The White Owl
Words from my 40th birthday
(Oslo, Norway on way to Copenhagen)
Well, here I am, 40 years on this planet.
My first waking thought, is that 15 years from the age I now find myself being as of this morning, the man who brought me into this world came down with the cancer. Dying a few months later, he wondered why it could it be so unfair. I remember few things about that time. This is odd to me, because I was no child, though 19 is no age to lose a dad. Yet somehow, the most vividly traumatic moment of my life is tucked away in a place I can't ever seem to fully unlock. Perhaps that's for the better. Who's to tell such things?
Anyway (I love this word), 15 years is not a long time from where I now stand. Actually, it's short enough to envision myself there now, and to imagine what it must've felt like for my father to know that at 55 he was going to die soon…well, I can't half imagine what was going through his head.
I know this much. He wasn't happy about it. This is an obvious understatement. Who's "happy" about coming to terms with their mortality? But I mean this is an odder sense. Looking back, I hate that I realize now, how little I got to know my father. This is partly due to my young ignorance and part due to his italian machismo. Either way, it stinks. So here I am, typing away, and I can't really say what he felt for certain. I know he was scared. Scared enough that it scared me to see him so scared. I never saw that in my father. Saw him cry a few tears…once…when he thought his semi-estranged youngest son David was lost on Mt. Greylock during the annual Ramble climb up the mountain that nearly the whole town participated in. Emotionally, that was about it. My father had a hard time communicating his emotions to me, his eldest son. That's ok I guess. There are a litany of things I am thankful to him for, a list that grows longer with every passing year. And in many ways I thank him for what I feel are my emotional "survival skills." Trust me when I say that is a gift that keeps on giving.
The fifty-five of my father is not the fifty-five I envision for myself. At fifty-five, my father seemed, old. I guess it's always that way, much in the way a twenty-one year old likely would look to me as, well, old. But I think in my dad's case, he felt old.
I don't feel old.
I want to know what my dad liked. I know what he was like, but not what he liked. In regards to women, he seemed noncommittal. I'd scoff at this, but a forty-year old who's never been married himself holds not such a powerful position in which to pass judgement. My mother and he divorced when I was five. Were it not for me, my brother, and my sister, I could nary think of a reason they married in the first place. But yet here I sit. Born into this world. I think. I am. So I thank them. I know, or at least strongly am of the opinion, that he loved my mom as much as he was capable of loving a woman. As much as he was capable in giving of himself, he did to her. I'd go so far as to say he quite literally could not understand why that wasn't enough for her. Like I said, two peas form a different pod.
I know that my dad owned a super-cool bar, and didn't drink. This always struck me as odd, but I look back at that as awesome. He'd occasionally, and I mean occasionally, pop open a Budweiser that he stored in our basement. Those dusty bottles must have lasted years down there. I know my dad loved to work. This is all he did. Again, who am I to sit in judgement of this since I now find myself the exact. same. way. (If anyone ever reads this, please take note that I have paused about 10 minutes here to reflect on that last sentence I just wrote.) The freight train still ran through Adams back then. How cool was it that this is how my dad received his shipments of beer kegs? The train! Imagine a 10 year old kid standing by the tracks, waiting for the train to rumble down the tracks and slowly come to a hard staccato stop in format of me. Me! At my dad's place. The freight car would open and out would roll to silver barrels to the stations' back door. My dad's beer. Man, that was so cool. I'd sit and wait to wave to the man in the back of the caboose. That was a thing back then. Waving to the man at the back of the caboose. Come to think of it, what was he always doing there anyway? What job was that? Was he happy? I miss that.
There's a lot of dancing around what I am trying to say here for the simple reason that I don't know what it is I am trying to say. This is simply a long-overdue journal entry that simply started as a way for me to note that on my 40th birthday I was on tour in Europe on the way from Oslo to Copenhagen. Except, those were't the words that came out. For pretty much the last 10 years or so I have exhausted myself telling people that "age doesn't matter to me." Should the day pass that I turn 40, it will have no more meaning that turning 30…or maybe even 20 for that matter. For "I am not an ageist!" Whatever that means. In most regards, I still believe all these things, but going to sleep last night was not an easy task. I wasn't depressed or sad or scared or drunk even. The best I can describe it, was that I felt like a radio receiver whose dial couldn't locate and tune in any one station. My mind was frantically scanning the dial. Cutting in and out of memories and thoughts and ideas. When I had finally fallen asleep, I awoke an hour or so later panting heavily, fighting for breath. It was no nightmare I was having, nor some wild dream chase. It was just that in my head, I couldn't catch my breath. My memories were all fighting for their own individual scrap of attention and consequently, they would get none.
So here's what I did. I put on The Joshua Tree.
I put on U2's The Joshua Tree, and though it took 5 or maybe 6 songs, I finally drifted off. Because I did remember that when I was in high school, when I was untainted by the "music biz", I loved loved loved listening to albums. Over and over. The Joshua Tree was one of them. It was one of those records that I analyzed for every last note. Every snare hit, kick drum pattern, vocal reverb, acoustic strum, instrument panning, tonal mix, and every last word. I ate it up. This was not the only record of course. But I was feeling, lying there at 3am, that maybe Duran Duran's "Rio" wouldn't quite send me off to dreamland in quite the same way…though that record was no less analyzed by my pre-pubescent ears either! But what putting on The Joshua Tree did for me, was stabilize the frequencies and memories buzzing around in my head that were keeping me awake. Putting on that record allowed me to instinctively hone in on, say, the high-hat pattern of "Bullet The Blue Sky" or the infinite guitar chime of "With or Without You." Ahhh, sleep.
But I'm up again, on the bus to Copenhagen, happy and lucky to be alive. I mean this.
What I do not like is to be away from the people that matter most to me right now. That stings a bit. Of course, this goes against my theory that birthdays are no big deal. That, more specifically, turning 40 is no. big. deal. But to say those words now feels in some way a small slight to the years my father put in doing what he did absolutely best in his time on the planet, and that was to be my dad. He did that for me better than anyone else. That was his deal. This is what he loved more than anything. The fact that he showed it in ways that were often contrary to how I may have preferred as a teenage know-it-all, are beside the point. Here's something I remember he said to me just before he passed, and he said little because he was mostly in agonizing pain his final months. "Just remember that everything I did, I did for you kids. You're all I lived for."
And that was that.
You see, us. me. That was my dad's "thing." Much in the same way that music is my "thing." It's what kept him grounded, focused, alive. We should all hope for such a thing. I cannot tell you how many times a week I count my blessing that I have music in my life. More importantly, a passion for it. I would be lying if I didn't tell you about all it's constant heartache, passionless dismissals, repetitive disappointments. But so be it. If I didn't have it, I would have no idea where the hell I would be. No. damn. idea. Now, I could sit around and wonder if I should be making more money, should be married, should have kids, should be more static in my traveling ways. There are way too many "should I's" to count. But for me, and this is just for me mind you (fill in your own life passion here), for me I wake up with a song in my head almost every day. I have likely half-written no less that 5000 songs in my life. Actually, that thought kind of depresses me. But but but, to be so lucky to wake up almost every living day of my life with something that makes me pop out of bed to grab my guitar or notebook or camera…well, there could be worse things. So in that, count me successful.
A good and dear friend of mine, nameless and 5 years my junior, is going through his midlife crisis now. Until now, music has meant the same to him as likely me, but he feels music hasn't been kind to him. He doesn't mean this in a materialistic way. Just that the return hasn't justified the means, and that if he doesn't get off the train right now, he may never come to terms with that. I feel for him a ton. This can be a dark place to be, and if I woke up this morning, turning 40, and thought "what have I been wasting my life on?", I can't imagine the darkness that may have enshrouded me. Again, this is why I am thankful every day for the mere existence of clarity or purpose in my life. Every day. Confident am I that my friend is on the right course…for him. He needs to do this. To make this change. And to do it now. But this is why I claim to not be an ageist. You don't have to turn 40, or 30, or 50, or 60, or 20 to start questioning "your purpose." I am sure there are some 9 and a half year olds right now bummed they are turning 10 years OLD. For me, I am on a bus driven by not me, headed towards a town where no one knows me and is looking forward to hearing me perform songs. My songs. There is no way to place a value on this.
Day in and day out my father headed off to his converted train station bar, serving tap pours and bottled Bud to the locals. I remember Lefty, Bear, Greeny. They became mythological characters in my childhood upbringing. Coming home from Sunday school and church, we would walk to my dad's bar for a ride home. There Bear and Lefty always sat on their bar stools, 11am be damned. I can't begin to remember who the hell they really were, but I love them now. Love them. Perhaps in some way I resented the amount of time my father spent working and away from us. With Lefty and Bear. But there it stood, his thing. This is what made sense to him. So I'll accept this now in another light, and that is what I'll take away from my "big" four-oh. Simply, a better understanding.
Except for one thing.
The White Owl.
My birthday wish. And here it is. My "big" 40th birthday wish is to alter…errr…change slightly, one childhood memory. That's it. I've lived long enough I think to have earned that. I don't need any wrapped gift or money, just this one small edit to my biography. So here we go.
I am 12 years old. My final year in Little League, and baseball is my passion. I live and breathe baseball. I, Donald Joseph DiLego Jr. WILL BE a professional baseball player. Or so I thought at the time. Anyway (still my fave) I grew up in a small town in The Berkshires called Adams. I cannot think of a single thing I would change from that fact. Shocked I would not be if no less than Norman Rockwell himself were to have claimed the childhood comings and goings of Adams were his true muse. Some do not enjoy their childhood or place of it, I am not one of them. I ate it up. No regrets. Ok, back to Little League. I am in my final year of my mandatory 4 year limit, and I, Don DILego - future professional ball player - have never hit a home run. Oh the other-worldy joy that would bring! Besides, my best friend Paul at the time had what seemed likes hundreds of them…per game.!
Four games left to go.
Now, I told you of my father's work schedule. Coming from a small town such as I, and perhaps you, parents would flock to the games to root their kids on. This was a fact. My dad did not. That was also a fact. It took me a long long time to come to terms with that - and I think I still have performance anxiety because of it. But he was always busy doing what he did, which was to make our lives in picturesque Adams as comfortable as they were. Could he have squeezed in the occasional game in here or there? Definitely. But such was the deal. All through Little League I would watch Paul's parents and everyone else's come to the games, but no Donald Sr. Over the years, I just began to accept this and not really let it bother me too much. Sort of.
Game 17. I believe our games started around 6pm, a lovely time on a sunny Berkshire summer day. Though I usually played shortstop, I somehow remember playing 2nd base on this day. I also remember that we were the home team that game. The home team Lions. Purple and maroon uniforms. They weren't as cool as the yellow and black Elks uniforms, but not bad. And either were we that year. In fact, though the Elks usually won year in and year out, this year (my last) we challenged them with a great second half. The upstart Lions. Ok, so listen. We run into the dugout after the visitor half of the first inning. I'm excited. I used to bat 2nd in the lineup then, as I would always do during by baseball "career." I walk out to the on-deck circle, and leaning against the 3 foot chain link fence, a White Owl cigar hanging from the center of his mouth, is my father. At game number 17. Why that day, I don't know. But there he was, and not in the stands mind you. Right there. Next to the batter's box. I cracked a spontaneous half-smile, but then immediately became petrified. You see, I could perform in from of other kid's parents. Dive for the ball. Run hard on a liner to right. But I hadn't tested my nerves out in front of my own. And my dad was tough. A classic rough-edged full blood conservative Italian father. "No son of mine is going to play that druggy rock and roll music." But that's for another time. On a side note - I will say that he had one of the greatest and craziest nickname/insults he would yell when he was beyond agree with me. He'd yell "Shithead!!!!" to my dopey-eyed face, "You're a bathtub diving long-haired wild indian!!!" Then, remnants of the corn on the cob he ate 4 days ago would come flying out of his teeth. Like he had installed some magical corn-saving storage unit in his teeth for just such occasions. It was all I could do to hold back the laughter, and most times I didn't manage even that. Anyway, I still don't know what "bathtub diving'" really means, though I suspect it means I somehow plain lost my mind in a crazy bathtub-diving accident, should there exist one.
Back to the game, and I'm in the batter's box, and my knees are shaking. It's all I can do to concentrate on the pitcher, but I'm not doing a very good job of that to say the least. I swing meekly and I either…
A) ground out like a tee-baller to the pitcher, or more likely,
B) strike out swinging
Because it's my birthday, let's just go with "A" for now. The next inning in the field went no better. Grounder through my legs. Error, second base. My nerves were getting the best of me, and in the wise old tradition of "there's no crying in baseball," I said word zero to anyone about this. In fact, I doubt most of my teammates even knew what my father looked like! He wasn't exactly the school-play going kind of dad. So here I've gone and struck out and made an easy error, all in the last inning and all in front of my cigar-smoking-never-seen-me-play-ball dad. I can't believe it. Actually, I can. I'm a father/son Little League virgin, and there are only 3 games to go in my Little League career.
I'm siting in the dugout now, and I'm getting angry. I'm angry at myself for my nerves, I'm angry at my dad for his nerve. How dare he show up now. But then it begins to pass. Here is my chance. Now. My legs begin to steady themselves. My hand no longer trembles. So what that it took 3 and 3/4 years for him to come out to see me play. He's here. Him and his White Owl. White Owl is a funny cigar brand. I used to like the box.
Third inning, we rally. The Elks took an early lead in this important playoff-deciding game. But the Lions were hot. We're down by a run when I get my second chance at bat. I decided to not turn to look back at my dad while I was on-deck. Not this time. Steady. Focus. Even when you're twelve, the less you think when you play baseball, the better off you'll be. Man on first, I'm up at bat. Our field, the Albert Reid Little League Field, was quite small outside of the dimensions of the field itself. In fact, we had special rules for passed balls behind the catcher as he could almost lean back against the backstop, sitting a couple feet behind him. I forget the actual rule, but what I remember is that fans could stand inches behind the players and watch the at-bat. Such was the case this at-bat, and this girl Jamie B, who had a crush on me, stood directly behind the backstop with her friend.
I took ball one. Always did. Liked to see what was coming at me. Get comfortable.
I did. I felt good. The pitcher wound up and sent his 50mph-seemed-like 90mph fastball steaming towards me…towards me…towards me…then I heard it.
"Hit a home run for Jaime!!!"
It happened a split second before I swung the bat. I knew right away it was one of my best swings ever. My adrenaline was already sky-high going into the at-bat that I raced for first. I think I heard my coach screaming "get…out…of…here!" As I hit second base, I could see the center fielder standing still. Then it hit me. What I had done. I had hit my first home run, dead center field. And no cheap shot either. Cleared the fence dead and true. My teammates raced out of the dug out to meet me at home, but I was looking beyond them already. The thing is, as silly as it may sound, there is almost no greater feeling than hitting a home run. They are truly sublime lest alone in front of your dad. I cannot begin to imagine what it must feel like to hit one in the playoffs or the World Series to win a game. My fear is that there would be some inner bug in my ear to jump off a bridge after that because it would be all downhill afterwards. But I digress.
Waiting at home were all my teammates and my coach, he with a big grin on his face. My coach always liked me. Liked the way I played the game. I worked hard, got dirty, dove for balls. Hitting the ball, however, never came that natural to me. I tried hard, but was scrappy and not too powerful. Without a doubt, I could see in his eyes that he knew what it meant for me. Hard to argue that it may have almost meant as much to him after seeing me play for 4 years without one.
I'm about to cross home plate when I look to the right and there stands Jaime with a coy look on her face, her friend devilishly beaming. "He likes you, he likes you!" I didn't, but you wouldn't know that from the direct order I had just obeyed. But all this temporary chaos was a mere prelude to the payoff I was about to get as I proudly jogged by the on-deck circle, where the scent of White Owl still hung in the air. Not only had my father finally come, but he had come to THE game. Of all games to show up at, he had hit the dad lottery. A proud father seeing his son hit the go-ahead home run…which incidentally happened to be his first. On a side note, and no disrespect to sex in any way, the first home run is much better than the first, well, you know.
Anyway, fist in the air, I swing my gaze towards my father, and my heart sinks. Sinks like a broken ship. He's not standing there.
How could I expect anything else? He had never come to my games before, and of course he finally comes only to catch my strike out and error. That game plays in my head over and over. Should you ask me and my dad, put in separate rooms, to write about it, you'd get two wildly different stories. Wildly different. Me of hitting a magnificent home run in front of a proud papa, and he of watching his son "try hard" but not doing so well. When I got to his bar that night for a ride home, I asked him if he saw "it." My home run. He said he had to leave to get back to work, because he couldn't trust anyone there. He could never trust anyone else to this task. Never. I was crushed. From the top of the mountain to the bottom of the sea in minutes. Still, I did smell that White Owl when I crossed home plate.
I never really forgave my father for that. Yes, there are worse things a parent can do to a child for sure. But this incident has always haunted and stuck with me, like an old bully who you are no longer afraid of but occasionally reminds you of what you used to be afraid of. My father and I didn't really have the relationship where I felt comfortable sitting down and saying, "why didn't you stay?"
So, why didn't he stay?
Today is my birthday, my 40th. I am a lucky man, a fortunate human. The gifts given me have been invaluable and unrepayable. The fact that I have 2 working arms, legs, and eyes, is a fact that does not escape me any day. But a stated before, today is my birthday.
So with that in mind..I can answer the above question. Confidently and without looking back.
I'm crossing 3rd base on my way home. My teammates are as excited as I am. For not only have I hit the all-consuming home run, but I have put the Lions in the lead. (details to confirm this last fact are a bit murky, but what the hell). I can see Jaime out of the corner of my eye. "Don't look at her" runs through my head. I don't. But how will I live this down tomorrow at school? As I hit home plate, I am mobbed by an unruly pack of Lions. My team. For a few fleeting minutes, all of planet earth is celebrating my incredible feat. Or so it seems. Really. But all this temporary chaos is a mere prelude to the payoff I am about to get as I proudly jog by the on-deck circle, where the scent of White Owl still hangs in the air. Not only had my father finally come, but he had come to THE game. Of all games to show up at, he had hit the dad lottery. A proud father seeing his son hit the go-ahead home run…which incidentally happened to be his first.
Fist in the air, I swing my gaze towards my father, but he is not there. Right before my heart begins to sink, I see the water-logged end of the White Owl laying next to the fence, still burning out. I turn around, and there it is. The tan 1979 Dodge Dart with the white roof that my dad owned. Door just closing, engine coughing to life. You see, my father was never one for words, he left that to me. I can see now that the man I knew as my dad would never have been able to say the right words to me as I arrived at the fence in front of the on-deck circle. He wasn't comfortable with that. He also was not a hugger. His pride was in his silence. He came and saw what he needed to see. Time to retire back to what he knew, his work. He always had his work. And the one memory of his oldest son hitting his first home run.
And that would be enough.