Monday, August 8, 2016

Out of the Shadows

Every four years we pay fleeting attention to athletes who have spent a lifetime in dogged pursuit of consideration as the very best at their chosen endeavor. Far too many who appear on the Olympic stage toil perpetually in the shadows.

Name a fencer, any fencer, any country, any time. Tell me the difference between epee and sabre. For every Usain Bolt there is an equally dedicated man or woman who is thrusting and parrying away in obscurity.

Maybe that is why I failed over the past 35 years to mention to my son that the grandfather for whom he had been named was a vital member of the 1938 NYU national championship fencing team.

There were no plaques in my childhood home in Teaneck commemorating my father's feats. No clippings, no images of my father in battle. That was decidedly not his style. The only evidence that my dad even knew one end of a sword from the other were the two fencer's masks which hung on the basement walls. And below them, two weapons he had used during his days performing for Coach Castello. They remained mostly motionless, frozen in time and space, reminders of a past era when my father was young, dedicated and very, very skilled.

There were however the rare occasions when these sabres practiced their trade, a far too oversized mask covering my face and the command of "en garde" ringing in the air. Left arm pointing to the sky, the right thrust menacingly forward. Lunge and retreat. Lunge and retreat. A child in "combat" with a loving father.

That memory would have remained embalmed were it not for the serendipity of turning on Olympic coverage featuring two Errol Flynn's with dueling sabres. As my son and I tried to determine just when and how points were being scored, I casually mentioned my dad's accomplishments almost 80 years before.

"What" my son exclaimed "you forgot to tell me about this?" In truth, I thought I might have made passing reference to "this"in some distant galaxy, but even if I had, I had certainly not given my father his due.

Soon my son had travelled back through time, thanks to the internet. Fingers moving furiously, he combed the archives searching for answers to the question that had only now formed in his brain.

There it was, an article in the Columbia newsletter, discussing the invincible NYU team, national champions three years running. How Columbia had tied this squad, deprived of outright victory only by a win by NYU in the final sabre match. That last battle won by the narrowest of margins, 5 to 4. By none other than my son's namesake.

How must that moment have felt for him, the anxiety, the elation, the satisfaction? How big his smile, how long the hug from his coach?

How had I never asked? How had I never taken the time to search for the clues of my father's prowess? How could I have left him so long in the shadows?

National champion in sabre, 1938. NYU and Richard Nussbaum.

How much of my dad remains in the air we breathe, in the water we drink? Have I done enough to try to preserve him for my children and for the future generations of my family? Or have I been a poor shepherd, failing at the essential task which fell to me on his passing in 1979? Why had it taken an image flashed upon a screen for me to make even a peripheral reference to my dad's wondrous accomplishment?

My dad was so impressive at everything he touched, from his days in World War II as head air traffic controller at a base in British Guyana to a distinguished legal career. Had Coach Castello seen the drive, understood the passions that resided so deep? Had my children felt the greatness of their grandfather?

Many years ago my dad's swords were removed from those basement walls, eventually taking up residence with my sister and her family. Where the sabres now exist, or if they still exist, I do not know. But for today at least they were once more alive, slashing through the air, making the sweet sound of elegant beauty with every pass.

NYU 1938 Yearbook - Fencing Champions

My father would, at last and far too late, move out of the shadows and into the bright sunlight. En garde.


Anonymous said...

I remember those masks hanging there. And believe me, neither you nor Gail has ever left your father in the shadows. You celebrate his life continually. I see it.


Anonymous said...

Memory maker!!!Awesome!!


Anonymous said...

Beautiful. I truly love your stories and recollections. Having never had the chance to meet Grandpa Dick, I feel like I can get glimpses into his incredible personality through your stories.


Anonymous said...

Love this!


Anonymous said...

This was really really great


Anonymous said...

A wonderful recollection. But just to highlight the fact that everyone holds different memories - I knew about the fencing but not about Uncle Dick's work in the war.

Isn't it ironic that we only learn things about someone after they are dead - and then only if someone else comes forward to eulogize them?


Anonymous said...

How beautiful. Although not spoken of for a long, long time. Your father was such an elegant man, an accomplished man .... who would have thought he was also so accomplished at fencing. Thank you for sharing your piece. I can see you father as though it were yesterday .... and I'm smiling!!!!


Anonymous said...

This is so awesome! Truly incredible what you can dig up. Kudos to Richie for finding it - though no surprise there. We need to track down those sabres.


Anonymous said...

Beautiful tribute to your Dad.


Jenna said...

Your father's legacy is in the hard work and dedication he displayed.This is is the legacy of Jamaican and other athletes around the world, in every sport.