My Old Friend

I have an old sweatshirt—very old—frayed at the collar, stretched at the waist, threadbare at the elbows.  Its original khaki colour, now faded, is spotted and spattered with stains, reminders of bygone games of a younger day—softball in the summer, flag football in the autumn.  Hardly discernible, though once printed boldly across the front, are the words Property of the Hockey Machine, a team I played for in my long-ago youth.

Despite the hundreds of launderings it’s endured over the years, brownish blotches—long-dried blood from one cut or another—speckle the sleeves.  Grass stains, acquired after multiple falls and spills, add their random pattern to the cloth.  A few holes, too small to stick my pinkie through, but growing, pock the fabric near the neck and waistband.

Fade-Vintage-Rip-Frayed-Cut-Sweatshurt-Khaki-

These days, for eight months of the year, the sweatshirt lies forgotten in the bottom of a drawer in my closet.  But when fall begins to give way to another winter, when it’s too cold to be out and about in a summer-light shirt, I rummage around for it, knowing it will be there, just as it has always been.

There’s no ceremony when I find it, no ritual, no welcome for a long-absent boon companion.  I simply pull it out, slip it on, and go.  Although clean when stowed away each spring, it still surrounds me comfortingly with the faded, familiar smells of male sweat, grass, and liniment.  It’s comfortable, it’s warm, and it fits.  When I put it on for the first time each autumn, it’s as though I had never packed it away.

Some of my acquaintances stare a tad too long when they see me approach, proudly clad in my sweatshirt.  “You still wearin’ that rag?” one might say.

Another might add, “Why don’t you try wearin’ it inside out?”

“I think he already is!” the first might reply, cackling gleefully.

teasing

They probably wish the sweatshirt was theirs, so their raillery bothers me not one bit.

My wife, however, cringes visibly whenever she sees me wearing it outside the house.  Inside, I never leave it where she might get her hands on it.  I mean, why risk what she might do?

This old sweatshirt, this relic of my youth, has become a fond reminder of a time when I was younger, stronger, quicker—when everything seemed possible and within my reach.

I simply cannot let it go.

Similarly, I have an old friend of more than sixty years’ standing.  When we were young and single, still living at home with our parents, we spent uncounted hours in each others’ company.  We played, we went to school, we took summer jobs together.  We talked on the phone—offering advice to one another, confiding our innermost secrets, fears, and dreams to the one pal we knew would never let us down.  We passed from adolescence into young manhood together.

With adulthood, though, things began to change.  We chose different schools to attend after high school, and divergent careers to follow upon graduation.  In due course, we married our high school sweethearts and began to move in different circles.  Children took up a great deal of our time and energy, curtailing the social opportunities we once enjoyed.  We lived in homes far removed from each other.

Parting-Ways

And as a result, we stopped spending a lot of time together.

But faithfully, year after year after year, right after Christmas, we would join each other for a few days with our young families at my old friend’s cottage.  Tucked cosily in the snow-blanketed woods, nestled on the shore of an ice-covered lake, the cottage was warmed by a blazing fire, the laughter of children, and the comfort of a shared friendship with all its memories and love.

It was never the same as once it had been, not with our wives and children sharing the space and the good times with us.  It was only late at night, by the embers of the dying fire, that we seemed to have time to talk as we used to.  With the others abed, we’d hunker down as in days of yore and talk our hearts out.

Interestingly, there was never any emotion-charged greeting between us when we arrived—no boisterous welcome, no demonstrative renewing of the old relationship.  We seemed, simply, to resume an ongoing conversation that had been briefly—but only temporarily—interrupted.  The flow of friendship followed a familiar pattern every time we were reunited, a veritable rhythm of life.

rhythm

My old friend is warm, he’s time-honoured, he’s absolutely trustworthy.  He’s always been there, and he abides to this day.  I slip into his comfortable embrace as easily as into my old sweatshirt—and with the same joyfulness.

Eventually, I know, both will be lost to me, or me to them.  But until that time, I will rejoice each time we renew the bonds.

I love that old sweatshirt.

I treasure my old friend!

Fore!

Upon retirement some twenty years ago, I moved with my wife to Florida for six months of the year.  Where once we had been intrepid winter-sportspeople, participating avidly in (and watching) hockey, curling, and skiing, we forsook them all for the warmer climes of the sunny south—and for year-round golf.

Nestled into a cozy villa in a golfing community, we took to the links as many as four or five times a week—foursomes with friends, club leagues, and even occasional tournaments.

My regular men’s foursome was with three friends, and playing with me was pretty much an act of charity on their parts.  Naturally enough, our conversations generally revolved around the state of our respective games.

foursome

These fellows had, for years, recorded better scores than I had.  I was never sure from week to week which single digit represented their handicaps, but I knew what my handicap was—a pronounced lack of ability to hit the ball where I wanted it to go.  Because of this, I had to put up with their wisecracks, clumsily disguised as advice.

“Y’know, you’re usually standing too close to the ball,” Charlie would chortle.  “After you’ve hit it!”

“Maybe it’s how you’re gripping the club,” John would join in.  “Have you tried playing left-handed?”

“Actually,” Bob would blurt, unable to contain himself, “you’re not really playing golf.  The game you’re playing should be called, If Only…!

Mind you, the ball always went where I hit it—although rarely where I intended to hit it.

To tell the truth, I knew my friends were a lot better than I at the game.  But the gap seemed to be widening with each passing year, and I finally had to acknowledge I was the guy who always had the highest scores.

a-golf-scorecard-and-tee-picture_csp0481297

What really bothered me were their claims that they played golf to relax, to shake off the everyday cares that accompany getting older.  When we’d finish a round, they’d be happy, serene, and ready for a self-satisfied nap.

Not so with me!  I generally came in after eighteen holes feeling frustrated with my score, angry about the balls I had lost in several of the ponds, and despondent over my lack of improvement.  My friends would laughingly console me by saying, “Relax already.  You’re not good enough to get mad!”

So, in desperation, I decided to take a lesson from the local pro at our club, who watched me hit a few balls on the practice range.

“Hmmm,” she offered, after witnessing my futile flaying of the club, “I think you need to take a couple of weeks off, get away from it for awhile.”

“Really?” I replied.  “That’s it?”

“Yup.  Then, you should consider giving up the game!”

Undeterred by her flippant attitude (and figuring she’d probably been put up to it by my friends), I decided to persevere—but, I have to say, only after making several minor modifications to the rules.

rules

On one day, for example, I would decide on the score I wanted to shoot before I began each round.  When I reached that number, regardless of which hole I was on, I would simply stop counting my strokes.  And guess what?  I began to feel quite pleased with myself—although, I was a tad concerned about how my friends seemed to feel.

“Seventy-five?” they’d chorus disbelievingly.  “Really?”

On a different day, I’d resort to another of my modifications, this one having to do with visualization.  Because I knew what constituted a good golf shot, even if I had trouble executing it, I’d conjure a mental image of what I wanted each shot to look like.  Then, Zen-like, I’d slash at the ball.  If I liked the result, if it matched my visual image, I’d count the stroke; if not, I didn’t.  And just like magic, my scores improved.

As did my mood.

A third minor change, one I particularly liked, allowed me to stick almost exactly to the rules.  I would play every stroke by the book, not trying to finagle the score on any hole—I’d tee off, hit crisply from the fairway, putt every stroke (no gimmies), and I’d count every penalty stroke (if there were any).  The only deviation from the rules of golf was that I used an imaginary ball, rather than a real one.

For a long time, I really believed this new game of ‘air-golf’ could catch on, and I wouldn’t have to bend over on every hole to retrieve a ball from the cup.

Looking back, there were a host of changes I made to my rules—

  • there was no such thing as a lost ball because the missing ball was on or near the course and would eventually be found and claimed by someone else, thereby making it a stolen ball;
  • when my ball was sliced or hooked into the rough, it could be lifted and placed on the fairway at a point equal to the distance it had carried or rolled into the rough with no penalty, because I should not be penalized for tall grass which grounds-keepers had failed to mow;
  • if my putt passed over a hole without dropping, it would be deemed to have dropped because the Law of Gravity should always supersede the Rules of Golf; and
  • if any of my putts stopped close enough to the cup that they could be blown in, I could blow them in without penalty; this would not apply to balls more than three inches from the hole, however, because I didn’t want to make a mockery of the game.

putt

With these changes in place, my scores began to match those of my friends in short order.  And I can’t say they were pleased about it.  In fact, so petulant did they become that, after only a week, I had to abandon these rule modifications altogether.

It was either that, or I’d have found myself playing alone!

Mind you—not that I want to lose my friends—I do shoot my best scores when I’m playing alone.

Just sayin’!

 

Also Known As

For most of my growing-up years, I wanted a nickname so badly it hurt.  But it never came to pass.  Not once did I ever have a proper sobriquet bestowed on me.

As one who spent a whole lot of time playing team sports, I knew countless other boys by their nicknames—Dingo, Big-Guy, Scoop, Madge (short for Magic-Man), and, rather unkindly, Lard.  When I think of them now, I can’t even remember their real names.  Nor do I picture them as the old men they surely must be; rather, I see them as they were back then—immortals, in a way.

chevy youth baseball

But I was not fated to be one of those ‘also known as’ guys.  My coaches forever called me by my surname or my jersey number.

Twelve!  You’re on deck!  Get out there!

If you are of my era, a Canadian childhood spanning the 40’s, 50’s and into the 60’s, and if you were a sports fan, you will know that our greatest heroes all had nicknames.

In basketball—the Stilt, the Big O, the Cooz, The Mailman, Pistol Pete.  In baseball—Teddy Ballgame, Joltin’ Joe, the Barber, Stan the Man, the Mick.

In football—Crazy Legs, Broadway Joe, the Deacon, Sweetness, Mean Joe.  In golf—the Squire, Slammin’ Sam, the Hawk, the King, the Golden Bear.

In hockey, my favourite of games—Mr. Zero, the Rocket, Boom-Boom, the Big M, the Roadrunner, Cujo, the Dominator, Number 4.

Female athletes, too, had nicknames, ranging across a number of sports—the Babe, Little Mo, Mighty Mouse, Tiger, Moses, the Swiss Miss, Flo Jo, the Black Widow.

nancy_green_lange_chamonix_history

[*The real names of these athletes are shown at the end of this post.]

But I never had a nickname.

At one point—desperate for a nom de guerre I could call my own, and because I was a year younger than my compadres in school and sport—I began to call myself The Kid.  I think I became a legend in my own mind.  In conversation with friends, I would say, The Kid did this…or The Kid did that…

To my chagrin, the nickname never caught on.  Nor did the practice of referring to myself in the third person, although it did garner me a lot of strange looks.

There were times during these years that I suffered the experience of being called a variety of names by others not favourably disposed towards me—loser, dork, pencil-neck, to name a few, plus some even less polite.  But those were not nicknames; proper nicknames had to be given in recognition of one’s accomplishments, talents, or character.

Sticks and stones…I would mutter quietly.  The Kid is above all that!

The closest I ever came to acquiring a nickname was at the end of my playing days, striving mightily to keep up with skaters twenty years younger than I in old-timers’ hockey.  But it wasn’t my teammates who conferred it; it was my opponents, muscling me unceremoniously along the boards.

hockey2

Outta the way, Grampaw!

Not exactly what I’d always aspired to be known as.

So, as you might expect, it has come as something of a relief to me that now, at this ripe old age, I have finally acquired a nickname I can be proud of.  Mind you, I bestowed it myself, to designate me as a ‘teller of tales tall and true’.

I am Talebender.

*Famous Athletes’ Real Names—

  • Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Bob Cousy, Karl Malone, Pete Maravich.
  • Ted Williams, Joe Dimaggio, Sal Maglie, Stan Musial, Mickey Mantle.
  • Elroy Hirsch, Joe Namath, David Jones, Walter Payton, Joe Greene.
  • Gene Sarazen, Sam Snead, Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus.
  • Frankie Brimsek, Maurice Richard, Bernie Geoffrion, Frank Mahovlich, Yvan Cournoyer, Curtis Joseph, Dominik Hasek, Bobby Orr.
  • Mildred Didrikson Zaharias, Maureen Connelly, Elaine Tanner, Nancy Greene, Althea Gibson, Martina Hingis, Florence Joyner, Jeanette Lee.

 

 

Paulie

A friend of mine from our teenage years died recently, after a long, slow decline, taken from us before his time.  For more than fifty years, Paulie and I celebrated our friendship in the company of our wives, themselves close friends since high school, and our children.

We journeyed through many stages of life together—boyhood teammates and opponents in the sports we loved to play; young men starting out, full of hope and sure of success; new fathers, surprised at how quickly we got to that point; fellow-travellers far and wide, our growing families in tow; and eventually grandfathers, proud all over again of a new generation.  Through it all, we played our games and remained steadfast friends.

Our boyhoods were spent in the suburbs, where every community had its own park, and we spent hours there after school and on weekends.  We were from different neighbourhoods, but connected on those playing fields during the endless summers and wondrous winters, eager warriors on the ball-diamonds and hockey-rinks.  Especially the hockey-rinks.

In every park there was an outdoor ice pad or two, where neighbourhood fathers (and a few intrepid mothers) would stand every night, alone in the dark, flooding water on the rinks to provide fresh ice for the following day.  I’m not sure we thanked them enough back then, but we sure benefited from their dedication.

By the time we’d arrive at the rink, skates dangling from the hockey sticks propped on our shoulders, fresh snow had often fallen.  So the first kid to get there would take one of the shovels propped in the surrounding snowbanks, and start clearing the ice.  As more of us arrived, we’d take turns until the ice was cleaned off.  And then we’d lace up and the game would begin.

Paulie and I were habitués of those parks.

As adults, our careers took us in different directions, and to different cities.  But we talked frequently by phone—mostly about business, our families, and, of course, sports.  Especially hockey.  We never talked about dying and the hereafter, and what it might hold, not even near the end.  We weren’t afraid of it, I don’t think;  it was just too abstract to be contemplated.

But now it’s happened.  My friend has gone.

But where?  Where is he now, I wonder?  Or, more precisely, where is the essence of who he was?  His soul, some might call it.  In my sorrow, I’ve concocted a scenario that consoles me, regardless that it may sound far-fetched to others.  Paulie would understand.

There’s a celestial park somewhere, complete with a neighbourhood ice pad.  It’s covered with the whitest snow any of us has ever seen, and my friend is the first one there.  He’s grabbed a shovel, and he’s busy scraping the ice.

Sooner or later, I like to imagine, I’ll be joining him.  He knows that, so he’s not troubled.  And when that day arrives, when he sees me coming, he’ll stop for a minute, lean on his shovel, and shout in my direction.

“’Bout time ya got here!  Where ya been?”

I’ll shrug and wave a greeting, my wide smile letting him know how happy I am to see him again.

“Grab a shovel,” he’ll yell, as I stuff cold feet into my skates.  “This is hard work!”

But it won’t be, not really.  It will be joyous work—legs pumping, hearts pounding, breath forming around our heads, skate-blades cutting their cold, choppy sound in the ice.  Just like always…just like always.

In no time at all, the snow will be cleared, the ice will be ready.  And when it is, I choose to believe, we’ll toss a puck out on the ice, take up our sticks yet one more time, and play our game together, the game we always loved.  The way we loved each other.

Paulie and I2

Teammates again, friends forever.

Paul Joseph Boyer

26 July 1942 – 16 March 2017