by Joel Badzinski
“That’s my middle-west—not the wheat or the prairies or the lost Swede towns but the thrilling, returning trains of my youth and the street lamps and sleigh bells in the frosty dark and the shadows of holly wreaths thrown by lighted windows on the snow. I am part of that…”—F. Scott Fitzgerald
As the plane broke through the clouds on approach into Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport, I looked out the window and saw a monochromatic world. White-gray for the land, gray-white for the lakes, rivers and roads. I knew by the muted low sun and heavy wisps of steam coming from buildings that it was cold down there. Closer in, small white ovals ringed with points of light were visible—outdoor rinks. I was intimately familiar with those too; the rasping scrape of skates on the ice, the thwack of a puck against wooden boards, frozen toes and fingers, pure boyhood joy.
It was two days before Christmas, and I assumed most of the passengers were like me, coming home for the holidays, carrying similar memories ingrained deep in their souls, but there also seemed to be a few from warmer climates looking out over the frigid scene with dread.
I was surprised to find tears welling in my eyes. I was, after all, a man of the world now, a week away from turning 24. I’d graduated from college, landed a highly-competitive internship, and moved away to another city. Yet everyone I loved was down there. All my memories were there.
The late-December cold hit like a wave when I exited the terminal. It felt like a welcome. It was dark now, although not even 5 p.m., and the arrivals area was full of holiday tension and rush.
Then my dad emerged from the crowd, his relieved and happy smile a warm beacon, his blue-gray eyes sparking with pride and love. He was wearing a Kansas City Chiefs jacket, representing the NFL team I’d earned an internship with, which typifies my dad because he was a Packers fan in Vikings country but his main allegiance was always to me.
We hugged tighter and longer than we had in a long time, then hustled off to his truck, talking of course about the weather as Midwesterners do. Cold. Yep. Not too bad though. Might snow tomorrow. Dad asked if I was hungry and offered to stop somewhere on the way home. He didn’t need to add that he wanted some time just for the two of us. Of course I did too.
The restaurant was warm and busy, multicolored Christmas lights in the windows and strung across the top of the bar. It was a long-gone chain place that we both liked, and it felt like the coziest place in the world for that hour as we relaxed and talked.
My dad and I were as much best friends as father and son. I was an only child and my mom died when I was 12, leaving he and I to figure out life together until I left for college, and one of the great blessings of my life, which came out of the shock of loss, is that it drew us closer. There were many nights when I would come home from school or practice and he after a long day’s work, and the best we could do was order pizza. Dad would take it out of its box, place it on a cutting board, and bring out plates, silverware, seasonings, and napkins.
Now we were sharing another meal. I don’t remember what we ate or drank or specifically discussed. The story might be better if I did. But I felt that inner vibration, the texture and smell of the atmosphere and the way the people talked, and knew for the first time what it meant to come home.
Life’s path has led me away from Minnesota again. As I prepare for a trip back—in the middle of winter—I know it won’t hit me the same way. This time, a lifelong friend will greet me at the airport and we’ll share a hug and probably head somewhere with light, warmth, food and drink, and catch up.
My dad passed away just over eight years ago. He’s buried in Ft. Snelling National Cemetery, which sits right next to MSP Airport. My friend and I will drive past on our way to his house, and I know I’ll see my dad on that winter evening a quarter-century ago, welcoming me home.
Bob Badzinski would have been 83 today.
Joel Badzinski is a Minnesota native now living in Tucson, Arizona. A recovering sportswriter, he seeks meaningful travel when possible—visiting Warsaw and Krakow to understand his Polish ancestry, achieving Zen in Chiang Mai, Thailand, or eating his way across Lima, Peru—but is always up for a chilled-out week at the beach or checking out a new Major League Baseball stadium.