Friday, August 22, 2014

The Residual of Grace

We always knew that July, the last month of our year on the road, was going to be difficult.  This difficulty was created by two factors.  First, everything evolved from Corvalis, Oregon, on June 14.  Exactly, that date and those around it.  After a great deal of dedication, which included taking classes in the early months of this trip, Knightsmama was being graduated from Oregon State University.  Go Beavers!  The second factor, as every pioneer discovered, is that this beautiful country contains a great deal of geography. It is a long way from the Northwest to Texas. 
The Grave of Sitting Bull 
In previous blogs I have mentioned bits of this portion of the journey.  But here it is in a quick list:    Corvalis to Portland to Astoria to Port Angeles and Victoria B.C. down to Mount Ranier over to Montana (maybe my favorite state:  Glacier, Missoula, Bozeman and Livingston, and Little Big Horn), Yellowstone, the Black Hills and Badlands, north to Mobridge, then Mandan, North Dakota.  Finally, we took one long stride through Minnesota to Lake Superior and Ashland, Wisconsin.  If the names don’t ring a bell, there was a great deal of magnificent and startling natural scenery, a boat load of Lewis and Clark history, some American rah rah, and a great deal of Native American grief.   
From there, we had a little more than a week to head south:  Grand Rapids for three nights, Nebraska for 45 minutes, Kansas City and Independence, Missouri, for three nights, Kansas for 15 minutes, Eureka Springs for one night, Will’s Point, Texas, for one night, where I dropped Knightsmama off to tend to her dad, The Buckeroo, and Austin, yesterday. Three days ago, we learned that Captain Crunch had been accepted into a charter school and needed to report pronto.  I got him there today, a day late, all suited up in appropriate clothes, a minor miracle in its own right. 
I suppose you could say that yesterday, August 6, 2014, is the day The Caravan of Wonder ended, one year and two days after it began when we drove the trailer south to Houston to the funeral of my friend, Neal Adams.  Today Captain Crunch began school; Dr. J. drove to Round Rock to see a friend; and I drifted up to work—even though I don’t have to report for duty for another week or so.  Still there is a great deal to digest, and I assume there will be several more blog posts for a few months or so while I catch up on topics deferred.
The National Mustard Museum
I will ease into one today.  The itinerary for July 29th was Madison, Wisconsin, to Cedar Rapids, Iowa.  After a lovely morning at the National Mustard Museum in Middleton, we crossed over the border between Wisconsin and Iowa.  I had persuaded Knightsmama to allow me one little sentimental indulgence.  I wanted to stop by a farm outside Dyersville, Iowa.  It is on the road map as a tourist destination:  the family farm where the baseball/cornfield scenes for the movie The Field of Dreams were filmed.  Getting there is a process that drives a pilot like me a little nutty.  The four-lane highway becomes a two-laner, which with each new turn becomes more narrow and more bumpy, until finally one is driving on a dusty uneven road between huge fields of tall corn.  In our case, I am looking over at Knightsmama, and Knightsmama is glaring back at me, sending me the wife-vibe that says essentially, “This was your idea and if you get us in trouble, you will get us out without any complaining or histrionics, you get me!”
Luckily, just as I was about to whimper in fear, a happy, formal sign shows up and we turn left on to well-maintained gravel road, and there, behold, is the house, the stands, the field, and the corn bordering the outfield.  What is more, there is place to park the monster.  We land safe and sound. Might I add that this is Iowa in late July:  the corn is tall and green and sturdy.  The baseball field, too, is beautifully manicured, no weeds in the infield, a perfect smooth arc where infield dirt and outfield grass meet.   I suppose the field is smaller than regulation, but larger than a softball field.  I mean I made the throw from third base to first somewhat accurately.  I don’t think I could do that on a pro-size field, but still there was plenty of elbow room between third and short and between second and first.
One of Many Displays of
the Many Varieties

When we arrived, several families were roaming the infield.  Some folks were hanging out near the corn break in left field, one guy in an old style uniform.  But by the time Captain Crunch and Dr. J. had grabbed our bag of gloves, balls, and bats and lugged it behind the backstop, these families had scattered and roamed over to the souvenir shed.  I collected some balls, put on my glove, and trudged to a place between the mound and home plate.  Captain Crunch assumed his stance.  Dr. J. wandered over near first base.  Game on.  The Captain knocked a few solid ones to my right at the non-existent short stop.  He looped a couple toward Dr. J. He smashed a couple of liners right at me.  By then Dr. J. was itching for some swings.  At sixteen, he is bigger and stronger than the Captain, but we haven’t purchased a baseball bat since he was in coach pitch and decided baseball was not his sport.  So there he was at six foot five inches swinging a bat made for a ten-year old, but it didn’t take long for him to get the timing and the stride and began popping them pretty solidly. 
If you have been reading this blog all along, you may remember that baseball was almost one of the themes of the trip.  In the second week, I caught a Cardinals-Pirates game in St. Louis.  I spent a good part of one day at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.  We shot some photos at Fenway. The boys and I enjoyed a great day playing catch on the beach in Montauk.   The Captain and I drove around Yankee Stadium one cold November day.  My plans to see games in Florida spring training were dashed when we got called to Texas in January. However, in the spring, our schedules just got too crowded for games in Los Angeles and San Francisco.  By that time, Dr. J. was calling me “Oath Breaker” because one day I said I would play catch, but did not.  I was surprised, but quite thankful that he agreed to join us on “The Field of Dreams.”   The boy can hold a grudge.
You Know You Have Made It
True to the “Build it, and they will come” ethos, as the boys and I continued to bat the ball around, more families showed up and began taking positions on the field.  In one of the most beautiful moments of the day, the man who was wearing the old ball uniform, White Sox, of course,  moseyed from the outfield and offered to pitch to everyone.  One man, who was even bigger in the gut than I am took third base, as I settled in  short left field.  In little league and adult softball, I played second base  or the outfield, though I did make the Temple Little League All  Star Team one year I played third (oh, how we grasp to our past glories!).  The other man’s son took short.  That boy was about a year older than the Captain and had that look of a kid who ate and drank baseball.  He was very good fielder and a sharp hitter.  Should I admit, though, that when he hit and I took over duties at short, I greatly enjoyed firing the ball in time to Dr. J. at first to put him out? Tacky, I know.  But he was fast.
I suppose we hung out playing ball for an hour and a half or so.  The boys got to bat a couple more times.  Somebody had brought a wooden bat, and when it came time for this sixty-one year old fat, gimpy, man, to try his turn, I did well.  I smacked the ball into the outfield several times.  Granted the pitcher was firing at me with, say, 20-30 mile an hour “fast balls.”  But I can tell you that there are few things in this life more enjoyable than swinging a wooden bat, hearing that thwack, and seeing the ball shoot off in a line into the outfield for a good clean hit.  The legs, hips, arms, shoulders, and head all coordinated, doing their part.
Dr. J Plays First, The Dude Play Short.
The Captain Enjoys His Double
I have two people to thank for that pleasure.  Russell Young, back in Temple, Texas, selected me to join the little league teams he coached.  I think the story is than Mr. Young was a local player who almost made it into the majors.  We were young, the Captain’s age, but he taught us kids how to take the game seriously, and we learned the fundamentals, even things like hit and run and squeeze plays.   I never was a great hitter.  I was a decent singles and occasional double sort of guy.  And I had the ability to play the field well, but would make surprising errors if I got nervous.  I still have a tendency to flub up at an important moment, not all the time, rare enough to surprise, but often enough to feel familiar. 
The first person is, of course, my father.  He loved baseball more than any other sport.  He could quote statistics by the player and by the year. Back in Marion, Illinois, as kid in his early twenties in the heart of The Great Depression, he played semi-pro baseball in the summers,  the Marion Redbirds, the Woodsmen of the World.   My dad coached my first two years in little league, but I think because of his work schedule, the assistant coach was the more present adult.  Like me, he was a slightly older than average father to a son.  He was forty-two when I was born, so he would be 52 by the time I was really enjoying the game. As far as a remember, my father sat in the stands every game and cheered me.
As in the movie The Field of Dreams, playing catch was a ritual, one that faded as he got older, but I relished the times he and I would play catch.  During college, I could occasionally entice him into the back yard for few minutes of catch, usually on those days when many family members would gather at the house, and he broiled steaks on the grill.  I don’t remember the last time we wandered into the back yard and put on the gloves.  As parents fade into old age and frailty, and as we enlarge into our responsible adult lives, how do we know when “the last time” for anything is about to occur?
Time to Buy a Postcard

It is a strange thing to play catch with one’s gray, shrinking, tender father.  I remember one afternoon in Temple. Maybe it is a pastiche of many afternoons, but it’s my memory.   I am in my late-late-twenties, I suppose.  My dad is in his early-seventies.  It won’t be long until macular degeneration will make this afternoon impossible.  In the late-spring afternoon sun, he shines like a break in the clouds in his powder blue jump suit.  Jump suits, back then, were all the rage for retired men his age.  The steaks are cooking. Some kids are running around. Young Erich, Christian, Alice, my nieces and nephews. Maybe my step-brother Tom is standing on the patio smiling. Though a tough football player, he’ll toss the baseball around, also.  I am guessing the Atlanta Braves are playing on TBS.   I hand my father a glove.  We lob the ball gently at first, standing fairly close until our arms warm up, then step by step, throw by throw, we pull further apart, but connected even more strongly with the increasing velocity of the ball.  The little kids watch.  Have they seen their grandfather throw a baseball before?  Pop, the ball smacks in the pocket of one of our gloves.  A beautiful sound.
The thing I am looking for, and what I hope the nieces and nephews are seeing, is the residual of grace in my father’s movements.  The ball and right hand resting in the glove on the left hand, the rise of the two hands from waist, then separating as the right arm pulls back and extends behind the shoulder, the left arm unbending and laying itself out, pointing toward me, all coordinated with the gently rising fore knee and the step forward, then the pitching arm following the shoulder and unfurling the ball straight to me.  It is a beautiful move. Pop.  Youthful human bodies on a perfectly manicured baseball field in sunshine like that that shown in Eden before the fall.  One’s aging father in a backyard, loud with grandchildren, and the ghost, the spirit of a twenty-five year old, animating his otherwise thinning, uncertain muscles.  Pop.
We call it “muscle memory,” as if that explained anything. We could also call it “habit” or just plain know-how.  But when watching one’s father, who is a little creaky, a little slower, a little more uncertain in most of his daily activities, catch a ball, and then in one continuous flowing movement wind and unwind the ball right back to you—one time, two times, ten times—without a hitch, without a single falter, one discards the diagnostic language of kinesiology, and witnesses something more simple and primitive.  It is not the memory of youth; it is youth itself.  A happy spirit, the electricity of which is humming and sparking in every nerve of the body.  Joy has not died or abandoned us.  It lives right there in the tips of our fingers, ready once again to trace, unthinking, the stitches of a baseball, as we align it in our hands.  God, the way that ball just sits there comfortably in the gentle vise of the thumb and first two fingers! Pop. 

So I swear that half the time I was playing ball with my sons and a dozen strangers equally sentimental as I on this beautiful little baseball field in northern Iowa, I was tearing up.  For some reason, I am one of these guys with a deep well of grief and joy in equal measures.  My family knows they can’t take me to a movie where somebody dies or where somebody shows unasked for mercy.  So it is not surprising that I had my moments of weak knees and misty eyes on The Field of Dreams.  Now it might have been surprising to some that this fat sixty-one year old could still tag a line drive into the outfield, or that he could catch a pop-up or throw a straight one to first.  I was a little surprised.  But I should not have been.  Watching my sons play and remembering my father in the backyard should have taught me a lesson.  Youth and the grace of a body doing what it loves to do never leaves us.  Forever it waits for an opportunity, an expression, a spark.  And, ah, joy.   

Soundtrack.  Kenny Rogers:  "The Greatest."


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