To the outside world, it was a Sherwin Williams van.
During the workweek Dad used it to call on customers; hauling paint and carpet to businesses and schools all over Fayette County.
But on blue-sky-sunny-breezy summer Sundays just like today, that van became our magic carpet. And its cargo was simplified to an afternoon’s essentials: him, me, and the tall cardboard box that sat between us, whose contents I was solely responsible for.
It was my solemn duty to keep the box filled to overflowing with our basketballs, footballs, and, most importantly, our bats, balls and gloves.
Climbing into the van, we never had a destination mapped. That was always part of the adventure. We’d drive until we found a court with good nets and space to throw. Our drives might take us up the road to the Junior High, or over to Boyle School, or across town to Oliver playground, or sometimes up and over the mountain to Jumonville.
He always let me pick the location and the order of events. Whenever and wherever we’d arrive at a field, court or playground, I’d initiate the proceedings by dumping the tall cardboard box of its contents.
The majority of the time, basketball batted lead off. We’d warm up with make-it-take-it, then transition to Around-The-World, and then customized variations of H-O-R-S-E. Sometimes he’d let me switch the name to don’t-tell-mom-swear-words. “S-H-I-T” was our personal favorite … because the loser was obligated to say it aloud (ha).
In his day Dad was more of an underneath guy on the basketball court, more meat-and-potatoes than finesse. But he had a good hook shot in and around the paint, which, of course, I practiced and practiced and practiced when he wasn’t looking. I still remember this one Sunday afternoon at Jumonville when he chased down one of my missed shots to the other side of the basket, caught it in stride, and in one motion, spun his body and flipped the ball, no-look, over his shoulder with his right hand … kissing it perfectly off the backboard. The ball went in just as a car was driving past, prompting the passenger to spontaneously yell out the window, “Nice shot!” Yeah, that’s my Dad, I remember thinking proudly.
When basketball winded us, we’d break out the gloves. He’d let me pitch, humoring me by calling for curves, sliders, changeups and fastballs, though they all pretty much behaved the same coming out of my left hand. After I’d retire a side (thanks to a most generous strike zone), I’d back pedal to an outfield distance. “Make me run, Dad,” I’d command. He had this gift for aiming perfect pop flies just enough to my right or left to summon me to a full sprint and a leap, reach or dive. And whenever I’d rescue a ball inches before it sailed over my head or hit the ground, it was hard to tell who was more excited, him or me.
In those days, there was no greater feeling in the world than chasing down a pop fly and swallowing it with my outstretched, oversized, Reggie-Jackson-model Rawlings (“The Finest In The Field”) that Dad had bought, used, with the best $25 he ever spent.
Our Sunday afternoons seldom had a clock. Depending on our ambition and energy, sometimes we’d flee to another park or playground in the same outing. Sometimes we’d cycle through sports a couple times. We’d just play ourselves tired and hungry, then pile back in the van, re-filling the tall cardboard box that sat between us.
And, since Mom unapologetically never cooked on Sundays (she more than earned a day of rest with her efforts during the week), it gave us an excuse to make a pit stop before returning home. Among our favorite haunts was this deli-slash-convenience store on the other side of town, whose name escapes me. The ritual of our dinner menu, though, is forever etched in memory. We’d pull tall, glass bottles of Pepsi from the cooler, order a pound of Swiss Cheese from the deli, then retreat to our magic carpet, sipping and munching contentedly in the parking lot, while I’d crack open fresh packs of Topps cards in search of Pirate treasures. We convinced ourselves that the finest Swiss Cheese in the world could be found at this specific convenience store in Uniontown. For the record, I’d still testify under oath to that fact.
Around dusk Dad would whisk us home. As we pulled to the curb in front of our house on Mullen Street, our magic carpet transformed back into his Sherwin Williams van. I’d remove our tall cardboard box to make room for the week’s paint and carpet deliveries.
And patiently wait for the next sunny, summer Sunday.
We came home very late last night after a brief, but nourishing, family vacation. The good (and, these days, too-rare) kind, where the days didn’t have a clock. In her typically inspired, herculean, and meticulous packing efforts, Karry reserved room in a basket for our football, basketball and gloves. Surprisingly, I didn’t have to twist Peter’s arm (um, more than a couple times – ha). Honestly, he coaxed me on a couple occasions to throw some baseball (which, as he’s gotten older, we don’t do very often). I believe we actually passed ball three of the days we were away.
And without any prompting from me, he made a rule. Whenever we played ourselves tired or hungry, he’d direct me to aim a pop fly to his left or his right, so he could give chase and make a leaping, diving, or shoetop grab before we were allowed to call it quits. And when he’d rescue a ball from hitting the ground or from sailing over his head, it was hard to tell who was more excited, him or me.
We got in so late last night, we saved our unpacking for this afternoon. I found myself removing the basket with our balls and gloves, and thinking about that tall, cardboard box that used to sit between my Dad and me in our magic carpet.
And on our second Father’s Day since his passing, I find myself clinking a metaphorical glass Pepsi bottle with all those blue-sky-sunny-breezy, summer Sunday afternoons.