The Best Shortstop I Ever Saw

A Gatorade cooler dumped on my head moment of clarity regarding my diminishing skills as a shortstop happened one summer evening in the hole between short and third as I reached down across my body for a grounder and caught a bit of dirt and air turning a routine out into a single. I turned and watched that ball roll into the left field grass carrying my confidence along with it like Terrence Mann walking into a field of corn never to be seen again.

The Patriarch Shortstop as a boy, Thomas Emory Mason, Jr.

I married into a family of shortstops. I never really saw my father-in-law play shortstop in his prime, but those who saw him play said he was good. Thomas Emory Mason, Jr. died eleven years ago today. I found the notes from his memorial service in a scrapbook recently.

I remember waiting at the Philadelphia Airport for Karen and my one-year old daughter Lauren to return from California, sitting beside my father-in-law at the gate back when one could do that.

Thom asked to come along, to “take a ride with me” as he put it. He missed his daughter and granddaughter.

Thom Lauren

We sat and talked about the Phillies, his work as a foreman at a block plant, my work as a CPA, and then he said something I’ll always remember. “I’m going to die young.”
Thom Mason Young Boy
Much of the skin on his legs was grafted from his back since he fell into a steam curing vat in 1985 at the block plant where he was foreman, and he had barely recovered enough to walk Karen down the aisle at our wedding.Thom Karen Wedding

He had also lost a finger and a half in another plant accident. Karen inherited his physical grace and Thom’s kids knew from whence their stumbling and bumping into things came and Thom exhibited good humor about of his shortcomings. Not long after his hand accident, at a charades game, his son stuck a hand out in a celebratory way of offering a high-five and said to his father, “Hey, gimme four.” And he did.

Thom’s father died in his fifties, and the reality that Thom lived and worked and raised kids without rest for his entire adult life, and had smoked cigarettes for much of that time, colored his view of life expectancy. I sat and listened, didn’t know what to say, mostly just listened.

Thom & Ann

Thom & Ann

He was one of the kindest and affirming men I’ve known. His final curtain call year of life was filled with physical pain but also spiritual and emotional treasures. Getting him in and out of a split level home was a chore. His son built him a trail of plywood from the front drive around to the back second floor deck and the steps were covered with a ramp. Pushing him along that plywood trail was easy, but the ramp up to the deck took all the strength I had.

I lifted him from the car one late December evening feeling the wincing pain transfer from his frail body to my arms as I helped him into a wheelchair, and his pain and frailty shocked me, making me think of our airport conversation about mortality.

He would die a little over a month later on February 22, 2003, at the end of a year that he said was the best of his life.

We were in Duncan, OK on a Saturday afternoon when we received word of his passing, and Monday morning we sat on a blizzard shrouded runway in Tulsa getting ready to fly into that same Philly airport where Thom and I had chatted about mortality some thirteen years earlier. I was asked to say some words at his funeral and agreed, with no idea what to say.

As our jet ascended through the darkness into brilliant morning sunlight I began writing whatever came into my mind about my father-in-law on the back of my boarding pass.Thom Mason Notes on Plane

I took those boarding pass notes and a legal pad and sat at the kitchen table of the Mason home for a couple of days and listened to family and friends cry, laugh and remember. What I wrote next came easily and all at once and I shared most of it at Thom’s memorial service.

Thomas Emory Mason, Jr.
One of the wonderful qualities Thom possessed was punctuality. He was on time to a fault. The coffee pot was set before bed and he arose along with the aroma of brewing coffee at 4:30 a.m. Thom enjoyed a cup before leaving for work, but one cup wouldn’t do. He rarely passed a Wawa convenience store without stopping. He once told me about driving past Wawa and his truck would signal and turn into Wawa on its own volition like a divining rod seeking water. He was the Lone Ranger of Wawa and his Ford truck was his horse, Silver, understanding the next move without prompting.

Mason Kids Sixties

Thom always managed time well and in 1971, he knew it was time. Time to move his family. Thom and Ann Mason moved their five children to Tabernacle, NJ and during construction of their split-level home on a pine-tree laden lot on Summit drive, they would pile into the baby blue Volkswagen van and travel south on Route 206 from Yardville, NJ, from the white clapboard house with the big owl wood carving mounted on the front gable. They left the youthful stomping grounds of Thomas Emory Mason, Jr., to go to a new place, a new home that would provide so many new cherished memories.
Thom with Family
Vacationing in Maine

As they cruised Route 206, the family sang “Let there be peace on earth” and they really believed they sounded harmonious and in key. And if they caught Dad singing out loud to a country tune, the kids craftily turned down the volume and stopped singing so they could hear the unfiltered voice of their Father in full song bellowing out Merle Haggard.

Words can’t speak fully of the rich tapestry of Thom’s life nor how he touched those he loved. The best of what remains is what we’ve kept inside our hearts, our memories of Pop-Pop. So we remember…

We remember his work ethic and the pride expressed in his job and that the personal possessive applied to his stories of work. Thom would speak of his block plant and his blocks and his workers and his equipment and only he knew how to run that plant and manage all of it’s quirky issues. He liked to talk about his challenges at the plant and his victories and he made us feel like it was part of him. He talked about what he loved and putting in a good days work was part of his personality.

We remember Thom liked to eat. He once served in the Army Reserve as a cook which explains his penchant for great big pots and pans and cooking eggs and bacon and pork roll. I asked my daughter Lauren her memory of Pop-Pop and she said, “I loved it when he made me sunny-side up eggs.”

Thom had a consequence-free voracious appetite eating mountains of food while remaining slim. He once made six peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, put them on a plate and walked past his son-in-law, Tom Achey. His question to Achey seemed generous, “Do you want a PBJ sandwich?”, until the response revealed his appetite and food humor, “Yea,” Achey replied. To which his father-in-law replied, “Go make it yourself, everything’s in the kitchen.”

Thom looked like Clint Eastwood and ate like John Candy.
Tom & Ann & Jeanie
We remember how Thom loved playing games. I grew up a shortstop. I married into a family filled with shortstops. Thought I was pretty good. I soon found out my best rank in the family as shortstop was third behind the patriarch and his daughter Karen. While watching the Phillies he liked to explain how he would turn a single into a double…by running hard right out of the batters box and not slowing down sliding hard into second base. And that’s how he lived. Running hard right out of the box. He described proper shortstop technique with these words: “Do it all in one motion.” Late in his life he conceded high praise to his grandson Tommy Achey while watching him play softball, “He plays shortstop like I do.”

There was always time to play games after work, catch five, huckle-buckle beanstalk, blind mans’ bluff and the name game. And on Christmas Eve, the family played charades. Once while hiding during a game of hide-and-seek, he hid so well the kids never found him. When they gave up, he triumphantly unfolded his 6’1” frame from the top shelf of a tiny coat closet like a Slinky recoiling down a stairway. He had won. Is it any wonder that five Mason children engage life with such buoyancy and competitiveness modeled after their Dad?

We remember how Thom loved holidays and great backyard picnics with mountains of food and children running wild, softball games, horseshoes and card games and he was right in the middle of it all directing traffic, laughing, telling stories and listening. Oh how he listened! “How ‘ya doin’?”, was his favorite greeting and he really meant it. He had big ears and would sit and listen if you wanted to talk nodding his head in affirmation as he listened. He had big ears that matched his big heart.

And if he felt you were being left out, he would say something simple but directly at you like, “Whadya think of the Phillies chances this year?”, or “What do you think was the best western ever made?”, as if you were somebody, and the outcome depended upon your considered answer, making you the smartest person in the room at that moment.

We remember the places Thom took us. The Dixie Drive-In. Camping in Maine. Hiking up to the pinnacle of Bowman’s tower at Washington’s Crossing on the Delaware River.Bowman's Tower

Bowman’s Tower looking out over the Delaware River near George Washington’s Crossing and the site of many Mason treks and picnics

We remember how respected Thom was around the Tabernacle community and among his family and friends. And when he did things for you, you remembered them. Like the Valentines Day Karen looked out her window at Northeastern Christian College and saw her Dad striding across campus to deliver a paper mache heart filled with five silver dollars. That year he gave the same gift to each of his four daughters and his daughter-in-law, Kathy, who was really like a fifth daughter to him.

Thom was a strong man who never gave up and like the movie stars he admired most, Robert Shaw and Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson, he fought gallantly until the end. He never quit running hard around the bases of life and it was only late in his life that he realized he wa no longer stretching a single into a double…he was headed home.

Sometimes beauty is magnified through the lens of pain. As Karen and I lifted off the runway in Tulsa, we left fourteen inches of snow and ice and slick roads along with brutal sullen skies. Between Tulsa and St. Louis, I looked over at Karen as she slept and then looked out the window thinking about Thomas Emory Mason. We emerged into the clear sky before daybreak. I looked out over the wing at this glorious billowing expanse of smoky gray and white clouds spreading out to eternity like a brooding lumpy blanket. It looked like an ice mass at the north pole, an endless mass reaching beyond sight…forever it seemed…and I watched the tip of the sun peak over the pillowy canopy to announce the dawn. Soon the sky was awash in brilliant orange streams of light announcing new life and new day. I thought about Thom and how he battled and how he didn’t want to die. But he still found beauty through the pain that racked his body. He saw goodness through the prism of the disease that consumed his mortal body.

He saw the streaming morning sun through the brooding clouds. Just a month before he died he said, “This year was the best year of my life.”

I think of him and about Jim Valvano, the basketball coach who said shortly before his body succumbed to cancer, “This disease can take my mortal body, my flesh, but it can’t touch my mind, it can’t touch my heart, and it will never touch my soul.”

Late in his fight, from his bed or wheelchair, Thom would sing the first line of a song from the Seventies disco era which was never meant to be a comfort to his suffering, but he turned it on it’s head and made it his theme. “I believe in miracles.”

I believe in miracles too.
And I believe in the providence of God.
And I believe that someday, I’ll round third and head for home.

The words of the gospel of John chapter 14 beginning in verse 2: “In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.”

Someday, I’ll see Pop-Pop and he’ll have a room in the Father’s house. He’ll invite me in and shake my hand with a five-finger handshake. His legs renewed and strong. With clear eyes and broad smile he’ll greet me and give me a hug. He’ll say, “Sit down, we have all day to talk about anything you want.”

We’ll sit and chat as a savory smell drifts from the largest pot of soup I’ve ever seen.

He’ll say, “Hey, I asked around when I got here and we took a poll. I am the best shortstop in the family.”

I’ll smile and shake my head slowly from side to side, “No, Thom, you weren’t the best shortstop in the family…you were the best I ever saw.”

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