A Carolina November in June

It may be unfathomable for most to associate Father's Day and Carolina football, but it happens for me each year. The incongruities between the cool crisp Saturday mornings of early November and the jungle-like heat of a South Carolina June seem eons apart, but yet ...

Every generation blames the one before
And all of their frustrations
Come beating on your door
I know that I'm a prisoner
To all my father held so dear
I know that I'm a hostage
To all his hopes and fears
I just wish I could have told him
In the living years…

"Living Years" - Mike and The Mechanics

It may be unfathomable for most to associate Father's Day and Carolina football, but it happens for me each year. The incongruities between the cool crisp Saturday mornings of early November and the jungle-like heat of a South Carolina June seem eons apart, but yet are intimate neighbors in the recesses of my memory. It haunts me each year with its passage, yet I am inextricably bound by its relationship. It forms the delicate boundaries of my role as a father and my role as a son with my own father.

My father grew up in the heart of the Tobacco Belt, north of Raleigh, in the midst of the Great Depression. They were essentially sharecroppers, eking out a meager existence in the abject squalor so well described by Erskine Caldwell. After high school and a stint in the Civilian Conservation Corp, he managed to get into North Carolina State University in Raleigh. For three years, he attended classes during the day and worked two other jobs in the afternoons and evenings to pay his way. That is, until the Depression caught up with him again. The jobs and the money ran out his senior year. He left N.C. State unable to graduate, passed his engineering boards anyway, and entered his career.

Like most children of the Depression, he was a no-nonsense kind of guy. He despised wastefulness, was a firm adherent to discipline and responsibility, and absolutely abhorred any pretenses of laziness and sloth. Needless to say by my teen years in the mid-to-late 1970s, he and I butted heads on a daily if not hourly basis. He thought I was a lazy free-spirit and a rudderless ship that spent way too much time with my nose between book covers and not enough time "doing something constructive". I was convinced that his hardscrabble childhood had robbed his life of the ability to smile, to relax, to be anything other than the curmudgeonly asshole I thought he had become. My mother became a woeful spectator, caught in the crossfire of the verbal blood-sport that constituted our relationship during that period.

In the fall of 1978, I entered the University of South Carolina. My father paid the first semester and told me "you're on your own". I would be responsible for footing the bill if I wanted to continue beyond that first semester – much as he had done some 40 years earlier. I found odd jobs, worked summers and Christmas breaks, and found the way to pay my own bills - barely. My academics were stimulating, but more importantly, I learned discipline, responsibility, and self-sufficiency. I seldom went home during my four years in Columbia, if nothing else to avoid the shrapnel from the firefight that most assuredly would break-out between me and my father. I think the break did us both good and provided a cooling-off period and reassessment of our relationship. When I walked off the graduation stage at the Carolina Coliseum in May 1982, I had a different outlook on the world, had a debt-free diploma, and a father in the stands watching the first person in his family ever to graduate from college.

By the fall of 1985, I was married and was now myself a parent with one child and another on the way. Carolina football had started out with great anticipation following the "Black Magic" season. However, after a blowout win against The Citadel and a testy win over App State, the wheels came off with three straight blowout losses at the hands of Michigan, Georgia, and Pitt. We were struggling by mid season to hit the .500 mark. More and more fans started to write the season off as yet another mediocre Carolina year. Knowing that my father had not been to a college football game in well over 35 years, and having an extra ticket, I thought the upcoming N.C. State game in early November might interest him. I invited him and surprisingly, he accepted.

My dad was always a gregarious sort of guy. He never occupied a room; he consumed it. He arrived at my house a full two hours earlier than planned, his excitement bubbling over into his conversation as he burst through the door.

"Hey Chief, how ya doing? Where's the coffee? You draggin' ass this morning? I've been up for days. Raked all the leaves in the front yard, bagged ‘em, got cleaned up and hit the road. All of that and to find your lazy carcass hasn't even opened one eye."

I handed my dad a mug of coffee and continued the good-natured banter.

"Thanks, Dad, but I've been up awhile myself. Wrote the sequel to "War and Peace", repainted the Sistine Chapel, and discovered the cure for cancer. So, you raked a few leaves this morning?"

"Smartass," my dad muttered, as he sipped on his coffee.

We headed out and joined the garnet-and-black clad masses on Assembly Street, listening to Mick Mixon and the pre-game show on 560 AM. Inside Williams Brice, I stopped at one of the merchandise booths and selected a black Joe Mo cap with "Carolina" across the front. My father said, "Why are you getting another hat? You already have one on your head, stupid."

"I'm getting it for you. You may have gone to State, but today I'll teach you to be a Carolina fan. Besides, being in the East Stands, you'll be glad you had it by late this afternoon." Dad rather sheepishly accepted it. As we were about to leave the booth, he said "You know what I'd really like?

"What?" I asked. It was very uncharacteristic of him to ask for anything.

"I kinda like that Carolina pin over there." He was looking at a small Block – C tie tack, with the Gamecock in the middle. It had the whopping price of $3. Dad reached for his pocket, but I fought him off and had the thing bought before he could get his wallet unfolded. It didn't go well with his paisley tie, but I pinned it on him anyway and we headed to our seats.

Once in our seats, my father was mesmerized. He had never seen this many people at one time in his life. With N.C. State still representing the vestigial ACC days, the stands were rapidly approaching capacity of 74,000. The teams left the field after the pre-game warm-ups and the Carolina band was assuming their positions for the National Anthem and the Alma Mater.

Dad said "Are there this many people at every game?"

"Yeah, pretty much. Except for the Clemson game. It's worse than this."

"Clemson…Hmmph…Bunch of trashy-assed rednecks." My father was a quick study at becoming a Carolina fan.

The announcer intoned "Ladies and gentlemen, would you please rise for the playing of our National Anthem." Dad poked me in the back and said loud enough that a couple of rows in front and behind us could hear, "Take off your cap, moron. Your Uncle Harold died for that flag so you wouldn't be eating krout."

"I though you said Uncle Harold was killed in a poker game, surrounded by hookers and bourbon, for hiding aces up his sleeve?" The older couple in front of us was shaking with laughter and I heard a few titters behind us.

"I told you no such thing. Now shut up and show some respect, boy."

He lustily sang "The Star-Spangled Banner" – off-key as always, and even kept his hat off as I sang the Carolina Alma Mater. In perfect baritone, of course.

The rest of the afternoon was a flash. Dad didn't cheer for State a single time, but applauded Carolina numerous times. We small-talked some, commented on some plays. He asked about his granddaughter and his soon-to-arrive grandson; I asked about my mother. He asked about my job; I inquired as to how he was spending retirement. It was a perfect day for a father and a son who had fought far too many battles with each other, to enjoy fellowship together under the backdrop of Carolina football on a balmy fall afternoon.

As we trudged through the parking lot after the game, my father spoke up.

"We should do this again."

"Not until you're a full-fledged Gamecock fan", I teasingly replied.

"Well, I have a hat and a pin. I guess I am now. I know I didn't go to school here, but neither did a lot of fans. What? Is there some sort of damned initiation I have to go through?"

"Actually, there is. You have to yell ‘Go Cocks!' as loud as you can with all of these people out here." I was really pushing the envelope with this one.

"I'll not yell any such vulgarities, publicly or otherwise! You should be ashamed of yourself, Mister, for even suggesting that I do such!" my father hotly replied.

"Well, I guess you can never be a true Gamecock fan", I sighed as I unlocked the car doors.

Dad stood resolutely for few moments before opening his door. He then turned, and in a 66 year-old voice that could've shattered granite at a half mile, I heard "GOOOOO COCKS!" He quickly jumped in the car, slumped down in the front seat, tipped his new-found Carolina cap over his eyes, and slammed the door.

"Does that make you happy?" he hissed. "Embarrassing an old man like this? Well guess what, Einstein? You set the stakes and I just covered them! That makes me a damned Carolina fan now, so crank this car and let's get the hell outta here before someone from church recognizes me! I've got to get back home and check on your mother! My God, what kind of tomfoolery will you come up with next!"

I couldn't respond, as I was slumped over the steering wheel laughing my ass off and afraid I would wet my pants at anytime. After a few minutes, the corners of my father's mouth curled up a little, showing me that even he was amused.

That was the first and last time we would ever attend a Carolina game together.

A few months later, we noticed that my dad's bouts of repeating himself and forgetfulness were getting alarmingly worse. In June 1986, he left to go to the post office and was missing for over twelve hours. We had APBs put out for him all over South Carolina and my mother was getting hysterical. Around midnight, we got a call from the Richland County Sheriff's Department - 60 miles away - that he had been located parked in the Williams-Brice parking lot off Bluff Road. The officers who found him said he was terrified and couldn't remember where he lived. Dad had forgotten the name of the town he had lived in for over 40 years and didn't know how to get home, but – by God - he recognized the stadium from the N.C. State game and stopped until he could figure out where to go.

Two weeks later, a neurologist had a name for his problem: Alzheimer's Disease.

My mother kept him at home for a few years as the disease got progressively worse. Occasionally, in some of his periods of lucidity, he would ask how Carolina was doing and we would discuss it for a few minutes before his mind would return to the dark side. He wore his Carolina cap constantly, and uncharacteristically launched a blue streak of profanity at my mother if he couldn't locate it. By 1989, he didn't recognize anyone anymore and by 1991, nothing he said made any sense. After 1992, he never spoke again.

My sister and I convinced my mother that she could no longer take care of Dad and in 1991 we placed him in a nursing home near Columbia. He often responded to visual stimuli by smiling or pointing, so I would always take pictures with me on my visits. One of his favorites was of my son and Cocky, taken at a birthday party. He would smile and point to Cocky. I had it blown-up and placed beside his bed so he could see it each day. I found more pictures of Cocky and other Carolina-related things and stuck them to his mirror. My sister added even more. Many times when I entered my dad's room, the nurses would have him in his wheelchair, wearing his Carolina cap, parked in front of the mirror and he would be intently examining the pictures. I don't know if they ever made sense to him, but they certainly seemed to.

One rainy, abnormally cool morning in June1997, I was getting ready for work when the phone rang. "This is Juanita at the nursing home", she said, "Your father expired this morning." It took me a moment to comprehend what she was saying, and I immediately hated her for the clinical way she broke the news to me. "We need you to call the funeral home and make arrangements for him and to pick up his belongings." I hung up the phone before she was finished.

Hours and too many phone calls later, after the funeral directors had picked my father up, I arrived at the nursing home. I collected his clothes and belongings: his garnet windbreaker that my wife had given him in 1987, the collage of Carolina and Cocky pictures on his mirror, the bedside picture of my son and Cocky, and I even peeled off the Carolina bumper sticker that my sister, who was now in med school at USC, had stuck on the back of his wheelchair. But nothing had prepared me to fight the tears I got upon entering his room, because of the first thing I saw.

A dirty, faded, and thread-bare black Carolina cap was neatly folded on the bed.

The next day, the funeral home called and said that the immediate family could come and see my father. We had planned a closed-casket service, so this was among the last times I would see him. The funeral home had done an impressive job and Dad was absolutely handsome, even though he looked tragically small – weighing 80 pounds less than he was in his prime. Navy blue suit, grey tie, wedding ring, Scottish Rite ring, and a lapel pin that I had to look closely to pick out.

It was the Carolina tie tack that I had bought for my father twelve years earlier. Seeing it for the first time in years just sucked the air out of me. I had, in fact, forgotten about it. But my mother had not.

She said, "One of his proudest moments was when you graduated from Carolina. He often said that he had a tremendous amount of respect for an institution that made as drastic a transformation in you, as Carolina did. And when you took him to the football game that time, well, that just kind of did him in. He wore that God-awful hat everywhere except church, and even then he insisted on wearing his pin. Before he really went downhill, he used to have me plowing through the TV listings to see when Carolina was playing. I never saw him care about State like that. In fact, he had never cared much about college sports at all until then. I just thought he would want to be wearing that pin. He had become such a Gamecock fan."

"A true Gamecock fan", I chuckled to myself, remembering that incident at the game those many years ago.

We buried him on Father's Day.

This past weekend, my son (who is now a rising high school senior and an excellent baseball player in his own right) and I watched together as Tanner's squad demolished North Carolina in the deciding game of the Super Regionals. He was still a month from arriving in this world when my dad and I attended our first-and-only Carolina game. Unlike me and my father, he and I have watched dozens of Carolina games since he was a toddler. We have developed a closeness through Carolina sports that my dad and I never had a chance to enjoy, until it was too late for both of us.

I had vowed very early in my son's life that I would never allow the circumstances that occurred to me and my father happen to him and me.

That's for you, Dad; it's the least I can do.

So yet another Father's Day has come, and for the sixth time and countless more to come, I will remember a November afternoon when I brought happiness and pleasant memories to someone special. And wish there had been many more.

So this Father's Day, call your dads. Tell them you love them and appreciate what they've done.

There may not be that many more Novembers – or Junes - between the two of you.

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