After weeks in a hospital in New Haven, my father dies from a staphylococcus infection that has settled in his heart. I drive to my old neighborhood on the Rhode Island shore, our house here sold decades ago. And I keep going back. I can’t say why. I tell myself I need to see the beach where I learned how to swim and I end up alone, again, at the same spot, a field, among the scrub and the smell of the salt marsh, the dance of jays and redwing blackbirds and the squawking of gulls.
I park the car and wander, the grass unmown, the chicken-wire backstop gone, the dirt bases overgrown, and I notice as if for the first time how sharply the ground slopes away from shortstop to left field, how deep the right field goes.
What am I looking for? I drive by the houses of the kids I played baseball with. It was basketball in the fall; winters, football, and sleds down my driveway, wooden skis on the golf course.
I’m not nostalgic. Am I? I don’t yearn to resurrect a world. Haunted is a better word. Where have we gone?
Their houses are hard to recognize without the rusted cars and dirt lawns, without the toys and bikes ditched in the yard, and Skip the barking dog. There are additions now and neat lawns, renovations with fresh paint in subdued colors.
I was seven when we moved here in 1950. Boys came up the drive to meet the new kid. Did I play ball? Every kid was needed for baseball and we always needed more. From April to October in twilight, we’d go five against five or six against six, enough for what we called a decent game.
I could see The Field then from our porch. I heard the screams, the sound of bat on ball, the yelling as a runner rounded bases, the whoops after he scored. I’d gobble dinner, plead to leave the dishwashing till later, and bat and glove, one in each hand, I’d sprint, the arms pumping, I’ll never get there, hands on knees gasping for air as I checked into the game. I couldn’t hit well but . . . maybe tonight I can play short.
It could be I’ve come to a field to plant my feet on ground, to steady an unsteady walk. Dad is gone. What am I saying? This sounds foolish.
I was “Butch” here. Only the kids and my family have ever called me “Butch.”
Kenny Crandall’s father howled. You could hear him. The Smiths’ father drank days and didn’t speak, the shades drawn, beer can propped on his belly, and glared at a test-pattern on a black and white TV. The Smiths were eight in a one-story box teetering on concrete blocks that were sometimes in water, Winnapaug salt pond and the Atlantic just outside the door.
My dad was bitter — to the end he felt betrayed. Nights he’d rage — at me, at a boss, at Grampa — and pass out in a chair.
Our fathers left The Field and the basketball court and the golf course to us. We forgot them, the fathers we didn’t talk about. We didn’t please them. We didn’t understand. We felt safe with each other as we chattered about the tidal wave that could take our home and saw the waves break over phone lines during a hurricane with 135 miles per hour winds, the Smiths’ house lifted off its blocks and planted on the 11th hole.
We didn’t please them, our fathers or our God, the entire howling world. We didn’t understand.
We fought–arguments about the rules, about picking even sides, about a runner who ran past a base, about a baseball being foul, arguments that spun into the twilight darkness. We couldn’t quit. We wouldn’t quit. The games were what we had.
The fathers said it was time to grow up.
The night I took a foul ball in the mouth, no catcher’s mask, I can’t remember much except the blood and the boys holding me, arms around my waist, inching me home on wobbly knees down the crushed-stone road to the big house on the hill: “You all right, Butchy-Boy, you all right?” Must have been Randy or was it his brother Kenny . . . “Butchy-Boy, you all right?”
The factory kids, the Crandalls and the Smiths, my first friends, the ones from houses where angry fathers ruled. Kenny Crandall became a foreman in a mill. I read his obituary. Randy Crandall, our quiet leader, lives somewhere in Mississippi. Mike Smith the leftfielder, a professional golfer. The rest, I don’t know. We’ve vanished. We didn’t understand we were temporary.
Like our fathers. Memories in someone’s forgotten field: our backstop, our bases, our grass, our ground. We’re gone.
I got parked in A-division in middle school, the college preparatory division; Kenny, the person I loved most — yellow teeth, foul mouth, the most physical and feared of us all — went to G-division with his brothers and the Smiths, the “dumb division” for kids from reform school, the kids who would take their dads’ jobs at the machines in the textile mills.
We accepted the sorting process like we accepted blue sky. We knew our place and what was expected. The baseball and basketball, the fishing, the football, the skiing and the sledding, a tidal wave that would take us . . .
A field and memories, the blue hydrangeas and rhododendron here still, the blackbirds and the gulls, the smell of the salt marsh, moments of radiance and hardihood, and thankfulness, the boys we were.