This Father’s Day has an extra special meaning for me. It was 40 years ago that I left home for good, and I am thinking about my dad more than usual this week.
He died 13 years after I last lived with him, and I never said a proper goodbye. He succumbed to heart failure in the Bahamas while on vacation with my mother. Had he been stricken in the U.S., faster and better medical care might have saved or prolonged his life.
So I did not have any “last days” or weeks or months with my dad to thank him for characteristics that I now know he gave me: a quick wit and sense of humor, good salesmanship and the support he provided while other aspects of his life were falling apart. “Don’t go to strangers,” was his regular advice.
Despite a gambling problem that caused strain in his marriage and with the family, my dad never missed one of my little league, junior high or high school football and baseball games. At some point, I noticed him sitting off to the side in the folding beach chair he carried in his station wagon.
It was not uncommon for us to be playing catch in the backyard on a spring or summer Sunday morning, when he said, “You want to go to the ball game?” So we hopped in his car and drove into Boston, where tickets to old Fenway Park were cheap and easy to get because the Red Sox were pretty bad in those days.
We were there for Ted Williams’ last home game and part of the small crowd that saw Williams hit a home run in his final Major League at-bat. Often at odds with the media and fans, Williams doffed his cap as he crossed home plate and entered retirement when the season ended that day.
I don’t ever remember hugging my dad or telling him I loved him. That was long before the touchy-feely era of father-son relationships. But I felt his love from the attention he paid me. He liked taking me along on his salesman routes during school vacations, and on other days he came home with stories from being “on the road”.
One evening he said he had eaten his first “square hamburger” for lunch at a new restaurant named Wendy’s. Ever since I was old enough to pick my place, Wendy’s has been my favorite fast-food joint.
He had served in the Army and although he never went overseas, he always pointed out the hole in his stomach that he called a “shrapnel wound.” Later, I learned it was where they took out his appendix after he got out of the service. That was his “war story.”
His addiction was for the horses, and some years he lost most of the money he had made as a successful salesman. There were nights when he didn’t come home, and my mother covered for him by saying he was up in Maine or Vermont calling on customers. I eventually learned he was too ashamed to show his face.
We lived through one incident that, years later, seemed like an episode from the Soprano’s. I came home from school on Thursday and my mother was upstairs packing my suitcase. She said we were going to Florida that night, when the trip wasn’t supposed to be until school vacation the next week.
Off we went, my brother and me sitting in the back seat, and we traveled the old Route 1 and the parts of Interstate 95 that were finished until arriving in Miami two days later. My father was gone every day that week, supposedly calling on customers. But my brother and I knew his territory was New England.
It turned out he was at Hialeah race track, and he had a good week. He won enough to pay off the loan sharks who were pressuring him, which is why we skipped town a few days early. He was in a much better mood on the drive home. That story came out after he died, when we were old enough to hear it from my mother and safe from Tony Soprano’s hit men.
Later in life, my father joined Gamblers Anonymous and actually got his addiction under control. Part of his recovery was taking my mother along to the race track under the agreement that they had a limit to bet and had to leave when ten bucks were gone. The last big fight I heard of them having was because my mother wanted to go back to the window for one more race, and he would not let her.
Children of alcoholics, gamblers and other addictions usually go one way or the other. They follow the imprinting they received from their parents or abstain completely. For me, I placed a few bets on pro sports as a young man and played in a couple of college poker games. I don’t think I ever won a single wager or hand. Since then, I have had zero interest in gambling, except for a few bucks on the golf course each weekend.
That did change last November when I was in Las Vegas, where gambling is legal at the sports books of almost every big hotel and casino. Thinking I knew something about college basketball, I got on a roll and won four straight bets, three times for teams to cover the point spread and once for an upset.
Then I got greedy and went back for one more round of bets. I doubled down on a team I was sure would cover and sat there and watched on the banks of TVs as it played like it had bet on the other team! I lost everything I had won, except for cab fare to the airport.
On that ride, I thought of my dad and we had a private laugh together. In his own way, he taught me not to do what he did. And although we never got to say a proper goodbye, I have plenty of poignant memories from life with a good father.