Babysitters, Bettors, and Bifocals

A few years ago, I winced when the optometrist bluntly predicted, “The progressive lens. Not yet, but soon.” Progressive lenses. Bifocals. Spectacles. It all sounded to me like a little, old lady, Edna Broadbottom, sitting behind a gray, oversized typewriter with a sweater draped over her shoulders and a beehive on top of her head, transcribing dictation from her portly boss, who would bellow through the intercom for more coffee, 195 degrees exactly, extra sugar, and no cream. “Yes, Mr. Franklin, right away,” she’d answer, and scurry away from her workload to grant his wish.  No, thank you. Mr. Franklin, take your coffee and…  

Anyway, things change with time, including my age, my eyeglass prescription, and my ability to read effortlessly, so I finally bit the bullet, ordered the dreaded progressives, and picked them up yesterday. Lo and behold! Much to my surprise, it was love at first sight… the first sight of every detail in the room, no matter how near or far. It was glorious and reminded me of when I got my first pair of glasses as a ten-year-old.  

When we were little, our Grand-Uncle Bill (Gub, as a loving acronym), would babysit on occasion. On the outside, Gub was a tough, no-nonsense Korean War vet with a gruff voice that matched his seemingly irritated demeanor. Tall with fluffy, white hair on his head and a pack of Chiclets in his shirt pocket, he was an eternal bachelor and a chain smoker, who considered almost everything to be his way or the highway. But he couldn’t fool any of us in his vast, Irish collection of nieces and nephews. We knew that he had a heart of gold and a soft spot for children, which was never more evident to me or my younger brother, Jaime, than when he would take us for a night out at the race track.  

He would swivel his white work van into our driveway and tell us to jump in and sit down. Of course, there were no seats. The entire back of the van was devoid of carpets and passenger seating; it was, after all, a work truck, but he kept two clean buckets in the back for us. Good kids got good buckets. We’d flip them over and sit on them, as Gub’s heavy foot pressed on the accelerator. Never a firm believer in slowing before a stop, he’d slam on the brake every so often, wait long enough for us to topple over and reset our buckets, then hit the gas again when the light turned green. The buckets swished all around the back of the van, as Jaime and I zoomed along with them, holding onto their sides, and screaming laughing.  

At the race track, Gub taught us a lot about probability when explaining how to read the roster and determine a winner from a loser. After making our selection, he’d get in line to place our bets as we waited across the room behind the ropes. One time, I made the mistake of yelling to him after he walked off and got in line. Standing with Jaime, reviewing the roster, I felt compelled to choose a different horse, so I shouted, “Hey, Gub! I changed my mind!” He ignored me, looking coolly at the people around him. “Gub! I want a different horse,” I continued. Finally, to save us all from a night in jail, he shot me a glance over his shoulder that unmistakably snapped, “Can it, kid!” After his purchase, he retrieved us, snarling with mock disdain through clenched teeth, “What the hell, Airhead?” I smiled, knowing that our nicknames, Airhead and Bozo, meant he loved us.  

Later that night, as we watched the horses running across the finish line, I felt distressed, “Aw!” I said to Gub, as I pointed in the other direction, “Look at that poor horse back there, so far behind all the other ones.” He looked but saw nothing. “Where?” he asked. “Right there, see him? He is so far behind.” 

Again, Gub stretched his neck to look, and repeated with more confusion, “Where?” I couldn’t believe he didn’t see it. “Right there! Look! Right where I’m pointing.”  He rolled his eyes and pointed to the exact spot I was pointing to. “That?” he exclaimed. 


“That’s a truck! It’s cleaning the track.” 

That week, I had my eyes checked and received my first pair of glasses soon thereafter. When I tried them on, I was head over heels in love with every detail in sight, just like with the new glasses last night.  

Progressives, huh? I can’t help loving them, but it doesn’t seem like the kind of progress I want to be making. Then again, entertaining children at the horse races is probably not the kind of babysitting activity that would earn someone high ratings on, and yet, those nights at the track with Gub - and Bozo - were among the most precious moments in my life. Things change with time. Call me Airhead, but as far as I can see, it’s all about perspective.