(Due to popular reader response, this column has been rerun from last year. Happy Fathers Day!)
We are our fathers.
To some extent we were shaped to function in our lives from their, sometimes unseen, actions of love and, of course, the times that are stuck on our faces in smiles much like one would magnetize a note to the refrigerator door.
I often wonder how my father shaped my sporting life.
He was never in any sport that I witnessed. Nor could he ever attend one of my contests.
When I was born, he was already in his 50’s.
I admire him for that. Whenever I hear people argue over birth control, abortion, and the right to life I always remember that I was the seventh and last child from my family.
My father was 12-years old when my granddad died in a great flu epidemic. My father did not finish the seventh grade. He brought his mother and sister to Alaska and built a log cabin on an island and raised foxes.
He floated that log cabin into Petersburg and lived with my grandma and aunt until he met my mother and her brood.
He was an Alaska Telephone man then, traveled the state putting in lines. My mother was a switchboard operator from Queen Anne Hill in Washington. She sailed to Petersburg with an alcoholic husband whom she married because she had to look after her own siblings. My father would baby sit these infant terribles while her husband ran around and, finally, ran off.
So my father took on a wife with five young kids.
They had one of their own, my real brother.
Then they discovered I was in the mix. They married. My mother pushing half a century and my father past that mark.
He and she worked, always, to support a team of nine.
I was always too small to be anything but an after thought and nuisance to my older gene pool.
I was the tiny knot that clung to my father’s stained pant legs, the small lump that swung from his giant hands, the stinky diaper that could sense how the world stopped when he was not in the room.
Yet I only remember a silent man whose life was shaped with an education learned, not from books, but from toil and work and things that walk among the forests and swim among the mountain’s beaches.
He built the skiffs our family went to sandy beaches for picnics in. He steamed oak and bent it into shapes that would ride the waves. He melted lead to make anchors that held the shapes fast in the currents. His time was spent providing for his family in ways other kid’s parents could just buy or order.
I remember throwing a baseball against a rock. Catching it and throwing it. At age nine I was in imaginary games with famous players.
My father returned from 18 hours cooking salmon in the old retorts at a salmon cannery.
My mother calls to him to come eat and go to bed.
He stops to watch me throw and catch the ball.
I ask him to play catch with me.
“I don’t know how,” he said.
I threw the ball hard at him. He couldn’t catch it and his body, aged with many seasons of life, labored to retrieve it.
My little heart was broken. I could see he was sad too, but I was mad that he couldn’t play with me like other dads did.
The rock was unkind to my throws and I often chased the ball down roads into brush where terrible creatures hid.
My father set his tin lunch pail down.
He towered past me. His bulk bent low into the ditch and rose up with a large boulder. He placed it near my throwing rock.
Then he brought another, and another.
Soon I was in a virtual field of throwing partners. My baseball would come and go and if I missed, it would not go far, the shrubs of the rain forest would not eat it.
I did not notice when he left me there.
I would not notice many of the things he did over our lives.
I knew that if someone came to our house for a tool or for help, they would receive his aid.
I knew his handshake was his binding agreement.
I saw tears in his eyes only twice. Once was at my grandma’s funeral. I was just 10 and had a little league game later that day. Sitting next to him, I wasn’t sure what I could do. There was food and laughter after and I was angry that people were celebrating. I ran away.
The second time I saw tears, he was in his last years.
He was driving me to the docks where I would get on a fishing boat and go out again for over a month and would come back again to tell him what I saw.
He didn’t get to go a lot of places in his life. His travels were those of survival.
“When I get back I am buying you a new motor,” I said. “Some thing powerful enough to push that heavy old skiff you built.”
Tears came fast in that moment. The moments of that drive to the dock sailed with me across the Gulf of Alaska, out to Kodiak and into the salty sea nights.
I never bought that motor.
He took ill. I took a job on the land to be near.
My last “I love you” was minutes before his last breathe. My head on his chest, his hand protecting mine for the last time as his fingers closed to answer me.
When he passed I found old letters. Written from him to my mom and to his own mother. Written when he was away at work in another little place.
“I am going to learn to play catch,” he wrote in one. “A boy needs to play catch with his father.”