Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Road To Topeka Calls

          This is my mother's college yearbook picture taken in 1930.  She attended college in Topeka, Kansas from 1927 to 1930.  She earned a bachelor's degree from Washburn College (now called Washburn University) with a major in English and a minor in Music.  She was born and raised in New Hampshire but went to Washburn because her family had relatives there.  I posted a blog in November, 2011 entitled, "The Kansas Connection" that described the family connection between New Hampshire and Topeka, to include some stories of my mother's school life. 

     Next month I plan to drive to Topeka with my wife to take a firsthand look at Washburn and some of the places where my mother resided while attending school. I've done the research to determine the addresses and have seen photos of them on Google but I want to see and photograph them myself.  Some of the stories I've heard about her Topeka experience indicate that she didn't just kick back and relax in the homes of her relatives but had to do housekeeping chores in order to earn her keep.  One of her biggest complaints was that at one point she was required to clean the bathtub in a house where a resident who may or may not have been a relative, used the same said bathtub as his personal spittoon!  She didn't care for that particular assignment. 

     Anyway, I also hope to visit the cemetery where those relatives are buried and to the library to see what records I can locate regarding their lives in Topeka. From Topeka the plan is to perform a hook slide back east as we head toward a vacation on the Vineyard again. Hoping to visit relatives on the way in Nashville, Saint Louis, and Cincinnati.  We'll keep the visits short and hope nobody asks us to scrub out their bathtub!

     Wait. Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh......Did you hear that? I did, it's the road calling! ROAD TRIP!!!!! And my search goes on. 

Monday, June 9, 2014

Hey, Batta Batta!

     Went to a baseball game the other night; Tampa Bay Rays vs. The Boston Red Sox.  The game was played at Tropicana Field, the domed stadium in Saint Petersburg. Our community offers tickets and bus transportation to various entertainment venues including sports events like this one. The bus transportation is a big plus as car parking can be a hassle at the Trop. The bus drops and picks up passengers at an entrance about the same distance as a toss from center field to home plate. And since we grew up in Massachusetts we selected a Red Sox game for a touch of nostalgia with our roots, although neither my wife nor I are what you could call Red Sox fans unless 1) they are playing any team other than the Rays in a playoff game, and 2) I don't remember the other reason why I would cheer for them.  We've resided in Florida for twenty five years now so we've bonded with the Rays, the Bucs, and the Lightning. Sam's mother came to the game with us and she just cheers for whoever we tell her to root for. So we all cheered for the Rays and they won by the score of 1 to 0 with a walk off hit with a man on base in the ninth inning. 

     This was probably the first MLB game I've been to in twenty or so years. I think the last one was with my buddy Mike when he was visiting and we went to a spring training game in Lakeland. But this was a nice night with decent seats at a good price. We were on the second level, just close enough to recognize the players but far enough away that we didn't have to watch them spitting. And the Trop is really nice on a warm muggy evening with air conditioning; Sam was cold as usual but she's always cold so that's nothing new. 

     I could have put this post on my other blog, "JD's BLAHS"  but I just felt putting it here on "MY Search..." made more sense because going to a baseball game after so long an absence brought back a lot of memories that I associate with the game. Unlike Garrett Morris' Spanish speaking Dominican player, I can't always say, "Baseball been berra berra good to me!"  No tragedies or anything but some things about the game just fell into place in my life to make me way better at being a spectator than being a player.

     I must have been six or seven at the time but I recall coming down the stairs in our home and seeing my father and my older (by six years) brother walking out the front door together. My brother had the "family" baseball glove on his left hand. Our house was furnished with two baseball gloves, one a fielder's glove and the other a catcher's mitt. I'll have more to say about those later but for now suffice it to say  that spotting my brother with half of our household's baseball gloves in hand, so to speak, sparked my interest. I thought maybe I could grab the catcher's mitt and join them. I didn't notice they had no ball or bat. I just saw the glove,   assumed there was going to be some baseball activity, and I wanted to be part of it. I shouted out to my father (I knew my brother would ignore me just like he ignored everything else I did or said), "Hey, Daddy, can I play too?" Sadly, for me anyway, my father explained that he and my brother were heading to Boston to see a Red Sox game. Obviously, I wasn't invited. I was very disappointed mostly because the two of them were doing something exciting together.  And exciting because "going to a Red Sox game" meant a 90 mile drive from our home in West Springfield, easily a few hours drive.  And this was some time before the Mass Turnpike was built so the travel would have been a slow meandering easterly drive on US-20.  I think my father judged me a little young to really enjoy a few hours in the car followed by sitting through nine innings of baseball.  Probably a good decision on his part but I didn't think so at the time. 

     The fielder's glove my brother took with him that day was a five fingered affair with padded fingers and nothing but a thin layer of dark crinkled leather in the "pocket" where the ball would go in the act of a proper glove catch. In retrospect I think the weathered old glove, with absolutely no webbing, was designed for and had a long history of use in softball games. I know on the few occasions where I caught a hardball the pain on my palm was excruciating. Probably worse than no glove at all!  It looked like a big brown Mickey Mouse hand. The catcher's mitt was of the same vintage, I imagine somewhere from the 1930's or 1940's. Huge thick padding around the entire circumference of the thing but with a pocket worn brown and thin with use. Either one of these gloves forced the user to utilize two hands to make a catch. Two hands was the only way to trap the ball before it bounced out. The mitt would be okay for a softball with enough padding to prevent a direct assault against the palm of your catching hand. But a hardball?  No way, not without pain anyway!

     My father was a big Red Sox fan and therefore, a big fan of batting legend, Ted Williams. I remember riding in our car whenever  there was a game being broadcast on the radio, my father insisted on tuning in (to radio station WBZ as I recall) to listen to the entire game. When Ted Williams was up to bat those of us who were passengers in the car knew to be quiet so my father could get the full report on Ted's performance. When my father finally deemed me qualified to join him on a trip to Fenway Park it was like I had graduated from being a kid to being a man. His faith in me might have been a little premature. Oh, I liked watching the game alright but I was just as impressed with the ambiance; "the wall" (as it was called then, before it was tagged, "the green monster"), the score board in the wall where game stats were posted by hand (as far as I know, they still are) was memorizing to me as I wondered what the view was like from left field, was somebody actually paid to handle that job? and how could I qualify to do it? The crowd's falsetto "bweeoop" up the musical scale when a towering foul ball traveled high behind the plate and the subsequent "beeooh" on a descending scale in time with the ball's fall down into the netting and the bat boy's success or failure in catching the ball as it dropped out of the net. And food?  Fenway Park was a place you could buy a bag of peanuts and crack open the shells and leave the husks on the and delicious!  My biggest Fenway regret (and perhaps just as big for my father) was probably the time I asked him to take me back into the concession area to buy me a hamburger. I didn't want a Fenway Frank, I wanted a burger and you could only get that by leaving your seat and going back into the interior of the stadium.  We had been standing in line at the concession stand for what seemed like a long time when we heard the crowd outside erupt into loud cheers. Turns out we had missed Ted Williams at bat and he had slugged another ball to the great pleasure of the spectators. I don't know if he hit a home run or an RBI or whatever, but it was a successful at bat for Ted and a major disappointment for me since my desire for ground beef had caused my father to miss out on seeing his baseball hero perform his heroics. My father never said a word about it but I knew my pestering him to buy me a burger had robbed him of a great baseball experience. Not one of my fondest memories but it's locked in to my brain cells, nevertheless, as not a berra berra good memory.   

     Another not so berra berra good memory was my tryout for a little league team.  I had what turned out to be the misfortune of forming friendships with some pretty athletic guys. Guys that, in time, would go on to successful high school careers as varsity baseball players. At twelve years of age or so I had no idea that my baseball talent was not of the same caliber as my friends because we always had so much fun playing sandlot varieties of the game. There was no competition involved in those pick up versions of baseball; just fun and camaraderie of young boys and banter about the major league players like Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Pee Wee Reese, and Jackie Robinson. We knew of them from our collections of baseball cards accumulated with flat, sometimes stale but always delicious bubble gum slices. Some of my friends told me about the little league team that was forming up and encouraged me to try out with them. All the prospective players met at the team coach's home one evening and listened to his optimistic plans for forming a winning team. I was pretty impressed with the coach's rah rah attitude and dreamed of baseball glory along with all of my friends.

     My father contributed to my dreams by buying me a new baseball glove, the "Alvin Dark" model,  inspired by the (at that time) famous shortstop for the New York Giants. I didn't know much about him but I knew the glove was a massive improvement on the old family Micky Mouse version of a baseball glove. The glove had a web between the thumb and index finger! No more hard-balls crushing into my palm. And, get this, a leather string running from the web through all the fingers down to the little finger. This was a real glove. And it came with a cardboard 45 rpm record with Alvin's recommendations for how to use the glove.  I remember the scratchy recording of his instructions to stand with feet spread shoulder width apart on "the balls of your feet" and that's all I remember except for my initial confusion about balls on my feet...I had never heard of such a thing. Anyway, now I had a real major league glove and was ready for the tryouts. Or so I thought until the first cut was announced and I was on the cut list. The coach told me it was because I had missed too many practices, which was true as some of the practices conflicted with my trombone lessons; my father would never let me miss the trombone lessons he was paying for. But I sensed that the coach was just being polite.  It didn't take too many practices for me to see that my skills were not on the level of most of my friends, despite my possession of the Alvin Dark model baseball glove. I was a little heartbroken at the time but I got over it. One of my schoolmates called me shortly after and asked if I wanted to join him and some other kids who had not made cuts on various teams to join a team that, the way I understood it. was a "no cut" team for us losers. That didn't sound appealing to me so I passed. One of my friends that did make the original team told me they played the "loser" team once and trounced them so badly they had to cancel the game because the other team couldn't get anybody out. I'm kind of glad I missed out on that fiasco.

     The trauma of being cut from the team pretty much ended my baseball playing career.  I still managed to attend a few more games with my father at Fenway. When I was working in New Haven my sales reps would arrange for excursions to Yankee Stadium with our customers. But as I grew older I never developed a desire to play the game anymore. The Alvin Dark glove disappeared somewhere along the line. In the early 1980's I did agree to play in a company game of softball where we formed up teams of our drivers vs. those of us in management. I don't recall the score results and didn't much care because in the course of the game with me serving as catcher, one of the opponents stepped on my big toe running to home plate and I ended up losing a toenail as a result.  Baseball, again, was no way near berra berra good to me. Broke my adolescent heart and came pretty close to breaking my adult big toe. No fond memories there I gotta' say. 

     Besides the memories of attending games with my father I had one very pleasant experience with baseball in 1977 in Maine. Not as a player, of course, but in my accustomed mode of baseball spectator, this time at a little league game where my son was playing. Don't ask me how he managed to develop baseball skills, certainly not inherited from me, but as the only one of the eight year old players on his team who could consistently throw the ball over the plate he won the starting (and ending) position of pitcher. One of the opposing team batters hit a line drive directly at my son's head. My son ducked and put his gloved hand up, just as much for protection from being beaned as an attempt to catch the ball. But catch the ball he did with a resounding "smack" sound loud enough to be heard in Mudville. And the pitcher's father had tears in his eyes. Maybe he had the Alvin Dark glove but I can't say that for sure. I just know I was awful proud of my son and happy for his success. And quite content to remain a spectator for the rest of my life.