Regrets, I've had a few, but then again,
too few to mention.
So wrote Paul Anka when he was twenty-six. It’s funny that a person would consider the regrets of a lifetime when he had lived so little of it. I, on the other hand, have lived more than twice that long; but when it comes down to it, my regrets list is still pretty short. It might be a good time to think about them.
Before enumerating my regrets, I want to reflect on that word for a moment. Regret. What does it mean to regret something? According to Merriam-Webster online, to regret is to “mourn the loss or death of,” to “miss very much,” or to “be very sorry for.” Looking at a regrets list I compiled in January 2017, I can find things in common with those definitions. Let’s start with the earliest and easiest one, which harkens back to fall 1969.
I should have run stronger in cross-country my senior year at Canarsie High. For that matter, I should have tried a little harder in every varsity sport in which I participated.
I wasn’t a bad runner in high school. I had the speed, in shorts bursts, to be a decent city-class long and triple jumper. I had the stamina to complete multiple one-mile runs during cross-country practice. I had the drive to practice every day even while recovering from bronchitis. What I didn’t have was a runner’s heart.
I know I could have tried just a little harder. The few times I did, and I achieved the proverbial “second wind,” were pure euphoria. I could have reached that high more often.
I remember one time, decades after high school, when I made one of my occasional restarts at distance running. I set out on a weekday afternoon with snow falling in slow thick flakes. I planned to run an easy 5k, but I just couldn’t stop. The snow, the brisk air without a breeze, the feeling that my legs would last forever. I kept running. As darkness fell I made my way back home, walking the last half mile and still feeling great. The next day I retraced the run: 9.1 miles non-stop.
Guys like Allan and Paul on my high school team did that with regularity. They never quit before they’d given their all. I truly am sorry I gave so little so often.
I have the same regret regarding my soccer playing in college. I should have played my senior year.
I had never played soccer—football to the rest of the world—before enrolling at Lancaster Bible College. I was a distance runner and a jumper in high school and a fair football and hockey player in street versions of those sports.
I arrived at Lancaster to learn the tiny (less than 120 students when I was a freshman) Bible college only had the personnel and the finances to field a men’s soccer team and a women’s field hockey team. Before I graduated we had intercollegiate basketball teams as well.
Since I was still in good shape from track, and since soccer was mostly running—aimlessly it looked as I tried to study it—I went out for soccer. Learning the basic footwork was fairly easy, and I had the requisite speed and stamina, so they made me a second-string midfielder, which they called by the American football name, halfback. Mostly I just ran around trying to get the ball away from an opponent and pass it to one of our guys.
After observing me in practice and in the little playing time I got that season, during spring training the coach moved me up to wing. He’d noticed that I was primarily left-footed. That’s not as good in soccer as being fully ambidextrous, but I was the only strong lefty on the team, and Coach figured I might be of some use getting the ball to our nimble guys in the center. I caught on pretty quickly at wing and when the season began in August, I was the starter on the left side.
For two years I was the LBC Chargers’ starting left wing. I wasn’t great, but I had my moments, scoring a few assists each year and the occasional goal. I think my finest moment occurred in a Homecoming game. I had taken the ball from a defender at midfield and began dribbling down the left sideline. Managing to evade another defender, I could see Robin breaking toward the goal. Summoning up all my left-footed strength, I kicked a long pass high in the air and behind the goal. In true Beckham style, about three years before Beckham was born, the ball bent back above the field and sailed right to the spot where Robin was running. He headed it into the goal without losing a step. My parents were in the stands, and I don’t think Pop was ever prouder of me.
Our soccer coach retired the end of that season. Soon word got around that the incoming coach was determined that LBC’s tradition of losing most of their games would be no more. Through tough practices and strict discipline, our team would be forged into winners.
I liked winning, even though we didn’t win very often. But did I want to run more, practice my dribbling to exhaustion, and—worst of all—give up precious time with my latest girlfriend in order to become a winner? Once again, at a time when I could have pushed harder and achieved significant athletic success, I wimped out. Or maybe I just chose love over soccer.
I wish I’d played my senior year. How good could I have gotten with a tougher coach? And why did I have to spend so much time with that girl? There’s a regret for you. I regret that I chose a series of semi-long-term relationships with women I expected to marry rather than simply having fun getting to know a lot of people.
My favorite month in all my years at LBC was April 1973. My latest pre-engagement girlfriend had just broken up with me. With about six weeks of school left, I posed a challenge to myself: how many different girls could I date before the end of the semester? The final tally was thirteen, including donuts and coffee with a graduate assistant after an evening class. For the first time in my life, dating was fun. No strings. No commitments. No reason for being together except to have a good time. True, there were no steamy-windshield make out sessions in the cornfields on Butter Road, only one quick peck after one perfect date; but everything else was better. Why couldn’t I have discovered that sooner? And why did I not learn from that month, falling back into my old ways just a few months later, and ending my career as a college athlete.
Regrets are hard to write about. They’re not funny like sledding spills or grouchy old neighbors. While enumerating these incidents felt like fun at the time, writing about the details brings me about as much joy as a trip to the dentist. Still, the dentist serves a valuable purpose, and I hope these recollections do as well.
Because I quit the LBC soccer team, I was able to spend my senior year pursuing the woman who became my wife. Of course, she was not the one I quit the team for.
Sandy was only a month younger than I, but she entered college as a freshman after spending three years in the workforce at a Kresge lunch counter. We met on a November evening, the day after her birthday. Some friends and I, including Sandy’s roommate, were talking about going to a Hershey Bears hockey game. Sandy walked in, overheard us, and said, “I’ve never been to a hockey game. Can I go too?”
Ever the suave one, I replied, “Sure! If you pay your own way.”
It might have been our first date, but we never got to the hockey game. Russ and I ended up working very late delivering a large organ to a house in Maryland. The best I could do was call Sandy and express my regrets.
Our second date was in January, and it ended with our wreck on US30 that earned the four of us a week’s “campus,” which I’ve previously described.
With one broken date and one disaster by mid-January, Sandy and I moved swiftly to the expected conclusion: we got engaged, diamond ring and all, during spring break. The wedding was August 17th.
We were both almost twenty-two when we got married. That’s not necessarily too young, if you’ve spent some time getting to know each other. We didn’t. Even our premarital counseling sessions with Sandy’s pastor didn’t make a dent in our lack of awareness of basic issues like how differently our parents related to each other, and that made all the difference in our marriage.
To give you an idea of how immense were the gaps in our knowledge of each other, I’ll share a story that came from a telephone conversation between Sandy and me. It concerned our move from Indiana to Oregon in 1994. While our household goods were traveling in a horse trailer, Sandy and I drove our 1991 Ford Festiva and 1993 Pontiac Grand Am, each one carrying one of our children as well. We made regular bathroom, gasoline, and meal stops.
Traveling across Interstate 90, we began seeing signs for Wall Drug Store as soon as we entered South Dakota. Wall Drugs may be the world’s first superstore. Long before Wal-Marts took up city blocks, this roadside landmark started selling just about everything from its small town pharmacy roots. The store’s claim to fame was its offer of free ice water to parched Midwestern travelers.
I’d heard about Wall Drug from my parents years before, although they'd never been there. Sandy had never heard of the place. So, at a rest stop somewhere east of Wall, She asked me about those green and yellow “Wall Drug” billboards. I explained to her that Wall Drug was an overgrown drugstore that was kind of like a big Wal-Mart, and how it had grown from a small store to a bit of rural Americana. She thanked me for the explanation and that was it, or so I thought.
Fast forward to the phone conversation. Sandy said, “Do you remember on our way to Oregon when I asked about Wall Drug?”
“Sure,” I replied.
“I really wanted to go there.”
“Why didn’t you say so?”
“The way you spoke, I thought you didn’t want to see it.”
“Oh. I figured I answered your question. I didn’t care one way or the other, but if you’d wanted to go I’d’ve gladly stopped.”
And that was it. One little piece of information about our families of origin that decades of marriage without really communicating failed to uncover. In Sandy’s home, what Dad said was done with little or no space for rebuttal. With Mom and Pop it was more democratic. For thirty-three years we tried to live up to our expectation of each other’s parents’ marriages, without ever talking about those marriages. We were doomed.
My regret, at this point is not our marriage, but it is that we should have remained friends in college and never taken the marriage step. I know that sounds convoluted. How can you regret getting married but not regret a failed 33-year marriage? It’s not that simple. It never is.
I talked to Sandy a few years ago, and I brought up the “should have remained friends” conversation. I said we were wrong about that. Our marriage produced two amazing kids, who have overcome tremendous obstacles—some of their own making—to become very fine human beings. We have four wonderful grandchildren. We’ve instilled in them all some values that have withstood our failures. That is nothing to regret.
I don’t regret the friendship Sandy and I have now. It may be strained a bit when Jen and Thomas and I get together with Sandy and our daughter, Kellyn, and her kids, but it’s worth keeping. Maybe friends are what we should always have been. I can’t answer that. I’m glad we’re friends now, and I’ll take that.
Sandy figures into my last two regrets, although she is not the reason for either. They fit in the shoulda, woulda, coulda category, which I’m inventing just for them. First, we should have bought that house in New Holland.
After our August wedding, Sandy and I moved into a tiny, maybe 50’ x 10’, trailer. Calling it a “mobile home” would be too much of a stretch. We made it a cute little love nest thanks to some furniture I bought from a coworker at the fried chicken factory where I worked, using the last of my inheritance from good ol’ Uncle Charlie.
The problems began no sooner than the nearby cornfields were harvested. I woke up one morning to grab some milk and Entenmann’s chocolate-covered donuts only to find the chocolate had been gnawed off every donut in the top layer. Mice! I was terrified of them ever since a scary childhood incident with a very large rat back in Canarsie.
“Sandy! We have to move!”
In December we moved into a third floor apartment in a brand new faux-Tudor complex in New Holland, PA, walking distance from the chicken place. Sandy got a job there too. We were doing pretty well for a young couple just starting out.
After about a year, when it looked like our future in eastern Lancaster County was secure, we took a walk through the neighborhood and spied a realtor’s sign on a brick half-duplex between our apartment and the factory. We had no down payment saved up, but we figure the monthly payment would be no more than we were paying in rent. We checked it out.
The house was adorable. Two bedrooms--one for our anticipated first child, who didn’t really show up for another six years--a cute little yard, a sunny kitchen; it was a great little place for a reasonable price. We talked to Mom and Pop about the down payment. They drove over from their new home in Leola and took a look. They had a lot of questions. I think if we had pushed a little harder they’d have given us the money. Had they, we might still be living in Pennsylvania. Who knows? But they didn’t, and we took what little we did have and traded our 1969 BMW 1600 for a more family friendly 1975 BMW Bavaria.
What if we’d waited a little longer, saved up a little more money, and then asked Mom and Pop for the rest? What if we’d asked them one more time for the down payment on the duplex? We’d have become homeowners, the American dream and Sandy’s heart’s desire. A house would have tied us to one locale, which would have made too difficult to move to places like Williamsport, PA; Pittsburgh; Springfield, OH; Greenfield, IN; and Newberg, OR. Those many moves were long a part of Sandy’s dissatisfaction with our marriage.
I’d have moved up in the corporate ranks and made a lot more money at a younger age. Sandy could have gotten her wish and never had to work to help with our support. She’d have become the stay-at-home mom she always wanted to be. Maybe we’d still be together.
Yeah, I regret not buying that house; but I think I’d still have made the moves necessary to get me into the kind of ministry I now enjoy. I think our kids are stronger because of the moves than if they’d been raised in one place with only one perspective of the world. I don’t know if Sandy would have been happier or not. They say a house is not necessarily a home. It’s not a guaranteed recipe for happiness either.
So we bought the Bavaria. Man, that thing could accelerate. I wanted the new model, the 530i, which I could have ordered with a stick shift. We couldn’t afford it. We took the on-the-lot, end-of-year Bavaria with an automatic transmission. I thought it would be as much fun as the 1600. I was wrong.
My favorite thing to do with the Bavaria was to get it on the highway, cruising at the new federal speed limit of 55 mph, and kick it down a gear. That metallic blue beast would jerk your neck back as it accelerated to 90 in a split second, making passing a semi a total breeze. And breeze is what you’d get if the sunroof was open.
The problem with the Bavaria, aside from the monthly payments approximately equal to a small brick duplex, was that it was a lemon. I stuck with BMW because my 1600 was so reliable. In less than a year, the Bavaria was in the shop three times. Then the paint started fading and cracking. At the manufacturer’s expense we had to get a new paint job. By that time, I was done. We traded the Bavaria for a 1976 Volkswagen Rabbit (for Sandy) and a 1967 Austin-Healey 3000 (for me). Thus began a lifetime of trading cars every three or four years.
If I regret not buying the brick duplex in New Holland, I regret parting with the Bavaria even more. By the time we traded it, the bugs had been worked out. The paint job may have devalued the car temporarily, but eventually time would have evened things out. We might even have kept it long enough to need the four doors and extra backseat room for a car seat. And I’d have been ready when they finally did away with the 55 mph national speed limit.
Shoulda, would, coulda; that’s what regrets are really about. We are sad about things we missed because we were doing something else. We are disappointed things didn’t turn out the way we wished because of a decision we made or failed to make. We are sorry for our sins of omission or commission. The funny things is, as I look back over six decades, I can find so few things I truly regret; and the last one was in 1976 when I was twenty-three years old. Maybe Paul Anka was right when he, as an old soul of twenty-six, wrote:
Regrets, I've had a few, but then again,
too few to mention.
I began this memoir recalling times I’ve felt judged by others. Next week we’ll come full circle with Judgment Day, Episode Thirty-eight of Tales of a Canarsie Boy.
To hear this episode, please click the YouTube link below.