Uh, oh, I’ve started smelling like my father.
I shave with Gillette Foamy. It was his standard. For a time, I used those modern gels, but with Dad gone five years I’ve gravitated to his favorite shaving cream.
I don’t have any Mennen Skin Bracer — his aftershave — or I could go for the full Joe Cantwell. Both were part of Dad’s spicy scent, always there when he leaned over to help with a math problem, or if we huddled together over his garage workbench to sand the rough edges off a Pinewood Derby car.
Writing of this puts me in the mood for another round of Scrabble, which in recent months has become a favored coronavirus quarantine diversion for me and my wife.
This Father’s Day reminiscence is unabashedly Old Seattle. It’s about growing up the son of a Boeing engineer. Scrabble was his game.
Something about the geometry. The neat lines of letters marching in 90-degree angles up and down the game board. The math element (Dad was always scorekeeper). The straightforward rules, with a chosen dictionary as the unquestioned arbiter.
In his career, Dad designed rocket engines. His work helped put astronauts on the moon. An engine he created guided satellites launched from the Space Shuttle. To his final days, at age 92, he theorized on the best way to fuel a staffed mission to Mars.
Being his child had its highs and lows. He expected much from his kids and was bad at hiding disappointment. At times he was tough to love. But he gave my mom, my three siblings and me a lifetime of loyalty. He taught his kids the value of hard work. Thrift. Fair play. A love of nature. A dedication to education.
And he definitely passed along an obsessive-compulsive gene.
So, after his death, when I opened the old Scrabble game from among his personal effects, maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised.
After Dad retired, he and my mom, Eleanor, had many quiet evenings on their own. A game of Scrabble became a nightly ritual.
And Dad, ever the engineer, ever the statistician and obsessive scientist, kept their scores. I mean, he really kept their scores. Inside the faded burgundy Selchow & Righter Games box now held together by two big rubber bands was a sheaf of decades’ worth of their Scrabble scores.
A child of the Depression, Dad didn’t waste money on official scorepads. These records cover both sides of yellowing old sheets of cheap notebook paper. Precisely pencil-ruled columns are economically headed with “E” (Eleanor) and “J” (Joe) in his ultra-neat engineer’s printing. Most are dated. The winning margin is circled beneath the winner’s column.
For the record, my father the rocket scientist and my mother the “housewife” (as she proudly called herself after their 1951 marriage) were pretty closely matched in Scrabble prowess. No slouch, my mom, who earned a college degree at age 65.
The thing is, Dad didn’t just record the scores. This Cal Tech grad, who likely studied under some of the founders of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, also sat down at a typewriter and pecked out two pages of data analysis, now tattered and dog-eared, under the heading “Noteworthy Scrabble Scores — E. & J.”
Individual high scores: Joe peaked early, topping out with 457 on June 9, 1984. Eleanor tallied 465 on April 29, 1996.
Winning margins: Joe won by 243 points on January 9, 1992. Eleanor racked up a 226-point victory on January 14, 2000.
High single-play scores: Joe laid down tiles worth 140 points in one turn on May 2, 1989. Eleanor garnered 134 on February 26, 1995.
And so on. He recorded their tie scores (14 times over the years), their monthly totals (Dad, why?), their low scores and combined high scores.
Most endearing, though, are the odds and ends noted at the bottom of a page:
December 2, 1992: J. trapped at game’s end with Q, J and Z (Still won).
(Got to love that immodest postscript.)
December 9, 1992: J. had three 50-point bonuses.
(Dad had a good week.)
January 17, 1993: E. had two 50-point bonuses in succession.
Or the ignoble: February 9, 1998: J. had two 50-point bonuses and lost.
The only time my mother’s neat cursive hand shows up in this record:
February 13, 1999: E. played “Quietly” on triple-word score (50-point bonus)
I could feel a little sad that my father’s sharp mind didn’t find more challenges in his retirement. Or I might smile at how his engineer’s mindset, familiar to many of my peers who grew up with Boeing parents, informed Seattle’s 20th-century adolescence. How do you think we ended up a tech haven? (Seattle has had its own Scrabble Club since the 1980s, not long after publication of the first Official Scrabble Players Dictionary.)
But the real takeaway for me is that my parents loved each other. Every night Mom would make a pot of tea and serve home-baked oatmeal cookies as they sat down to draw seven wooden tiles each from the little cloth bag she had sewn for the purpose.
She put up with his foibles. He respected and cared for her. Not until death did they part.
Did I mention that in a recent Scrabble game with my wife I played all seven tiles in a single turn and covered two triple-bonus squares at the same time?
Thinking of you, Dad, in this crazy year. Sheltering in place, I even started to smell like you — which is better than some could say after sitting around the house too long.
Happy Father’s Day, all.
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