The other night I participated in something I thought had long gone the way of the dodo: a group of fathers playing - riotously - with their sons.
Such sights have become a rarity. In an age when life seems to be leading us rather than vice versa, I had all but forgotten what it was like to be in the company of men and boys and to pretend, for a little while, that we didn't have a care in the world besides each other.
What happened was this. My teenage son, Alyosha, was playing in an indoor soccer league. Normally, each boy was cheered on by either a dad or a mom during these low-key, off-season games. But on this particular evening only the dads were in the stands. We fathers watched our boys garner a sweet victory over a tough team, and then, although it was already 9:30, a striking thing happened: Our kids remained on the field and signaled to us to come down and play, fathers against sons.
We looked at one another for a long moment, until the spark of "Why not?" flashed in our eyes. Before you knew it, an out-of-shape gaggle of middle-aged spectators stampeded down the bleachers and onto the field. A whistle blew, the ball was kicked, and the game was joined.
The thing is, I remember this stuff from my own boyhood. I remember my father coming home after a full day at work, then stripping off his coat and tie to throw a ball to 10 or 12 of us kids. Then other fathers would join, as a way of unwinding, of showing that they had missed us that day, of making a contribution to the neighborhood.
As the soccer game took off, it was clear that the boys had the edge in speed and practiced teamwork, but we dads were far craftier. We swept the field with the ball, grunting and puffing with our exertions, crying out, "I'm open!" "Man on!" "Cross! Cross!"
Suddenly, I had the ball. I stumbled along with it as the boys set up their defenses. "Man on!" cried one of the dads, and I looked behind me to see my own son closing in like a bird of prey. No match for his speed, I kicked the ball and sent the game off in another direction.
When I was a kid, we didn't have indoor soccer and Astroturf. We had stickball and asphalt. On warm summer evenings, just as a game was experiencing a lull, our dads would come out, clapping their hands to liven up the game. I recall my father standing over home plate (a manhole cover) with bat (a broom handle) in hand. We taunted him good-naturedly, then watched slack-jawed as he sent the ball sailing over the tops of the sycamores.
I don't recall ever getting tired back then. During this soccer game, though, we dads were nearly exhausted after only five minutes. But our boys would have ridiculed us mercilessly if we'd abandoned our drive, so we persisted until we had somehow maneuvered the ball close to their goal. Then we did the unorthodox - we brought our whole team forward, including the goalie, and hammered their goal relentlessly until we scored. We scored! Unfortunately, our goal made the boys doubly determined. In quick time they planted one in our goal. It was now tied up.
We elders were on our last legs. One dad bent down to tie his shoe. Another looked for a place to stow his ballcap, while a third took a few moments to inspect the condition of the Astroturf. All of these stall tactics bought us a second wind, plodding freighters driving up against the imperial navy of youth.
Once again we moved as a team (of sorts); once again we cheered one another on and laughed even as our sons laughed at us; and once again we barked out breathless directives: "Pass!" "Dribble!" "Chip it!" "Cross! Cross!"
Someone did cross, and again the ball came to me. I dribbled, tripped, stumbled, recovered - and I scored!
Then the boys scored. And then they scored again, for the win. A cheer went up, and fathers and sons ran to one another, with back slaps and hugs all around.
It was right and just that our sons won that game. The poet Jon Swan wrote:
To have lived long enough
to have flown
and to have given up flight.
To take one's turn
in the circle of fathers.
On that evening of our sweet soccer loss, I finally understood what it must have been like for my dad to be part of that noble band.