We can love losers, but we feel loss
We are often told that Americans love lovable losers. The Washington Generals have lost a zillion times to the Harlem Globetrotters, and fans still flock to watch the zaniness. Horse racing fans filled the stands in September 2004 when thoroughbred Zippy Chippy extended his losing streak to 100 races when he finished last yet again in New England.
Sodbuster Kenny Jay was pro wrestling's Zippy Chippy in the 1960s. He lost every match in the Twin Cities-based American Wrestling Association run by Vern Gagne. Fans loved the old Sodbuster so much that when he developed an incredible new hold and won matches, they didn't quite know how to handle his success.
Those were the days when pro wrestling pretended to be real. Sleeper holds, drop kicks, flying chairs but little bloodletting were the norm. The AWA show, which was broadcast on Sundays at 11 a.m. was must-watch TV. Dad never missed a match from his favorite chair, which itself received a strenuous workout. He threw punches along with the good-guy wrestlers and cursed at blind referees and Russian wrestlers who broke the rules and hurled insults while waving the hammer and sickle flag.
Dad couldn't be convinced that wrestling wasn't real and that the vitamin pills Vern Gagne pitched on the show weren't worth special ordering.
Dad kept Gagne's vitamins in a closet near the master bedroom. The closet, which also held mother's best tablecloth, which was reserved for only the most special occasions, held a treasure trove of lemon drops. Dad needed them, he insisted, because they helped him sleep better.
Mother feared that they might choke him, but her warnings were ignored.
I knew that they were there but also was fully aware that Dad threatened dire consequences if his youngest child resorted to theft. One or two at a time were never missed — not that Dad would lift a hand in anger. He struck me only once and it was deserved because a cow yard gate had been left open and a corn field ruined. The slap didn't sting nearly as bad as the reality that hundreds of dollars had been lost through carelessness.
Everyone loves a winner
America doesn't really love losers — lovable or not. If it was true, fans would flock to see bad teams. We love losers when they win because it's unusual. We love winners because they win, and we are shocked when they don't.
Dad loved the Yankees, the record-holder in terms of team championships. He had listened to them for years on the radio before TV broadcast their games on Saturday afternoons. We bonded over baseball, pro wrestling and our addiction to lemon drops.
Dad also kept his snuff cans and cigarettes in the hall closet near the lemon drops. He insisted that both vices helped calm frayed nerves when times, as they often were, got tough.
We were watching baseball — a Twins game with Jim Kaat pitching — that night. He had taken his work shoes off and stuffed his socks inside them. We ate popcorn and argued because I hadn't put enough butter on the corn. The game and the night ended badly. Dad had been nervous all day and said his chest hurt, but a couple of lemon drops would cure that.
About midnight, a frantic wife called the ambulance. We knew that he was dead. Mother, as was tradition, lit candles throughout the bedroom. The flickering candles, it was thought, would help guide his soul to paradise. Without meaningful responsibility, I picked up his shoes and hung them in the basement since he wouldn't need them anymore.
I picked up an opened cigarette carton the next day to smoke one in his honor. The cigarette burned my lungs and I threw it away, cursing as I did so.
It seemed so unfair that our last conversation was about butter, popcorn and anger. We should have talked about Kaat's curve ball and Harmon Killebrew's mighty swing or even reminisced about the time the cows ruined the corn.
I finished off the last of his lemon drops.
They were so much better than the cigarettes.