My father was a lawn warrior. He knew every tree limb and blade of grass on our pristine half-acre property. He was a builder too, constructing utility sheds and walkways so precise that by 1970 our house resembled a cross between a golf course and Versailles.
The plot resembling the golf course was a large rectangle of flawless grass in the backyard. For a time, it just glowed like an enchanted field, until the summer of 1970 when my friends and I decided to use it to play volleyball.
There was just one problem: my father said “No.” He said it several times and in different languages: niet, nein, aucun, non, plus some words I didn’t understand.
So we asked around. Whose parents were up for hosting noisy volleyball games? Turns out no one, unless you counted my friend Janet’s parents. The trouble was they’d divided their backyard into the adult section and the children’s section. The adult section was cleared of any trees or bushes. The children’s section was the recipient of those trees and bushes. We turned the offer down.
The answer would have been to visit the nearby school and map out boundaries and put up a net. We found a better solution: we created a volleyball court on a patch of street devoid of any obstructions, which also happened to be in front of my house.
So imagine my father’s surprise when he came home from work and found 10 teenagers playing volleyball right near his prized azaleas. His expression resembled a bulldog on steroids.
We erected a makeshift net between a telephone pole and a stray tree and someone spray-painted orange lines marking the court. My father was not amused. In fact, to say that he was the only F5 tornado to ever hit Long Island would be an understatement. In a pitch as shrill as a police whistle, he summoned me inside and demanded an explanation.
“It was my friends,” I said, as my father’s face turned redder than a tomato. He demanded names and said that once he discovered who the guilty party was, he was going to summon their parents, or “commanding officers” as he called them. I told him POWs only have to give their name, rank and serial number.
Reason intervened in the form of my mother. She didn’t see what the fuss was about. The volleyball court was “cute.” Then she gave him a choice: the street or the backyard. My father chose the street.
So that choice in the summer of 1970 brought two results: We were the most popular house on the block, and my father protected his lawn.
But all things change. The net frayed; the orange lines washed away; friends moved to other states. The following summer brought jobs and Saturday bus rides to the beach. The green patch faded then disappeared after my father died.
But when I go back to that neighborhood and listen, I can still hear the arguments about whether a ball was safe or out; can still see the faces of my friends looking up to where the ball got lost in the sun; can still see the dripping sweat on our faces.
It’s often said you can’t go back again, but I think you can. Even if it’s just in the sounds you listen for or the faded orange lines on a paved street. It’s there; you just have to look.