My dad was meticulous about the work he did. There were no shortcuts. He might have invented measure twice cut once except I recall he measured at least three times before he cut. There was nothing he couldn’t do, and nothing he didn’t do right, including repairing the rain spouts.
Through the years of catching rain, melting snow and falling leaves, the front and back spouts had weathered. He had taken them down, careful not to bend them. He got off the peeling paint and applied new paint, letting them dry in our backyard. There was just one problem: they were in the field of play of the baseball diamond he had built.
The diamond wasn’t big, but it was big-league to me. He created a backstop out of chicken wire and made bases from marble he had been given for a patio he and my mom put together like a jigsaw puzzle on the side of our Cape Cod house with yellow shingles that caught the balls the backstop missed. We had a fenced-in backyard, with crabapple trees in right and left field. Home runs had to be hit over the trees, or to dead center. Often, we played home run derby, where only the batted balls that cleared the fence or the trees counted.
We used a Wiffle Ball, developing pitches and pitching styles that mirrored major leaguers. On this particular summer night, though, the game was being delayed not by rain but by rain spouts. A friend and I decided to take matters into our own hands. He grabbed one end of the rain spout and I grabbed the other. We needed more help to prevent them from bending in the middle. We wrestled with them until we had placed them near the fence along the first base line. I knew it was a bad idea once we started, but there was a game to play.
My dad didn’t realize what we had done until he got home from work the next day. I had spoiled hours of hard work in a selfish moment. The only thing I cared about was clearing the field so we could play ball. The only thing he saw was the twisted metal by the first base line.
There was no ballgame that night. There was a big-time bawling out — my dad expressing his anger in terms I could understand even if I didn’t appreciate the work he had done to restore the spouts. The next day, I remember sitting on the brick steps out front when my cousins visited. They heard the story and went out back to take a peek at the damage. I stayed out front, not wanting to return to the backyard, my haven, for the time being.
That weekend my dad put the spouts back up. They weren’t perfect, but I thought they looked pretty good after he attached all the clamps that prevented them from twisting like a pretzel again. I had my ballfield back, and my dad was OK with me using it again. I don’t think I understood then why the punishment didn’t last longer.
Although he was angry, I think my dad understood why I moved the rain spouts in the first place — that he had given me a place where I would spend hours playing ball and using my imagination.
My childhood was different than his. From what I was told, his was cut short by the death of his dad when he was 6. He became the man of the house because he was the oldest son, the third of six children. He took his role seriously, which was often how he approached life. He didn’t get to play much ball, or anything else.
He had always worked, even at the church across the street where he became an altar boy. He was so proficient at working on cars that he became a mechanic. And he became so good at tweaking engines that he had one of the fastest cars around. My uncle said that with his good looks, carefully combed hair and cool car that he was like James Dean. But my dad gave up the mechanic’s work to drive a wholesale route for Koontz Creamery because he believed it was a better way to support his wife and three children.
When he brought his truck home on occasion, the neighborhood kids would gather for a small carton of chocolate milk, a big treat in those days. I didn’t realize how hard it was to get up at 4 in the morning and do the work he did until I worked as a helper one summer. The mornings were cool, damp and dark before yielding to the hot sun that made the days feel longer.
My summers of playing ball, riding bikes and going to the Milford Mill swim club were coming to an end. My place to escape the changes that were coming was the backyard, where I often played games by myself – pitching and batting for both teams with roster names that I made up. My dad had built that field, giving me a playground he never had. I think he realized how much it meant to me, which is why I don’t think he wanted to keep me away from it for as long as I probably deserved.
I’m convinced that with my mom’s influence he wanted us to have the kind of childhood he missed out on. His gift to me after his anger subsided was as unselfish as my act was selfish. A father’s love, and a father’s forgiveness. Into my life, rain would fall, but he would do all he could to catch it. A perfect act from an imperfect man, one twisted by life’s circumstances. One strengthened by the clamps of faith, and the love of family.
Editor’s Note: Dad died the way he lived, taking care of family. He was looking after my mom, who had terminal breast cancer, when he had a rupture of an abdominal aortic aneurysm. The day after emergency surgery, he came off a breathing tube only long enough to say to his wife: “You don’t know how much I love you.” He had to have more surgery the next day and left us four days later — in the company of his loved ones. The skills that he possessed as a mechanic and handyman were not passed on to his son. There were many things he did teach me, however — the most important being the love of family.
Jack Gibbons spent 46 years in sports journalism, including a chunk of that time as sports editor of The Baltimore Sun. Now retired from full-time work, Jack serves as the lead editor and writer for BaltimoreBaseball.com’s “Calling the Pen,” a periodic feature that highlights baseball essays written by the community. If you would like to contribute to ‘Calling the Pen,” send a 750-1,200-word, original piece via email to [email protected] and [email protected] for consideration.