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.”
“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.”
“I wake up.”
“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?”
“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.
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