"I've decided to root for the Islanders tonight."
My chin was up when I spoke, almost belligerent. I was ready for the barrage of criticism that was sure to be heaped upon my six-year-old head. My father looked at me blankly for all of a minute before shouting, "Jane! JANE!"
My mother came running into the kitchen from the bedroom like Jesse Owens in Berlin, her housecoat on, rollers in her hair, wearing a frown that would darken the sun.
"What is it, Henry?" she barked.
"The boy said he wants to root for the Islanders," Dad replied, his voice growing louder with each word.
"What? WHAT?" my mother cried out, her volume knob turned to ‘11' because, well, New York...
Grabbing hold of my shirt, she lifted me from my seat and started feeling my forehead with the back of her hand. "What's wrong with you, Mikey?" she asked, looking into my eyes for, I dunno, smallpox, maybe. "We're Ranger fans around here, son. We don't root for...that other team."
The way she said it made it sound dirty, like a really bad curse word. I realized then that my declaration was akin to blasphemy for my family, especially following the Rangers first round ouster by, you guessed it, those same New York Islanders.
At that moment, I understood I may have made my decision rashly, but there was no going back. Still, I was frightened and tried to escape from Mom's grasp. No luck, she had a firm hold.
Near tears, she begged, "Talk to me, Mikey! Tell your old Ma what's wrong?"
You have to understand, it wasn't my intention to make my mother cry, but even at six years old, I was pretty willful. Once I'd set my mind on something, it became my mission to see it through. Besides, it was 1975, and the Islanders had beaten the Penguins the night before to tie their series up at 3-3, after trailing three games to none.
As I recall, I first had an inkling that I liked the Islanders after that fateful three game set with the Rangers. For some reason J.P. Parise's deflection behind Rangers' goalie Ed Giacomin stuck with me and I decided to keep tabs on the Isles through rest of the playoffs. Honestly, with the Blueshirts out of it, I didn't think my family would mind. Right.
"Nothin's wrong, Ma," I said as calmly as I could. "I just wanted to root for somebody, and the Islanders are from New York, so it kind of made sense."
"Oh, here we go," my father shouted, his hands waving about like a windmill. "That's how this stuff begins. First, you just want to have a team to root for during the playoffs, then you kind of follow ‘em during the regular season. Next thing you know, you're rooting for them all year ‘round!"
"Shut up, Henry!" Mom shouted at him.
Dad ignored her. "What, the Rangers aren't good enough for you? Let me tell you, what's good enough for me better darn well be good enough for you!"
Give Dad credit, he was smart enough not to curse in front of the children.
"You are not helping," Mom said. She wasn't shouting anymore, which was how I knew that she was really angry. No dummy, Dad backed off.
Mom set me down, then. She straightened her house coat, reset a couple of curlers that had come loose and then crouched before me.
"Mikey, d'ya understand why our family roots for the Rangers?"
Afraid to verbalize my first thought, I shook my head.
"It's because they're bad, son," she said. "I mean, really bad. They haven't won a Stanley Cup since 1941. You know how many years that is, Mikey?"
Again, I shook my head.
She smiled sadly and said, "A lot."
"So why do we root for a team that sucks?" I asked, my face solemn with curiosity. I was a precocious lad.
"Watch yer language," she replied half-heartedly, her forehead creased by a million lines as she tried to come up with a decent answer. At last she replied, "It's like this. Your Dad roots for the Rangers. Your Dad's father - the drunk - roots for the Rangers. My Dad - your bestest grandpa - roots for the Rangers. Your aunts and uncles all root for the Rangers, except Uncle Dante on your father's side, who was banned from family reunions when his wife turned him to the Flyers. Your brother roots for the Rangers, your sisters root for the Rangers, even little Cathy in her cradle roots...for...the...Rangers. Do you see what I'm sayin'?"
I thought about it for a long moment, my face scrunched up as my six year old brain tried to calculate what she was going on about. Finally, at a loss, I said, "But, Ma, dontcha always say, ‘If little Johnny jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge, would you do it too?'"
She nodded, a pleased smile crossing her face. "I'm glad to see you listen to your old Ma, Son," she said.
"Then what yer tellin' me, Ma, is that you and our entire family just followed Little Johnny into the East River."
Mom paused, looked at me as she processed my words. "I can't talk to him," she said, turning away from me. "You try to talk sense to him, Henry."
I saw my father start to unbuckle his belt, a yeoman's effort if ever there was one. First, he had to lift the layer of stomach that hung over the waistline so that he could unhook it, then he had to stretch arms that hadn't exerted themselves since Robert Moses started building highways connecting the boroughs to Long Island. In the end, my mother interceded on my behalf."
"I said talk, Henry," she screeched. "Not hit, talk!"
Crestfallen, my dad spent the next ten minutes realigning his belt. Once done, Mom dragged him into the bedroom. "Parent conference," she commanded.
They were gone for awhile, to my chagrin. Sure enough, about a minute or so after they disappeared, my brother, Little Henry, came up from the cellar. He had five years on me, and whooped up on me every chance he got. When he appeared, he circled behind me, pulled me by my hair from the chair, and gave me a wedgie that I'm still picking out of my tonsils some forty-plus years later.
"Ya lousy, stinkin' brat," he said in his best James Cagney voice. He had a lisp, so the impersonation wasn't exactly spot on, though I was hardly in a position to critique. "Now Dad's gonna be ticked off all afternoon. You gotta ruin things for everybody else, dontcha?"
Silence is always the wisest course around a mad dog, so I sat down (carefully) and let him rant. His attention span is just short of a gnat's. Sure enough he disappeared down his hole after having his say.
Still, I had three other siblings. My sister Mischa, the oldest sister and a year younger than Henry III (my grandfather was a Henry too, apparently), entered the kitchen next. She studied my torn underwear and asked, "What'd ya do now, Mikey."
"Nothin,'" I replied sullenly.
"Ya din't get a wedgie for nothin,'" she accused.
I rolled my eyes, but figured the best course was to get the punishment out of the way. "I'm rooting for the Islanders tonight," I said.
She hissed. Like a snake. Then she came at me quick. Before I could flinch, she walloped me hard. It wasn't no girl punch either, she left a bruise on my arm that lasted a week. Almost I cried out, but it only would've made things worse.
Her work done, St. Mischa of the Heavy Right Hook departed the kitchen, only to be replaced by my personal nemesis, Jillian. The middle sister, she had me by three years. Pretty as a peach with the soul of a devil, she asked sweetly, "What'd ya dooooo, Mikey?"
I remained silent, like the bad guys on TV.
"C'mon, Mikey, tell me. I won't tell anyone," she promised.
"Everyone knows," I said. That seemed to pull her fangs.
"If everyone knows, how come you won't tell me, then?"
I sighed. Seeing resistance as pointlessly spiteful, I finally said, "I'm rooting for the Islanders tonight."
She stared blankly at me. No sports aficionado, she shrugged and said, "That's stupid. All sports are stupid."
Pausing as she headed downstairs to bother my brother, she stuck her tongue out at me. Then she disappeared.
At least I don't have to worry about Cathy bouncing in on me.
No sooner thought, than a small bundle of joy crawled her way across the floor.
"Ma!" I called. "Cathy's out of her pen again."
I scooped the baby up, met my mother exiting the master bedroom and said, "She stinks."
Without a word, Mom took Cathy from me and disappeared into the nursery. My Dad had trailed after, his gaze first fixed upon the retreating form of my mother, and then turned to me. He sniffed, put his hands on his hips and asked, "Why're you so interested in the Islanders? You never even liked hockey before."
Thinking quickly, I ad libbed. "I think because their colors are the same as the Mets. And baseball is my favorite sport."
It was a million to one shot, but I was lucky that day. Dad bought my nonsense. Everyone knew the Mets were terrible, outside of Seaver and Koosman (may Mary protect their arms), but I wasn't going there at this point.
Dad grinned, a conspiratorial smile. "I can't fault your taste, Son. The Mets are goin' all the way this year."
Then he did something totally out of the ordinary. He leaned down and said, "C'mon, I got somethin' for ya."
Leading me into his sanctum sanctorum (a small alcove in the master bedroom where he kept his cigarettes and a flask of cheap scotch), he opened a drawer and pulled out a small, transistor radio.
"The batteries are new," he whispered, with a quick glance down the hall to make sure Mom was still cleaning the baby. "You get into bed tonight and listen to the game. Keep the volume low, and tell your brother I said to leave you alone. Got it?"
I nodded, a solemn acceptance of a treasured gift.
My memory of listening to that game is pretty vague. Most of it was spent beneath the blanket to muffle the sound. The Isles won, setting their place in history. More important, they set the stage for what would become the best franchise in sports for the next decade.
My Dad and I enjoyed the rivalry between Rangers and Islanders until his death last November at the age of 90. My Mom is still living although, with a hat tip to artistic license, she is not a Rangers fan. Or a Mets fan. Or a Giants fan. She was a fan of my father, though, and for years would sit contentedly beside him as he cursed at the TV while watching any of the aforementioned teams. She misses her guy. I miss him too. He was passionate about his sports, and a really good man.