When I was young, my mom and dad split up. You’ve probably heard part of this story, if not all of it, if you’ve been following my blog. I had five whole years under my belt. My mom, my sister and I continued to live in the house on Windsor Drive in Sacramento. She worked on McLellan Air Force Base to make ends meet.
And while she did her thing for the Uncle Sam, I worked at the local kindergarten. My teacher’s name was Mrs. Simmons, and she had a tall pile of red hair. In my mind today, she looks and talked like Marge Simpson, except with different hair. I doubt she had such yellow skin. That’s just my imagination.
In first grade, my teacher was Miss Hitomi, a very short Japanese American lady. She hugged us every day when it was time to leave class. I liked her a lot. I was supposed to have Mrs. Lamb for second grade but we moved to Oregon, and started at Pistol River school instead. This was in 1975.
I said all that because, after a whole year in Oregon, I spent the summer of 1976 in Sacramento again. My time was split between my dad and both sets of grandparents. It was the bicentennial, and the California State Fair was going on. The bigwigs shot fireworks into the air every single night. Some nights I could even stay up late enough to see them. The Montreal Olympics happened that summer as well. Burger King was giving out posters. I had one of Bruce Jenner, the celebrated decathlete. He was the coolest thing that hot summer.
Mostly, I stayed with my grandparents, but my sister and I spent a few nights at my father’s house. He shared a place with a couple other guys. One of them was named Douglas. His friends called him Drugless because, well, you get the picture. In this house was first time I heard Neil Diamond. Not that Neil Diamond has anything whatsoever to do with this story. But the important bit was this: my dad had trophies.
They must have been high school treasures; stuff he had collected when he was young and cool and was a bit of an athlete. The trophies shined in his bedroom. Little men stood on top of their marble platforms, performing mighty feats of wrestling and track & field, just like the decathlete. My father also had a handful of medals that he’d gleaned from whatever-he-did in high school.
I wanted them SO badly. I wanted to be like the guys on top of the trophies: strong and fast and made from glimmering bronze. So I asked him, “Can I have them?” No, he told me. I don’t remember the reason he gave me. Maybe he wanted to relive those years, back when he had hair? I can’t be sure.
I threw an awful tantrum of some kind. And I remember cheering myself up by singing the “Crash bang, crack em up, and put ’em back again” jingle from Kenner’s Smash-Up Derby cars. My melody making went on for about a half-hour. I asked my Dad, “Do you like my song?” I’m sure he said yes, even though my ears were screaming no, because when you’re a Dad, this is what you’re supposed to do.
Maybe it was my tantrum, or possibly it was my beautiful song. Whatever the reason, at the end of my summer, my dad presented me with a cardboard box full of trophies. At first I was elated to have his shiny athletic accolades. That lasted for about a half hour before I realized that I didn’t earn them.
What’s the point of having a trophy, if you did nothing to get it? These trophies were not mine. My father was giving me a piece of his past, but I didn’t want the past. I wanted a box of accolades. I wanted people to say “Wow! How did you get that trophy?” So I could reply, in some offhand way, “Oh, you know, I’m a wrestler.” And then I’d put on some dark sunglasses and my fans would ask for my autograph. But, of course, none of that happened.
In fact, these things ever turned out the way I expected. The Evel Knievel stunt cycle popped wheelies, but it could not (and would not) transform me into Evel Knievel. The same thing happened when I got my 1970s GI Joe and his yellow rescue copter. I didn’t rescue a single person, and neither did Joe. The soldier just stared straight ahead at me with his lifelike hair and beard, and his eyes never even twitched. His kung fu grip didn’t stop a single bad guy that summer. His copter had a cool crane that, if used carefully, could rescue a small pile of sticks, one stick at a time. But, I their glory never rubbed off; not even when Evel and Joe traded their super powers. Joe fell off Evel’s bike, and Evel just broke even more bones in his already-fractured frame every time he fell out of Joe’s copter.
When you need to do something, you had better do it yourself. Bruce Jenner won’t hurdle his way into your life. Your dad’s trophies won’t make you a better rescuer. And even the combined powers of Evel Knievel and GI Joe can’t make your sister behave the way you want. They’re all another man’s rewards.
Yet, this is nothing to be sad about. It’s just the way things are. Work for the things you want. Malcolm Gladwell says it takes roughly 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery in a field. What, in my life, have I done for 10,000 hours? There are no short cuts. Maybe *then* I’ll get my trophies.