Eighty-eight years ago today, my father-in-law was born in Bremerton, Washington. He was the first child of a man who'd served in the 'Great War', came home a little worse for wear, settled down with a woman and had this son (and then another son 16 months later, and called it good!). This first son of these hard-working folks--he a postman--grew and grew and grew some more. He always was the biggest kid around. Bigger by a head than that little brother of his. To look at them, you'd think they were three years apart in age. And this giant of a boy, who stood head and shoulders above his friends had to work hard but played hard too. His parents saw to the working. His dad saw to the working especially. Before that boy's age was a double-digit, it was the depression and even in Bremerton, where the naval shipyard meant men had jobs, times were lean. But the family had a garden and where there was a garden, there were always vegetables to sell, and enough left over to fill a growing boy. But he learned, and learned well to 'be a clean plater." It was a lesson he hasn't forgotten in all his 88 years.
By high school, that boy had earned a nickname--Hot Dog. It came from his job selling hotdogs at the local baseball games, his voice so loud and far-reaching, his mother could hear it from home several blocks away. By that time, the basketball coach had already sought Hot Dog out, coaxed him into putting on a uniform (including short shorts complete with a belt) and picking up a ball. It was like offering candy to a man addicted to sugar. From the moment that basketball was put into Hot Dog's hands, he never looked back. By the time he was a junior in high school, Hot Dog's prowess on the basketball court was so overwhelming, he led Bremerton to the Washington State Basketball Title (and there was only one title back then--no divisions for different sized schools). The next year, Bremerton returned, only to lose in the title game. By then, however, Hot Dog stood 6'8", and was the tallest kid to ever play the game in the state of Washington. Oddly, though his mother never missed a game, his father never once saw him play. NOT ONCE. That hard-working dad of his just never understood why he was wasting his time on some silly game.
He didn't get it when Hot Dog was recruited by schools in and out of state, and decided to go to the University of Oregon--the first player to ever go out-of-state in these parts to play basketball. Back then, local was the be-all and end-all for choosing schools. But Hot Dog went to Oregon. Spent some of the best years of his life playing on the hardwood of Mac Court, the Big Man on campus, the big man under the rim. He shot foul shots the old-fashioned way--the Granny shot, they called it--but hardly ever missed.
But those were the war years, so Hot Dog tried to enlist. But the navy--his first choice--said no. He was too tall for ship bunks. And the army said no as well. But he couldn't bear to sit on the bench while his buddies were off fighting for this country. So with the help of his mother and a state senator, letters were written to the war department, asking for a dispensation to allow him to join the army. So in 1943, Hot Dog went off to Burma to spend three + years building roads in the CBI theatre, and to play enough pick-up hoop games on the side that a tournament was put on, just so other army men could watch him play (and no, not even after all that, did his dad ever see him shoot a single basket).
He came home, took off that uniform and put back on his Oregon one for a couple more years. Met the sister of another Duck-hoopster alum. A 6'1" doe-eyed woman tall enough to match him. They married two months after he graduated. Two months after he took a job teaching rather than playing in the NBA, which was the other job option he had at the time. That teaching gig seemed better for a married man--with better pay and more stabilty. One of his reasons is still true, of course.
This tall couple had a quartet of giant children. The smallest--their daughter--stood 6 feet tall. He became a gaint gym for them and their friends. "We can't get near our own dad," they'd say to their mother. He taught them to swing baseball bats, to make lay-ups, to drive the family station wagon. Made sure they went to school every day, and church every Sunday. Tow the line in between. He had high standards, but none that he didn't live up to himself. And they knew it. They practiced what they saw in him.
The sons all played hoop as well, though none quite like their dad (no granny shot in sight, and only one was a lefty like Hot Dog--my own Beve). Hot Dog became a college professor with a PhD in Physical Education, earning him a new nickname from his kids--Doc-the-Rock. Doc-the-Rock became the department chair in Men's PE at Washington State University for 30 years. He chaired committees, settled disputes between faculty members, started a computer program. He took an interest in the rec programs in town, in the camping program for special needs kids, in the national organization for physical educators. He took an interest in people. That's about the size of it.
He was always busy. He was invited to be a guest lecturer at West Point for a year. Was president for that national organization for a year. He got those children through school, then through college, watched them marry, played with their children. Had a few parties--weekly. Monthly. Liked people. Was a great host. Learned to relax. Cultivated roses.
Watched his wife die. For a whole year that was about all he did. Talked to doctors, sat with her through treatments, surgeries, while she sat gingerly, laid low with her. Watched her die.
Then he let her go.
Then he learned to love again. Married again. Maybe too soon for us, but not for him. Traveled. Enjoyed his grandchildren, his roses, puttering. His computer.
All along, he was himself. True and strong with the same clarity of vision and internal compass that kept him headed toward right and ultimately, toward God.
The older he's gotten, the sweeter he's become. When I first knew him, I used to call him a roasted marshmellow, Crusty on the outside and sweet on the inside. Now he's merely sweet.
Hot Dog won't live to see 89. Tonight we took him to Olive Garden for his birthday. He slumped in his wheelchair his head almost on the table. Beve had to feed him, though he's still working hard to be a clean-plater. He didn't know where he was or why he was there, didn't know it was his birthday. But loved the food, especially what he calls that 'chicken and dumpling' soup.
When I was a child I knew him, of course. His shadow was long in our town. I knew he'd been someone back in his youth. But I didn't know he was someone then. That is, I thought it was what he'd done that made him someone. I thought it was the list of his accomplishments, like I just listed them here, that made him special. But it isn't. Not essentially. What he is, no matter what he's done, counts. Don't get me wrong, I love his history, find it fascinating. But what is more amazing is that his history isn't a big deal to him. It never has been. He doesn't think he's something because of what he's done. He simply is. Grand and loving and present and sweet.
So I honor those qualities in Grampie today. Even when the real him is dying in increments. Happy Birthday, Doc-the-Roc. Happy 88th, Hot Dog.