I have told these stories a hundred times -- to provoke laughter, to express affection, and to beg for understanding of our peculiar ways. I have listened to them again and again -- across the holiday dinner table, on long drives, in hospital waiting rooms -- always amid my family's strange, explosive laughter. The stories are true, or as true as legend can be.
Mainly they have to do with the devotion of my grandfather, J. Hicks Baldwin, 82, to the flesh and spirit of the Washington Redskins.
The bare facts of his devotion are impressive enough. He has owned season tickets since the 1940s. In those days, he sat each week in the last row of the old Griffith Stadium grandstand, whipped by the same chill wind that stiffened the stadium's flags (but did not cause Sammy Baugh's passes to flutter). Later, he bought four season seats at RFK, in the upper deck behind the west goal post, fully exposed to the rain and snow.
No matter what the weather, no matter what the score, no matter what the Redskins' record, he has never left his seat during a game before the last second ticked off the stadium clock.
Never, not once, has he gotten up to buy refreshments, even at half time -- he simply will not risk missing a play. Nature calls, one may assume, but he does not answer.
In more than 40 years, he has missed only two games.
Once was this season, when he was briefly hospitalized during the weekend of the Giants game. Even then, only a last-minute relapse persuaded him to stay home. His children and grandchildren did not stand in his way -- we figured that if he had to die, there could be no more fitting end than for him to quietly expire amid the raucous aftermath of a touchdown, just as the marching band poised to strike up "Hail to the Redskins" one more time.
The other was in 1986, when, shocking the family, he forsook the climactic Giants home game to attend my mother's formal installation as minister at her new church in Wheaton. The rumor that my grandfather sat in the pews that afternoon with his head piously bowed toward a Sony Watchman TV is apparently unfounded. I don't know. I was, um, unable to attend the installation. The Redskins may have lost that day for my sins, but not for my grandfather's.
This is an important point about J. Hicks Baldwin: As is not the case with myself, my brothers, my father -- as is not the case with so many Redskins fans -- there is nothing desperate in his devotion to the team's fortunes. He has moved beyond screaming and standing and waving and singing and otherwise acting like a baboon. His experience of a Redskins game is an exercise in meditative, concentrated stillness.
My brother, who sits next to him each week, reports that an occasional, quiet "Whoop, Whoop" will emerge from my grandfather's lips during the periods of deafening, celebratory madness that follow Redskins touchdowns at RFK. Otherwise, virtual silence. He is the Zen fan. We pagans can only admire his achievement.
There is, for example, the question of how he deals with Redskins losing streaks -- for years an unavoidable task. The rest of us are slaves to frustration. We respond to losses by getting mad at players we should respect and by calling radio talk shows to spout inane theories about what ails the team. Some fans pout and stay away, or else attend the games reluctantly, full of bitterness and bile, as if to spite the players and coaches who aggrieve them.
But my grandfather remains cheerful and hopeful in the face of even the most discouraging evidence of Redskins incompetence. He has held remarkably few personal grudges against players over the years. (He would admit to some ambivalence about Joe Theismann, I think.) He respects anyone who wears the uniform. He is grateful for the wins, accepting of the losses. The Redskins cannot make him angry. They can only sadden him.
When the Redskins won their only Super Bowl in January 1983, defeating the Miami Dolphins 27-17 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., we attended the game together. It was a logistical nightmare. The traffic was beyond gridlock -- cars turned to fossils in the Rose Bowl basin. My grandmother's arthritic hip stiffened in the fourth quarter and she could not get out of her seat when the game was finished. In the darkness, I combed the stadium grounds with my uncle for well over an hour, searching for a paramedic not occupied with the thousands suffering from excessive celebration.
Finally, exhausted, we made it out, and riding back to a West L.A. hotel, were able at last to contemplate victory. I was driving, my grandfather was in the back seat. We recounted the flow of the game and the big plays, especially John Riggins' game-winning, 43-yard touchdown run on a critical fourth-and-inches.
Being youthful, I was carried away, and I began to list enthusiastically all the reasons why the Redskins were poised to dominate the National Football League in coming years. Their impressive offensive line was young. They had strength at the skill positions. They had exceptional coaching. On and on. "I think we'll be back in the Super Bowl next year -- and I think we'll win," I finally declared.
There was silence. Then, from the back seat, evenly, almost portentously, my grandfather said:
"No, you can expect something like this to happen only once in a lifetime."
It seemed to me, from his words and his tone of voice, that he was talking not so much about the Redskins or my chatty prediction but about his own mortality. He had climbed the big mountain that day. He had seen the big ocean. The Redskins had won the Super Bowl. Now he was free to go. I remember fighting off melancholy.
At least as much as any family, we have had our ups and downs during the 40 years my grandfather has been returning each season to perch above the Redskins' playing field. There have been many difficult changes, and much has passed unsaid. And so, however strange it may appear to outsiders, the Redskins have evolved for us into a language through which the basic drama of family can be communicated.
Consider this autumn scene from two years back: It is a Saturday afternoon and we are sitting in the living room of my mother's town house. My wife is pregnant and a dozen of her friends have arrived for a baby shower. My grandparents are there. Wine and coffee are served. Presents are opened and passed among the guests.
My brother's then-girlfriend, savvy about the family's ways, has given a Redskins infant sweat suit, burgundy and gold, replete with NFL-licensed logo. My grandfather takes it out of the box and holds it up. He becomes teary-eyed. My mother sees him, and struck by this rare display of emotion, says (as she tells it later): "Dad, are you all right?"
"Oh, sure," he answers. "But I was just thinking that this unborn child may some day inherit our Redskins tickets."
That child, now 2, identifies Darrell Green on television from 15 feet away.
So now we are off to San Diego, my grandfather and the rest of us, to finish this season's unlikely climb to the top of the big mountain. Scab football, quarterback controversy, anemic linebacking, my grandfather's brief illness -- all doubts stay behind. The Redskins will prevail.
J. Hicks Baldwin may believe he is entitled to only one Super Bowl victory in his lifetime, but some of us are certain he deserves at least two.