One Good Day
"If I had a day that I could give you
I'd give to you a day just like today
If I had a song that I could sing for you
I'd sing a song to make you feel this way"
(Sunshine on My Shoulders -John Denver)
Sometimes it is good to just be present in the moment. The modern age challenges our presence, because we get distracted by our technology; we can get so busy making sure we take pictures of our food and the place we are that we deprioritize enjoying our food, eating mindfully, absorbing the conversation and savoring the companionship. On this particular day, that was not the case. I was helped by being in the presence of my friend, coach, construction foreman and former high school algebra teacher, Harold Skip Cain. He is affectionately called "The Cave Man" by his long-time friend Dennis Burns, but to me he is my favorite luddite. He eschews the modern technology of the “smart” phone in favor of the flip phone. However, on this day, eschewing my smart phone was not such a bad thing.
I am no better than anyone else regarding the tendency to regress back to childhood when I am around someone from my childhood. The best part of my high school summers was working out. Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings started with getting up at 5:30 am, running to the American High School gym, where Skip would be there to open at 6:00 am. Then I pushed iron for an hour before running back home to shower and change. Thus, on the day after Thanksgiving this past year, the first thing I did was take Skip to my gym, the Anteater Recreation Complex at the University of California at Irvine, where I work.
Along the way we stopped at S&S Auto Repair in Lake Forest. I wanted to introduce Skip to one of my friends from the present day, shop owner Chad Shaw. There was something more. I knew that an auto shop was a familiar place to Skip, given he grew up working in his dad’s auto body shop. Skip’s stories of working long hours pulling dents, sanding and painting resonated with Chad’s experience in his early career. I had the privilege of getting to spend a little time with Skip’s dad when I spent the night at his paren’ts home in Modesto before going to work on their family cabin in Twainhart. Skip’s dad was a lot like Chad, imbued with an over-abundance of the Puritan work ethic. While visiting Skip’s dad’s shop I saw the newspaper clippings on the wall of the garage and office showing the history of his dad racing boats. Skip grew up water skiing. Chad has his boat parked behind the shop. Chad probably did not know why I stopped at the shop, but it was to just stand a moment in the presence of two of the hardest working men I know.
Regarding hard work, I was stunned by how hard Skip was working out in the gym a few years ago when I had visited him for the book reading for Days of Elijah. That was pre-pandemic. For this day’s workout we both realized we had lost some strength during the pandemic when our gyms were shutdown. We quickly readjusted our goals for he day’s workout to range-of-motion and muscle toning. The important thing was that we started the day out with a workout.
Back in high school the summer weight circuit would be followed by a nine-hour day working on houses. As we drove from the gym, Skip and I remembered days of Working Harder Everyday (WHE) Construction. Probably one of the best memories we shared was working on the three story twenty-two-bedroom house, called the Battle Ship, Skip’s Uncle Gordon owned in Vallejo.
We remembered cutting down the monster willow tree that was so huge that when I first did a walk-through of the back yard, I was confused by the willow branches hanging in front of my face. I was later astounded to realize the source tree was in the front yard but was big enough (5’ diameter trunk) to hang over the house to the back yard. Our funniest memories included the day Skip had me in the tree for six hours straight strapped to the trunk setting up rope pullies to lower branches before I cut them with a pole pruner. Many of these “branches” were between 9 inches and one foot in diameter, so they looked like small trees when I lowered them to the ground for Skip to go at them with a chain saw. When it came to intensity with a chainsaw, Leatherface had nothing on Skip Cain. Highlights of that day included Skip having me pull my lunch up into the tree on a rope, because he suspected, probably accurately so, that I would not want to climb back up in the tree once I climbed down. The peak moment of the day was me reaching the state of muscle tetany as all the muscles in my upper body locked up from depletion and over-exertion. When I cried out, Skip said, “Well then come on down you big baby.” I replied, “I can’t. I can’t move.” I had to rest leaning against the harness fifteen minutes before I had the strength and movement to climb down.
“All along, there were incidents and accidents, there were hints and allegations” regarding that willow tree. One of the funniest memories was the day football teammate, math tutor for Skip’s classes and fellow construction worker Tim Marymee and I felled a branch from the tree that was so big that it blocked the side of the street. A police officer rolled up in her patrol car and asked for our permits to block the street. I stepped forward as chief storyteller saying, “I am sure our foreman, Skip Cain, has pulled all the correct permits, but he is working up on the roof right now, and he would be pretty pissed if I were to bring him down to show you that paperwork mam.”
One episode in the saga of man and house against the tree that we will never forget is building concrete abutments in the basement to prevent the foundation from collapsing under the weight of the tree. Having gotten an A in his algebra class, Skip let me do the math on that one. One morning driving to Vallejo, I pulled out a pencil a started doing calculations on a brown paper bag of the angle of incidence, and width of each abutment based on the height of the basement wall, the mass of concrete we wanted to put against the wall. I showed the calculations on the bag to Skip and, after peering at it a while, he said, “That sounds about right.” I calculated the amount of concrete we needed for each triangle framed abutment and we picked that up from the Rock Yard on the way to Vallejo. Skip built a frame out of wood according to specs and set the rebar drilling into the concrete floor with a hammer drill. I then mixed the concrete by hand in a wheelbarrow. At the end of the day, we would each ceremoniously pluck wads of concrete dust and mucous from our noses before we got in the truck.
Speaking of the truck I cannot tell any story about Skip Cain without mentioning Skip’s 1962 Studebaker Champ, in which I learned to drive. A few weeks before my visit with Skip, coming out of the parking lot of my local post office, I noticed a man with the hood of his Nissan Pathfinder up. I asked him if he needed help, and he indicated his battery had died. I offered to give the stranger a ride to the nearest auto parts store to get a new battery. He was surprised by my generosity and willingness to wait while he removed his battery. While waiting for the old guy to grab his tools, I opened the AAA Westways magazine I had just received in the mail to a page with a picture of an old Studebaker. Then in the next second, I heard the old guy say his name was Skip, and that coincidence of encountering another Skip while looking at a picture of an old Studebaker, was like a spiritual confirmation that I was in that moment at the right place at the right time doing the right thing. As for my day with Skip Cain, before he got in the car I joking admonished him, “You are one person who cannot complain about my driving, because you taught me to drive in an old Studebaker Champ." In that moment as we drove off in my Chevy Cruz, I was once again in the right place at the right time.
Our drive the day after Thanksgiving was a lot more leisurely than learning how to hold the clutch while stopped on a hill with the weight of 20 bags of Quikrete loaded in the back of the Studebaker Champ. I gave Skip a tour of Orange County in Reference to my life. On the way to UCI we passed Back Bay and I told him about how I ride my bike to work along the trail in that estuary. I drove past Newport Marina and showed him where I go Kayaking. That evoked a memory for Skip of having a kayak as a kid. Then we went to a sports bar along the beach walk where I used to bike with my children. We had lunch and watched football at the bar.
It was good to be sitting and watching football with the man who taught me to play the game. When we ran into him earlier, Chad related his misconstrued recollection of an incident during a flag football game in which he claims I tackled him. My clear recollection is Chad was running with the ball toward me, and I simply planted my feet in front of him to absorb his momentum while reaching behind him to grab his flag. My intent was not to tackle him. However, inadvertently, the result did look a lot like a perfect tackle with my face on the ball, neck bowed back and arms wrapped just as Skip had taught me in practice. The only thing missing was the lift. Chad did remark to Skip, “So I should hold you responsible for teaching him how to tackle people and hurt them.”
After watching football, we took a walk out onto Newport Beach Pier and watched some children playing in the water. Watching the children evoked in each of us some of our best childhood memories. Skip’s family’s cabin up in Twainhart played a role in both of our memories. For me it was spending a Friday night at his parent’s house before going to work on the cabin. Skip’s mom made us the best breakfast with scrambled eggs with cheddar cheese and ham mixed in, big fluffy biscuits, sausage and gravy. The woman knew what Tim and I were about to endure working with Skip and his father on the cabin. We were well fueled to endure working straight through with no lunch, cleaning out the crawl space under the cabin. It was a cold early winter’s day, but with all that egg and cheese in us Tim and I were like gas burning, more like gas expelling, space heaters. To be honest, you would not want to be in that crawl space with us. The good thing was that Skips Dad had reached a kinder gentler age from when he used to work Skip at the auto body shop. He had his pockets filled with Snickers and Milky Way candy bars, and about every hour he would come slip Tim and me one each. Beyond an all-day supply of candy bars, the other perk that Tim and I enjoyed was at the end of the summers our junior and senior years of high school getting to go spend a few days at Skip’s family cabin in Twainhart.
My day with Skip was rounded out with a drive up Pacific Coast highway. I pointed out the trail I used to ride when I road my bike to work at the Long beach Veterans Affairs Hospital. I told him about one of my most perfect days. It was a sunny day in winter. To the right of me I saw snow covered mountains and to the left I saw a school of about five dolphin swimming parallel to me in the Pacific Ocean, the best commute you can have in Southern California. After dropping by to see my job site at the VA and that of another later job site by the Arco building, we went to watch more football at another sports bar by the water in Long Beach. We watched an exciting game between University of Florida and Florida State while enjoying a couple of beers.
I jumped at the chance to pay for dinner. Skip had bought me so many meals when I was in high school, all as an effort to bulk me up for the defensive line. One of the most memorable places Skip took me was the Cock’s Roost in Vallejo. The restaurant was the bottom floor of an old Victorian with chickens in the yard and several cock weathervanes on its main and auxiliary gables. The proprietor had gained her experience in the hospitality industry working for famous madam and former Mayor of Sausalito Sally Stanford. The restaurant’s theme, implicit in the name, was catering to the taste of men. In that regard, an all-you-can-eat buffet featuring prime rib and lasagna was the highlight of the restaurant. I did not recognize the proprietor at first. However, she had this habit of walking around the restaurant and greeting her regulars by hugging them from behind as they sat in a manner that enveloped their neck and head in her ample bosom. It was when she did this to someone at our table that I recognized her, as I am embarrassed to admit, by her ample endowments. This was because previously while going through the third-floor apartment of "The Battleship" to access a deck we were repairing; I noticed a picture of same woman kneeling naked in a bathtub with her elbow propped on the edge in a manner that displayed her impressive decolletage. The photo was even autographed.
Skip and I had not gone to the Cock's Roost for the entertainment but for the food. Where else can you get all-you-can-eat good quality prime rib? When I had visited Skip years later, Skip remarked that I had grown and changed. I told him, “Remember how you used to always try to feed me during the summers to bulk me up? . . . Well it finally worked! I am at a good playing weight for a lineman. [It’s just too bad I don’t have a team.]” Anyway, for our post-Thanksgiving outing I had chosen a less inappropriately themed dinner venue than the Cock’s Roost. Sure, the restaurant I chose had a brand which did emphasize female entertainment staff wearing tight shirts that highlighted their decolletage, but we were not at risk of them actually brushing them against the back of our neck. We were just there to watch football. The game was finishing right around the time I heard from Skip’s supervisor, his wife Jackie.
Not so surprisingly, my first introduction to Jackie involved football. The summer he met Jackie, Skip was scheduled to coach an all-star game. Skip asked me to meet him before the game, and he then introduced me to Jackie. I was given the privilege of sitting with her to watch the game. All things come full circle, and Jackie had extended me the privilege of hanging with Skip while she took their grandchildren to Disneyland the day after Thanksgiving. I am not sure she fully appreciated how much getting a day to hang with Skip, for me, was much better than a trip to Disneyland.
Skip is more than just my first high school math teacher, my coach, the guy who gave me a job, or the guy who taught me to drive a manual transmission. He was one of the men who showed up to witness my life during high school. The last time I saw my father I was thirteen years of age, a couple of weeks before starting high school. All throughout high school, I entertained this pernicious fantasy that my father would show up to watch me play football, wrestle a match or perform in a concert. I was vexed by the unfulfillment of that fantasy. It took me years to fully appreciate that the people who showed up to witness that phase of my life were Ted Jones, the owner of the rock and equipment yard where we got our construction equipment and supplies, coach Dennis Burns’ dad Roy T Burns, Dennis Burns and Skip Cain. Whenever I came off the mat, I would come up in the stands to find Skip siting with Roy T Burns and Ted Jones, two guys who shared the most sardonic sense of humor I have ever encountered. They always had something sarcastic to say like, “We were wondering when you were going to stop playing with that guy and get around to pinning him.” At the end of the day, I texted Jackie, “Thanks for letting Skip come out and play with me.” All sarcasm aside, I was deeply appreciative of getting to spend the day with a person who redeemed my childhood and helped me transition to being a man.