Bob's Day (continued)

February 6th is Proof of a Universal Power

When I was a little boy, I used to go out in the front yard after coming home from school and play football. Except there were no neighborhood kids to play with, so I would just run around on the grass and play my own game in my own imaginary stadium with imaginary opponents and imaginary crowds and imaginary announcers. I was always the hero of the game, of course, the record-setting superstar.

I was a sports-obsessed kid. I loved watching or listening to games. Most of all, I loved playing games. As soon as I was old enough to sign up to play recreation-level sports, I did. Basically, from first grade on I was playing whatever sport was in season. There was football in the fall, then basketball through the winter, and baseball and lacrosse in the spring. In the summers I would go to the local pool and swim around all day, and there was a week or two of day camp to occupy my energy.

My love of sports and physical activity came from him, of course. He had played all of the same sports when he was growing up, and he was a really good athlete. He may not have been the star of the teams that he played on, but his teams were better because he was on them.

He grew up in an era when being 6’3” and 210 pounds meant you were a giant amongst your peers. In grade school and high school sports, coaches looked at him and saw an interior lineman for football and a center for basketball. He was quick and smart and strong, but in those days the players who touched the ball were slightly smaller and faster. So he humbled himself and learned proper blocking and tackling technique in football, and the finer nuances of footwork around the rim in basketball. He always had this killer hook shot that I could never defend or copy, no matter how many times he showed it to me.

The best part of those afternoons when I would play football or basketball after school was when he came home. Because he never denied me the chance to catch passes from him or shoot hoops with him. He might take a few minutes to go inside, catch up with Mom about the day, and then get changed, but he would always come out and give me his time.

I marveled at his arm strength in football. He could throw tight spirals with velocity or high-arcing bombs that I would have to run under to catch. He showed me the little things like head fakes and planting a foot down hard to make a cut when running a pass pattern. I would run these ten-yard out patterns and when I’d turn my head the ball would be right there. All I had to do was put out my hands and it was an easy catch.

He was a really good shooter in basketball. He had a light, feathery jump shot that always splashed softly through the net. He showed me hand placement and release. He taught me head fakes and dropping the shoulder and how to properly establish a pivot foot around the basket. We would play games of 21 and H-O-R-S-E and one-on-one until Mom called us in for dinner, or if it was late at night, to go to bed.

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I was a freshman in high school the first time I listened to the music of Bob Marley. I can still see and hear that moment in time, just as if I was still there.

I was a lanky and tall and awkward 14-year-old redheaded boy who was just as insecure and uncertain about how he fit in to his new surroundings as every kid that age is. My new friend Kenny Gibbs had invited me over to his house after school one afternoon to hang out and goof around. I can’t remember exactly what we did, maybe shot some hoops in the alley behind his house, or talked about girls, or joked about some of our new classmates, but I can remember hearing Bob.

We had gone up to Kenny’s room to listen to some music when he pulled out the album Catch A Fire. He asked me if I had ever listened to Bob Marley and The Wailers and I sheepishly admitted I hadn’t. Kenny explained that the big hit song “I Shot the Sherriff” from a few summers before had been written by Bob, even though Eric Clapton had gotten all the glory from covering it.

From the first scratchy riffs of the electric guitar on the first song of the album, Stir It Up, I was hooked. I had gone to the Bahamas once as a little boy and I had loved the steel drums and the rhythm of calypso music. But this was different - raw, soulful, uplifting, and in some ways spiritual. Marley’s voice could soar and growl and seemed to be its own instrument, the perfect compliment to the pulsing bass line.

A new door had opened for me musically. I was hooked, transported and energized by the beat, the lyrics and the passion. My world was beginning to change.

Bob Marley, this bi-racial man from the slums of Trenchtown, Jamaica, was speaking to me through his music, this scrawny, goofy, white suburban kid from Baltimore. I knew the differences between us, yet I also sensed that what he was telling me through his lyrics and rhythms and melodies was that we really weren’t so different after all. At least not if we opened our hearts and minds to look deeply enough.

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I’m sitting on a chairlift above a ski slope in Vermont, and the wind is absolutely howling, the snow blowing sideways, the chair being held at almost a 45-degree angle above the slopes below.

He puts his arm around me and pulls me in as tightly against him as possible, doing his best to shield me from the wind and snow and take as much of the brunt of the storm as he can. I’m terrified, of course, and crying and shivering and numb, and I’m doing everything I can to not slide off this dumb chair. I want to climb inside his ski jacket and curl up and never get on a chairlift again.

As we wait for the lift to start moving again he promises me that we won’t ski any more that day. We’ll get to the top of this lift and we’ll head straight down the run and go right into the lodge and sit by the fire and drink hot chocolate and get something to eat.

Although I can’t feel my face or my hands or my feet, that’s exactly what we do. We get to the top, we muster our strength, we ski down, and we go sit at the giant fireplace and warm our bones.

He never let me down. If he said we could do it, then by God, we could do it. We just had to do it a moment at a time. But no matter how difficult the conditions, there would be a time and a place to rest when we were done. And so it was.

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I had gone to my friend’s house in the little town of Glen Rock, Pennsylvania that Friday morning before the Nor’easter hit. I was single, going through my divorce, and the boys were with her that weekend, so at their invitation I decided not to spend the storm alone.

While I was glad for their hospitality and their company, I couldn’t escape a feeling that something wasn’t quite right in the world. It wasn’t the prospect of dealing with shoveling out from the storm. It wasn’t anything I could identify or define, so I tried my best to ignore it.

I had spoken to Mom on Thursday afternoon and she had assured me that they were fine. They had plenty of food (and milk and eggs and toilet paper – ha ha) and plenty of wood for the fireplace in case the power went out for an extended time. Everything was well. I told her I would be in Glen Rock and I gave her my friend’s home phone number in case they needed to reach me for anything. Cell service was spotty in that area.

So we all settled in and watched the snow come down that Friday afternoon and night. It piled up quickly and impressively. Streets and sidewalks and stairs and cars disappeared under a thick blanket. There didn’t appear to be any definition of shapes and sizes anymore. Everything just seemed to be one giant lump of white.

I slept out on the sun porch of my friend’s house that night. I had been drinking heavily and trying to shake this nagging feeling that I just couldn’t understand. I figured enough booze would make me forget about everything.

But the next morning I woke up early. The snow had stopped falling and there was a soft morning light coming through the windows. I opened my eyes to see a cardinal sitting on a branch of the tree just off the sun porch. I got up and made breakfast.

Sometime around mid-morning, I shoveled off their stairs and walkway and made my way across the street to the parking lot. I have no idea why, but I cleared all the snow off my car and shoveled out all around it. Every other car in sight was covered except mine.

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He was such a good athlete that he attracted the attention of college scouts. Especially for football. Given his size and his skills, most of the college coaches projected him as a lineman who would help open holes for their running backs.

Because he wanted to major in engineering, his choices came down to Bucknell and Maryland. While he loved the campus and the coaches and the players at Bucknell, they only offered him a half-scholarship, while Maryland offered a full ride. For a young man from East Baltimore who had paid his own tuition to attend Loyola High School, there was never a debate.

My mother recently found his offer letter from Maryland. It’s quite astonishing in its simplicity. It’s only two brief paragraphs, but it offers the full tuition ($350 per year) plus housing and books. The coolest part, to me at least, is that it’s signed by the Terrapins’ legendary head coach, Jim Tatum.

And so, in 1953, he was a freshman on the only football team in the history of the University of Maryland to win a National Championship. He didn’t play much, but he was on the team.

He played for two more years until he suffered a bad knee injury. He had already endured a broken ankle, and the knee injury required a serious surgery. Back then, any type of knee surgery meant that the doctors would open up your knee on both sides of your leg, in order to repair the cartilage or the ligaments or the kneecap. Recovery was a months-long proposition.

He declined the surgical option and decided he would just live with it. Football had given him everything, but most importantly, it had provided his education and his career path. He never liked doctors and hospitals anyway.

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When I was a freshman in college, my parents took my little brother and me on a New Year’s vacation to Montego Bay, Jamaica. I know that the only reason they chose that destination was because they knew how much I loved Bob Marley’s music, and reggae music.

I don’t think my father ever quite understood my connection to Marley’s music, but it wasn’t in his nature to question why. I do know that he was always happy to support his sons and their different passions, whether it was music or sports or the arts or movies. He had an appreciation of culture and the world that fueled his curiosity. He loved to travel and to learn about foreign lands and their histories.

There was nothing especially eventful or memorable about that trip. We enjoyed each other’s company, we swam in the Caribbean Sea, we had long, lazy dinners in the town of Montego Bay, we took a touristy trip to Dunn’s River Falls, and we sat on the beach and at the pool. As we were preparing to come home, he handed me a little brown paper bag. He said he had seen it at a little stand in town and he bought it for me as a memento. I opened it up and was floored to see this little clay figurine of a Rastaman. It was hand made and hand painted. I was really at a loss for words, so I simply thanked him.

To this day that is still one of my most cherished possessions. It might seem silly, but it represents something very deep about who he was and his character deep inside. He was a son of first-generation Polish immigrants from East Baltimore who would never have known who Bob Marley was if I hadn’t listened to his music.

Yet he loved me enough to take me to Jamaica so I could better know the man and his music and his country. He didn’t need to understand the lyrics or the music or the culture. All he needed to understand was that it brought me joy. That was good enough.

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I don’t play the lottery. I don’t gamble.

It’s not because I have some moral or ethical or financial objection to it, it’s because I already know I’ve won.

These two remarkable people took a little 3-year-old boy out of St. Vincent’s Villa on Pot Springs Road in Timonium, Maryland in 1970 and gave him the world.

They gave him love and light and travel and education and support. They stood by him when he failed (which was often), they comforted him when he was down, they encouraged him to always keep discovering, and they showed him what real, true, unconditional love meant.

They showed him that friendship was the rock upon which true love stood. They taught him that there was nothing as powerful as genuine forgiveness. They demonstrated that anything was possible through faith and humility.

For all that we pursue and all that we acquire, it’s what we teach our children that will live on. Everything else will pass. So pass it on.

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When the call came that Saturday afternoon, I can’t say that I was shocked. I had a moment of sudden disbelief, but I also had an answer to what had been tugging at me the last few days.

I walked outside into the snow and after a few yards I dropped to my knees. I remember looking up at the sky. It was so blue, which seemed hard to believe just a few hours after all that snow had stopped falling. I cried.

There was a lot of snow on the drive from Glen Rock to Baltimore. The interstate was only one lane, and the snowbanks were unthinkably high. It was dark by then, and I remember talking on the phone with my little brother and trying my best to see the road through the tears and the buildup of salt and snow and ice on the windshield.

All I could think of was getting to my mother. I didn’t want her sitting alone in that hospital waiting room any longer than she already had.

I made it to my older brother’s house and picked him and his friend up and we made our way to the hospital. I don’t remember how long I hugged Mom, but I know it was a while. We made it home and we had turkey sandwiches with gravy. I have no idea why I remember that.

It was very late that night, or actually early the next morning, that the answers started to come. I had stepped out of the kitchen and was standing on the edge of the patio. It had to have been around three in the morning. There must have been three feet of snow out there.

The stars were magnificent, brilliant against a dark winter sky. The air was completely still and it was bracingly cold. I gazed up and admired the tranquility and beauty of it all.

I asked him, ever so quietly, What will I do without you? What will we all do without you?

Immediately, as if on cue, the wind chimes at the corner of the house began to ring, very quietly and softly. I smiled. He always had a gentle and kind nature.

Later that morning, I was shoveling snow in their driveway. I couldn’t bring myself to get on the tractor and try to work that snowplow. It filled me with a measure of dread and a feeling of sacrilege, as if enough time hadn’t passed yet to sit where he had been when it happened.

My mother opened the front door and called me to come in for lunch. She was anxious and nervous about anyone else having an episode while shoveling snow. That was understandable.

I took off my snow clothes and sat at the kitchen table. I had one of those old flip phones at the time. My screensaver was some generic picture of a football with a green field in the background. I opened the phone up to see the messages I was certain to have gotten while I was out working. The phone had been in my pocket the entire time. I never touched it.

When I flipped it open to check the messages, the screensaver picture was different. The football and the field were gone.

Now, there was a picture of a single red rose lying on the snow.

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Every year, in celebration of Bob Marley’s birthday on February 6th, a local college radio station dedicates an entire Saturday to playing his music, as well as other legendary reggae musicians. The station, by the way, is WEAA-FM 88.9, The Voice of the Community, broadcasting from the campus of Morgan State University. I highly recommend it.

Listening to WEAA every year on this weekend has become a tradition for me. They do a great job of presenting interviews and rare recordings of Bob throughout his entire career. The man definitely went through some different stages in his career.

The most amazing thing for me, as someone who has loved his music for 40 years now, is how amazingly fresh it remains, especially if it’s a song or an album I haven’t listened to in a while.

For example, just today, knowing that his anniversary is two days away, I cued up the album Burnin’. I was immediately hooked by the riffs on Duppy Conqueror. It made me smile and laugh to remember just how uplifted his music can make me. It takes me back to feeling like a young man every time, without fail, no matter where I am or what I’m doing.

There is one song in particular that is my all-time favorite. I can remember listening to it over and over in the summer of 1982. I wore that cassette tape out that summer listening to the album Live!, recorded at the Lyceum Theater in London in 1975.

It’s the first song on the second side of the album, called No Woman, No Cry. There is something so mystical and beautiful about this particular version of it, the way the organ swells and rises so majestically, with the crowd singing along in surging harmony, and Bob in full voice, and his backup singers, the I-Threes, in gorgeous harmony together behind him. I believe this was the pinnacle of Bob’s musical power, when he was firing on all cylinders, so to speak.

There’s a lyric in the second verse that has always meant more to me than any other:

Good friends we’ve had, what good friends we’ve lost, along the way;

In this great future, you can’t forget your past, so dry your tears, I say

I suppose I’ll never be able to fully explain why it means as much to me as it does, but it does, and I suppose that’s all that truly matters.

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I have a picture of him somewhere and I just can’t find it. It’s one of my favorites. I really want to show it to you.

It’s from one of his seasons at Maryland. He’s in his full game uniform, with white pants and a red jersey with the number 55 on it. He’s looking off to the side, gazing into the distance, and his hands are on his hips. There’s a slight smile on his face, as if he knows something we don’t. He’s young and healthy and confident.

My house is quite a mess right now as I prepare to move. There are boxes everywhere and I feel as if I’m living through an episode of Hoarders and I’m the hoarder. It’s a bit frustrating and it’s one reason why I can’t find this picture.

As I rooted around desk drawers and file cabinets looking for it, I came across a manila envelope with my handwriting on it. I had written “Bob” on the front of it.

Thinking the picture might be inside, I opened it up, and the first thing that came out was a piece of his suspenders that he was wearing that day. To be perfectly honest, I had completely forgotten I had it. For some reason, though, I had kept it.

Every once in a while, I’ll think about the fact that I don’t have any recollection of the last conversation we had. That used to bother me sometimes. Now, however, I think it’s really not important. I mean, I still talk to him every day. I’m certain he’s listening.

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I don’t know much, and I don’t claim to be any kind of spiritual guru or savant, but I have a deeply-rooted belief that there are some powerful and oversized forces at work in the universe. There is a force of love and light that is so strong that all we need to do is open ourselves up to the possibilities and it will reveal itself, even in the smallest ways.

Sometimes, especially at this time of year, I wonder how this little boy came to admire these two men named Bob, how they both had such a powerful and positive influence on his life, how they showed him the joy of living through sports and through music and through family. How does that come to pass? I refuse to think of it as random.

A white Polish kid from East Baltimore and a mixed-race kid from Trenchtown, Jamaica, and February 6th is the day they share. That’s some crazy, powerful stuff right there, my friends.

Eleven years later, I smile a bit more on February 6th. I listen to Bob and I talk to Bob. I’m going to do something with this piece of his suspenders. I don’t really have any ideas yet, but I’m sure if I go outside on a starry night and gaze up and listen to the windchimes, inspiration will come.

Happy Bob Day