Writer / Journalist / Teacher

The Dad Chronicles, Vol. 1

My dad and me, 1989. 

"I'll bet you'll like this song," I was telling my dad last night. "It's --"

"--If it's rock, I don't," he finished for me, anticipating this game I play with him. Over the years, he has shot down attempts at finding connections over music with The Rolling Stones (too loud), Led Zeppelin (are you kidding me?) and a score of others. Maybe it's the devil in me, but I've gotten to where I enjoy the challenge. Anyway, I had a surprise for him this time. A super-smooth ballad that channels a working man's desperation, called Johnny 99. 

But he surprised me first. He added: "Maybe if it's Bruce, then that's different."

Seriously? First off, that was who I had queued up. Johnny 99 off of Nebraska is a great song I only discovered a few months ago. The whole album is great.  

Secondly, I hadn't even been sure he knew who Springsteen was, or could recognize his music.

"You know he used to play guitar and sing with another fella," Dad continued. "Did you know that? What's his name? Oh, the one that died a few years ago with the voice."

I didn't know, but a moment later, he found the name and the memory he was searching for: Roy Orbison. "I used to see them perform together. They would come out on stage together. It was on television live a couple times."

Well knock me over. Here's Dad sitting in the living room in the 1980s watching two Rock and Roll luminaries, while my teenage self had been convinced ... of what, really? Well, certainly that he wasn't listening to cool music. 

I've been loving these little surprises this week, my first of a few spent with dad this holiday season. He's recovering (nicely) from knee replacement surgery and a few other health scares, and I've been ferrying him around to dinner and doctors and the like. It's not exactly exciting, but it ain't bad either. 

Take for instance the topic of baseball. It came up somehow or another and Dad said, "I played with some good players. I played on a Louisville league team that had some greats."

There was a guy at first base that went on to play in the majors, he said, a young kid in his late teens or early 20s. At second was "a bonus baby". That, it turns out, was a guy who was paid a bonus by a pro team. Back then, he said, if the bonus was over a certain amount -- in his case, the guy had been paid $30,000 -- then the major league team had to keep you on the roster for two full years. This guy, I don't remember his name, but Dad did, was signed with Cleveland and played for them for two years, though he only got to take the field occasionally. 

"I didn't really fit in with those guys," Dad said. "I was in my 30s and most of them were in their early 20s. They weren't guys I hung out with after work." He was busy raising a family, having had two boys and a girl by then and becoming increasingly active in his labor union, which he would lead as president three different times. 

Well, you must have been pretty good to play with then, I added. No, they were much better, he said. I played outfield. Well, why did you join their team then, if you weren't any good and weren't part of their crowd? 

"Well, they recruited me to play with them," he added. 

I think that sums up my dad pretty well. Too modest by half. He was nearing 36, a busy dad and union leader. And yet a team led by two college-age guys on their way to the majors recruits him to play fast-pitch baseball -- and yet the way he remembers it, he wasn't part of the in-crowd on the team.

The end of the year banquet had been a big deal, he recalled. They ended up at the Seelbach and the keynote speaker was a star from that year's World Series, or maybe All-Star game. (Now it's my memory that is fading.)

So I asked him how long he kept playing. "Not much longer," he said. "I threw my arm out."

How? "It was a damn foolish thing to do," he said. "I didn't know anything about pitching. Didn't know how. But the pitcher didn't show up, so I pitched the game."

How did it feel to be on the mound, with the game in your control, I asked. "Pretty good, actually."

You do any good? Since, you know, you didn't know how to pitch and all.

"Oh yeah," he said, with a smile. "I knew how to throw the ball hard and I threw strikes. But like I said it was foolish. That was on a Sunday and by the next Saturday, I couldn't hardly raise my arm. It never was the same after that."

I don't know. If you have to go out, might as well go out throwing strikes. I don't know many 36 year olds these days who are throwing fastballs on a team with major leaguers. And if they are, they probably aren't going to remember the experience as a failure.

Every one thinks of their dad as an All-Star. I think I have a better claim than most, though. 

It's not just baseball, either. My father grew up in the Depression, survived the Great Flood, the death of his own father while a toddler, the projects. He played ball at Manual and took shop and enrolled in U of L, only to wash out when a kid and two jobs and a wife proved more than he could handle with school. 

He would spend 48 years as a member of the Graphics Communicators international Union, and began as a floor boy at $40 a week. 

"We had to contribute, I think it was $.50 a week, to the union in those days, even though as floor boys we weren't included in the union contract," he recalled. 

Did that seem unfair to you at the time? "No, it didn't," he said. "I knew what the journeymen made and it seemed like such an unbelievable sum that I was content to be on track to get there."

The first step, though was to get an apprenticeship. "I realized I was doing exactly the same work that many of the journeymen were doing," he said. "So I found out who the union executive was at the plant and went to see him. I told him, 'I'm dong the same work as a journeyman, I want to be an apprentice.' He told me, 'We can get a porter to do the work you're doing.'

"Well, that burned my ass up. But I kept at it. I had started in February or so, and by November I was apprentice. In fact, they gave an apprenticeship not just to me, but to the other floor boy who had started with me. We both moved up."

The promotion meant more money -- and more. "I had decided that I needed $50 a week to survive if I got married," he said. "And once I was apprentice, I made $54 a week. I figured that meant I could afford to get married and so I did. It was enough, but just barely."

They paid $50 a month rent for three rooms and a bathroom in an converted attic. I think he said it was on 22nd Street, but I'll have to check that. "The tub under the slanted part of the roof, and I never could stand up in that shower," he recalled. 

He spent, as everyone had to, six full years as an apprentice before earning journeyman's wages. By the time he graduated to journeyman, the wages were probably $150 a week or more. A fantastic sum, in those days.

Not many of us these days, besides doctors and lawyers maybe, agree to sign on for a job that will require a six year apprenticeship. Or maybe we all do, just in different ways. 

I do know that the career he chose, a blue-collar world of time cards and heavy lifting. Of mean bosses and union bosses alike, gave him the chance to give five kids a good life. 

And 83, he's showing me each day that he still has the capacity to surprise, and to teach. I looked up that performance he recalled, and I don't know if this is the same one or not. But I like to think it is.