Monday, July 4, 2022

 Author's note: The following is an excerpt from Bro. Dick, a remembrance I wrote for my late brother, Richard Louis "Dick" Spooner. He passed away in March 1988; he would have turned 89 on July 6. 

The heart failure kid…

 

Dick was a pretty good ballplayer, a long-legged outfielder who could cover a lot of ground in centerfield. I know this because I insisted on tagging along with him when he played sandlot ball. The Greater Vallejo Recreation District (GVRD) ran a summer program down at Steffan Manor School, just a block from home. Part of that program was a baseball league set up with several divisions based on age. There was the underweight division for the guys ten and under, and then the middleweights for the eleven- and twelve-year-olds. The upper division was—you guessed it—the heavyweights, up to age fifteen if memory serves. There were teams representing schools and playgrounds all around the city, and for a seat-of-the-pants organization, the program was well run and the games very competitive. There were some fine ballplayers around Vallejo who got their start in sandlot ball.

I loved going down to the school with Dick and watching the guys practice or play games. It was just a great place to hang out. The GVRD had two classrooms on the north wing of the school, one for arts and crafts and general activities, and one with two ping-pong tables that were constantly busy. Outside on the courtyard, there were paddle tennis and basketball courts, and then out away from the classrooms were the baseball fields. The staff usually consisted of two or three people, one of them being the designated baseball coach. Typically, the coach was a high school or college student looking to make some spending money during the summer months. Not so at Steffan. We had Mr. Boyle.

Mr. Boyle was a retiree who loved kids and loved baseball and viewed his GVRD job as a way to enjoy both. He had a face like a map of Ireland and his accent told you right away that he hailed from Boston. He was a big, heavyset man with a bulbous nose and a rosy complexion. My guess is that he liked to chase down a shot of Old Bushmill’s with a pint of Guinness, but that’s only a guess. Listening to Mr. Boyle talk was very much like listening to Casey Stengel at his best, one random thought leading to another, connected only by the love of the game.

I’d bug my brother to let me come along down to the playground and he’d eventually relent and take me along, probably under pressure from Mom. My favorite things to do were to cheer at the top of my lungs for the Steffan Manor Heavyweights and then join in the team huddles so that I could listen to Mr. Boyle hold forth.

The ball field at Steffan was terrible! The ground slopped from south to north and over the years, all the topsoil had washed down to a narrow band at the north end. The field itself was pure hardpan. If you were wise, you wore a mouthpiece to protect your teeth from ground balls. That’s how bad it was. But hey, that was sandlot baseball.

I remember one season-ending game that must have been for the city championship or something, because a nice crowd turned out to watch and the atmosphere was electric. Late in the game, the other team put a couple of guys on base with two outs and their big hitter coming to the plate. Well, Big Hitter uncorked a long, high drive to left center, heading out to where the ball field ended and the school playground began, way out toward the monkey bars and swings. You could tell by the crack of the bat that he got all of it. I saw Dick turn and take off on the dead run and I was sure he didn’t have a chance to catch the ball. His best hope was to chase it down and get it back to the infield before the hitter rounded the bases and scored.

Now this is a stretch, but if you ever saw Joe DiMaggio glide across centerfield in Yankee Stadium, then you know what it was like to watch my brother run. There he was, flying after that ball, heading toward the monkey bars, and then he reached up with his left hand and snared the ball in the web of his glove. From way back behind home plate, you could clearly see half the ball protruding from his glove. It was the best catch I had ever seen. It still is.

Steffan won the game and Mr. Boyle was ecstatic! He gathered the team around him and went into a long dissertation about what a great game it was, calling out all the guys who had contributed to the victory, rambling on in his best Stengelese. Somewhere near the end, he got to Dick’s catch: “…and then there’s Spoonah out there in cenahfield, givin’ me heart failyah…”

The Spooners are a family of storytellers. There is a rich tradition of oral history that requires the passing along of classic stories from generation to generation. The story of this game and Mr. Boyle’s speech became part of our family history. Nobody enjoyed telling it more than me. And nobody enjoyed hearing it more than Bro. Dick.


The baseball connection…

 

When I started playing Little League baseball, suddenly the tables were turned. Where I had spent my early years tagging along after my brother, now he was busy following me. Dick became my biggest fan. Well, maybe number three, right behind Mom and Dad. He tried to see as many games as possible, especially when I played on All Star teams and we traveled to tournaments which were generally somewhere in the Central Valley. Dick was stationed at Mather AFB in Sacramento during my Little League days and he’d bring some of his friends and show up wherever we were playing. I’d like to think that we put on a pretty good show most of the time. At least we were seldom ever boring.

When I was ten, Dick followed our All Star team to Menlo Park where we won all of our games. I didn’t play much, but that was okay. I was perfectly happy to let my older teammates carry the load. Then it was on to Marysville where things got really interesting. I was called in to pitch the last two innings of a one-run game which we eventually won. Our winning run was scored on a balk call, a call made by an umpire from Vallejo no less. Then Mom passed out in the stands and had to be taken to the hospital in an ambulance. She was okay, just too much heat and too much excitement. A Vallejo sportswriter said I pitched like I had ice water in my veins. And over on page two was a little article with the headline, “Baseball Too Much For Mom.” What an adventure!

The next year, in a tournament in Stockton, I pitched a no-hitter. Pretty cool for an eleven-year-old! And of course, Mom and Dad and Bro. Dick were there, cheering me on. No ambulances or hospitals on that trip.

When I was twelve, my brother brought his Air Force friends, Jim Bowers and Paul Kilty, to see us play. I vaguely remember that we were playing in Stockton again, but I clearly remember that it was very hot. Seems like it always worked out that way for Vallejo teams. We’d grown up in the cool North Bay with temperatures between sixty-five and seventy-five in the summer. The hot Central Valley always killed us.

Kilty was from Boston and had a very heavy accent. My brother used to challenge him to say things like, “I left my car keys in my khakis.” Of course, it came out, “I left my cah keys in my cahkis.” My brother, the tease.

I was the starting pitcher and I really wanted to have a great game for Dick and his buddies. As it turned out, I just didn’t have it that day. No zip on the fastball, couldn’t find the strike zone. When the coach took me out, we were down 5 to 0 and I was devastated. He sent me to centerfield where I spent most of the time drying my eyes on my sleeve. Henry Rimmer came in to pitch and held the other team in check. Dick loved to watch Henry pitch because he had a silky-smooth wind-up and a pretty leg kick and a sharp little curve ball that broke very late. When Henry was getting that curve in the strike zone he was really tough to hit.

Lo and behold, I hit a three-run home run in fifth inning and we were right back in the game. But it was too late and we wound up losing 5 – 3. After the game, I felt rotten for pitching poorly and letting my teammates down. The tears just kept coming and my sleeve got really wet.

A couple of years ago, fall of 2005, I was sitting at my desk one day and the phone rang. It was Jim Bowers. He had lost touch with Dick over the years and didn’t know that he had died. We chatted for a while and I got the impression that Jim was going through some life-changing event, reaching out to track down old friends from a happier time. Jim remembered coming to the game with Dick and Paul and when he brought it up, my immediate reaction was a total recall of my lousy pitching performance. Funny thing: all Jim remembered was I hit a home run. Go figure.

Dick saw me throw the fifth and final no-hitter of my “career” when I was thirteen. After that, things kind of went downhill. That’s right: I peaked at thirteen. Nonetheless, he remained a loyal fan to the end and wound up following our American Legion team for two summers when I was sixteen and seventeen. That was probably the most fun I had with my brother as a baseball fan.

Stan McWilliams was our legion coach and he’d had a pretty decent run as a professional ballplayer, playing in the Boston Red Sox organization. Stan had an intricate system of offensive signs that he taught us and he’d change them a little for each game. One day I was explaining the signs to Dick and he got very excited and made me promise to go over them with him before every game. So, right before the start of a game, I’d meet Dick down by the bullpen and give him the signs. During the game, if Stan put on a play—a bunt, or hit-and-run, or steal, or squeeze, or whatever—I’d look up in the stands and see my brother elbowing the person sitting next to him because he knew what was coming. He absolutely loved being into the game.

After my playing days were over, Dick had the opportunity to follow his stepson, Richard Rodas, who was an accomplished left-handed pitcher. Rich signed a contract with the Dodgers, came up through the organization and eventually made the big club. It looked like Rich would have a fine major league career until he injured his pitching shoulder while running the bases. He never fully recovered from the injury. But during his climb through the Dodger system, Dick and Monica traveled far and wide to watch him play. Tommy Lasorda was the Dodger manager in those days and I’ve often wondered if Rich ever gave my brother Tommy’s signs.

So, that was our baseball connection. From Dick’s playing days in sandlot ball to Little League tournaments up and down the Central Valley to American Legion games down at good old Wilson Park in Vallejo. From Mr. Boyle to Stan McWilliams to Tommy Lasorda. No matter how you slice it, that’s a lot of hot dogs.

_____


 

 

Tuesday, June 14, 2022

 

In defense of assault weapons…

 

In response to a proposed ban on military-style assault weapons, two members of congress recently spoke out against such a ban:

Rep. Ken Buck (R – Colorado) said the AR-15 is the weapon of choice to kill raccoons and foxes.

Sen. John Thune (R – So. Dakota) said assault weapons are needed to kill prairie dogs.

In a recent press conference, Sen. Thune was questioned by a reporter who recalled hunting ground squirrels as a boy with a .22 caliber bolt-action rifle, and wouldn’t that be sufficient firepower for a prairie dog? Sen. Thune responded by introducing a constituent, Mr. Josiah Fenstermacher, to tell of a harrowing experience.

“I was out huntin’ prairie dogs," Mr. Fenstermacher began, “and I’d taken up a defensive position about twenty yards from a mound. A critter popped its head up and I fired off a short burst. Suddenly, a whole passel of prairie dogs—a ‘ward’, a ‘town’, whatever you call ’em—came charging my position. There must have been a hundred of ’em. All I could see was teeth and claws heading my way, and a high-pitched barking that like to bust my eardrums. I tell ya, it was terrifying! Luckily, I had my AR-15 and a couple of high-capacity magazines. I was able to defeat the attack and defend my position. If I’d been out there with a .22 caliber peashooter, gettin’ off one shot at a time, I wouldn’t be here to tell the story, and that’s a fact!”

Several members of the press corps seemed skeptical, until one gray-haired veteran reminded them that prairie dogs are members of the squirrel family. Former president Jimmy Carter once reported being attacked by a crazed squirrel. His point: war-like squirrels are bipartisan. “It’s not a Republican issue or a Democratic issue, it’s a varmint issue.”

A local reporter who had examined the scene of Fenstermacher’s battle asked if he was sure they were prairie dogs. Only bits and pieces of the animals had been found, given the firepower of the AR-15.

“I know a prairie dog when I see one,” Fenstermacher replied. “Ya seen one, ya seen ’em all.”

The reporters thanked Sen. Thune and Mr. Fenstermacher and decided they would reach out to Rep. Buck to see if his constituents had similar experiences with raccoons and foxes.

“I don’t know about foxes,” said the veteran reporter, “but raccoons can get downright nasty.”

_____

 

 

Friday, June 10, 2022

 

A well regulated Militia…

 

Hey, Mabel! Mabel, where are ya?”

“I’m in here, Hector. What is it?”

“Oh my God! Did you see this, Mabel? This article on the front page of the Times? What in the hell—”

“Dear Lord, Hector, calm down. You’re gonna give yourself a heart attack. What article?”

“Right here, right here! It says congress just passed a new law and the president is going to sign it. Is says you have to have insurance to buy a gun. Insurance!”

“Insurance for what? In case it gets stolen?”

“No. It’s in case your gun is used to injure someone. The injured party or their family can sue you for damages, up to one million…per wound! Ten million if the victim dies.”

“Oh my, Hector! And what’s this insurance gonna cost?”

“Says here the insurance companies are estimating $1,500 per handgun or rifle, and $2,200 for a semi-automatic like my AR-15.”

“Hmmm…so that’s a one-time premium?”

“Hell no, Mabel! Them’s annual premiums, year after year, just like car insurance.”

“Oh my!”

“And get this: ya gotta show proof of insurance to buy ammunition. Ya also gotta insure high-capacity magazines.”

“Hector, you mean if you go down to the range with your AR-15 and use up your ammo, you have to show proof of insurance to buy more?”

“Yes, Mabel, yes! This is outrageous!”

“How in heavens name did a law like this get passed, Hector?”

“It was part of an ‘omnibus spending bill passed under reconciliation’, whatever that means. The rider was tacked on and approved by unanimous consent on a voice vote. Oh, and get this: the insurance companies say they are going to require insured gun owners to be twenty-one, and you gotta pass a gun safety course.”

"What about Mitch McConnell? How did he let this happen?"

"He says it was a procedural thing and has nothin' to do with contributions he received from the insurance lobby."

“Well, we’ll just see what the Supreme Court has to say.”

“Yeah, well, the insurance companies say the states already require proof of insurance to operate a vehicle, and mortgage companies require homeowners’ insurance, and businesses have to carry liability insurance, so they don’t see legal challenges being successful.”

“Okay, Hector, let’s add this up. You got your Glock pistol, your AR-15, your shotgun, and the deer rifle. Oh, and the magazine for the AR-15 that holds a hundred rounds. What’s all that gonna cost to insure?”

“Let’s see…nineteen plus three, carry the two…I get $8,200 per year! And that’s before I buy any ammo. This is outrageous, Mabel!”

“You’re darn right, honey. Just wait till Tucker Carlson hears about this.”

 _____

 

 

Monday, June 6, 2022

 

Legacy

from Children of Vallejo

It is amazing what you remember from your childhood, the scenes you can never erase from your memory. Nick could close his eyes and see his mother kneeling on the dining room floor, lacing up his father’s work boots and tying them in neat double knots. His father’s back hurt so badly he couldn’t bend down to tie them himself. Take a day off? Call in sick? That was out of the question.

            “I’m a working man,” his father would say.

That’s all the explanation that was needed. He would drag himself off to catch the bus, that old, beat-up lunch pail in hand. He was a boilermaker, a trade he learned in the Navy, and he was proud of the fact that he could work any two men into the ground. Nick would see him come home at night with his overalls covered in brick mud, and he knew he'd been crawling in and out of those tiny openings all day, replacing the fire brick in a boiler. He'd take off his dirty overalls out in the garage and make his way to the dining room table, and Nick's mom would help him take off his boots. Nick wanted to tell him to stop, that it was a young man's job and he should let a young man do it, but he knew what the answer would be.

            "I'm a working man."

Nick could still hear his father’s voice saying, “The only things a working man has going for him are his union and the Democratic Party.” Cross a union picket line? Never! Vote for a Republican? You’ve got to be kidding!

Once the bakery workers went on strike for two weeks and Nick’s mom baked bread at home until the strike was over rather than buy non-union bread at the market. He could still remember the smell of fresh baked bread and how it tasted warm from the oven with real butter.

Nick voted for Ronald Reagan once, but his hand shook as he punched the hole in the ballot with the little metal stylus. He’d take a sick day every now and then, but always with a sense of guilt, as though he’d let his father down in some fundamental way. More often than not, he’d shower and shave and go to work, no matter how rotten he felt.

Once he was faced with crossing a picket line. He stood on the corner in front of the office building for a long time and watched the pickets parading with their signs. Finally, he hurried past them and into the building, his eyes fixed on the pavement. Then he rushed to the first men’s room he could find and threw up in the sink.

Funny, the things you carry with you from your childhood.

 

_____

 

 

Monday, May 30, 2022

 Freedom from Fear

The elementary school I attended—Steffan Manor in Vallejo, California—was completed in 1942, the year I was born. As you walked up the steps and through the front door, you entered a small rotunda. Around the cornice, in bold letters, were Franklin Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms: Freedom of Speech; Freedom of Religion; Freedom from Want; Freedom from Fear. FDR enumerated these freedoms as a vision for the world in his State of Union address, delivered January 6, 1941.

I started Kindergarten in 1947, passed through the rotunda nearly every school day for seven years, and grew up believing those freedoms were what America was all about.

Sometime in the early fifties, we began doing air raid drills. At a given signal, we’d crawl under our desks, cover our heads and close our eyes, until the all-clear sounded. This was to protect us in the event of a nuclear attack. I don’t remember being afraid. I still had Freedom from Fear. Maybe I thought that old desk would keep me safe. The drills became old hat, just like fire drills, and we’d get under our desks and do a lot of talking and giggling.

Nowadays, my beautiful grandchildren and great grandchildren have “active shooter” drills, though I’m sure the school districts have come up with euphemisms that don’t frighten the children.

A neighbor tells me the local district conducts fire drills, earthquake drills, and “quiet” drills. She also shared a difficult conversation with her kids, explaining what happened in Uvalde, Texas. Her children are very bright and asked some tough questions. Has it happened before and where? Can it happen again? Honest answers were even tougher than the questions.

I’m wondering what they call active shooter drills at dear old Steffan Manor? And I wonder if kids look up at the cornice around the rotunda and still believe in Freedom from Fear?

_____

 

 

   

Wednesday, May 25, 2022

 

Persistence of Memory

December 14, 2012

from Yeah, What Else?


How long will we remember

twenty dead children

and six dead adults

in a place called Sandy Hook?


Will we remember the killer

and forget the victims?

Will we sing Auld Lang Syne

and simply move on?

 

God knows we've done it before—

Columbine, Virginia Tech, Aurora

Name the victims?

Sorry. Can't recall.

 

Picture the well-equipped first grader:

Backpack, pencil box, ruler,

an apple for the teacher,

and a tiny Kevlar vest.

 

God help us if we forget.

 

_______

 

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Some lessons you never forget...

 

The Lesson

 

from Children of Vallejo

 

Senior year, fall semester 1959. Nick walked up the ramp that led to the second story of the main building. He found the room designated for the class—U.S. History—and took a desk in the middle of the room. The instructor would be Mr. Sauer, and he had the reputation of being a tough taskmaster.

Earl entered the room and took the desk next to Nick. They’d had a few classes together and, though they weren’t close friends, they’d always gotten along well. They chatted casually as the room filled, waiting for the instructor to arrive.

The bell rang and Mr. Sauer made his entrance. Nick had seen him around campus, with his tweed jackets, horn-rimmed glasses, and an expression on his face that suggested chronic indigestion. He dropped a stack of books on the desk and then took his stance behind the old wooden lectern. He proceeded to call roll, constructing a seating chart in the process. When he finished, he wrote rapidly for a minute, ripped a piece of paper from his pad, and then walked down the aisle to Earl’s desk.

You are not in this class.” He dropped the folded piece of paper. “Take this note to your counselor and get reassigned.” He turned and walked away.

Nick was shocked. It seemed like Mr. Sauer was angry, as though Earl had done something to offend him.

Earl looked at Nick and grinned. “See ya around, Nick.” He picked up his books and headed for the door.

Nick looked around at his classmates. Earl’s departure left the class lily white, not a black face in the room.

Mr. Sauer began his opening lecture. We are going to study U.S. History, from the founding of the nation until the present. You will be issued a textbook. There will be supplemental texts. Do your reading. Come prepared. Participate in class. Turn in your work on time. From the expression on his face and the tone of his voice, Nick could tell this was serious business.

“What form of government do we have in the United States?” Mr. Sauer launched into a classic Socratic discussion, using his seating chart to call out names and shine the spotlight in their eyes. He let the discussion roll on for a few minutes. “Okay. Good. What we have …,” he paused for effect and everyone got ready to make a note, “is a republic. Or a representative democracy, if you will. Let’s take that word ‘democracy.’ What does it mean?”

Again, he worked his way through the seating chart, letting students offer definitions. “Okay. Good. What democracy means to me is this…,” pencils poised again, “the recognition of the worth and dignity of every individual.”

It was an electric moment for Nick, one of those ideas that clicks in your brain. He wrote it down and he would remember it the rest of his life. In Nick’s mind, every ideal that we believe and pursue in this country flows from that definition. Equal rights under the law. One man, one vote. Civil rights. Women’s rights. Freedom of speech. The right to assemble peacefully. The list goes on, but it all comes from that idea.

Earl went on to have a fine career as an educator, rising to be an administrator at the community college level. Nick never asked him why old man Sauer had summarily booted him out of the class. But he never forgot either one of them, or the lesson he learned that day about the worth and dignity of every individual.

_____