.  Our eyes shifted to the White Sox' outfielders, and we watched as the left-fielder scurried back and back and back, onto the warning track, and then up against the fence, until all he could do was look up, and watch the ball fly over his head, a few rows into the stands, the Tigers winning the game, 3-2.

So - from way Up North, we could only go to one Tiger game a year.  And that was the one game that I attended in the championship season of 1968, when I was twelve.  Jim Price played in all of 64 games for the '68 Tigers, coming to bat 132 times, and hitting .174.  Not that great.  He hit 3 home runs in 1968, and 18 in a five-year major-league career.  But one of 'em was when I was there to watch. . .


When I was in high school (I want to say it was the fall of '70), we had our annual fall sports banquet, and since I'd played football that fall, I was there.  The organizers had pulled off a real coup, getting for the speaker, a beloved member of the exalted '68 Tigers - Jim Price (I guess Al Kaline had a previous engagement). . .

These days, Jim Price is the color commentator for the Tigers' radio broadcasts, so every time I have the game on the radio as I'm driving somewhere, I have Jim Price's voice to keep me company, and to remind me of that night in August of '68. . .

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Can't We All Just Get Along?

It's no secret to anyone who has read this humble blog of mine, that I'm a somewhat avid bicyclist, riding an average of roughly 1400 miles per year for the past five years (and on a pace to well surpass that this year).  Personally, I can't imagine a more appealing workout than a good bike ride.  I'm out in the fresh air and sunshine (most of the time), and at roughly 15 mph, the scenery around me changes enough to be interesting, over the course of 30 or 40 miles, which is a typical ride for me.  There are not many things more enjoyable to me than riding out among the trees and cornfields on a crisp, 60-degree October afternoon, at the peak of the fall color.  Or even an unseasonably warm November day, with the first snow of the season still on the fields as I ride past them. . .

The only downside to cycling is that I'm always riding on roads built for motor vehicles, and those vehicles are typically 10-20 times heavier than I am, and moving 3-5 times faster than I am.  If it were ever to come down to a direct contest between me and a motor vehicle over which of us gets to occupy a given hunk of space at a given time, I am a loser, every single time, and painfully so, if I'm even so lucky as to survive the encounter.

Fortunately, the area in which I live is, for the most part, a happy place in which to ride a bicycle.  Paved, lightly-traveled back roads are plentiful and abundant, so I am not often perceived as being 'in the way' by the vehicle traffic, and there is also a fairly sizeable cycling population, so drivers are more-or-less used to encountering bicycles, and know how to account for our presence.  The 'Rules of the Road' tell me I should ride 'as far to the right as practical', and, by and large, when I do that, the vehicle traffic and I get along just fine.  So, happy-happy, and all that. . .


None of which is to say that the close proximity of large, fast, metallic vehicles and small, slow, soft, pedal-powered humans is devoid of danger.  Not all of my fellow-citizens are quite so mellow as what I've described, when they encounter my two-wheeled self on a lightly-traveled country road.  Especially when the road in question curves a bit, or includes a few hills, and the clear sight-lines aren't so long that a car can safely pass me without a second thought, there can be a certain 'Impatience Factor', and I try to be conscientious about paying attention to the 'time-costs' that my presence imposes on my fellow-travellers.  As I crest a hill, I will always check the oncoming traffic situation as soon as I can, and, if the road is clear, I'll wave a car past me, well before he can see it with his own eyes.  Likewise if someone is waiting behind me on a curve.  I've had a few 'close calls', where a driver's impatience has nearly led to a 'traffic incident', such as an evasive maneuver when he tried to pass me without a clear sight-line, and an oncoming car suddenly appeared.  Surprisingly few, though, all things considered.

Motorcyclists often complain that they're 'invisible' to four-wheeled traffic, and bicyclists are, if anything, even less visible than motorcyclists (and a lot less noisy).  Because we're small, slow, and way off to the right, some drivers simply don't notice us (which is probably one of the reasons cycling clothing tends to be garishly brightly-colored).  Once, I was riding past a residential subdivision, on a road commonly used by cyclists to make the transition from 'In Town' to the cornfields, when a car drove up from one of the neighborhood streets to my right, as it met the 'main' road upon which I was riding.  In such situations, I try, if I possibly can, to make eye contact with the driver, to assure myself that he sees me, and has accounted for my presence.  Something in this driver's behavior, though, made me uneasy (perhaps it was because the wheels never completely stopped rolling, and I saw the driver's head turn to look straight in my direction, yet the wheels continued to roll).  I saw that the car was angling itself for a right turn, so I drifted out into the lane as I approached the intersection, prepared to cross over into the oncoming lane (which was safely clear), in case my worst fears were realized.  Sure enough, the driver pulled out to make her right turn, right into the space I would have been occupying had I not moved over.  Once the car had completed its turn, I was directly alongside the driver's window.  With my hand, I thumped on the driver's window, startling her.  She rolled down the window, her face flushed, and sputtered, "I didn't even see you."  I could only shake my head.  I mean, what could I say to that?  "Pay attention!"?

The biggest problems I've had with cars, though, have tended to come from a set of drivers for whom my mere presence on the side of the road, even in the utter absence of any other traffic, is an affront to their sense of the order, balance and harmony of the Universe, or at least their own peace of mind, and to afford me even a few feet of clearance as they speed past, seems an outrageous imposition.  I've had a few rear-view mirrors tickle the hairs on my left elbow, though none have actually made contact with me.  I've been called a 'faggot' several times by toothless cretins gentlemen shouting out the windows of their rusty pickup trucks (I gather that this is meant as a negative appraisal of the fashionability of my lycra cycling shorts).  This may or may not be accompanied by a short-range serenade on their horn, which seems to add to the general mirth of the situation, from their perspective.  Another fellow followed me up a hill, serenading me with shouts of 'Lardass!' until he finally crested the hill and went on his way (I may or may not have patted my own ass, tacitly inviting him to kiss it, in response).  My younger self had a hard time letting such provocations pass, but as I've grown older (and perhaps wiser; or maybe just less inclined to bother with the a**holes), I'm more likely than I used to be to just wave as they head down the road, (happily) away from me. . .


A couple stories from my life on the road stand out in my memory.

The first was way back in 1984.  Jen and I were on a tour that crossed Michigan's Lower Peninsula from west-to-east, carrying two-year-old 1F in a plastic kid-seat on the back of my bike.  The tour began on a Sunday morning, in the city of South Haven.  There were something on the order of 700 cyclists, slowly stringing ourselves out over the back roads heading inland from Lake Michigan.  Early in the ride, our differences in speed hadn't had a chance to separate the riders very much, and for the first few miles, we were pretty much a continuous string of bikes, riding single-file along the right-hand edge of the pavement.

Suddenly, behind me, I heard a commotion.  Checking my rear-view mirror (I've always had a rear-view mirror on my bike; I can't imagine being out among the vehicles without one), I saw a car barreling up, along the long file of cyclists.  As it got closer, I heard the horn.  The driver was leaning on his horn continuously, without let-up, as he made his way along the line of bikes.  As he drew alongside me, I saw that the driver, and his wife in the passenger seat, and two teenaged sons in the back, were all dressed in their Sunday best, obviously on their way to church.  And we were harshing his peace.  As he passed me, I saw his left arm extended upward out the driver's-side window, sending us all the middle-finger salute, making sure that none of us missed his message.

Nothing classier than that, let me tell you.  What a wonderful example you're setting for your sons; and your wife must be very proud, too.  What church did you say you belong to?  Anyway, say 'Hi' to God for me, OK, friend? 


My other story happened a few years later.  I was riding one of my regular routes near Our Town, south of the mega-university campus.  That area, south of campus, is generally pretty congenial for cyclists.  It's mostly research farms owned by the university, and the heavier-traveled roads through the area have paved shoulders (or 'bike lanes', if you prefer), which afford us three feet or so of ride-able space, without the vehicle traffic even having to swerve to avoid us.

On this particular day, though, I was riding on one of the 'lesser' roads.  It was paved, but the shoulder was dirt/gravel, so I was hugging the white stripe marking the edge of the pavement.  As is typically the case, there were hardly any cars on the road, anyway, and almost never two cars in both opposing lanes at the same time.

A carload of college students passed me, heading north, toward the main campus.  They gave me a half-lane of clearance, which is entirely generous, so I thought nothing of it.  A couple hundred yards ahead of me, they pulled off to the side of the road.  Again, I thought nothing of it; perhaps they were lost, and needed to consult a map, or whatever.

As I rode on, they stayed on the side of the road, and before long, I was coming to the point where I would have to pull out into the lane to pass them, and I hoped that they remembered that I was there, and didn't pull out into me (or onto me) as I rode by.

When I was within ten yards or so of their rear bumper, just as I was preparing to swing around, suddenly the car lurched forward, spinning its rear tires and spraying me with dirt and gravel, honking the horn, its occupants laughing as they squealed their tires on down the pavement.  In the gravel shower, I didn't even have the opportunity to get their plate number.  (damn!)  I have no idea what I might or might not have done to provoke such an attack, but that's probably about the worst behavior I've ever suffered at the hands of a driver.

So, all things considered, not too bad at all. . .

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Going All-In, Year XXXII

32 years ago today, Jen and I threw our lives in together, in front of God and everybody, in Holy Matrimony (although the tangibility of said holiness has been more in evidence at some times than others) (*sigh*).

I can say, in all honesty and sincerity, that, over 32 years of marriage, our union has come to a place I had no inkling of at the outset, a depth and richness my 24-year-old self never imagined.  I have been challenged to my very core, and had things called out of me that I hadn't known were there to be called out.  Being a husband and father has made me a man, and called me out of my youthful immaturity in all manner of ways I never saw coming at the time.  (We occasionally give a talk on Marriage at our church, and we've often made the point that our children help make us holy; many people only need two or three children in order to get holy, but we're a harder case. . .)

So, thank you, My Beloved, My Life-Mate, My Partner, My Closest Friend, The Mother of My Children, My Wife.  If the last 32 years have brought us to a place we never imagined, what will the coming years bring us?  As they say in Narnia, "Further Up and Further In!"