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Ralph Houk

January 16, 2019

ralph houk

Kingdom Come

One

My dad wore a watch. A series of watches, actually, all shitty. What was his shitty watch pipeline? I don’t know, but I can see it in my mind now, the prototypical Louis Wilker timepiece, the plastic band, the digital readout displaying an incorrect measurement of the current moment. Can I really see it? No, it’s gone. But almost a year into his absence I’m in the sort of seeing phase, which I suppose will eventually dissolve into no seeing at all. There it sort of is, his cheap watch, in between the folded-up cuff of his blue button-down shirt and his pale, thin wrist.

His wrists! I’ve often blamed them for my athletic failings. As much as I loved playing baseball and basketball, all the thousands of hours I played those games, I never got very good at either, and at some point I began to notice that the guys grabbing rebounds away from me had much thicker wrists, which I paired up with that smug truism about athletic mastery: it’s all in the wrists.

This realization that my inherited anatomy doomed me to failure in my chosen pursuits fit in nicely with my overall stance on life, which came into formation for me when I was a teenager, right around the time of the 1984 baseball card shown above that I’ll eventually get to: victimhood. What chance did I, spawn of a bookish ectomorph, have against the strapping plank-wristed offspring of farmers, bow-hunters, snowmobile enthusiasts?

Anyway, this baseball card made me recall that my thin-wristed sociologist father got so gaunt in his old age that he had to poke new holes in the flimsy plastic band to keep the thing from sliding up and down his arm like a hoop bracelet.

***

It’s difficult to tell in this card whether Ralph Houk, the son of a Kansas farmer, had particularly thick wrists, but it would seem that his watch was considerably nicer than any my father ever wore. This is as you would expect for such a widely respected eminence. The nice watch, that prototypical retirement gift, is in synch with a muted, dignified tone of impending capitulation in the card, also present in Houk’s weary body language and the faintly sour grimace creasing his gentle features. He’s had about enough. Can you blame him? I too at that very moment was justifying quitting on baseball—which was, because of my childhood devotion to it, very much like quitting on life—in part because of the soul-extinguishing mediocrity of Houk’s plodding, meaningless 1983 Boston Red Sox. Unlike me, Ralph Houk had been around for a while by that point and had seen just about everything there was to see in this world. He managed Mark Fidrych in 1976 and Mantle and Maris in 1961. He’d won the Silver Star as a soldier in World War II at the Battle of the Bulge, the deadliest battle of the war for United States troops and one of the bloodiest clashes in U.S. history. With the Bird, with the ’61 Yankees, he’d known unparalleled joy, unparalleled glory. And before all that (as he described in a 1994 article by Steve Jacobson), he’d seen men he was responsible for, men standing right beside him, get blown to kingdom come.

***

I imagine that Ralph Houk’s watches told the correct time. My father, who also served in World War II—though thankfully for my own existence on a stateside naval base, far from the action—may have once had watches that told the right time, but by the time I started noticing, this was no longer the case. My father’s watches, like all the timepieces he was in charge of setting, were always wrong, set several minutes ahead of the actual time, as if he never really wanted to be anywhere except some nearby but wholly imaginary destination that he’d never reach.

But of course the watch on Ralph Houk’s wrist in this baseball card, because of the sun’s reflection, tells no time at all. Maybe that’s what we’ll see, the last thing we’ll see. Maybe it’s the last thing my father saw. Just about a year ago he was on his way to the kitchen to get a cup of coffee my mom later found in the microwave. Maybe he looked down at his watch and in the slim dawning moment of the massive stroke bursting in his mind like the birth of the universe he saw on the face of his discount wristwatch a blinding shard of infinite light.

(continued)

2 comments

  1. My Dad passed over four years ago. My experience is that the “seeing” may have faded some in that time, probably in ways I don’t even recognize, but as long as I’m alive I can’t believe it will ever become no seeing at all. I’ll always remember his voice, see his handwriting, remember little peculiarities. I’m sure you will too.


  2. Lovely, as usual.



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