In a soldier's stance, I aimed my hand
At the mongrel dogs who teach
Fearing not that I'd become my enemy
In the instant that I preach
My pathway led by confusion boats
Mutiny from stern to bow.
Ah, but I was so much older then,
I'm younger than that now.
My Back Pages
There is something about a funeral that inevitably sparks in one the need to reflect.
This whole thing started a long time ago. My name is Dan Mason, and nine years ago, I wrote an account of my life entitled Life and Life Only, under the pseudonym Dave Moyer. I took the title for the book from a Bob Dylan song called “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”.
I am now a full professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago, in the Educational Policy Studies Department. I have been offered a number of administrative positions at this university and others, but they don’t interest me. I had enough of politics when Arne Duncan became President Obama’s Secretary of Education and asked me to serve on a state commission to develop a nationwide pilot program for reforming teacher compensation. Obama had been a senator in Illinois before he was elected president, and he selected for his Secretary of Education Duncan, the former CEO of the Chicago Public School System. For four years, I fought battles with state and national level politicians, and it wore me out, mostly because none of them listened very well to reason. They understood only money. If you read my first book, you surely should know that politics and I do not mix well.
I had written articles for a variety of professional publications over the years, but it was not until I met my soon-to-be-friend, Mike Denison, who was then the baseball coach at UIC, that I was able to put my thoughts on paper and tell the story that had been gnawing at me for some time. Every time I began to try to come to grips with the story, it overwhelmed me, and as I read back to myself what I had written, I realized it was garbage. Eventually, I learned to write one episode at a time. I understood that I was trying to write my entire vision all at once, and it wasn’t working. I had to be patient and develop one aspect of the story at a time. It was then that my book began to take shape.
On a personal front, I was enjoying a second chance at life. Having accepted my initial position at UIC, I had reconciled with my mother, the steadfast and wonderful Emma, and I had reunited with my daughter, Melinda Sue by birth, but Lindy to me. Then, one night, as I lay awake dreaming (I was born a dreamer—some things you just can’t help), the title Life and Life Only came to me, and I thought I finally had something. But it was the relationship I had formed with Mike that finally put me over the top. It was his story that forced me to examine my own. Though many thought I imagined myself to be the hero of the story, Emma was my hero; Mike, my inspiration; and Lindy, my reason to keep living. It was all very complicated.
Since that time, I have written several short pieces that were picked up by literary magazines, made a variety of appearances at book signings around the country, met the great troubadour, Bob Dylan, and even saw my novel made into a movie. But I never could get my mind sufficiently wrapped around a second novel. I again fell victim to seemingly endless false starts—until now. I returned to my original characters in Life and Life Only for inspiration, and once again, they did not disappoint. What follows might be confused for my story, but I suggest to you, the reader, otherwise. This is not my story, but rather, this is our story: the story of a collective humanity, longing for love and comfort in each other’s presence. This is a story of second chances—may you all be as fortunate as I.
I am fifty-three now. But I was forty when I first met Mike. Though I usually taught only graduate classes, a fluke in the schedule necessitated that I teach an undergraduate course, and I agreed. I had one of Mike’s players in class who was struggling mightily. If his name wasn’t on my class roster, I might not have known he existed, which was, of course, the problem. I called Mike and asked for an appointment to discuss the situation. He recognized my name because I had donated money to the athletic department’s baseball booster organization. We agreed to meet in his office, and shortly into the conversation, he realized that I was no stranger to a ball field. At that point, things took off, and we instantly became terrific friends.
“Really, you were drafted that high!? Wow,” he exclaimed. “I was a wannabe—a scrapper. Just another good player who wasn’t good enough.”
Everything I told him was true. I had been drafted out of high school by the Detroit Tigers in the eighth round, but rather than sign, I elected instead to attend the University of Georgia. I pitched in the Cape Cod League the summer after my sophomore year, but when I arrived at campus the following fall, my shoulder wasn’t right. The doctors said I had a torn labrum. They performed surgery, and I missed my entire junior year. When I came back the next year, I wasn’t the same. Still, after the season, Detroit offered to sign me to a free-agent contract, but when I told Anna Jean, whom I intended to wed a month later, that I had an offer from the Tigers, she informed me that she was pregnant with our daughter, Melinda Sue. My career was over. We moved back up to the Chicago area, eventually settling in Crystal Lake. I secured a job with the help of my dad, a local high school basketball coaching legend, as an English teacher and baseball coach at nearby Huntley High School. Looking back on it, it was a fair trade—my career for Lindy, considering all the comfort and friendship she has provided me over the years—and that would be true even without the latest scheme she and her husband, Tom, concocted on my behalf.
Mike and I tossed down more than a beer or two back in the day. We had a blast, and I suppose baseball was the common denominator of our friendship—that and our tarnished dreams, I guess. Mike, a single man, derived a great deal of enjoyment chasing the opposite sex around the South Loop, or the West Loop—ah hell, Chicago couldn’t hold him. I did not partake in these shenanigans. I could not shake my ex-wife, Anna Jean, who left me several years prior amid a baseless allegation of sexual harassment back in my first year as a high school principal in Huntley. I had hoped that our financial fortunes were finally taking a turn toward solvent and that things between us might improve, but our marriage was a wreck, and this incident provided her with the impetus she needed to leave. Before I could return from the Board meeting at which I was exonerated, Anna Jean was on a plane back to Georgia, with Lindy in tow. I moved back in with my mother in my hometown of Barrington.
At first, I secretly envied Mike, who enjoyed the company of these young Chicago beauties, while I, more times than not, sat in my apartment, reading. But eventually, I learned that our reality was, in fact, one of shared loneliness. Mike had already learned that the subject of Anna Jean was off-limits, but, one night, after about eight or ten too many beers, Mike coughed up that he was a father before he graduated from high school, and that he and his girlfriend had given up their son for adoption. After Mike graduated from high school, he left his home in Appleton, Wisconsin, for a junior college in Mississippi, later graduated from Southeast Missouri State University in Cape Girardeau, took a graduate assistantship at Eastern Illinois University and a head coaching job at a junior college in Champaign before finally landing the UIC job. This all sounded rather exotic to me compared to my rather routine, if not mundane existence. At first, I saw Mike as a true baseball man, living the life I had always hoped for, but it wasn’t long before I realized that it wasn’t that simple. Mike was as much running away from reality as he was chasing his dreams, and that revelation both scared me and bonded us together, because, in many ways, so was I.
Shorty after that incident, my phone rang. It was Lindy. We made some small talk, and I assumed our conversation was about to end, when something wonderful happened.
“Dad, I got accepted to UIC. I’m going to go to college at UIC.” she said.
I was speechless, and I’m not sure what I said, or even exactly what else she said, except I remember this. She said, “Dad, I am so tired of missing you all the time.”
She said she missed me! I had struggled with my faith for years, but no doubt, Lindy’s arrival was a gift from God, even if she was the spitting image of her mother.
Those four years were magical, and I wouldn’t trade them for anything. However, I knew I would be alone again someday soon and, though terribly sad, I embraced the inevitable day when she informed me she was leaving, as my mother had when I’d left our home to take my position at UIC.
In December of her senior year, she burst into my apartment, rapt with joy, and announced, “Dad, I’ve been accepted into the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern!”
I reached out to her, and we raced toward each other, she tripping over the coffee table, and I over the pile of newspapers next to my chair, and in that way literally fell into each other’s arms.
“Oh, Lindy. You’ve worked so hard for this. You deserve this chance, and you’ll do great! Thank God you’ll only be up the road a bit,” I said, knowing that Northwestern’s main campus is located in Evanston, which borders Chicago to the north, while the Medical School is located off Lake Shore Drive on East Chicago Avenue, just north of Navy Pier, and not far from Michigan Avenue’s Magnificent Mile. I then added, “I’ve grown more than a little used to your company!”
It relieved me to learn that I wouldn’t have to let her go just yet. The fact of the matter was that Mike, having experienced a solid run at UIC, had the best year of his coaching career the previous spring behind the right arm of a young man named Tom Bickert. The Flames finished 46-18, losing to North Carolina in the Super Regional that year, and the San Francisco Giants selected Tom as the eighth pick overall in the first round of the Major League Baseball Amateur Draft. Their combined success led to a $5.7 million signing bonus for him, and propelled Mike to the head coaching position at the University of Tennessee. Phone calls and text messages were no substitute for his company.
Lindy and I sat down on the couch, and I turned down the stereo, as we were being serenaded rather loudly from a bootleg recording of a Dylan concert I had attended on Halloween in 2009 at the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago. It was on this tour that Dylan’s former guitarist, Charlie Sexton, had rejoined the band, rejuvenating the old man, who’d pranced around on stage like he was thirty-five, not sixty-eight.
I turned the music down to the line, “Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is,” from “Ballad of a Thin Man”, which, on that night in 2009, was the final song before the encore set. Now, a little more than nine years later, there were no more encores. Bob had ceased touring, which, for him, must have been akin to death.
“So tell me about your plans,” I inquired.
Almost before I could finish, she said, “Well, here’s what I think I want to do.” Her intelligence, attractiveness, and confidence manifested themselves at all times in equal measure. “At this point, I’d like to pursue a dual track in the Medical Scientist Training Program. What you do is, after you graduate from medical school, you do two years of residency through the McGaw Medical Center. It’s a consortium of five different hospitals in the area. Instead of doing four years, you do two, and then you take Part One of the United States Medical Licensing Examination. Then you get your PhD—a four-year program. I think I might want Immunology, but I’m not sure yet—and then you come back for your final two years of residency and take Part Two of the exam. Then, I can be a medical researcher at a major institution. If I become a doctor, I can help one patient at a time, which is important, but if I make a big breakthrough, I can help the world! I can be a teacher, too, like you, Dad.”
A tear came to my eye. Was it any wonder she lit me up so three years prior, when she walked back into my life? I hesitated, then replied, “Sounds like a snap.”
Tom and Lindy met at UIC during the spring of their freshman year in college and immediately began dating. They were tight throughout, and it appeared to me that it was a very healthy, respectful, and loving relationship, though because they were so young, I feared the same results for them that I had suffered with Anna Jean.
In February, Tom reported to the Giants spring training site in Scottsdale, Arizona. When he was drafted the previous spring, he was assigned to the Class A Augusta GreenJackets of the South Atlantic League. He pitched so well that they shipped him across the country mid-season to their Advanced A affiliate, the San Jose Giants of the California League. Tom had come off a heavy work load his junior year in college, and in order to protect his arm, the organization shut him down in mid-August when he reached his innings limit for the year.
Refreshed and excited, Tom learned at the end of March that the Giants were assigning him to their Eastern League Affiliate, the Richmond, Virginia, Flying Squirrels. He immediately called Lindy to tell her the news.
“Lindy, I’m going to where the prospects are! I’m going to Double A!”
“Oh, Tom, you’re going to make it; I know you are!”
When she relayed the story to me, it gave me the opportunity to ask her the question I had been wondering since she’d informed me of her acceptance into medical school at Northwestern.