Growing up, I was the oldest of four children in our family. I had two brothers and a sister, who was the youngest. When I say “had,” I don’t mean to suggest that I don’t have them anymore. We are all still alive, although the reality is complicated as it is for many families once children grow up. Just ask Christopher Robin. Better yet, Eugene O’Neill.
Although I never had a big brother, I did have an older cousin who knocked me around a few times because he could (his reach was greater than mine) and an even older cousin who acted like Estella from Great Expectations and nearly bit off my finger one night while babysitting me. I had gotten between her and her boyfriend–literally–after he snuck into the house once my parents had left. I still like to bring it up once in a while for sympathy.
At the time of the finger episode, we lived across the street from a city park. I would go there to play baseball and stickball, pitch pennies, or hang out with my friends. Teens and young adults from around the neighborhood hung out there, too, congregating in one particular corner, smoking cigarettes, sitting on the railing, and talking. They’d play their car radios.
One afternoon I found myself alone in the park, which didn’t happen very often. So, I started pitching a rubber, Spaulding ball against the strike zone my friends and I had drawn in chalk on the brick wall of the bandstand in the middle of the park. Before too long a young adult came over and started talking to me. He showed me how to throw a curve ball and then pitched to me as I stood at the strike zone with a stickball bat at the ready. I connected for a few grounders and even hit a high fly into the patch of dirt that we used as an infield beyond the water fountain.
After some time we finished playing, got a drink of water, and sat down on a cement bench together. He told me about his family, his professional baseball career, how he had to give it up when the Army drafted him, and the battles he fought in the war. He explained how rifles and grenades work and that the jungle was filled with swamps and snakes and things that made you stay awake all night for fear of being eaten alive.
Naturally, I was mesmerized. How could I not be? I was sitting with a guy who had seen it all, lived it all, and survived to tell about it. Not only that, but he took the time to explain it to me in detail. And who was I but some random kid who happened to be in the park when no one else was around?
Not only that, but he took the time to explain it to me in detail.
We spent more time talking about the difference between a curve ball and a slider, how to angle your elbow when you hold the bat, and what to do when a grenade lands near you. Finally, he got up to leave. He took out a cigarette, asked if I wanted one, thought better about it, and then flipped it into his mouth, lighting up. I asked if I could see him again. He said sure, just come by anytime. Then he hopped into his car and sped off down the street.
I was so excited I went back to the park every day at the same time for a week straight, then a second week. But I never saw him. I had just about given up when one afternoon I spotted him in a group of teens as I was playing with friends on our makeshift field. I dropped everything and raced over to him.
To my shock, he ignored me. I called out to him, but he pretended not to hear. He tried waving me off. I told him I wanted to hear about his baseball career and the war and all the great things he did. Then one of his friends asked if he had been telling “that kid over there” lies about his being some kind of hero. He denied it but they laughed at him anyway. He insisted, “I’m telling you, the kid’s off his rocker!” Then he turned to me and, with utter desperation in his voice, told me to get lost. I stood there for a moment or two, more confused than hurt, and trudged back home.
I could hear them talking about me as I walked away. “Kid’s crazy,” they said. “Yeah,” my guy agreed, shaking his head, “Crazy. I just don’t know what got into him.”
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