No Crying In Baseball

June 8, 2011 at 9:46 PM | Posted in Journal | Leave a comment
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I got out the Turtle Wax to get nostalgic about the past.  Summer–I remember the summer of 1976.
Maybe this is my “Sandlot” moment.  Maybe not.  However, fifth and sixth grade are always a magical time in a young boy’s life.
My first crush, Donna Bilyeu.  My foray into a life of crime as a street urchin.  My first development of social interaction.  How did these events shape me, and make the person I am today?

Although I was raised in the country, for two years we lived “in town.”  The differences were vast.
This is the mid-seventies, living in a city in the St Louis Metro East area.  Cars, traffic, hustle, bustle, people, activity–all of these things were a whirlwind that I, an introverted innocent country lad, adapted to easily.
I had a specific memory that I wanted to write about, but others are coming to mind.  I’ve talked about my life of crime already.  This is more about school.
Our school had a playground in front, asphalt, and fenced in to keep us from going out into the busy street.  The back was a very large playground.  Half was asphalt and half was dirt, but during the previous summer the back was asphalted also.  I guess it makes it better to play softball on?
There were two sixth grade classes because this was a big school.  Two male teachers, Mr Dresch and Mr Goldsmith.  I had heard all kinds of scary things about Mr Goldsmith, and didn’t want to be in his class.
So of course I was.  Before school started, the room assignments were posted.  Man, why did I have all the shitty luck?
As it turns out, Mr Goldsmith was a pretty cool teacher.  He was smart, he was funny, and he knew how to communicate with us hooligans.  Although…
One day for PE we are out on the asphalt playing softball.  The large class is divided into two teams, and positions were random.  On this occasion, I was catcher.  I think Goldsmith assigned me this position so I would have some practice throwing and catching, because I was not athletically inclined in the strictest sense of the word.  Or any sense, really.  Goldsmith was pitching.
I’m doing the usual amount of fumbling around that looks like an uncomfortable montage, but for the most part I catch the ball and more or less return it.  Here’s the windup, here’s the pitch–strike two!
I caught the softball in my throat.
Yeah, not in my nuts, which would have been funnier.  So sorry to disappoint you assholes.
Was my windpipe crushed?  It hurt like a sonofabitch.  Was that a fastball?  A fastball with a softball intended for grade school kids?  I was having trouble breathing.  Was I injured, or just hyperventilating?  It was about 35 years ago so I don’t remember what Mr Goldsmith said to me, but the essence of it was, “Man up.  Get back in there and catch.”
Contrast that with how we coddle and pussify our kids today.

The year before that, in fifth grade, I had to deal with a couple of bullies.  Why do they always seem to want to pick on me?  Did I seem that soft?  Was I an easy target?  A pushover?
The first kid I remember his name.  Wayne Welch.  He had dark hair in a crew cut, and a square face.  And he always smelled like pee.  He tried to hassle me a few times, and I didn’t respond correctly, so eventually it just led to him calling me names and occasionally trying to check me in hallway.
Of course, I had 30 pounds on him, and he usually bounced off ridiculously.
The other kid I don’t remember his name.  Let’s call him Stevie.  When I was in fifth grade, he was in sixth.  I never saw him much, except out on the playground during recess, which is really just an exercise in anarchy with a time limit.  He tried to bully me on the playground, and I was timid, so I put up with it.
Ever notice how most bullies aren’t really good at bullying?
I don’t know why–maybe I talked to an older kid and he told me to stand up for myself, and said it in such a way as to be convincing–but one day on the playground, he made his usual advance, expecting a retreat from me.
Instead, I pushed him back.  He pushed me back.
I don’t think I was fat–let’s call it Husky, like the jeans I wore.  Stevie was a few inches taller but possibly weighed less–he was very skinny.
He pushed me back, and I punched him.
He had a look of complete shock on his face, like he had just woken up and I was standing over him.  I punched him a few more times, and he may have swung wildly at me.  But he was retreating in a circle.
Like a car accident, a crowd gathered around us.  The 200 year-old black woman that was the playground monitor was off somewhere else and couldn’t see this far.
But as quickly as it had started, it was over.  Stevie gave; he capitulated.  He tried to save face—what else are you gonna do?–by saying that he has asthma and was having trouble breathing, and it was making him dizzy.  His nosebleed, too, was a side effect of this condition, and not the result of any punches I might have landed.
Which I kind of believe.  I think I was going for body punches.  The face never occurred to me.
Afterward we talked, and he tried to get chummy with me.  I didn’t understand much of what was going on.  The whole episode seemed strange to me.  But he was respectful if not friendly after that.  I never had a problem with Wayne Welch after that either.
But why in God’s name would someone that is a skinny, frail, asthmatic bleeder try to take on the role of a bully?

I got into two other fights that I remember.  One was epic.  The other one, not so much.
Behind the school, behind the playground and past the gravel alley, was the graveyard.  This was the standard meeting place for fights after school.  And we never went deep into the graveyard either–it was always right at the corner right at the entrance.
I ended up fighting someone there, someone I didn’t know.  It had to be an older kid, most likely a seventh grader.  Those seventh graders were all hardcore, tough as nails.  Bikers.  Gangbangers.  JDs.  That stands for juvenile delinquents.
Whatever happened, I got my ass kicked.  I was hurt, bruised, probably had a bloody nose, and my hands hurt from fighting back.  It happened quick and it was over, and I was left alone to get on my bike and ride home.  Man, I hope Dad wasn’t home.
But he was.  From a block away as I rode up, I could see him out by the car doing some kind of Dad thing.  Shit, what was my story?  A fight?  I didn’t want to get in trouble for fighting, even though nothing ever led me to believe that I would be, except that it should be the natural order of things.  I fell of my bike.  That’s it.
But the emotions from the fight welled up inside me and before I pulled into the driveway I was crying.
Dad didn’t buy the falling off the bike story.  He also knew that I wasn’t crying a few seconds ago.  He was able to put it together that I had been in a fight.  I wasn’t in trouble, but I would be if I kept crying.  Go get cleaned up.
That was the end of that.

How long can a fight go on?  Most fights rarely last more than a minute or two, except in the movies.
I had a wide variety of friends and friends of friends that I hung out with, and also friends that were not part of my regular group of friends.  One of those was Mark Walker.  He was a small, perpetually swarthy looking kid with thin lips, greasy hair, and a wild look in his eyes.
We used to play together on occasion, and hang out sometimes.  I never noticed it, but he never wanted to come around when I was hanging out with my other friends, Randy and Jay.
I don’t know how it happened, but one day during the summer we were in the back grassy lot of the Lutheran school that was about a hundred feet from our house.  The whole gang was there–a lot of people that I knew and some that I didn’t.  Mark and his older brother came around.  There was some interaction, some tension, some drama–
And ultimately it was decided that the solution would be had if Mark and I fought.
It took us a while to get started.  I didn’t really want to, and he didn’t want to get within my reach because I was bigger than him.  Eventually we started to brawl, and we fell into an odd pattern:  He would rush me, throw a bunch of wild punches that landed about 17% of the time, and then I would take one swing, right as his head, and knock him back, knock him down.
He would get up and rush me again, and I would punch him once and knock him down.  Repeat.
This went on for what seemed like hours.  But really–and as I said most fights are over in less than a minute–this went on for a good twenty minutes.
Eventually it was over, and Mark and his brother left.  They were on our turf, after all.  The Lutheran Church was ours.
That historic fight lived on in our memories, and I guess I earned some street cred from the guys.  They never talked about it around me, though.
But after that, Mark and I were never friends again.  I don’t know what the external causes were, but I felt like I was being made to choose between “the gang”–and him.

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