A big deadline is looming, so I’m posting a reedited oldie but goodie. Do forgive me.
I was not an athletic child. Not even close. I was clumsy, uncoordinated and disliked sweating. More significantly, I saw playing sports as a waste of time – and not a particularly good waste of time, either. I could come up with about a million ideas that were better, and many of them – such as building a fort in the woods behind my house – kept me physically active and gave me fresh air. Moms are obsessed with fresh air; my childhood air was fresher than most.
For quite a while, this system worked out just fine. I’d get fresh air and hammer things to trees, and my parents would mind their own business.
Things were about to change. One evening Mom sat me at the kitchen table for a talk. Talking during mealtimes was common in our house, lively and something to enjoy. A kitchen table without food, however, was often the setting for bad news.
The table was empty.
Mom delivered her message the same way she removed Band Aids: fast and blindingly painful. “You’re going to play a sport,” she told me. “I don’t care what sport you play, but you are playing something.”
I tried to protest. I was too busy for sports, I told her. I needed to doodle! I needed to watch Bugs Bunny cartoons! I needed to create elaborate kitchen sink dramas with my Star Wars figures! And all those trees weren’t going to hammer themselves!
But my pleas fell on deaf ears.
I knew that Dad was behind Mom’s edict. There was no mistaking that Dad had an idea of what a father/son bond should look like. And his idea of this father/son bond involved throwing, kicking, and/or running.
In my house, Mom was The Enforcer so it was up to her to make sure the throwing, kicking and/or running happened. She signed me up for stuff against my will. Then she told me to stop whining about the fact that she signed me up for stuff against my will. Though Mom was not an athlete, she was the architect of The Allegra Family Motto: Don’t Be a Candy Ass. Whining was definitely Candy Assy. “So knock it off,” she said. “You’re playing soccer.”
In soccer, I dazzled crowds with my slow running and crooked kicking. After that season came to a merciful end, I was shoved off to basketball camp, where I discovered that I was incapable of dribbling and running at the same time. Come the spring, it was time for little league, in which the only way I could get on base was to crowd the plate and get beaned. My on-base average was distressingly high.
To his credit, Dad was nothing but supportive through all of this. He helped me practice, attended every one of my games, and cheered with gusto from the stands when I did anything that was vaguely cheerworthy. I could only imagine what an ordeal this was for him. Yes, his ordeal was self-inflicted, but it was an ordeal nonetheless.
Dad was no fool, though. He could see how unhappy I was. He could see that the father/son bonding thing wasn’t going according to plan. He wanted the plan to work so badly, however, that he stayed the course. Week in and week out, I’d show my incompetence, and week in and week out Dad would cheer as if I was doing well.
Fencing broke this pattern.
Taking fencing was my idea. I figured that if my parents were going to force me to play a sport, I might as well play a sport where I could work through my hostilities by getting stabby.
Fencing, however, turned out to be the worst sport ever. Every week all we did was work on foot positions. Then we’d run laps around the gym. Dozens and dozens and dozens of laps. I chose fencing because I thought it was a sport where I wouldn’t have to run, and here I was, running more than I had ever run in my entire life.
After about a month; in the middle of what I imagined to be my four-thousandth lap; tired, frustrated, dripping with sweat, and repulsed by the BO hanging in the stale gym air; I asked my coach a question:
“When the hell do we get swords?”
I didn’t “ask” this question as much as yell it. I yelled it with all of my might. I yelled it so loudly my query echoed off the rafters and stopped all the lap-runners in their tracks. Everyone in that gym grasped my statement’s subtext: “Hey coach, when will I get the chance to stab you in the face?”
Mr. Fencing Coach was unperturbed. This was clearly not the first time he encountered a question that contained face-stabbing subtext. He explained that the things I called “swords” are actually “foils.” Then he told me to keep running.
Dad was in the bleachers. He saw all this go down. He heard my fourth grade self bark at an authority figure. He heard me say “hell.” Dad was not used to seeing me speak disrespectfully to adults, because, well, I never really had done so before.
But my rage had been brewing all year. It had been growing more concentrated with each passing sports season. Here I was, being forced to do something I didn’t care about – something I was bad at. And I had to show off my badness in front of crowds of parents who inwardly groaned at my every flub. And I had to sweat while doing it.
I was in trouble. I knew I was. How could I not be? I figured Dad would bring up my outburst on the car ride home.
But he didn’t.
But of course he didn’t, I thought. This was a matter for The Enforcer. When we got home, I clenched my teeth, clutched my stomach, and waited for the inevitable.
But he didn’t bring it up with Mom either. Not right away. He waited until after I had gone to bed.
They whispered about it in the kitchen. I picked up every fourth or fifth word through the heating vent next to my bed and fell asleep fretting about what was going to happen to me in the morning. Both of my parents were teachers; they did not, as a rule, tolerate mouthy children.
I waited for the matter to be brought up at the breakfast table. But it wasn’t. It wasn’t brought up at supper, either. It wasn’t discussed the next day or the day after that.
I wasn’t sure how, but I had dodged a bullet.
The following week, as I got ready for fencing practice, Dad announced that he and I were going someplace else.
“Where?” I asked with a groan. For all I knew, Mom had just signed me up for sumo wresting.
“Do you know who Mel Blanc is?” he asked.
Well, duh. Of course I knew who Mel Blanc was. Mel Blanc did the voices for the Warner Brothers cartoon characters I watched religiously every weekday afternoon – well, every weekday afternoon that wasn’t Wednesday, because that was the day I had to go to my damn fencing practice. Bugs, Daffy, Sylvester, Tweety, Foghorn Leghorn, Yosemite Sam… Mel Blanc voiced them all.
“Well,” Dad said, doing a bad impression of acting casual, “Mel Blanc is making an appearance at William Paterson College and I got two tickets. Want to come?”
Oh. My. God.
Long story short, Blanc did his voices, told stories, and screened Knighty Knight Bugs and Birds Anonymous. Sure, I would have preferred to see Chuck Jones cartoons rather than Friz Freeling ones, but it was still one of the best nights of my life.
The father/son bond had never been stronger.
Although it was never formally discussed, Mom, Dad, and I understood that the grand sports experiment was over. I was free to return to the backyard and assault trees with hammers.
My sporting life was a difficult period, but it wasn’t in vain, really. For one thing, I got to see Mel Blanc. More importantly, I think my sweaty, angry adventures in the gym and on the playing field helped Dad to acknowledge and embrace the fact that he was the father of a weird kid. Dad and I never had much in common, but, from that day to this, we accept each other.
Now I’m a dad. My son has inherited my athletic ability. He hasn’t however, inherited my attitude. He finds joy in soccer. He gallops rather than runs. He kicks the ball in random directions. He pauses to watch dragonflies while the other players swirl around him. The smile never leaves his face.
Much like my dad did years ago, I cheer and clap. Not because I like sports – because I don’t – but because I cherish and enjoy my boy’s eccentricities.
As I watch my little guy do his thing, I can feel the big, goofy smile on my face. I suspect that my expression is similar to the one worn by my dad on that fateful night at William Paterson College, when I caught him watching me just as Mel Blanc delivered a “That’s all folks!” in Porky Pig’s iconic stutter.