Sing Praise For His Yankee Ways

My dad’s sun set last Thursday morning. A glorious setting it was, peacefully ending the life of a man three days short of 89.

He had a good life, a dream death. How can you beat it? After maybe a half-hour in the yard digging up dandelions, he must have been tired. Job complete, he neatly placed his plastic pailful of dandelions on the shed floor — digging tool sticking skyward, rubber glove atop the weeds — walked up four steps into the kitchen, moved through it and the dining room and across the street-side living room to his favorite chair in the northeast corner. There, he dozed off to his final breath. There were no signs of trauma when my mother discovered him. Eyes closed, his heart stopped beating, with arteries clogged beyond repair.

No hospital, no nursing home, no emergency surgeries, ICUs, or feeding and breathing tubes. He died in his own home, seated where he most liked to sit, where he had sat in February to watch the New England Patriots and Tom Brady erase the Atlanta Falcons’ late-third-quarter, 25-point lead for a 34-28 overtime Super Bowl win.
“How’d you like that game?” I asked when he answered my phone call from work moments after Pats running back James White took Brady’s pitchout 2 yards into the end zone for the winning touchdown.

“I had to take a nitro,” he chuckled, seemingly humored by it. He was totally resigned to the fact that he needed the ubiquitous stimulant used to ward off early signs of a heart attack or what he called “tightness.” He had grown accustomed to popping nitros since learning seven months before his death that his major heart artery known as the “widow-maker” was more than 99 percent plugged. After that diagnosis, he continued to drive a car, go out for coffee, poke around at home and exercise in the YMCA pool a few times a week, relying on capillaries surrounding the clogged artery to keep his heart functioning.

Dad’s old Greenfield High School teammates and opponents, South Deerfield chums, poker buddies and surveying colleagues all had their stories to tell about the man they most often called Sandy. I took pride in their tales, many laced with admiration, others humor. I’m sure my three siblings all have their favorite memories and anecdotes as well, but I can only speak for myself and share the stories that in my mind define the man.

Let me start with his rich New England pedigree, the roots of which could dig no deeper for a man of European colonial ancestry. His mother and father were Mayflower descendants with lines into the Bradford, Alden, Chilton, Howland and other seminal Plymouth Colony families. I taught him about those “Yankee” roots, which are overwhelmingly comprised of the “Connecticut Valley” strain, that is families who settled Hartford in 1636 with Connecticut Colony founder Rev. Thomas Hooker. Those same families soon migrated upriver to establish the towns of Northampton, Hadley, Deerfield and Northfield. Mixed into his genepool are a few Huguenots and random early families of Windsor, Wethersfield and coastal Connecticut and Massachusetts Bay Colony towns that found their way to the valley during the 17th and 18th centuries.

Although I say he knew nothing about his genealogy before I researched it in the 1990s, he may have been dumb like a fox, because I can vividly recall him kidding old George “Moose” Bell, his neighbor and poker foe, while comparing their Yankee roots.

“Hey, Swamp Yankee,” he’d tease.

“You’re the Swamp Yankee,” irked Bell would snort, cuss and grunt.

“Oh no,” my dad would chortle, his pale, warm blue eyes glinting mischievous glee. “You’re mistaken. I’m a White-Birch Yankee. You’re a Swamp Yankee.”

It was all in good small-town New England fun. My dad was always ribbing someone and having great fun doing it. Also, he had a nickname for everyone, including most of the youth-baseball players he coached and taught to play with dignity — win, lose or draw. Truth be told, though, those teams rarely lost.

Perhaps it was Dad’s austere “Calvinist” ancestry that produced such a humble soul, a man totally unwilling to accept praise or boast about his accomplishments, especially those on the playing field or basketball court. He wouldn’t hesitate to praise friends, neighbors, old teammates and opponents, telling you this guy was rugged, that guy was a hulluva pitcher or hitter, or that your newfound friend’s father was quite a ballplayer in his day. But dare to ask him if the stories people told about him as a ballplayer were true and you could expect at most a self-deprecating remark or nervous chuckle. On most such occasions, he’d just ignore the question as though he never heard it. Just his modest way.

One bit of praise I’ll never forget occurred when my former softball teammate and current Greenfield High School athletic director Mike Kuchieski called me in a last-minute panic to ask if I’d umpire behind the plate an American Legion Baseball game he was coaching at Vets Field in Greenfield. Though I had no experience or credentials, I was no stranger to a baseball diamond and agreed to give it a whirl. Well, it just so happened Stan Benjamin was at the ballpark that evening. Standing along the pregame backstop, the tall, dignified Houston Astros super scout had coached my dad at Greenfield High School during the glory days of Fred Wallner and Coach Carl “Ump” Nichols. He spotted me passing and turned to speak.

“Hello young fella,” he said. “How’s your dad doing?”

“Oh, he’s still plugging along just fine,” I answered, adding that my father always spoke highly of him as a tough but fair coach.

Benjamin flashed a warm grin, thought for a moment and quipped, “Well, I’m not sure exactly how to put this, but your dad was almost impossible to catch on and off the field. He was an elusive little devil. Tell him I said hello.”

The twinkle in his eyes glowed of genuine fondness and respect.

The irony is that had my dad not gotten himself into a little jam at Deerfield High School coming down the stretch of his freshman year, Benjamin would probably have never met him. Back then, not only did Greenfield play in WMass’ premier AA Conference against the biggest schools from Springfield, Westfield, Chicopee and Holyoke. The Greenies were recognized as “The Little Engine That Could” and most often did beat the valley’s behemoths, not to mention the likes of Fitchburg and other faraway powers. Deerfield High played in a lesser league of smaller schools.

What’s funny is that in my 63 years on this planet, Dad never smoked, but that’s precisely what got him into path-altering trouble as a peach-fuzz teen. Just weeks before summer vacation, spring fever in the air, Deerfield Principal Hiram Batty caught him and a couple friends smoking during school hours outside a little convenience store bordering school property along its northeast corner. The stern disciplinarian decided to teach my dad a harsh lesson by suspending him for the rest of the semester and making him repeat his freshman year.

Honestly, until a few months ago, I never knew the details of this infamous North Main Street smoking incident, only what I had heard from some of my dad’s friends, few if any of whom are still alive today. Then, on an impromptu, between-errands, winter-afternoon visit at my dad’s home, the subject came up. Finally, notepad in tow, I got it from the horse’s mouth.

“Who was it that pulled you out of Deerfield, anyway? Your mother?” I asked, knowing her to be fully capable 0f fiery, outspoken responses, especially in defense of her baby boy with sweet, seductive blue eyes.

“No,” he responded, sitting comfortably in the chair where he would meet his maker, “my mother wasn’t there. It was just me, my father and the principal in his office. I’ve never told you this, but my father told him he could stick his school up his ass and we walked out.”

That was surprising news. I remember my grandfather well and would characterize him as quiet or taciturn, a lot like my dad, never one to say much. And the rest is history: his WMass championships at Greenfield and athletic scholarships to Jesse Lee Academy, Syracuse University and Arnold College, where he settled in, graduated and not only played football but excelled as a fleet, shifty running back on a good team stocked with future NFL players, including hs late friend and New York Giants Hall of Famer Andy Robustelli. For the record, my dad was a lefty, except for writing. Back in his day, schools forced lefthanders to write with their right hand. Can you imagine mandating that today? Stupid.

I think my dad knew his days were numbered and wanted me to know why he had left his neighborhood school in favor of Greenfield. I didn’t ask why he was setting the record straight. He didn’t ask me why I was taking notes. He knew he was talking to a storyteller, and I think we both knew that I’d find a way to end the whispers and record for posterity his Deerfield demise.

Ultimately, he returned as a young adult to his hometown, where he worked for a prosperous, respected land-surveying company, raised a family and died. Totally comfortable in his skin, he had no regrets, no lingering animosity and no respect for Mr. Batty.

Why be resentful? As usual — be it on the poker or pool table, the football field, baseball diamond or basketball court — my father prevailed  with class and dignity.

It’s the  Yankee way.

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