August / September 2019 . . . .


My favorite player is winding down. Winding down, nothing whatsoever like a well-constructed gold pocket watch, which never winds down, not if you keep it out of the weather and don’t bang it around. Rather, coming to an end of this aspect of his life, and preparing, I am hopeful, for the next. And when they speak of him, it is reverently, but in the past tense. How good was he, ago? Oh, very good. And they, the ubiquitous noise trying to keep everyone’s attention away from everyone else, then talk about what’s happening now. Because that is what they believe we are interested in. Now, this immediate thunderclap instant. Who’s great now? Really? And how great are they? Oh, better than anyone has ever been. An absurdity, of course, both in question and response, but no one cares. Or, rather, no one cares that I think so.

I’m not a big fan of now. Oh, I live in it; I comprehend the idea that the dishes need washing, that the car’s oil change is today, but I frequently find myself thinking about yesterday (it rained) and last month and 1789 and the weeks after Julius Caesar was assassinated. I think about the first moon landing, not because it was exactly fifty years ago and isn’t that so cool, but because it was summer and a good one at that, and the Mets’ Tom Terrific Seaver was Dad’s go-to-guy for afternoon entertainment on the color TV he’d borrowed from the school AV department so we could watch games. (And why not? — no one at school was using it at the moment.)

The room where said TV resided had been recently added to our old house — a sunny, spacious addition off the hallway from the living room to the kitchen — entry to which was punched through the back of a walk-in coat closet. I don’t expect you to visually grasp that, but suffice to say that you had to go through a gloomy little room to get to the television. (Yep, I actually had nightmares about being stuck in the TV room because of the monsters in the pass-through closet.)

Dad had found an old pleather La-Z-Boy chair somewhere, but it broke almost the day it was introduced to our house, so he’d turned it around and tipped it on its back so we kids could sit on the chair-back and lean back on the seat. Mom was not pleased with the resulting aesthetic, but nothing went to waste at the Somers’.

Games were not a formal affair. You could talk if you wanted. That is, I would ask questions and Dad would answer. Hey, can we name our next cat Cleon Jones? How come Ralph Kiner is famous? Where was Flushing, and why was it called Flushing? We chuckled at the possibilities on that one. There was always the delay — if the announcers were speaking or something exciting happened on field — between my query and his response. At eleven I was only just learning about real baseball. Not that we didn’t play tons of baseball-ish games — softball, whiffle-ball, pepper, stickball and home-run derby. I threw a ball at the side of the house for about five minutes until Mom quashed that. Then I threw it up on the roof (we had an interesting house, with many tricky gables) until it got stuck in the gutter for the rest of the summer.

Dad taught me about sandwiches. He made me a liverwurst, ketchup, and muenster on pumpernickel. My god, I thought. Where has this been all my life? He ate his with a Piels Real Draft in an old Rutgers beer-stein. I had mine with a cold glass of water. Best ever, I kid you not.

That summer I bought my first packet of baseball cards. Before then, I would never have released from my iron grip a nickel for anything other than Bazooka bubble gum. My pack contained but one precious Met card — Donn Clendenon, the big first baseman. He was wearing a black hat (his card was an airbrushed Pirates uniform) and he’d just joined the team around when school let out for summer, when the Mets were so far out of first place that it was impossible to imagine anything that would happen that fall. Nevertheless, by the combined chance of product-marketing and random selection off the drugstore shelf, he was my guy.

By the time the astronauts landed on the moon, the Metsies were . . . fantastically “in contention,” a term that Dad explained to me meant that they were winning far more than anyone ever imagined they would. Throughout August we watched almost every televised game, with me staring closely at the little screen looking for Clendenon. He platooned that summer with Ed Kranepool at first, so if he wasn’t there, I sat in front of the TV and read instead.

That summer there were so many books for me to choose — at eleven I was precociously on the cusp of leaving behind the children’s books and entering the realm of grown-up books. I read a lot, but the one I kept coming back to was Jean Craighead George’s masterpiece My Side of the Mountain. The marvelous appeal of running away from home to the Catskill mountains, living off the fat of the land. Frightful the falcon! And Sam Gribley writing down his story, with pictures, on birch bark.

Did I already want to be a writer? Not yet, not quite, but there was already something here, the nucleus of an idea feeding on the marvel of strolling into the public library (our town’s was just across the street from my house) and seeing all of this summer’s bestsellers arranged on a table — The Godfather, Slaughterhouse-Five, The Andromeda Strain. 1969 was a very good year for readers. At night, in their living-room chairs beneath lamplight, they read; Mom working on William Armstrong’s Sounder and Dad deep into the Bruce Catton Civil War epic Grant Takes Command. Our dining room had hundreds of books on four large white pine bookshelves. Perched atop the shelves were five-gallon aquariums humming and bubbling, Mollies and Platies, Guppies, Corydoras and Angels darting around within. What, they must have wondered, was I looking at beneath them? The revelatory spines of Dad and Mom’s book collection.

I think I started looking at their shelves about the same time I stopped watching cartoons on Saturday mornings, going outside early to smack newly-fallen walnuts into the woods with a stick, where in my imagination I was Clendenon hitting home-runs into right-field stands at Shea. Many of those volumes are now in my possession. Dad’s copy of Paths of Glory. His Ben-Hur. Two small collections of Robert Service’s poems. A coffee-table book pictorial history of World War II. Mom’s copies of The Water Is Wide and The Endless Steppe.

I just finished the lovely memoir “The Lambs” by Carole George. If there is such a thing, this is a perfect book. Happy, sad, sweet, occasionally silly. The illustrations seem to be her own snapshots — intimate, captured happenstance. Her writing-voice is easy to listen to, and the paper thick and creamy. It is a book built with regard for the reader, and meant to be kept on a shelf for years. A volume to be brought out each summer when the rain keeps one off the field, or in the evening in a comfortable chair with a good lamp, to be read aloud to someone you love. In a couple of weeks I’m bringing it with me to Mom’s, for just that purpose.