The empty red bags of Cheetos were now lined up perfectly, pressed flat with a clear Bic pen, each package aligned with the table edge and overlapping the last so that seen from above, it may have seemed like one large bag of Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch-Cheetos. My fingers had repeatedly dipped into each snack during consumption, so now as they applied the final adjustments to the bags, each digit looked like the result of a botched operation, my fingers severed at the knuckles and surgically replaced with peeled baby carrots. I wiped them on the arm of the waiting room chair, upholstered in a stain-hiding pattern that might have worked on a foodstuff that wasn’t Day-Glo orange, and looked about to see if anyone was watching my Ch-Ch-Cheeto creation. My brother Tim continued to find fascination with the multi-colored Barrel-of-Monkeys, now standing on his chair to suspend the plastic chimp chain. Mom continued to stare at the pages of Woman’s Day, the 18-month-old cover featuring a no-longer topical morning news host and her then ubiquitous baby.
It had been over three hours, and the Cheetos had been futile in the battle to ward off hunger. Vending machines in hospitals aren’t there to feed people; they exist as a distraction. Something to do between the phrases “We’ll keep you informed” and “Well, here’s what we’ve found.” Nervous food was how it was described to me, food that crunches served in packages that crackle, food that requires your attention. Unfortunately, the Cheetos required very little of my attention, every package containing a generous portion of air. Each bag was devoured in less than two minutes flat, even those packages that I tried to prolong. They allowed too much time to think about cheeseburgers. Too much time to think about pizza. Too much time to think about Dad.
Mom had explained a little bit, but she was upset and didn’t find distraction in explaining the specifics of a heart attack. I was the oldest, and in my eleven-year-old mind I thought that it was like a movie, your heart simply tiring of all that work and turning on you, not unlike a dog who grew tired of its master. Mom said yes, something like that, and I pictured a cartoon heart looking around in fury, breaking off a shard of rib and swinging deliberately—-the left lung takes one to the midsection, the stomach repeatedly stabbed and Mom’s shepherd’s pie squirting out into his body. I explained this scenario to Tim, and he laughed. Perhaps out of nervousness, perhaps at the sight of my baby carrot fingers acting out an attack on the liver. I began to act out further action, the great battle of the intestines, but Tim again heard the siren call of the plastic monkeys and was powerless to resist. I began to paw the distractions that sat on the coffee table. Field and Stream. Life. Sports Illustrated. Five empty Cheetos bags. Two empty Frito bags…I refused to allow Tim to buy Cheetos, fearful that we might be here for days and I had to keep my favorites on hand. Mom continued to stare at the same magazine, though she hadn’t turned a page in several Cheetos bag intervals. She alternated glances at the page with longer stares down the long white hallway cluttered with tables, tall posts with what looked like hanging water balloons, empty wheelchairs and the occasional scurrying nurse. It was from this hallway that we finally watched Doctor Vaughan emerge with a clipboard in hand, a smile of recognition on his face. My mother stood, but didn’t move toward him. “Bad news travels well”, my Mom used to say whenever she received a casserole from my Grandma. These casseroles, ingredients boiled to flavorless before being drenched in gravy, were a regular Sunday occurrence, and I knew the next line by heart. “And that’s too bad!” I’d say, and we’d quietly laugh as she turned the heat up to 350 in preparation of her duties as daughter in law: Serve the casserole up with the rest of dinner and hope the family would actually humor the woman this time. Today in the hospital, the bad news would find her, so she had no intention of meeting it halfway.
The doctor began, “He’s fine, Ellen.” Upon hearing the word “fine”, Mom heaved a sigh so heavy it suggested that it was the first time she had exhaled since arriving at the hospital. “He suffered what’s called Angina Pectoris, a spasm brought on by over exertion or stress. And I think we all know from where the stress comes.” He spoke the word “stress” as if it were italicized, his eyebrows rising with the corresponding change in pitch. “We’ll be releasing him tonight, but he has to be careful. This is very important, Ellen, and you need to understand that there’s one change in lifestyle that MUST be enforced. Otherwise, he’ll be back in here before the next road trip.”
Standing there in the white hallway, Doc Vaughan’s face so serious, my Mom so silent, I understood the prescription. And even at eleven years old, I knew it might be an impossible pill for the patient to swallow.
Dad couldn’t watch the Bruins anymore.
Watching hockey with my Dad was unlike any other spectator experience. When a group of guys get together to watch football, they all sit around the t.v, drink Budweiser and cheer on the team. My Dad is just like that, when he’s watching football. But set him down in front of a hockey game, the sudden acceleration of action, the hard hitting collisions in the corner and the puck spurting out dangerously in front of the net, and suddenly my Dad was well beyond “watching.”
He was beyond Canadian.
What the doctor failed to realize was that hockey isn’t like smoking. Dad quit smoking cold turkey, no discussion about it. Many years with a pack-a-day habit and he decided enough was enough. The man had willpower that was the envy of the family, able to resist any of the great biblical temptations: Brownies, Snickers bars, Vanilla ice cream (even with chocolate sauce!), and the aforementioned nicotine. But when it came to hockey, he was a dog and the puck was a squirrel. Logic was gone, reason was gone, and if the house were burning down, he’d evacuate in “just a minute, the period is almost over.” Hockey was the drug of choice, and WSBK in Boston was the pusherman.
The addiction can be traced back to 1967. The Boston Bruins were a hallowed name in the National Hockey League, members of an elite roster of teams that were known not only by sports fans, but also by most of the populace at large. The New York Knicks. The Brooklyn Dodgers. The Green Bay Packers. Not just “teams,” but Legends. At least that’s how we saw it in the outskirts of Boston. The Vietnam War raged on, Nixon was placing microphones all over Washington, yet the only television memories I have of my adolescent years feature some variation on “HE SHOOTS!” or “SAVE, CHEEVERS!” These were the casual-user days for my Dad, before he developed a serious habit.
To hear my Mom tell it, the descent began innocently enough when Dad met Frank O’Hara at the Elks club. Frank was an insurance salesman, a silver-haired talker whose gift of gab was large and elaborately wrapped. Frank had season tickets to the Bruins, a business write-off because he regularly brought his clients out to watch Boston pummel the so-called teams that came from strange sounding cities like Pittsburgh and Toronto. Frank didn’t like doing business on Friday nights, so when the Bruins had a Friday home game, he preferred to bring a friend. Dad was a good conversationalist, as well as a knowledgeable fan of the Bruins courtesy of WSBK, so Frank found him to be perfect company for the 75-minute ride to the Boston Garden. In 1967, my Dad saw seven games at the Garden that year.
By 1968, he had season tickets of his own.
In 1970, the Bruins won the Stanley Cup, and Dad’s doctor made his first notation on his medical history: “Blood pressure up during winter months.”
My own experience with my Dad’s viewing habit is from the early 70’s, after the traffic into Boston required you to leave at 3 o’clock for a 7:30 face off. After my Mom expressed her concern for the post-game drive home. After his oldest child, sitting next to him on the couch one evening as the Bruins came on for an away game said “Hey, we can look to see if Dad is in the bleachers”, the season tickets weren’t ordered again. Starting in November 1972, three nights a week, our den became the Church of Channel 38, Fred Cusick presiding. No talking during the service, please.
It didn’t take Dad long to get excited about the action. Feet up in his La-Z-Boy recliner, Budweiser and a bowl of peanuts perched atop a pile of magazines on the end table. Calm as the national anthems were sung, but within seconds of the opening face-off his pulse increased by twenty-points. Ken Hodge would win the duel at center, dish back to Bobby Orr, and immediately Dad would begin to twitch and writhe in his chair, using all of his psychic powers to pull the puck within Wayne Cashman’s reach or to give Phil Esposito a little push to get him by the Ranger defender. These efforts were continuous throughout the game, three twenty-minute periods of Dad hip-checking the arm of his recliner, yelling at Don Awrie that Bucyk was again open on the wing, handfuls of peanuts flying across our vision as he moved his glove hand in tandem with Gerry Cheevers to stop the incoming slap shot. It was a sporting Turret’s Syndrome, and no one in our house dared suggest a cure. When the games were over, he was inevitably exhausted.
I have clear memories of a Montreal Canadian power play, Guy Lafleur one goal away from a hat trick in the tied game, and Derek Sanderson made a dangerous pass in front of his own net. Coach Tom Johnson yelled, but my Dad actually achieved airtime as he lunged at the screen, a geyser of beer and potato chips spraying the couch, my brother cowering behind me as the La-Z-Boy pitched forward dangerously. As the recliner progressed in its trajectory, the end table became an immediate casualty, dumping its large pile of Wooden Boat and Esquire magazines into my stunned lap. With my Dad now standing in front of the T.V., the chair quickly recoiled, the simulated-leather smashing into the floor lamp. Two of its three 60-watt bulbs lost their filaments, the shade dented deeply from its contact with the wall. While this mayhem took place, Cheevers quickly covered the puck to stop the Canadian’s momentum. On the ice, disaster was averted.
As they set up for the face-off in the Boston end, Dad turned to see the wreckage that was once his den. In the sudden 60-watt dimness, the armchair still rocking itself to a stop, he could clearly make out his children, pie-eyed in shock, covered with magazines, potato chips and beer. My mother burst through the door, wearing an expression that only a mother can muster, expecting to rescue her children from the natural disaster that somehow only struck one room in the house. She surveyed the scene, looked at my father, and he said two lines in his defense. “You learn that in high school hockey, in goddamn pee wee leagues! You NEVER pass in front of your own net.”
As we extracted ourselves from the rubble of periodicals, my brother and I agreed: even through the television screen, Derek Sanderson surely heard him.
Dad did manage to quit the habit. The first couple of years were hard, but to his advantage the B’s slipped from atop the NHL ladder. Bobby Orr’s knees continued to be a problem and he left for Chicago, Ken Hodge and many of Dad’s other favorites soon retired, and the new crop of Bruins were, sadly, a mediocre team. It was easier to ignore a so-so team, not hearing about them at every bar, not seeing the highlights on every local newscast. In the 80’s, feet up in his newer La-Z-Boy, the remote control would occasionally stop at WSBK. The familiar voice of Fred Cusick speaking the names of strangers, the frantic action in the corner as the puck squirted free in front of the net, and like Pavlov’s dog, the twitching began. Hip check to the right arm of the chair. Urgent advice whispered to the strangers in Black and Gold. He knew no one on the team, he wouldn’t even know who the expansion-team opponent was, but his eyes grew wild as he felt the lure of the game.
It was never more than a minute before Mom recognized the sounds, and an authoritative “No” would emerge from the kitchen, as if chastising a naughty dog for reverting back to his squirrel chasing days. Obediently, the channel was changed to Jeopardy.