When I was a kid, cameras had become common and affordable. Brownie box cameras were the rage. My parents bought one, but rarely took pictures. There are a few of me as a baby, a gap of a few years, and a few more from my elementary school days.
When my mother died, I inherited the scuffed leather photo albums, pictures yellowing under acetate, that had been gathering dust in her bookcase. Now, they’re in a box under my desk along with more personal history – journals, notebooks, old letters, and other memorabilia.
As an only child, I’m always alone in those early pictures. Most were taken behind our house on Capitol Hill and might be seen as a posed series because of their similarity – all taken against the hedge backdrop in a corner of our backyard.
In one photo I’m dressed as a cowboy with chaps and sheepskin vest, six-guns, boots, and a cowboy hat. In another I’m a soldier with a helmet and rifle and yet another shows me in a baseball uniform with long socks and a choked-up bat.
As a kid, I was crazy about baseball, and I was certain, as only a kid can be, that one day I would play in the majors. Baseball was the “national pastime” and my father and I played out my fantasy almost every night when he came home from work.
He was the catcher, and I was the pitcher – much more important than the catcher. We used a stepping-stone set in the lawn as home plate. I was the Yankee’s star pitcher, and he was Yogi Berra. It was always Game 7 of the World Series against the Dodgers. I’d take the mound, and he would crouch down behind “the plate” to receive my best 9-year-old fastball. A big wind up and leg kick, then I sent it blazing down the pipe. “Ste-e-rike One” he would call out. I would pound the mitt, lean forward again, checking for the sign, nod my head, check the runner at first base, then wind up, kick my leg high, and fire another one. The whole ritual lasted about half an hour. It was never enough. I always wanted more, but he was tired, and mom was waiting with dinner. Playing catch with my dad on summer nights is one of my favorite childhood memories.
I’ve always wished we had done more things together. Looking back I’m wistful, but he was a quiet reserved man who was better with people outside the family than he was with me and mom. On one occasion, in a rare opening up, he told me he ran the mile in high school. It was a surprise to me because I don’t think I’d ever seen him run.
Then one night not long after that I waited for him at the bus stop, and we raced each other home. The memory is still vivid, him running in the street beside me, holding his fedora in one hand, his briefcase in the other, his long stride, the coattails of his overcoat flying out behind, and a smile on his face. He looked great, but it was a one-time thing. I never saw him run again, and except for playing catch we did almost nothing together.
Back then, when he was at work, I spent hours throwing a tennis ball against the brick wall of the church across the street. I visualized a strike zone on the wall, threw hard, then fielded the returning ball like Phil Rizzuto and threw the runner out at first.
In those days my dad and I were loyal fans of the Class AAA Seattle Rainiers of the Pacific Coast League and a couple of times each summer he took me to Sick’s Seattle Stadium to see the Rainiers’ play and hopefully collect player autographs before the game. We always sat in the bleachers (left field was the Rainiers’ side), ate hot dogs, drank Cokes, and talked about the team – who was likely to make it to the majors, who was on his way down – but he never talked about anything personal or asked me how I felt about things.
I loved those trips to the ballpark. It was the only other activity I remember doing one on one with my dad. I never made it to the majors, never even made the high school team, but the memory of those backyard pitching duels and Rainier games were high points of my childhood.
Today, when I look at the photos in those scuffed up old albums, there is a sadness that creeps up on me. There are no pictures of my dad. There are only the ones of me with a ball and mitt or a choked-up bat.
I never knew my dad as a person, never knew what he thought or how he felt about so many things. He never once told me he loved me, and I never saw him show affection to my mother. He was a quiet man, reserved and much respected in the community, but not demonstrative.
Years later my mother told me they made a conscious decision to withhold affection from me when I was three years old. He thought I cried too easily and showing affection was turning me into a “sissy.” Withholding affection, he told her, would “toughen me up,” and she was compliant. I guess it was his way of loving me. I see now that playing backyard catch was the only way he could show it.
It took me awhile to understand these things. I know he was proud of me later, and maybe my becoming a Marine Corps fighter pilot was proof to him that his withholding strategy worked. After all, there are no sissies in the cockpit of a supersonic fighter.
I feel sad when I think my dad wasn’t able to share himself with us. To think of how much he and I and mom missed out on. Regardless, my own wife and children will never have to wonder whether they’re loved. I tell them every time we talk or write.