Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Gil Hodges and the Hallelujah Chorus

Several years ago a gentleman named Thomas Oliphant wrote a book entitled, "Praying for Gil Hodges". Oliphant grew up a fervent Brooklyn Dodgers fan (did the Dodgers have any other kind of fans?) and was a boy when the Dodgers won the 1955 World Series, which was of course the only Series the Dodgers won prior to abandoning the right coast for the left coast a few years later. Oliphant is a writer of some note - having been awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1975 while writing for the Boston Globe - and having had a distinguished career writing about politics on the local, national and international level for the better part of two-plus decades.

Oliphant's book about Gil Hodges and the 1955 Dodgers caught my eye for the same reason as all books about Brooklyn and the Dodgers do - my mother. Mom grew up one of the Flatbush faithful - a member of the legion of die-hard Dodgers fans for whom the franchise ceased to exist when Ebbets Field was traded in for Chavez Ravine and for whom the memories of the years of magic that were made inside the walls of Ebbetts Field shall echo for a lifetime. I bought the book for Mom - as I do all books that I come across that broach that subject matter - and sent it to her to include among her stack of, "Books to read while I am chilling on the beach, which I get to do 365 days a year" books.

Candidly, I had forgotten that I had sent it to her, although I remember being excited about the purchase as Oliphant was a frequent guest on the Imus in the Morning radio show and I had heard him speak on a number of occasions on various subjects, including politics and baseball, while on that program. I bought it. I shipped it. She received it. She read it. When she had finished reading it she called me to share with me a most extraordinary piece of news.

In the autumn of '55, Oliphant was a 5th grade student at the Browning School for Boys in New York City. His teacher was a man Oliphant described in print as, "an exacting instructor who could be a warm, witty mentor unless you failed to do your work. He lived in Queens and was a die-hard Giants fan which made us adversaries during the baseball season but allies in Yankee hatred every autumn." His teacher was my father.

There are a couple of places in the book where Oliphant mentions my father and the positive influence he had upon Oliphant's 5th grade experience. Apparently however one of the areas in which the old man's influence did not reach so deep or so far was spelling. Throughout the book our last name is misspelled. There is one "e" too many and just for fun I shall let you guess where the extra one is. Nevertheless it was quite nice to read the complimentary things that a man who grew up to do some fairly big things had to say about Dad and his influence upon that fella's development.

To my surprise, Oliphant the writer proved not to be such a great communicator. I sent him an e-mail after reading the book - identifying myself as one of the six children of "Mr. Kenney" (Oh damn I just gave away the answer to the preceding paragraph's riddle!), thanking him for mentioning my father in his work, telling him it was nice to hear of the influence that Oliphant felt my father had had upon him and - being the pr*ck of misery that I am - pointing out to him that he had misspelled our family's name. Perhaps right up until the point of that last bit of information I was on his mailing list? I know not. I know simply that I never received a response from him. I guess being "Offspring of the Influence" does not carry the weight in the world I might have otherwise expected.

While Oliphant proved to be uncommunicative, I was pleased to make the acquaintance of a very nice young woman at Browning. Rachel Leanza is (or at least was a few years ago) the Alumni Director for Browning and she could not have been more helpful. Apparently, Browning hosted a party or two toasting Oliphant's book (and all of the nice free pub it showered on his old stomping grounds). In response to a query regarding any photograph that might exist showing my father at Browning, she took the time to review years' of yearbook photos, scan more than one dozen of them and then send me a CD containing all of the scanned images.

At the time, Margaret worked for a commercial packaging company. She was able to print up for me large-sized black and white prints of the photos, which prints we sent to Mom in Florida. I sent a copy of the CD to each of my older siblings, figuring that while all six of us were alive at the time Dad died, scant few of our children were and it might be nice for the grand kids to put a face - albeit a face frozen in time from an era some two to two and one-half decades prior to his death - to his name.

I was fourteen when my father died. Given our shared Irish heritage I have learned more about his life in the twenty-eight plus years since he died from other sources than I ever learned from him directly in the fourteen-plus years he and I spent tripping around the big blue marble together. Perhaps had we known each other better when I was a boy I would devote less time and energy to trying to learn about the life he lived way back when - including well before he became a father of six children. I know not. And given the manner in which his life played out and the manner in which mine has as well, I reckon that is a question best left for pondering on my next trip around our humble 3rd rock from the sun.

I do know that to a certain extent what drew me towards needing to see photos from an era in my father's life that had been lived and to a large extent completed before my own life had begun was Oliphant's description of him. Life and his health had taken quite a toll on my father by the time I was born. The young, vibrant educator who taught the 5th grade at Browning in 1955 was - to great extent - a memory by the time my father and I made one another's acquaintance. It was a bit odd to read a stranger's description of my father and realize that he was describing an individual who I knew hardly at all.

Initially it bummed me out more than a little. However, after customer service at Dr. Peabody's Emporium assured me that the waiting list for the WABAC Machine is interminably long and exceptionally slow-moving, I got over it. There is enough strife in all of our day-to-day trying to keep a handle on those things over which we can exercise at least a bit of control without attempting to wrestle with those that we cannot.

Besides if it is true that we cannot make any real headway on our journey through this world without knowing from whence we came and how we got from there to here, I need only appreciate the glimpse through the now-open window. I take a look, get my bearings and move on from here.

And so it goes. As do I. As we all do.


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