Notes for Eulogy for My Father

In the early 1930s, my father worked as a minor-league umpire on the East Coast, teaming up occasionally with Emmett Ashford, who was something of a showman and who thirty years later became the first black umpire in the major leagues. Some people thought all of my father’s behind-the-plate antics amounted to little more than “white Ashford.” We’d go to Giants games not when Koufax was the competition or bats were being given away but when Ashford was calling balls and strikes. All game long, my dad would keep his binoculars on Ashford and say to me, “Emmett’s calling a low strike” or “Emmett was out of position on that one” or “If that guy gives Emmett any more guff, Emmett’s going to give him the old heave-ho.” Then I’d look up and Emmett would be giving the guy the old heave-ho.

It wasn’t the major leagues that played at Golden Gate Park. It wasn’t even the minor leagues. It was something called the industrial league. The Machinists would play the Accountants; Pacific Gas and Electric would play Western Airlines. But they played with a hardball, they played for blood, their wives cheered like enraged schoolgirls, and my father was the umpire. He’d leave on Sunday morning, carrying his spikes and metal mask, with his chest protector underneath his blue uniform and a little whisk broom, with which to dust off home plate, sticking out of his pocket. I’ll never forget the first time I saw him umpire.

It wasn’t a stadium at all but an immense field without fences. There was a diamond, though, and dugouts and a half-circle of stands. I stood behind the screen, watching Denny’s Restaurant play Safeway Market. Neither team meant a thing to me, and after a few innings I looked around for my father, whom I figured must be working the next game. Then I realized the big man in blue, squatting behind the catcher with every pitch, was my dad. In certain sections of the country, in certain leagues and stadiums, the spectators are expected to focus all of their economic and sexual frustrations upon the lonely figure of the umpire, but in San Francisco, in Golden Gate Park, on at least one Sunday in the summer of 1966, they didn’t do that.

Denny’s Restaurant and Safeway Market weren’t playing up to par; my father soon emerged as the main attraction. When a batter took a called third strike, my father would parody the victim’s indignation. When a batter drew a walk, my father would run halfway to first base with him to speed things along. He was the only umpire working the game, so on balls hit to the outfield he’d run down the foul line to make sure the ball had been caught, and on balls hit to the infield he’d run to first base to be in position to decide. He signaled safe by spreading his arms and flapping them, as if readying for flight. He signaled out by jerking his thumb, and the entire right side of his body, down. Between innings he juggled three baseballs.

He worked all day, four long games, 10 in the morning until 6 at night, and at the last out of the last game the fans applauded. It was only light, polite, scattered applause, and maybe they were clapping for the winning team, but to me it was a thunderous ovation and they were thanking the umpire. I stood up behind the screen and joined them. I cheered for my father.

Two of the things I love the most in the world—language and sports—my father taught me to love. I’m no longer much of an athlete at all. I have a bad back, tendonitis in my shoulder, a trick knee, I wear orthotics in my shoes to balance the unevenness of my legs, and I have a little pinch in my neck that’s been bothering me lately, whereas at 97 my father’s major ailment appears to be tennis elbow. He gets upset when it rains because that means he can only work out in the gym rather than walk around the track and then work out in the gym. He still swims most days. Until very recently he played golf and, occasionally, tennis. He’s the most vigorous person I’ve ever known. From his essay about a raft trip our family took down the Salmon River: “I was up at 6 the next morning and volunteered to gather the kindling and other firewood. The other members of my family snuggled in their sleeping bags and made it just in time for the 7:30 breakfast.”

Since I was 6 years old, the first thing he and I have done every morning is read the sports page. One of my fondest memories is from about 20 years ago—the two of us sitting on his couch in the dark, listening to the radio broadcast of a Giants-Dodgers game; when Mike Marshall hit a three-run home run in the 10th inning to win it for the Dodgers, he and I looked at each other and we were both, a little weirdly, crying.

Games have held us together, but also words. I’ve always loved his love of puns, bad puns and worse puns; admired his ability to tell a joke and a story. The day before my college commencement, he and I went on a tour of John Brown House at the Rhode Island Historical Society. On and on the docent droned, giving us the official version of American history. My father and I tried not to laugh, but as we went from room to room, we were in an ecstasy of impudent giggles. “Subvert the dominant paradigm”: so goes the bumper sticker, which has passed now into cultural cliche. In so many ways, though, he has showed me how to do exactly that: to question received wisdom, to insist on my own angle, to view language as a playground, and a playground as bliss. He showed me how to love the words that emerged from my mouth and from my typewriter, how to love being in my own body, how to love being in my own skin and not some other skin.

On an Army transport ship taking my father and 5,000 other soldiers from Seattle to Okinawa in May 1945, my father played in a poker game that continued for three days and nights; players left only to use the bathroom or get food or sleep. They’d all read about the bloody Marine invasion on Okinawa a month before, so there was, according to my father, a fatalistic feeling about the game of “Tomorrow we die” and “Hell, it’s only money.”

On the third day, my father was ahead $1,000. They were playing Seven-Card Stud. The first two cards he drew were kings. He immediately bet the $2 limit, trying to drive out as many of the other players as he could—a poker strategy his father had taught him. My dad drew a third king on the fourth card, giving him what was now an extremely hard-to-beat hand.

By the fifth card there were only two people left—my dad and a young private from Georgia, “Rebel.”

When my father bet $2, Rebel said, “Ah raise you, Sarge. It’s two dollars and two dollars better.”

My father, figuring that Rebel had maybe a pair or a possible straight, threw in $2 to see him. Another poker lesson learned by my father from his father: never let anybody bluff you, especially when you and the other player are the last two in the game. “You’ve got to keep them honest,” he told him, “even if you have to put in your last dime to ‘see’ them. Remember that.”

On the sixth card, my father began with a bet and Rebel again raised him $2. My dad now had four kings and, looking at the cards Rebel was showing, he couldn’t imagine what he might have that would beat four kings. My father “saw” Rebel’s raise.

When the seventh card was dealt “down and dirty,” my father said, “It’s up to the raiser. Up to you, Rebel.”

“It’ll cost you four dollars to see me, Sarge,” he said, which got a laugh from some of his buddies.

My father saw Rebel again and asked him what he had.

“I got me a little old straight,” he said and started to rake in the $75 pot.

“Not good enough, Rebel,” my father said, showing his four kings.

Rebel slammed his cards down on the table and said, “You play like a Gahdamned Jew!”—stretching the word “Jew” out, according to my father, as if it had several syllables, making it sound like “Jooo-ooo.”

The chow whistle sounded, the game broke up, and my father asked Rebel, “Why did you use that expression, ‘play like a Goddamned Jew’?”

Rebel said that his father told him that all Jews were sharp poker players. My dad said that some of his friends back in Brooklyn were poor players, almost as bad as Rebel and his friends. (Whenever my grandfather got good cards, his entire manner would change. He’d pull his chair up closer to the table and say in Yiddish, “Ubber Yetz,” which, loosely translated, means “But, now…”: the battle was joined and my grandfather was ready for action. The other players would laugh and say, “Well, it looks like Sam has one of his ‘Ubber Yetz’ hands. Who’s going to see him?” “Enough with the jokes,” he’d say. “Are you here to play poker? I bet a quarter for openers. Is anybody in?” One or two would stay in and my grandfather would usually win the pots, which were never very big.) Then my father told Rebel he was Jewish. Rebel didn’t believe him; my father had blue eyes, blond hair, and a deep tan. My dad said that he’d provide proof if he’d just step into the latrine, where he’d show him that he was circumcised. Rebel said he believed him.

The comedian Danny Kaye and my father were classmates at P.S. 149. In the mid-1950s, shortly before I was born, Kaye gave a one-man performance at the Hollywood Bowl, which my father and mother and half a dozen of their friends attended. At intermission, Kaye walked to the front of the stage and asked how many in the audience were from Brooklyn. Quite a few hands went up. He asked how many had gone to P.S. 149. About 10 people raised their hands. Then he asked if anyone remembered the P.S. 149 fight song. My dad’s was the only

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