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The Great Game | The Bleat.

Never heard this one before: they were cruising in the Caribbean, a day out of San Juan. A clear night, calm seas. My dad looks out and sees . . . a sub. It’s come up to fire its torpedoes. In fact it has fired its torpedoes: he can see the trails in the moonlight. The shallow draft of his ship meant a sub had to fire close to the surface. There was no time. There was no stopping. They watched the first pass right in front of the bow. They watched the second head straight for the bow . . . and go under the ship.

Another day at the office.

No, amend that; another day behind the fast-food counter, since he was 17 at the time. Yes, we stayed up late talking, and this time I surreptitiously turned on my phone and hit the voice recorder function, and got a batch of tales down for posterity. Should mention why he was here:

Two years ago he came down for the North Dakota State University football team, the Bison; they were taking on the Goofers in the Metrodome. This year they met at the new stadium, which is a beaut. Very collegiate in the classic sense, architecturally restrained, timeless but new. Parking was going to be an issue, I knew, and he wanted to tailgate, so we went early. Hours early. Parked by the old Ralph and Jerry’s food mart – asked him if he minded a hike. No; he does a mile or two at the Mall every morning. So we walked into Dinkytown, then got a cup of coffee at McDonald’s. “They have good coffee,” he says. “That’s where we have coffee every morning.”

Don’t you go to one of those Starbucks places?

Snort of NO. Expensive, fancy, not all that great. Besides, McDonald’s has good coffee. Actually, they do. And it’s a buck. So we sat and chatted, and I saw a denizen of Dinkytown from my old days in the 80s; raised a cup in a toast. Then we pushed on to the stadium, and tried to connect with my cousin and his group, who were tailgating in a Bison lot. Took a while, even with cell phones, but we found them in a rather unpopulated lot. The big Bison bash was apparently at the State Fairgrounds, with free buses taking the inebriates – er, fans to the game.

I didn’t know this, but teams pay other teams to come and play. The Gophers paid the Bison $275,000. Oy. Well, at least they knew they’d beat them; the Gophers were a Big 10 Team, after all, and the Bison were from a friggin’ farm school, man. Yeah, a real hick town, with 3% unemployment, and a building boom that continues to this very day. They’re still putting up houses and apartment buildings and the town just keeps growing. Why? Oil, of course; Dad said he was talking to a guy who had an interest in a well, and it pulled out $165,000 worth of oil in a week. The state took 16 grand off the top. One well. One week. So yeah, they’re doing fine.

Anyway. We took our seats and waited for the sun to fade and the temps to drop; expected a chilly night. The game began with all the pageant and ballyhoo that makes college games so much fun – an enormous marching band, cartwheeling maidens, a high-stepping major domo, fireworks upon the entry of the team, the National Anthem with a flag that covered a fourth of the field. Gophers won the toss, elected to receive, and drove for one first down after the other. The jumbotron and other video boards play the same thing when they get a first down:

AND THAT’S ANOTHER GOLLLLLDEN GOPHER

“FIRST DOWN!” the crowd shouts, and everyone makes the gesture of a ref declaring a first down. The fellows in front of us were high-fiving and awww-yeahing and talking trash to the few souls brave enough to sport Bison green: “Go date your cousins,” one barked. This got my father’s ire up.

“It doesn’t take an intelligent person to say something like that,” he growled.

The guy said he used to live in Fargo, he loves Fargo, it’s all good-humored ribbing. But he didn’t say it anymore.

The Gophers score, and I’m thinking, we may not be here all night. But the Bison took the field, marched down and put it in the endzone. So there. The defense would be a bit too porous the rest of the half, but they scored again, and led going into the half. Hah! I was rooting for them, since that’s my home town team, and I never, ever had a scrap of loyalty to the Gophers, not even in college. Partly because they’ve been losers – the Goofs, the Goofers – as long as I can remember. There was great satisfaction in seeing them get beat in this enormous new stadium by a band of kids from North Dakota, some of whom were Minnesota kids the Gophers never even deigned to try out. So, yeah.

The guys who were awww-yeahing the FIRST DOWN shout got pretty quiet.

I got a couple of garlic roast-beef sandwiches from the Mazlack’s stand – mmmm, mmmm – and we settled in to watch the rest of the game. Mostly Bison from then. An interception run in for a TD! An incredible field goal! Hah! The Gophers got within seven as it came down to the last few minutes, but the Bison put another one on the board, and that was it. We walked the mile back to the car in fine spirits. He wanted to stop halfway and rest his leg.

“I sprained it,” he said. “Last winter.”

How’d you do that?

“Oh, I was fueling a train and stepped in a rut and twisted it.”

I point out that most 85-year-old guys aren’t fueling trains in the middle of winter, but they were short a man that day. Truth is, he likes to work. When he got home the next day he fueled up a tanker and drove it to Carrington and offloaded 300 gallons of avgas.

But first, breakfast. I took my wife to the airport – business trip – and met Dad and daughter at Perkins, where we tucked into one of those enormous breakfasts that will keep you going all day. He slipped her a twenty.

“I didn’t do anything to earn it!” she protested. “No, thanks, that’s okay.”

Gladdened my heart. So I took it. (FOR HER. He wanted her to have it.)

Snapped a picture of the two of them in the parking lot. Bright golden autumn sun. Flash: my own grandpa, what I remember. The farmer, the old guy, slow but clever, games at the farmhouse: hide the thimble. You’re hot. You’re cold. Reward: a pink peppermint lozenge. Grandpa in his chair with his cigarette burned down to the filter, the grandkids with their reminders: Grandpa, your ash. He would move it with deliberate care to the ashtray and tap it.

“Remember the lighter?” I said to my cousin when when we were standing in the tailgating parking lot. “A big pewter thing, like a murder weapon, always smelled of butane. She remembered it. She remembered hiding from Grandma when she came from the farmhouse to her house, because towards the end she was indistinct on the details of the day, and frequently thought it was Sunday. She would dress up in her best, assume it was Sunday, and go across the road to fetch her son and his wife and her grandchildren to go church.

“I’d say no, Grandma, it’s Wednesday,” my cousin said. The other cousin. Did I make that clear? Three cousins on my mom’s side. Two brothers, a sister. One brother died in a car accident last year. Smart man, clever, creative. Heading back from the cabin, drifted over the center line for reasons we’ll never know, hit an RV: instantaneous. His son is standing next to me in the tailgating parking lot as I’m talking about the great-grandfather he never knew. The son looks so much like his father you feel your heart bang in your throat when you see him.

But I’m talking to the daughter of his father’s father about the great-grandmother he’ll never know. “I’d say no, Grandma, it’s Wednesday,” she says. “But she’d get halfway across the road and look down and see she was wearing her best and she would think it must be Sunday, and she’d turn around and head right back to the house to say it was time to go to church.”

I had no idea it was like that towards the end.

“Do you remember her walking along with her hands behind her back?” says the other cousin. I admit I don’t. “She was hiding a cigarette.”

No.

“Yep. I remember I barged in the house one day and she was vacuuming and she was smoking a cigarette, and she she saw me she just crushed it in her hand.”

Why? I asked. Grandpa smoked. Constantly. Two-pack-a-day man, Old Golds, left the earth at the age of 88. Your dad smoked. He said he had no idea why she hid it, but she did. I had to laugh: all three cousins smoked. I smoked. We all quit. My dad never smoked. The website for his ship has a link to a site that processes claims for people who got lung cancer from the asbestos used on vessels of the era. My dad’s talking to someone else, laughing, and he finishes his beer, and my cousin hands him another -

but now I’m back in the Perkins parking lot taking a picture of my daughter and her grandfather, and I’m saying smile, one more, okay hold it, and meanwhile firing as many pictures as I can, hoping I get the one candid where she’s her and he’s him.

Then we shake hands and we go south, and he goes north.

“Oh, I dream about it sometimes,” he said. “I dream I see the torpedoes coming.”

And then?

“I wake up.”

And then?

“Well I lay there for a while, you know. But then I go back to sleep.” He looked into his glass and rattled the ice and I went to the cupboard for a refill. “That was early on. There was more after that.”

Perkins, Sunday morning:

“Did you kill anyone in the war?” Daughter asks.

Grandpa doesn’t move a muscle. The previous night I’d finally got the details on the strafing run: he was the gunner responsible for firing the AA gun, as well as the up-and-down position of the gun. Another sailor handled lateral motion, and they had to practice to learn each other’s style. One sailor got the bullets out, handed them to the second man in the chain, and the second man gave them to a man who fed the gun. A Japanese plane made a low pass. My dad ran out of ammo: the second man in the chain had turned the cartridge the wrong way when he handed it to the third man. The Japanese plane killed the first man and wounded the second.

“Did you kill anyone in the war?” Daughter asks.

Grandpa doesn’t move a muscle. “Close up, you mean?” He shakes his head. “You shoot a plane far away, you see it go down into the water.”

Daughter nods and doesn’t press the matter.

Like I said, the Bison won. I’ll never forget that night. Walking through my old Dinkytown, down 4th street choked with traffic, past the apartments were I lived, talking with Dad about the game. Coming home, hearing my daughter say YAAAY that the North Dakota team won. Where did that come from? Staying up late. Hearing stories. Perkins’ pancakes. Farewell on the edge of the highway in the Perkins lot.

“Funny article in the paper,” he says. “Now I don’t have to buy the Sunday newspaper.”

“Oh, buy it for the coupons.”

“Do you know how much your dad hated to do his paper route?” he says to my daughter. “If it was snowing I had to help him.”

“I wasn’t into the whole distribution aspect then, Dad – “

“And do you know how much he hated to practice piano?”

“Dad.”

“Had to drag him to the piano to make him do it.”

Daughter grins: really? You didn’t like to practice, either? She looks at me: I’m just like you! I look at my dad, and wish I was more like him, but you are what you are.

“How old are you now?” he says as we’re walking to the stadium.

“Oh, 53 or so,” I say. “Never felt better.”

He nods and we keep walking, and we can hear the music of the band outside the stadium; we can see the sun bouncing off the great silver wall, and it’s beautiful. It’s a great night. It’s going to be a great game.

 

64 Responses to The Great Game

  1. Ross says:

    Der Kase:
    “I think Bill Mauldin once wrote something to the effect that you could tell how close to the front a man served by his stories. The farther away from danger, the bloodier his stories got.”

    Not always: my dad(one of the “Angels” of the 11th Airborne in the Philippines) would talk about the comic and everyday, logistical aspects of his service, but not about the combat memories(at least, not until after “Saving Pvt Ryan” & “Band of Brothers” came out and some of the truly grisly footage from the Pacific became unclassified/started showing up in TV history shows). But, even then, he was fairly laconic about it, so he basically fits your first type of WWII veteran.
    On the other hand, my uncle was with the 101st all through the worst, and had no compunction about telling war stories(to be fair, many of them were funny also–he & his buddies sounded like something out of “Kelly’s Heroes”, right down to nearly giving the mayor of some little French town a heart attack, by pretending to rob their bank, after having heard that very rumor about GIs finding a cache of Nazi gold which was the basis for that movie’s story).
    Seems to come down to whether they, on the whole, liked their time in uniform; my uncle ended the war in Europe with at least some close friends still around, but my father went in to the savagery of jungle fighting as a replacement & lost his only close friend to a booby-trap(& was never much of a joiner, anyway).

  2. S.T. Mum says:

    DerKase is so right; I could never ask a vet whether he’d killed someone. But is is a natural child’s question.
    My dad was what they called a ‘peacetime’ veteran, missed being drafted into active WW II, served his time before Korea. He was in Japan and the Philippines, and now I remember, I have a box of pictures and such put aside to create a ‘memorial’ of him. Reading through others’ comments, more tiny stories are coming back to me, such as he couldn’t stand peas, because he was preparing a pot of them one night on a ship, and it lurched, and he toppled into the pot. Had peas coming out of his mouth, ears, and nose. Experiencing a hurricane – he said people tied themselves to a tree and held on. The time he was caught in a speed trap, and the officer didn’t give him a ticket because he (my dad) had just been discharged from the service and was heading home. Funny stories. I don’t know if he was ever in actual combat.
    My dad’s army buddy is still around. I’m going to contact him and ask for more stories.

  3. DryOwlTacos says:

    My dad never told us any “war” stories. He didn’t think wimminfolk needed to know any of that stuff. His stories were the funny ones, like about the time he and his buddies got drunk in a bar with Bob Hope. Those were great stories, but I would have liked to have heard the ones that he only told in the stag bar to the other guys who got it, because they had been there, too. Really excellent tug-on-the-heart Bleat.

    “I didn’t know this, but teams pay other teams to come and play. The Gophers paid the Bison $275,000. Oy.” Recently, Alabama came to town to play the University of North Texas. Yes, there’s entertainment value in watching a nationally ranked team come to your hometown and crush your student-athletes into 11 little wet spots on their brand new field. At least UNT held them to only a 41 point shutout. Roll Tide; peel up Mean Green.

  4. swschrad says:

    on paying for play: good sports, bad radio.

    but the stories have been out there for years, years. schools weighing which bowl bid they’d prefer because the cash is larger here than there. the Bison playing places like Northern Cal in their D-II days because it was over a 100 grand tune-up game.

    it’s usually called something like an access fee, meant to subsidize the travel, housing, etc. expenses of the visiting team. but just like the choice between hiring Your Benevolent Dictator or Bill Clinton for a keynote speech at your business’ annual dinner, weight of the resume translates into weight at the bank’s deposit window the following Monday.

  5. Jasony says:

    Now I’m sitting here with wet eyes while I think of my dad. He’s 25 years older than me (I’m 42) and still going strong. Lost his father when he was a decade younger than me. I’m grateful I still have him around.

    Thanks, James.

  6. Tex Lovera says:

    James, that was a beautiful portrait you painted. Thank you.

    My Dad died 37 years ago; been six years since my Mom left. How I wish I’d been able to see my Dad from a grown man’s perspective; you can’t understand them until you’ve become them. Alas, in my family, we just didn’t ask a lot of questions about our parents; how I wish we had now.

  7. pfsm says:

    Thanks so much for that Bleat.

    My wife and I are each the eldest in our families now. My father wasn’t in the war – instead he got pleurisy and almost died, but finally fully recovered. He was a cab driver in Chicago in the late twenties, but no one could get any stories out of him about those times. He did tell us of an earlier time when he was one of the landscape crew working on the McCormick estate in Chicago. One Saturday the boss loaded them in a car and took them to a baseball game, and when he found out that the guys were getting paid to play ball, he got up and left. He was a community organizer in a genuine sense: he helped set up a community club in our suburban area, was a water commissioner and a fire commissioner, was on the church council several times. He owned a construction business and for a long time the business was just him and his dump truck and his bulldozer. He had to join the Operating Engineers union to work on school jobs, and they didn’t know what to do with him because he was both operator and management. I don’t recall that he ever had to go out on strike against himself.

  8. My dad died when I was 4. Never did get a chance to ask him what it was like at Henderson Field right after the Marines took it from the previous occupants (who for some reason wanted it back). Some of his buddies did tell a few stories about long rides in the belly of an Avenger, but it wasn’t the same.

    My mom’s first husband was a Hellcat pilot off the Bennington who didn’t come back after a mission in early 1945.

  9. browniejr says:

    My dad was like so many others- in line early Monday, Dec. 8th, 1941 at the recruiting station. Since he was only 15 at the time, he was told to “go home and grow up, and come back when you’re old enough.” That’s exactly what he did, joining the Navy as soon as he was eligible. Because of the timing, he never went overseas, and was in the reserves during Korea. I’m probably here today because he didn’t see any torpedoes coming towards his ship. I also had an uncle on my Mother’s side that was on Omaha beach on D-Day plus one to clean up the mess. NEVER EVER talked about it, was never pressed for details.

  10. William Overby says:

    You’re so blessed to still have your dad and be so close to him.

  11. steveH says:

    My dad was a Navy corpsman, spent most of his service at the Pearl Harbor Naval Hospital.

    His favorite (and almost only) story was of catching the jeep keys tossed to him by an Army Captain near the Opana radar station.

    Said officer wanted to go down the hill, and failed to ask if the squid actually knew how to drive. (He didn’t. First time he’d ever driven any motor vehicle.)

    They arrived at the bottom safely, but the Captain swore he’d never ride anything driven by anyone in the Navy for the rest of his life.

  12. zefal says:

    wiredog says:
    September 26, 2011 at 6:49 am

    Just came across this, from The Atlantic: World War II: The Pacific Islands.
    ——————————————————-

    Thanks for posting that! I think my father is in picture 26. Short guy standing in the middle. He was a runner. Peleliu was his first campaign. Sending that picture off to my siblings to see what they think.

    I remember Mr. Lileks saying in a previous Bleat posting that his father entered the service when he was 16, which, reminded me of my father telling me that he met a guy on the troop transport his same age (18) for which Peleliu was going to be his third campaign.He having lied about his age to get in when he was 16.

  13. Meaghan says:

    Poignant and sweet. And I’m out of Kleenex at my desk, of course.

  14. Kev says:

    Recently, Alabama came to town to play the University of North Texas. Yes, there’s entertainment value in watching a nationally ranked team come to your hometown and crush your student-athletes into 11 little wet spots on their brand new field. At least UNT held them to only a 41 point shutout. Roll Tide; peel up Mean Green.

    That wasn’t a home game for UNT (trust me, I’m an alum, and I’ve been to all the home games at the new stadium–all both of them!); they had to go on the road to get pummeled like that. But at least they didn’t lose half the team to injuries like they did in last year’s Bama game, and I’m sure the money they got for playing will help defray some of the stadium costs.

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