I’m a bit hesitant to share the rest of this story, because in all honesty we didn’t experience some climactic end to Dad’s inaugural chess game. Instead, we ate our lobster rolls, watched hockey, inspected old coins hanging out in the junk drawer— all while our match quietly simmered at the corners of our consciousness. But it was indeed a pleasant activity, one of those low intensity interactions that don’t involve a lot of talking— the very kind that we New Englanders like best.Since Dad is not a certified Tennessee chess champion, I didn’t feel intimidated, nor did I feel that, by playing a round, I’d be exposing my intellectual weaknesses with foolhardy moves across the board. But I was drawn to play again by something far more compelling. I knew that Dad had spent a good amount of time constructing his board, yet he continually mentioned that he never learned to play chess. I don’t think he’d say it to get a rise out of me, but indeed, that’s exactly what happened.There is something about people using terms like, “I never got to…” or “I never learned..” that really sticks in my craw. Perhaps it’s because by saying such declarative phrases, they are resigning themselves to some sort of unbendable finality. About a year ago, my brother and I took Dad to Rome following a similar interaction. Even though he’d spent a career traveling the world, Dad had never visited the Eternal City. Much like the chess board, in late 2016 I could only hear him say, “I never got to Rome” so many times before I resolved to obliterate the phrase from his vernacular. We went to Rome. In some small way, I felt as though I’d managed to influence how our world could spin.But of course in the grand scheme of things, I recognize that this game is just a modest family activity conducted over a few days of military leave. While Dad continued to ask refresher questions on how the knight could move or take a piece, I felt a certain level of sophistication in remembering to castle and thus better protect the king. Still, my disinterest in mapping out my moves would persist as I’d continually put myself in positions of trouble that would only be realized several moves later.
“Uh oh,” I said, halting the game, “A few moves ago I had put you in check. You should have been forced to move your king,”It was too late though. We were already focused on the other side of the board and it was hard to undo all of the ensuing moves. Like events on a real life battlefield, this one was an imperfect scenario. Dad was similarly honest in his conduct of play. When he advanced his queen to a square that was in direct fire of one of my rooks, he insisted I take it even though he realized his folly after removing his fingers from the piece.
“It’s okay,” he said, “I’m learning—go ahead and take it.” I picked his queen up off the board and the game went on. I call this match “24 hour chess” but I’m not quite sure how long it actually lasted. Time at the Hatchville Shipyard is always fluid, and we tend to measure its passage through larger-scale projects around the property. I do recall that the second half of the game moving faster than the the first, and this is probably because annihilation of the enemy feels less daunting once each side has had a go at mowing down pieces. And as it turned out, it was my ability to get one of my pawns across the board to be queened that allowed me to trap Dad’s king. I won the match but it was an even effort as the board was nearly empty by the time we got to the bitter end.So we got to checkmate without either side going easy on the other. A game like this ceases to be enjoyable when one side starts to let the other slide around in their own muddled planning. And Dad of course was a good sport about being beaten by his daughter. Before we collected the still-gorgeous and weighty castoff pieces from the outer limits of the chess board, I went to get Dad a parting gift to commemorate his first big game. It was small, but it was a package of Pocket Coffee— an Italian marvel that he had discovered and loved while we had wandered around Rome a year ago. It had kept us going while we explored d the Coliseum. He laughed as he popped one into his mouth.I do wish to add one postscript to this story: On the morning that I was set to leave Cape Cod, I embarked upon my usual Tasmanian Devil-style cleaning of the house. While home I usually tend to aspects of housecleaning that Dad couldn’t be bothered to do: dusting, breaking down a thousand shipping boxes that start to crowd out the house, stuffing a bag full of donation clothes. But on this sunny morning while zipping around the main floor my eyes spied the chess board all set up in front of Dad, ready for a new match. I looked at my watch, and noted that I still had much I wanted to accomplish before leaving. But then I looked at Dad, and at the game he had silently set up and asked to play.
I advanced one of my pawns forward two spaces. Then I went upstairs to grab the vacuum cleaner. The game went on like this, stop and go, but now in a more rapid pace. I was paying attention, but before I knew it, my big, bold moves had dug me into a quick and unfixable hole. Less than 30 minutes into our game, Dad’s rook suddenly had me on the ropes.Checkmate. Dad’s second campaign and he had notched a swift win into his belt. In terms of Shipyard competition, we were once again evenly matched. No longer could Dad say that he couldn’t play chess— in fact he could now also say that he didn’t have a losing record. I may not have been handed any Pocket Coffees prizes as I bounded upstairs to collect my luggage, but in my brain I knew that I had just received a gift even more precious.
So I’ll leave this story now as I ready myself to get on a plane. The great thing about going home is that I never know what I will find myself doing. Be it chess, or firing cannons, or just sitting around eating ice cream— it is always time well spent. Still, I am already thinking about our next match when I come back home again. When he walks into the kitchen and gets ready to start his day, I will already have the board set up and ready to go.