Sorry, I know it’s been awhile since I penned a substantive Jerry Project blog. Life truly does get in the way sometimes. Between two book tours in support of my first two novels, working on the third, and the marketing that goes with all that, the day job and family life, the blog has fallen by the wayside a bit. I have gotten lazy with regard to memoirs and remembrances, content with just recycling previous posts about my parents on the anniversaries of their deaths and on special occasions such as Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.
A thought occurred to me when my 11-year-old repeatedly asked for high-fives the other day. From the moment our children begin to interact with other human beings, one of the first things we teach them is the high-five. Meant as a greeting and also the exercise of some cognitive ability coupled with a motor skill, I’m sure it aids in some kind of early childhood development. The slapping of hands can evolve into a fist-bump perhaps, but it inevitably leads to learning a traditional handshake.
I like a good, strong, firm handshake. I can’t stand dead fish handshakes. Have you ever gotten one of those from someone? I think I’d rather hold a fish. The whole hand, firm grip, good squeeze. I like strong, whole-hand handshakes from women too, not the dainty finger grab. Is that weird?
The handshake was once meant to indicate to people meeting for the first time that their hands were empty. That’s to say they were unarmed. Over time it has come to signify many different things – a greeting between friends, a means of introduction, congratulations, or that a deal has been struck.
We Americans have become a society of high-fivers. We do it to celebrate a great play made by our favorite sports team, we do it when our friend agrees with us or we are passionately like-minded on a subject, and sometimes as a means to give respect for a quip or a zinger. The “bro hug” often takes the place of a traditional handshake with mini-chest bump added in for affectionate effect.
Did Los Angeles Dodger Glenn Burke really invent the up-top hand slap in 1977? The up-top back-around to low-five was popularized (for a minute) by the movie Top Gun. There’s the two-handed high-five, and then there’s the traditional low-five which was more common in the 1970s.
But this isn’t mean to be a history lesson on the handshake or the high-five.
My father, the late John Knaak, didn’t give credence to any of it. Oh, I don’t think he minded seeing it on the sports field or court. (We did joke about athletes’ propensity to slap each other on the ass after a great play.) He just didn’t care for it in life.
You see, you had to earn my father’s handshake. It was important. It meant something. Even when he met new people he gave it reluctantly. I think I saw him shake his friend Jim’s hand once and that was after Jim had come over to fix our furnace. He’d just as soon have you call him “Jack” before he gave you his hand.
My father died in February 2007 at age 71, four months shy of my 37th birthday. In the 36+ years I knew him and had him in my life, my father shook my hand exactly THREE times and I remember each one vividly.
I was 15 or 16 the first time. I was a pitcher for my little league team in the Northwest Youth Athletic Association, which played its games at what is now known as Paul Bianchi Park at the corner of Emerson and Glide streets in Rochester, N.Y. I was the starting pitcher in an all-star game. I was a wisp of a thing at the time. I was a good pitcher that year, I struck out a season-high 16 batters in one game, and I averaged 11 strikeouts an appearance. My high school coaches never fancied me a pitcher, so summer league is where I had the opportunity.
Admittedly, I didn’t have my best stuff in this all-star game. My fastball had no zip and I was hanging curveballs like they were paintings. Even my knuckleball wouldn’t dance. My fastball never had much velocity, but on this day, my normally live arm was anything but. However, I scratched and clawed and scuffled and kept the game close. We were up 4-2 late in the game and a couple of defensive errors put two men on. The go-ahead run came to the plate, the clean-up hitter, the guy I had trouble with all day. I threw everything at this guy, even a KY ball, but he kept fouling pitches off. Eventually, I made a mistake and hung a curve ball out over the heart of the plate. I don’t think it’s come down yet. The three-run home run gave them a 5-4 lead and was the difference in the game. Although I should have been out of the inning, I still felt like I could have salvaged it by getting this guy out.
Inexplicably my father greeted me behind the backstop after the game and shook my hand. I said something to the effect of, “but I lost. I just didn’t have it today.” He responded with something like, “but you battled, you didn’t give up. You fought hard.”
You see, dad was a high school legend at Scottsville High. Soccer, baseball and basketball – he had a page dedicated to him in his high school yearbook. He played college basketball. I never lived up to his standard as an athlete. I always managed to make the team, but I was never good enough to start. I was a bench warmer most of the time, I played CYO basketball for the playing time, and I gave up on Pop Warner football after two years. For him to shake my hand in this instance really meant something.
The second time he shook my hand was upon my gradation from Edison Technical and Occupational Education Center – fancy name for Edison Tech high school. In June of 1987, I graduated 15th in my class of 300, was already a member of the National Honor Society and earned the Presidential Academic Fitness Award. Also, I was already enlisted in the United States Navy’s delayed entry program. I had played basketball and baseball, and ran cross country. I was involved in student government.
After walking across the stage, collecting my diploma and exiting the George Eastman Theater, my father shook my hand. This one I understood, I had accomplished something. High school wasn’t exactly an easy time for me, but a lot of kids could say that. And considering the events of the past few years, there are thousands of kids who have had it way worse than I ever did.
A lot of good came of that time as well. I did graduate, I was accepted to the two colleges I applied to (even though I didn’t go), I eventually developed my musical taste (which has stuck with me for life) and I met my best friend, who is still that to this day.
The third time came in 1991. I had just returned from Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm aboard the USS Saratoga (CV 60). I had told my parents I didn’t want any fanfare when I landed at the Rochester International Airport. I told them to just pick me up. They didn’t listen. I didn’t feel like I had done anything during the Gulf War. I ran my squadron’s tool control program. Yes, I was a trained flight deck troubleshooter as an aviation electronics technician, but for whatever reason, I was given the tool control job. I can’t say it wasn’t important, there were major safety concerns when it came to tools and the techs and mechanics couldn’t do their jobs if they weren’t properly equipped.
But I didn’t fight. I didn’t shoot at anyone. I wasn’t shot at. Sure, there were those occasions when we had to wear gas masks on our hips when intelligence thought Saddam Hussein’s forces might launch a SCUD missile at our ship. And yes, we had a member of our squadron taken prisoner after his F-14 Tomcat was shot down. And yes, a member of the attack squadron next door was also taken prisoner after his A-6 Intruder was downed. But for the most part, I watched the war on television like everybody else.
My cousin Debbie had joined a support group of some kind if I recall, and one of our neighbors, who was a teacher (again, if I recall), had sent a ton of letters from her students. I was greeted by a throng of people at the airport. There were balloons and signs and hugs.
And a handshake from my father.
I guess it was because I had survived a deployment aboard an aircraft carrier in a combat zone. Maybe he was just happy to see me after eight months. Whatever the reason, he did it and it was the last time.
My father wasn’t what you would call an affectionate man. Oh, he wasn’t one of those men who are incapable of showing physical love, he was just choosy about how he did it. He never denied me a hug when I asked for one and I have fond memories of sitting with him watching football, basketball and baseball games on TV. He was even known to snuggle with my mother on the couch while watching movies.
But that handshake, that meant something. That was important. It wasn’t given often or lightly and if you were fortunate to get one from John Knaak, well, you must have earned it. And that places you in elite company.