Sunday, October 26, 2008

Mr. Buckeye, The Sweatshirt and the Ajax Mobile

"In old Ohio there's a team that's known throughout the land,
Eleven warriors brave and bold whose fame will ever stand.
And when the ball goes over, our cheers will reach the sky,
Ohio field will hear again the Buckeye Battle Cry!"
-Ohio State Fight Song

Back in Early September, one of my best friends on Earth suddenly lost his dad. And my memories of this man are forever tied to an old Ohio State University sweatshirt.

The news of Al Knoeppel's passing came as a big surprise to me. Rob had called me on a Wednesday afternoon and his message didn't sound pressing. He said "give me a call, when you get a chance."

I had just talked to him on Monday, and he was flush with happiness with his new job and new community and all the cool things he was experiencing. On the Wednesday voicemail, his voice wasn't sad or down or different, so I kind of backburnered the call, thinking he was going to simply tell me just another wicked cool thing about the new job. Not that I didn't care or want to talk to him, it was a crazy time for me. I was stupid busy with work for the rest of that week, and then the weekend came and I simply forgot to call back.

On September 12th, he called me back again and said, "Well, we buried my dad yesterday..." which stunned me.

"Rob, why didn't you say that it was urgent, or pressing, or that there was something wrong... Why didn't you call me back again after the first call?" I kind of cried at him, and realized quickly that I was being whiny and selfish. My attitude was wrong. My ego was in the way. I felt left out of the loop as his father was dying, and really would have liked to have known. But... It wasn't my place to be kept informed of up to the minute decisions and events as things were going on so I checked myself quickly. I felt like there maybe would have been something I could do for Rob to provide an ear and comfort... and maybe I would have gotten in the car and headed down to Charlottesville to hold his hand and hug him after Al was gone.

"I did call you. I called you a bunch of times and talked to you," he answered.

"Um, no, you didn't, honey ..."

"Oh, well then it felt like you were there with me and I was talking to you through everything."

That overwhelmed me ... that somehow he felt connected enough to me even though we hadn't yet spoken. I'm constantly praying for him, he's on my short list of daily concerns and lift ups for mojo and joy and peace, so perhaps yeah... I was doing something for him. But I didn't know it.

Rob told me the story of what happened to his dad. He collapsed in his driveway in the on Wednesday morning before heading out for his daily walk with his neighbor. After some time in the hospital and medical efforts that were attempted to bring him round, they knew that it was futile, it wasn't going to work. Rob and his mom made the decision to let him go. But before they removed support, Rob had one more thing he wanted to do with his dad.

Saturday during the day, Rob watched the Ohio State football game with Al, who obviously couldn't see it or hear it. Al was a rabid Ohio State fan. So Rob wanted to watch the game with him, one last time. He sat in the chair next to his dad's bed and gave his father the play by play. Ohio State was losing, and Rob said "Come on dad, we gotta help them win!"

Rob told me that he was cheering, yelling and talking to his dad as if his dad was sitting on the couch next to him in his Ohio State Sweatshirt. He said anyone who would have walked past at that moment would have thought him insane. But he was routing for the Buckeyes, with his dad... and believe it or not, Ohio State made a remarkable comeback and won the game.

It all sounds so very Mitch Albom, or so very "a special Hallmark Channel movie," and one would at that very moment hope that Al would wake up and reach for Rob's hand and the victory of the Buckeyes would be Al's victory over death. If I was writing the script... that is exactly what would have happened.

But it wasn't meant to be. The following morning he was gone.

The hospital chaplain came in to spend time with Rob and his mom. She asked Rob, "Tell me about this man."

Rob answered, "This is my dad, and he loved me."

And that is the truth.

When we were in high school, Rob and I would get together an assortment of other good friends and drive all over Huntington, Long Island.

We'd occasionally imbibe beverages legally intended for people older than we were and act goofy. We'd hang out at Coindre Hall, overlooking Gold Star Medallion Beach. We'd go to the Huntington Bay Beach Club and try to fool the cops by pretending one of us was a member. We'd drive backwards through the drive through at Burger King, mostly to let ME place the order, since I never got the chance to do so, not having a driver's license. We'd cruise up and down Rte 110 an Rte 25A, beeping the horn of the car and stamping on the brakes in rhythm to "Heartache Tonight" by the Eagles. We were just enjoying our little big town and the nightlife available to 17 and 18 year olds in the mid-80s.

We had a lot of fun in high school, especially the summer after we graduated.

Over the course of our high school years we spent a great deal of time in a USS Nimitz sized station wagon owned by Rob's dad. Mr. K worked cleaning offices, and his station wagon smelled like cleaning solution, so we lovingly (and sarcastically) referred to the beast as "The Ajax Mobile."

One night, we stopped by Rob's house because it was rather cool out for what should have been a hot August night. Rob ran upstairs to grab sweatshirts for us, because we were headed to the beach for yet another night of being silly. I made chit chat with Robs folks while the warmer clothing was retrieved from upstairs and we beat feet out the door to go have fun.

Rob chucked me a red sweatshirt that was nice and big (wouldn't fit me today because I'm ... twice as nice and big) and it was worn perfectly. It was his dad's old Ohio State sweatshirt, and I think it was at least 10 years older than I was at the time. We had our fun out in the world, and I got dropped off at home, with the sweatshirt.

Said sweatshirt went to college with me, and I wore it a lot at the beginning of my Freshman year ... I was totally missing Rob, but not his dad. I didn't really give a second thought to the man who owned it, and who probably would have liked to have worn it on a nice fall afternoon watching his favorite football team. I loved that sweatshirt. It became a part of my life there for a few months.

At Thanksgiving I went home, and par for the course went to Rob's one night during that long weekend so we could go out again and have some fun and talk about our new lives at different schools.

I made the mistake of wearing the sweatshirt.

I'll never EVER forget the look on Al's face. "I've been looking everywhere for that sweatshirt!" He bellowed.

Oh, sweet merciful crap.

"Where'd you get it! How'd you get it!" He pointed at me with his eyes flaming.

Pooping my pants in abject terror because I totally thought that Al was going to kill me, I threw Rob under the bus and pointed at him. He started berating Rob and I took the sweatshirt off and folded it up and returned it to its rightful and very grumpy owner.

Again, we beat feet out of there and I felt small and stupid and terrified and also had a good laugh at a grown man flipping out over a sweatshirt...

God, I wish I hadn't worn it that night. Dimes to dollars I'd still have it. I loved that thing, and I could see why he was all bent out of shape five ways to Sunday for having "lost" it when his kid loaned it to one of his stupid rotten friends who ran away to college with it.

Anyway, for years and years after that all I could think of when I thought of Ohio State was him and that sweatshirt.

I so wish I had it now.

Al died a month and a half ago.

I've been processing the events that Rob and his mom and his siblings have had to go through, and where they are now. I talk to Rob every couple of weeks, and I feel there is such an emptiness in his life. His dad was a presence.

Rob said recently that his dad was a hard man to get to know. I think that is the God's honest truth. I always felt very connected to Rob's mom, Kathy, and could spend days and days talking to her. But was always a bit intimidated by his dad.

When I would talk with him I always felt pressure. He'd ask me questions like what I was planning to DO WITH MY LIFE and why I wanted to study English in college, where did I think that would get me, and why I was doing this and why I was doing that. Where did I see myself in five years, ten, twenty. Who thinks of that kind of stuff at 17?! And who needs someone else's dad pressing them about it... yikes. I totally freaked me out and made me nervous.

At the time, I felt like a blithering idiot and not a very smart person. I felt that any answer I would give wouldn't be sufficient, smart, good decision. I felt kind of judged. What I didn't realize he was holding my feet to the invisible fire made of making good decisions and doing good things to lead to a really good rest of my life.

At 16 or 17, I just thought he was mean and overlordy.

No one ever asked me questions about what I wanted to do and why. No one made me offers or gave me things to think about. I wish I'd paid closer attention to him and not ended up terrified of him. I wish I'd recognized his brusk attitude was actually him caring about where his son's good friend was going to end up one day.

He was a presence, for sure... commanding, demanding, blunt and direct.

After the sweatshirt incident I basically avoided him when I came home from college and would get together with Rob, not because I was afraid of him but because I was embarrassed.

For making a bad decision and walking off with a man's beloved sweatshirt.

A few years back, Al and Kathy moved to Virginia.

Rob would tell me about their cool house, how it was exactly what they always wanted. I wanted very much to go visit, especially when Rob was a student at Mr. Jefferson's University, but I had kids by then, and was working my butt off at jobs that I didn't like or want thinking about the decisions I'd made that didn't have me on a path towards a Ph.D. in Shakespeare Studies somewhere.

But I had my kids, and my awesome husband, and my life was here and Rob's family was elsewhere. If they were still on Long Island, I think I would have stopped in to see them more than the two times I did once I had the kids, while my folks were still living there. But they'd moved away, and I never got to see him again.

Hey Al, just so you know, I think I turned out okay. I may not be rich, or perfect, but I'm probably much happier than I was in 1984 or so back on Long Island when I stole your sweatshirt.

I've got some good kids, you might like them.

And I'm still friends with your son, and hold him close to my heart forever as one of the best friends I have ever had or ever will have.

So thank you for not killing me for stealing your OSU sweatshirt and for tolerating me those many years ago. And I'm sorry I never had the opportunity to say now that I get it. I get what you were trying to do back then in the pre-sweatshirt stealing days when you scared the crap out of me.

I'll miss you. And I'll never forget you.

Especially when watching College Football.

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