My Dad, the Bullets and Knicks in 1971

Dad and Mom with the little ones as my younger sister Sheila and I were known in our household. Circa 1971.

A trip my dad and I took to see a Bullets-Knicks 1971 playoff game will tell you much about the father he was.

The Baltimore Bullets (Washington Wizards now) were my favorite team, and Earl “the Pearl” Monroe was my favorite player. The Spin Move was the Pearl’s signature. When opponents tried to steal the ball, the Pearl turned his back and spun 180 degrees away. At 11, it was the coolest thing I ever saw.

The Bullets had a good team that couldn’t however get past their archrival Knicks. Hopes were high though the Bullets would finally whip the Knicks that year. I was going to my first pro game to see the Pearl live; I was going to Charm City, which was exotic to me; and I was going to be alone with dad. These things made this trip special.

We took dad’s Tornado.   The Tornado wasn’t like dad. The big boat the ’98 he later purchased was more typical. Cool and sleek and powder blue, the Tornado seemed a younger man’s car. 49 then, perhaps dad chased his rapidly evanescent youth. I interject here my mom drove a Vista Cruiser, and my older brother a VW Beetle. The fact we were a three-car family becomes relevant later in our tale.

It was a beautiful spring Sunday morning when we began our hour trip from Spring Valley in Northwest Washington to the Baltimore Arena. Maybe 15 minutes into our trip, however, the Tornado stalled on 95 North near Burtonsville, Maryland. I hadn’t been in a broken down car previously, but I didn’t worry. I was in very good hands. Dad walked to the emergency call box to arrange a tow. Sitting alone the short time he was gone should have frightened me, but I didn’t think anything of it.

The tow truck arrived. Back then however, the Sabbath still meant something; few businesses were open, but a gas station in Bowie, perhaps 20 miles to our East, was.   I don’t know if dad rejected other options to tow the car closer to our home, but towing it to Bowie kept alive the possibility of going to the game.

If dad had said, “Your heart may be set on it, but the game’s not in the works,” I would have been disappointed but would have understood. Dad however was one of the more determined persons I knew, and we took a cab from Bowie, which was roughly 30 miles from the arena, and we made it in time for the tip.

I don’t recall the game’s details, but we won. Nothing feels better than leaving an arena with your dad after your team wins. We walked to the Greyhound Station to take a bus back to DC. This may surprise you, but the old K St. bus terminal wasn’t near Spring Valley, and he hoped to get a ride home.

Throughout his whole ordeal, dad didn’t betray any anger or frustration. He focused entirely on my good time, but he deserved a break. When he called home, the other cars were gone, however. When you’re a kid, you don’t read others’ emotions well, but I sensed Dad seething below the surface as he arranged for another taxi to take us home.

In today’s money, getting us to and from the game cost Dad roughly $300. Back then I had no idea what all this cost him, but I’m grateful in a cash-and-carry- time, he could go into his pockets to pay the extra expenses. I’m sure however if more affordable transportation were available, he would have taken it. His actions may seem extravagant to some, but they were consistent with the man I loved, who always went above and beyond to help anyone with anything. His actions that Sunday furthermore magnified my appreciation for and admiration of the man I hoped to emulate someday.

The Bullets did take the series from the Knicks, and when people ask me what my dad was like, I tell them he once drove a car, rode in a tow truck, took two cabs and a bus so his youngest son could be there when the Bullets finally whipped the Knicks.

 

 

 

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Recalling My Dad the Golfer at US Open Time

My dad on the 18th green at the Woodmont Member-Guest in 1981, seven years before his emphysema diagnosis. He was 59 then.

My dad died at 76 the Wednesday before Thanksgiving in 1998. He had fought valiantly against the brutal emphysema. A couple months prior to his death, after celebrating my mom’s 75th birthday, whipped after his night out, he slumped into a chair and said, “I don’t know who came up with the Golden Pond theory, but if this is Golden Pond, we have a problem.”

He was a good man, and I miss him each day and will on Sunday, not so much because it’s Father’s Day but because they will play the US Open golf tournament’s final round. Dad loved playing and watching golf. Turning on the TV to watch golf was the first thing he did after playing a round. If I were already watching the tournament he wanted to watch, he invariably he adjusted the set’s picture (what a quaint world we lived in when you adjusted your TV picture).

“How’s that?” he said.

“Fine, dad.” It was of course, fine, before he adjusted it.

“With my eyes, I can’t see anymore,” he said.

In his 50’s dad had cataract surgeries on his eyes. Feeling restless after the surgeries, he decided to return to the game after watching the ’75 Open. Dad especially loved watching the Open, and if he were still here, he would hunker down in his den this weekend and chew on Necco Wafers and drink ice tea, with a little sugar island settling at the bottom of his glass. After that Open, it was as though he said to himself, “I’ve got to get out there again.” He impulsively invited his sons to hit balls at a range, and continued to play until his health wouldn’t allow it anymore.

When he was younger, dad was a 7 handicapper, and all his life he swung his club elegantly, one of the best swings you ever saw, many said. We often don’t know or understand the movement of grace in our lives, but when dad swung a golf club, he must have sensed that grace. I never asked him why he stopped playing golf, but I suspect raising a young family had something to do with him putting it down initially.

I’m happy though he went back to it. He spent many happy hours on the golf course, away from trouble and sorrow, especially with his closest golfing buddy “Big” Jim Castiglia. The Bull as he was also known played pro football and baseball, and was massive and formidable. Deep down though he was one of the sweeter more lovable persons the Lord ever made, and devoted to my dad.

Dad tenaciously held on to the game he loved. He carried his oxygen tank in his golf cart. You’re in bad shape when you need oxygen to ride in a golf cart. If dad hit a good shot though, The Bull said, “Let me have a swig of that.” Dad soon realized even his oxygen tank couldn’t help him get around the course anymore. In the end, dad could only putt at the putting green at his club.

“When it comes to self-deception, we are all vaudeville magicians,” William Maxwell wrote. This is especially true of golfers, who their entire lives chase the perfect shot and round. Why else would grownups work on a game? Dad was intelligent and self-aware, but no different than other golfers in his pursuit of golfing perfection. We must, the gospels tell us, be perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect. What Lee Trevino famously said though argues even that perfection is limited. “In a lightning storm hold up a two iron because even God couldn’t hit a two iron.”

In my mind, dad’s in Heaven and he’s with The Bull. The Bull’s in the cart watching and dad has out the two. And free of pain and that damn tank, out in wide space and under a vast, impossibly pristine blue sky, he takes her back, and the club is suspended. He’s poised to make a perfect turn.

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