Of the many jobs my father held when I was growing up—liquor salesman, used car salesman, vacuum cleaner salesman—the one I remember most vividly was the one which required him to wear a uniform. It was a bluish-gray, military-style uniform made of rough flannel, with a peaked military cap, like an admiral's. I was so impressed with that uniform as a boy that I told all my friends about it. I told them also about the white truck my father drove, a panel truck with the larger-than-life painting of a golden-curled young girl with huge blue eyes—the Bambi Bread Girl—painted on each side.
What I did not tell my friends was how much my father hated that garish truck, and the uniform, and the fact that he had to get up every morning at four o'clock to drive down to the bakery to pick up his load. He was always bleary-eyed and miserable after having spent the night listening to the late sports results on the radio and he never left the house without first arguing with my mother for making him hold such a job.
That job and others like it were the cause of many arguments between my parents. Which was another reason that, when I was 12 years old, I began to lose myself in baseball.
I needed that game. Not only did it offer escape from my parents' arguments, but on days I was to pitch, it actually seemed to bring them together. My mother pampered me, something she rarely did otherwise. She never made me do chores around the house on those days, and she always prepared a special supper for me, at three o'clock in the afternoon: eggs and peppers scrambled in olive oil and a dessert of sliced oranges in olive oil. My father would give me money to go to the movies in the afternoon to take my mind off the evening game. He supported my baseball ambitions with money he usually didn't have. He would borrow $50 from one of his cronies just to buy me the latest kangaroo-leather spikes.
My parents went to all my Little League games. They sat high up in the bleachers along the third base line. People deferred to them because of my talent. They were pointed out by other parents, acknowledged by a "Hello" accompanied with a compliment about my latest performance. "A fine boy," those parents would say. "You should be proud." My mother beamed at these compliments, at the respectability my pitching had brought her. Whenever I would get two strikes on a batter, her shrill voice would split the air. "Strike him out, Patty!" From the mound, I glanced over at her and my father. I winked, turned back to the batter, began my windup and delivered. Strike three! As I walked off the mound toward my third base dugout, I could see my mother clapping her hands with glee, nodding gratefully to the other fans' approval, while my father jumped down behind the stands and then—half-walking, half-trotting—headed toward the pay telephone beyond leftfield.
I am in my 40's now, and I never gamble. I never have. And yet I am like my father in many ways. For almost 20 years I have not held a real job. I am a free-lance writer. Every story I write is a gamble. Will it be accepted or rejected? Like Dad, the possibility of loss excites me. Recently he came down to Fort Lauderdale, where I now live, to visit me. He looks the same, except older, but still dapper at 76. He told me he no longer gambles. I laughed, but he said he was serious. I asked him if he ever shot pool anymore. He said he hadn't shot in years. I smiled. "Wanna shoot some stick?" I asked.
We went to a redneck pool hall out on Dixie Highway, pickup trucks in the parking lot, Way Ion Jennings on the jukebox and a barmaid with teased hair and no front teeth. We got a rack of balls and took a corner table. "A game of straight, Pop?" I said. He nodded. I broke and left him long. He had told me years ago, "The eyes always go before the stroke. When you play an old man, always leave him long." He bent over the table, shot and missed, scattering the balls. After only a few racks, I had a big lead, playing hard and ruthlessly, as he had always played me. But I couldn't sustain it. I began to take almost impossible shots, and pretty soon he had beaten me.
I threw my arm over his shoulder and said, "You're still the best, Dad."
"You shoulda beat me," he said. "You got careless."
I learned a lot as a gambler's son. I learned about risk and loss and what it means to live on the edge. I learned also that it comes down to a choice between freedom and security, and you can never have both.