I’m sitting in the bed of a brown Ford F-250 Pickup truck as it speeds down I-59 South in Birmingham, Alabama. The air is hot, the sun is setting and my brother, a friend, and I enjoy the wind in our faces as we travel to Rickwood Field, home of the Birmingham Barons. It is the summer of 1982 and the ball club is in its second year in a new incarnation of the team. The Barons have a long history in Birmingham, dating back to 1885. But hadn’t played baseball since 1975. their rebirth and the revival of baseball in Birmingham gave my family a reason to load up the truck and head to the games. I never remember my dad watching baseball on TV, always football. But baseball is what he played with us in the yard. We had catch, played pepper, goofed around with bat and ball. (Dad played fast pitch league softball when he was younger).
He loved attending Barons games. It was decent baseball (AA), and affordable for my middle class family. We went maybe two times a week, making the 30 minute drive from my home in Center Point in northeast Birmingham to west Birmingham to Rickwood Field. A historic ballpark, Rickwood remains the oldest park in the US, and was modeled after Forbes Field, Shibe Park, and a little Tiger Stadium thrown in. In fact, I met Mickey Mantle at Rickwood when I was but a wee kid. He was scouting for the Yankees and dad told me to walk over and ask for his autograph. Willie Mays played there in the minors, as did Reggie Jackson.
At first, in 1981 and before I was brave enough to leave my seat and wander the park, I sat by my parents, begged for hot dogs and ice cream in the small baseball helmets, building my collection of them at home. But by 1982 and 1983 as I entered my teens and brought with me friends, we became bored with just watching the games. We wanted to roam, be away from adults, goof off. I still remember on a dare eating a thin paper plate that came with the lukewarm pizza slice I purchased from concessions.
As the father of a teenager I often wonder if my dad experienced the range of emotions I do as I watch my oldest son grow and mature and reach puberty, as he sees little use for adults. I wonder if he too felt the bittersweet emotions of at once watching your son grow tall and strong and well-adjusted yet wanting to spend less and less time with him dad. When he drove me to the Barons games, did he expect to see me at all during the game, except for when I needed food? Did he understand, as I am trying to that this is part of being a dad. I took Hudson to a college baseball game in the spring and after a few minutes, he was off playing with friends. I delighted watching him interact with other kids, but I also missed him. Weird, eh?
There was a time when (and I’m crying as I write this) I was the sun in my boys’ universe. Their appetite for my attention and affection never seemed to wane. And I gave it. I knew these days were approaching. I knew there would be a day where I realized that although they love me, the boys no longer see me as the one thing they want to be with all the time. I knew this from the day they were born. I gave them all my time, all of me. I have no regrets, and I lament only to the extent that as an emotional dad, I am coming to terms with letting them grow and letting them go.
In 2000, my dad suffered a brain aneurysm and a series of strokes. The quintessential do-it-yourself man (he would take apart car engines, build sheds from scratch, tinker and repair, learn by doing–he once owned a filling station in the 1960s–he did it all, woodwork, engine repair, welding–you name it, he has done it and I feel totally like a loser in comparison to his know-how. He once used a jig saw to make me a communicator and space blaster modeled on those from Space 1999, then my favorite show. (Yes, I am a nerd)
He was leveled by this condition and the three brain surgeries needed to repair it. Now with vision in only one eye and bad hearing (it was never that good before the affliction–as the volume from our TV set attested when I was a child!). It took away what was most precious to my dad other than his family–his independence, self-reliance, and resourcefulness. But his mind is as sharp as ever. He still tells the dumbest jokes and chuckles after each one. He still gets those moist eyes when I tell him I love him, just like I do when I look at my boys. His love taught me how to love my sons. His willingness to set aside his interests and desires for the sake of ours showed me the essence of true fatherhood–the willingness to sacrifice all that I am or want to be for their safety, future and happiness.
Tomorrow is his 79th birthday. He’s lived longer than any other Harvey, his siblings and parents died young from smoking or cancer or illness. He is a survivor and he is a father. And I love him. And I will take advantage of the time I have left with him to glean a little more wisdom, a little more fatherly know-how, and just a little more time being around my pop and listening to those corny jokes of his. These words are my gift to him.
Now 31 years after that first magical season of our family trips to Rickwood, I’m driving my mini-van down the same interstate, heading to a new ballpark to see the Barons. In the car is my family and my mom and dad. It’s my turn now to drive my family to a game. My turn to present them with an opportunity to rekindle (or grow) the same memories I am experiencing as I drive them. Of course, modern auto safety prevents me from tossing dad and the boys in the back of his truck and hurtling them down the road at 70 MPH, so the van will have to suffice. Dad–I call him Pop–is excited. Hudson is beside himself since baseball is his thing now. Preston doesn’t care for baseball but humors me. I am a son taking my pop and my sons to a Barons game. I’m giddy with excitement. It might be 2013, but it sure feels like 1982.