Wednesday, March 8, 2017

A Present In Skillman Park

Skillman Park is one of TigerBlog's favorite places.

It's about 10 minutes north of Princeton, a quiet place tucked in between two fairly quiet roads, with an elementary school, some usually empty parking lots and a 2.2 mile loop that is usually the home to joggers, people walking their dogs, families pushing baby carriages - and TigerBlog, legs churning on pedals, trying to keep up with a man who turns 86 today.

It's not as easy as it seems. TigerBlog can't figure out how it is that he constantly falls behind, struggles to catch up and then, when he's finally even, falls behind again.

TB rides with John McPhee, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, writing instructor at Princeton and Academic Athletic Fellow for the men's lacrosse team. Mr. McPhee celebrates a birthday today, one day after he once again would have to slow down a few times and let TB catch up to him on the path at Skillman Park.

John McPhee was born in Princeton 86 years ago - in the same hospital where both TigerBlog Jr. and Little Miss TigerBlog would be born years later - and his roots to the town go back three years before that, when his father became the Princeton Athletics team physician in 1928.

He attended Princeton public schools and Princeton High School, and then, after a one-year stop at Deerfield - where he played lacrosse - he came to Princeton to be part of the Class of 1953.

His big break would come in the mid-1960s, when he would submit a piece to the New Yorker magazine on Princeton's Bill Bradley. The premise was Bradley's work ethic, his legendary practice of shot after shot after shot, until eventually he knew exactly what spot on the court he was at on any given moment and what shot he needed to shoot from there. It was called "A Sense Of Where You Are."

Since then, his book total is up to 30, all non-fiction. If you've ever read one, you know just what a great storyteller he is, regardless of the subject.

TigerBlog has read probably half of Mr. McPhee's books. He can vouch for how well Mr. McPhee can tell stories.

He can also tell you that they're way better in person. TB has heard John tell hundreds of stories about any number of different subjects, and they're all wildly interesting.

Skillman Park is a good place for riding and talking. It's reasonably flat, and there isn't a lot of traffic that comes along, unlike when they ride Mr. McPhee's 15-mile loop around Princeton. Yes, at the park, you're riding in circles and the scenery doesn't change, but it's still a very relaxing place to be.
And, because there isn't as much noise, you can talk.

TB first got to know John McPhee well back in 2008, when the men's lacrosse team took a trip to Spain and Ireland. TB and Mr. McPhee were roommates on that trip. That was the first of three international trips they've taken, also going with men's lacrosse to Costa Rica and most recently Portugal.

TigerBlog and John McPhee are a good pair. TigerBlog is a walking - or in this case - riding encyclopedia of Princeton Athletic history. John McPhee lived through most of what TB has picked up through the years.

Mr. McPhee will bring up the name of someone, asking if TB has ever heard of him or her. TB usually has, in either a media guide or a record book or a story he read at some point or even a name he's written about. Most of the time, it's someone TB has never met.

TB will then respond with what he knows from Princeton's history. John will then talk about how he knew them, where he knew them from, what they were like, how he came to know them. He takes the people TB knows only through their accomplishments and brings them to life, even if they've been gone for years.

Conversely, they also have these kinds of conversations:
JM: What was the name of the defenseman a few years ago who started but then got hurt and didn't play again?
TB: Rob Castelo?
JM: Yes. That's it.

They also have similarly dry senses of humor. One day, TigerBlog will catch his first-ever fish and John McPhee, who will take him wherever it is he goes to catch said fish, will say something sarcastic.

They laugh at the same things. They agree on most of the people they know. And they can always fall back on talking about Princeton's teams, especially men's basketball and men's lacrosse.

They disagree most strongly on one thing - the New England Patriots. One of them loves them. The other doesn't. 

John will email TB, but most of their communications are face-to-face. Talking. Who knew, in the year 2017, that people could still talk, right?

As TB said, today is John's birthday. He's 86.

For the last few years, TB has had a framed poster in his office - for years, it was in the closet in his old office - from the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. It is signed by all of Princeton's Olympians that year, including Bradley, with whom John is close and who led the U.S. to the gold medal that year, and Jed Graef, who won the 200 back gold medal.

It's also signed by the U.S. Olympic Team doctor. That would be Dr. Harry McPhee, John's father.

TB has been meaning to give it to John for years. Yesterday, before their ride, he finally took it with him. When he got out of his car, he told John that he had a birthday present for him, and he gave him the framed poster.

TB wasn't really sure what John's response would be. As soon as he gave it to him, he could see he was touched by it, that it really meant a lot to him.

He's a unique man, John McPhee. He's a world famous author, but he's also one of the most down-to-earth people TB knows. He's traveled the world, one adventure after another, and has never lost track of his Princeton roots. He knows a lot about a lot of subjects but never comes across as a know-it-all. He's always fascinating, never condescending. There isn't a men's lacrosse player who doesn't love him, and they all value how much he brings to them and the program.

TigerBlog appreciates him too. There's nobody else out there quite like him.

Happy birthday, John McPhee.

TB is lucky to have him as a friend.

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