By lex, Thu – February 19, 2004
I coached my son’s soccer team when he was 12 years old. I was then the executive officer of an FA-18 squadron, recently returned from a six month deployment. The Hobbit had signed me up as a coach, without my knowledge – when the phone rang one night to inform me of a coach’s meeting, I thought there must be some mistake. When I initially discovered that I had been shanghaied, I was at first a little out of sorts.
But I bought a book on how to coach soccer from Amazon.com, read it and set off to coach. It ended up being one of the best things I’ve ever done in my adult life.
I did this where we lived at the time, and the place I did most of my flying. The Navy base was hard by a small, rural farming town (pop. 14,000) in the central San Joaquin valley of California. The base itself, some eight miles down the road, could either be described as a very small town, or a very large and somewhat fractious family. The social circles of the base and town intersected, but they did not overlap. Still, when something happens to one of us, it happens to all.
There was a guy in one of the squadrons when I was a junior officer, a department head – a great guy, well respected, admired and affable, and a likely candidate to command at sea some day.
One day aboard ship, after complaining of severe headaches during the past week, he failed to report to a meeting in the squadron ready room. Someone was dispatched to his stateroom, and found him there, comatose.
Aircraft carriers have well-staffed and comprehensive medical facilities on board to deal with the sorts of trauma that is likely to occur on such a routinely dangerous piece of real estate. One of the areas of expertise that is not covered however is neuromedicine. If you have a spinal or cranial injury aboard ship, you will likely die there, unless you can be medevaced to suitable facilities ashore. Since the carrier was engaged in local training, our man got medevaced ashore, where he was revived. After an MRI examination in San Diego, he was told that he had inoperable brain cancer. His remaining time on earth was measured in weeks.
He was sent back east to Bethesda Naval Hospital, our premier medical facility, where in the interests of doing all that could be done, the surgeons there did some exploratory surgery and discovered that he actually had a form of a fungus, which was completely amenable to treatment. After thinking himself on death’s door, he made a full recovery, and got back into the cockpit again. The base rejoiced.
One day, not long after, while jogging along a rural road, he was struck and killed by a drunk driver. We came to find out that the driver had a serious record of drunk driving, which incensed us. And it seemed so senseless. The entire base mourned.
Because if something happens to one of us, it happens to us all.
But I’ve kind of gotten off the subject of coaching soccer, which is where I started.
As I said, I got tremendous satisfaction from it, and I highly recommend it to either of my readers, when they have children at that age. Not only do you get to spend true, quality time with your child (how sweet it is, to hear your son call you “coach”) you also get to shape in some small way, other impressionable minds. We won the city championship at the end of the season, undermanned, and in a shootout where my own son scored the final goal. I do not know that I have ever been so excited, proud and happy. I know, it is such a tiny, little thing. But you should try it yourself, and see.
It is not all beer and skittles, though. There are the inevitable parents who are convinced that they could do your job better than you do, or who question the playing time their child is apportioned. For my own part, I received very little of this sort of treatment. For one thing, most of the parents are truly appreciative of your unpaid sacrifice in time. For another, like many senior officers in the service, you learn to weave around yourself a veil of severe gravity that discourages any such forwardness. It is not an innate characteristic, but one that accretes to those entrusted to authority.
And then there are the kids. All kids are wonderful of course, but there will always be one or two that is less comprehensively so. I had mine; I’ll call him David.
David was a troubled child – he always found a way to provoke the other kids, and I was forever pulling him apart from someone on the team he had picked a fight with. He was not particularly coordinated or athletic, and cost the team some points at critical junctures during the season, which did nothing to enamor him to his teammates. He was difficult to coach, his imagination wandered often.
But David made every practice, and every game. He was always on time, and he always played with all his heart, if not with any remarkable degree of talent.
I spent a lot of personal time talking with him, one on one, because I saw that he needed it, and frankly, the team needed me to do it. I never got the sense that I was getting through to him, or that when I did, that the lesson lasted very long. I never met his father, and so wasn’t able to talk to him about what was bothering David. Frankly, I was not sure that would be appropriate. In a small town, you learn not to probe too deeply.
After we won the city cup championship, I sent a letter out to each team member, complimenting them on their accomplishments, and asking them to remember the feeling of being a champion. I asked them to remember that they had gotten there through teamwork and maximum effort. I sent a picture of all of us, holding aloft the trophy.
Many of the kids sent letters back, thanking me for my time, and for the letter. From David, I never heard anything, and frankly I worried for him a bit. One day I saw one of the other fathers in a hardware store, the father in fact, of a boy that was frequently at odds with David. I asked him if he had heard anything about him.
The man shook his head – “that kid will never come to anything,” the father told me. “He’ll be just like his dad.”
When I asked him what he meant, he replied, “You never heard about it? His father was the drunk driver that killed that Navy pilot jogging on the road a couple years ago. He’s still in prison.”
I hope that isn’t true, about David. I hope that he ends up all right. Kids are malleable; they can take some awful things, and still be all right in the end.
But it’s useful to remember: When something happens to one of us, it happens to us all.
No man is an island, entire of itself
every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main
if a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were,
as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were
any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind
and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls
it tolls for thee.
— John Donne