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Pop, and mastering fear….

So, that time of year rolls around again, the anniversary of Pop’s death. It’s been six years now, and I still wonder if I will ever get through one milestone unfazed. I always seem to think that the “next time” it will be easier or less taxing, but it just doesn’t seem to happen. At least not yet. 🙁

Anyway, here I am, going through my usual introspective grieving period that I have now grown fairly accustomed to. I start looking for some inspiration on what to write about regarding Pop. On one hand, I have to be grateful for these milestone periods I go through regarding my parents. Because it seems to be the sole force that makes me have to sit down and write.

See, I’m trying to parlay that desire to write about my parents, which is great therapy at the very least, over to possibly writing other “non-parent-related” stuff. It’s one of the reasons I’ve stepped back from my full-time duties on Andiamo (though that time has yet to fully materialize!), so I can try to focus on my other projects.

Among those projects, include trying to complete some more real “work” when it comes to writing. And though I haven’t yet had the time I’ve been hoping I’d have by instilling these changes, I am sure that will change. The time I seek is inevitable, and then I will have no excuse. Then, the only thing I will have to deal with is the only other possible obstacle (or convenient excuse) that I can imagine will be an issue. And that, would be… fear.

Which leads me to the prevalent theme that shows its colors for me this particular year’s milestone regarding Pop. Fear. Looking back at Pop’s life, it’s fascinating to reminisce about all the times he demonstrated such total and complete fearlessness in some really hairy situations. Thinking about the standout memories sends shivers down my spine to this day. There were, to my knowledge, a solid handful of potentially deadly experiences that he faced (that I happened to be witness to), and obviously survived unscathed thanks to his wit, fearlessness, and savvy.

Here’s one example:

Back when we were living in Chicago, my dad belonged to a large club of Brazilian businessmen and professionals. He was on the board, and served as its president for a couple of years. I talk about this on one of my previous stories. Anyway, this particular club had its own soccer team as well, and they played in an international league that involved other foreign associations and clubs’ teams from all around Chicago.

One time back in spring of ’74, the club’s team was engaged in a match with an arab association’s team. Unfortunately, there was a good deal of animosity and unfriendly rivalry between the clubs’ squads. The play between them historically had the risk of getting aggressive and downright ugly.

This one particular match, which had been very tense and edgy from the very beginning, hit a breaking point. A striker from the arab squad shoved a brazilian player hard to the ground while vying for control of the ball. He landed hard and was clearly injured. The arab player then spun around acting like he was kicking for the ball. But the ball was well over to one side by easily a few feet, not even near to being the target of the incoming kick. It was clear that he aimed his foot squarely for the downed player’s face. He hit it dead-on, and hard. The downed player was now unconscious.

I was standing on the sideline, next to Pop, watching this brutality happen. When the obscene foul took place, the Brazilians’ side of the field went absolutely ballistic. Pop turns me towards him, points at me and barks, “Don’t move from here!” then disappeared from my side in what seemed like a flash. Within seconds he was on the field, standing above the injured player, and in front of the idiot who just kicked him in the face. Two seconds later, Pop had pounded two solid punches into the grinning player’s face, who just dropped to the ground like a rag doll, blood spewing from what used to be his nose.

The other club’s players and their whole side of the field now decide it’s their turn to go ballistic. They charge the field EN MASSE towards Pop. It was easily 100+ people charging onto the field from their entire sideline. I’m watching all this from our sideline. Horrified. It was like an angry stampede heading straight towards Pop. Who, by the way, was already busy pummeling the oncoming arab players who were coming at him in seething rage. All I can see was one green uniform after another go down to the ground as they came at Pop. He connected so many punches in such few seconds, I had a hard time believing that was actually my dad. He still had his cigar in his mouth during the whole assault. By this time, the other brazilian players were around him and now fully involved in the melee, which helped take some of the ass-kicking pressure off of him.

Less than a minute later, the thundering, rioting crowd had gotten so thick that I lost sight of Pop. It was as if the crowd just swallowed him up. I began to get worried so I ran out into the field to see if I can find him. I’m somewhere around midfield when the cops show up, in droves. There are squad cars, horse-mounted park police and paddy wagons coming in from all angles. The thundering herd are now dodging the oncoming police intervention, and turn. Now they’re heading right for me.

I see this wall of people trotting right at me. I get knocked to the ground and now am literally being trampled by feet and legs. One of my dad’s friends from the club saw me on the ground, and runs over and grabs me, seconds before what I’m sure is certain death. At least that’s what it felt like. He’s holding me over his head as he’s running towards some trees off the field. He gets me to a tree, and tells me to stay there. I’m on the lower limb of this tree looking at the mayhem. Throngs of people fighting and screaming with the occasional cop banging some heads. And I don’t see Pop anywhere.

About an hour later, things settle down a bit. The crowd is dispersed, and the guy who saved my ass from the trample-spree is back and helping me look for Pop. It’s clear he’s not there anymore. I find myself worrying again, not knowing what happened to him. There are a few ambulances and paramedic units on the scene now, tending to the several dozen or so people who have been injured. So my imagination starts going a little wild. The guy tells me he wants me to get checked out by the medics to make sure I’m ok. I tell him despite the fact that I’m picking grass out of my teeth, and have a huge footprint on my back, I’m ok. I’m more worried about Pop than anything else.

The guy tells me that we’ll head back to the restaurant downstairs from the clubhouse. Everybody was supposed to meet there after the game anyway so maybe pop will show up there. He drives me and some other kids over to the restaurant to wait for whatever news was to come. Every minute that goes by, I’m freaking out a little more.

About 20 minutes after we arrived, in walks Pop. He’s a bit disheveled, with some grass stains on his trousers. His shirt is torn on one sleeve,and his knuckles are a bit bloody from all the punching action he was involved in. But otherwise, there’s not a scratch on him. I personally saw him punch at least five or six guys lights’ out. I had never been happier or more relieved to see him than that afternoon and hugged his waist for what seemed like an hour. When I asked him what happened, and how the hell he got out of that, he told me his side of the story.

He had been fighting off the other players who had surrounded him after his initial pounding of the player who started it all. He said that he yelled at them, as they came at him. He warned them that they had better kill him. Because if they didn’t, he was going to kick their asses badly, one at a time. He said he punched out several of the guys before the rest of his team showed up and gave him some backup.

Then, he just walked away. The police were showing up in droves and he just walked by them, up to the park entrance, and got in a cab. He took the cab around to the other side of the park, and came back to the field to look for me. That’s when he found one of his friends who told him I was on my way to the restaurant where we met up.

I’m in total and utter disbelief. I told him by the looks of things for a while there, I didn’t think I’d see him alive again. He just laughed, saying that he wasn’t going to let anything happen to him. I was a bit shocked at this. I saw all the screaming, enraged spectators and players that were coming for his ass. How in the hell would he have kept himself from getting hurt being so vastly outnumbered? Then I asked him, wasn’t he afraid? Wasn’t he scared??

He gets serious.

“Son, when in you’re in a situation that requires you to do what you need to do in order to survive it, you can’t be afraid. It’s not an option. If you tell yourself you’re afraid, then other people will see the fear in you, and that weakens you. When I ran out into that field to beat that asshole’s face in and to defend our player, I knew exactly what I was getting myself into. I was prepared for everything that would happen next.”

I was a bit perplexed at this, but I think my feeble 10-year-old mind understood what he was explaining to me. He continued…

“The reason I was able to walk away from that shitstorm without someone landing even one punch on me is because I simply wasn’t afraid. The other guys, on the other hand, as mad as they were, THEY were at least a little bit afraid. Especially since they saw the mess I made out of their teammate. It made them hesitate. It made them make mistakes. That was all the edge I needed.”

For awhile there, I was both in admiration of my dad, not only because of his fearlessness in what was clearly an insanely terrifying and dangerous situation. And not because he was borderline insane. Despite his anger and rage at what transpired on the field, he never lost his cool. In the mere seconds he had, he was able to plot out how he would survive the ordeal, without a scratch. Considering that there were several dozen people seriously injured in the melee, including several players on both sides, it was bizarre. Pop, the guy who landed the first (ok, second) blow in the whole ordeal, was able to walk away from the entire ordeal without a scratch, puffing on his cigar, make it to the curb, and hail a cab.

There have been several other instances of Pop’s rather incredible fearlessness in some very trying and life-threatening situations, and I’ll someday write about those as well. If not for the only reason being that he now has at least one grandson who will only know him from his “stories” as Nick so aptly put it.

In my life, I have had to deal with several incidences of danger, adventure, and mayhem. Whether it was horrific, hair-raising weather conditions with Andiamo, or having a loaded shotgun thrust in my face during a terrifying bus holdup, and so many adventures and ordeals in between. While I think that I’m hardly as fearless as Pop has shown me to be in the challenging situations that I’ve witnessed first hand, I like to think I learned a thing or two about dealing with those particularly fearsome moments from him. It’s just another gift of many from his legacy, that continues to pay dividends.

Which ironically, was the one thing he was truly afraid of not properly leaving behind.

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