Story of a Boy
As if playing a game of their own, the fallen leaves swirled around home plate stirring up sand from the diamond. It was late afternoon and the setting sun shone through leafless trees and cast long, menacing shadows across the field. A cold, November wind blew in from the outfield, forcing me to accept the inevitable change of seasons. I pulled up the collar of my coat, tilted down the brim of my ball cap and sank lower into the bleachers. “Made it back,” I thought, as I gazed out over Diamond #3 at Levagood Park. The grayness of the season saddened me. I longed for the glorious green of summer and the youthfulness that had left me. The park was empty, without sound, other than the wind whistling through the fencing of the backstop. A gust of wind whipped up a crumpled, brown paper bag and carried it toward home plate. The park hadn’t changed. The diamond looked pretty much the same. The backstop appeared slightly different and the wooden bleachers and the player’s benches had been replaced by shiny, aluminum ones, but all in all the field had stood the test of time. I thought about how many kids and how many games had been played on this field and how many were yet to be. As a child, I played ball here, although I doubt that many remember. I loved the game of baseball. I loved being a kid. I play a different game now, in a different time, with different players, but the kid in me remains much like this baseball field.
A familiar pain arose within me brought back by the sights and smells of the park. The beauty of the field, the late Fall dampness, the smell of wet dirt and pine trees that grew along third base, all triggered a sadness that sometimes came with the passing of time. I swear a part of me dies with the ending of each summer. Funny how an old baseball field and falling leaves can bring the ten-year-old boy back. I felt as if I were home again and experienced a sense of excitement that only those who played the game really knew. As I sat there, I recalled a conversation I had a long time ago with a man we called Gramps. He told me that baseball was a lot like life - it was all about coming home. At the time, I wasn’t sure what he meant by that statement, but I did now.
“Dad, can we go? We’re cold.” Stacy’s voice startled me and I quickly oriented myself.
“Mom’s in the car already,” Steve said. “This is really boring.”
“Boring and dumb,” chimed in Sarah. “We’re sitting here looking at a baseball field. Hello! It’s getting dark!”
Remembering a comment that was often heard at late afternoon games, I chuckled and said, “It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there.” I knew the kids had no idea of the underlying meaning of that comment, but I made the remark more for me. “I just wanted to show you guys where I played ball. Ah, maybe it was a dumb idea.”
“Dad,” said Steve. “Why you rubbin’ your eyes so much? Did some dust fly in your face?”
Looking at me, Stacy apologized, “I’m sorry Dad if we hurt your feelings.”
“Nah, it’s the...it’s the wind. You’re right. It is cold out here.”
“Well you sure are blinking a lot,” said Sarah over-gesturing with her arms like little girls often do.
I continued to blink, working to clear the blurriness while I hunched my shoulders in response to the cold wind. “Hey kids before we leave, I have to check something.” I quickly walked in front of the backstop and as I did a child-like excitement began to well up in me. “I wonder if it is still there?”
Steve yanked the sleeve of my coat which caused my left shoulder to jerk downward. Being the middle child, he had a habit of getting my attention in a forceful manner. “What Dad?”
“Is it sumpin special Dad?” asked Sarah. Her nose was red and she rubbed the back of her coat sleeve across her face to stop it from dripping. The dried lines on her coat sleeve left tell-tale evidence of the frequency of this habit.
The wind had blown a pile of dried up leaves against the backstop. Dropping to my knees, I moved away last summer’s refuse. My hands struck a hard surface and I briefly pulled back and then continued. Brushing the leaves to the side, I exposed a large piece of concrete which held in place a painted, steel backstop pole. “It’s gotta be here,” I said to myself. The cement was cracked and dirty so I spat on the surface and rubbed it with the palm of my hand. Reaching into my shirt pocket, I grasped my glasses and put them on. I saw the names etched in cement and my mind drifted to days gone by.
This is a story about my buddy, Benjamin Boy, the Bombers, and me. My name is Tom Stephens. Ben was a childhood friend of mine, almost 40 years ago. Looking back at it all - those years seem just like a blink. I grew up in Dearborn, Michigan a town most noted for the presence of the Ford Motor Company, Greenfield Village and of course the birthplace of Henry Ford. I lived on the west side of Dearborn, an area considered by most to be the wealthier section of town. However, my family didn’t live in one of the ritzy neighborhoods. I had often wondered what my life would have been like had I grown up a mile or so south of where I did. Most of the kids whose parents had money, had dads who were salaried employees at Ford Motor. They lived south of Cherry Hill Road. Their dads were usually engineers and accountants who wore Brooks Brothers suits to work and bought Ford cars on a discount buying plan called the A Plan. They lived in big, colonial houses on winding streets with large, treed lots without fences. Their Saturday afternoons were spent at the Dearborn Country Club either swimming, playing golf or tennis. Hourly workers at Fords lived north of Cherry Hill. As production workers and skilled tradesmen, these dads wore khaki pants and t-shirts to work, punched in at 7:00 a.m., carried lunch buckets to work and paid full price for their Ford cars. Their Saturday afternoons were spent in the Plant while their kids played in the street or the public park. I lived north of Cherry Hill. As children, we weren’t allowed to cross Cherry Hill Road. Our parents justified this restriction by stating that it was too busy of a street to cross, but we all knew there was more to it than that. However, we were not to question authority and generally obeyed. I say generally, because what kid did everything that they were told. The fact that our parents forbid us from crossing Cherry Hill almost guaranteed that we would at some time make that perilous journey - and we did. Except it wasn’t all that perilous.
My father was a short, muscular man with thick fingers who worked as a tool maker at Fords. Nobody who lived in Dearborn called it the Ford Motor Company. They just referred to it as Fords even though we all knew there was no “s” in the real name. My Dad worked hard, made a decent salary and put in a lot of over-time that helped us get by, but no one considered us rich. Dad would say that everything he got, he got the hard way. ‘Nobody ever handed me anything,’ he would often remind us as if he were proud of the fact. As a youngster, I didn’t quite understand why my Dad felt so good about that. I liked it when people gave me stuff. You know like a new bike or ball glove. What was so bad about that? My parents lived by the “nobody handed me anything rule” and subsequently we rarely got any big presents or gifts. My mom would say that it was ‘better to give than receive,’ but that too seemed pretty dumb. I swear a lot of times it was hard to understand the logic of adults. My parents tended to embrace pessimism and the fact that life was tough was drilled into our heads. I guess for them it might have been - coming through the Great Depression and all.
My dad hadn’t always worked at Fords. He had other jobs that weren’t so good, places that he referred to as sweat shops. He was really happy to get into Fords after years of trying and working the afternoon shift at a place called Vickers. He always said he had a good job because of the benefits. I never really knew what that meant and, to be honest, I didn’t care. Once Dad got into Fords, life seemed a bit easier for all of us and Mom seemed a lot happier. I guess it was because Dad was able to be home at night although he usually worked six days a week and 10 hours a day.
The bungalow type, common, red brick homes in our neighborhood sat on 45 foot wide, fenced in lots that were basically very similar to each other. There was just enough room between the houses to allow a driveway to pass through. I’m not sure why everyone fenced in their lot because us kids just jumped over them. It was real easy. All you had to do is put one foot into the metal webbing and flip the other foot on top of the fence - then over we went, all in about a second or two. We cut through the neighborhood yards like it was our property. Every once and awhile a neighbor would yell at us for hiding in their bushes when we were playing hide and seek or if we accidently landed on one of their precious dahlias. However, we didn’t care if they yelled at us and it never stopped us from jumping over fences. It sure seemed like a waste of money fencing in all those tiny lots, but I guess it was all about marking off your territory. They say wild animals do the same thing, except they pee around their area. Perhaps the most territorial of anybody I ever met were our neighbors the Opalinski’s. They didn’t have any children and never talked to anyone in the neighborhood. They were the only people I know that didn’t own a car, in fact, they didn’t even have a driver’s license. You rarely ever saw them and if you did it meant you were in trouble. If you even stepped on their lawn they might come out screaming. One summer us kids got so fed up with them we lined up at night along the fence that