He's my father. He's 93, but he fiddles around with his age like a woman, and when he's feeling extra dapper he may admit to 90. He no longer drives a car, which helps keep the population stable, but he walks five or six miles a day and looks wistfully at the joggers who pass the house in the early morning. Yet he is not going gentle into that dark night. He still has a temper like a sick bear -- his rages over almost anything struck terror into my heart as a child -- and his opinions are strictly ex cathedra, which has made my mother cringe through many a social gathering.
They still haven't buried Roosevelt deep enough to suit him, but I suspect my mother closes her eyes and thinks of England when he starts in on his political polemics, and every four years she quietly goes out and votes the straight Democratic ticket. Mom's from the old school: A wife doesn't argue with her husband, at least about politics. Maybe that's why marriages lasted longer. But there is one thing up with which she will not put and that's his old football stories.
That's where I come in. Every summer I make my annual trek out to Palo Alto where my mother and I can talk woman talk about who's doing what to whom in the luncheon and bridge set, and my father can seize upon not only a captive but a willing audience for all the sagas of his golden age -- his Admiral Byrd stories, his tales of what it was like to be a World War I pilot, his kite balloon feats in the Navy -- "400 feet above the ship and you've been up for six hours looking for subs, and you're sick from all the motion, and there's a storm brewing . . . and you mean to tell me there's not a mention of kite balloons in the Air and Space Museum in Washington?"
Then there are the stories of how he played "pro" baseball in various little towns during the summers at Notre Dame, always under an assumed name, "because I got paid $15 a game if I was lucky, and always a lot of heavy betting, and I was good, and a hell of a lot of money exchanged hands, and one night I ran into Father Cassidy at a bar . . ."
But I digress. It's another story. There's always another story. No wonder my mother rolls her eyes heavenward and moves into the kitchen. He'll sit at the dinner table, mellow with Almaden, and start in. "Did I ever tell you about when Rockne and I played Nebraska?"
"Well, he was a senior then, and I was only a freshman and we both played end, and in those days you played 60 minutes of every game, none of this offensive and defensive malarkey, and the coach only took you out if you were hurt. So I hadn't played much that season, and the night before the game, Rock asked me how many minutes I'd need to get my letter. I told him maybe 20. Know what he did? After the first quarter he went up to Jess Harper -- he was the coach then -- and told him he had a bellyache and couldn't make it out on the field. Nebraska was tough -- they're still tough -- and we were only 7 points ahead. So Jess had to send me in, and I made a touchdown. It was a hell of a ball game, and of course I got my letter. That's the kind of a guy Rockne was.
"And did I ever tell you about the year Notre Dame first played Army? Rock was captain then, and it was a warmup game for Army, see, just a bunch of Micks from South Bend, Indiana. In those days you had to add Indiana when you said South Bend. Well, it was a grand day. Notre Dame under Rock was the first team to use the forward pass, and it was Rock to Dorais, Rock to Dorais all afternoon. They called it 'throwing the ball.' We won the game, of course, the bleachers were so quiet I'll never forget it, and do you know who was playing on Army's team? Eisenhower.
"And the Fordham game. Did I ever tell you about that one? They were trying me out in that game, seeing how I was going to do since I was kinda small. (Kinda? Five feet 9 and 144 pounds?) So I'd fake it. Take one foot in one direction, then head for the other direction. Then I'd insult 'em. Tell them I'd always heard Fordham was tough. And I'd fake in the other direction, really get 'em sore. Of course you had to have good backs to do this. If they'd hit me I'd been dead. But that afternoon . . . " Dad is off on another round of well loved, endlessly told tales. He can't remember what he read in yesterday's Chronicle, and sometimes he confuses the names of his grandchildren, but he can remember every player, every score, every game that Notre Dame played from about 1913 through 1916 and probably more if his listeners last that long. Mostly they don't.
"Of course football is different now. All those players for every position. All those time-outs. All those guys with the headphones telling 'em what to watch out for. Hell, when we started the season we were issued one uniform and that's what we played in all fall. None of those fancy shoulderpads, either." (Is he kidding or has he just forgotten? How did any of them survive to tell the tale, especially an All-American -- or was it All-Eastern in those days -- who weighed 144 pounds and is proud to say that he still does, especially to a paunchy desk-bound executive. No one has ever accused my father of having tact.)
He doesn't go to movies much. Years ago, at my suggestion, he saw "Knute Rockne, All- American." He didn't like it. "Hell, they didn't even pronounce his name right. Half the time they went around calling him Ka-nute, with a K. Nobody did that then. At least nobody I knew. And the Gipper -- of course I wasn't around then, but it wasn't that way at all. Or so the players told me."
Dad has always kept track of his players, or maybe it was the other way around. It's been a point of pride that he still hears from many of the athletes he has coached -- at John Carroll, Grinnell, Purdue, Stanford. Some of them still come to the house. And as they leave, they'll usually say with a grin, "My God. Your father, as obstinate as ever."
He wrote to Pat O'Brien and Ronald Reagan, telling them just where the movie about Rockne had erred. Back came the cordial, polite "Thank you for writing and I hope you'll like my next picture" type replies. My father was outraged: "They didn't get the point at all." Like Truman Capote's aunt with the fruitcakes, Dad still thinks that every letter he writes -- and he fires off a goodly batch to Congress these days telling them how to behave -- is opened, reflected upon and personally replied to by the addressee.
They had an unusual commencement at Notre Dame last year. I wanted my father to go. It would have been his 70th anniversary. And the Gipper, all grown up and president of the United States, was to make the address. Even Pat O'Brien was to show up. But Dad didn't want to go, despite the fact that I offered to go with him so (I thought I put it discreetly) he could show me around the campus.
"The last time I was at Notre Dame was for my 50th. I got lost walking around the campus, it's changed so much, and had to ask some damn guard the way back to the dormitory. At the banquet that night I gave a speech. Had 'em in the aisles." "Looking for rocks?" I said, anticipating his usual second liner. This time he didn't laugh. "No," he said. "They clapped because I was the only member of the team there. Do you think it could be any different this time?"
I didn't try to urge him. After all, I told myself, he's 93, and even the mechanics of getting on and off the airplanes would bother him, and he hates to be in a position where he is not in control. He'd be worried about not remembering names or how to get to the auditorium. Besides, his buddies are all gone, or in some warehouse for the living being fed with a spoon. So I didn't press it.
But as I saw the newspaper pictures and read the accounts of the conversation between the would-be Rockne and the film-version Gipper about the good old days, I thought that my father would have set them straight.
After all, he was there.