By TERRY LYONS
I can remember a little sarcasm or annoyance in his voice when I would hear the words, “Okay Oscar.” It was time and I knew enough about the tone of his voice to head northbound, up the stairs to straighten up my room, pitch-in and do some household chores and earn my keep on Stonecutter Rd. The Oscar Madison thing wasn’t working out!
Other vivid memories are of sports, watching the Mets – his favorite, I think – although he grew up in The Bronx in the shadows of The Stadium during the Yankees’ “Five o’clock lightening” hey-day and my older brother, the late Timothy Lyons III, was a die-hard Yanks fan born in the late ’40s. When the family moved to greener pastures to land that was once a Long Island potato farm, it was time to embrace the new National League team that played closer to the house that was 20-something minutes from Idlewild Airport where my Dad made a living.
He worked for Pan American World Airways at a time when Pan American wasn’t yet “Pan Am,” but instead was the “Cadillac” of air travel. In the very early ’60s that I’m referencing, only Pan American and its chief rival, Trans World Airways or “T.W.A. as they were known,” had the international routes. I can remember when they re-named Idlewild to “John F. Kennedy International Airport – J.F.K, we all called it,” and it was an interesting 20-30 minutes drive with “Mom” when we went to pick-up “Dad” from work, then ventured off to The Bronx or to New Haven to visit family or my dad’s Army buddy, Joe Conway, my older brother’s Godfather.
I knew my way around “Hanger 14,” as well as I knew my way around my grammar school’s hallways. Check in at the entrance, walk around the corner by the “P.X. – which was an Army or Air Force term for “Post Exchange” – or a place where you can buy stuff. Past the P.X. and down the hallway to the elevator, up through a maze of halls and desks to the place where the Clipper Ships — the Pan American Airliners and their engines (and parts) — were actually purchased by men in white shirts and ties – a page out of the fashion code of “Mad Men,” thin black ties and all.
I can remember venturing over to Teterboro Airport in NJ and looking at the brochures for the early days of customized corporate travel jets – The Fan Jet Falcons – and oh, how cool was that?” I can remember when Pan American made the major decision to build their own terminal, undoubtedly to compete with TWA which built a modern marvel in the far south-eastern corner of JFK, a jewel and modern-day architectural statement in the swamps of The Rockaways. TWA was the “enemy” but it looked pretty cool to me.
But, the WorldPort was something special with the rooftop parking and views of the runways and all of those Pan Am 747s lined up on Sunday nights to take travelers to places far, far away. They flew non-stops to Baghdad and Tel Aviv, Bucharest and Berlin, Vienna and Oslo and to Frankfurt Am Main – a place my Dad often had to travel to to help them set-up their European inventory control with Mr. Ulrich von der Osten – another lifelong family friend – who would visit and, when not staying at a Manhattan hotel, would stay at our home. My brother and I even flew over to Frankfurt am Main, then train rides to Meinz and Koblenz and to the East German border – How cool was that?
I made up my mind, then and there, I wanted to visit all those cities.
Dad’s heath took a nasty turn when I was in Grammar School and a lot of the memories from that time on were not of trips to the Island Garden to see the Nets or Commack Arena to see the Ducks or the Harlem Globetrotters or to Shea Stadium to see the Mets, but instead, of trekking to hospital waiting rooms and sitting or playing or reading for hours on end. The perfectly manicured green grass and the bright lights of Shea were replaced by dimly lit waiting rooms at Mercy Hospital in Rockville Centre or Montefiore Hospital in The Bronx where they worked on my Dad as though he was the Tin Man seeking a “heart” and the doctors performed miracles for years and years on end.
But, like the Mets pitching staff in 1964, the heart always needed some more work. And, it gave us hope, just like the loyal Mets fans we became, but reality set-in, and the opposition was tough – whether it was Bob Veale and the Pirates of Bob Gibson and the St. Louis Cardinals or Juan Marichal and the San Francisco Giants, the Mets were over-matched and that dreaded disease surrounding his damned heart kept giving way, until they placed a pace-maker in there – the thing was the size of a pocket watch – but it worked and it bought some serious time and allowed my folks to make a few wonderful international trips.
The centerfield ads at Shea blinked – “FLY – DELTA – ATLANTA” or “FLY -DELTA – St. LOUIS” and I wondered if I’d ever get to visit a city as close as those, instead of exotic places in West Germany or The Caribbean? It was A-OK with me, because I was oblivious to the fact Pan Am’s empire would one-day collapse but was more concerned, then, to see if the Mets could upset Gibson and Julian Javier of the Cards or Veale and Willie Stargell of the Pirates or Marichal and the Willies – Mays and McCovey – of the Giants.
Like the Mets in ’69 or ’73 – Amazin’ – Amazin’ – Amazin’ – we kept on keepin’ on as a family, chugging through the volatile ’60s and early ’70s all trying to do our best.
Man, I can tell you one thing, for sure, I learned a lot.
Communion breakfasts with the Nets and games at the Island Garden when Louie Carnesseca and John Kresse left St. John’s for the lure of pro basketball and the gig of coaching the great Rick Barry. My Dad took me to many a game and I loved it so much.
Whether he taught me the rules of the ABA vs the NBA, the limits on NHLers with making a two-line pass (which he taught to me on index cards with Red and blue felt tip pens) or how to pack a suitcase or make my own dinner or to do my own studying or make my own bed, it was “on the job training” and I wouldn’t trade it for a second or another heartbeat – because – while it was tough love – it helped prepare me for days ahead and that’s what parents are supposed to do, right?
Prep the kids for life.
And, man, I can travel with the best of ’em – whether it was Madrid, Roma, Tokyo, Beijing or Sydney, I could get there and get back without so much as a second of hesitation. Communist Moscow? Let’s Go! I was ready with a multi-stamped passport (how many of you had to send for extra pages to be stapled into your passports?) and a visa and an Amex card, and a keen knowledge of the layout at JFK and a few dozen other airports along with an even keener knowledge of how to get “an upgrade.”
Oh yeah, I knew the ropes.
I remember passing my driver’s test – early in the spring, after taking Driver’s Ed, then having to await my birthday that November to receive my licence. On that November day, it was cold, snowing and time to pitch-in – drive my Mom up to The Bronx, past Gun Hill Rd – so appropriately named – and up to see Dad in Montefiore – which meant, things weren’t very good. We made the travel work, Christmas and New Year’s gone by again, and we persevered and made ends meet right on to my graduation at Trinity and onto St. John’s.
Dad made it until my sophomore year and that heart finally gave out.
And, boy, do I wonder what he would’ve thought of my days at the NBA? Or meeting my two kids? Field of Dreams stuff.
And, yes, I feel a little robbed by the whole thing. I wish my Dad had his health and my Mom could’ve enjoyed some time with him – my folks could’ve had a nice retirement, enjoying travel privileges and time to go to places they loved – like Paris and Brussels and London and all.
But, I can’t complain. Just can’t, as I feel all too lucky, in general.
Tell you why?
In the early ’90s, my buddy Shelby fell sick and passed – clobbered by cancer which was probably caused by unhealthy doses of “Agent Orange” in Viet Nam where he fought and studied enemy intel.
His child didn’t fare as well as I did with that feeling of being robbed, of jousting with God over the question, Why?
So, while many of us reminisce about wonderful, fond visions of our Dads, there are kids out there who struggle mightily – a few might be the eight kids I know of who lost their Dads on Father’s Day 2001 in a terrible Hardware store fire in Queens – the dreaded Father’s Day fire.
And, at the risk of being a little too serious on this glorious day, I feel quite compelled to pass along this AP award winning column on one, Kenny Strother, the late son of the late Shelby Strother, a dear friend.
After you read it, call your Dad and then say a prayer for the Dads who served and taught and persevered in tough times and who celebrated with their sons and daughters in good times, always preparing them for the future in a much tougher period in history.
By PETER KERASOTIS
The first newspaper article written about Kenny Strother appeared in the St. Petersburg Times in the summer of 1982, celebrating his first year of life. “Year One Was a Year Won,” the headline read. Kenny had been born prematurely at Cape Canaveral Hospital, and his first weeks of life were a breath-by-breath drama.
The last newspaper article written about Kenny Strother appeared in the New Orleans Times-Picayune on Friday, chronicling his death. “Burglary Suspect Killed by Police,” the headline read.
The line from Point A to Point B is not a straight one. It never is.
Kenny’s hairpin turn came 11 years ago, in a dank Detroit hospital where cancer ate away at his father, Shelby Strother, the man who penned that first newspaper article. It was March 3, 1991 now, and Kenny and his older brother Tommy were in the hospital lobby on a cold day that arrived with a slate gray sky. Family and friends held a vigil outside Shelby’s room, and the boys arrived that morning knowing their father was sick, but unaware that their world was about to change forever.
The cancer had been detected only a week earlier, already advanced, raging with hatred. During the several days Shelby was hospitalized, he didn’t want his two young sons to see him this way. That morning, he and his wife Kim talked about the boys, how Kenny and Tommy wanted to see him, how they were downstairs. Shelby thought about it, took three breaths, and died.
I was dispatched to get the boys. When Kenny saw me, his face brightened. I had known him his whole life, had held him in my arms one summer at Pikes Peak, when Shelby and Kim lived in Colorado. Kenny was just an infant, and Kim snapped photos as we did the tourist thing. Even then, he was such a sweet child, expressive, open, ingratiating.
“How’s my dad?” Kenny said now, bounding toward me with all the innocence of a 9-year old. Then he stuck out his hand. “I got some new baseball cards. See? I’m gonna show ’em to my dad. How is he?”
I drew a breath, forced a smile. “You need to go see your mom first,” I said. “She’s waiting for you upstairs.”
They say Kenny never got over his dad’s death, never found his footing in this life, his way.
“He always felt cheated,” Kim said Friday, her voice numb with an anguish only a mother can know. “He would always tell his older brother and me that it wasn’t fair, that we had his father longer than he did, that he only had him for nine years.”
Kenny received grief counseling, and it stretched from weeks to months to years.
“He needed his dad growing up,” Kim said. “The longer he was without his dad, the more pronounced his grief. In counseling, it would always come back to his father. It was the main issue. Kenny wore his grief on his sleeve. As he got older, it became like a cloak, getting heavier and heavier.”
Those of us who watched Kenny grow up would talk among ourselves, and the consensus was consistent, that Kenny reminded us most of Shelby. He had that same mischievous glint in his eye, that same magnetic personality. Even at 7 or 8, he could hold his own with adults, and then turn around and play Nintendo with his friends.
Had Shelby lived … we wondered. We would always wonder.
Shelby and Kim both graduated from Satellite High School. Shelby worked at this newspaper on a couple of occasions, as a sports editor and a writer, but his star burned too brightly. He went on to work in St. Petersburg, Denver and eventually Detroit. By then, in the early ’90s, he had become one of the country’s preeminent sports writers. He wrote a book for the NFL. Had he lived, he would’ve been in New Orleans this week, covering the Super Bowl.
Instead, now, in the shadow of that bloated testament to American excess arrives a footnote story in the local newspaper, the shooting death of the son of our colleague, our friend. It arrives clinically delivered, not unlike hundreds of others stories that scurry across our consciousness every day. A name, an age, the facts.
But there is so much more.
The night before Shelby died, several of us took Kenny and Tommy and four of their friends to a Detroit Pistons basketball game. Isiah Thomas, the Pistons’ star guard, had insisted we do so. Isiah had heard about this unfolding tragedy, this sports writer he had grown to admire and like who was dying, and he wanted Shelby’s sons and their friends to enjoy six courtside seats that were his.
One of Kenny’s friends was a neighborhood boy named Ryan who was born without arms or legs. They wheeled him into the arena that night in a little red wagon. People stared, and Kenny couldn’t understand why. He’d ask his mom why people could never see beyond Ryan’s deformity and into his personality. But that was Kenny.
He loved bear hugs and giving back rubs. When he got older, and his peers deemed it uncool, he would still hold his mom’s hand in public. He didn’t care. Kenny always loved love.
When he was in Boy Scouts, his favorite activity was when they got to visit the old folk’s home. The other kids hated it, but not Kenny. He gravitated to the disenfranchised, those cast aside by society.
As he got older, he became one of them.
Kenny was terribly dyslexic, a learning disability that never seemed to get proper attention. In recent years, when the family moved to New Orleans, he dropped out of high school and felt like a failure, like he had let his father down. His life became a series of starts and stops, a step forward, two steps back.
In recent years, he talked about death, about wanting to be with his father. He told his family that when he died he wanted to be cremated, just like his dad, his ashes spread in Key West, off Canaveral Pier and in New Orleans, also just like his dad.
By now, he was battling drug use, gravitating toward the runaway kids who proliferate along the Bohemian backstreets of the French Quarter and other downtrodden areas of New Orleans.
He tried to kill himself last May with a Ketamine, a powerful animal anesthetic that has become a popular hallucinogen in rave clubs. Thursday morning, in New Orleans’ predawn hours, Kenny broke into a veterinary clinic, triggering silent alarms and drawing the attention of police. He was shot, killed by an officer no older than he was, the details still sketchy. In his pocket was a small amber vile of Ketamine and syringes.
It wasn’t a shock, but that still doesn’t diminish the sadness.
“Looking back, it was almost like Kenny was living his life as fast as he could, gobbling up as much love as he could get,” Kim said. “But he was suffering at the same time. Suffering terribly. But now he’s not suffering anymore. My baby isn’t suffering. I have to accept that. We all have to accept that.”
Editor’s Note: Shelby taught me a lot, too.