Father’s Day Memories
Being the creature of habit that I am, I was listening to my usual local sports-talk radio show Friday morning as I showered (being unmarried allows me such luxuries). In honor of Father’s Day, they had a segment where callers shared their most memorable sports-related moments with their fathers. It obviously got me thinking about my own childhood.
I’ve said many times that I grew up in a Leave It To Beaver household. I was raised in a small to medium sized town in west Tennessee, about an hour east of Memphis. I was the youngest of three boys in a slightly upper middle-class home. Our father ruled the roost. He never tried to be the cool, hip parent that I see so many people trying to do today. We didn’t call him “Jim” or “Pops” or anything else disrespectful. We simply called him “Daddy”. Our father worked hard so that our mother didn’t have to. We lived in the same house since I was five. My parents rarely fought, never divorced and gave us a very consistent and happy childhood. I never thought that much about it at the time, but as I’ve grown older I’ve realized what a rarity that is as I talk to others my own age.
Daddy was not much of a sports fan. I didn’t realize it at the time, but looking back – it was quite obvious he didn’t care that much about sports. Of the three brothers, I was by far the biggest sports fan. Even at a very young age, I couldn’t get enough of football even though no one else in my family had any more than a passing interest in it. I tried to play a couple of times – fifth grade and seventh grade – but was way too little and never made the team. But that did nothing to dampen my love of the game.
Although he cared nothing for it, my father took me to my first college game – when the Tennessee Volunteers played Ole Miss one year in Memphis. He also took me to my first NFL game – Jim Plunkett’s rookie year with the newly re-named New England Patriots (formerly Boston Patriots) in 1971 against Joe Namath and the New York Jets. It wasn’t until later that I realized he cared so little about football. I thought he wanted to go as much as I did. As it turns out, he went just for me.
That was his only NFL game. He and I went to a handful of Tennessee Vols games together over the years, but none after 1983. By then, I knew he was no fan. He was just going for my sake.
The lone exception to my father’s ambivalence of sports was the Indianapolis 500. When he took my two older brothers for the first time in 1964, I had never heard of it – but then again, I was only five years old. But my brothers were fourteen and eleven, respectively. They had certainly heard of it and judging by their excitement beforehand, I suspected I was missing out on something big. I was.
My mother found the race on the radio and we listened to Sid Collins. Did I sit through the entire broadcast listening intently? No. What five year-old would? In all honesty, I don’t remember listening to coverage of the crash that took the lives of Eddie Sachs or Dave MacDonald. Nor do I have any memories of the now famous on-air eulogy given by Sid Collins. Perhaps we didn’t tune in until later. I’m not sure. But I do remember being disappointed that the only driver I had heard of, Parnelli Jones, didn’t win. Some guy I’d never heard of, named AJ Foyt, won the race. But based on the stories that the three of them told of their first trip to the race when they returned, I knew I had to go.
Although Daddy had misgivings of taking a six year-old to the Indianapolis 500 in 1965, he took all of us. I think my mother would have preferred to stay at home and stick a fork in her eye than to have gone, but she went – probably to take care of me in case I got bored. Needless to say, I didn’t get bored.
After taking his brother and their father in 1966, we returned to the race in 1967 and went every year through 1972. Somewhere along the way, my mother stopped going. Although all three brothers were developing completely different interests and personalities, the Indianapolis 500 was the one thing that we all had in common with our father. We could always talk racing. To this day, I’m still not sure why we stopped going after 1972. My brothers were both in college and I was starting to become an unruly teenager, but it was not due to lack of interest on our part. Whatever the case, my father decided to give up our covered seats in Stand A and that was that.
Although my college and post-college years caused my passion for the race to wane somewhat, I still never missed listening to the live radio broadcast nor the Sunday night delayed telecast. If I were home for Memorial Day, my father and I would watch it together.
When the racing bug bit me again for good in 1991, I vowed to return to the race in 1992. My (then) wife and I sat in the Tower Terrace stands on that frigid day. She was not impressed and thought I had lost my mind when I said I wanted to return the next year, in 1993. Simple enough – I took my father, instead. By this time, he was sixty-six but very healthy. He was still working full-time, having vowed to never retire after watching his own father “grow old before his eyes” right after he had retired.
My father was always an emotional man – much more so than I am. Growing up, we all took great delight in watching him blubber like a baby when Tony Hulman said “Gentlemen, Start Your Engines!” He did not disappoint me that day in 1993.
A friend of a friend worked for USAC and got us into the garage area prior to the race. Daddy stood next to the first row of garages, looking out at the track and choked up while saying that he never thought he would ever stand in Gasoline Alley. At the time, I chalked it up to emotional silliness. As Emerson Fittipaldi was completing his last lap on his way to the checkered flag that day, my father got teary-eyed as he exclaimed: “Oh, just look at that!” Being only thirty-three at the time, I thought he had flipped his lid and looked around to make sure that no one had heard his outburst.
It was a great race and a great day. We saw our family’s racing idol, AJ Foyt, before the race. We witnessed several Formula One champions in that race including Fittipaldi, Mario Andretti, Nelson Piquet and Nigel Mansell. There were also twelve different leaders of that race – a record that still stands today. The weather was perfect. It was sunny, but relatively cool – cool enough that I wore jeans and not shorts. Daddy and I had a great time as just the two of us spent a memorable weekend together.
Fate played a huge part in my taking my father with me in 1993. The following January, he was starting to not feel good. Tests revealed nothing, but he was losing weight and feeling run-down. Daddy was not one to complain about his health, so it was a red flag when he continually felt bad.
I had decided to go all-out for the Month of May in 1994. I bought bronze badges for my wife and myself. We had already attended Opening Day, when we took our four year-old son to the track for him to watch racecars for the first time. On May 11, 1994 – Daddy was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. It was a death sentence and he knew it. He had also developed a sudden blockage that had become immediately life threatening. The bronze badges went unused through both qualifying weekends as we stayed home and tended to more important matters.
His condition stabilized and he insisted that we go ahead and attend the race, knowing what the race the previous year had meant to both of us. His condition improved and he worked throughout that summer and into the fall. But the disease took its toll and Daddy passed away on Dec 1, 1994.
It’s been over sixteen years and I still miss my father. To this day, I’m not a very emotional person – or let’s say I don’t generally show my emotions. Last month was the first time all three brothers attended the Indianapolis 500 since 1972. To my knowledge, not a word was said out loud about Daddy not being with us to enjoy the moment – but I thought about it privately.
Our mother is still alive, still lives in the house where I lived since age five and seems to be perfect health, both physically and mentally. She still drives, goes to exercise class and goes walking every day. She is probably in better shape than I am. She uses her computer regularly and not just for e-mails – she can do Word documents, Excel spreadsheets and uses Ancestry.com to pursue her passion for genealogy. We are very fortunate.
Every time Father’s Day rolls around, I don’t look upon it with sadness. I don’t dwell on the second half on 1994, when I watched my father wither away. Instead, I think of the happy times: the grueling family vacations when we would drive over 6,000 miles in two weeks (and no, that isn’t an exaggeration), the times that he bored friends to death showing slides of those marathon vacations or when he would put up with sporting events just to please me. I also fondly think of the 1993 Indianapolis 500 and how it will always be special. As I watch the race at The Milwaukee Mile this Father’s Day, that’s how I choose to remember my father.
Happy Father’s Day!