Originally published on June 13, 2019 in the Tribune & Georgian
I can hear his voice even to this day. “Shoot the half! Shoot the half, Brandon!” He’s crouched on one knee, yelling from the side of the wrestling mat.
“The half” he’s referring to is a “half Nelson.” An effective maneuver to pin your opponent in wrestling.
I’m on the mat. I’m probably 14. At that point in my life, I had been on a wrestling mat hundreds of times. First as a young kid running around the gym at Clarkston High School, finding mischief with my brother while my old man coached the mighty Angoras to victory, then later as a young competitor. Wrestling was like second nature to us, something we learned from osmosis from the old man.
I grew up playing a variety of sports, but wrestling was the one I found most success with. In hindsight a byproduct of the fact that I was slow and not especially athletic. I could hold my own in youth level, but by middle school my shortcomings had become too obvious, too glaring. As I type this at 42 years old, I’m 6’2, weighing a buck seventy or so. In those days I weighed maybe 90 pounds soaking wet, the awkward yoke of adolescence slung over my entire being. I had a bad Beatle haircut and noodle arms.
Luckily for me wrestling is a technical sport. One where a smaller, perhaps even weaker individual can succeed with the right coaching. I shoot the half, pinning my opponent to the mat. “He’s stuck! He’s stuck!” His voice bellows through the gym. The referee blows his whistle, match over. I win.
I can hear him clear as day. He's so proud. It is the early 90's. He is tan and muscular and every girl I was ever friends with always told me how good looking my dad was. He has that light in his eye, a man fully in the prime of his life. David Lee Roth blasting from the speakers of his 280Z, a man with a perfect mustache and a mischievous smile. He made everything look easy and it never occurred to me until I was well into adulthood that he ever had a bad day. Fit, funny, charming. A king. Seemingly everywhere we went someone would know him. You'd be standing in line at Six Flags and hear someone call out, "Hey, Coach Chonko!" He'd always joke that he was famous.
Me and my brother thought him a minor deity. Untouchable by the world. As middle school gave way to high school, my path became murkier. I wanted to grow my hair out and hang out with my friends. I joke with my kids that it was probably easier in those days to visit the moon than it was to have long hair, at least in my household. We butted heads a lot. Our relationship was strained. I was consumed with the self-centeredness of the teenage years, and he was consumed with holding his ground. It never occurred to me that my rebelliousness must have taken quite a toll on him.
I think of this often. When my wife and I bore our first child, I was roughly the same age as he was when I was born. To know we began our families at the same age is comforting to me. As the kids grow up I catch myself wondering if what I'm feeling is what he felt. No one gives you a manual on how to be a father. You kind of learn as you go. It can be a tough gig.
As I sit here today, I'm certain that he had bad days. Days where the job isn't panning out. Days where you fight with your wife. Days where you feel like you'll drown in all the responsibility set before you. Days where there's more month than money. Slugging it out, trying the best you can.
As I sit here today, that is what jumps out at me the most about my dad. Not the fact that he surely faced challenges, the fact that I never had any idea of it. The knowing that no matter what he faced during the day, when he got home at night he left it out there, in the world. He stood by that wayward teen. He believed in me in moments when I didn't believe in myself.
I think of him often. I think of how his face would look if he could see his grandkids. How he would laugh at all their adventures. I think to myself how great he would think the farm is, how much he'd like the fact that we moved to South Georgia. He used to take us on canoe camping trips on these blackwater rivers. We'd paddle all day and find that perfect sandbar to sleep on at night. He gifted me a love of nature. I owe more to him than I can really express adequately here.
See, for a boy, the knowledge that his father believes in him is something you carry in your back pocket into eternity. It is a supreme gift. In February of 2005, my dad died of pancreatic cancer. The last time I saw him he squeezed my hand and told me he loved me.
Yes, I think of him often. At least daily. Sometimes I'll talk to him. After all these years I'll still shed a tear. I think of him at 42, watching my brother and I play ball the same as I watch my kids.
I've made peace with it. Doesn't mean I like it but in order to heal I had to make my peace. "Shoot the half, Brandon." Put it to bed.
Recently the Wayne County newspaper picked up one of the columns I wrote. I'm pretty certain I heard my old man laugh from the Great Beyond as they received a letter to the editor after it ran. "I had a coach in high school...Coach Chonko." Famous. Just like he said all those years ago.
To all the dads, this is your week. Your day. Relish it and thank you for all you do.