Sand In My Shoes

A New Tear For The Old Man




I had never seen my father with two legs.

As I sat in drop-dead U.S. Open traffic on Sunrise Highway last week with the radio filled with news of the World Cup, I realized that I never really imagined my dad as a man with two legs until the day before, a few days before Father’s Day.

I remembered as a kid that I’d watch my father after a grueling week of working in an electrical appliance factory limp home on his wooden leg and climb the three flights of Brooklyn tenement stairs on a Friday night with his pay envelope that never totaled more than $125.

He’d hand that over to my mother, keep $10 for himself, eat a hearty bowl of Irish beef stew, and then he’d start getting ready for a night out with the men — most of them immigrants — in Rattigan’s saloon across from our railroad flat.

Billy Hamill would take off his work pants, and then unbuckle a second two-inch wide leather belt under his pants that held up his wooden left leg. Then, from the hollowed top of the artificial limb, he would remove the stump of his left leg that had been amputated after a violent soccer injury.

He’d remove the sweaty hand-washed-by-my-mother stump sock that resembled an elf’s hat and then, he would sit on the edge of the bed and remove the work-shoe from the wooden leg’s foot, then slide off the work pants, and then pull on the left leg of a freshly ironed pair of dress pants and wiggle a dress shoe onto the wooden foot.

Then, my old man would don a bathrobe, working his crutches across the apartment to the tiny L-shaped bathroom as my mom ironed him a clean white shirt. I would stand by his side, watching my father shave with a double edge Gillette razor they used to advertise on the Wednesday night fights that we’d often watch together. He would slap on some Old Spice aftershave that his sons gave him every Christmas and then he’d take a fast, cold sponge bath because we didn’t have a shower.

Then, my father would button on the freshly ironed white shirt, knot a sharp tie, and slide on a tie clasp.

Then, my father would pull on a fresh stump sock, jam his stump into the hollow of his leg, fasten the leather belt, and pull up the dress pants.

Then, he’d limp out of the bedroom, where I’d be waiting with my shoeshine box. I would shine his shoes, trying to be gentle as I polished his wayward left shoe.

Then, my father would give me my weekly allowance of a quarter. He’d wink, shadowboxing me from a rugged, schooled pug’s stance, ripping a five-punch Willie Pep combo ending with a ferocious left hook to the plastic glow-in-dark knob at the bottom of the light cord dangling over the Formica kitchen table.

Then, Billy Hamill would adjust a suave little fedora on his thick-haired head, wave goodbye, and gripping the banisters, he’d descend those three flights of steps two stairs at a time on his one good leg for a night of Four Roses whiskey, Camel cigarettes, and Irish rebel songs in the saloon.

That was “Dad,” the gruff, hard-working little guy with one leg who raised seven kids and often said that if he’d had had two legs he would have had 14 kids.

When pressed, he told us a few stories about when he was kid playing soccer and raising dogs with his father and 10 siblings in Ireland, and then coming to America at 20 and boxing every Friday night at the 14th Regiment armory against his roommate Eddie Slattery, pooling their money to buy needle beer in a speakeasy.

Then, playing soccer in the competitive immigrant leagues against the Scots, Italians, Poles, and German teams. Until, one day, he was blindsided by a violent slide tackle, leaving his leg broken. “It became infected and they had to take it off,” he said.

End of story.

He wasn’t a man for details.

He hated that wooden leg but he often cracked jokes about it and I don’t remember him ever complaining about it. Self-pity wasn’t allowed in our family. He worked. My mother worked. All of their kids started working at 12 at local stores.

Last week as I sat in the snarled traffic on Sunrise Highway listening to news about young soccer players in the World Cup, I realized that I had never even imagined my father with two legs. Until the day before when my brother Pete had sent me some old clips from the Brooklyn Eagle newspaper that had been mined from its archives.

And here was an actual news story from Friday, May 11, 1928, with a headline: TO PLAY BENEFIT GAME FOR HAMILL “Willie Hamill, star of the St. Mary’s Field Club Soccer Team, who suffered an injury in a playoff game with Hakoah on March 25 at Commercial Field which resulted in the amputation of his left leg three inches above the knee, is now reported convalescing rapidly. It was at first thought that Hamill’s injury would not injure him permanently. His leg was broken and he was immediately rushed to Kings County Hospital, where the leg was set.

“Septic poisoning set in, however, and doctors found it necessary to amputate to prevent the poison from spreading through the body. Hamill, who is but 22 years old, was an outstanding star of the St. Mary’s team and one of the leading amateur players in the metropolitan district. He is a cousin of the famous Mickey Hamill of the Irish International.

“A double header will be played at Todd Field Sunday afternoon for the benefit of the player . . . ”

I cried when my father died at 80, of course, the way any son would mourn his beloved father.

But every time I thought of him since, I smiled, because my father was a colorful character who had lived a full and worthwhile life.

But as the World Cup filled the news, after I read this story for the very first time, my old man came roaring to life for me as a young man, running across a soccer pitch with two good legs, a star athlete, a dashing young immigrant in this great new country called America.

And, in that moment, for the first time, I realized how traumatic and tragic a loss my father had suffered in his early 20s.

And so, as I sat in U.S. Open traffic with news of the World Cup on the radio, for the first time since he died in 1983, I wiped a runaway tear as I thought about my father.

In that moment, I wanted to shake his calloused hand and hug him and smell the Old Spice on his face and thank him for coming to America and for getting off that hospital bed 90 years ago and for letting my Irish immigrant mother lead him onto a dance floor a year after his amputation and then to the altar, and for making a small Irish-American family of seven.

I especially wanted to thank Billy Hamill for strapping on “the lumber” every morning and going to work in a factory for the next 40 years until the last of his brood was reared, because every one of those days was Father’s Day.

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