My childhood was spent discovering the surprising talents of my father. These talents were like overnight snowfalls; you remember how how would wake up in the morning and look out the window and everything was impossibly bright, and it felt like a small miracle. Those were my father’s talents.
We were at an amusement park as a family; there was a shooting gallery there. I begged to shoot. There were no guns in my childhood, none at all, not even cap guns, not even water guns. My father had no use for guns. And yet in this moment, I was desperate to shoot the toy rifle, desperate to make the skunk’s tail rise, make the duck quack, make the piano player hit the keys. I was given a quarter. I aimed and fired, aimed and fired, and didn’t hit a thing. I was granted a second chance, aimed and fired, aimed and fired, and didn’t hit a thing.
Those targets were so small.
I asked Dad to try. He took the toy rifle with its warped sights, and he held it with a grace I had not expected. He fired — and made the skunk’s tail go up. He made the bartender dance. He made the piano play. He hit shot after shot and after a while people were surrounding him, shouting out, “Shoot the mirror! Knock down the beer can! Shoot the hat off the cowboy!”
And he did, again and again, never missing a shot.
It was like finding out your father is Batman.
“Where did you learn to shoot like that?” I asked Dad.
“The army,” he said. And he said nothing more.
When I was young, so young the memories blur as if underwater, my father showed me a magic trick. He took a coin, and he put it inside a handkerchief. He handed me the handkerchief and asked me to feel it and make sure the coin was still in there, and it was. Then he asked me to put the handkerchief inside both hands and squeeze tight and close my eyes and say “abracadabra.”
When I opened the handkerchief the coin had been magically replaced by a tiny toy skull about half the size of a super ball.
“How did you do that?” I asked Dad, who worked long hours in a factory keeping knitting machines running.
“When I was little, we had a magician stay with us, and he taught me,” he said. And he said nothing more.
When I was 8 or 9, Dad took us to a company picnic. He worked for a different factory then, back-breaking work; I had been to that factory once or twice and it was loud and dark and brutally hot, like something out of Dickens or, more my speed, a Dark Knight Batman comic book. It was filled with the sort of rugged Cleveland men who I imagined drinking whiskey that tasted like lighter fluid and then crumpling up cars and bending refrigerators to burn off their frustrations.
Anyway, there was a softball game at the company picnic. And though he was surrounded by men who looked like The Rock, my father was the star. The image that lingers is of him hitting a ground ball to shortstop and then blazing down the line, Willie Wilson style, Byron Buxton style, Ichiro style, so fast that it was impossible to throw him out. I had known that my father was once a semi-professional soccer player in Poland, but to see him run like that …
“How did you learn to play baseball?” I asked Dad, who had not come to America until two years before I was born.
“I picked it up,” he said, and he said nothing more.
On Sundays, he would take me to the bowling alley, where he was was the anchor bowler on his league team. Again, he was surrounded by hard men, most of them factory men, who drank coffee as black and potent as coal. and they wore those great shirts with their first names written on the pockets in cursive letters. I wanted to wear one of those shirts more than I wanted to the Cleveland Browns uniform. They would yell “C’mon Big Steve, we need a big strike here,” and as often as not Dad would deliver the strike, though Dad’s real specialty was picking up spares.
“Strikes are for show,” he told me, “spares are for dough.” I used to love it when he had a single pin to pick up, and he would roll and then turn his back the way a golfer does when she hits a perfect drive. And sometimes, he would look up at me and, just as the ball hit the pin, he would do this little back kick.
He would take me with him to the Arabica Coffee shop sometimes, there in the Coventry District in Cleveland, an edgy place then when hippies and punk rockers and motorcycle gang members mixed with ancient Eastern Europeans, and Dad would sit at one of the tables and play speed chess against the best players in Cleveland. Swear words in a dozen languages blurted out as men angrily slammed around knights and bishops and queens and kings. My father was a man of distinction here. He was a chess master. He had won the Cleveland Open Chess Tournament.
Once a high school friend and I had car trouble, and we didn’t know what to do. I was seventeen or eighteen by then. He said, “We should probably call your Dad.” Everybody knew that my Dad can fix anything.
He also can juggle. It was another thing I did not know until one day there were three tennis balls around. “I want to learn how to juggle,” I said. And he promptly juggled the three balls with flair, as if on stage. He had been hiding this wonderful skill for nearly my entire childhood, as if he had been waiting to unveil it only at the perfect moment, when I would be most awed.
When I grew older, I realized that my father’s greatest talent was none of these jaw-dropping things. When I worked one grueling summer with him at the factory, I realized that his greatest talent was never bringing it home with him, never letting the daily grind crush his joyful spirit, never being too exhausted to be Dad. One summer, he took us to the swimming pool at Bexley Park every single day that it didn’t rain. Every day. I see him now, pulling into the driveway in that beat up Chevy Nova which was rusting from the inside out, and my brother David and I would be waiting and shouting, “Let’s go! Let’s go!” before he even made it to the porch. Our youngest brother, Tony, was a baby then.
Dad would be smoking a Kent cigarette, the smell that marked my childhood, and he would be covered in oil, and he would go inside to have a seltzer. He would say, “I’m beat.” He would slump into the couch while muttering, “boy oh boy oh boy oh boy oh boy.” And after a few minutes of catching his breath (all the while we’re chattering “Come on! Let’s go! Let’s go!”), he would slowly go to his feet, and we’d all go out to the Nova, and he’d drive us to the pool.
Then after we swam, we’d come home, and he’d grab his glove and go to the backyard and roll grounder and toss high fly balls until the son went down.
Then, finally, when it was done, we’d go inside, and we kid would go to bed, and Dad would fall asleep to Johnny Carson.
Then he would do it all again the next day. I still don’t know how.
When I was young, I figured that this was just what dads do. I figured that when I became a dad, I would simply and naturally start bowling 200 games and become a chess master and just know how to fix cars and other broken things. I did not develop these talents because they aren’t talents, not exactly. There’s another word for them, a harder word, a word that describes the things you pick up on your way to becoming the person you long to be.
The other day, there were three tennis balls lying around. I picked them up and, with my daughters and their grandfather watching, I juggled them easily. The girls were both dutifully impressed.
“How did you learn to do that?” our youngest, Katie, asked.
Dad smiled. I could have given them a fuller answer, could have told them that I learned after hours and hours of juggling over a bed, starting with two balls, going to three, repeating and repeating until the hands naturally knew where to go. I could have told them that the I learned to juggle for no reason I could recognize at the time. I could have told them that, in the end, I learned to juggle just so I could impress the daughters who were in my distant future, just so I could — like my own father — be a superhero for at least a moment.
“How did you learn to do that?” our youngest, Katie, asked.
“Dad taught me,” I said, and I said nothing more.
Hey, just in case you forgot to get your Dad something for Father’s Day — you could always give him a gift subscription to JoeBlogs.