I was 12, a Peewee hockey player on the A team. Honestly, though, I sat the bench a lot that year.
I was one of the younger kids. We didn’t have enough players for a B team, otherwise I would have been on it. It’s not that I was a terrible player. It’s just that if you live in northern Minnesota where I’m from you need to be great. I was decent. More precisely, I was fourth line, left wing. Coach put me in when the score was “we definitely won’t lose.”
My dad would usually drive me to our away games. The thing about my dad you should know is, during this time, he was always tired. He worked the graveyard shift at Polaris and had too much to do during the day to sleep much. So he’d often fall asleep in public.
On Wednesday nights, for example, people came to our house for Bible Study. My dad would fall asleep praying out loud. “And Heavenly Father…we also. We also, um — ask your blessing upon…” and he’d sort of trail off into silence. Others would finally open their eyes and look up. What they saw was a man already deep into his first sleep cycle.
I don’t remember how far away our game was that night. I don’t remember who we played or how much ice time I got. If I had to guess, I’d say probably not a lot, because that year if I were a sports headline it would read “Aaron Espe Rides the Pine.”
So maybe that’s partly why I remember so vividly my dad, on the drive home, pulling our Plymouth Voyager minivan onto the shoulder. We were just outside of Thief River Falls, Minnesota with about 60 miles to go.
“Either you drive or you can watch me sleep.”
A kid barely entrusted with a few minutes of a hockey game, suddenly entrusted with his father’s life (literally). Was he joking? Does he really think I can do this? Sure, I’d driven on gravel roads a few times near our hunting cabin. But this? This was a legitimate highway with real pavement and oncoming vehicles, not to mention the very occasional highway patrol car.
I know what you’re thinking. My dad was bluffing. Or he was completely out of his mind.
No, my dad was just tired. And maybe he thought I could use a win. Whatever the case, in that instant, fall-asleep-praying-in-public tired was suddenly replaced by let-your-12-year-old-drive-you-home tired.
I jumped over the console and scooted up the driver’s chair until my chin hit the top of the steering wheel. My dad circled around the front of the van. He opened the passenger door and sat down.
Then my dad did something I will never forget.
I will never forget it because it was the most validating “you can do it” vote of confidence a father can possibly give his 12 year-old son who sits behind the wheel of a Plymouth Voyager minivan.
My dad reclined his seat into the most obtuse factory setting angle and went straight to sleep.
And I, just a grinning head barely above the steering wheel, drove us all the way home.
“Thanks for driving,” he said after I woke him up.
No, dad, thank you. Thank you.