Our son Andrew was here today with me; carrying on a father/son tradition that my father and I started in 1958 or so – when I was 5 years old. For today was the 100th anniversary of the Indy 500 – the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, held each Memorial Day, except 2 times during WWI and 3 times during WWII, making today the 95th running of the Race since the inaugural race in 1911.
As a kid, I was smitten with the race. I knew all the stats, the drivers, sponsors, and everything race related that a young boy could know. In those days, the race was not on television, so my father and I would listen to the race each year on a little brown Toshiba transistor radio my Dad owned. I remember that on Race Day, he made sure that the batteries were fresh and we would sit and listen to all the pre-race festivities and then the start. I even remember where he kept the radio – on the upper shelf in his closet.
But I am getting ahead of myself. As I entered Cub Scouts, and then Boy Scouts, we would decorate our bicycles each Memorial Day week-end for the parade up Longwood Drive in our neighborhood of Beverly; on the south side of Chicago. After riding our bikes all the way north to Ridge Park, where we would ice skate on the outdoor rink in the winter, we would wait in silence as the 21 gun salute was completed at the end of a short Memorial Day service honoring the military. Then, we would run and try to collect the shell casings that had been fired, and I would ride my bike up 97th Street one block to Winchester, where my grandparents lived at 9712. Dad would be waiting with the car, and would transport me back home, with my bike hanging out of the trunk. It was only a mile or so to our home, on Claremont Ave., but it was Race Day and we had to get home to hear Mr. Hulman issue the most famous words in all of sports, “Gentlemen, start your engines.” I still get goosebumps every year when I hear the command to “start your engines.”
And each year, Dad and I had at least 2 jobs to do. First, Dad would trim the iris, which were located on the south side of our home. Dad could grow beautiful iris, along with roses, and each Memorial Day, he would get out his hand trimmers and prune the dead flowers out and take care of the entire patch – and it was a big patch – probably 2′ wide by more than 40′ long. The other job I had to do each Memorial Day, without exception, was to brush the loose paint off the wrought iron railings leading up to the front of the house; and then apply a new coat of beige Rust-Oleum paint. And I don’t mean spray paint – I had to use rags to make sure that I did not drip on the cement, and then paint every nook and cranny of the intricate design in the railing. I have painted that railing so many times, I think I could draw the scrolls and swirls in my sleep; that is, if I had any artistic talent.
And as much as I hated painting, I cherished those times with my Dad. I absolutely loved knowing he was with me, or right around the corner trimming the iris, as we both listened to that little brown radio. And then, every third year or so, we would head to the backyard and use the leftover paint to do the grill – we were the only family in the neighborhood with a beige barbecue! Then we would line the base with aluminum foil; and clean the center shaft that raised and lowered the cooking grate over the coals. The memories are flooding back as I write this tonight – I could write 1000 more words without even trying. But the point is, that with everything I remember; our military (Dad was a WWII veteran), the parade, the ride home after the service at Ridge Park, even the iris, Memorial Day will always be remembered as the day each year I wire-brushed the railing; then waited for Dad to check my work before I applied a coat of beige Rust-Oleum.
And since our only son Andrew was a little boy, he and I have carried on the tradition my Dad and I started more than half a century ago. We listen to the race together – only, we don’t have to paint anything each year. Oh sure, sometimes we cleaned the grill, and we now have iris on the south side of our house, but it is a time for us to connect in some very special, unspoken way. After all, Andrew is already almost 5 years older than I was when my Dad died. And I have had a black Panasonic transistor radio, much like my Dad’s, since I was in my early teens – and each year we break it out to listen to the race. Like always, Andrew was here today – neither he or I would miss it.
Tonight’s verse is from 1 Cor. 13:11, “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me.” But that doesn’t mean that I don’t remember those childish times. So my encouragement is that you pass along stories of your youth to your children and grandchildren. They need to hear about the old days, and how we grew up. And my prayer is that you will leave a legacy behind that causes your children to remember, so that you can have a lasting impact on them far beyond the years that you are on earth. Because these are important lessons for our children – the simple pleasures in life. If you don’t believe me – just ask Andrew. He wouldn’t trade them either.