Don’t let this picture fool you. This is not my desk and that is certainly not my football.
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; well, my childhood air was fresher than most.
For quite a while, my system worked out just fine. I’d get fresh air and hammer things to trees, and my parents would mind their own business.
Then one evening Mom sat me at the kitchen table for a talk. Talking during mealtimes was common in our house and something to enjoy. A Kitchen Table Talk when no food was present, however, was often cause for concern. The table was empty.
She cut right to the chase. “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 those trees aren’t going to hammer themselves!
But it all fell on deaf ears.
I always suspected 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. While 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 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, where the only way I could get on base was to get beaned.
To his great 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 remotely cheerworthy. I could only imagine what an ordeal this was for him. Yes, Dad’s ordeal was self-inflicted, but it was an ordeal nonetheless.
Now, Dad was no fool. Oh, he often played the fool to weasel his way out of household chores, but he wasn’t really one. He could see how unhappy I was. He could see that the father/son bonding thing wasn’t going according to plan.
What brought this point home, I think, was a fateful fencing practice. 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 get stabby.
Fencing, however, turned out to be the worst sport ever. Week in and week out all we did was work on foot positioning and run laps around the gym.
Finally, after about a month of this nonsense, tired, frustrated, dripping with sweat, and repulsed by the BO hanging heavily in the stale gym air, I asked a question:
“When the hell do we get swords?”
Actually I didn’t “ask” this question as much as yell it. I yelled it with all of my might. I yelled it so loud 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?”
Mr. Fencing Coach was unperturbed. He stated that the things I called “swords” are actually “foils.” Then he told me to keep running.
Dad saw this all 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 figured I’d get in trouble. I thought Dad would bring up my outburst on the car ride home, but he didn’t.
He did bring it up with Mom, but only 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 and fell asleep fretting about what was going to happen next. 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. Somehow 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.
What a stupid question. 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. Bugs, Daffy, Sylvester, Tweety, Foghorn Leghorn, Yosemite Sam… The list goes on and on. Mel Blanc was also on the Jack Benny radio show. I often listened to cassettes of Jack Benny late at night when I was supposed to be sleeping.
“Well,” Dad said, trying to act 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 silly 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 officially over. I was free to return to the backyard and assault trees with hammers.
My sporting life was a difficult period for me, but it wasn’t in vain, really. For one thing, I got to see Mel Blanc. More importantly, I think my sweaty, angry adventures 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 and understand each other.
Now I’m the 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.
And 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 similiar 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.