“Excuse me?” I replied, feigning innocence. Guess he must have heard about the Marines and I should have expected this knowing him.
“What’s this shit about quitting school and joining the service?”
“That’s right Coach,” I told him, laying out my plan. “Home has nothing for me, and I know I’ll never get a hockey scholarship with my grades. And this busing garbage sucks. I’ll do my time then go to college using the GI Bill when I get out.”
“Oh really?” he sighed. “Now how the hell are you going to go to college without a high school diploma?”
“Crap.” I hadn’t thought of that.
“Well, you can always get your GED while you’re in the service and hope a shit school will take you with that” he said shaking his head. “But good luck with that.”
He got me thinking. My lousy grades in high school really had nothing to do with my academic ability. I earned my failing grades by skipping class and frequent absenteeism. At that point in my life I was pretty much angry all the time it seemed. I was pissed off at my useless parents, angry with the turmoil at school, and fed up with my rotten and abscessed teeth that just hurt all the time. The only time I felt any contentment at all was on the ice or at Mass, and I hadn’t been there in a while. None of us kids had ever been taken to a dentist, but I figured the Marines would fix me up. I’d get free room and board and medical treatment. They would give me the chance to prove I wasn’t destined to always be an insecure, skinny, kid who might make good someday. I would challenge every weakness that I knew I had both mentally and physically, and return a man in spite of no one, including my own father, ever helping to show me the way. I’d do it on my own. I could see myself coming home on leave in my crisp uniform, a proud and muscle bound trained killer.
“Look Mike, come back for senior year, play hockey, then if you still want to join the service or do something else you can! Busing is easing up, everyone sees that. You’re only seventeen, so don’t rush away your options.” Mr. Lewis picked up my check in spite of my protests and took it to the cashier, paid, and headed for the exit. One hand on the door, he stopped and turned back towards me.
“Think about it Mike. I’ll work with the faculty so you can make up the ground you lost last year. If you’re willing to work, they’ll go for it. The admin offices are open all summer. Go re-enroll.” Then he walked out and back the way he came towards Cleary Square.
I watched him until he was gone out of sight, then slurped down the rest of my vanilla milkshake and felt the brain freeze coming on. I pushed the cold glass hard against my lower left jaw to try to numb the throbbing tooth. I could taste puss. I slid out of the booth and stood out in front of the restaurant and spat a yellow wad onto the ground. Right would take me back to the center of Cleary Square and my bus stop. Turn left, and River Street would wind me around, past the municipal building and YMCA, down to Metropolitan Avenue, and Hyde Park High School.
I turned left.
I moved in with family friends of my girlfriend’s parents that lived two doors down from their house up on the hill on Maple Street across from the Most Precious Blood church. It was arranged under the provision that I went to school and did chores around the house, and with all of their support and encouragement I graduated high school the following June. My girlfriend’s dad, although a former Marine himself who had served with the other tough-as-nails devil dogs of the “Frozen Chosin” during the Korean War, extolled to me the virtues of the high tech training and the much grander quality of life the Air Force could provide, so I switched gears from my Marine Corps idea, and just one week after graduation, on Friday the thirteenth, I flew off to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, headed to basic training, my first-ever real dental treatment, and into the wild blue yonder.
“Well, I’m glad your home now,” Dad said startling me. I was taken aback a bit as he’d never said anything like that to me before. Maybe he thought Mighty Mike could fix him too.
Looking at him then, I felt my first sense of pity, for both of us, at knowing he was going to die soon. Unexpected little pangs of regret and sadness came over me as I thought about all the years of not really knowing him and not having had him as the kind of father to whom a son could turn to when he needed him, even if only for a ride to hockey practice or a game of catch. And sadness at being twenty-two years old and unable to conjure up even one happy memory to tell anyone, about some special day we’d spent together when I was a kid much like my Air Force buddies would always do on Father’s Day.
He was the one dying I thought, so stop feeling sorry for yourself. He put food in your mouth and a roof over your head hadn’t he? What more did you want?
“Me too, Dad, me too,” I said.