By the end, by the time my father’s journey stopped some 40 days short of his 77th birthday, we had only a couple of topics of conversation we could discuss without tension or disagreement.
We both loved the Indiana Pacers and Tiger Woods. We could talk Pacers year-round. My dad listened enthusiastically to all my Pacers-inspired rants, and barked a few of his own. Father’s Day weekends were spent on the telephone dissecting Tiger’s US Open rounds.
This weekend felt empty. Tiger never led or really contended. My dad was just a memory. He died the last day of May. We eulogized his life five days later, buried his body next to his brother’s and then partied at his beloved Masterpiece Lounge until nearly midnight.
I’ve spent the past 11 days examining our 46-year relationship, wondering why only Tiger and the Pacers survived the past decade.
My parents divorced when I was young. Their eight-year marriage crumbled because my dad wasn’t quite ready to settle down. He liked to gamble. He liked to chase women. He liked to hang with the guys he grew up with, the guys he worked with at Chrysler. I don’t have any memories of my parents’ marriage.
I remember my dad being my absolute idol. He was, without a doubt, the coolest dude I ever met. He dressed immaculately, almost exclusively in tailored suits. He was handsome. He drove a Cadillac. In the late 1970s, he owned a two-tone brown Caddy. It seemed no one else in Indianapolis had one.
My dad read all sorts of books. He knew everything. He took me and my brother fishing. He taught us to shoot a rifle. We went to a dozen or so Indiana Pacers ABA games a year. In the mid-1970s, when he bought his first bar, Jimmy’s J-Bar-J, he and his friend Mitch designed and built the inside of the nightclub. On weekends, me and my brother would hand them hammer and nails, fetch water and beer and contribute in whatever way we could.
My dad bought my first football equipment. I can still picture sitting in his car holding my first helmet, a new pair of cleats and all my pads. In junior high and high school, my dad and his two best friends, the Ballard Brothers, never sat in the stands during my football games. They stood along a fence, wearing suits, trench coats and hats. The Ballard Brothers were big and tall, standing about 6-foot-4 and weighing 230 pounds. My dad was 6-1 and maybe 200. They were intimidating and cool. My dad looked like Billy Dee Williams surrounded by bodyguards.
I was a mama’s boy. But I worshipped my dad. No one had a cooler father. Or a more rigid one. He had his rules and regulations. He hated the word “fart.” A born prankster, I loved the word and I loved farting. My dad gave me the worst spanking of my life for saying the word fart one too many times. In sixth grade, I tried to quit my football team because we were the worst team in the league and got blown out every Saturday. My dad made me apologize to the coaches and everyone on the team. My dad despised all of my childhood friends. My black friends, in his mind, were all headed for trouble. My white friends were all secretly racist. My brother was the only friend good enough for me, according to my dad.
My senior year of high school, I moved in with my dad. My mother’s job transferred her to Kansas City. I stayed behind because my football team was expected to win the state title and I had a chance to land a football scholarship.
It was not the ideal time to live with my dad. The IRS had taken Jimmy’s J-Bar-J from him and pretty much everything else, including his new Cadillac. We shared a one-bedroom apartment in the ‘hood. My dad was still the same guy. He just didn’t have any money. He worked as a bartender. Life had humbled him. I was spoiled, frustrated and embarrassed. I was captain of the football team and the most popular kid at my high school. Sleeping on a couch in an 800-square-foot apartment is not how I envisioned my senior year.
We clashed. My dad wanted to root out the imperfections he thought my mother overlooked or tolerated. He hated the way I dressed, couldn’t stand how I talked, thought my grades should be better and was convinced I was headed for failure.
I was used to having a dad on weekends and during the summer. The everyday pressure of having a male authority figure analyzing my every move took a toll. A mother and a father oftentimes play good cop bad cop. I got a year’s worth of bad cop with my mother occasionally on the phone cheering me up.
Things didn’t improve between me and my dad until after I graduated Ball State and landed a job. He kept a boot in my ass for five years of college. Once I started taking care of myself, he removed the boot, and we became very close. He’d purchased a new bar, the world-famous Masterpiece Lounge. Things were good. He no longer preached at me. He shared stories about life and things he experienced, mistakes he’d made that he hoped I’d avoid.
My dad became my best friend. He and the Ballard Brothers visited me in Kansas City. I set them up in a golf tournament. Hooked them up with a super-hot female chaperone to show them the city. They had the time of their lives.
And then about 15 years ago, the nightclub-owning, Crown Royal-drinking, ladies-man lifestyle started eroding my dad’s health. Doctors started making dire predictions on what would happen in the next two to three years.
I was dating a vegetarian at the time. She had a very holistic approach to life and health. She cared deeply about me, we’d dated for years. She volunteered to move to Indianapolis for a month to show my father how to implement some of the dietary changes his doctor suggested. My dad agreed. It lasted less than 24 hours.
“Get this white woman out of my house,” my dad told me.
My dad knew the woman long before she ever came. And she knew my dad held racist beliefs long before she ever volunteered to help him. I have an extremely low tolerance for ignorance and racial hostility. This was a turning point for me and my dad. I understood his history, the despicable things he experienced in the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s. I know in detail the events that shaped his bigotry.
But I also recognize when another human being selflessly sacrifices for the good of another human being. You don’t reject that spirit of love because there are idiots in the world.
My dad and I spent the past decade of his life disagreeing about his lifestyle choice, his refusal to leave the nightclub industry. His health was so poor that he could no longer responsibly run his beloved bar. His two most-trusted employees, Mikki and Boogie, ran the business as best they could and I propped up the bar financially.
Our pleasant conversations revolved around Tiger Woods, the Indiana Pacers and my favorite TV show “The Wire”. Any conversation of substance would eventually lead to disagreement.
My dad didn’t graduate high school. He wanted me and my brother to ascend to educational and professional levels that were unavailable to him. We did. He was proud. But I’m not sure he wanted any real part in the life we made for ourselves. He was content living and dying at the Masterpiece Lounge. Over my own objections and at the expense of our relationship, I allowed him to do it.
That’s my Father’s Day story. I share it because maybe it will help you make better choices or find comfort in the ones you’ve made in regard to your parents.