My childhood was spent discovering the many talents of my father. These talents would emerge unexpectedly, little moments of wonder. We were at an amusement park once, and there was a shooting gallery there, and I wanted to make the skunk’s tail go in the air, make the piano player start to play, make the duck quack, but those targets were so small.
Dad took the toy rifle with its warped sights, aimed it carefully and hit every target every time, shooting with such precision that after a while children from nearby began to gather around and shout out, “Shoot the deer! Hit the mirror! Knock down the beer can!”
It was, as I’ve written before, like finding out your father is Batman.
“Where did you learn to shoot like that?” I asked Dad, who disliked guns and was as peaceful a man as I’ve ever known.
“The army,” he said, and he left it there.
When I was very young, so young the memories come back blurry, as if underwater, my father showed me a magic trick. He took a coin, and he put it inside a handkerchief. He handed me the handkerchief and asked me to feel it and make sure the coin was still in there, and it was. Then he asked me to put the handkerchief inside both hands and squeeze tight and close my eyes and say “abracadabra.”
When I opened the handkerchief the coin had been magically replaced by a tiny toy skull about half the size of a superball.
“How did you do that?” I asked Dad, who worked long hours in a factory keeping knitting machines running.
“When I was little, we had a magician stay with us, and he taught me,” he said, and he left it there.
When I was 11, he took me and my brother David to a Cleveland-Boston baseball game. That was 1978, when the Red Sox finished a Bucky away from glory, when their lineup was just ridiculous — Rice and Yaz and Fisk and Lynn and Boomer and Dewey — and when Cleveland was pretty bad. It was a Sunday afternoon mismatch, just after the fourth of July, that patriotic time in Cleveland when everyone briefly acknowledged being Indians fans. More than 45,000 showed up at old Cleveland Municipal Stadium. It was bat day.
Everything went right. Everything. Duane Kuiper, my hero, had three hits including two doubles. And Buddy Bell, my vice-hero, hit the longest home run I’d ever seen; in the bleary vision of memory it might STILL be the longest home run I’ve ever seen. Buddy crashed it off the left-field upper deck, and it was a grand slam. “That was the first homer in my life,” he would say after the game, “that I ever KNEW was gone.”
Cleveland won 7–1. It was perfect, absolutely perfect. “They never lose when we come,” Dad said, and I believed him.
He would take me with him to the bowling alley sometimes when he bowled in his Sunday league. His team was made up of hard factory men who drank their coffee as black as the machine would spit it out, and Dad would bowl the anchor leg, routinely rolling 200s and turning his back on the pins whenever he picked up an easy spare.
And he would take me with him to the Arabica Coffee shop sometimes, there in the Coventry District in Cleveland, an edgy place then when hippies and punk rockers and motorcycle gang members mixed with ancient Eastern Europeans, and Dad would play speed chess against the best players in Cleveland. Swear words in a dozen languages blurted out as men angrily slammed around knights and bishops and queens and kings. My father was a man of distinction here. He had won the Cleveland Open Chess Tournament.
Well, he could do anything. Dads can do anything, right? He could fix anything. He could lift anything. He could handle anything. He also could juggle. One day, for no apparent reason, he just did. There happened to be three tennis balls around. “I want to learn how to juggle,” I said. And he promptly juggled the three balls with flair, as if on stage. I was probably 15 by then. He had been hiding this wonderful skill for 15 years, as if he wanted to unveil it only at the perfect moment.
Then, when I was older, he took me to the factory with him every day for a summer, and I moved boxes and wilted in the suffocating heat while he cheerfully kept the machines going on time. At the end of the day I would be so exhausted and angry that I did not want to see anyone, be around anyone, all I wanted to do was disappear into myself, like the Springsteen lyrics which I had not yet heard:
But your eyes go blind and your blood runs cold
Sometime I feel so weak I just want to explode
And somewhere along the way there it occurred to me that Dad had been doing this same thing for the full 18 years of my life, and that he had come home from the factory every afternoon covered in oil and sweat and no doubt felt those same things I felt. Yet, he would smile, and first thing would go to the garage and get his cheap little plastic baseball glove, and we would go to the backyard, and he would play catch with me, throwing impossibly high pop flies against the sky until the sun set.
“How did you learn play baseball?” I would ask him. My father had grown up in Poland, a young soccer star, he had not seen his first live baseball game until after his oldest son was born. That was the day when the commercials said that America was baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet. Dad wanted all of his sons to be Americans.
“I just picked it up,” he said, and he left it there.
Then we’d go inside and eat something, and he would sink into the couch and watch television until Johnny Carson said good night.
Then he would do it all again the next day. I still don’t know how.
When I was young, I figured that when I became a Dad I too would just know how to to do all these things, would just naturally start bowling 200 games and become a marksman and attain master status as a chess player and perform magic breezily and without effort and just know how to fix cars or broken appliances. I would be able to throw impossibly high pop flies like my father did. It doesn’t happen that way. My own kids are stuck with a Dad of limited talents.
The other day, though, there were three tennis balls lying around. I picked them up and, with my daughters watching, I juggled them easily. They were both dutifully impressed.
“How did you learn to do that?” our youngest, Katie, asked.
“My Dad taught me,” I said, and I left it there.