Tuesday, November 11, 2008

BigDaddyRat - First Chapter

My father died suddenly over Labor Day weekend this year. He's been on my mind a lot in the intervening months, but I haven't been able to write about him until now. I had some crazy idea that I could say everything I had to say about him, his life, and his death in one post. I now see that's impossible and I've decided to talk about him and his amazing life in smaller chunks starting today. It wasn't until I was half done writing this post that I realized today is Veteran's Day and a fitting tribute to my Father's 32 years of military service.

This morning I was reading Ta-Nehisi Coates' column "Wild Cowboys" and it got me thinking that maybe I should tell the story of how I came to be a Raiders fan. It seems like a good place to start talking about my old man, those Sunday afternoons when I first started watching football with him were an important time for me.

When I first started hanging out with my Dad on Sunday afternoons it wasn't football that attracted my attention, but rather his weekly ritual of boot polishing. Sunday afternoons were when my Dad would clean and polish (depending on his schedule) two pairs of boots or a pair of boots and a pair of dress shoes. He would drag out on old ammo box that contained his shoe shine kit, lay out a couple of pieces of newspaper and go to work.

First Dad would pick up one of his massive (size 16) boots, stick a shoe form it in to help hold its shape, and give it a vigorous brushing. His powerful arms working in concert to turn the brush into little more than a blur as he quickly and confidently removed a week's worth of dirt from his combat boots. Next, he would set fire to the surface of his shoe polish before quickly blowing out the flame leaving the living room filled with a smell that I will forever associate with Sunday afternoons. Dad would take the old t-shirt in his shoe shine kit, wrap up two fingers, kind of twist the whole deal around his wrist, and dip the two fingers first into water and then the softened polish as he applied a dull coat of polish. Finally Dad would starting shining his boots with a soft cloth, finishing with a flourish by repeatedly and loudly snapping his cloth against the toe of his boot leaving it like a shiny black mirror before starting over on the other boot or shoe.

As a father myself now, I can't help but think how ridiculous the sense of trepidation I felt was as I finally gathered up the nerve to ask my Dad what he was doing as I sidled up next to him on the couch. And slowly a Sunday afternoon ritual began form, I would ask my Dad if it was time and he would give a small nod which would send me dashing to his closet to get his shoe shine kit. At first I was too small to even break the vacuum seal created by the ammo box and get the thing open, but after Dad popped open the box I would lay out a couple of sheets of newspaper, fill the dirty stained cup in his kit with a few fingers of water, and watch as Dad methodically went to work on his boots.

It was during one of those Sunday afternoons sometime during the 1975 season that the Oakland Raiders played a home game in the old Oakland Coliseum that was broadcast on tape delay a week later. At the time we were living in Germany and had just moved there from New Jersey (where I was born), but I felt no geographic connection with any team. I was immediately struck by all the fans turning the coliseum into a sea of black and I thought to myself, "That's my team right there." So from that day forward I was a Raider fan.

Over the years I started doing more and more of the boot polishing each Sunday. At first I would just get everything set up, then I started doing the initial brushing, and eventually I was doing the whole thing. I think I was in 7th or 8th grade when I went to go do something with my friends one Sunday afternoon instead of watching football at home. That night I was chilling on the couch in the family room after dinner when my Dad stuck his head in and asked, "Where are my boots?" I responded with a blank stare. "Aren't you supposed to get my boots ready for the week?" my Dad asked insistently. "Here, let me help you," Dad said as he came into the room with two pairs of combat boots, his shoe shine kit, and a couple of sheets of newspaper that he laid down neatly in front of me. And it slowly started to dawn on me that what had once been a bonding ritual between father and son, had just turned into another chore for me to get done each week.

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