m wood pen

freelance illustrator: have pen, will travel

wally's pipe

damn facebook.

as is my “dawn of the new age” morning routine, i grab the buzzing, annoying iphone which, to the tune of ‘son of a preacher man’ attempts to wake me up and drag me out of bed, and pour for a minute or twenty, over all the news that’s fit to print on a teeny smartphone screen.

the cat is annoyed with my coma-like pose (i’ve learned through several previous adored pets that one movement to them means that you are up and ready to play/feed/let them outside/rush around like a minion, so, again, i try to remain as immobile as possible as i scour my mobile for a taste of what to expect in my day ahead.

well, today i was compelled to throw the phone across the room as i read, or at a minimum, rewind time. in a state of sadness and shock, thanks to stupid facebook (which i do truly love and adore, i know, don’t shoot the messenger), i read some words that, immediately, i wanted to un-read, de-learn and un-know.

wally died.

now to you it’s just a name, but to me, it’s a vital chess piece in the board game of my childhood.

not unlike a 70s/80s/90s/00s reincarnation of bing crosby’s “high society’s” c.k. dexter-haven, wally was my particular favorite of the dads amongst our childhood social circles. without blinking, i can conjure up my own mind’s gif loop with his ever-present twinkle, smile, and pipe-smoking joviality.

in the heyday that was my idyllic childhood (not that i knew it at the time, i thought we were poor country urchins being raised by a kookie alcohol-swilling, cigarette-puffing, barn-looting, chore-idolizing, murder-playing bunch of lunatics), there was a foursquare sort of group which was the nucleus of our family’s social life.  insert summer swimming pool parties, round-robin tennis matches, countless games of turn-out-the-lights and play murder games, lobster dinners, rousing mix-and-match ping pong tournaments and literally hundreds of rounds of charades.

this was not a group that shuttled the children off to the ‘rec room’, basement or back yard.  my brothers and sisters and i, and the gaggle of kids that came along with these zany couples, were welcome, expected to converse, entertain, participate, engage and enjoy the never-ending fun.  granted, i did learn how to mix a mean manhattan or martini at a shockingly young age, but that was just so that my mom and her gal pals could stay focused on ‘life saving’ the dozens of kids kicking around our swimming pool.

in the scope of things, and recusing my own very sweet dad from the competition, in the trifecta of other suburban chicago dads who comprised of a good two decade’s worth of constant gatherings, wally was my favorite. hands down.

cool-under-fire, he was the one you’d want to partner with for a high-stakes ping pong match, as this sweet dad never lost his cool, threw his paddle, renounced you in front of the competition or grade-school-age audience!  the guy was fun, mellow, humble and left his ego at the door. and in the crush of spending so much time with this inseparable group of my parents friends and their armies of children (three out of the four couples were catholic, ‘nough said), i can still feel the uncertainty of my own hope to impress, belong, and at a minimum, feel comfortable beyond my innate social shyness.

the thing is, i’m just about done with my own version of raising children and hopefully guiding them into a way of life that shares good, kindness, hope, belief, charity, wisdom, humility, joy and laughter.  what i see so clearly this morning is how profoundly important the smallest of exchanges can and might be for a child, teen or young adult. like little tender sponges, rascals they all are, overflowing with vulnerabilities, earnest and innocent, gullibly trusting the retinue of adults and elders who share their same orbits.  one moment alone can imprint an impression for life.  without any of us realizing it at the time.

so, my strongest wally moment that’s kept tucked into my heart for forty years?

back to the intense table tennis match, no doubt leading to the final team to win that particular 4th of july tournament, i remember missing a slam, watching the little white ball plop smack into the green net, and bracing myself for shame.

wally’s response?  a tug on the pipe that was perennially dangling from his crackling smile, a pat on the back, a wink, and the feeling that no matter what, he’d always, always think and say, “you’re alright, kid. you’re alright.”

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