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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Trisha is a TV journalist working for AP TV News in Rome. She is married to an Italian and is a Mamma of three.