Near midnight. My wife and I were driving home from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where our son Randy was a junior English major. Rita was asleep in the passenger seat.
I headed north, wondering what on earth had possessed us to take the afternoon off to make the trek to campus and back, a six-hour round trip slogging through the towns dotting Highway 47. All for nothing.
For weeks Randy had been telling me how much fun he was having playing intramural coed flag football. Maybe it was his talk of diving catches and trick plays, but I’d felt this sudden urge to cheer him on, like we had in high school.
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Just several hours earlier Rita and I had met him at the field. It was a crisp fall evening—perfect football weather. I was pumped.
Randy introduced us to his teammates. “You really came all this way just to see us?” they asked incredulously.
The cheering section consisted of Rita, me and an injured player on crutches. But we didn’t mind. We watched the kids stretch and warm up, run through some drills and then…there was some sort of delay.
Randy ran over. “The other team had to forfeit,” he said. “They don’t have enough players.”
I tried to hide my disappointment. No big deal. Unless you’d just driven three hours to get here. We took Randy out for pie and coffee. Nice, but I’d had my heart set on seeing him in action. I’d wanted to cheer for my son.
Now, slowing the car to a crawl through the town of Yorkville, I couldn’t help thinking that the whole idea had been foolish. I was behind on work. I really needed to clean out the garage. I thought of all the T-ball games and soccer matches, band concerts and science fairs I’d gone to over the years for our five children.
Once Rita and I even snuck into Randy’s English class to see him perform in a skit. We had been the only parents there that day too. I’d worked hard to be a supportive dad, but was I trying too hard?
Ahead I saw a bridge crossing over the Fox River. A distant memory stirred…from back when I was a Boy Scout. Every fall our troop made a two-day, 40-mile canoe journey down the Fox.
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There was one year I would never forget. My dad dropped my brother Mark and me at the launch, made sure our life vests were snug and said goodbye as our flotilla set off. I plunged my paddle into the water and pulled hard, then lifted and stroked again. Mark, in front, did the same. Before long we had a good rhythm going. I wish Dad could see us, I thought.
About a mile downriver we came to a bridge. I looked up and there he was. Dad, standing right in the middle of the span. He didn’t shout instructions or do anything embarrassing. He simply waved until we passed underneath. I looked back and he was gone. Huh? Was I just imagining him?
But several miles later, at the next overpass, there he was again. And the one after that. And the next.
It turned into a game. The whole troop began looking for him. Every time we rounded a bend that day someone would shout, “There’s Mr. Payleitner!” All the boys were waving now, but no one was happier to see him than I was.