One problem with time is that way that it can mess with a man’s memory. Children grow up without knowing any better and naturally trust those who are in positions of authority. As we grow up, we rebel, we strike out on our own, and sometimes we look back and see the our pasts with clarity. What do we really know, though, because time can mess with a man’s memory.
Besides time, there is another problem we face as children. We don’t know anything about the people who are coaching and teaching us. Coaches and teachers speak with voices conveying a purity about life that we all should aspire to. They drive home lessons about team work, commitment, and unity. As kids we buy into the lessons and work to impress these guys who happen to be in charge because do so will get us more playing time. As we get older, we begin to see the faults of these once great men and I can’t help but believe there is a little disappointment on our parts.
I loved growing up in Williamsburg. I also struggled there. The town was small, so I think I was more bored with a life there than anything else. I had a lot of friends and got a good education, even though those who know will tell you, I really didn’t like school. I was also lucky with coaches. There was one guy who had a subtle influence on me, Coach Mo Weber.
On this day, I am racing to Virginia to interview my ninety-three year old coach. The last time I saw him we were both in different places. I was interviewing him for a final project in a class about careers in sports and he was about to enter as much of a retirement as he could ever stand. Rain fell that night and today the sky is threatening to drop snow, which would probably suit both of our gray heads just fine. I got to the Southern Kitchen at noon and stepped right back into my past.
He looked up from the booth with the same excited eyes I remembered from 1985. He was searching for anything that would help him remember me, but for a man who had evaluated and coached thousands of baseball players he was going to have to work real hard to place my face.
“Chris Hancock, Lafayette, first base, opposite field hitter… I’m glad to see you again.” He motioned for me to sit down and so would begin our latest lesson.
“How did you remember me that fast?”
“I called Jamal and he emailed me a picture. You are quite a bit grayer and life seems to have been good to you.” He patted his belly and shot me a thin smile.
“The years have been kind to you also, Coach. Are you still hitting the heavy bag?”
Coach Weber was a baseball diamond Bob Hope. He would hang out by the dug out and during the down time start riffing about being a champion boxer and graceful dancer. His routine was polished and to a group of seventeen and eighteen year old kids he was so funny.
“You know why I did all that stuff?”
“I couldn’t help it. It’s just who I was.”
“Well, it was fun. I’m glad you did.”
We ordered. I went with chicken fried steak and a baked potato. He went with a small salad.
“You know I had two heart surgeries? Wanna see the zippers?”
“I’ve seen the first one,” I said. Back in high school after his first heart surgery, Coach Weber took pride in showing off his sixty three year old physique. On hot days he would go skins and tell us all to be careful about what we ate.
“Oh yeah. You know, it hasn’t really been that tough living with a broken heart.”
I was taken aback by his comment because that was kind of why I was there. I had learned a little about my old coach. His father was the great artist, Max Weber. After moving from Williamsburg, I had become more interested in art and here I was sitting with the son of one of America’s greatest artists. I was hoping he and I might talk a little about what it had been like to live with such a famous father. I wondered if his broken heart comment might be an opportunity to bring up his father.
“Why do you say that, coach?”
“I’m not sure. Medicine…doctors…they have this whole thing figured out at least in terms of managing our health. They opened me up, changed some stuff around, and I listened to their advice.”
“How did your life change after the first surgery?”
“I got back to what was important, which was being at home and baseball. Being a stock broker was tough living and baseball was a joy to me.”
“What was it like coaching in Williamsburg?”
“I don’t know. Like anywhere else I guess. Some people liked what I did and some people didn’t.”
I decided to go for it.
“Like your father’s art?”
He paused for a moment and took a little time to size me up. I knew right away I was out of line. For whatever reason, Coach Weber had not talked about his father to us. After learning about his family, I had wondered why he never mentioned that his father was such a great artist, but it was the stare from his normally welcoming eyes that let me know I had touched a nerve.
“I suppose you could compare the two, but why do you ask?”
“I guess I’m wondering why you never mentioned that your father was such a famous person. Were you proud of him? Was he proud of you? I’m just curious as to what that was like.”
The sparkle came back to his eyes. “I know your father. What was it like growing up with him?”
“Good. We are very different, but in many ways the same.”
“That is true. Your father is a good man. He’s not famous, but good nonetheless. My father and I were the same and different also.”
“Could you relate to him?” I asked.
“Not so much when I was young, but when I look back now I think I understand him better. You?”
“We are different. He is a hands-on guy, a tinkerer. He’s able to see things and build or fix them. I don’t have that 3-D creativity like that.”
Coach Webber leaned forward, “But you write, don’t you? You are creative just like him, only the creativity expresses itself differently.”
I had not thought about it that way. I am like my father, but with different abilities.
“I wish I had some of his skills, though,” I said.
Coach Weber stopped short with his next bite, “Then you wouldn’t be you.”
We ate in silence for a minute and I felt like I had made a big mistake asking Coach Weber about his father. The relationship he had with his dad was really none of my business. Throughout our brief time together, Mo had been so generous with his knowledge and time that I began to believe he would have shared more about his father if he had wanted to.
“You know, Chris, there is a simple reason that I never talked about my father with you guys.”
“There was no point. How would that have helped you hit better or make the team play better?”
His answer was as stripped down as his batting instruction.
He started again, “My father was a great artist, according to some, not so much according to others. On some days he was a great father. On others, well, we didn’t see eye to eye. But he was my father and I love him for that, not for his artistic ability or celebrity. As for my life, I made my choices based on my goals. I wanted to be Maynard, not Max’s son.”
It was my turn to size him up. What I saw was a man who had lived a full life. He lived it on his terms and would continue to so with all of the time he had left.
“I’m sorry if I crossed a line in asking about your father.”
“Not at all. He and I are linked for better or worse. How’s your father? Still in Williamsburg?”
“Good and sort of. They moved out of town, but they’re close enough that I tell people they are still in Williamsburg.”
“You know, Chris, kids are a little of their mother and a little of their father. Mostly though, they become who life pushes them to become. Themselves.”
He excused himself and headed for the restroom. As he walked away, I could see those short, middle infielder steps he used to prance around with on the field. I had sought out Mo to learn about his relationship with his father and I would be leaving thinking about mine. He had turned the conversation on me and taught me another lesson. Always the teacher.
When he returned he had his hat and jacket on. “Okay, let’s go. I’ve got to get home before the snow and you should be heading on to Williamsburg.”
He was right, I wanted to make a detour home to see my parents.
“I’ll get the bill, Coach,” I said.
“I already did. What did you think, I had to go to the bathroom? Come on, young fella, you’ve got a lot to learn.”
Yes, I do.