Friday, August 5, 2022

 

Uncle Pat

from Yeah, What Else?

 

There was a great commercial that ran during the recent (2012) baseball playoffs and World Series. Former Cubs pitcher Kerry Wood is walking along the ivy-covered outfield wall at Wrigley Field with a State Farm agent, talking about the “discount double-check.” Kerry says he used to do an “ivy double-check” before home games, because people leave all kinds of things in the ivy. He reaches in and pulls out an old cell phone, a French horn, and—surprise—Andre Dawson, a Cubs star and Hall of Famer from the late-eighties.

I can envision my own version of that walk. I would reach into the ivy and out would come my uncle, Frank “Pat” Pieper, and George Herman “Babe” Ruth.

Uncle Pat was born in Hanover, Germany, in February of 1886. The family immigrated to the U.S. and settled in Denver. As a young man, Pat left home for Chicago to seek his fortune. He went to work for the Cubs organization in 1904, starting as a vendor at the West Side Grounds where the Cubs played their games. When the franchise was purchased and moved to what is now Wrigley Field in 1916, he became the field announcer.

Uncle Pat’s job was to announce the lineups, the batters, the defensive changes, and so on. One problem: Wrigley Field did not have a public address (PA) system until 1932. From 1916 until the system was installed, he made his announcements by way of a very large megaphone. I’ve seen pictures from those days captioned “Pat Pieper and his Pipes.”

When the PA system was installed in 1932, Uncle Pat was given a small table near the backstop, behind home plate on the third base side. And that’s where he worked until he was past his eightieth birthday and the club decided to move him to the press box for safety.

During his fifty-nine years as the Cubs field announcer, he missed only sixteen games; none after 1924. His signature line, one you would hear before every home game, was this: “Attention… attention please… have your pencils and scorecards ready and I’ll give you the correct lineups for today’s ballgame…” My wife Barbara grew up in Chicago attending games at Wrigley Field and she remembers the voice and that familiar phrase. She was back at the stadium for a game in the summer of 1975 and she realized that something had changed. The familiar voice wasn't there. Later she learned Pat Pieper had passed away in October 1974.

He is honored with a star on the Cubs Walk of Fame outside the ballpark. In the summer of 2002, I was in Chicago to visit my dear friends, Lee Nidetz and Moira Higgins, and help them celebrate the ten-year anniversary of their consulting firm, Technology Staffing Resources, Inc. Part of that celebration was a trip to Wrigley Field to see the Cubs play the Giants. As we waited outside the stadium for our group to assemble, I found myself standing next to the Walk of Fame. Moira snapped a picture of me with Uncle Pat’s star.

 

Now, what about Babe Ruth, the other guy that I pulled out of the ivy? Well, that brings us to the legend of the Called Shot Homerun.

It was the third game of the 1932 World Series, Cubs vs. the Yankees at Wrigley Field. Babe came to bat in the fifth inning, Charlie Root on the mound for the Cubs. The Cubs bench was riding Ruth mercilessly, and the Babe was giving it right back to them. With two strikes, Ruth began to gesture with his right hand, a fact confirmed years later by the discovery of a home movie taken by Matt Kandle, Sr. Was Ruth pointing at the Cubs dugout? Was he pointing at Charlie Root? Or was he pointing to the center field wall, indicating that’s where he would hit the ball? Whatever the case, he hit the next pitch an estimated 440 feet into the right center field bleachers. The Yankees won game three and then won game four to sweep the series.

A New York sportswriter, Joe Williams, was the one who coined the phrase “Called Shot.” No one else but Mr. Williams seemed to notice. Babe Ruth didn’t say anything about it for several days, but finally seemed to realize it made for a great story. Did he really call his shot? There is testimony on both sides saying “yes he did” or “no he didn’t.” From my research, the consensus is this: we’ll never know for sure.

But wait a minute. What about the field announcer, sitting back there by the backstop? What did Pat Pieper have to say? In an interview with the Loveland (Colorado) Reporter-Herald, given in June 1971, this is what he said:

 

Don’t let anybody tell you the Babe didn’t point to the bleachers before he slammed that homer off Charlie Root. I know, I had the best seat in the house. Babe shouted to Guy Bush, the Cub pitcher who was heckling him from the bench: ‘That’s two strikes, but watch this,’ as he pointed to the right field stands. Root came in belt high with the next pitch and, wham, it was gone.

 

So, after all the experts have had their say and after all the eyewitnesses are long gone, what are we to believe? I don’t know about you, but I think I’ll go with Uncle Pat.



 

Monday, July 25, 2022

A new book for your consideration...


 

The Lake Forest Writers’ Roundtable has published its second anthology of short stories and poems titled The Truth That Can’t Be Told 2. In the first volume, there were ten contributors; in this one there are twenty. Which is to say you will find new work by authors you enjoyed in Book 1, along with fresh and exciting new voices. I’m proud to say three of my short stories are included.

C.W. Spooner

You will find The Truth That Can't Be Told 2 on Amazon.com in Kindle, paperback, and hardcover editions.

 

Stories range from baseball tales to encounters with aliens and supernatural creatures, mysteries, family dramas, war stories and literary pieces… There is something for everyone within these pages. We invite you to read and enjoy.


Casey Dorman

author of Ezekiel's Brain, The Oedipus Murders, Finding Martin Bloom

and many more.

_____





Friday, July 22, 2022

 

Delivery Boy Blues

from Yeah, What Else?


T
he engine began to sputter and cough and cut out, then surge again. I looked at the gas gauge and my
eyes nearly popped out of my head. It wasn’t just on empty; the needle was below the “E,” resting on that little metal peg on the far end of the arc. After a few more coughs and spurts, there was dead silence as I steered the tiny BMW Isetta off to the side of the road, flat out of gas.

“Oh no! You idiot!” I yelled. “How could you not check the gas gauge?”

This was it, the final straw, a clear-cut firing offense. But wait a minute. What was that down the road about a quarter mile? It was a gas station with the lights burning brightly. Maybe, just maybe, I could still salvage this situation. I popped open the door and jumped out, slammed it hard and locked it carefully, and took off on an all-out sprint toward the lights of the station.

I was beginning my senior year at Vallejo High School, and my after school and Saturday job was to be the official delivery boy for Wessel’s Pharmacy. My ball-playing friends, Frank Bodie and Joey Butler, had worked for the Wessels, but they had graduated and were heading off to college. When I heard about the opening, I applied for the job right away. This was considered a plum position, especially when you considered that you got to zip all around town in the Isetta, affectionately known as the “Drug Bug.” The Wessels used it prominently in their advertising: order your prescriptions from Wessel’s and the Drug Bug will bring them right to your door.

Wessel’s Pharmacy was located about a block east of the El Rey Theater at the corner of Tennessee and Monterey streets. It was a pleasant storefront on the south side of Tennessee. There were rows of shelves filled with cosmetics and health aids and sundries as you came into the store, and the pharmacy counter was in the rear. Bud and Thelma Wessel were the owner-operators and, except for the delivery boy, were the only employees. If memory serves, the Wessels were only in their fifties, but the hard pace was beginning to take its toll. I heard that they were in financial trouble but determined to overcome the situation by sheer hard work. They were there to open the store in the morning, and they were there an hour or so after the 9:00 p.m. closing time, six days a week. And they were exhausted.

There is a story about Mrs. Wessel convincing her husband to take an evening off and go home to get some rest. When he left, he forgot something important that he intended to take home, so Mrs. W sent the delivery boy (probably Frank or Joey) to take it to him. When he arrived, there was Mr. Wessel parked in the driveway, sound asleep behind the wheel. He couldn’t even make it into the house.

Thelma Wessel was a short, heavy-set woman with a very sweet disposition. She smiled and laughed easily and it was easy to like her. Bud Wessel was another story. He was tall and slim with gray hair that was rapidly going white. He wore reading glasses that tended to slide down his nose and when he looked at you, he would drop his chin so that he could gaze over those glasses. That gaze could be withering when he was angry, but occasionally, you could get a smile and a laugh and his eyes would twinkle. He truly looked the part of the wise and trusted pharmacist.

I think it was Joey who warned me that Mr. Wessel was not easy to get along with. I was so happy to have the job that I paid little attention to that warning. My mom saw to it that I received an allowance every week and when I started working, we kept that arrangement. I just endorsed my paycheck from Wessel’s and gave it to her. It really wasn’t much, but it made me feel good to think that I was helping out.

Mr. W and I never really hit it off, mainly because I couldn’t seem to do anything right. When I got to the store after school, there were generally a half dozen prescriptions to be delivered, and my primary duty was to get organized and plan the route carefully, minimizing travel time and the distance between stops. There were maps available to assist in this task and, after all, I’d grown up in Vallejo. I thought I knew my way around. Somehow, I just couldn’t get it right. I managed to get lost frequently and always took too long to complete my deliveries, at least in the eyes of Mr. Wessel.

Mrs. Wessel would occasionally give me a short list of items to pick up at the market when I was out. If she gave me five items, I usually managed to get at least two of them wrong. Three-for-five is good in baseball, but not so hot on a trip to the market.

On slow nights, they would give me busy work to do, jobs like dusting the bottles of medicine on the shelves in the pharmacy. I couldn’t even seem to do that correctly, prompting Mr. Wessel to patiently explain once again what he expected. I’d march in every day determined to do better, but the harder I tried, the worse it seemed to get.

Simply put, I had become a perpetual screw-up.

The biggest source of tension between Mr. Wessel and me was the Drug Bug. He loved that little Isetta beyond all understanding. It was his baby. It was a temperamental little beast and I never quite got the hang of it. When it had been sitting for an extended period of time, there was a strict sequence of steps you had to follow before you turned the key to engage the starter. If you didn’t execute the sequence precisely, the bug would backfire. That tiny vehicle could produce a cannon blast that was truly amazing. I seldom ever got it right. The Isetta would backfire and as I chugged off down the street, Mr. Wessel would pop his head out the side door of the building and glare at me over his glasses.

And now there I was, running as hard as I could for the bright lights of the service station, desperately trying to recover from yet another mistake. I raced onto the lot and headed for the small office next to the service bay. Suddenly a huge grin broke across my face. Sitting in the office was my friend Frankie Arellano. I was so glad to see him, I could have kissed him right there.

“Frank! I didn’t know you worked here.”

“Hi, Charlie. What’s up?”

“I ran out of gas down the road. I’m out delivering prescriptions for Wessel’s. Can I get a can of gas—fast?”

“Sure, I’ve got a can right here.”

In a matter of minutes, I was sprinting back toward the Drug Bug, the gas can banging against my leg. I dumped the gas into the tank, jumped in and turned the key. The little Isetta backfired happily as the engine sprang to life. I made a quick stop at the station to return the can.

“How much do I owe you, Frankie?”

“Forget it. It’s on the house.”

“Thanks, buddy. You’re saving my life.”

With that, I was back on the road. The whole episode cost me no more than twenty minutes. On the way back to the pharmacy after my deliveries, I decided that if Frank and I were the only people in the world who ever knew about this little adventure that would be just fine.

A few days later, I showed up for work to find Mr. Wessel sitting at the counter in the back of the store with a ledger book open in front of him. He was in a great mood and actually smiled at me as I came in. It seems he kept a detailed record of the Isetta’s performance and there had been a miraculous spike in the miles per gallon. He showed me the numbers and said, “Isn’t that amazing? How could that happen?” He was ecstatic. I felt my stomach drop as I realized that it was my “free” gallon of gas that had skewed the numbers. Frankie didn’t charge me for it, so I didn’t enter it in the delivery log. I didn’t know Mr. W tracked every detail with such precision. I just shrugged and went about planning my afternoon deliveries.

Years later when I would tell this story, I would say that Mr. Wessel was so happy, I didn’t have the heart to tell him what really happened. The truth is I didn’t have the guts to admit to another compound screw-up.

It wasn’t too long after that when things came to a head. I came into work on Saturday morning, received my paycheck from Mrs. Wessel, and set about doing odd jobs until some prescriptions were ready for delivery. Once again, I wasn’t performing the tasks to Bud Wessel’s satisfaction. He launched into a very calm, quiet, patient lecture about how he wanted things done. He might as well have been screaming in my face. I snapped. I couldn’t take anymore.

“That’s it,” I said. “Nothing I do is good enough for you. I quit!” With that I stormed toward the door.

“You know,” he said very calmly, “you got paid for today. It’s included in your check.”

I stopped dead in my tracks and turned around. I had no clue what to do at that point. I was utterly destroyed, no longer the abused worker standing up for my dignity and self-respect, just a humiliated kid without a leg to stand on. I took a tentative step back into the store, deciding lamely that I’d have to finish out that day on the job.

“No,” Mr. Wessel said, “that’s okay. It’s probably better if you go.”

I headed for home, wiping my eyes on my sleeve, trying to decide how to tell my mom that I’d quit my job and why. My “career” with Wessel’s Pharmacy had lasted just a couple of months.

Mr. Wessel did an interesting thing after I quit. He wrote a letter to my mom. It arrived in the mail a few days later. He wrote that he was sure I was a fine, intelligent young man with a bright future. He was sorry that things had not worked out, but he wished only the best for me and our entire family. It was a kind and generous thing to do and I felt my anger toward him begin to melt away.

It couldn’t have been more than a couple of years later that I heard Bud Wessel had died. I knew exactly what had happened: he’d finally worked himself to death. I felt a heavy sadness for him and for Mrs. Wessel too.

Hopefully we learn something as we live through these experiences. So, what are the lessons learned from all of this? Don’t put extra pressure on yourself, because it won’t make you a diamond. Work hard and do the best you can, but don’t take it home with you. Don’t think you need to have all the answers, and if you are struggling, reach out for help.

That’s a pretty good list for starters. It’s great if you are smart and lucky and you only have to learn those lessons once. If smart and lucky aren’t your things, well then, you get to learn them over and over again.

More than six decades later, I’m only sure of one thing: I still owe Frankie Arellano for that gallon of gas.

_____

 

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.

_____

Tuesday, May 3, 2022

Sing a simple song...

Sunday, October 6, 1968

from ’68 – A novel

Ellamae hurried into the little church, pausing to say hello to friends as she passed, heading toward her customary seat near the front of the sanctuary. She loved sitting up front where she could enjoy the choir and see their expressions change as the music moved them. And she didn’t want to miss a word of the sermon delivered by Rev. Booker T. Redman, affectionately known as “Boomer” among his congregants. Boomer Redman was blessed with a magnificent voice, a rolling basso profundo that could rattle the stained-glass windows and carry out into the parking lot. When he spoke the word of God, no one dozed off…

The service proceeded as usual: several hymns, a scripture lesson, a rousing performance by the choir, announcements from the current president of the congregation, and finally, it was time for the sermon.

Rev. Redman stepped to the pulpit and it was clear he was a troubled man this day. His brow was furrowed, his lips pinched together tightly, as though someone or something had hit him in the gut. He adjusted the microphone, though he didn’t need it, raised his eyes to look out upon his flock, and began:

 

“Where have all the flowers gone? / Long time passing …”


So goes the folk song popular a few years ago. The song teaches us the answer: Young girls pick the flowers. The young girls go to young men. The young men go for soldiers. Soldiers go to graveyards. Graveyards go to flowers. And so, the cycle is completed, only to begin again…and again. We are left with the haunting question: “When will we ever learn?”


Just a simple little song. Or is it? We look around our community today and we see the story set in motion: Young men taken from among us, caught in the draft, or enlisting to avoid it, and then—gone for soldiers, every one.


Are these young men the children of the Upper Class? Are they the children of the prosperous Middle Class? Or, my brothers and sisters, are they primarily the children of the working poor? In other words, our children!


Young men from the barrios and ghettos of our cities, sons of coal miners in rural Appalachia and sharecroppers in the Deep South, black and brown—and yes—white. Our young men, our children. Gone for soldiers, every one.

             With money and influence, there are options to consider: college deferment; conscientious objector status; a rare spot in the Reserve or National Guard. And if all else fails, leave the country. Head north to the bosom of our friends in Canada.

           The recruiters flock to our neighborhoods. Enlist, they say, and you can learn a useful skill. Enlist and there will be money for college when you get out. Never mind that your school system left you reading at a fourth-grade level. Enlist for the promise of a brighter future.


When you come home, we’ll take care of you. The VA will see to your needs. We won’t leave you to the streets, with alcohol on your breath and needle tracks on your arms. We won’t leave you to be spat upon and called baby killer. Trust us. Sign here.


            Brothers and sisters, look around you. Look at the young men sent home with broken minds and bodies, fending for themselves out on the streets, the only useful skill they’ve been taught: to kill or be killed.


I say to you it is time for the cycle to end, time for our young men to soldier no more, time to end the perpetuation of the Warrior Class culled from the families of the working poor, cannon fodder for the war machine.


It is time to say, Hell no, we won’t go. Time to answer the age-old question: “When will we ever learn?”


Amen.


This was not a typical sermon for Rev. Redman. He generally stayed close to home, basing his message on the day’s scripture lesson as it applied to life in the 20th century. His preference was to leave politics to the politicians. His message this day caught the congregation off guard. Of course, there had been the customary cries of “Amen” during the sermon, offered up to punctuate the traditional call-and-response style. But Boomer Redman had been oddly subdued in his delivery, raising his voice only to punctuate our children and Hell no, we won’t go. His final line—When will we ever learn?—was delivered just above a whisper. The overall impact was stunning: his message had been driven home with the intensity of a sledgehammer…

_____


 

  

Saturday, April 30, 2022

Remembering April 30, 1975...

 

Peace with Honor

 

from Children of Vallejo

 

Martin sat in his wheelchair watching the images on the television screen: desperate men, women, and children scrambling up the staircase on the roof of the U.S. embassy in Saigon, attempting to board the helicopter, their last chance to escape. How many would make it? How many would be left behind, and what would happen to them? Martin wanted to scream, to throw something at the screen, but there was nothing within reach.

His physical therapist entered the room, come to take him for his daily regimen of learning to walk again. Allison was a fine professional: strong, knowledgeable, compassionate, dedicated. She looked at Martin’s face, then at the television screen. She found the remote and turned it off. It was quiet then, for a moment.

“Look, that’s not your concern, Lieutenant. It’s over. It’s done. Listen to me—”

“Yeah.”

“That’s not your life anymore. Are you listening?”

“Yeah.”

“It’s done with. Nothing more you can do. Okay?”

“Right.”

“You did your job. You did the best you could. True?

“Yeah.”

“Now your job is to get well and to walk out of here. Got it?”

“Sure.”

“All right then, let’s get this show on the road. Got a tough day’s work ahead.” She took control of his chair and wheeled him through the door and into the hall.

Martin didn’t answer. He knew she was right. This was his life now: to work, to learn, to get stronger every day, and as she said, to walk out of this damn VA hospital. Vietnam wasn’t his problem anymore. The dead and the wounded weren’t his problem either. How many dead? Was it fifty thousand? How many wounded? He couldn’t remember. This place was full of them, kids mostly. Some would recover, live fairly normal lives. Some would not. Some would swallow a gun or shoot poison in their veins. Some would drink themselves to death.

And for what? Don’t think about that.

What was accomplished? Don’t even go there.

Why were we there? Just forget about it.

And what about the innocent civilians ripped apart in the crossfire? God help us!

No, you went where they sent you and you did your job. Now let it go.

It’s not your life anymore, Martin. It’s done and it’s not part of you, not ever again.

None of it.

Not one friggin’ goddamn bit.

_____

 

Thursday, April 14, 2022

My hometown - a Remembrance...

 

Vallejo Remembered

 

from Children of Vallejo


Vallejo, California, sits at the north end of San Francisco Bay where the Napa River empties into the Carquinez Strait. For nearly all its existence, Vallejo was a blue-collar, lunch-pail town, home to Mare Island Naval Shipyard, the first shipyard established on the West Coast. The city was founded in 1850 and the shipyard in 1854, but it doesn’t matter which came first. They grew to be one and the same, their destinies inextricably linked. If you lived in Vallejo, it is likely you either worked on “the yard” or you made your living providing services to those who did.

            During World War II, the ranks of civilian workers on the yard grew to more than forty-six thousand, and the work went on twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. The workers who flocked to the government payroll were farmers fleeing the dust bowl states, blacks escaping poverty in the rural south, and people of every conceivable ethnic composition. Their overwhelming numbers put a strain on the local housing market and the federal government responded by building housing tracts that dotted the hills around the city. The tracts had names like Federal Terrace, Carquinez Heights and Chabot Terrace, and though they were called apartments, they looked for all the world like military barracks.

The people lived and worked together, and their children went to school and played together on the playgrounds and in the recreation centers. Kids grew up tough in the federal projects, tough and hungry to achieve. Many went on to be successful in business and politics, sports and the professions, but they never forgot where they came from. They never forgot what it was like to grow up in a hard place and fight to keep what was theirs. If a true melting pot existed in America, it was there in the tenements of federal housing.

Through it all, the shipyard prospered as one of the Navy’s major repair depots for the Pacific Fleet, and it earned its stripes as a shipbuilding facility. More than five hundred naval vessels were built there, including the USS California, the only U.S. battleship built on the West Coast. On November 20, 1919, when the California slid down the shipway into the muddy Mare Island Strait, the brake lines could not hold and she continued across the channel and onto the mud flats on the city side. She would find herself settled in the mud once again, on December 7, 1941, at Pearl Harbor. But the California would rise to fight in battles all across the Pacific, a history followed with great pride by all those who touched her at Mare Island.

When ships put into Mare Island for repair, their crews headed for town and some well-deserved liberty. Waiting for them there was an amazing enterprise zone. Georgia Street, the main street of town, ran east from the waterfront, and the west end of Georgia and several adjacent streets became known as Lower Georgia. Here the sailors found a vast array of cafes and shops, bars and honky-tonks, flophouses and brothels, all eagerly waiting to serve them. Lower Georgia became notorious throughout the Pacific Fleet as a place where anything goes. The city fathers did not interfere with commerce in this city within a city. Better to have the sailors doing business on Lower Georgia than chasing their daughters in the decent neighborhoods.

World War II came to a close and the troops came home and went to school on the G.I. Bill. Before long, the Korean War began to dominate the news and it looked as if the shipyard would be kept busy indefinitely. The prosperity of the Eisenhower years arrived and the Cold War heated up, giving the shipyard yet another boost. Mare Island built a series of nuclear submarines—seventeen in all—and sent them out to keep an eye on those pesky Soviets.

The city grew to the east, beyond Highway 40, which soon became Interstate 80. New housing tracts popped up everywhere and the shipyard workers began to buy the new two- and three-bedroom homes and move out of government housing. There was one catch: those leaving the barracks/apartments were white and those staying behind were, for the most part, black. Redlining wasn’t invented in Vallejo, but it certainly flourished there. And so, the former melting pot morphed into a ghetto and racial tensions at times reached the breaking point.

That was Vallejo during and after World War II. But all things considered, it was a good place to grow up. The city hummed to the rhythm of the shipyard, and every kid knew when the five o’clock whistle blew it was time to head home for dinner. The playgrounds and parks and gyms were busy with whatever sport was in season. There were miles of shoreline—from Southampton Bay, to the Carquinez Strait, and up the Napa River—to be fished for striped bass, sturgeon, and the lowly flounder. The hills to the north and east were there for hiking or hunting ground squirrels and jackrabbits, and there were a half-dozen abandoned mines to be explored—if you dared.

And if none of that was appealing, well, you could always invent your own adventure. Not a difficult task for the Children of Vallejo.

 

Vallejo Revisited

 

Can you go home again? With all due respect to Thomas Wolfe, sure you can. Just take the Georgia Street exit from I-80 and head east a few blocks.

The streets where you played touch football are very narrow and the houses that seemed roomy then look tiny now. The church your father helped build is still there at the corner of Georgia and Cedar. And across the street is the first school you attended with its formal rotunda that fronts the auditorium, the rotunda with Franklin Roosevelt’s four freedoms emblazoned around the cornice: Freedom From Want, Freedom From Fear, Freedom Of Speech, Freedom Of Religion—just as you remembered. Some things never change.

Of course, there are many changes and they are obvious as you drive into Vallejo today, beginning with the major amusement park sprawled across the space once occupied by the Lake Chabot Golf Course. Upscale homes now dot the hills that surround the city, extending all the way to the water’s edge at Glen Cove. Down from the hills and the gated communities, the flatlands appear to be somewhat long in the tooth, a little worse for wear. On the campus of Vallejo High, the stately two-story main building is gone, torn down over concerns about earthquake safety. In the downtown area, there is yet another attempt to rebuild and revitalize, and it looks like the effort has gained some traction. There is an attractive waterfront walk with a great view of the shipyard. And, the notorious Lower Georgia area is long gone, cleared out decades ago.

The biggest change, the one that will require generations to absorb, is the closing of the shipyard. The Navy decided in 1996 that Mare Island’s usefulness had run its course. The decline had been underway for many years, but it’s still hard to think of Vallejo and not think of the yard. Where will people work? How does a blue-collar, lunch-pail, Navy shipbuilding town transition to a bedroom community? How will kids know when it is time to head home without the five o’clock whistle? Now efforts are underway to “convert” the yard to private industry. Similar transitions around the country have met with mixed success. One can only hope that Mare Island will flourish in the private sector.

If you were born in the Naval Hospital at Mare Island and raised in this town, and your father and your uncle and your cousin worked there, as did the parents of most of your friends, then a walk along the waterfront can tug at your emotions. You look across the water and you are struck by the fact that it still looks like the great industrial complex it once was. It has that unmistakable profile, with the docks and the massive shops and cranes and smokestacks. But two things are clearly missing. First, there are no ships in sight on a cool fall evening, something unheard of in a history that reaches back to 1854. Second, and even more striking, is the dead quiet. Dead quiet where once there was the constant hum and clank and bang and hiss and rat-a-tat-tat that happens when you are in the business of turning steel into warships.

They say a memorial is planned for Mare Island and that is a good thing. People from all over should be able to come and learn about the history of the place. They should learn about the ships built there that helped win World War II, such as the destroyer USS Ward, or the battleship California. And what about the cruiser Indianapolis, repaired there before embarking on her final voyage, a mission that would change the course of history? And let’s not forget the seventeen nuclear submarines that helped win the cold war, including the Polaris sub Mariano G. Vallejo, one of the famous “Forty-one for Freedom.” It is a rich history and it should not be forgotten. As Casey Stengel liked to say: “You could look it up.”

You can go home again, but only to visit. In the end, you feel like an outsider, one of those who left hoping for bigger and better things. And yet there is no changing the fact that this place is a part of you, probably a larger part than you realize. Someone once said, “You can take the boy out of Vallejo, but you can’t take Vallejo out of the boy.” She didn’t mean it as a compliment, but that doesn’t matter. It turns out she was right.

_____

 

 

Saturday, April 2, 2022

An old favorite from 2012 revisited...

 

The Day Joe Came to Town

 

from Yeah, What Else?

 

Vallejo Little League received its charter and held its first player draft in 1952. As I write this (April 2012), the league has just celebrated its sixty-first opening day. That’s a remarkable milestone, especially for those of us who were there for the first one. But the one many of us will never forget was opening day 1954.

That’s the day Joe DiMaggio came to town.


Joseph Paul DiMaggio. Joltin’ Joe. The Yankee Clipper. Thirteen seasons with the Yankees, thirteen times an all-star, and three times league MVP. Nine World Series championships. A lifetime .325 batting average. He of the venerable fifty-six game hitting streak achieved in 1941, arguably a record that will stand forever. The man who retired in 1951 at the relatively young age of thirty-seven because chronic injuries prevented him from playing like Joe DiMaggio.


He wouldn’t give the fans anything less.


First, a little background. Vallejo Little League played its first two seasons at an all-dirt diamond located at Tennessee Street and Highway 40, on land owned by Ed Case of Ed Case’s Minit-Man Car Wash. It’s pretty remarkable to think of it now. There were four teams, fifteen players to a team, sixty kids in total for the entire city of Vallejo. That very first year, the post-season All-Star team came within one win in Santa Monica of advancing to the World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. But then Vallejo was a great baseball town, with talent developed on the sandlots under the recreation district program managed by Lyston Johnson. When you picked the best players from that talent pool, it’s no wonder they were successful.

But that was 1952. In 1954, we were moving to our permanent home: Callen Field at the corner of Amador and Florida Streets. It was a diamond with real grass in the infield and outfield, grandstands on both sides, and a two-story building behind the backstop that would house a snack bar, equipment storage, a meeting room, and a press box. From that second story perch behind home plate, Ray Denny would broadcast our games live on the local radio station.

Opening day 1954 was an occasion to be celebrated. As it turned out, it was a day we would never forget.

Al Manfredi was a twelve-year-old third baseman for Steffen’s Sport Shop, one of the four sponsored teams in the league. (The other sponsors were Marine Chevrolet, Case’s Car Wash, and The Optimist Club.) Al’s father, a respected pharmacist and businessman, happened to be a friend of Dominic DiMaggio. Dom was known as “The Little Professor,” one of three DiMaggio brothers, along with Vince and Joe, to come out of San Francisco and play major league baseball. Mr. Manfredi would see Dom from time to time at the family’s restaurant on Fisherman’s Wharf. They were discussing Little League baseball one day and he asked Dom if Joe would consider coming to opening day ceremonies. Dom said he didn’t know, but he would ask. About two weeks before opening day 1954, Mr. Manfredi received a call from Dom: “Joe says he will be there.”

That didn’t leave much time for planning, but I think everyone would agree that Joe made it as easy as possible. With teams lined up around the base lines and the stands packed with friends and family, he stood in the infield and made a few remarks. He posed for a picture with each team. He even posed for some small group and personal photos.

One of those shots included Ronnie Smith, Jerry Warren, and Bruce Bigelow of the Steffen’s Sport Shop team. Bruce had that picture blown up and framed, sitting where everyone could see it in his home. Eddie Hewitt, who played for the Optimist Club, remembers a photo that appeared in the Times-Herald showing Joe holding a bat, giving batting tips to my teammate Steve Cox. Steve hit a homerun that day. I’ll bet Steve held on to that picture too. [Author’s note: I’d post the photos but they’ve gone missing. Dang!]

Joe also sat for an interview with sportswriter Don Gleason that appeared in the Times-Herald, our local newspaper. Of course, Gleason had to ask the question that was on everyone’s mind: “So, Joe, where is Marilyn?”

Joe and Marilyn Monroe were married in January of 1954, and their stormy relationship was still in the honeymoon stage. Joe’s answer was that Marilyn was off making a movie. Checking her filmography, my guess is that she was shooting There’s No Business Like Show Business, released in December 1954. Her next film would be The Seven Year Itch, which began production in September of that year and included the famous scene of Marilyn standing on a subway grate, the wind blowing her skirt up over her head. The filming of that event, through repeated takes, reportedly made Joe furious and the couple had a horrendous fight as a result.

Marilyn filed for divorce a month later. The marriage lasted just nine months, or in Joe’s case, for the rest of his life. It is the stuff of legend now. How they were rumored to be getting back together again, just before her death in 1962. How he claimed her body, took over the arrangements for her funeral, and kept it small, quiet, and dignified. How for twenty years, he had roses delivered to her crypt three times a week.

In 1967, The Graduate was released. It was the film that launched Dustin Hoffman’s career and it included an evocative soundtrack by Simon and Garfunkel. One of the songs, “Mrs. Robinson,” included the following lines:

 

Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio

Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you

 

What’s that you say, Mrs. Robinson

Joltin’ Joe has left and gone away

 

I remember Joe being interviewed on television and being asked what he thought Paul Simon meant by those lines. Joe said, “Ya know, I have no idea.”

I think he was being modest. We all knew what Simon was getting at. The war in Vietnam was at its high point, with more than five hundred thousand men and women deployed there. It was the age of the credibility gap—that vast disconnect between what we were being told at home versus what we could see every night on our television screens. Paul Simon was saying, Where are our heroes? Where are the men and women of integrity? Where are the people we can count on?

Funny thing: that was a long time ago, but the questions remain the same.


So here we are at opening day 2012. I wonder if Vallejo Little League had any special guests, and what words of encouragement they had to offer? I wonder how many kids were there in uniform, listening to the adults ramble on, itching to get the ceremony over with and the games underway? And I wonder what those kids—and the adults—would say if you told them Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio stood on Callen Field on its very first opening day in 1954?


I wonder…

_____