Biff America: Chin down, hands up

Jeffrey "Biff" Bergeron

“It doesn’t matter who my father was, it matters who I remember he was.”

So said Anne Sexton.

By the time I was old enough to pay attention, I considered my father an old man. Truth is, by then, he was over a decade younger than I am now. But while my generation was often gifted the opportunity of free time and the luxury of good food and health, for our parents, health and exercise took a backseat to paying a mortgage and feeding a family.

When he approached me in a boxer’s stance, I didn’t want to injure him or — worse — embarrass him.

We called it “Robin Hood’s bridge.” It was a 10-foot plank bolted to a dock over a small cove. The name came from the story of when Robin Hood and Little John did battle on a log bridge crossing a creek. The story goes that neither Robin nor Little John were willing give way, so they met in the middle and Robin got wet.  

I had been getting tossed off that bridge by my brothers, strangers and friends since I was old enough to swim. The pond was a popular spot for family picnics, as well as a place where kids and adults could go on hot summer days.

Two kids would line up on either side of the plank and square off in the middle. The one who was left standing would face the next kid. My brother Mark held the title for years until he got too old and cool to play anymore. He must have thrown me in the water 50 times over the course of a few summers.

I forget who took Mark’s place as king of the bridge, but it was only a few years before I became old enough to hold my own against all comers.

There could be a few families there with dogs, kids, food and coolers on some summer days. Mothers would grill while dads sat in the shade talking sports, drinking beers and watching their kids play.

One Sunday I was on a roll. Time after time, I threw kids in the water and I surreptitiously looked to see if my old man was witness to my glory. 

I was about to go in to grab a burger and brag to my mother when my father said, “Not so fast,” and stepped to the edge of the bridge.

I knew he had been drinking, all of the dads had. I also knew he was old. My dad was 44 when I was born. Though as a young man he was a good athlete, a football player and boxer, inactivity, stress and alcohol had aged him. He was approaching 60 and I was 14 if my memory is correct.

I knew I would let him win. 

We approached each other. I crouched down ready to put up a fight, but not too good of a fight. For a moment, I thought of the camaraderie and good natured ribbing my dad would give me after he threw me in. I imagined how good he would feel and I really didn’t mind losing.

I made a halfhearted attempt to grab him when I felt a sharp jolt to the side of my head. My father cuffed me on the ear with an open hand using speed I had no idea he still possessed. That had never been part of the contest. My ears were ringing, legs wobbled and I was off balance. He easily pushed me off the bridge.

I surfaced the pond pretending to laugh knowing the water would hide my tears. With much cheers and back slapping, my dad joined his friends back at the cooler.

I don’t remember much of that day after that other than to hear my father talking to his best friend Snooky and saying, “That Jeffrey is a tough little s—, but he needs to learn to keep his hands up.”

The sun had set as we pulled into our driveway. We carried food and lawn furniture into the garage. I made one last trip to see if there was anything left. My dad passed me carrying a large cooler. He placed the cooler down, stood in front of me and said, “I’m sorry I slapped you. … I had a few too many.” I laughed and said it was no big deal. He then added, “I was proud of you today. But remember to keep your hands up.” I walked into the house that night feeling less innocent and a little older.

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