For all who played and all who loved.
So don't fear if you hear
A foreign sound to your ear
And it's alright, Ma, I can make it . . .
And if my thought-dreams could be seen
They'd probably put my head in a guillotine
But it's alright, Ma, it's life, and life only.
It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)
Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son? . . .
Oh, what did you see, my blue-eyed son? . . .
And what did you hear, my darling young one? . . .
Oh, who did you meet, my blue-eyed son?. . .
I met a young girl, she gave me a rainbow . . .
Oh, what'll you do now, my blue-eyed son?. . .
A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall
Dan Mason entered the world in 1974, the same year that Bob Dylan reunited with The Band for the first time since their blistering tour of England in 1966. They opened up at the old Chicago Stadium on January 3rd. Tickets for the two-night stand sold out in less than a half-hour. A fortunate twenty-four-year-old, Don Mason, Dan’s father, managed to score tickets. During this seminal tour, Bob regularly performed the song “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”, and scowled the lines, “But even the president of the United States/Sometimes must have/To stand naked.” Later that year, President Richard Nixon, embroiled in the Watergate scandal, announced he would resign rather than face impeachment.
Dan was born into the chaos of the 1970-s. In addition to Watergate, America witnessed the Saigon airlift on television—an episode that became the country’s final image of the scar that would not heal. America discovered that free love led to a multitude of divorces. Gas prices rose, and the country endured a brutal recession. The Iran hostage crisis and the subsequent bungled rescue attempt horrified the nation. All of this occurred before Dan could sufficiently color between the lines.
Don and his wife Emma accepted the challenge of starting a life together and raising a family during this turbulent decade. Don met Emma McBride at Northern Illinois University. They bumped into each other in line at the bookstore when they were buying their books for the fall semester of their junior year. She was in line ahead of him, and according to Don’s version of the story, the incident was not an accident. Dan always recalled his father’s hardy laugh whenever he told the story.
“Excuse me,” Don said to her, somewhat abruptly.
“It’s okay. You must be in a hurry,” Emma said.
“Not really, but if you leave the store too quickly, I will be in a hurry to catch up with you. Wait for me. I’ll carry your books back for you—to make up for my indiscretion.”
Don impressed Emma as supremely confident. He possessed humor and charm and had a certain presence about him. Emma was taken by him at their initial encounter, but in one very unique way, they could not have been more opposite. Outwardly gregarious, Don exuded a type of robust fortitude. He retained the south-side Chicago toughness of his ancestors, but on the inside, he was not as comfortable with himself or as confident as he wanted others to think. He wanted to emerge on top in any encounter, and, early in his childhood, basketball became his vehicle to channel this need. Emma, on the other hand, was meek and somewhat shy in social settings. She would often reach for the right word in conversation and feel like she hadn’t expressed herself as she intended. Emma was not naïve. In the bookstore encounter, as in most situations, she knew the score. She matched Don equally in street smarts, but Emma possessed a great gift. She did not feel the need to have to continually prove herself. She could keep her composure and let life’s disappointments go before they built up to destroy her. However, on the inside, she was pure and elemental and became the rock and the center around which their family would be built. When she became pregnant with Dan, she took a deep breath and considered the world around her and decided that under no circumstances would she let any of it impact her family. They would not become a casualty of the times. Emma developed a bitter resolve to insulate them from all the utter nonsense that engulfed them. In so doing, though a woman of few faults, she missed many opportunities to let her humanity crack through that thick shell.
A wealthy town, Barrington rests along the old Northwest Highway, Route 14, about thirty-five miles northwest of Chicago. Don’s great-great grandfather had migrated to Chicago, and his offspring had worked in the steel mills, stockyards, and packing houses on the south side—wherever they could find work. His children and grandchildren had gradually moved farther away from the city as their circumstances had improved—a common occurrence in most families—and eventually, Don settled in Barrington with Emma.
Don and Emma graduated from college in 1971. Don got a job as a math teacher and freshman basketball coach at Barrington High School and rented an apartment in town. Don enjoyed a solid high school basketball career. He could shoot but possessed average ball-handling skills. He grew to be exactly six-feet tall. Even back then, he was too slow to guard anybody and too small to play shooting guard in any major program. His heart, desire, and work ethic were not enough to overcome his lack of size, speed, and quickness. Rather than play college basketball at a small school, he went to Northern. From the outset, he intended to become a high school teacher and, eventually, a head basketball coach. Ultimately, he aspired to be a college basketball coach.
Prior to getting married, Don had converted to Catholicism to keep the peace. Emma lived in McHenry with her parents that first year out of school. She worked as a nurse at Good Shepherd Hospital in Barrington. McHenry, a blue collar town about twenty-five minutes northwest of the affluent suburb of Barrington, contrasted sharply with the community she would soon call home. Emma’s Catholicism did not prevent her from making excuses to stay with Don in Barrington as often as she could manage, during bad weather or at times when she worked late. Technically, she would join him permanently in June of 1972, following their wedding at St. Patrick’s Church in McHenry.
Dan inherited the confusion and chaos of the times in his very constitution, and he would never quite make sense of it. Dan developed a restless soul and became easily agitated. He felt a deep need to accomplish things to prove to the world it couldn’t conquer him. His parents fueled the fire. They expected success and drove him to it. He developed the belief that he could never let them down. When he had something on his mind, he rarely felt confident sharing it with them, for fear of that look of dismay that either or both often shot his way. Finally, Dan just stopped volunteering information. He didn’t know his parents were doing their best to do what they thought was right, and they didn’t know what the proper parental thing might be any more than they understood how their expectations impacted Dan’s perception of his place in the world. They were shooting in the dark.
While the Mason’s did the best they could to provide a solid foundation for their future lives together, Gerald Ford, who had pardoned Nixon, stood no chance for re-election, and Jimmy Carter, the Governor of Georgia, became president of the United States. The hostage crisis and massive inflation doomed his presidency, and, with the help of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, Ronald Reagan became the country’s fourth president in seven years.
People were scared. Dan was Don and Emma’s beloved oldest son, and they took comfort in his achievements. If Dan excelled, then everything must be all right, despite what the evening news might be telling them.
Throughout all of the unrest, Bob Dylan continued to record and perform. In 1975, Dylan released Blood on the Tracks, containing, among other songs, “Tangled up in Blue”, “Simple Twist of Fate”, and “If You See Her, Say Hello”. In 1976, he released Desire, his first number-one album. In 1979, he released Slow Train Coming, the first of his three religious albums. Dylan won his first Grammy for the album’s opening song, “Gotta Serve Somebody”.
Don and Emma struggled to make ends meet in the pricey suburb. No matter how much Dan noticed his clothes were different from the other kids’, no matter how tight his basketball shoes were, or how raggedy his glove became, Dan never suggested that he wanted different clothes or needed new equipment unless his mom or his dad initiated the conversation. His brother Dylan, three years his junior, had it slightly worse. Though perhaps less common in Barrington than other places, people of that era routinely handed down clothes to their same-sex younger siblings, and Dylan often ran around the neighborhood and attended school in ill-fitted clothing. Emma balanced the checkbook to the penny, scolded Don when he charged items, and had 100 different uses for leftovers. Dan and Dylan never complained. It’s not that they didn’t want to. They learned very early on that complaining did no good. In that day, children were still spanked. Just as the boys had learned to take off their shoes immediately upon entering the house, just as they had learned to put their dirty laundry in the basket before it hit the floor, so too did they learn not to complain about the food that Emma served them.
Don became the head basketball coach at Barrington High School, and by the time Dan and Dylan would play for him in the late Eighties and early Nineties, the enrollment had topped 2,500 students. An incredibly driven man, Don threw himself into the job, attending clinics and working summer camps all over the place, trying desperately to secure a college coaching position. While Don ran a widely respected and enormously successful program, Emma took on the role of healer—the voice of reason. However, frequently left on her own with Dan and his brother, she often had no choice but to play the “heavy,” while Don, who was not noted for his patience or tolerance, was the “hero.” When Don returned home and stormed through the front door on his white horse, his boys flocked to him. Don, the successful basketball coach and town hero, was their dad!
A classic coach’s kid, Dan grew up in the gym in the winter and in dugouts each summer. His mind was a computer, processing the action and rarely, if ever, missing anything that happened on the floor or on the field. His dad took him to practices and games. When they watched a game on television together, Don explained each and every nuance to his son. It wasn’t long before the roles were reversed and Dan took the lead, correctly interpreting the action that was occurring, causing his dad to remark one time that he would make a great color analyst someday.
Dan entered the third grade at Hough Street Elementary School around the same time that Reagan took office. Dylan had just released Shot of Love, the third of the trilogy of religious albums, containing the masterpiece “Every Grain of Sand”. With Dylan entering kindergarten, Emma returned to work. A couple weeks into the school year, Dan, a teacher’s dream—a fact that did not go unnoticed by the other children—was falsely accused in an incident at school. One afternoon, a custodian found a cigarette butt in a urinal in the bathroom located in the same wing of the building as Dan’s classroom. Passes verified that Dan was indeed one of two students who had used the bathroom that morning, making him a prime suspect. The office secretary called Emma at the hospital, and when she arrived at the school, Dan was called to the office. When Dan entered the office, he saw his mom, dressed in her white nurse’s uniform, sitting in a chair in the corner.
Emma stood about five-feet, six inches tall, with dishwater blonde hair that came down and rested ever so lightly on her shoulders. Her narrow, opaque blue eyes featured pupils that centered slightly closer to the nose than the middle of her cheeks. Emma, usually angelic in her patience, was certainly a rookie at visiting the principal’s office to discuss her children’s behavior. Her discomfort was obvious to Mr. Salvatori, the principal, but not to Dan. She effectively concealed that from him. She had lost her pregnancy weight and looked more like a college nursing student than a mother of two. However, when times demanded it, Emma and her slightly freckled, girlish face were all business, and she transformed herself from nurse to nun. That is the face Dan saw when he entered the room, and it became more typical as the years passed.
Dan immediately grew petrified. He had never been in trouble at school before, but he knew something must be wrong. He had no idea what that might be, but his mom would not be there if everything was okay.
“Mom, why are you here?” a shaking young Dan inquired.
“Dan, sit down,” Mr. Salvatori said.
“Mom, what happened?” Dan asked.
“Listen to Mr. Salvatori, Dan. Sit down. It’ll be okay,” Emma said.
Emma always said, “It’ll be okay.” Dan thought that had to be her favorite phrase.
“Dan, we found this in the bathroom.” Mr. Salvatori held up a cigarette.
“It wasn’t me! I don’t smoke!” Dan said, fighting back tears. Tears would indicate weakness. Dan did not want to appear weak in front of his mother or let on that he was scared.
“Dan, it had to get there somehow. The only other boy who used the bathroom said he didn’t do it. One of you had to do it. Why don’t you just tell me what happened?” Mr. Salvatori asked.
“Because I don’t know what happened!” That was it. Dan couldn’t hold it in any longer, and he began to cry.
Mr. Salvatori continued to ask the same questions in different ways, and Dan continued to deny smoking a cigarette in the bathroom. He condemned smoking, period, managing to expound on the evils of tobacco in the process.
Finally, Emma said, “My son said he didn’t do it. I think we’re done here. I’m taking him home.”
Without official sanction from Mr. Salvatori, Emma got up, put her hand on Dan’s shoulder and said, “Come on, Dan. We’re leaving.”
The next year, Dan had Mrs. Ericks for his fourth grade teacher. The first time Dan asked for a bathroom pass, he discovered that she allowed her class to use the same bathroom he had used the previous year when the incident with the cigarette had occurred. The rules stated that her class should use a different bathroom, but technically, the other one was closer, and, while against school policy, she routinely let her class use it. Mr. Salvatori never did find out how the cigarette butt got into the urinal, but Dan figured out it had to be one of the fourth grade boys from last year who had been responsible. However, that fact could never alter what had happened. Though Dan thought his parents tended to believe him, and while nobody ever proved anything, the element of doubt would always be there. Dan had done nothing wrong but felt he had let them down. It was his teacher who was wrong, but now Dan had to pay the price. Emma had to leave the hospital in her work clothes to come to school when Mr. Salvatori had accused her son of smoking. Her son—also the son of the town’s revered basketball coach and a third grader, no less—had been smoking at school. This had been what everyone said, even though it wasn’t true. Dan had shamed them.
Never again. No matter how much Don and Emma may have believed in their son over the years, Dan developed the mentality that he must constantly prove himself to them. By his successes, through his steadfast commitment to being the best, by out-achieving everyone, Dan alone could prove his worth and thereby assuage his parents’ deepest fears of failure.
As the second child, Don and Emma accepted Dylan for who he was and felt less of a need to drive him. As a result, Dylan developed a much more easy-going personality.
In Dan’s later years, when he needed something to soothe his troubled soul, he found solace listening to music, especially the music of Bob Dylan. In addition to chaos and confusion, Dan had also inherited a love for Dylan’s music when he had entered the world.
About the time of the bathroom incident, it became obvious to everyone in Barrington that Dan could throw the hell out of a baseball. Dan so overpowered his little league brethren that, on most days, they were lucky to hit a decent foul ball off of him. Dan joined a travel team at age ten. His dominance continued, and, as the hitters got better, he mastered a change-up. He had such good control that, even on days when the opposition managed a few hits here and there, they rarely scored any runs off him. As Dan progressed through middle school and high school, the whispers began: Dan Mason was going to be a big league baseball player.