Sunday, June 17, 2012

Baseball Runner: Providence College Class of ‘73

“I’ll be there.”
That’s my father’s catchphrase.

Whether he’s picking me up at the Waterbury train station, driving me all the way to Stamford because I misread the Metro North return schedule like an asshole, or replying to a drunken text telling him how much I love him while enjoying the city our family was born out of, the words are always the same.

That’s why when I asked him a year ago if he wanted to spend a night in Providence, R.I., so I could run in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Providence Half-Marathon, I knew he wouldn’t hesitate.

“I’ll be there.”

He was the reason I was running in the race to begin with. He went to Providence College from 1969–1973, but considering all of the stories my brothers and I have heard over the years you would have thought he had been there for much longer. There were the stories about his hard-drinking, hockey-playing roommate; the story about how he had almost failed out his freshman year because he was partying too hard and only avoided it because the government shut down all the campuses across the country after the Kent State shootings; the stories of him hitchhiking back and forth from Connecticut; and the stories of him slinging burgers at the cafeteria while Ernie D and Marvin Barnes lead the Providence Friars to a Final Four berth.

Kenneth Ford had not stepped back on campus in nearly 40 years. I figured it was well past time for him to return and show his son where some of these memories originated. Why not run a half-marathon at the same time, right?
“Is the nostalgia flying yet,” my older brother asked me on the phone. We hadn’t pulled out of the driveway in Connecticut yet. “Dad’s already three stories in,” I replied, not exactly stretching the truth all that much. “We’re in 1969 with a few hundred miles to go.”

Driving is my father’s thing. He’ll drive anyone anywhere whenever. You need to get picked up from baseball practice? No problem. You need to get driven back to school in New Hampshire with all your crap piled to the roof so he can’t see out the back window? Piece of cake. You need to get to upstate Maine to visit a dying relative in the middle of a blizzard following huge logging trucks? He’s your man. As long as he’s got coffee, Neil Young playing on the radio, some sense of where he’s going, and an ear to bend, there is no limit to how far Ken Ford can travel behind the wheel of a car.

“I can’t get over how big a deal this is,” he said as we walked into the convention center to pick up my race packet. “Look at all this stuff! I want to find something to get your mom and the grand kids.”

Telling your father you’re a runner and compete in half-marathons doesn’t do the whole experience justice. There is a fair amount of hoopla surrounding some of these better-known race series. Before race day, there is usually a fairly large expo devoted to companies hawking everything from handheld water bottles that shape to your hand to the latest in repellent, tree-bark infused energy bars. It didn’t surprise me in the least that my father instantly thought of the people he loved the most back home. He’s a giver and a sharer and he wanted to make sure they had some piece of his experience as well.

He also bought Providence Half-Marathon pint glasses for my brothers and me. Every time I slug back a beer in it, I think about how awestruck he was in that convention center.

“So why did they call you ‘Bee,’” I asked him as we made our way to his freshman dorm. “Or is this one of those stories you are too ashamed or under legal obligation to withhold?”

“We were all hanging out early on freshman year and we were having this debate about politics,” he said laughing. “And I was trying to look smart, so I brought up this article I had read about bees’ societal structure being compared to the Communist Party. Whatever point I was trying to make got lost because they thought that it was pretty funny and started calling me ‘Bee.’ The name stuck for four years.”

"Bee" walking around Providence College for the first time since 1973.
I couldn’t get over how similar the campus was to St. John’s University. It had the stereotypical stone, Catholic-style buildings alongside the uninspiring function-first architecture of the 1970s. The campus also featured a lovely open grass area that made me instantly think about St. John’s Great Lawn. Harkins Hall, the main entrance building, could easily be a relative of my school’s library.

Ken Ford in front of Harkins Hall
“There was a priest that lived at the end of the hall in my dorm freshman year,” my father said, again already laughing. “We tortured him. We used to throw darts all night and his bed was behind the wall.”

He was walking around campus slower than he did back in 1969, but Ken Ford’s eyes were 18-years-old again. A smile was permanently plastered to his face as he pointed out where he used to work and hang out.

My father's freshman dorm
His memory was fuzzy in spots, which wasn’t helped by the school moving “grotto beach.” We had to have my older brother send us a picture of my father with his first wife to verify he wasn’t going crazy. “We used to all hang out here and smoke,” he said as he stood in front of the stone structure. “On a nice warm day, this place would be packed like a beach. Hence the name.”

We couldn’t find the street he used to live on once he moved off campus, or the sandwich place he used to frequent, but we saw enough for him to have new stories to add to the old. “That was fun,” he said giving me a pat on the back. “Thanks partner.”

“You want to get up and walk around Pop?” I asked him, watching him noticeably fidgeting in his seat.

“Nah, I’m okay,” he said waving me off. “I don’t want to miss anything this inning.”

Of course the Ford men found a baseball game to go to the night before the race. Unfortunately, it was the Red Sox AAA minor league team the Pawtucket Red Sox. Despite that, my father didn’t want to miss a minute of the action to stretch out his two replaced knees.

As always, we stayed until the last out was recorded.

As I blogged about previously, I ran the New York Road Runners' Queens Half-Marathon a week before this race. I also did not train for either—unless you count fucking up relationships and drinking heavily training. I survived that race despite the oppressive heat, humidity, and lack of shade.

Providence offered a monsoon.

My iPod shorted out around mile 7—I have to give Apple credit for it lasting that long in a complete deluge—and my legs were on fire. I stopped and walked from mile 10 to mile 11. My clothes and shoes were soaked through and the sky seemed to open up more and more with each step I took.

Every disappointing moment of my life came back to me. The only time my father had ripped into me when my grades were tanking in the sixth grade, giving up grad school at St. John’s because I couldn’t handle having to choose between paying rent or buying lunch, and all the chaos I had brought to my parent’s doorstep the last two months because I couldn’t follow the example my father had set for me. I was unable to tell at one point whether it was raining more outside or inside my head.

Fuck this, I thought.

My father—one of my permanent heroes—was waiting for me at the end of the race.
He had given up his day off so he could spend time with me and watch me do this. There was no way he was going to see me walk across the finish line.

I started running and didn’t stop until I was standing next to him underneath an overhang.

“I watched the winner cross the finish line less than an hour after the race started. The guy wasn’t even breathing hard,” he said, shaking his head in disbelief. “I also made some new friends while you were running.”

Of course he did. That’s his move.

“Holy shit son, what the hell is wrong with your nipples?” he asked concerned after I gave him a sweaty hug.

I looked down to see two red lines running down my white shirt. I chuckled, told him I was okay, and we started back to our hotel. He believed me right up to the point when I started screaming in the shower when the water hit some of my…ahem…more chaffed areas. In classic Ken Ford fashion, he screamed at the top of his lungs to make sure I was really okay.

“So, when’s your next half-marathon?” My father asked out of the blue on our ride home. “Are you going to do Providence next year?”

I smiled.

I know he’ll be there if I do.

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