In his defense, when my father dropped his pants in the bar of a Minnesota country club last Friday night, it was during a discussion of the respective benefits of boxers and briefs, which he illustrated by showing off his preference for an ingenious innovation called "boxer-briefs." These are, as the five strangers at the next table now know, tighty-whiteys that extend to mid-thigh.
But then my father is an unpredictable man, prone to impulse, as on the night in 1965 when he was seized (at the end of a long and gin-fueled business dinner in Detroit) by a sudden desire to go, for the first time in his life, downhill skiing. Egged on by fellow tape salesmen, he found a suburban slope, had a lift ticket stapled to his topcoat and burned holes through his kid gloves upon grabbing the rope tow, which promptly-given the splayed position of his rented skis—jerked him into a snow fence, dislodging his fedora. "Let me ask you something," said the ski shop's night manager, when my father returned the two ski poles, which were bent at right angles. "Do you always ski in a suit and tie?"
The answer is yes, for my father is a great indoorsman. He and my mother, the wind beneath his wingtips, worked hard for our Midwestern comforts, which included an aluminum house and a wood-paneled station wagon, so that they really did have, while raising five children in the 1970s, two problems peculiar to suburbia: a rusting house and a car with termites.
Last summer, when my father chauffeured me to Hazeltine National Golf Club in suburban Minneapolis to watch the world championship of amputee golf, he obliviously, and illegally, drove onto the grounds of the tony club using an access road reserved for maintenance trucks. Nevertheless, he forged ahead in search of parking, driving the length of Hazeltine's cart path, past several miles of manicured fairway, periodically pausing to give—with an impatient wave of his hand—mortified golfers the right-of-way.
As we rolled past the 1st tee, you could actually hear monocles falling into soup tureens throughout the mahoganied clubhouse at Hazeltine, which hosted the 2002 PGA Championship. "You can only get away with this in one of two vehicles," said my father, his car stereo tuned to Lite-FM. "A broken-down pickup truck or a Cadillac." And Dad has indulged, in retirement, a single extravagance: his pimped-out, champagne-colored Cadillac DeVille. It has, as he frequently notes, the turning radius (and gas mileage) of a Panzer tank.
My father, too, is built like a Panzer, but only from the waist up. He has comical bird legs, as thin and smooth as Nicole Kidman's, the hair worn away by four decades of knee-high black socks. Taken as a whole, he looks like one of those square houses on stilts that you sometimes see in coastal areas prone to flooding.
But those legs served him well as a blocking back in college, first for the 1952 Big Ten co-champion Purdue Boilermakers and later, after he transferred to Tennessee, for the great Johnny Majors. My father always taught his children—even my sister, Amy—that "short, choppy steps" are the key to blocking, the key to opening holes. And I've come to realize, with each passing year, that they are also the key to life.
Today, golf is his primary athletic pursuit. In the winter he lives on the 17th fairway of a south Florida condo complex very much like the Del Boca Vista depicted on Seinfeld. Among his regular playing partners are Bernie Flowers (Purdue All-America who went on to catch passes from Unitas with the Colts) and former Notre Dame football coach Gerry Faust. On the driving range my father once blasted a ball directly perpendicular to his body, so that it ricocheted off the metal stall divider and rocketed back at him, nearly striking him in the nuts, a blow that would have killed him instantly. Try keeping a straight face while delivering that eulogy.
He still spends his summers in suburban Minneapolis, where he enjoys idling away evenings watching the Twins on TV. This ardor briefly cooled last winter when the team traded his favorite player, catcher A.J. Pierzynski, who makes the sign of the cross before every at bat. One of the two TV stations that carried the Twins had no qualms about showing the gesture, but the other channel would always abruptly cut away—as part of a blatant, anti-Catholic conspiracy, to hear my father tell it.
He taught his children always to crush a man's hand when shaking it (he calls his own vice-grip the Knuckle Floater), the proper way to tie a necktie (in advance of a job interview or a night of Alpine skiing) and how to smuggle, into any ballpark in America, a one-pound sack of cut-rate peanuts convincingly concealed in your pants. (Hint: It helps to wear boxer-briefs.)