“What do you do with a gift that was meant to be practical, but is so beautiful it’s impractical to use?” was his question as I answered the phone. I squealed. “You got them! Do you like them?” For Father’s Day I had selected the most scenic shots of our trip through Korea, China, and Hong Kong and created note cards, complete with my Chinese seal. “Lori, I can’t use them. They’re works of art.” “Dad, you have to use them. I’ll make you more once those are gone. I’m glad you like them. Happy Father’s Day.”
After we hung up, I thought about all the gifts he has given me. The tangible items, the stuffed animals, the pearls, the books, but more importantly, the intangible ones. My goofy sense of humor. The importance of giving back to my community. The one thing I appreciate most is the love of language he instilled in me, from as far back as I can remember.
What stands out the most is the dinner table stories. Some really were stories, others were plays on words, jokes, puns, or riddles for us to solve. Every night Ashley, my younger sister, and I would plead, “Oh, Daddy, tell us a funny story, pleeeeeeeeeeeeeeease.” He would laughingly protest, stating he couldn’t think of one, but we knew better. Normally, Ashley and I were in competition for just about everything – attention from our parents, neighborhood friends, piano accolades, but this was one rare time in which we bonded together to achieve a common goal. Tugging on his arms, in our best convincing whines, we would respond, “You do! We know you do! The one about the jungle, the one about the baseball player, or just make one up.”
See, we already knew the stories. He told the same ones over and over. But we never tired of them.
The playful bantering would last a few minutes until, with feigned exasperation, he would give in, push his chair back, and begin to “think” of a story. Our eyes never left him in this preparation stage until the silence was broken. “Once upon a time…” his stories always began in his gentle southern drawl, “…there was a baseball player named Milt Famey.” We erupted into giggles. Mom laughed softly, rolling her eyes, wondering if this time he would deliver the punch line in its entirety.
Milt was a star pitcher, a great pitcher, one of the greatest pitchers in the history of baseball. Just this past season, Milt was the winning pitcher for 35 games in a row. That’s got to be a record, more than any other pitcher, probably better than any other two pitchers combined. He was voted MVP, that’s Most Valuable Player, girls, in the National League. Needless to say, his team was in the World Series. His manager promised Milt that he wouldn’t have to pitch more than three games in the Series, and never two consecutive games.
“Why, Daddy? Why wouldn’t his manager play him every game? He was the best wasn’t he?” my sister and I would interrupt. Mom intervened, “Shhhh, girls, let your father tell the story.” We assumed this was because she was as enrapt in the story as we were, but later learned she didn’t want Dad to get sidetracked by our questions, lest he botch the punch line yet another time.
Girls, star players get treated very specially, and that was one of the ways the manager looked after Milt Famey. Well, the World Series was being played in Milt’s home town, so he left a few days before the team and drove there himself, you know, to visit friends and family, and of course, admiring fans. The manager decided to rest Milt the first game of the Series, figuring another pitcher could do just as well. The manager figured wrong. Milt’s team lost that first game, 6-0. Milt knew he’d be pitching the next game, so he rested up real well. He came to that second game of the Series and pitched like the fans had never seen before. Milt’s team won, 4-0. The fans went wild.
At this point Ashley and I mimicked the roar of the crowd, “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!”
Milt had one slight character flaw. He liked to celebrate after he won a game. He didn’t celebrate some, he celebrated in excess. And the way he celebrated was to go out and drink beer. Not any type of beer, mind you, but the cheap kind, the kind that is sold by the case, real cheap, at the grocery store. So that night Milt went out and partied, knowing he wouldn’t have to pitch the next game. During the third game another pitcher took the mound, and what a disappointment. He couldn’t throw a strike to save his life. The fans kept hollering, “Milt Famey! Milt Famey!” but the manager knew he had made a promise to Milt and didn’t want to break it. After all, Milt was his star player, so he had to treat him extra special. The fourth game of the Series arrived and Milt was the pitcher on the mound. Another spectacular performance. Now the Series was tied, 2-2. Milt was quite happy with himself for pitching two great games during the World Series, so again, he went out and celebrated big time. Beer, beer, and more beer. Empty beer cans scattered all over his hotel room. But he felt safe, knowing he had a few days to recover before he would have to pitch another game. The fifth game came and Milt didn’t pitch; he watched the game from behind very dark sunglasses, nursing quite a hangover. The other pitcher did a respectable job, but not respectable enough. Milt’s team lost, 7-6. Milt knew he would have to pitch the sixth game, and he’d have to continue his spectacular performance or his team would be out of the Series. Never fear. Milt arrived to game six as fresh as a daisy, pitching like there was no tomorrow. Milt’s team won the sixth game, tying the Series 3-3.
Not only was Milt happy that his team was still in the Series, he was ecstatic that he didn’t have to pitch anymore. So he went out and celebrated like he had never celebrated before, drinking can of beer upon can of beer upon can of beer. After all the bars had closed, he still wanted to drink beer, so he went out to his car and sat there alone drinking cans and cans of beer. Once he finished a can, he merely crushed it and threw it to the floorboard of his car, not even bothering to throw it in a trash can. For two days this continued. He was so drunk he passed out in his car, not ever returning to his hotel room. He arrived to the last game of the Series unshaven and tousled. As he opened his car door, several crushed beer cans clanked to the pavement in the parking lot. Running late, he left them there, vowing to pick them up after the game. He once again sat in the dugout, dark sunglasses on, nursing a tremendous headache, trying to cheer his team on to victory.
The pitcher on the mound was doing okay, but was getting flustered towards the end of the game. It was the bottom of the ninth, the score was tied, the pitcher had walked three players in a row, the bases were loaded. The manager couldn’t stand it anymore. “Look, Milt, I know I told you I wouldn’t pitch you in two consecutive games, but we need you. Go on in there and show them what real pitching is.” Milt wasn’t feeling so good. It took all his strength to make it out to the mound without toppling over. The first throw, and it’s a . . . ball! The second pitch, and it’s a . . . ball! The third pitch, and it’s a . . . ball! The fourth pitch, oh, no, Milt Famey has just walked in the winning run for the other team. He’s lost the World Series!
Dejected, the fans slowly left the stadium, not believing their star pitcher had let them down so. As the fans walked through the parking lot, they saw Milt Famey’s car parked right at the entrance to the stadium. As they strolled over to get a closer look, they noticed a couple of empty beer cans on the pavement. As they neared the car, they stared in utter disbelief at the hundreds of crushed beer cans crowding Milt’s car. One turned to the other and said, “Well, that’s the beer that made Milt Famey walk us.”
Ashley and I squealed with delight as Daddy successfully delivered the punch line. Then we repeated the punch line ourselves, “That’s the beer that made Milt Famey walk us,” letting the words roll over our tongues before cackling and in tandem exclaiming, “The beer that made Milwaulkee famous,” a popular advertisement of the day.
The punch lines of Dad’s stories were the same, the stories supporting them often changing at his whimsy. These were my introduction to homophones, alliterations, irony, plays on words, and many other elements of language. As I grew older, the stories and jokes evolved into debates and arguments, but the passion never subsided. Thanks, Dad.