Excursions

The Shape of Things ….

The greatest lesson my parents taught me is that, when all is said and done, time is the only currency that truly matters.

Despite that knowledge, I am often shamed by how poorly I choose to invest it. Maybe you can relate to that.

When I’m at my worst, I choose escape. When I’m my better self, I hunt.

Escape is the more seductive and available choice, especially in this Age of Distraction.

Compounding my many (many) issues, is that I’ve never been great about finding work’s off switch. The issue is me, not my work (which is actually pretty cool). As my family will tell you, I often let it into the house, sit at our table, steal my attention. “You’re not here,” they’ll tell me. Even though I recognize it as it’s happening, I still allow myself to be led further and further away from the present moment, from what’s right in front of me. Only to then find myself having to hitch a ride back to the simple, fleeting moments that secretly matter the most when all is said and done.

I’m better than I used to be, but not as good as I know I should be.

A couple months ago while fumbling for the off switch, I decided to go for a walk around the block. I was escaping, not hunting. I left the duration ambiguous, and just started up the hill outside our house. What’s great about the hill (or greatly humbling, on the rare, ill-advised occasions when one attempts to go jog it) is that its steepness demands to be reckoned with. It shakes you by the shoulders and snatches your wind until it has your full, undivided attention. Put another way, it’s a great escape. So I leaned into it, head down … and got all of maybe 50 yards before I found my attention arrested … not by my wind, but what the wind had wrought.

Hundreds of fallen samaras — ‘helicopters’ as we called them as kids — littering the ground at my feet.

It says much about my general obliviousness that in my 17+ years matriculating up and down the hill, I’d never noticed that the neighbor’s tree was a maple. Though, as an aside, I’ve probably asked Karry a dozen times over the years to identify the two trees in our front yard. (I think one’s a dogwood?).

It says even more about my particular mental state that day that I cut my walk short to collect a few in my hands, and return Home.

Not the home I’d just left.

My home on Mullen Street, where probably a (mostly) good four decades had lapsed since I last found my attention captivated by these irresistibles.

The old maple in our front yard would just shower our steps and sidewalk with them growing up.   How many contented interludes I spent gathering them by the handful, dropping squadrons as I bent over our porch’s paint-chipped black railing. Mesmerized, I’d just watch them gently spin … bigger … smaller … some spinning faster, some slower. Some carried left or right by the breeze. Some, damaged, dropping like rocks.

For the record, nature did not design samaras for the sole purpose of amusing children. The shape of the fruit enables the wind to carry the seed farther away than regular seeds from the parent tree. It’s purposeful. The process is called anemochory (wind dispersal). I only know that because I looked it up. Nature always has its reasons.

The seven-year-old version of myself wasn’t aware of any of that. He just found helicopters captivating as heck.

And it was the seven-year-old version of myself that whispered to me from the old front porch on Mullen Street to the hill where I had paused my walk. And, for once, I listened to him. Decided that the hill had more than served its medicinal purpose, so I left the majority of its ascent for another day, another escape.

But not before picking up my prescription. I scooped up a handful of the samaras and returned to my present home, specifically to the deck that sits above our modest back yard. And I spent a contented interlude dropping a squadron of biggers and smallers, captivated by the mystery of those that spun faster, those that spun slower, those carried by the breeze to the left and right, and those that fell like rocks.

TOS_Samaras

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The Saturday after the above episode, I had to drop my son off at an all-day service project at the Boy Scout Camp in Farmington. On my way down the mountain, I texted my brother, who lives in Hopwood, to see if he’d be up for a visit. Wasn’t sure if he’d be up on a precious sleep-in Saturday morning.

He responded immediately: “Anytime. Watching a Tarzan movie on AMC.”

Twenty minutes later, I was sitting next to him on the couch in his living room, lights out, morning sun peeking through the windows. On his big screen, a Johnny Weissmuller classic, circa 1930’s.

In between marveling at how well Cheetah took stage direction, we caught each other up on our respective family fronts. He, his not-so-little girl’s inspired plans for her October wedding. She’s having her brother perform the ceremony (he’s getting internet-certified this summer), having her reception at the Aquarium at the zoo, and serving pie instead of cake at the reception, which pre-qualifies it as my favorite wedding reception ever. Me, the agonies and ecstasies of a not-so-young 16-year-old with his learner’s permit.

We laughed that, in both instances, we’re just along for the ride. My brother reminded me how he let me drive his immaculate, sky-blue mid-70’s Buick home from Areford playground when I was barely into my teenage years. I had totally forgotten about that, but his mention of it triggered the memory like a firework, breaking a big smile across my face.

We went out for a local diner breakfast (one of Uniontown’s best kept breakfast secrets is the diner that operates in the old K-Mart). My brother knew just about everyone in the place. In between bites of his big omelet, he shook hands, traded family updates even up, talked local sports. As I progressed through my well-done home fries and griddled sausage drenched in maple syrup, it reminded me of tagging along with Dad when he’d take me on errands growing up. Dad couldn’t go anywhere without running into someone, which is what he loved most about errand-running. My brother isn’t quite as garrulous as our Dad was, but seeing that he inherited the trait, and finding myself once again a quiet, contented sidekick, somehow felt just right.

After we finished Kenny had the inspired decision to stop by our sister Missy’s. I need to pause here and point out the magnitude of his suggestion. It was probably the first instance in recorded history of my brother and me staging an impromptu pop-in … anywhere. Yet, somehow it just felt right. She’d just gotten back from accompanying the family she nannies for to, of all places, a wedding in the Bahamas. (She didn’t want to go at all, but they begged her to tag along and watch their two-year-old during the trip). She was so tickled to see us. Had lots to tell us. She described the surreal experience with an anthropologists’ eye for detail. As I sat with my brother and sister in her living room, time melted. We probably could’ve exhausted hours had I not had to break things up to retrieve Peter from the mountain.

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37.9 miles.

That’s how far Google Maps says is between my house and where the old maple tree used to stand on Mullen Street. But I knew I’d allowed myself to drift much farther than that.

Sitting in the passenger seat while Peter drove us back to Washington along Route 40, I realized that I may have mis-diagnosed my problem from earlier that week.

Not work.

Anemochory.

The way we shape our lives determines how far nature carries us from the parent tree.

Lately, I’d been falling like a rock to the ground.

How mesmerizing it was to spin a little slower on a simple, Saturday morning. To allow myself to be carried by the breeze back to a couple fellow helicopters who once called the same maple home.

Not long after our visit, my brother invited me to join him and his sons for a Bucco game.

Weeks after our visit Missy was still texting me how great it was to catch up.

You know, the simple, fleeting moments that secretly matter the most when all is said and done.

There’s much to be said for a seven-year-old’s understanding of nature … and contented interludes.

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Postcards

Be Back Soon ….

I got there early to try and grab a table ahead of the Sunday Church crowd, since we were expecting 10 or so.

But before going in I just had to check the wall outside.

Yep, still there.

Scrawled in green kids-menu crayon on the wall next to the steps, in my son’s eight-year-old hand.

Be Back Soon!

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I still remember giving Peter crap when he committed the act of vandalism so many years ago, during one of our family’s legendary long goodbyes on the back porch of Meloni’s Italian Restaurant. Feels both like yesterday and a lifetime ago.

For decades, young children and in-laws alike have grown restless on Meloni’s back porch, waiting for the family’s extended farewell scenes to fade to the blacktop of the parking lot. Mom was never in a hurry to let a celebration end.

And when it came to family goodbyes, no one could filibuster like Anna Margaret Riddell.

The process would begin inside the restaurant … with the Table Hugs, which, to the untrained eye, read like actual Goodbyes. In reality they only marked the initiation of the “Fixin’ to Leave” phase — kind of like a stretching of the goodbye hamstrings. In the classic version of the ritual, Mom, blood pressure freshly elevated from the family fistfight to pick up the check (she hated to lose, and swore vengeance when she did), would initiate a deceptive first round of hugs at the site of the first person arising from their chair. Owing to the mastery of her craft, she’d sometimes manage a second loop around the table before she escorted, or was escorted by, the last to leave.

Once we got Mom to the porch, the goodbye clock didn’t formally start until she had her post-meal cigarette, which she took on one of the stone benches to the side of the awning. In an effort to move things along, the family was not above deploying Operation: Grandchild Sacrifice … where we’d order one of the grandkids “to go smoke with Grandma,” when we sensed the table was itching to break up.

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Ever since I can remember, back to the days when I played the roll of the family’s restless eight-year-old, Meloni’s was always THE PLACE for family celebrations.

Whenever we had a reason to celebrate, no discussion was ever needed. And no one ever argued the choice.

Our family has gathered around one of their signature long tables to celebrate visits from relatives (where the fistfights over the checks rivaled Ali-Frazier), light birthday candles, cut anniversary cakes, and open graduation cards. My nieces and nephews and I literally grew up around the long table immediately to the left of the restaurant’s side entrance.

A long Meloni’s table was always the perfect (and safest) place to introduce new boyfriends and girlfriends to our loving, idiosyncratic family. As years passed, we’ve table-hugged those boyfriends and girlfriends into husbands and wives, and eventually, into parents of their own.

It’s where Karry and I announced our wedding plans to my family.

It’s where Mom and Dad celebrated their 50th anniversary.

It’s where the family gathered after Mom’s memorial service.

It’s where my sisters and brother gathered in June on what would’ve been my parents’ 67th wedding anniversary.

A major reason it’s remained so special to us over the years is that is has changed so little. It first opened in 1950. And it’s to the credit of the previous and current owners that they recognized a good thing when they tasted it.

It’s the kind of place every small town worth its red sauce has, had or should have.

Red checker cloth tables. Stenciled Italian scenes running along painted white walls that meet wood paneling. Dimly lit wooden bar lined with tall red stools and flanked by classic green booths along a wall blooming with old photos.

Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra supplying a crackly soundtrack. The smell of an old social hall scented by decades of home made boiling red sauce.

The atmosphere nourishes every bit as much as the food.

The menu might as well be carved on stone tablets, as it hasn’t had reason to change in years. It reads like a Shakespeare sonnet (no wasted syllables), and each of us has memorized our favorite parts.

Salad is a given for just about everyone, either as a side or as an antipasta entre. Technically speaking, Meloni’s homemade bleu cheese dressing is the true given. The salad part is merely a conveyance for the dressing, which is so sublime, I must now pause for a moment of silence out of respect….

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mom would always insist that I order the Veal Parm, though I seldom needed the nudge. Tuesday Night Veal Night is a Uniontown institution. For years, one of my favorite parts of Facebook has been seeing an old friend from the neighborhood post ritual checks-in with his Dad for Veal Night.

Dad swore by their spaghetti with meat sauce and meat balls. He swore more loudly on takeout occasions when he got home to discover they gave him marinara or dropped a ball. Speaking of takeout … back in the day, you could bring your own pot from home for Meloni’s to fill with pasta and sauce. Raising four young kids in the early 60’s, Mom and Dad brought home more than a few pots. Dad also lovingly recalled the years when Meloni’s served as the place where the local dance musicians would gather in the wee hours after weekend gigs … to talk shop and tell stories before heading home.

I can remember my first memories … the ritual of parking in the Sherwin Williams lot (where Dad was the store manager), and walking across the street so we could enter through their magical side entrance. The climb up their long, narrow, low-ceiling corridor felt like a secret passage. The olfactory crescendo that built as the hallway elbowed left (allowing you to steal a glance through the kitchen window to your right). The door that spat you out at the front of the restaurant, where the early arrivers announced your presence with a yell, triggering Opening Hugs.

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I was the early arriver last Sunday. Succeeded in grabbing us a long table ahead of the church crowd. Kissed my three sisters and hugged my brother upon their arrivals. My nephew Kenny was, fittingly, the last to arrive. A former restless-eight-year-old himself, he accompanied his beautiful wife, Maria, a former new-girlfriend-at-the-table, and their indescribably adorable 11-month old son, (Little) Kenny, who will become a big brother himself next year.

We were in no hurry to order, though perusing the menus was little more than a perfunctory act. Salads, antipastas, pastas. I debated for a hot minute, and waited for Mom’s voice in my head to encourage me to order the Veal Parm.

There was an extra seat at the long table, allowing us to switch seats so we could catch up with everybody throughout the meal. Whenever there was a lull in the conversation, we just ogled over Little Kenny.

We were in no hurry to leave. Conversation was dessert.

Laurie mitigated the fistfight over the check by picking up the bill when no one was looking. I gave her some crap for it, like Mom might have (minus the swear words). It felt like quoting a scene from a favorite movie.

Laurie then asked everyone to raise their glass, and we leaned them across the table to clink to Mom and Dad.

Then came the table hugs, before we made our way through the mostly-empty dining room, having long outlasted the post-church crowd.

And we paused on the porch, initiating another round of hugs that, by my calculations, lasted exactly one cigarette long.

As the scene unfolded in front of her, Maria spoke for generations of in-laws and young children alike, when she said quietly to herself, “Oh, I thought we already said goodbyes inside.”

It’s nice to know that, after all these years, the filibuster can still sneak up on the unsuspecting.

Before the scene faded to the blacktop of the parking lot, I checked the wall again. Brushed my hand across the fading kids’ menu green crayon graffiti, allowing the eight-year-old version of myself to exchange a high-five with my former eight-year-old.

Unconsciously, I spoke the words aloud, and they came out as a prayer … for hopefully generations to come.

Be Back Soon.

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Excursions

Donner, Party of Two?

So, Peter and I are wrapping our fifth day alone in the house together, while Karry and Emma are away doing a national dance thingy in New Orleans.

Conditions are relatively and surprisingly stable here on the home front.

Of course I trained hard for this. Translation: I listened to a podcast on the Donner Party on Saturday morning (true story). As a result I feel pretty prepped in the what-not-to-do-department if things go really sideways. Just in case, I think we have enough tiny cans of cat food to keep cannibalism from becoming a serious consideration until the girls return.

Among the many things I’ve learned this week is that tiny cans of cat food are ridiculously adorable. I’ve been using a tiny spoon to scoop their tiny food into their tiny bowls. And I’ve found that it’s impossible to resist talking to cats as if they are human babies when one is using a tiny spoon to scoop tiny food from tiny cans into tiny bowls. Is Mistow Viktow hungwee?

Incidentally (again), this week has marked the first time in the year-plus that they’ve been living with us that Viktor Kitty and Roman Kitty have acknowledged my presence in the house. Although technically speaking, they’ve really only acknowledged the tiny food I’ve placed in their tiny food bowls. The first full day the girls were away, Viktor slept for like 12 hours straight in my downstairs office chair. I think he was trying to hibernate until the girls returned.

But that’s just the tip of the freakish occurrence iceberg. A few other unprecedented highlights:

  • Peter and I actually survived each other making a grocery run on Saturday, after he literally begged me not to make him go. Aside from us loudly arguing in front of the checkout lady at Giant Eagle, and almost coming to blows over chocolate milk at the Aldi, the excursion was virtually incident-free, except for all the sh*t he tried tossing in the cart that was not on the Official List.
  • Complicating this week’s proceedings …  on Saturday, I picked up the season’s first batch of veggies from our CSA subscription. And get this, I executed a roasted kohlrabi recipe the other night that didn’t taste like punishment. #dadsonfire
  • When I came home from work Monday night, Peter had dinner ready. He’d set the table, had steaks on the grill, corn on the stove, and potatoes in the oven. Not only that, we had delightful conversation at the table. I’m not exaggerating, the conversation was friggin’ delightful.
  • Needless to say, I’ve upped my laundry game to a whole new level. Pouring bleach in the bleach hole, sorting like a sumbitch, turning the knobby thingies like a Boss. Evidently, my enthusiasm is infectious. Peter actually offered to wash, dry and fold clothes the other night. ‘Bout shat my pants. I’m seriously considering adopting him.

I will acknowledge that we’ve, um, ‘adjusted’ the standards that Karry typically holds the house accountable to … but so far, we’re keeping each other reasonably clean, fed and dressed.

Though we’re still not past the ½ point of Survival Week.

According to my training, as long as we don’t follow bad advice to take a non-existent shortcut across treacherous terrain in the middle of a horrendous winter, we should steer reasonably clear of having to ask Google how to tenderize human flesh.

Plus, we’ve got all that adorable tiny cat food.

Just to be safe, prayers por favor.FullSizeRender-3 copy

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Excursions, The Road Ahead

Perfectly Timed ….

Behind these smiles are some stories, that, if you hold them close enough to your ear, you can still hear the beer-sticky basement floor of 311 North Richill Street in them.

That sacred address was responsible for us first colliding in our late teens, and, thus, gathering together last night at PNC Park, to celebrate one of our own NOT turning 50 (as the sign indicates).

That sacred address had a significant hand in at least four of us somehow convincing pretty college girls who totally should have known better to first dance with us, and eventually to marry us.

We solely owe last night’s gathering to an inspired idea from one of them (much love and thanks to Natalie).

Though it was intended as a gift to Popie, it was as much of one to the rest of us: a perfectly-timed reminder that no distance of time can diminish a good story’s ability to coax an on-demand laugh, head shake, hi-five, wince, or blush. And that we experienced each in equal and abundant measure in that golden (ZE) Chapter of our lives.

It was good to hear that my first college roommate’s high-pitched giggle is still in regular rotation (and still higher-pitched than my own). It was good to throw a hug around my last college roommate (and unapologetically go back for seconds). It was good to learn of (and meet) kids who are just blowing their parents away with the young men and women they are becoming, and also of children who are younger karma vessels for the ornerier among us.

It was good to see that Popie still lets his smile have the run of his face.

I think my new favorite game on the planet is to put the 19-year-old versions of us in the left column, and our, um, not-50 versions on the right, and to draw the connecting lines. I’ll let you figure out which column features at least one naked street bowler and which features at least one CDC-supporting, life-saving chemist.

Used to be Friday nights would not end until the clock was deep into single digits, or before our butts hit the beer-sticky basement floor of 311 North Richill for a communal rendition of the theme from Hawaii-5-0.

So it was telling that the majority of us were exchanging goodbye handshakes and hugs by 10:30 (and well before the post-game fireworks)… in deference to our drives home and long-week-depleted energy reserves.

But, as the above picture proves, the smiles will keep.

And as the years have proven, so will the stories … and the bond.

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Excursions

A boxfull of Sundays ….

 

To the outside world, it was a Sherwin Williams van.

During the workweek Dad used it to call on customers; hauling paint and carpet to businesses and schools all over Fayette County.

But on blue-sky-sunny-breezy summer Sundays just like today, that van became our magic carpet. And its cargo was simplified to an afternoon’s essentials: him, me, and the tall cardboard box that sat between us, whose contents I was solely responsible for.

It was my solemn duty to keep the box filled to overflowing with our basketballs, footballs, and, most importantly, our bats, balls and gloves.

Climbing into the van, we never had a destination mapped. That was always part of the adventure. We’d drive until we found a court with good nets and space to throw. Our drives might take us up the road to the Junior High, or over to Boyle School, or across town to Oliver playground, or sometimes up and over the mountain to Jumonville.

He always let me pick the location and the order of events. Whenever and wherever we’d arrive at a field, court or playground, I’d initiate the proceedings by dumping the tall cardboard box of its contents.

The majority of the time, basketball batted lead off. We’d warm up with make-it-take-it, then transition to Around-The-World, and then customized variations of H-O-R-S-E. Sometimes he’d let me switch the name to don’t-tell-mom-swear-words. “S-H-I-T” was our personal favorite … because the loser was obligated to say it aloud (ha).

In his day Dad was more of an underneath guy on the basketball court, more meat-and-potatoes than finesse. But he had a good hook shot in and around the paint, which, of course, I practiced and practiced and practiced when he wasn’t looking. I still remember this one Sunday afternoon at Jumonville when he chased down one of my missed shots to the other side of the basket, caught it in stride, and in one motion, spun his body and flipped the ball, no-look, over his shoulder with his right hand … kissing it perfectly off the backboard. The ball went in just as a car was driving past, prompting the passenger to spontaneously yell out the window, “Nice shot!” Yeah, that’s my Dad, I remember thinking proudly.

When basketball winded us, we’d break out the gloves. He’d let me pitch, humoring me by calling for curves, sliders, changeups and fastballs, though they all pretty much behaved the same coming out of my left hand. After I’d retire a side (thanks to a most generous strike zone), I’d back pedal to an outfield distance. “Make me run, Dad,” I’d command. He had this gift for aiming perfect pop flies just enough to my right or left to summon me to a full sprint and a leap, reach or dive. And whenever I’d rescue a ball inches before it sailed over my head or hit the ground, it was hard to tell who was more excited, him or me.

In those days, there was no greater feeling in the world than chasing down a pop fly and swallowing it with my outstretched, oversized, Reggie-Jackson-model Rawlings (“The Finest In The Field”) that Dad had bought, used, with the best $25 he ever spent.

Our Sunday afternoons seldom had a clock. Depending on our ambition and energy, sometimes we’d flee to another park or playground in the same outing. Sometimes we’d cycle through sports a couple times. We’d just play ourselves tired and hungry, then pile back in the van, re-filling the tall cardboard box that sat between us.

And, since Mom unapologetically never cooked on Sundays (she more than earned a day of rest with her efforts during the week), it gave us an excuse to make a pit stop before returning home. Among our favorite haunts was this deli-slash-convenience store on the other side of town, whose name escapes me. The ritual of our dinner menu, though, is forever etched in memory. We’d pull tall, glass bottles of Pepsi from the cooler, order a pound of Swiss Cheese from the deli, then retreat to our magic carpet, sipping and munching contentedly in the parking lot, while I’d crack open fresh packs of Topps cards in search of Pirate treasures. We convinced ourselves that the finest Swiss Cheese in the world could be found at this specific convenience store in Uniontown. For the record, I’d still testify under oath to that fact.

Around dusk Dad would whisk us home. As we pulled to the curb in front of our house on Mullen Street, our magic carpet transformed back into his Sherwin Williams van. I’d remove our tall cardboard box to make room for the week’s paint and carpet deliveries.

And patiently wait for the next sunny, summer Sunday.

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We came home very late last night after a brief, but nourishing, family vacation. The good (and, these days, too-rare) kind, where the days didn’t have a clock. In her typically inspired, herculean, and meticulous packing efforts, Karry reserved room in a basket for our football, basketball and gloves. Surprisingly, I didn’t have to twist Peter’s arm (um, more than a couple times – ha). Honestly, he coaxed me on a couple occasions to throw some baseball (which, as he’s gotten older, we don’t do very often). I believe we actually passed ball three of the days we were away.

And without any prompting from me, he made a rule. Whenever we played ourselves tired or hungry, he’d direct me to aim a pop fly to his left or his right, so he could give chase and make a leaping, diving, or shoetop grab before we were allowed to call it quits. And when he’d rescue a ball from hitting the ground or from sailing over his head, it was hard to tell who was more excited, him or me.

We got in so late last night, we saved our unpacking for this afternoon. I found myself removing the basket with our balls and gloves, and thinking about that tall, cardboard box that used to sit between my Dad and me in our magic carpet.

And on our second Father’s Day since his passing, I find myself clinking a metaphorical glass Pepsi bottle with all those blue-sky-sunny-breezy, summer Sunday afternoons.
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Excursions

One small scoop for man ….

 

I’ve heard it said that great adventurers often had the sense that they were making history in the midst of their adventures.

Though I’m not sure why, I have the strong feeling that family history will want to record that on the glorious morning of June 17, 2017, we ate chocolate ice cream for breakfast.

And that history may have the kindest words for the one of us who didn’t even bother with a bowl.

Here’s to Saturday mornings scooped straight from the carton.

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Postcards

Youngblood ….

Ninety-nine cents, or two dollars?

That was the biggest financial decision that that the nine and 10-year-old boys from our neighborhood faced on a weekly, sometimes daily, basis in the summer of 1979.

Which rubber coated baseball to buy?

Option A: The 99-cent K-Mart special … which, candidly, possessed few redeeming qualities beyond its price tag. Had a cork center that, when you bounced it, made a harsh sound that pretty much expressed aloud its lack of interest in returning to your hand. Had maybe had three or four good swats in it before it would go completely lopsided.

Option B: The $2 Wilson Comet … the Cadillac of Rubber Coated baseballs … consistently produced the truest, juiciest, hops in the universe, of which Areford playground was indisputably the center of, in that magical summer of ‘79. You could mash a Comet forever and it never lost its shape. I can still remember the sensation of this one time I met the Comet with the sweet spot of my trusty, 28” aluminum bat just right … barreling it back through the box for a ground rule double before the centerfielder even had time to turn and give chase. That feeling still lives in my wrists … and, not only that, still jockeys for position in my top 10 all-time physical sensations.

So, on the surface, the choice might seem like a no-brainer … pay the extra buck and call it a long afternoon. But on the surface of Areford playground, which was pure, unadulterated asphalt, it was a surprisingly nuanced decision.

Really, the choice between the indestructible Wilson and the very combustible K-Mart special came down to who was going to be playing that day.

If the lineups were going to be full, the K-Mart special was the rational choice.

A fuller lineup meant more of the older boys, and by older I mean older than my nine-year-old self. More of my elders meant more home runs, meaning a greater probability that the ball would get lost. See, a lot of bad things could happen to a ball once it cleared the straight chain link fence that bordered the outfield.

In right, it could roll under the locked fence of the football field. And though a fence was far from a deterrent to any upstanding citizen of our neighborhood, we’d proved that point often enough at Areford for the township to emphasize its preference by stringing barbed wire across the fence top.

In center, it could get lost in the tall weeds in front of the old gym. And Jeff Hughes said he once saw a snake over there, and once was enough to dampen our curiosity in disproving his theory.

Down the line in left, we’d have to root through the neighbor’s yard. And our having plunked a few off their house rendered the adult inhabitants slightly less hospitable than, say, the bleacher bums in Wrigley field who graciously tossed home runs back onto the field.

Conversely, if the lineups were going to be thin, thin enough where we’d have to play pitcher’s hand, or opposite field out (translation: if we couldn’t fill out the right side of the infield and outfield), we’d be inclined to spring for the Wilson. Thinner lineups meant fewer older boys, which meant fewer home runs, increasing the likelihood that a $2 ball might survive until we’d have to head home for supper.

But the $2 for a Wilson got you more than just the ball. See, you couldn’t get the Comets at K-Mart. For the Cadillac, you had to make a pilgrimage to the baseball room in the back of Dice’s Sporting Goods store on the corner of Main and Morgantown in downtown Uniontown. Dice’s was as close to heaven for a nine year old as Kevin Costner’s cornfield was to his character in Field of Dreams.

After tingling the bell on the front door, and subsequently unsuccessfully petitioning one’s Dad for a cold glass bottle of soda from the pop machine just to the right of the entrance, one matriculated through the front of the store, past the apparel and paraphernalia of all the other incidental sports (you know, like football) to the back room — The Inner Sanctum. Where one was greeted with the leathery smell of gloves stacked higher than cornstalks all along the right side. While my dad chatted with the owners, I’d fish out all the left handed models and try ‘em on, pound my fist into the Reggie Jackson or Steve Carlton autograph in the palm of it, and draw a deep intoxicating whiff.

The whole left side of the room was nothing but bats — real wooden bats – laid horizontally in boxes on shelves, their length in inches numbered on the handles that peeked out from their cardboard box containers. I can remember the summer when I graduated from 27” … to where a 28” felt just right in my hands … you’d slide one out, sometimes just to hear that glorious sound of wood sliding against wood, just like a big leaguer pulling one out of their personal shelf. And the first thing you’d do is check to see whose name was scrawled into the top … as if the name testified to the quality of the lumber. For the record, I still have my 28” Pete Rose.

Ninety-nine per-cent of the time, I’d be lucky if I had the $2 for the ball, so would invariably have to put the gloves and bats back. But on the rare occasion where I might have enough loose change from that week’s lemonade sale, I’d open up the magical un-marked drawer that contained a compliment of resin bags.

Didn’t matter that we played slow pitch with a rubber-coated baseball on an asphalt playground. The chance to procure a powdery plumb of powder bouncing a resin bag on your hand before breaking into the windup of whatever pitcher you happened to be that day … just added to the fantasy.

Because we didn’t play as ourselves.

This was ’79.

Are you kidding me? One through nine, we were The Antelope. Tim Foli. The Cobra. Captain Willie. Mad Dog. The Hammer. Scrap Iron. Ed Ott, and The Candy Man. And wherever we were in the lineup or on the field, we considered it our solemn duty to faithfully recreate their every tick and mannerism.

From Stargell’s signature windup, Parker’s threatening coil, or Milner’s stoic, stone-faced, presentation to the pitcher… to their defensive equivalencies — the way Moreno glided under a pop-fly to squeeze it textbook with two hands, or how Parker defiantly, non-chalanted his putouts one-handed, sometimes with a snap that left our fathers cussing his show-boating while secretly revering his athletic brilliance.

We even took the opposing teams seriously. Between the hundred of packs of baseball cards we procured from the Dairy Mart, and WWOR Channel 12, which carried the Mets (and, more importantly, Saturday morning WWF Wrestling), we knew opposing teams lineups almost as well. We’d meet on Mullen Street and walk the two blocks up to the playground, which gave us just enough time to carve up the opposing team’s lineup. I remember one summer weekday walking past a neighbor’s house while choosing from the Mets roster. Since I was a mere fourth grader, most of the good players were picked by the time I got to choose. So on that day I announced I’d be Joel Youngblood, the Mets catcher. Old Jack Simenna, who lived a few houses down from us, heard me, and from that day forward, even into my adulthood, called me Youngblood every time he saw me. I don’t think he ever knew my real name. It was always, “Heyyyyyy Youngblood.”

But when my team got to be the Pirates, I was always Omar Moreno, mostly because the older kids picked Stargell, Parker and Madlock … and I had zero power. For the record, I didn’t hit a single home run over the home-team-friendly fence that year, but I did hit 13 inside-the-parkers and batted a robust .625 out of Omar’s crouch. I know this because after returning home, but before washing my hands for dinner, I’d write down my statistics from every game we played in a spiral notebook. While cleaning out my old room at my parents’ house earlier this year, I found my stat sheet. As Casey Stengel might say, you could look it up.

81-607Fr

An although very few K-Mart specials or Comets were harmed in the pursuit of my batting average, my teammates were not as kind with our investments.

See, there were a shitload lot of home runs hit in the summer of 79. The home run chase, the only officially recognized statistic on the asphalt, was really a four-horse race between the fifth grade regulars: Kevin, Jeff, Brian, Scott. I watched with awe and reverence as their totals climbed in excess of 200 apiece, or so they claimed. It was a self-reporting system that technically relied on, though didn’t expect too terribly much from, the honor system. And as history records, the 1970’s were far from immune to inflation. As home run totals skyrocketed and the race tightened the deeper we got into summer, the fuller the rosters became. This was due in no small part to the desire to keep your competitors from claiming they hit 12-home runs the day you weren’t there. As the race got more serious, we found ourselves procuring, and, therefore losing, a lot more Wilson Comets. And subsequently bumming from our parents in $2 increments with greater frequency, knowing we’d need at least two or three balls to get us through an afternoon. As I recall, Kevin and Jeff distanced themselves from the rest, benefitting from the fact that their families didn’t go on extended summer vacations, while Brian’s and Scott’s did.

For the record, in the days when one could count on a field full of buddies and an ample supply of Comets, one really didn’t care that one’s family never went on summer vacation.

The summer of 1979 was not only the last time the Pirates won the World Series, but it was also our last glorious summer on the asphalt.

As fate would have it, the following season the community baseball league widened its geography to pull from our township, and so we were all swept into Little League.

Uniforms. Baseballs with seams. Fields with dirt and grass. Umpires. Parents. Coaches.

The first thing that Mr. Meadows did was break me from my Omar Moreno crouch.

For the record, I never hit .625 again.

But I’ll bet you two dollars and whatever lemonade stand change still jingling in my piggy bank that if we met on a summer afternoon on Mullen Street … I could still carve up two 1979 rosters in the time it would take us to climb the two hills to the asphalt of Areford playground.

Memories like that bounce back as true and reliable as a Wilson Comet.

 

 

 

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