Hugging Smoke (Little Anniversaries)
The Bike Patrol, 2018
By Jim Daly
Giclee, 22" x 28"
At some point in your childhood, you went outside to play for the last time, and nobody knew it.”
-From the 1993 movie Sandlot
It’s a classic line from a classic period piece and one of my favorites. This line has surfaced in meme form across many social media platforms. It’s early July, it’s midsummer, it’s mid-season (baseball), and it’s my wedding anniversary (26 years) and I came across this quote and it struck a chord. Chances are that those social media posts were posted by someone my age or slightly older, but it’s the kind of thing that stops you in your tracks and makes you think, then think some more. Suddenly there’s a rush of childhood memories that blow through my head like a summer breeze through my kitchen window. The kind of thing that makes you stop, close your eyes and just vacate your current state of being. Remembering is a sensation that sometimes feels like a free fall, or it can be a feeling that makes you feel like you’ve floated up over all the minutia of the suburban sprawl to a place back in time. Yes, we discount a lot of our memories as the they get embellished every time we recall them, but as those memories are aged, they get sweeter and somewhat complex like a barrel of aged scotch. Let me paint you a picture, and for a moment, let me take you back to Hague Street circa 1980.
Most summer days started somewhere between 9 and 9:30, give or take. Many kids back then rolled out of bed and had a bowl of cereal then went outside to play before their parents even had coffee. Like I said, it was a different time. Then I would spend the next hour or so actively recruiting neighborhood kids to make up a decent roster. Out I went on my Schwinn Orange Krate and started with the brothers that lived a few doors down, they were usually definites. Once we had a base of four kids, then they in turn would also assist in the recruitment process. Now keep in mind, none of this was done over phone lines, dial up or push button, it was almost strictly by bike or on foot. We’d try our best to round up as many warm bodies as we could in a 6-block radius. I’d say 70% of the kids we’d try to get to play ball flat out sucked, but if they were willing then they were in!
Schwinn Orange Krate
Sting Ray, circa 1975
Like college recruiters scouting the nation’s finest athletes by traveling all over the country to find that diamond in the rough, we too had our work cut out for us. We had to deal with parents, chore lists and punishments in the form of grounding. Most often than not we’d succeed and have at least 10 to 14 kids show up in the back of Grainger’s where there was a huge grassy lot that backed up to the railroad tracks. We’d line up on the fence and pick captains. I was almost always a captain because, well, I was probably the best all-around ballplayer, if I do say so myself. We’d have enough kids to have an infield and a couple of outfielders. I remember each team that was up to bat had to supply the catcher. Other than myself, not many other kids could pitch, but there were a couple of studs. Sounds easy, but throwing a baseball over home plate (usually a metal garbage can lid) without hitting the batter wasn’t easy at all. We had to deal with a lot of nonsense. Because it was an open field, we had to deal with a lot of throwing over the batter’s head, countless foul balls and many wasted pitches.
Now, we could play in that field during the day because it really didn’t interfere with Grainger’s business. Us kids weren’t in the way of customers or parking or daily deliveries. There were those rare days when the guys from the warehouse would watch and cheer, and even more rare, they’d jump in to play for a few minutes on their lunch break.
Illustration from book
All about Sports, 1946
Next door to Grainger’s was a factory called Woerner’s that manufactured church furniture, that’s where we played our evening games. It had a huge brick wall, so we didn’t need a catcher for those games, just a piece of chalk to mark a square outline of a strike zone on the wall. The paved lot was semi contained by large fences on three sides. We could play there on weekends too because they were closed other than a few people probably getting in a little overtime. It was a big parking lot lit by all the lights on each of the buildings, which extended playing time another couple of innings into the twilight. Now, this was a problem due to the “be home before the street lights come on” stipulation in every kid’s contract.
We played a lot of baseball. It didn’t matter if your house was better than mine, if you had one or two parents, if you had siblings or not, or if you had a glove and bat or not, we always had an extra glove and a spot for you play. I’d say during those summers (between 1978-1982), on any given week, we’d play 3-4 days a week, all day. We’d decide on a 5 or 7 inning game and as soon as we were done, we’d switch up teams and keep playing. The better ballplayers, like myself, also played in leagues. It was baseball all day every day, and it was hands down the best part of my childhood.
Baseball Player Mowing the Lawn
By Stevan Dohanos
At some point, getting kids to meet and play got harder and harder. And just like the quote from Sandlot says, it just stopped. Did anyone else think at that moment, while hitting a ball to the railroad tracks and chasing each other around the bases, this is going to be my favorite childhood memory? Maybe not, we all remember thing differently, but none the less, one of those back lot ballgames was the last time we all played together.
So, I guess I’ve been thinking a lot about the “last of things”. We all close chapters in our lives and start new ones, on and on it goes. Some of those moments are far easier to identify and commemorate than others like the last time you walk out of high school as a graduate, or the last day of a job because there’s a date attached to them. Times like those grassy sandlot days or the last time me and my high school buddies piled into my friend’s little car and went slam dancing at our favorite punk club are more difficult to pinpoint. Think about the first time you ever had your heart broken or the first time you had sex. Shouldn’t those things have little anniversaries attached to them? Those are the memories that we tell over and over, only to have the details of those moments dull and fade. Our memories are like photo copies of photo copies. Each time we reminisce we fill in the blanks of all those lost details with a fond sentiment, and that’s ok. Perhaps it an argument for keeping a diary, but most of us don’t give journaling it’s due diligence.
As I write this post, it’s mid-day, mid-summer and it’s quiet. There are the sounds of the expressway nearby but not much else. All the kids on my street are grown. That’s to say, there’s no laughing or nerf gun clicking or sound effects. There are no water balloon fights, no playing with the hose, and no wet kids running around the yard sticky with melted popsicles. Perhaps the challenge then is to forge new moments that we can time stamp, which is easy these days with the invention of social media. They say live everyday like it’s your last, well, that’s a little depressing frankly. I prefer be aware of your surroundings. Not in the sense that danger lurks, but it could be the last time you…
Like I just mentioned, in the story of your life, you finish chapters only to start new ones. Those summers in the early 80’s was the last chapter of an otherwise depressing childhood, except for those sandlot days. The Fall of 1982 a whole new book would begin. It’s a story about a boy and a girl from literally opposite sides of the tracks, they meet in sixth grade and well…26 years of marriage later and we’re still writing the story.
All these years later, baseball still runs through my blood as does remembering, particularly in the wistful moments of a quiet summer afternoon. All those distant memories are hard to hold on to, it’s like hugging smoke. You can see those memories and even smell and taste them, only for them to exist for a moment then slowly vanish before your eyes. So, I suggest you find someone and somewhere this summer to take a moment to share a couple drinks and remember a long-ago summer memory and just drift away.