Today, November 22, 2013, is Jack and Dee’s 61st anniversary. Fifty years ago, Dee was seven months pregnant with my sister Teresa. It was a Friday afternoon in Mrs. Aulisio’s fifth grade class, on the church side of the school, next to the side entrance. Our afternoon was interrupted by a distraught Sister who interrupted to tell us to immediately begin the rosary. We stood as a class. I was second row from the wall, opposite the windows, second desk from the front.
I remember thinking afterwards that the president died because I, a few weeks before my tenth birthday, reached up and unbuttoned my top button and loosened my tie. After all, we prayed from the moment we heard until the end of the school day. Probably no more than an hour, but we knew our prayers weren’t answered when Mrs. Aulisio’s nephew Joe, a sixth grader, ran past the window on the way to his patrol post shouting, “President Kennedy’s dead!” Catholic guilt is a strong potion.
It’s hard to say just when things changed in America. But change they did. From that endless weekend of black-and-white, 24/7 images first from Dallas, and then from Washington, DC, by the end of the twentieth century, says Robert D. Putnam, author of the bestselling book “Bowling Alone,” “Americans…were watching more TV, watching it more habitually, more pervasively, and more often alone, and watching more programs that were associated specifically with civic disengagement.” Unlike that fateful long weekend, today among children 8-18, less than five percent of their TV-watching is done with their parents.
September 11, 2001, is called “The day that never ends.” For those old enough to recall, November 22, 1963, was our September 11, like our parents’ Pearl Harbor-- the day you knew where you were. It was also the end of Camelot. That term is overwrought. Unquestionably there were problems at the start of the 1960s. But perhaps Kennedy’s assassination prepared us in some ways for the explosions that marked the end of the decade.
We did indeed put a man on the moon, in July of 1969, as Kennedy himself had challenged us to do. In an age before computers, cell phones, and total quality management, it is almost inconceivable that we could do that, but not do Obamacare.
We also reeled at the death of Martin Luther King, Jack’s brother Bobby, the Manson Family, Chappaquiddick, My Lai, and the Democratic Convention-turned-to-pandemonium in Chicago.
In 1964, the percentage of Americans who agreed with the statement, “most people can be trusted,” was 77 percent. By 2005, the number had plummeted to 45 percent. In 1965, 36 percent of Americans—more than one in three-- said they’d “like to see their children go into politics as a life’s work.” Today’s under-thirties pay less attention to the news and know less about current events than their elders do today or than people their own age did three decades ago. Oddly, the numbers are worse for college graduates.
But here we are. Jack and Dee are still going strong, if a little more slowly, and we are still doing the best we can. Their children, now eight, still marry and have babies and stay in touch, and…watch their children marry.
On a brilliant day in 1963, the man with the ready, brilliant smile waved his last, and a nation stared in shock, at one another, at the horror, and at the incredible fragility of what we possess. Kennedy concluded his “Moon” speech by saying, “It is heartening to know, as I journey abroad, that our country is united in its commitment to freedom and is ready to do its duty.”
Does the flame still burn? Happy Anniversary, Jack and Dee!
This past weekend closed out the season for two sports teams I’ve been following. One, the Freedom Stars 11-and-under Fall Baseball team, the other the South Carroll High School Boys Soccer team. Fall baseball has no playoffs, so it was the last regularly scheduled game, against the number-one team. South Carroll competed in the Maryland state 2A semifinals.
A typical Saturday morning, I divided time between two baseball games—my older son plays too—and the snack bar, so I only saw the last half-inning of Collin’s game. Oddly, he was pitching. He loves to, even though it is an exercise in humility, and it was only his second time this year.
My nephew Zach Shattuck, the four-foot, six-inch high school senior with the towering heart, was playing possibly his last game of his last season. Of course that has often been said before. His storied soccer career began when he was barely out of pull-ups. It was bracing, to say the least, in the Belair High School stands as Zach’s team took on the vaunted Fallston High School Cougars in a game under the lights.
Amazingly, Collin’s team was up by six runs, so it seemed a safe bet to let him pitch out the last inning. The worst that could happen would be a six-run inning by their opponents that would close out the game, and the season, in a tie due to the mercy rule.
The South Carroll /Fallston soccer match ended in regulation in a 1-1 tie. The first ten-minute overtime ended still tied. To the hoarse cheers of the freezing fans, the second overtime got underway. If a score didn’t end the game, Zach's breathtaking match would come down to penalty strokes. Whatever that means.
In the bright, windy morning, red-cheeked moms and dads cheered and prayed for a quick ending as siblings huddled under blankets with their electronics. The outs, and the runs, piled up. Through it all, Collin bore down, chin set, determined, nodding at the endless encouragement from the coaching staff, and aiming for the plate. I emphasize aiming.
With barely two minutes remaining in the second overtime, Zach, in his usual pesky manner, was buzzing the Fallston players. Once it looked like he was elbowed to the ground. Just moments later, with a Fallston player down well away from the play, it appeared Zach was knocked down again. The ref called time.
Coach John Bittorie strolled to the mound with two outs and the Stars up by two, and chatted briefly with Collin. I waited for the inevitable hand to be raised, palm up, but instead, a steady coach’s hand patted Collin’s back, and Coach returned to his upturned five-gallon throne. Collin nodded at the catcher and started his windup.
When play resumed on the field, incredibly, the ref lined up Fallston for a free kick. Whatever that is. Stunned fans and South Carroll players reacted slowly, trying to process the sequence. Seconds later, the Fallston stands and sidelines exploded at a fantastic play off the free kick into the right side of the goal. A shocked South Carroll contingent stepped down wearily from the stands as their stunned warriors shuffled across the field to accept comfort and sad congratulations on a magnificent season.
When the dust settled, a single shot to the outfield had cleared two runners across the plate, and my son watched helpless as the players rounded the bases. Coach John had to remind the Stars that a seven-run inning wasn’t allowed. Final score, 16-16.
I don’t know how the South Carroll team processed the ending to their wonderful run this year. I did ask Coach John in an email what made him decide to leave my son on the mound, even though I was pretty sure I already knew the answer: “The score wasn't as much a factor because I like to give all kids a chance to play in a position they might not otherwise get a chance to play…I hope to put some desire in each kid's heart to come back and keep playing baseball.”
As for Zach and the South Carroll Cavaliers boys soccer team, thanks for a great season, and for the memory of your iconic circle-up. To the Fallston Cougars, I hope you win it all. To the refs, I would never want your job. And for all those who through countless anonymous Saturdays teach our kids that it really is how you play the game, nothing in life is more important than what you do. In case I forget to mention it as often as I should.
A six-year old local girl was pulled from a wrecked jeep Monday night here in Carroll County, MD. She died. This morning, National Public Radio airs a story on how nonbelievers cope with death
. It's funny how things seem to connect. I've told some close friends how I will remember 2012 as a year of untimely deaths. Wonderful celebrations were part of the year, but even these occurred in the shadow of lingering illness. I am not sure what the definition of untimely death even is. Maybe all are. Strangely, my children seem to feel none of the discord I feel about the people who've passed, and the unfairness of it all. I am surprised and touched, and have been ever since the two older ones lay on the floor of the funeral home with paper and crayons, along with their cousins, and drew pictures and notes that they then inserted in Great Grandma's coffin for her next great journey. We expected my Aunt Mary to die this summer, from a maddening, teasing illness, and we had a wonderful visit on one of her good days, a few weeks before her death. But the call we got a week or so after the visit was for Aunt Marcia - Cookie to family - a woman radiant and glowing, full of energy and a regu
lar at the gym. After another long and lingering illness, a friend Judy finally succumbed, surrounded by family and friends. Our wrestling coach's five-year old son, Nate, died over the Labor Weekend, and an entire county was plunged into mouth-covering shock. Nate is remembered in ways that will touch the community - and all who know the family - for a long, long time. My college friend Aaron - a consummate athlete and moment-seizer, passed unexpectedly in November.
On my birthday, December 9, a beautiful young woman, daughter of my cousin Charlie, is killed in a senseless accident, her fiance driving, life stretching ahead in open-armed welcome, then dissolving in a cold western Maryland instant. . A few days later, just in time for Christmas, Newtown. I guess I had hoped God would decide enough is enough, and 2013 would be a year of weddings and babies. Then yesterday, I hear about the little girl who died, strapped in the back seat, in an improperly secured car seat. I am not at all comfortable about my children's' lack of exposure to religion. I try to weigh how much my own formative years spent in the care of the sisters affected me, and whether on balance I consider that positive or negative. There are few things, after lo this many years, I know for sure.In listening to those in the NPR piece with no God describe how they get through tragedy, I am struck by a woman interviewed. "
I was searching frantically for anything that would help me get through this," Fiore recalls. "But everything I found had to do with God: putting your faith in God, believing that God had some sort of plan. I found nothing
to help me."I can appreciate the consistency shown here in being an atheist. If you don't believe in God, that applies to moments of tragedy too. But I don't hesitate to explain to my kids that Mary is now with Jimmy and Dawn, and Cookie is now with Ryan. I explain it that way because I have to believe it. I am not cut out for atheism. When I'm swimming in the ocean I don't think about sharks. When I am camping alone I don't mull over the last Stephen King book I read. And when I am truly open to all that life is, including what a dangerous and mindless world it can be sometimes, I don't toy with the notion of nothing beyond, as well as here, to aid the journey. Anyone due soon? Any marriages on the horizon? It's time.
In the highlight film for the "Great Moments in Parenting" that my grandchildren will show at my hundredth birthday, this past Friday would be pure cutting-room floor stuff. There is a lot to recommend the life of a writer. Like many fortunate enough to work from home, I have lots of discretion when allocating my time. My youngest is home two days a week, and I work hard to set the business-stuff aside so he and I can have some quality time. Translation: he is not watching endless clips of Barney, Yo Gabba Gabba, and Blue's Clues. But it doesn't always work out. Friday, as I held him close on the couch, listening to his "I want mommy" chant, repeated like a metronome for minutes on end, I considered how I could have handled things differently. He'd asked for hot chocolate, because one of the characters on Oswald was eating marshmellows. No biggie. I brew it up, he drops in approximately three hundred miniatures, and we are back in the living room. I settle back down to weave the words that will move nations, and suddenly he squalls, an upturned hot chocolate mug gleaming its contents all over his leather stuffed chair. I lifted him clear of the mess and I yelled. I was careful not to use words that would have earned my kids a soap-gargle. But as he informed me through gulps and sobs, "You hurt my feelings." These are harsh words to absorb from a three
-year old. We sat down holding each other, as is our custom when things go askew.
In a new book by Laurence Gonzalez, Surviving Survival: The Art and Science of Resiliency
, he explains that an area of the brain known as the anterior cingulate cortex interprets pain, including social pain, such as grieving. It also sends signals of pleasure from skin-to-skin contact. Our first response to emotional pain is to put out the fire with skin-to-skin contact. When really bad things happen, we hug one another. In early fall, I heard that a family we knew here in the county had lost their five-year old in a drowning accident. Couldn't get the image out of my mind for weeks, and wondered what to say when I ran into the dad. By chance, at a McDonald's fundraiser for a new playground at his son's school, I caught his eye across the room, and walked over, my mind racing. He held out his arms and we hugged. And I realized that THAT'S what you say, when words won't do.
This Sunday past, I joined with family and friends, decked in burgundy and gold, to watch a football playoff game. As an apparent rout began to unravel, I watched my home team Washington Redskins hand back over a 14-point first quarter lead. But I, along with 80,000 fans in the stadium and millions of TV viewers, also watched a drama of a different kind unfold.
What Robert Griffin III has done for the city of Washington, and for the sport of NFL football, is impossible to quantify. He is Moses, and Churchill, and Washington in the dark snowy woods of Delaware. He is the Messiah, smiling as he calls us to follow him to the Promised Land. He can be forgiven for operating outside the normal Coach/Player relationship. He decides, for example, when he should play.
Sunday, I watched our Messiah succumb to the limits of the human physique. Or in his case, an Adonis-like physique. Griffin’s leg was mangled in the December 9 matchup of our Parkway rivals the Baltimore Ravens. The Redskins had just started a win streak that led straight to Sunday’s game in Washington. In the Ravens game, Griffin tied us up in regulation, and the win was assured by his backup, Kirk Cousins, a very talented quarterback in his own right.
Griffin in Sunday’s game was injured late in the first quarter, with Washington holding a dazzling 14-0 lead. The drama began. In one sense, it was a race against the clock. Just the week before, the network commentator had lauded Griffin as the one guy on the team that everyone, including the most seasoned veterans, point to as the team leader. Could he hold onto the lead he’d created, and survive three more quarters of smashmouth NFL football?
As the game progressed, I didn’t know whether to cover my kids’ eyes or try to call someone.
“Hi, Redskins management? This is fair-weather fan Jack. Look, if you’re doing this for me – sacrificing this 22-year old for the sake of one more weekend game? Don’t.”
I, along with the rest of the planet, wondered when the obviously distressed Griffin would limp to the sidelines and Cousins, in his unblemished jersey, would trot out to put the game on ice. Cousins finally did appear, with about five and a half minutes left, to try to lead his shell-shocked team back into a game that went horribly wrong in a slow-motion avalanche. It was too late. But not by several minutes, or even quarters.
It was too late to pull the curtain back in place. I realized something about myself in the post-parenting age. The question should never have been, “Why don’t they pull Griffin since we have a great back-up in Cousins?” What my kids should have heard me ask is, “Why don’t they pull Griffin because the boy is hurt?”
When a player can’t play and a coach can’t coach, I sympathize. I still don’t feel comfortable leaving it up to my son whether to play football or not next year. In this post-parenting world, I feel like I’m supposed to let him decide. That’s an easy out, because I don’t know the right thing to do. I love football. It was good to me. But I can’t get the image out of my head of my son, immobilized and scared.
Back in the Parenting Age, it was different somehow. We played football from September to December, every day, no cleats, no mouthguards, no helmets or uniforms. The hedges were a touchdown, sidewalk out-of-bounds. We played tackle – two-hand touch for the little kids. We made our own rules, learned to fall and get up, and worked out differences. And we emulated our heroes. Mine was Pat Fischer.
Washington has had some great coaches. Maybe Mike Shanahan is one of them. I can sympathize with a man in his position. There has seldom been an instant-production machine like Robert Griffin III. The normal rules simply don’t apply. What coach in any sport at any level doesn’t dream of a kid whose passion is to carry the team on his shoulders? He embodies former Coach Vince Lombardi’s exhortation: “Life’s battles don’t always go to the stronger or faster man. But sooner or later the man who wins is the man who thinks he can.” Of course, one still has to coach such a phenom.
On a Saturday morning in January 1988, another Redskins coach, Joe Gibbs, addressed a prayer breakfast in San Diego. My brother Mike, a Navy man at the time stationed in San Diego, was so moved by what he heard that morning he called to tell me about it. Three months before the breakfast, Gibbs had committed to speak, not knowing of course that his team would be competing in the Super Bowl the following day.
Joe slept on a cot in his office during football season. One day, his wife called to let him know one of his sons was in trouble in school. He exploded. “Don’t you know I have a playoff game coming up?”
Later he called his wife back, made it clear to her that what she did was a lot more important than football, and he came home.
Instead of talking football, he talked about family and about what really matters. “It’s important to remember that we play a game. It’s not life. Family, and honesty, and worship, and relationships. Those are what’s important.” He slept on a cot in his office.
There was a touching, very human moment in Sunday’s 24-14 Redskins loss to a talented Seattle team. As Griffin left the field for what may be the final time in months, the Seattle players applauded him. I don’t know if that’s a common practice in the Pros - to salute the enemy. I seldom see games in person, and networks have a habit of cutting away during injuries.
But they clap at my sons’ football games, and I like the reminder that football is a dress-up game between two costumed teams. Much like make-believe games kids play, but with wheelbarrows of cash involved. Football has not a whit to do with life, except as a diversion. In the instances where it can shape character, I’d like my kids to know that it’s not win at all costs, it’s have fun, try not to get hurt, and shake hands at the end of the game.
Good luck, RG. Get well soon.