Keep Your Eye on the Ball

My Dad, John Thomas, playing with a lion cub in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 1972

My Dad has always been an athlete, outdoorsman and adventurer.  He played basketball and football in college; he has scaled mountains from the Himalayas to the Alps, and at age 79 still cross-country skis in the backwoods of Maine, participates in bike races, and plays squash.

Over a lifetime my father has taught me lessons through sports, something, regrettably, I have not done with my own children.  At an early age I remember being out in the backyard with a baseball bat and my Dad, with a baseball in his hand, saying, “just keep your eye on the ball, that’s all you have to do, just keep your eye on the ball.” Over and over he threw that ball at me and I would flail at it with the bat, until finally I learned that he was right, if I wanted to connect bat to ball, and slam that ball out of the yard, I just needed keep my eye on the ball.”

Now in middle-age, I do very little sports but my teenage son has learned he can toss me anything and usually I will whip out an arm and grab it in mid-air.  “Nico, can you pass me an orange?” and the orange comes flying across the kitchen at me and I snap it up.  “Mom, phone call for you!” and he tosses the phone across the living room and I catch it.

But it is not just objects I can keep my eye on, my father taught me a key lesson:   Focus on the fundamentals, don’t get lost with the riff-raff around the edges.

In second grade I was a dress-wearing, super-girly wimp. When we had to choose sides for the kickball team, no one wanted me. I was always the last one chosen and it was humiliating. The class bully, David Scafidi, always made it worse, “Oh God, not Thom-ass on my team. Ugggh.” I complained about this to my Dad. He hatched a plan. Every year the school had an annual fair and each class had to run the hundred yard dash. Dad told me I was a fast runner and I was going to win and beat the pants off David Scafidi. I was terrified. It was easier being a wimp. I didn’t sleep the night before the big day. All morning I had butterflies in my stomach. My knees were trembling as I stood at the starting line and then “BANG” — the gun went off. I ran like hell for the finish line and as I crossed it I glanced left and there was David Scafidi just behind me. I had won. And there was Dad grinning ear to ear.

Lesson learned: You can beat the bully if you try.

Me, with my grandfather following a field hockey match in 1983

A few years later, as a teenager, I took up field hockey. I was fast, but still a bit of a wimp. I was always worried about fouling people. I felt more comfortable jumping out of the way when I saw some bull-dozer size fullbacks in skirts coming at me. Dad would have none of that. He bought four hockey sticks and we began intense games of two-on-two field hockey matches in the backyard. Dad’s rules “forget fouling, let the referee worry about that, just get the ball in the goal!” During one particularly intense match I went flying across the yard with the ball on my stick and Dad on my heels. Just before reaching the goal, I swung back my stick and whacked Dad in the face before smacking the ball through the goal. I turned around to see Dad stumbling toward the back steps blood gushing out of his nose. I looked at him with shock “Are you ok Dad, I’m so sorry.” Once again, that happy smile “forget about my nose, you got the ball in the goal!”.

Lesson learned: Don’t worry about the bothersome and aggressive people who might get in your way in life.  Keep in mind what you want to do and go for it.

Looking for Lions on Safari in Kenya– late 70s

As a family, we lived in Kenya in the late 1970s and there Dad found plenty of opportunities for adventure. But camping with lions and swimming with crocodiles was not enough. Dad became fixated with climbing Mt. Kenya. Mt. Kenya is the second highest mountain in Africa and at 16,355 feet; it represents a major challenge to those who want to reach the peak. Mt. Kenya has a lot of unappetizing features….there is the vertical bog that one has to slog through, and then there are the rat-infested huts and the ubiquitous rock hyraxes. There is always the possibility of getting altitude-induced, pulmonary edema for which the only way to survive is to have someone carry you back down the mountain to get you to a lower altitude before your lungs fill with liquid and you suffocate.

On our three climbs up Mt. Kenya, we always had to stop at a rat-infested hut a few days away from the peak to let Dad throw-up for 24 hours while he was adjusting to the altitude. For Dad,  this discomfort was just part of the fun and adventure. At night, while Dad was retching, we would tie our food from a rope and hang it in the middle of the hut, to protect it from the four-footed nightly invaders, and then we would crawl into our sleeping bags to rest before the difficult morning climb. I think it was all part of Dad’s reach-the-summit strategy.

My Dad, John Thomas, staring up at the peak of Mt. Kenya

Luckily the rats and the hyraxes were not present at the higher altitudes during the last stages of the climb. To get to Point Lenana one has to cross a glacier. I remember this small winding trail through the ice leading up the glacier. One had to walk slowly up the trail not only because of the altitude and shortness of breath but to avoid the cracks across it where you could glimpse down into blue, icy crevices. The day we decided to make our ascent, I started feeling bad; weak, tired, headachy and cold. As we began our way up the glacier, I dragged behind. My Dad told my mother, sister and 8-year-old brother to go ahead with our guide. Half-way up I told my Dad I just couldn’t make it, my feet were too cold.

My Dad would have none of that. He told me to sit down and take off my hiking boots and socks. He then stuck my cold feet under his parka on his bare stomach and left them there until they were warmed up.  For awhile the two of us sat there in the middle of a glacier until I felt I could start climbing again.  I then put my boots back on and slowly and steadily we made our way to the top. There was never any question about turning back.

Lesson learned: Don’t give up, even if it takes a little longer and you need to rest along the way, you can make it.  The stronger people in a group can help the weaker to reach the final goal. Be brave in the face of danger and protect the ones you love.

My Dad, John Thomas, crossing the finish line in El Tour de Tucson

A few years ago my father went out on a beautiful, sunny winter afternoon in Maine for a ski through the woods.  He later described the skiing as exhilirating with the cold clear air, the silence and the mysteries of the animal tracks.  As the sun was waning he decided he had to turn back.  But on the way back his ski binding broke.  He tried to fix it with his “leatherman” but couldn’t do it, so he tried to set out on foot.  He said the snow was thigh deep (and that’s high because he is 6’4″) and he just couldn’t make it.  Fortunately, when it got dark, my step-mother Jane called 911 and they sent in a snow-mobile rescuer to follow his tracks.  Dad told us when he heard the sound of the snow-mobile and a short time after saw after the flash of headlights through the trees he felt “a powerful sense of relief.” When the snow-mobile brought him back to his farmhouse he found his wife, a neighbor, and a police car with flashing lights waiting for him.  He told us he felt “remorseful” because he had violated one of his own rules, “never get yourself into something you can’t get out of.”

Another good lesson for life.

 

18 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Elspeth Slayter
    2012/12/12

    What a wonderful honor for your father in the form of this essay. I think there’s some great lessons in here, and it helps me to keep going too. Thanks for writing this Trisha.

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2012/12/13

      Thank you Elspeth. We all learn so much from our parents and the sports lessons are just the tip of the iceberg. I think it takes a long time to realize all that your parents do for you. I sometimes wonder if my own children will absorb the values and lessons I would like to impart to them.

      Reply
  2. Avatar
    lega
    2012/12/12

    That is the ultimate love test-warming up your child’s feet with your own bare stomach !!!!

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2012/12/13

      It sure is. I don’t think I would be able to do the same for one of my children.

      Reply
  3. Avatar
    Alan
    2012/12/12

    . . another golden rule for reaching the objective, this one from an old, ex-parachute soldier – ‘well, I’d go two’s up; left flanking; bags of smoke and play it off the cuff!’ (This essential rule-of-thumb had not been ‘invented’ in 1944 which is why Arnhem was such a glorious failure)

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2012/12/13

      I love it….lot’s of smoke and play it of the cuff. Sounds like a good tactic to me.

      Reply
  4. Avatar
    Nancy Rockwell
    2012/12/12

    Such a loving, interesting, suspenseful and magical reflection, Trisha, thank you. I wish I had had these confidences inside me – for the times I haven’t had the courage to dare, to risk – and the confidence to win. But I did get some big gifts from my Dad’s teachings, about wisdom, and handling terrors, about love. Thanks for bringing these moments back through sharing your own –

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2012/12/13

      Thank you Nancy. I think we all have so many positive memories of lessons learned from our parents but then when we are parents we fret and worry about all the things we might be doing wrong.

      Reply
  5. Avatar
    Barbara Landi
    2012/12/12

    I know what it’s like trying to wade thru thigh-deep snow w/o snow shoes. Y’just can’t do it for long or very far. It takes tremendous energy, plus you get wet quickly a life death situation in a hurry.

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2012/12/13

      Yes, you are right. I don’t think my father would have made it through the night if the snow-mobile had not come, and he said it was a distance he easily could have walked if it hadn’t been for the snow.

      Reply
  6. Avatar
    lisa | renovating italy
    2012/12/13

    Trisha you had me on the edge of my seat through the whole adventure!! What an incredible man and family. I related to just about everything you said and even though my Dad died when I was only 5 I felt him near. My husband always wants to take the kids on adventures and I being the paranoid one try to hold them all back where it’s safe, you inspire me to now ‘be brave’ and go with them. Thank you for always sharing your heart so beautifully and your Dad is right to be proud of you!!! I have been off the grid for a bit sorting my head out and getting ready for the move, I send love and apologize for not responding to your email, I find that when I am at a loss for words I say nothing and that has to stop. My Mum has been the one who taught me life’s lessons and she is an incredible strong woman I hope to be a parent to make my children proud. Rambling sorry, love lisa x

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2012/12/13

      Thank you Lisa. My father is an incredible man and I feel lucky to have two fantastic parents who both taught me so much. And yes, let your husband take your kids on all those adventures, it is so good for them. I need to do more with my own. Goodluck with your move. I will be thinking about you.

      Reply
  7. Avatar
    Judith of Umbria
    2012/12/13

    He sounds a treasure. When it comes right down to it, there are just not enough people who really wring so much out of life. Happy for you!

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2012/12/13

      Yes, that is true, we should all wring more of the wonders out of life and spend less time on the dreary stuff. My Dad has done that, and I think I should start by tossing my blackberry out the window right now,

      Reply
  8. Avatar
    BacktoBodrum
    2012/12/13

    I can identify with your post as I too had a “gung-ho” dad who had me competitive sailing at 5 and who is still paragliding at 86. We are very lucky and I feel so sorry for children who are brought up in households devoid of the spirit of adventure.

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2012/12/13

      Paragliding at age 86??!!!?? Holy Moly, or Perbacco as they might say here in Italy. Yes, indeed we are lucky to have our adventurous fathers.

      Reply
  9. Avatar
    Adri
    2013/02/22

    I loved this essay when I first read it, and I came back this morning for some inspiration. What a dad. What a life! And by the way, what a babe, if you don’t mind me saying so. He taught you some wonderful lessons and was there all the way to support you. The foot warming story is heart warming also. It pretty much leaves me speechless.

    My dad was always there supporting me too, so this brought back some wonderful memories. I recall learning how to ride a two wheel bike. I’d pedal along, and my dad would run along side, supporting the bike, keeping it and me, upright. I remember one day in the side street near home pedaling along and suddenly realizing I was OK and that Dad could let go. I turned my head around to tell him only to see that he was standing at least a hundred feet back hand on his hips and smiling. I’d been going along for quite some time all by myself. Dads are pretty cool people, no doubt about it.

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2013/02/23

      Adri — I love your Dad and bike story. And it is so funny that I am responding to this comment just after I responded to one from my Dad urging him to come join me at the Vatican. He was here in the final days of John Paul II’s life and I was so busy working that he said he would just come hang out in St. Peter’s Square and whenever I had a free moment we would have a coffee together. He loved being there and feeling he was part of history in the making. I wish he would come back again this time.

      Reply

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