To my father on his 70th

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Today Craig A. Pridgen would have turned 70. This is what he taught me.

By Andrew J. Pridgen

The father of one of my best friends growing up had a study. It was down a long hallway of the second story of their house and it mostly sat empty—the darkest, most shadowy corner of the home. I never set foot inside but once in awhile as we went running by, I’d catch a glimpse. There were mysterious paintings and strange sculptures. Once in awhile sun peeking through blinds would set off a spark from a gold pen or magnifying glass lens and temporarily blind you. None of the four kids went into the study either—if they could help it. But once in awhile a hand or a voice would beckon them in, individually, and a talk would ensue.

Though the contents of those conversations remain a mystery today, each child, in his or her own way, would come out of there doing things a little different.

My other best friend lived across the street from me. His father didn’t have a study, but spent most of his spare time in the garage. He would have his mountain bike frame up on the stand, cleaning with an oil-splotched rag or rotating a tire or scrubbing using a toothbrush with blackened bristles. Often he’d have The Doors or ZZ Top blaring from a small boom box, waking the neighbors Sundays before nine.

This buddy also had three siblings, all brothers. Not often did I see any of them in the garage with their dad. But on occasion, I would spy one of them standing there, nodding, shoulders melting toward the concrete. Were this the case, I would postpone my morning journey over there for a game of wiffle ball or a listen to some heavy metal records.

My dad did not have a study and was not a big tinkerer in his garage. He liked to do laundry, I guess. Or maybe he was just always doing it. He barbecued. But these were solitary activities. By my early teenage years, my sister had left the home for college and both he and my mother were working and commuting. Our relationship grew distant. Although, save for the summer we built rockets together, I don’t recall it ever being terribly close.

Golf, I would learn, was his respite, his sanctuary. He “got out when he could” and sometimes, out of obligation, dragged me along and watched me run around looking for balls in the rough as if it were some grand Easter Egg hunt. He was thankful that by the time I was in high school, my interest in the sport had flickered to an end and he could go about his long walk unfettered.

In my early 30s, I found myself living in Tahoe a few blocks from him. His career had ebbed and golf became more of an every-other-day ritual. Once more, I wasn’t invited—much. But on occasion, I’d get the call. During that time, I was coming off an early failed marriage, several jobs that never really worked out (you know, bad situations that were never my fault.) I gambled unsuccessfully. I drank one or two more beers than I could hold. I was loud. I was consistently inconsistent and never could quite get there on time or fully dressed.

One Friday evening, he called me up for an early Saturday round and maybe lunch after. I did my best to show up at the designated hour, though he smartly told me the tee time was a half-hour earlier than it actually was. When I did arrive 15 minutes late/early, he still had to buy me a collared shirt and rent me some clubs. In return, I tried to not ruin his outing. A first for me.

At the 13th, I hit a surprisingly true shot off the tee and put it pin high about three feet from the hole. I could feel his smile warming behind me. I did a little hop-skip back to the cart beaming. He took a sip of his Arnold Palmer, crunched on an ice cube and said, “There. You see. You are so much better if you just learn to slow down a little bit.”

It took me years, maybe even a decade to figure out he wasn’t talking about golf. But there it was. My father’s study/garage was on a blanket of spotted green under a canopy of trees.

…This morning on the drive in, I looked back at my son who is quickly becoming a little boy. He was yelling “Daddy” and I was calling back his name. And he would laugh to a scream. He is fortunate in that he resembles his mother in every way: eyes, nose, chin and hair… with one notable exception: his silly, toothy, gappy grin belongs to my dad. When he smiled, I could not help but slow down and think of the old guy smiling back.

Happy Birthday Dad.

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