One summer night a long time ago, when I was 11, my father drove me down into Philly to see a baseball game. Dad had zero interest in baseball. I loved it. So it was up to me, riding shotgun down Roosevelt Boulevard from Morrisville, to conjure: the grass more perfect than any grass anywhere. The Reds! Skinny Frank Robinson, part of the first wave of great black players allowed into the majors, who stood almost on top of home plate, as if daring the pitcher to hit him.
But my anticipation was wordless, as we gazed at the families chatting on their stoops along the Boulevard. My father, a virtually silent man, didn’t know Frank Robinson from Martin Luther King, and I knew he didn’t care to.
Then suddenly Dad, until that moment simply chain-smoking his Salems, said, “I wonder if you’re having nocturnal emissions.”
Huh? He looked normal — silent again — taking another drag from his cigarette.
“I guess not,” he decided. “I guess you’re still too young.”
He tamped out his butt in the ashtray, folded it over on itself. Then he lit a new Salem. “You know,” he told me, “it’s a wonderful thing to be part of making a baby.”
As strange as it might seem now, to be 11 years old and have no inkling of what Dad was talking about — that was still possible, in 1965. And I certainly didn’t want to be filled in.
Especially not by Dad, who always seemed wrapped in the sort of silence you should not disturb. I understood that even when I was very young.
And I was never the kind of boy who was the second coming of his father. Dad built things. In fact, he had built our house himself. Dad spent every night, and all weekend, out in his workshop, 100 feet away from the safety of the house — where there was Mom and my older sister and TV and maybe a rousing game of Parcheesi. Where there was conversation. He was always building something out there, alone.
Many years later, a childhood friend would nail something essential about my father: that he seemed stuck himself at age 17 or so, as if he was forever a late-adolescent boy who might just answer a personal question by fixing your transmission. As if having a conversation, especially when feelings might come into it, was somehow more than he could bear.
But here he was, on the way down to Connie Mack Stadium: “Women have eggs.” He seemed like someone else, someone making an announcement in the voice of Dad. “And an egg and semen have to meet to make a baby, which is a wonderful thing.”
He took a drag from his Salem.
Then: “You make a baby by slipping the pecker inside the woman’s body.”
Oh my God. Part of the problem here was that it wasn’t entirely clear where, exactly, in the woman’s … No, I couldn’t think about that. Leaning hard against the passenger-side door — normally Mom’s spot, Mom who had to be in on this baby-making business, I understood that much — I jammed my fist into my glove, pressing my hands together as if in prayer for continued ignorance. Or at least for the natural silence between my father and me to return.
Oh, we had taken our shot, Dad and I. Every late fall, we would endeavor for me to make my mother a Christmas present — this was her idea, and on December evenings she’d shoo me out of the kitchen’s glow, out to the workshop with Dad. I did like watching him. I liked watching him show me how to grip a skew as Mom’s would-be candlestick spun in a knotty blur on his lathe. He was very patient, but I wanted him to keep gripping it, for him to go right on making the walnut spew into a furry pyramid on his wrist. I would never be that good, and this was the closest to him I got. I wasn’t driven to make things, which was the only way to get closer.
Now, in the car, that voice again: “It’s a wonderful thing to be part of making a baby.”
There was other stuff. Menstruation, for example, which was why my sister didn’t go swimming with me sometimes. Dad said that I’d find out more about all this soon. (I don’t think so, I thought.) And how wonderful it was, making a baby. He was looking at me. I flexed my baseball glove in my lap.
Then, silence. Smoking. Roosevelt Boulevard yielded to tight side streets. I didn’t know which was worse: that there was apparently a world of adults where this strange business was going on, or that Dad, of all people, was talking about it.
In North Philly, he gave a guy a couple extra bucks to watch over our parked Chevy. It was a cloudy night. We sat along the first-base line. Dad smoked and bought me a hot dog and Coke. Frank Robinson looked skinnier than he did on TV, but it was hard for me to concentrate on the game. The Phillies lost.
The next day, my friends had a field day with “slipping the pecker” after I was dumb enough to reveal what Dad had told me. Then, for months, if they caught sight of him heading from the house to his workshop, a wispy cloud of smoke trailing, our b-ball game in the driveway would stop: “There he goes,” they’d giggle. “Slip the pecker!”
Which just pushed him further away from me. My father. An unbridgeable divide. Back then, Dad was the shining example of what I was not: the rock-solid man who could make anything. And when, many years later, I began to find my way, falling in love with words, the divide didn’t shrink. Dad and I would greet with a nod, a smile. There was a sweetness about him, but letting me in on his inner weather — never. He never could.
But a funny thing happens, over time.
For Dad was also the sort of man who would build his family a house — the most important thing he could give — virtually alone, by himself, as he preferred it. As he had to have it, in fact, because the unnatural silence ruled.
It’s been two decades now since all those Salems he smoked killed him, and those few minutes in the car on the way down into North Philly half a century ago — Dad’s attempt to fill me in on some essential news — strike me, every now and then, in tender relief. Not for what he couldn’t do well, but for what he tried to share. And for exposing, in his way, just how vulnerable he was, a man of so few words giving me some. That’s what I remember now.
Published as “And Now, A Moment for Our Dads” in the June issue of Philadelphia magazine.