On this Father’s Day I find Mr. Caputo on my mind.
It’s not the one many of you think.
To a generation of Pittston Area and St. John’s students, there is only one Mr. Caputo: the beloved history teacher who taught them as much about life as he did the American Revolution. Several years ago, one of his former students told me he and his friends were talking one day about what they wanted to be when they grew up. “That’s easy,” one of them said, “I want to be Mr. Caputo.”
That warms my heart because Mike Caputo is one of my best friends.
But a different Mike Caputo has occupied my thoughts lately. Mike’s dad.
Just as Mike’s students, no matter how old, cannot call him anything other than Mr. Caputo, I too only addressed Mike’s dad as “Mister.”
Mr. Caputo didn’t say much, but if a picture is worth a thousand words, Mr. Caputo had a sly smile worth ten thousand. When he did speak, it was memorable and that’s one of the reasons I’ve been thinking about him. Whenever there is tennis on television, as there was the past two weeks with the French Open and will be soon when Wimbledon begins, I cannot help but recall the nickname Mr. Caputo gave Mike and me back when we played tennis every day. Borrowing from the title of the legendary baseball book by Roger Kahn, Mr. Caputo dubbed the two of us “The Boys of Summer.”
Mike and I took up tennis in our early 20s and continued playing until just a couple of years ago (we’re now in our 70s), overcoming all sorts of minor injuries and, in Mike’s case, several surgeries. Our dads, who grew up watching baseball and the Friday Night Fights, knew little of tennis, but when we got into it, they got into it. Not as players, but certainly as fans.
Mike and I were huge Bjorn Borg fans, but watching him play on TV was almost more than we could bear. Our nerves couldn’t take it. Especially if he was losing.
That was the case during the 1980 Wimbledon final against John McEnroe. Mike and his dad were watching at his house and I and my dad at mine. When McEnroe took the first set 6-1, Mike called. “I can’t handle this,” he said. “Let’s go play.”
So we left our dads to their televisions and headed off to the courts. We played about two hours and then returned to our respective homes to face the music. Upon arriving, however, we heard almost the very same words from each of our dads: “Your boy’s still on.”
While we were off trying to forget what we feared would be a Borg shellacking, Borg and McEnroe were crafting what many believe to be the greatest tennis match of all time. It wound up lasting a shade short of four hours, so Mike and I caught the final two sets, including the fourth which drove each of us to the brink.
Borg had come back from the opening set disaster to win the next two sets and appeared on his way to a victory. But the fourth set went into a tie-breaker and when the dust settled, McEnroe had pulled it out 18 to 16.
Everyone, including the announcers and especially Mike and I, could not see how Borg could possibly get it together again after that heartbreaker. But he did. And won the fifth set 8-6.
I believe Mike and I went right out and played again.
But Mr. Caputo, who passed away in 2012 (my dad died in 1994) is in my head these days for another reason.
Last Sunday, my wife and I went to the movies — our first trip to a theater since before the pandemic — to see “In the Heights” and came away bedazzled at the joyous street life of New York’s Washington Heights depicted in the movie. “Do you think that’s actually how it is?” Mary Kay asked, and I answered with a little story about Mr. Caputo.
Mr. Caputo was born in and grew up in Brooklyn. He was a young boy there in the 1930s and early ’40s, and occasionally told tales of street life in his old neighborhood of Italian immigrants.
He talked of playing stickball in the streets and cooling off on hot summer days by running through the spray of open fire hydrants. He also told of he and his friends grabbing their shovels, heading to the beach on the bus, coming home with bags and bags of clams, and their parents taking that bounty and turning it into a full blown festival.
All of which makes me think Mr. Caputo and his buddies were the original “Boys of Summer.”
Ed Ackerman writes The Optimist every week. Look for his blogs online during the week at pittstonprogress.com.