16 August 2009

I've Got Mine

It's always around this time each summer that I recall a time in my childhood, coming home from basketball camp in New Hampshire, landing in the Milwaukee airport and feeling not exactly older but that my perspective on things had widened. Nashua, New Hampshire was home to the New England Aeronautical Institute (now Daniel Webster College) and that was where Wayne Embry, who was at the time the General Manager of the Milwaukee Bucks, ran his summer basketball camp. Technically, it was called the Wayne Embry Basketball School, which from my perspective, made it that much cooler than camp. Basketball school met there, I suppose, because it linked back to Wayne's playing days for the Boston Celtics, with whom he won an NBA championship after an All-Star career at Cincinnati and after Boston, Milwaukee. Anyway, great players came along with coaching legends from the Boston area and the week or two that I spent there with Wayne's son, Wayne Jr, were so expansive and reflective that they've always shaped how I perceive the month of August, thirty years later.

Each summer, when my plane would land, I'd be picked up at the airport by my dad, who was more of a statistician of the game than a player, so the vicariousness of the thrill was undeniable. I was aware, as I stepped off the plane, that I returned as a kind of ambassador to the strange and exotic land--just the way he wanted it, since his ambassadorship, which he never really valorized, was his four years of service in the U.S. Army during the Second World War. I always imagined that he valued the achievement of "making it" in America to such an extent he sent his kid to "battle" at basketball school, not to jungles of the Philippines. (Like I said, "imagined." Realistically, the thought likely never crossed his mind.)

Anyway, what I know I remember is that once in the car, I'd start telling him all about camp--which NBA players showed up, which coaches, how I did, how the food tasted, and the various adventures Wayne Jr and I had with kids from the Boston area. It was great to recall, speeding along the freeway from the airport on the South side back to the North Shore suburbs where we lived. The nights in August were always warm and Dad had the top down on his 1972 red Chevrolet Impala convertible. It was good.

When I finished talking, then he would talk. And after a few brief updates on my mom and sisters and brother, he'd want to tell me about his golf game. My dad the statistician (who actually sold advertising for the CBS affiliate in Milwaukee) had perfect recall of plays and shots. So if he played 18 holes of golf that day--which it seemed he always did the days he picked me up from camp, the majority of the ride home was filled with his adventures on the golf course. "First hole, tee shot out about 180 yards, right in the middle of the fairway. Second shot with my new five wood, straight toward the hole but then over the green in the thick grass just beyond." And so it would go, hole after hole, all the way home. He played three days a week, for business and pleasure, for a long period of his life, and though he never fully mastered the ability to simply enjoy the sport (he was quite good at bending clubs that wouldn't bend to his will) what he did perfect was the story of the game. Shot by shot. The weather, the wind, the moisture of the grass and sand--you name it. He really drew a picture. And as we sped past buildings and factories, Milwaukee's small shouldered downtown, and then the mini-mall developments of the north side, I drifted into a kind of trance, watching my familiar life like a movie, narrated by my dad's golf shots.

The other area of his life where he could exercise perfect pitch of memory was with the music of his era--the 30s and 40s--and I was recalling for Rachel last night how Dad, after he and Mom split up, once took me to a restaurant with a vintage jukebox, challenged me to play any song, and he would recall the singer and the year of the song. We had a great time that night, eating, listening to music, and me of course, being taught that names and dates matter, and that music has a many-layered history that always needs to be considered, listened to, along with its melody and lyrics. As close as I can get to describing that experience, I recommend to you Danny Stiles show on WNYC each Saturday night from 8-10. It's a regular in our house, for the simple pleasure of the music but also because it's possible to connect with people in all sorts of interesting ways long after they're gone.

This week, when I head out to pick up my oldest kid from camp (Jewish, not basketball), there'll be no golf games to recall and it's just as well. I have a feeling I'll have alot of listening to do. After all, these are her memories that are now in formation.

I've got mine.

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