We were sitting a good dozen rows up into the stands watching the SDSU Jackrabbits take on the UNO Mavericks in the annual volleyball game for breast cancer awareness that was held at the Sanford Pentagon each year. A whole group of us went to the game… our kids were all teammates on the Pentagon Club Volleyball team for the last couple of years and probably the next few years as well. The girls all sat a few rows behind the parents (too cool to be seen with us, of course). The game wasn’t going too good for the Jacks and to put it bluntly, we were being schooled. There wasn’t much to cheer about. Everyone was slumping slowly lower into their seats and beginning to pay more attention to their cell phones than they were to the game. There was still good volleyball being played… it was fun to watch… this higher level college volleyball. But something happened that flipped a memory switch for me. There was a hard kill by a UNO player that a Jackrabbit player got in front of for a dig, but the ball didn’t pop gently up for her, but instead spun wildly up and out straight in my direction. I stood and without moving more than a few inches reach up and the ball slid directly into my awaiting hands. I threw it back and then nonchalantly sat down again. After a small verbal “attaboy dad!” from my daughter, my thoughts went directly to my dad.
In 1994, the summer after my graduation from college, I moved back to Garretson and I lived in the house that my dad had grown up in and was living in again. It was the house that Dad’s grandparents had built and my Grandma Gert had grown up in. When she moved back to Garretson after marrying Emmett, they lived in this house and raised my dad and his little brother Rolly. Now dad was back to this big empty house and I settled in with my clothes and my boxes of high school memorabilia as I transitioned into adulthood from my college years.
My mom was living in Sioux Falls and was remarried, but I worried about dad, he was still bitter about mom leaving and I think he was struggling to figure out what he could have done different and what he wanted to do different in the future. I stayed with him and enjoyed his company as I assumed he enjoyed having me around too. We’d often cook things and eat dinner together before I would go out with friends, or sometimes we’d go out and grab a bite somewhere. Dad was still a fan of baseball and we liked to go to catch a Canaries game after grabbing a bite to eat. The most common routine was to go to Szechuan on Minnesota and Dad would get his Happy Family and a Miller Lite. I would get Szechuan Beef and a Miller Lite. Dad never had to order. They just knew him and what he wanted. I don’t think I ever saw him order anything else.
After we ate, we’d head over to the Birdcage. Dad was always ready to see the birds play. He’d always bring his glove, even though he never wore it. On a chilly night, he’d bring or wear his LA Angels letter jacket. We’d get there when we got there. Dad had season tickets that were on the third base side, just behind the dugout and as far from home plate as we could get. We got to know our “neighbors” around us and they didn’t seem to attend the game nearly as much as we did. If dad wasn’t going to go, I would take them and take somebody to the game with me. Either a date, which was rare, or a friend. When it was the latter, we’d then go out on the town.
Dad had a love/hate relationship with baseball, I think. You see, the LA Angels jacket that he wore was from the era that his father played for the Los Angelas Angels of the Pacific Coast League. George Emmett Nelson had grown up in Viborg, SD and with his talents on the local baseball team, he was discovered by the Sioux Falls Canaries during an exhibition game in Viborg. He then was sold to Wichita and played with them until LA pulled him into their impressive league. He played with them during a time in which they were a solid and deep team. Many baseball experts still regard them as the best minor league team in baseball history. I could go on and on about Emmett’s baseball history, but I’ll save it for another time.
My dad told me once that he did not have the most congenial relationship with his father. Emmett was not known for being particularly warm and fuzzy. He took pride in his boys but he didn’t tend to show it. Dad shared with me about one time in particular that he was playing baseball and his dad was there watching him play. Dad played first base, I believe and he told me that after kicking a routine grounder and chalking up a needless error, dad composed himself and looked up to see Emmett getting in his car and driving away. I think Dad had regrets about some of their relationship, but I don’t know what he could have done differently to have changed anything. Later, when dad was married to mom and had 2 kids, Emmett came down with pneumonia at age 63 and refused to go to the hospital. After his death shortly after becoming bed-ridden, it was revealed that he died from pulmonary fibrosis (what ultimately took his brothers and his sons and probably was what took his dad too). Dad said it was very difficult to watch him during those last days as he struggled to breath. I think that maybe he wishes that he would’ve insisted on taking him to the hospital and at least making him more comfortable.
Dad and Rolly were both very proud of the baseball they had in their blood. Rolly even played into his young adulthood and tried out for the Twins at one point and was invited to play for one of their minor league teams but opted instead to enlist in the Air Force and went to Vietnam.
Dad became very involved in learning more about the history of the game and the history of his father. He travelled out to Pacific Coast League conventions and met people that knew his dad. He relished the tidbits when he came across them and shared them with us whenever he could. I feel like he was making up for time he didn’t spend conversing with him when he was still around. That was the only regret. I think it’s a regret that we all share. I find myself still wanting to call Dad up and asking him who so-and-so is or where somebody lived back in the year whatever. My stomach sinks a bit as I realize he isn’t there to ask.
I think about the times we spent at the games together and how they were nice. How I didn’t appreciate the innings and outs, balls and strikes… runs or errors. Nothing stands out to me in particular about any one game or moment except that one time that we got to the game a little late and we took our seats and put our feet up. Dad got his bag of peanuts open and we were settling in when a right handed batter swung at a high and inside fastball and it came off the top of the bat by his hands and shot up high into foul territory right towards us. I have a terrible sense of depth with pop flies (I was a good infielder but terrible outfielder) and stared helplessly at this moonshot that continue to get smaller as it came in our direction. I could sense that it was getting bigger and closer as dad stood up, didn’t let go of the peanuts in his right hand and extended his left hand up and barehanded it as if somebody five feet away had tossed it to him. He sat down, flipped me the ball and went back to his peanuts. Our season-ticket seat neighbors cheered politely for him and I sat there amazed at what my dad had just done. I’m pretty sure I gave him a “nice catch!” (the 1994 JT version of my daughter’s “atta boy Dad”).
The volleyball that I caught was clearly larger and softer than a baseball but I like to think that it was my own athletic homage to my dad’s skills. I think of the two athletic moves as being closely related, in more ways that by genetics. But since I brought genetics up, I like to think that Emmett was watching and giving his own “atta boy you two… good catch” to both of us on our performance. Well, thanks for the genes Emmett!
I'm just a creative guy that's looking to throw all this spaghetti onto the wall and hope something sticks.