As the airport came into view on the horizon I realized that something else had changed. I used to savor the pre-flight routine - arriving early, settling in at the gate, quad espresso in hand, and setting up camp over three or four chairs in anticipation of a good read or a movie. I had let the uncertainty (however exaggerated) of traveling by myself hijack my thoughts yet again and it wasn’t a good feeling. I was consumed with what could happen if my gait went south during the boarding. flight,or deplaning process.
I opened my iPad to the blog entry I had been working on about “Doc”. I was content that I had covered most of the bases, but wholly unsatisfied on a personal level with my inability to draw out any life lessons that had made a difference for me. I started at the top again for one last read…
“Phil Fitz-James was a flawed human being like the rest of us. Where would newspaper headlines come from otherwise? Decades have passed since I was last cursed at with the same conviction. “Doc”, as he was known by most, was my rowing coach in the early 80’s at the University of Western Ontario. To others, Doc was a husband, a father, a farmer, a world-class biologist. I would think with few exceptions though, all of us would agree the Doc was a prickly son of gun.
To myself, Doc’s persona was truly an enigma. While he had all the straight lines and simplicity of a paint by number, he had at the same time the complexity and subtlety of a masterpiece. This was a man that you could begin a conversation proclaiming he was a “simple man”, yet find yourself arguing fervently by the end that he was a “complicated” figure. Fiercely independent, he wore something on his sleeve, but it sure as hell wasn’t his heart.
Though you frequently walked away from an interaction with Doc with an abrasion of roughly 60 grit, he also posessed, a razor-sharp wit wit. Doc had a bone-dry sense of humor and many a time used it to diffuse situations. (often where he himself had lit the powder keg :) His self-deprecating side was demonstrated no better than in my third year when he began to call himself “Shithead”.
Now, to a bunch of young men who still had one foot in high school, this brought him down to our level. One of the boys bought him a ball cap featuring an incredibly realistic big stool on the brim. It was presented to him on his birthday which happened to be a regatta day in St. Catherine’s. To our juvenile astonishment, he put it on and kept it on all day. To give this group of young men permission to call a world-renowned biologist and coach “SHITHEAD” was a gift of unparalleled generosity. We were absolutely beside ourselves all day.
Pretense was an enemy of the state in Doc’s world. With a greeting deemed small-talk, (if you were lucky enough to get one), any laying of conversational footings leading to a crafty segue was pointless as Doc would lay you bare like an airport full body scanner. If you needed something from Doc you were highly advised to be upfront about it. The only other possible consequence was that you and your idea would be poked so full of holes that you would shy away from H2O for days.
It is important to mention the Doc had a battle with with Elephantiasis in his younger days leaving his right leg approximately three times the size of his left. Its appearance was not for the faint of heart and it disgusted me that he didn't have the decency to cover up in the summer months so we didn't have to feel uncomfortable. (It took me years to figure out exactly whose problem that was :-). I never heard Doc mention it to me in conversation, nor anyone else. Most tellingly, I can’t recall him blogging about it either.
There was one facet of Doc’s personality I found absolutely intoxicating - best illustrated by his oft-used phrase “I don’t give a shit what you think”. I’m not speaking of its use when conveying “it’s not your place to comment” or “I’m not asking for your feedback” etc. It was his total and complete inability to waste even a second on issues that didn't really matter - the size of your legs, the way you walk. your weight, how you look when your Sinemet level is dwindling... Many of us attempt to embody this to varying degrees of success. The remarkable thing about Doc was that this was him. It described every fiber of his being. There was no need to internalize, incorporate, or rehearse it - this was the essential Doc in the same way the nudist proclaims that “this was the way I came into the world, and this is the way I’m going out”. This WAS Doc.
Fast forward 3 decades, 25 neurologist consults, 14,600 dopamine highs...
My wife and I parted ways at the airport curb. I strode through the door with ease and then immediately launched into a few stutter steps. I bid a hasty retreat back to a chair by the window to re-evaluate my planning. It didn’t take much to realize immediately that in the approximately 50 paces since the curb, I had micro-analyzed 1) What if I can’t walk to the gate? 2) What if my gait fails on de-planing, or 3) What if my gait fails on arrival. I quickly took stock. While every one of these events was possible at this point, it would be very unlikely. What a waste of energy, focus, and great holiday.
“You’re so vain… You probably think this song is about you, don’t you? don’t..." The song wafted through the airport like it was my national anthem. As I climbed up on the podium to accept my dubious honor, I think you can now understand how the painful irony began to set in. Here I was writing about Doc, recalling times I was begging him to show a shred of vanity and cover up his unsightly leg and here I sit, managing an absolute boat full of vanity and pride, that was threatening to curtail, or even derail entirely various activities in my life, Despite my doubts that I, to speak frankly, had the balls to compete at Doc’s lofty “I don’t give a shit what you think” level (he was world-class - maybe I could be competitive at a National or Provincial level?), recognition of the issue was good first step.
I stood up and walked over to the lineup to check-in. As I gazed at travelers walking down the concourse, my eyes were drawn to an elderly man with the whitest, wispiest patch of hair you have ever seen. I vaguely recognized him but could not place him. He looked out of place in the airport - strolling down the terminal clutching only a Safeway bag. Though he seemed at ease, he looked like the kind of guy that would be more comfortable on the top of a tractor, or a fisherman hunched over a 9.9 Evinrude. Oddly, he seemed to float over the tile floor defyying your expectations of a pirate-like swagger given his misshapen form.
Heading directly for me, he proceeded to deftly cut the line in front of me mumbling some vaguely familiar expletive and adding a "pay attention this time". The man glided through the check-in seemingly in seconds, pulled a ball cap out of the Safeway bag, pushed his hair underneath it, looked back, gave me a “Tip o’ the Turd”, and disappeared into the crowd towards the gate.
Shithead had written my ending…”