I used to take stock of where I was at in my life by the size of my pay cheque and how many stories I’d break during any given season on the beat covering the Edmonton Oilers for the local dailies. I was doing fine on both counts and everything else was pretty much secondary.
That means of measure changed when I met Analyn Agustin and it shifted further and forever at 7:11 p.m. on August 16, 2006, when Samuel Charles Robin Brownlee came into the world — three months early, and on my 48th birthday, no less.
I’ve told Sam’s story here before, including last year, so I won’t repeat it for those who weren’t interested then and might want to click through now in the absence of statistical analysis or any real hockey talk.
A year ago, most of what I wrote focused on how my life had changed since Sam made his dramatic entrance at the Royal Alexandra Hospital as a two-pound preemie just eight weeks after the Oilers unlikely run to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final ended in defeat against the Carolina Hurricanes.
Today, with Sam and I celebrating 54 and 6 and Freedom 55 long ago shot all to hell, I’m looking ahead and contemplating what’s next and about changes to come, as they always do. There are many. These are exciting times, indeed, for the boy and the old man.
DON’T CALL ME BABY, BABY
Sam’s at the age where he gives me the hairy eyeball when I call him "baby boy," as I’m prone to. "I’m not a baby. I’m a big boy now," he insists, striking a pose and flexing his pipe-cleaner thin arms. With Grade 1 looming, a new bike to be delivered today and his training wheels retired, he’s right, of course.
With his baby teeth falling out, a mop of hair I vaguely recall and his ability to fart on command (like-father-like-son), Sam’s come a long way from when Analyn and I would be camped out at neonatal ICU convinced that if we prayed enough we’d will his lungs to develop to the point they’d unhook him from that ventilator. "Just breathe, son. Breathe." When that day came and the odds swung in his favor, we celebrated. When we explain that exact moment, to him now we just say he’s "Lucky Sam." He doesn’t understand. One day, he will.
Sam prefers riding his bike or cruising in my 1960 Biscayne to little boy toys now, which makes him a bonafide chip off the old block. At a show and shine for hotrods in Beaumont this month, Sam got his first ticket. Proud papa? You bet, even if the ticket was fake. In May, Sam and returned home from a drive when he proclaimed, "Mom, the police were after us, but dad is too fast. They couldn’t catch us." Never happened. Honest.
While Sam’s talent at passing gas and ability to fabricate stories make him a candidate for a journalism career, he’s got plenty of time to find a profession with shorter hours and longer pay. So far, his stated career goals, in no order of preference, are policeman, race car driver and to be just like his big brother, Michael (not sure what that pays). For now, a full day of school in Grade 1 in September instead of half-days in kindergarten is the challenge.
"Am I six yet?" Sam asked the other day. "Not yet. Not until Thursday," I said. "I want to be seven and then eight and then 46," he said. "Soon enough," I said. "Finish your cereal." Forty-six? Advanced stats tell me I’ll be 94 then. I changed his diapers, so . . . Fair is Fair. My wife and I laugh out loud. Sam, not knowing what we’re on about, scowls. "What?"
As I write this, Sam is hauling ass up and down the block on his old bike, racing a friend from down the street on his skateboard, hooting and hollering. They don’t seem to care who wins or loses. When you’re six and your whole life is still ahead of you, that’s the way it should be, no?
Like I said, there was a time when chasing the story, whatever it might be, was pretty much everything that mattered. I did it well, and I did it for 25 years or so at the expense of family, friends and my health. Why not? Sports writing is a great scam, especially if you’re reasonably good at it and find your way into one of the good gigs, which I did when I got bumped up from carrying Jim Matheson’s notepad to primary beat man at the Journal in 1998 or so.
What’s not to like? Charter flights. Great hotels. Getting paid to watch hockey games. I used to love strolling around Times Square, usually in the hunt for knock-off Rolex watches. There are worse things than hanging out in L.A. or Tampa Bay or Dallas in mid-January when it’s 30-below here. Chicago and Montreal? Chasing the story wasn’t so bad. It’s not a real job. Problem was, it wasn’t just what I did, it became who I was.
Sam changed all that. For all the perks and laughs I had on the road with friends like Matheson and Rod Phillips and an entourage that included Kevin Quinn, Gene Principe and Kevin Karius over the years, the buzz of beating the keyboard on deadline and running for the bus on the way to the next stop, I found I wasn’t looking forward to jumping another jet in the name of chasing the story nearly as much as the return flight home.
The Sun took care of any angst about that when I was fired in January of 2007 in the name, I was told, of cost-cutting. Being 48 and out of work in a shrinking business with tightening budgets wasn’t a good place to be. Staying home with Sam and watching him grow was. I’ve stayed in the business with freelance gigs since – Metro, Canadian Press, NHL.com and Oilersnation. Thankful I am. Likewise, I’m grateful to Bob Stauffer, who gave me a chance to work his radio show, and Jason Gregor, who still allows me into the studio at TEAM 1260 twice a week to do his show. Damn good men, both.
Truth is, though, I’ve been gravitating away from the media game, partly because of circumstance but mostly by choice. And, while I enjoy keeping my hand in it by contributing here and flapping my gums on Gregor’s show, at least for the time being, I’m taking another step away as I blow out 54 candles on the cake.
LUCKY SAM, LUCKY DAD
I’m returning to my car guy roots. Starting Oct. 1, I’m opening a shop in the west end of the city – I’ve purchased a distributorship with a national chain, Crackmasters, specializing in windshield replacement and repair (no more bitching about busted glass in the Biscayne). It’ll operate, I’m happy to say, as part of Lucky Sam Enterprises.
While it’s a significant departure from what I’ve been doing for a living for almost 30 years, it’s exciting (and scary as hell). It’s a return to the car business that many of my lifelong friends have stayed in since I made a left turn for that white collar gig toting a notepad. I’ve missed having dirt under my fingernails.
At 54 and 6 nothing is status quo. What I know for sure is Sam is going to love that new candy apple red bike when he sees it today. He’ll say, "Cool," just like he does when I put a little right foot into the Biscayne on a Sunday cruise. Sam is going to whip that kid on the skateboard with his new wheels. What I know for sure, this August 16 and however many we have left together, is he is the greatest gift of all.
Happy Birthday, baby boy.
Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TEAM 1260.