Taking Payne Stewart Seriously

A Salute To Fatherhood

Stewart and Mickelson – June 20, 1999

This month, one of the biggest stories in the sporting world is about something that one of the world’s most talented and successful athletes won’t do. Recently, golfer Phil Mickelson announced that he will not be playing in this year’s U.S. Open. To some, this comes as a shock. After all, at age 46, Mickelson is still one of the best players on the planet (currently ranked #23 in the world), and has never won a U. S. Open — even though he’s finished 2nd a record six times. With that kind of history, and being as competitive as he is, you would think Mickelson would want to take advantage of every opportunity to finally win the thing. Realistically, those opportunities are fading fast.

The thing is, Phil Mickelson really, really does want to win a U. S. Open. But he’s skipping this year’s event for only one reason — his oldest daughter, Amanda, is graduating from high school on the Thursday that the U.S. Open begins. Phil Mickelson is choosing to be at an important event in the life of his family and daughter over pursuing his own personal fulfillment. These days, that’s pretty admirable all by itself. But the background to the story also makes it a touching memorial to a man and an event that probably made Mickelson’s decision a very easy one to make.

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Empty Nest, Full Hearts

Our youngest son, Jon, starts college today. His brothers will say he has gotten away with gross transgressions of The Rules they all had to follow. Sorry guys, but it just ain’t true. Actually, he has probably been more scrutinized — and many times, rightfully so — because he has been tail-end Charlie, the unfortunate victim of us knowing all the ways the other four found to get in trouble. But, whatever the case, the nest gets emptied today. This is supposed to be a time to do one of two things: Rejoice at our new found “freedom,” or slide into a depressed funk about the sadness of it all.

We choose neither.

Our goal has never been to raise good kids. Our goal has always been to raise grounded, responsible adults. Like their parents, our boys have all made plenty of bad decisions. Like our parents, we have done our best to make them suffer the consequences of those decisions. So, while we are not thrilled about some of the things they have done, we could not be more proud of the young men they have become. Jon is no different from the other four in that respect. So, it is with bittersweet anticipation of the future that we watch him leave the nest. Maybe the departure of the previous four has dulled the sense sadness that comes with this day. We are hardened veteran parents now so the trauma of it all just rolls right off our backs.

No, that’s not it.

We will still shed tears.

But we will also be happy. Not in the way the culture likes to portray it — leaping for joy because they’re finally gone — but with a sense of anticipation about seeing the fruits of our parenting labor. We look forward to celebrating their successes with them from the back of the room, watching them from behind their own future families and friends. We look forward to consoling them in their disappointments, knowing that those disappointments will make them stronger, even if they won’t want to hear it from us. We look forward to offering our advice, but only if they ask for it.

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“Time To Move Along”

Joseph F. Vincent West Point Class of 1955

Joseph F. Vincent
West Point Class of 1955

The first concrete memory I have of Joseph Fraser Vincent, Sr. was on the day after the night I brought his daughter home from a date an hour and a half after her curfew. In my “defense,” both he and his wife, Fran, were out of town until Sunday night — this was on Friday. Who comes home from an out-of-town trip three days early, anyway? Beside that, Mary assured me that if we had called and asked permission to stay for the second movie of the double feature, her parents would have been fine with it. I mean, it wasn’t our fault they wouldn’t invent cell phones for another 20 years. It seemed like a perfectly legitimate rationalization to me.

I slowed to a rolling stop and dropped Mary off at the curb behind her house. The next day is when I first remember being introduced to the giant of a man whose physical stature was rather slight. He told me how he had trusted me with his daughter and that I had disappointed him. He told me that he expected more of me than that. As he talked to me, I shrank ever more deeply into the shag carpet at my feet. He never raised his voice above a calm, conversational tone that day or any day over the next 38 years that I knew him.

He didn’t have to.

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Buried Treasure

Yesterday I completed a project that I have been putting off for months when I finally brought in some topsoil to regrade a spot in our backyard, seeded it, covered it with straw, and set up a sprinkler to water the new grass to life. As you can see, the shape of the area in question is fairly odd for a Fall replanting project. A perfect square? What’s up with that?

Well, fourteen and a half years ago, when we moved into our new house, our five boys were 11, 9, 7, 4 and 2 years old. The younger part of the crew requested a sandbox in the backyard. Not being one to go out and buy some flimsy metal contraption that would rust away before the next summer, I reacted with overkill to produce the kind of sandbox I would have wanted as a kid. It took me a while but I finally created a 10′ x 10′ monstrosity. It had two layers of 6″x6″ treated lumber to form the frame, bench seats on the corners, and probably two cubic yards of fine sand I lugged in bags from the hardware store over the several trips I made to find the right stuff to build it. And it wasn’t going anywhere. The boards were held together with 6″ countersunk lag bolts and the whole thing was anchored to the ground at the corners with pieces of 2 foot re-bar that were pounded home with a sledgehammer.

Now that’s a sandbox.

Our boys spent a lot of hours playing in that thing. They built castles using Tonka trucks and bulldozers. They conducted full scale war re-enactments in that sand complete with tanks and plastic men shooting from tactically advantageous positions. They threw sand at each other. In fact, experts estimate that close to one cubic yard of that sand found its way back into our house over the ensuing 14 years.

But the sandbox days are over. Over the last several years, the sand became a breeding ground for those thick, spiny weeds that viciously attack you if you try to pull them. Rusted trucks found their way to the garbage. The wood was dried and cracked. The sandbox became nothing but an eyesore that made mowing the backyard more difficult than it really needed to be. I just couldn’t bring myself to do anything about it. When Hank, our beloved golden retriever and The World’s Best Dog, died a few years back, we planted a willow tree to remember him … right there next to the sandbox.

The willow is getting bigger but the sandbox is just getting more overgrown.

So, this summer I had to cave to reality. We chopped the boards and pried rusted re-bar from the ground. Our sandbox frame became a funeral pyre for nasty weeds and plastic toys. Yesterday I lugged bags of topsoil to cover the dirty sand and, as I was raking it smooth and level, a few buried army men found their way to the surface begging for one more day in the imagination of a little boy.

I saved the army men.

And so a square of dry hay now covers the place where the sandbox used to be. Our water bill will be a little higher until the grass sprouts and, eventually, the yard will be easier to mow. But the sandbox won’t be gone.

I was too lazy to replant the area the way I probably should have. I just left the sand where it was and covered it with a few inches of topsoil. My guess is that that square in our backyard where the sandbox used to be will always be a little soft and get mushy when it rains. The grass may grow a little differently in that square next to Hank’s tree. Most people probably won’t notice but we will. If you know where to look, you will always be able to see the outline of the place where five carefree little boys just played with army men.

That’s my plan, anyway.