Wednesday, November 13, 2013

ONLY TO ME: Installment 3

ONLY TO ME: Installment 3

Say Hey: One of the few times I had absolute confirmation I did well

No one in my family was much of a baseball fan. No one rooted for a team, watched a game on TV or listened to the radio while doing other things so my love for the game wasn’t etched in my DNA nor was it absorbed by countless team logos and paraphernalia.  It came  from the activity. I loved to play ball. Before Little League if I wasn’t out with the kids in our neighborhood engaged in a two-on-two game I was tossing the ball high up in the air to practice catching.

Over and over again and again.  

This activity warrants a bit of detail.  My backyard had several tall trees. Their canopies creating a cavernous arena with a small patch of sky visible where the leaves failed to overlap.  This is where I took aim. I could just barely reach the tree tops throwing underhanded but that wasn’t good enough. I developed a rather awkward overhand throw straight up. 

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 Man did it go. I would sometimes lose the ball in the bright sun above the treetops making it necessary to dart quickly for the catch.  With the ball descending nearly plumb and the need for a quick decision it was difficult to raise my arms in time to make a proper catch. The prescribed method to catch a high fly ball was to bring glove and bare hand side by side to cover and protect ones face. This had been ingrained by some gym teacher, random adult, or maybe picked up from a pal… “Two Hands, Two Hands” was the refrain but I found it much easier to loop my arms out and away from my body and catch the ball down near my belt as if I had a basket in my arms instead of a glove.

I would do this over and over again and again.

When I got to play Little league the hand/glove near the face technique was a very important lesson and I struggled to comply again the refrain “Two Hands, Two Hands”.  I managed to make the team without too many high fly balls so my inability to catch them properly was not an issue. As it transpired I was a pretty good player and soon found myself in center field.  

Our coach, Coach Watson, was an African-American Police Officer.  This was in the mid 60s and I suppose was not the norm at that time even in the little Connecticut town I grew up in.  Prejudice was not yet a vocabulary word for me and I was unaware of the concept; I was just a kid trying to play ball. But an adult, which my coach was, a Police Officer, which my coach was, a Coach which my Coach was was something I was well aware of. I had some big time authority issues going so to avoid them I learned the myriad rules baseball had to offer and tried as hard as I coud not to cause trouble. AND staying out of ANY situation where I became the focus of attention like dropping the ball in deep center field.

I did well racing straight back to grab a frozen rope. Did well going left or right sometimes far enough to catch a ball just behind a fellow fielder who had misjudged an arcing fly ball. But those long, lofting fly balls that hung in the air forever, frozen in place at the apex, just like the ones I had tossed over and over in my backyard, those were the ones where I tried to raise my hands and catch with “Two Hands, Two Hands” but at the last minute I would loop my arms out and away from my face and catch the ball down near my belt as if I had a basket in my arms instead of a glove.

My classmates were diverse ethnically. Thinking back there were more caucasians than children of color but the caucasians compiled no more that two or three from any given european country.  I mention this because I got pretty good and picking up on accents, and figures of speech that each child seemed to bring to conversations but I hardly ever, really, understood what coach Watson was saying. Fortunately, one of the many beautiful things about baseball is the activity can transcend language so I was pretty sure I was doing OK, except of course I knew I didn’t catch the high fly balls right.  

However, this ability did not prepare me for what the Coach would yell every time I did the “loopy” arm catch. In his booming Police Officer voice he would shout “Say Hey, Hey loka dat!” Being way out in Center field didn’t help my comprehension so at that distance I could sense that more than a few parents in attendance seemed to be making comments as well.  This was not good. I knew I wasn’t catching the ball properly and was certain the commotion involved how best to deal with my rule breaking.

The catches and the “Say Heys” continued throughout the season. I could not break the habit and was feeling more and more anxious. One day waiting to be picked up from practice, we had to sit in a dugout chatting among ourselves until one by one we all went home, all the kids had departed and the last adult left, leaving coach Watson with no one to talk to but me. He bent into the opening, assessed the situation, and asked if someone was going to pick me up.  I had been standing, facing the direction my Mother’s car would come willing it to materialize and failing that, hoping to disappear into the cinder block wall. 

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I turned and mumbled something in the affirmative and we both eventually starred out onto the abandoned playing field.

I have no Idea what, where, or how I mustered the courage to say to this adult, this Coach, this Police Officer, a stuttering “Coach, Coa-coa-coach, why a, why do you say, say hey, when I catch them high fly balls?”  Coach Watson froze for a second, blinked a few times, cocked his head, started to say something then raised up to his full height nearly hitting his head on the ceiling.  He propped both fists on his hips and said to me, “You neva heard o’ Willie Mays and his famous basket catch?”

I realized I had not taken a breath since he had blinked and managed to reply “ No ah, n-no” He looked out to the empty field then out over my shoulder to the parking area.  I was sure I’d get it now for all the bad catches. “SIT DOWN” he commanded and wagged his finger toward  the battered wood bench.  I sat down quickly awaiting my punishment.

I don’t remember the words he told to me on that day in that dugout. All I remember is that a Coach, a Police Officer,  an ADULT talked to me, for the first time, like I was a real person.

The next day our class spent time in the school library. I asked, with apparent shocking enthusiasm, if there was a book with all the best baseball players in it. The befuddled librarian quickly regained her composure, seized the opportunity, and directed me to the reference section where I was to look for a baseball encyclopedia.  It didn’t take me long to find Willie Mays for he was in almost every top ten list there was most of the time among the top few. And there was a picture of Willie with his glove and bare hand together near his waist a blurred ball about to land in his glove as if it were a basket. The caption read ‘ Willie Mays and his signature “basket catch”.

And it didn’t take me long to realize I had it all wrong. Yes, I didn’t catch the ball in the prescribed manner but I did catch the ball.  I was good!  Coach Watson loved Baseball, worshiped Willie Mays AND he enjoyed how I played the game.

Monday, November 11, 2013

ONLY TO ME: Installment 2

ONLY TO ME: Installment 2

Seeing the Elephant: The exact moment in my life when I used up all my luck

When I was a kid the Bradlees Shopping Plaza was a huge deal.  It occupied a vast, flat, open area far from the the congestion that was Main Street. I had never seen so much asphalt, 'course us kids called it tar.  It was massive, bigger that a baseball field, longer that a football field with tons of tar to park cars on.  A main thoroughfare ran along one side with the stores opposite.  Good things could be had there and every kid I knew never missed an opportunity to go. Everything I saw on TV was there, lightbulbs, food, baseball gloves and bats and balls, clothespins, watermelons, windshield wipers, pants, shoes, and TOYS!

Goodies! Kid slang in the day for a toy or treat. The key to obtaining... the best chance I had at... the only times I can remember ever REALLY playing my Mom for... when I coerced her into... manipulated a situation to get... OK so I wanted a goodie alright, was to tag along and not appear annoyed, get fidgety, break something or throw a tantrum.  If all went well I would have been rewarded with anything from a plastic dinosaur to a Kit-Kat Bar. Sweet! Actually, I think, Boss! may have been in vogue at the time. A trip to Bradlees was serious Kid business.

On one lazy summer day I pretended to moap as I tagged along with my mom to the drugstore to get who knows what.  The proper amount of moaping was difficult to gauge because the trip held little promise of a "goodie". She had already dropped her "just a quick trip there and back" line so showing the right level of disdain to offset the impending desire for any of the above mentioned goodies was difficult to balance. Having little time to calculate, I slogged into my usual with-a-grown-up-stupor clasped her hand and pretended to be a knuckle dragging caveman, trained monkey, or just about anything but the little boy I was at the time. Reality was for suckers; doubt I had come to that philosophical state of mind at such an early age but I'm certain the groundwork was being lain. As I plodded along deep within my afore mentioned coping method a colorful poster cut through my fog of illusion and I stopped dead in my tracks. The Circus was coming. Wow!  Now there was something to fire up my woefully underserved imagination.  On the poster was a performing elephant, Jugglers, horses, clowns, a large tent, people flying all around, and promises of great and wonderful things too impossible to convey on such a small cardboard placard. My Mom, recovered from the sudden jerk to a stop, saw that I was fixated on the poster, and said "Oh, the Circus, we have to go".  Just like that!  No, "Aw, comon Maw", no "PU-LEEEEEZZZEuhh", nothing.  Some kind of magic just happened, I was sure of it, and the circus must have had something to do with it or maybe it was that large elephant.

Elephants, why had I never thought about elephants before? Big, lumbering, exotic, whether domesticated or in the wild they always appeared to have the same temperament. But what did I know, at the time I was just a kid who's only pachyderm experience came from Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom, movies, or National Geographic. What would one be like in person I wondered?  Big as a house? A Car? Did they smell funny? These questions would just have to wait till the Circus came to town.

At school, when given a chance, every kid spoke of nothing else but the circus.   Writing assignments spewed never before applied adjectives describing the much anticipated Big Top activities. The art teacher had seen such a profusion of circus-esque images that her supplies were nearly exhausted. When our teacher turned to math she asked, "who can give me an example of subtraction?”  Hands shot up wagging madly, accompanied by painful moans. The teacher, surprised by the burst of enthusiasm, smiled broadly and selected one of her, usually, least involved students, little me. I piped up brightly, "If you had four elephants and sub-a-tracted one what would you have?"  Sticking with little me she continued "And what would remain?" Dang, I thought she just wanted an example.  Great, now I had to do some math.  How was i supposed to do math with a head full of elephant?

When the big day came we parked and walked over what seemed like a mile, paid for tickets and squeezed through the gate. During the long walk I had time to survey the transformed sea of tar. But If I had given it any thought I might have come to the conclusion that THIS "Circus" was a bit hokey.  Sure the “BIG TENT” commanded a large part of the parking area and the spinning and twirling rides lit up the night in wild and eerie ways but even as a kid I could tell this was an inferior example.  Then I heard the sound.  A magnificent noise that could only be an elephant. I took off like a shot dragging with me the hand of one of my older brothers, sister, mother, father, or some person I never met before; I didn't know and I didn't care.  There was an elephant over there!

The sound came from a large crowd of people circled around something.  What? Then I saw it.  The elephant! It reared WAYYYYYYY up over the heads of the adults, way up on its hind legs, front legs pawing the inky black night, and that trunk lifted higher still and when it could go no higher let out another beautiful blast .
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I broke free from my restrainer and pushed, prodded, gouged and grappled my way to the front.  What I saw there stopped me in my tracks faster the than the poster did. The elephant was before me.  Not bigger than a house but maybe as big but one that could move, spin, wag its second floor and appeared to have a good time doing it. Huh? HUH! It looked at me. I was certain of it. Right at me.  Did it see me sneak through, cutting in front of everyone? Was I in trouble with this elephant? Any worry or concerns soon faded as that incredible beast danced and frolicked around.  It did what ever the guy with it asked. I suddenly realized I had arrived near the end of the routine and was disappointed until the man announced that Elsie would now attempt to break her record for spinning in place.  The crowd cheered and he explained that we should count out each time her trunk past his outstretched hand.

Slowly Elsie began to turn. From my little kid vantage point I picked up on the gear like intricacy of her footwork front-back-left-right-left, again and again, faster and faster then faster still but they never made a sound.  The speed increased and my attention raised to the incredible bulk rotating above.  I began to focus on the massive profile each time her rotation brought trunk and tail perpendicular to my vantage point. Trunk-tail, tail-trunk, trunk-tail, tail-trunk. She  increased her speed. Trunk-tail, tru... then something different. A pucker?  Something puckered. Yes, there it was again. Below the tail there was movement.  About the same time I realized what was moving, something emitted from the pucker point. I can only describe this by comparing what happened next to the early animations of Sputnik I saw on TV. The view was from outer space looking at earth, the Earth reminded me of Elsie’s backside, then from some indistinguishable point on the surface a projectile launched and arched its way out and away from the surface but curved in a path to begin its orbit one that swooped up and over the viewer.  The only difference, from the sputnik animation, was I had to duck Elsie’s... uh, Poopnicks.  There were many and they traveled fast. The next thing I knew there was a commotion behind me. The Poopnicks took someone down!  A woman had been flattened to the ground, several others splayed out behind her as if someone stepped on a plank into standing wheat and there I was standing alone. The woman seemed disoriented the poopnicks apparently had taken her by surprise. There was an amazing amount of the stuff. Some adult noticed me and shouted "You sure are one lucky little fellow, how'd all that mess miss Ya?”

Was this somehow my fault?  Did Elsie really catch my eye? Had she really seen what I had done and launched her revenge? Impossible. She had finished her spin and based on the cheers Elsie must have achieved her goal. She stood once again and raised up on those huge back legs trunk raised high and trumpeting but all the while I felt her eye upon me. Her triumphant blare resonated deep within my chest. A thought sprang to mind, where would those massive front feet, land? A wave of panic swept over me and I followed it back through the crowd.

I saw the elephant but maybe a little too closely, maybe I acted a bit selfish, maybe I was just a kid and wanted to see the elephant. Elsie surpassed my wildest imaginings but one thing nagged at my little mind.  Why was I the only one aware in time to duck? Was it really luck? I didn't feel lucky. What was luck anyway?  Well by the look of the lady being placed into an ambulance I surely must have used up all mine. That night hers certainly ran low.

Beyond the crowd and back safely with my family as I finished up my sisters cotton candy I felt better about Elsie's piercing gaze and my lucky duck. All I knew was I was just a kid and I wanted see an elephant. Surely Elsie would have understood and maybe I wouldn't need luck anyway. I also knew that the rest of the night could not possibly match my encounter with Elsie but there were still those clowns, THEY looked like fun.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

ONLY TO ME: Installment 1

ONLY TO ME: Installment 1

Out to Vote: Democracy knows when to look the other way

The voting room in the small Connecticut town I lived in was staffed by several elderly volunteers. Each one had apparently been assigned a specific responsibility. Seated behind folding tables, were five freshly permed grey-haired women, slow to move but very pleasant, me, and a determined silence. As the door behind me clicked closed and the noise echoed around the room every silver-coiffed head turned my way.  They weren’t in unison but they all did eventually lock on to their target, me. I was the center of attention. I didn’t like the feeling but voting is an important responsibility and one must suppress any raging paranoias and bask in the power that a single vote brings.

Temporarily frozen I was quick to comprehended the process; one so simplistic that any cow grazing the nearby fields could have easily navigated. I moved to my left where two of the women checked off town’s people from lists before them. One had A through L, the other M through Z according to street address. Once I had properly declared my identity, rubber-tipped fingers flipped pages back and forth, zeroing in on the correct sheet. I was not on the list. The rubbered fingers double-checked as a serious sort of fellow appeared as if from a secret door. He took in the bustle with eyebrows a flutter. Congenial confusion ensued, bemused ignorance on my part countered by a polite tolerance from the volunteers of yet another boob with no clue as to how these things were meant to go. The upshot was I had to see the Registrar of Voters upstairs.

The Registrar’s hair seemed freshly blackened or maybe reddened but lacked the fresh perm in vogue downstairs with the volunteers (see visual aid A).
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 She was slower to move and noticeably less pleasant but got right to the problem. I had moved within the town but had not alerted the office. She consulted an official looking book and with a wave of her hand and a quick "tell them downstairs you're OK" took care of things. Back in the voting room and once again the center of attention I humbly admitted to not remembering moving since the last presidential election. With good natured chuckles all around and ballot in hand I cast my vote and exited, confident that my participation in a free election was certain to make the world a better place.

It wasn't until I stood for a moment, just outside the entrance, radiant with the Democratic process and convinced that the approaching voters could sense the waves of liberty wafting their way, that I noticed my fly had been down the entire time.