Summer – Mid 1950’s.
Three stitches were working their way loose. The red strands disengaging from the dirty, stained horsehide. I menacingly tapped the bat in the middle of the crudely shaped home plate. My brother, already stretching to six feet three inches at a mere fourteen years old loomed toweringly close from our makeshift mound. The crunch of tires on the gravel filled driveway preceded the nose of the ancient Hudson as it announced our parents’ return from the local A&P market.
“That’s not a hard ball you’re using, is it?” our mother called from the car’s open window.
“It’s okay, Mom,” my brother replied.
“Not if you break a window!”
“He’s just seven. He can’t hit it that far.” he answered.
Mother lugged the brown grocery bags around to the side mudroom entrance, her path approximating the warning track in left field. Her brief concern about the hard ball was about as severe as her discipline would venture. She wore a patterned dress, circles and squares and not being a church day, sensible shoes.
The air around her always smelled of caution.
Without straining imagination, the back yard of our modest Pawtucket bungalow was a miniature Fenway Park. A short wire fence in right field even had a strange rectangular depression running in front of its length like the bullpen in Boston. Right field was where young Jackie Jensen patrolled for the Red Sox. Fresh out of college, where he had played football as well, Jensen brought some much needed speed to the slow footed roster.
At our backyard ballpark if the ball cleared the right field fence it landed in the Olsen’s yard. Most times you just leaped the fence to retrieve the ball, but occasionally, Charlie Olsen would be out back wandering around. Charlie was a bachelor of indeterminate age who lived with his elderly mother and spinster aunt. Our parents encouraged us to be nice to Charlie because he had the “shakes” from the Korean Conflict. A more thorough explanation of “shakes” would have reduced the youthful, unnecessary fear I had of Charlie. His hair was a burnt orange, fringed with premature grey. Was the grey caused by something horrible he witnessed in a battle? When he spoke, which was not often, his voice had a quiet hesitation. You needed to lean closer, not a viable option for me, to catch the end of his sentences. His blue eyes would look past your right shoulder as he surrendered the ball back over the fence.
Father had noisily popped the Hudson’s hood and was peering incomprehensibly into the maze of mechanical parts that powered the beast. Steam hissed menacingly as it escaped from around the radiator cap. Soon, I knew, Father would be pouring a Clorox bottle full of water into the radiator reservoir, forestalling, for a bit, another roadside catastrophe. Father’s confidence in his mechanical abilities never came close to matching reality.
The Hudson was parked in the center field triangle. At Fenway, this region was owned by Jimmy Piersall, who was battling his own delusions. Piersall, along with Jensen, the only speed the Sox had, played an extremely shallow center and loved to race back to the four hundred foot mark to snag long drives in full stride. I wondered if his mental problems were anything like Charlie’s “shakes” ?
My brother teasingly twirled into his windup, all spindly arms and legs gyrating, hiding the release point of the ball. Yet I trusted that he wouldn’t throw the real heater towards his little brother. The exaggeration motion was all show. Comic relief.
The final most critical detail of our home Fenway was the left field wall. The Green Monster in Boston was replicated in the back of our simple home. It loomed over our little yard and our imaginations. Father had painted the house green and I never dared ask why, fearing he might change his mind and desecrate it with a cream or brown do-over. The only spoilage to the image was a six paned window that brought light onto our kitchen table. The sextuplet squares glistened in the sun as I squinted, trying to decode my brother’s delivery. Of course, at Fenway, left field was reserved for Teddy Ballgame, Theodore Samuel Williams, the greatest hitter of his era. I would sometimes vainly try hitting left handed to emulate #9’s perfect assault on the ball. But from that side I had a hitch in my swing you could tie six horses to. Ted Williams, a boy’s hero in so many ways, had just returned from the Korean Conflict, his second stint of dangerous duty as a fighter pilot. I could never envision Ted with the “shakes”.
My brother’s arm finally reappeared from the whirligig of his windup. He released the ball with a sidearm delivery, the seams spinning crazily as it headed in my direction. I fought my youthful habit of flinching and squeezed the bat tightly, my weight on my back foot. The pitch looked to be about belt high, an orb hurtling toward destiny. I cocked my wrist for extra power and shifted my weight forward as I brought the bat level.
The sound was noticeably different, more violent than anything I had generated before. The ball recoiled off the meat of the bat at an alarming rate. Not my usual squibbler to third or slow roller to the mound. It was my first line drive and it was headed for the Green Monster. More precisely it was headed, unerringly, towards the shimmering glass rectangle in the center of the wall. I watched, mesmerized, as the blast neared the house.
The left pane middle row of the window imploded into our kitchen. A round hole with spidered hair magically appeared. Charlie, browsing in his garden, ducked instinctively at the sound of the explosion. My brother placed his gloved left hand on top of his crewcut.
“What the heck?” my father asked, as he backed into shallow center field, looking to his left.
I stood at home plate frozen by a mixture of fear, pride and amazement.
“I’m sorry, Dad. I never thought he could hit it that far,” my brother said, gallantly falling on his sword for me.
“Quite a poke,” my father mused. “Guess I’d better head to Bunting’s Hardware to get some glass.”
The door to the mudroom creaked open, then clacked shut. My mother turned the corner, coming into view with the offending object held like a bomb in her right hand.
“Can’t hit it that far?” she mimicked my brother.
This time he feigned invisibility. The Hudson roared to life, stealing our mother’s attention.
“Where is your father going?” she worriedly asked.
“Bunting’s, for some glass,” I offered.
“Great! We’ll end up with six broken panes!” she sighed, tossing the ball back towards the mound.
I exhaled for the first time in what seemed like minutes and decided that this disaster would not, in fact, be the thing that would give me the “shakes!”
– END –