Yesterday on my way to pick up Elijah from school I stopped off at the video store to drop off a rental, and on my way back to the car I looked down the wide sidewalk of the strip mall, past Round Table, the stationery store and the frame store all the way down to the end at the sign that read ‘Big 5 Sporting Goods’. Recently Eli and I have been taking some time to play in the big field behind our house after he gets home from school and before we have dinner, and one of the things we’ve been doing lately has been kicking around his soccer ball. Now, his soccer ball has been kinda flaccid and thus doesn’t really go all that far when you kick it, so I decide that while I was there, I might as well go over and buy a ball pump. I walk on down to the end of the mall, and look in the doors of the sporting goods store, and it’s at this point that I reflect that I’ve never actually had a ball pump, nor did I really own any sports equipment to speak of as a kid. No footballs, no basketballs, baseballs, soccer balls, gloves, bats, etc. Pretty much I was a boy devoid of sports gear. I didn’t know the first thing about ball pumps, other than they had that strange metal needle at the end for pumping up the ball. I walk in, and the store seems strange and otherworldly to me — foreign soil to the overweight asthmatic D&D geek with no sports training whatsoever. I think maybe I’ve been in a sports supply store a total of five times in my life, if you don’t count getting ski equipment, which strangely was the only sport my parents and I indulged in, and that’s only because my grandparents used to rent a big cabin in the snow every year for the family. Once I went in and got fishing gear, but hardly ever used it because my dad doesn’t fish. In general, however, the exotic balls, pads, bats, sticks, skates are all a mystery to me.
Once in the store, I start to stroll, as I realize this world now belongs to me. I am the father of two boys, and I will not commit the same crimes of negligence of which my father was guilty. No, this is a Rosetta stone that translates ritual physical games into father-son bonding, and I am determined to learn its secret hieroglyphs. As of late, Julie’s uncle Lou has been indulging Eli in the pursuit of baseball, and has recently given him a glove and ball. With the intention of further promoting this impulse, I walked over to the baseball section of the store. I wanted to get myself a glove so that we could play catch, and maybe a ball and bat of the appropriate size and material constitution appropriate for a four-year-old boy. Once I arrived, however, there were so many gloves and bats of differing sizes and makes that I felt instantly overwhelmed. How do you pick a glove? This is something that every father teaches his son, and that son teaches it to his own son, and yet that sacred chain had been broken in me, and I have no special knowledge to pass down or to use for myself. I’m a sports illiterate trying to get my bearings in a sea of symbols and gear that mean nothing to me, yet I know in my gut have meaning. I pick up a few mits, with no success of figuring out what the differences are, and what the right glove entails. I look at the bats, and I have no idea — what’s the appropriate size bat for a 4 year old? there were short T-ball bats, medium sized bats of foam or hollow plastic, and then the real deal. There were nerf baseballs, whiffle balls, as well as the classic white leather stitched. Soon I realize I’m completely over my head, and I need a guide. I decide I’ll enlist ‘Unka Lou’s’ help on this at some later date. Back to my initial task at hand, the ball pump.
I meandered around the store for entirely too long, dazzled by the alien artifacts, before I ask one of the stockers where the ‘ball pumps’ are, and he points me to a rotating carousel stand 5 feet away. Smooth move, Lewis and Clark. Even here, I’m faced with decisions on size, quality, set of functional parameters, and color. I decide to go cheap and functional, getting only the basic set of ball pump features required to do the job. It was translucent, it had a screw on ball-valve, a larger taper-valve for filling up what can only be guessed as water rafts, and was only five bucks. There were more fancy versions, but I didn’t feel myself worthy of such gear just yet.
Leaving the store with my acquired treasure, I glanced my shoulder at the fishing poles — I see these somewhere in my future. All around the store, I see echoes of what is to come next in my fathering two boys. I feel blessed, for what was always a sadness for me, my lack of a ‘masculine’ upbringing, is not irrevocable. It is not too late for me to take up the ball and bat, to learn how to play, and to spend hours celebrating the use of physical energy. I have been given an opening, an opportunity, to discover something I felt left behind when my father never managed to pass on this mantle of knowledge to me, when I was ten, and desiring to play little league.
Enlightened and inspired, I trekked off to pick up my eldest, and let him know of my intentions of taking him in back to the field to kick the ball around and ‘play soccer’ with him. He’s totally excited, which makes me excited. In playing with Eli as his daddy, I am also simultaneously myself as a child, living out the fantasy of my dad taking me out to the field to play ball – something he never did with me. We get home, Eli announces to mom that we’re going out to play, which makes me proud, and I grab two of Eli’s grey-and-black soccer balls, and I have it in my head that I’ll teach Eli the values of pumping up a ball, and each of us can kick a ball around together, since I know he doesn’t like it when I ‘steal’ the ball away from him — not yet at least.
As we’re walking out the front and around the corner to the field, we’re approached by two young kids, maybe 1-2 years Eli’s senior, and their caregivers, who look to be in their late teens or early twenties. The boy (Jack, as we later learn) engages Eli instantly and starts up a conversation about Power Rangers, which Eli just totally loves, even though he’s never seen the show. The girl, (Maddie) is happy to be playing along with Jack and Eli. At this point, I can sense what is going to happen before it even happens, and I have to admit I have a bit of resistance to it. ‘No’, I think, ‘I came out here to play with Eli. Eli’s my friend!’, and though I sit him down for a bit while Jack and Maddie go off to play in the playground, to teach him about pumping up the soccer balls, before I know it, Eli has run off to play with his two new friends. At this point, my heart breaks a little bit, and I realize I’ve been left on the field for the new and the better. All of a sudden, I am 7 again, and I’m picked last on the team. However, I’m a mature daddy-type who loves to see my kid in action, so I get over it and realize that Eli is just a healthy social kid and his love for me is not diminished by his desire to hang out with his new pals.
I know at this point, I have the choice of sitting on my ass and just watching it happen, or to join in. So, I went over and hung out with Jack, Maddie and Eli. These kids were a few years older than Eli, but they were right there with him in their approach, and Eli is no one to be cowed by older kids. We hung out, played on the bars, kicked the balls around for a bit, and eventually I had to bring Eli home for dinner. The kids stayed in the field as we went around back to wave to them from our back yard fence. Of course part of me really wanted to kick the ball around with Eli and spend some one-on-one time, but also I thought it was wonderful to watch him do his thing, and to not get in the way. Eli is a tremendous individual — a force of nature in many ways, and I’m lucky just to witness him, and I know I get his full attention from time to time. I’m just glad he’s here, and he’s letting me tag along for the ride. And, just maybe, I’ll be first pick on his baseball team.