My favorite basketball player and cross-handed golfer has passed away. My final hero, I suspect. My father.
If Harry Vardon, Walter Hagen or another of his new golfing buddies happens to mention this appreciation, Pop surely will cringe. Few were more uncomfortable with emotion, or even a flicker of fame.
The last several years, I've greeted what passes for athletic courage with a combination of bemusement and disgust, for Pop played hurt nearly every day of his adult life.
He joked that a person couldn't live on our farm without one leg being shorter than the other, so hilly was much of the land.
Cows frequently objected to our livelihood being pulled from them twice a day and nicked him with a hind hoof. Just when those welts were melting, a horse he was trying to tame for me would toss him in a woodpile. Or a corn picker would mangle a hand.
Nothing was quite tough enough to keep a smile away for long.
Not the heart trouble that kept him off the golf course too often the last five years.
Not the cancer that sucked the rest of his strength the last two years.
Not the stroke that took his speech the last three months but also, in a mysterious miracle, actually got us to communicating better.
He was ornery, and sly in the best sense.
In our area of southeastern Pennsylvania a generation ago, recently married couples were serenaded by the community. The ritual was a surprise, and called for bell clanging and other commotion until the bride and groom made an appearance together.
Pop suddenly disappeared as the celebration was building. Flustered, my mother finally decided to go it alone. Stepping gingerly onto the porch, she was ready for nearly everything -- except the site of Pop clapping merrily among the rowdies.
He quickly leaped to her side, and never left it until 17 days ago, late in the afternoon of their 46th wedding anniversary.
You practically needed a crowbar to pry anything personal about Pop from him. Such as the time he spent his entire allowance on a wild airplane ride over Washington, D.C., during a high school trip in the early '30s.
Or the time he all but faked the trunks off Lew Bradley in one of those high school gyms where out of bounds was a wall. Being 5-6 and nearly a foot shorter than Bradley, Pop used the sort of little man's cunning that would be popular today if there were any shorties left in basketball.
Up went Pop's head near the free-throw line; up went Bradley's body. Through the giant's legs, like an Indian into a wigwam, scurried Pop -- for a layup.
Just an old dirt farmer, he'd say, years after selling the place when his son figured plowing through sport was more fun than a 10-acre field.
That sale left him comfortable, although hardly wealthy. And stunned at how the financial world sometimes spins. Having paid cash for everything he ever owned, Pop was initially rejected for a Visa card -- for never establishing credit anywhere.
He was amazed at my familiarity with the famous.
"You mean Howard Cosell called," he once said. "To say hello?"
As sadly happens to so many fathers and sons, we shared much except our inner thoughts. We were often near each other, yet too rarely close.
Our love sometimes was obvious to everyone but us. We'd stalk each other for assurance.
Did I seem to be buying his advice on tires?
Could he ever be caught reading my stuff?
Still, we seemed more likely to hoist the Statue of Liberty, as though it were a Cabbage Patch Kid, than embrace.
Ten years or so ago, we finally met -- on a golf course. No one ever attacked the game more enthusiastically, or uniquely, than John E. Denlinger.
We played courses country club dandies either would laugh at or run from. One near the beach provided bug spray on the first and 10th tees. Our favorite was one near home that had a religious flair, possibly the only course in the world with a hole on which a hacker could dunk his tee ball in the River Jordan and a shot farther on in the Sea of Galilee.
Pop's grip was as innovative as Vardon's, although not destined to be as popular. He grabbed the clubs the way he had baseball bats in his youth, cross-handed, with several inches separating those gnarled farmer's fists.
On the first tee of our first round, I was about to politely suggest how this bizarre grip defied every known theory of golf when he took a lunge at the ball and bisected the fairway with it.
In his 60s, and stubborn, Pop would have been an impossible pupil for the most patient swing doctor. Besides, the goofy-looking thing actually worked, which pleased him even more.
A late convert to golf, Pop wanted to make up for as much lost time as possible. That and being naturally impatient led us to maneuver electric carts as though we were chasing freedom on a clogged freeway instead of par.
We played every hole, though not always in the suggested order. If there was a backup, say, on the fifth through seventh holes, Pop would hang a left and we'd speed toward the empty 13th tee.
Our scorecard looked as though we were playing bingo rather than golf.
"How'd you do on the front?" a friend might inquire as we hustled toward the 17th green.
"Haven't played it all yet," I'd say.
Pop long since had mastered the fundamentals of living: family, loyalty, integrity, generosity. His consecutive-game streak was singing in the Chestnut Level Presbyterian Church choir for more than 50 years, very often as the entire bass section.
He'd almost always give you everything except his feeling. The day after his stroke, he finally unwrapped one of those treasures.
Years overdue, but not too late.
I was near his bed in the hospital. Unable to talk, surely frightened and humiliated, he gestured with his head and left hand.
Did he want water?
The sheet pulled higher?
His expression all but yelled: "No, stupid."
Finally, I managed to understand that he wanted me closer, and when I got to the head of the bed he threw his good arm around my neck, yanked me down toward him and kissed me.
I pulled back.
"We okay?" I said.
He grinned and, with some difficulty, formed a circle with his thumb and index finger.