Thursday, July 4, 2013

Talladega 1997

Editor's note: This is an excerpt from my Cheating book, which was published in 2002.

In the second half of the 1990s, NASCAR again had its hands full trying to sort out exactly who was cheating and who wasn’t. Some of the most pitched battles, both on the track and in the inspection lines, involved bitter rivals Jack Roush and Ray Evernham, though they had plenty of company in the scofflaw department.

Roush and NASCAR got into it at Talladega on May 9, 1997, two days prior to the rain-delayed Winston 500. When the Roush Racing Ford driven by Jeff Burton rolled through inspection on that day, NASCAR officials were surprised to find its roof was unlike any they had ever seen on a superspeedway car before.

At the time, NASCAR used four templates to measure roof dimensions: the so-called “long template” that runs the length of the car from nose to rear spoiler and three others that fit across the width of the roof at its front, center, and rear, respectively. The body on Burton’s car, a body that was built not by Roush but by an undisclosed third-party vendor, fit all four of NASCAR’s templates. Everything else about it, however, was wrong.

The roof flaps, thin strips of sheet metal designed to raise up in the air and keep the car from flipping in the event of a spin, were mounted five inches forward of the NASCAR-mandated location. NASCAR officials admitted this modification offered no performance advantage—after all, they only deployed if the car was out of control—but were incensed nonetheless.

Tampering with a safety feature of the car was one offense they took very, very seriously. Ironically, Roush himself had designed the flaps, working in concert with NASCAR to improve safety in accident conditions.

But in a display that shocked the garage, NASCAR officials literally cut the roof off the car in the garage at Talladega, destroying the car.

Officially the explanation for the stiff punishment, which included a $20,000 fine in addition to the destruction of a $150,000 race car, was that the flaps were improperly mounted. “The fact is, we know the roof flaps work in the position they’re supposed to be in,” said NASCAR’s Kevin Triplett, who had been promoted from his PR capacity to become director of operations, in an interview with Winston Cup Scene’s Tom Stinson. “There’s no way of knowing whether they would work or not [on Burton’s car], and that’s a chance we’re not willing to take.”

Of course, as always in stock-car racing, the reality was a bit more complicated than the public explanation. Several Winston Cup crew chiefs said the roof did indeed fit the four templates, but had been “scalloped”—lowered everywhere except where the templates fit in an attempt to greatly reduce aerodynamic drag.

In fairness to Roush, his team bought the body from an outside supplier, one the team would not do business with again after Talladega. Still, scalloping was not a “gray area” miscalculation. It was an aggressive attempt at chicanery, and NASCAR responded forcefully.

Gary DeHart, crew chief for 1995 Winston Cup champion Terry Labonte, would later call it “the squirreliest thing he’d ever seen in racing.” Fellow crew chief Robbie Loomis agreed, saying it was the most outlandish modification he’d ever seen a team try to get through the inspection line.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Light Engines Nothing New

This is an excerpt from my book, "Cheating: The Bad Things Good NASCAR Winston Cup Racers Do In Pursuit Of Speed." It seemed timely, given the Matt Kenseth drama today. — Tom

When the Winston Cup circuit arrived in Sonoma, California, for the Save Mart/Kragen 350 in June 2000, Rusty Wallace put his Penske Racing South Ford on the pole, with a lap that was half a second faster than anyone else in the field. It was Wallace's sixth pole in just 16 races. In a sport where qualifying spots are usually separated by a few thousandths or maybe one or two hundredths of a second, for one car to be half a second faster than everyone else is unusual, even on a road course.

Wallace was also the teammate to Jeremy Mayfield, which meant other teams were probably quietly lobbying NASCAR to give Walllace’s car a little extra attention in inspection.

After Wallace won the pole at Sonoma, rumors immediately began about the car's legality. General Motors racing executives in attendance began whispering off the record to reporters that Wallace's car was using pistons, connecting rods, and a crankshaft made of a space-age lightweight alloy that supposedly was 68 percent beryllium and 32 percent aluminum. If that were true, the lighter engine components, in theory, would allow the engine to spin faster internally and produce more power.

According to the GM people the high-tech alloy was developed in England at a Penske subsidiary, Ilmor Engineering, which builds engines for the McLaren-Mercedes Formula One team in Europe and had built engines for Chevrolet and Mercedes in the CART FedEx Championship Series here in the United States. Of course, given the politics and innuendo and gossip-mongering that goes on in the modern Winston Cup garage, all of this could have been completely true, or it could just as easily have been a total fabrication dreamed up over a couple of martinis on the flight from Detroit to San Francisco for the race. But either way, everyone was talking about it.

And then the unthinkable happened. To the utter horror of Wallace and his crew, the team’s pole-winning engine was completely dismantled out in the open in the pits. While inspections are open in Winston Cup generally, this one was a shocking exception: For the first time in anyone's memory, NASCAR didn't simply measure engine displacement and cubic inches. Instead they totally stripped the engine of its guts, removing the highly secretive and proprietary internal components, including the custom-designed pistons, rods, crankshaft, and camshaft. Then the inspectors set the parts down on their workbench, naked in front of the entire garage area and the race teams.

Some teams photographed the inspection and the engine parts as they were put on the workbench; others sent team members in plain clothes to “watch” what was happening and scribble down notes. The inspection understandably enraged the Penske organization.

“It’s the most obscene and unprofessional thing I’ve seen done in a long time,” said a furious Wallace. “When a team works real, real hard to be the best and to work as hard as they do for an engine combination, that's totally unacceptable, to take every piece of the engine and lay it out for God and everybody to see. This is not something that's been done in the past.”

While Wallace acknowledged that engine teardowns are part of the process, he added, “They [NASCAR] don't usually tear them down on an asphalt parking lot where every team member, every media person, every fan can take pictures and see. It was such a bad scene that it was almost nasty.”

“I was disappointed in the way it was handled, that everybody got to write down whatever they saw,” added Robin Pemberton, Wallace's crew chief. “I'm speechless. I'm really hurt by the whole thing. Never have they stripped [the engine] right down to the bare block. We're prepared to build engines in the shop and only take certain things off them at the racetrack. So we didn’t have some of the special tools that it took. It was borderline barbaric”

As for NASCAR's response, Helton said, “All of our inspection processes are open to the rest of the competitors. Always have been.” Helton did, however, acknowledge that the inspections of the engines were a little bit more rigorous this time out for the cars of Wallace and Wally Dallenbach, the fastest second-round qualifier at Sears Point. “We did go a little bit further because of conversations in the garage area about exotic metals and different things,” Helton said. “We took the pistons and the cranks out of them, which took maybe a little bit more time than we had in the past, but it's the same process we've always had.”

Yes, it is. Win too much, run too fast, and teardowns and inspections will be living hells, even if you're legal—maybe especially if you're legal—just as they were for Jeff Gordon in 1998 or Bill Elliott in 1985 or even Karl Kiekhaefer way back in 1955.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Another Cheating Escapade

Editor's Note: This is an excerpt from the 2004 update of my book about cheating in NASCAR. 

In the two and a half years since the first edition of Cheating wrapped up, NASCAR has undergone myriad changes, many of them dramatic. Brian France has replaced his father, Bill, Jr., as NASCAR’s CEO. After 33 years as the sanctioning body’s prime benefactor, R.J. Reynolds and its Winston cigarette brand opted out of title sponsorship of NASCAR’s top series, which is now known as the Nextel Cup. Union 76, which had been the official fuel of NASCAR for 50 years, was replaced by Sunoco, and for 2004, the NASCAR point system was overhauled for the first time since 1975. Former Winston Cup Director Gary Nelson assumed a new position, managing director of competition, and now runs NASCAR’s $10 million R&D center in Concord, North Carolina, a spectacular facility that opened in January 2003. He was replaced by the popular John Darby, a gruff chain smoker who has earned a reputation for being a straight shooter.
A new generation of drivers, the so-called “Young Guns,” has emerged as superstars. Men like Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch, and Kasey Kahne have pushed veterans Bill Elliott, Mark Martin, Rusty Wallace, Ricky Rudd, and Terry Labonte out of the headlines. An entire pack of mid-level drivers—Ted Musgrave, Chad Little, Bobby Hamilton, and Johnny Benson, to name just a few—have been bumped out of NASCAR’s top series to make room for the Young Guns.
Yet for all the changes, one thing has remained constant: The Winston Cup garage—now the Nextel Cup garage—is still a place where crew chiefs, engineers, and mechanics push the letter and the spirit of NASCAR’s rule book. And lest one think the early chapters of this book exaggerated the creativity and out-and-out deviousness of NASCAR’s top crew chiefs, the 2002 and ’03 seasons saw some of the most extraordinary rule-bending in NASCAR’s history. And several infractions and the subsequent penalties doled out by NASCAR had a direct impact on the Winston Cup championship race, especially during the 2002 season.
Not surprisingly, the trouble began at Talladega in April, where penalties were doled out to no less than five Winston Cup crew chiefs and one Busch crew chief for rules violations that occurred during the weekend at the Alabama track. Most all of these were relatively benign, as rules offenses go. John Andretti’s crew chief, Steve Lane, earned the Alabama daily double, with fines totaling $1,500 for both a non-conforming rear spoiler and a too-thin fuel cell. Michael McSwain, crew chief of Ricky Rudd’s Robert Yates-owned Ford Taurus, and Paul Andrews, crew chief of the Dale Earnhardt Inc., Steve Park-driven Chevrolet, each received $1,000 fines for using axles that didn’t meet NASCAR specs. The cars driven by Brett Bodine and Jimmy Spencer were found to have fuel-system issues, specifically oversized fuel-filler necks that could have held a little bit of extra gasoline, while a Busch crew chief was fined for using an aluminum brake pedal.
The next weekend at Martinsville, Roush Racing’s Jimmy Fennig, crew chief for young phenom Kurt Busch, was caught with a rear-deck lid that failed to conform to NASCAR templates, while three more crew chiefs were fined the next race at California Speedway, all for minor infractions. Soon, the penalties and offenses both would escalate.
Another Roush crew chief, Ben Leslie, was fined $50,000 after his driver, Mark Martin won the Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe’s Motor Speedway on Memorial Day weekend. Martin’s car was found to be one-eighth-inch too low in post-race inspection. It was the third time in the last 18 Winston Cup races that the race-winning car was ruled to be too low. Yet another Roush car, this one driven by Matt Kenseth, had flunked the height test after winning at Rockingham in February. Generally speaking, the lower a car sits, the better it handles and the less aerodynamic drag it has.
“NASCAR set the height rule and it doesn't matter whether it is one inch or one-eighth of an inch,” crew chief Leslie told Jim Utter of the Charlotte Observer after being penalized. “With 600 miles of racing there is a great deal of wear and tear and adjustments that have to be made on the car. Still, NASCAR has to draw the line somewhere and we didn’t measure up to that line. It’s a steep fine, but those are the rules of the game.”
Some pundits in the Winston Cup garage wondered if $50,000 wasn’t a cheap price to pay for breaking the rules, given that the Coca-Cola 600 purse was a robust $280,033 and the championship purse at the end of the season was worth an extra $4.25 million.
For its part, NASCAR had seen enough of too-low cars. Faced with public pressure from fans, the media and teams themselves, sanctioning body officials decided to up the ante for scofflaws.
What happened next was unprecedented. NASCAR President Mike Helton came into the weekly pre-race meeting of drivers, crew chiefs and NASCAR officials prior to the start of the MBNA Platinum 400 June 2nd at Dover International Speedway. Helton laid down the law, threatening for the first time to impose penalties more severe than simple fines. “So far we have chosen to use a system of fines to address these violations,” Helton told the drivers and crew chiefs. “We just wanted everyone to know there are other options available if it continues.” 
Two weeks later, Jim Long, crew chief for two-time Winston Cup champion Terry Labonte’s Hendrick Motorsports team, earned a $25,000 fine after being caught with a bogus fuel cell in pre-race inspection at the Sirius Satellite Radio 400 at Michigan. “The penalty was a result of the team attempting to increase the capacity of the fuel cell through pressure,” NASCAR officials said—the same trick teams had been using since the advent of the fuel cell nearly four decades earlier. Surprisingly, given Helton’s edict at Dover, Long’s only punishment was monetary.
The perpetual game of cops-and-robbers between NASCAR and the crew chiefs took a much more serious turn in early summer, as the Winston Cup circuit rolled into Daytona for the annual Fourth of July weekend race, the Pepsi 400, formerly known as the Firecracker 400.
This was the very same event that Greg Sacks won under mysterious circumstances in 1985, driving a DiGard Racing “R&D car” wrenched by none other than Gary Nelson. In 2002, though, Nelson was working with NASCAR, and the perp in the latest caper was a brilliant young crew chief named Chad Knaus, who had learned his craft working for Ray Evernham on Jeff Gordon’s car at Hendrick Motorsports, where he had worked from 1993-97. Knaus had worked his way up at Hendrick from a general fabricator to tire changer to manager of the entire chassis and body construction of Gordon’s cars during the team’s heyday.
After leaving Hendrick, Knaus bounced around among several Winston Cup teams, including joining Evernham’s fledgling Dodge team, before returning to Hendrick Motorsports prior to the start of the 2002 season. Knaus was paired with young rookie Jimmie Johnson, who came on like gangbusters after a brief, and frankly unspectacular stint in the Busch Series. Both Johnson and Knaus were whip-smart and by turns fiery and clever, the perfect faces for the new NASCAR.
The Johnson-Knaus team took the Winston Cup circuit by storm in their first season, winning the pole for the Daytona 500 and three races during the year. Johnson, like his mentor Jeff Gordon, combined both ferocious driving skills and casually elegant, made-for-TV good looks.
When Johnson and Knaus arrived at Daytona in July, they already were fourth in points, still in contention for a Winston Cup championship, an almost unheard of position for a rookie driver and team to be in. Prior to the start of practice at Daytona, however, the team got caught with a particularly egregious offense: offset bolts on the rear-trailing arms.
Trailing arms are long, steel beams that run from the center of the underside of the modern Winston Cup car, back all the way to beneath the rear axle. The trailing arms move up and down with the rear springs and axle as the car goes around the track.
Johnson’s Daytona car carried a trick designed to make the car sit lower in the rear and therefore, presumably, have less aerodynamic drag and more speed. The front bolts on the trailing arms were offset, yet designed to look normal from the outside. Essentially, the rear-trailing arms are like levers. If one can move the point where the lever pivots, it will allow the car to drop lower at speed.
“You look at the bolt, it looks like a normal bolt,” explained NASCAR’s Nelson. “You look at it from the side, it’s offset. It’s all about the rear springs at Daytona and Talladega. They have a minimum; they can be no weaker than 345 pounds per square inch. If you think about it in real simple terms, the spoiler is held up in the air by the rear springs. We regulate the size of the spoiler, and all the air [that passes over the body of the car] is catching that spoiler. If you can get that spoiler to drop down another quarter of an inch, that’s the same thing as taking a quarter of an inch off the top of the spoiler.” And that translates into faster speed.
“The only way to get it to drop down is to make these (the rear springs) lighter,” Nelson said. But NASCAR has a machine to measure the stiffness of rear springs and those that fail the 345-pound minimum are easily detected.
“So how do you make the spring travel more and still pass the spring-rating machine inspection?” asked Nelson. “You make the springs sit at an angle, where only half the coils are compressed, rather than all of the coils compressed. Or you take this,” he said, holding up the bolt off Johnson’s car, “and move the trailing arm back for leverage. And if we measure from the center of the bolt, but the trailing arm is actually longer, it’s pretty ingenious. You have more leverage against it. It doesn’t take much to make a quarter-inch of difference.”
NASCAR’s reaction was swift. On July 10, the sanctioning body fined Knaus $25,000 and, more critically, penalized Johnson 25 driver points and car owner Rick Hendrick 25 car owner points. Knaus took the penalty in stride. “Being creative is my job,” Knaus told Charlotte Observer reporter David Poole. “If I am going to get fined and penalized for being creative, then that’s just part of it.”
In discussing the incident, Knaus used one of the most time-tested crew chief arguments: The other guys are cheatin’ more than we are. “I’ll guarantee you a lot of the cars out there weren’t the fairest cars, or the most strict on the rules,” Knaus told the Observer’s Poole. “A lot of people go out to the speedways and try to find an edge. They find it in many, many different ways. The No. 48 Chevrolet is one of the most legal cars in this garage. The reason our car is going so fast is we have an awesome driver and an awesome team and that’s all there is to it.”
Six other crew chiefs were penalized by NASCAR that weekend, but the point penalty levied against Johnson was particularly severe, especially given that the bolts were detected in inspection prior to the car ever taking a lap on the track. Several drivers and crew chiefs said a nonconforming part discovered prior to practice should be treated with far less severe a penalty than if the same part had been caught in a race.
“By penalizing Jimmie, they are sending a message that trying to stretch the rules will not be tolerated,” said his teammate Jeff Gordon, who co-owns Johnson’s car with Rick Hendrick. “But I believe if you go on the track, you deserve to be penalized. Something caught before the car even makes it out there—take it away and make sure it never comes back. That's enough.”

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Bacon Arrabiata

Haven't posted here in forever, but here goes:

OK, here’s a modified version of my baconator arrabiata. Tweaked the final recipe a little .
Bacon: Take 1-pound of bacon, pan fry until extra crispy. Remove from pan, pat down and let cool. Crumble or at least break into small parts. 
Gravy: Fry 1/2 onion, finely chopped, and half a dozen cloves of finely minced garlic in olive oil.
Once the onions turn clear, stir in a cup of chianti, 1 tablespoon of sugar, 1 1/2 tablespoons of basil, 1/2 teaspoon of red pepper, 2 large cans of diced tomatoes, 1 small can of tomato puree or paste.
Bring to boil, then turn down heat and cook on low for one hour. Stir in crumbled bacon in last five minutes.
Serve over the pasta of your choice, and have a good, hearty bread on the side for dipping in the gravy. 


Thursday, September 1, 2011

Remembering My Sister

Today is the 16th anniversary of the death of my sister, Eileen Zelig, who was murdered in a Los Angeles courtroom. Eileen was shot in the chest at point-blank range with a .38-caliber handgun by her ex-husband Harry Zelig. He was able to bring a gun to court because the metal detectors were boxed up and stuck in a closet, the city and the state arguing over who would pay to operate them. Because they couldn’t agree, the metal detectors weren’t set up. 
On the morning of Sept. 1, 1995, Eileen and Harry had appeared in court and were in a hallway outside the court when Harry pulled out his gun and shot Eileen. The bullet went into her chest, deflected off a rib, nicked her aorta and exited out of her neck.
Six-year-old Lisa Zelig, the youngest of their three children, was there when it happened and was an eyewitness, just a couple of feet away when her dad pulled the trigger and shot her mom. 
The last words my sister ever spoke were, “Let me hold my daughter one more time before I die.”
Eileen was smart, tough, funny and completely full of herself, and I mean that in the best way possible. Even in her darkest days, she was someone with a mischievous grin, a kind word and a big hug for anyone and everyone. 
And in an instant, she was gone. Just like that. Forever.
There aren’t enough words to describe the pain our family endured or the profound sense of loss and tragedy we went through. I’ve spent much of my life since trying to escape from what happened, only to realize it’s as much a part of who I am as my arms and legs are. It is the defining moment in our family’s history. Grudgingly, I’ve learned to live with it. 
I’m happy to say that despite their immeasurable loss, Eileen’s three children have all grown up to be great young adults and tremendously well-grounded in the light of their tragedy. 
Raised by my parents, heroes in their own right, I’m incredibly proud of each of them. Dana, Sean and Lisa are proof of the good Eileen always carried inside her, and when they laugh, she does, too. In my ears, I always still hear her voice and it always makes me smile. Every time. 
Even 16 years on, there isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t miss Eileen.
And if there’s anything to be taken away from her story, it’s this: The clock is running for all of us. We only have a finite time here. Don’t squander it on hatred or jealously or anger or pettiness. Every day counts, every minute matters. 
Get busy living today, because trite as it may seem, none of us is guaranteed tomorrow. 
RIP, my dear, sweet sister. I love you and miss you more than you’ll ever know. But you made the most of what little time you had, because I see it in those three amazing kids, who are now three remarkable and loving adults. 
You did good work, kid. 
Just wish I could have seen a lot more of it. 
P.S. — On Sept. 2, 1995, one day after Eileen died, the metal detectors went up in the Los Angeles civil court. They’ve been operable ever since. 
You can read about the case in these two articles below.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

The vast majority of what I write here is about NASCAR. But some of it's life and on rare occasions, death, too. My father died Dec. 9, 2006. Here is what I wrote about his passing. And on Father's Day, I'll be thinking of him.

At the last minute, I skipped the Nextel Cup banquet this year to drive up and see my parents in Pennsylvania. Mom is battling cancer and spending a couple of days with them seemed liked a good idea. Turns out it was, for all the wrong reasons.
The three of us spent three days together, doing little things - shopping for Christmas presents for my kids, driving out in the country just to have some time together alone, eating out at a couple of their favorite dives.
I left on Dec. 1 and was almost back to Charlotte when I got the news over the cell phone from my wife: Dad had suffered a stroke during what was supposed to be a routine and minor surgical procedure. She told me he was going to be alright, that the doctors said the prognosis was good but, somehow, I knew it wasn't. My wife had lost her father to a stroke three years earlier and both our fathers would have made horrible patients. Neither man had a lick of patience and both were fiercely proud and independent, rotten candidates for prolonged therapy with uncertain results.
And so, with my father as with my wife's, the end was inevitable. Eight days after Dad suffered his stroke, he died in a hospital in suburban Philadelphia. His brother, Butch, and I were by his bedside when he took his final breath, and his passing was remarkably peaceful. To my eternal gratitude, we had nothing unsaid between us, no issues that we hadn't managed to work out years earlier. 
Anyone who knew John Jensen knew it wouldn't be a stretch to call him a great man, fascinating and complex in both his achievements and flaws. The oldest of 13 children in an impoverished Chicago Catholic family, Dad grew up fast and he grew up hard, the way people did when born to the working poor in the middle of the Great Depression.
He started working for a living at the ripe old age of 7, riding the trolleys in Chicago as he delivered flowers all over the city. Some days he'd drop off a floral arrangement to a cancer patient in Cook County Hospital, then a dozen roses to a dancer at one of the many burlesque theaters that flourished back in the day.
Even as a kid, he was a fearless brawler, afraid of no one and deeply disdainful of people and institutions of power and privilege. At the long-shuttered St. Mel's High School, he occasionally got in trouble for his pranks, including once teaching obscene and creative idioms to a visiting French-Canadian priest who spoke no English.
After somehow surviving his Catholic education, Dad left for the military. On his very first night in Marine Corps boot camp at Parris Island, S.C., Dad picked a fight with his drill instructor. The first night. That was a big part of who he was: A warrior and a fighter, someone who never backed down from anything, a man as tough as nails. He was classic Old School the way Bogie and Earnhardt the elder were.
When you grow up the oldest of 13 kids in the Depression, you get tough or you don't survive. In Dad's world, things were either black or white, right or wrong. There was no room for gray, no ambivalence. He was sometimes wrong about things, as we all are, but he was never in doubt, nor was anyone around him ever in doubt about where he stood.
Along with the warrior mentality, Dad was a passionately devoted family man. When he was a kid, anyone who picked on one of his brothers or sisters picked on him, and God help the occasional dolt who thought it was a good idea to challenge a Jensen. To the very end, Dad regaled us with stories of the days as a kid in Chicago, stories he told with great flair and aplomb. They were almost always hilarious, frequently outrageous and sometimes featured subject matter that couldn't be repeated in polite company. Not only was Dad tough, he was one of the funniest men I'd ever met.
Dad and Mom got married in 1952 - he was 21, she 20 - and they stayed married for 54 years. Less than a year after their wedding, Dad's own father died and for the rest of his life, he would be the go-to guy in his family, someone who could always be counted on to take care of his own. When he needed to, he put the family on his back and carried them.
Dad and Mom raised six kids, three of their own and my older sister Eileen's three, after she died in 1995. In times of crisis, Dad was a rock. When Eileen died, he and Mom flew to California the same day, took their three grandchildren aside and told them that from that moment forward, they would always have a warm, safe home and would never want for anything. And that was that.
Dad had a successful business career and retired at age 59. Over the last 15 years, he and Mom traveled the world, visiting Europe, Asia, Australia and South America. He loved to travel and he loved muskie fishing, single malt scotch, playing golf and, of course, the Chicago Bears.
Most of all, though, he loved his family. On the night before his stroke, he pulled me aside just as we were supposed to leave for dinner and told me he was going into the hospital at 6 a.m. the next morning to have a clogged artery unclogged. He swore he'd be out in a day or so and that, if the operation went perfectly, he might even be released the same day. I knew he was lying and I didn't have the heart to call him on it.
The last conversation we ever had was just before he left for the hospital, when he asked Mom if she had finished her Christmas shopping for all the grandchildren. When she answered, "Yes," he asked again, naming them individually. Then he turned to me, held up his index finger to his mouth and said, "Don't say a word." He kissed me on the cheek and he was gone, just like that.
Eight days later, I held his hand in the hospital bed and told him it was time to go home, that the fish were biting and that there was a tall scotch waiting for him. Then he took his last breath.
All eight of Dad's living brothers and sisters came to his funeral, and afterwards we did what working class families do: We ate, we drank, we laughed and we cried, telling stories and closing the circle.
And as the year winds to a close, my father is no longer with us and for that I am indescribably sad, sad for myself and sad for our children, whom he loved so much. But at the same time, I'm a rich and lucky man for having grown up with him as my father.
Rest easy, Pop. From here on out, I've got your back.