The original baseball field died in the summer of 1949, along with 25 acres of trees and my dream of ever becoming the next Joe DiMaggio. We had spent hours creating that field, hours that felt more like months to an 11-year-old in the heat of summer. Each base was a sack filled with rice, sewn by hand; our gloves were well-worn, second-hand Rawling’s; and our dugout a Frankenstein of wooden planks and nails that my father, Penny, had built under my close supervision.
But a trash fire gone awry had sent a mess of flames across the field one night, leaving our well-knit rice sacks to the sparrows and our dugout doomed to ash. We assessed the damage the following afternoon amidst gratitude to God for sparing the house, the barn, and the other 23 acres of land left wooded and wild.
“We’ll just have to rebuild,” my father said, “but, of course, we’ll need some beers to give us grit.”
“I’ll go!” I offered, more than willing to escape the heat, hard labor, and of course, the devastating loss of my promising ball career.
“And be sure to take one to your Uncle Ed,” my father added, “He’s out there fishing on the dock.”
I did the math as I skipped to the springhouse. There was Uncle Bill and Uncle Mike, Penny, and of course Uncle Ed down at the dock. I’d bring one more just in case Aunt Mary showed up, so that made five. Easy. My arms were growing bigger and stronger every day, and it wouldn’t be long until I enjoyed an ice cold beer with the boys myself.
The springhouse was heaven, a cool respite from my woes, and full of thirst-quenching watermelons, soda pop, and lemonade squeezed fresh that very morning. I grabbed the five cans of beer and cradled them in my arms. “Room for one more,” I thought, and grabbed a soda pop for my troubles. This day was about to turn around, I was sure of it. We’d rebuild that diamond and dugout and be playing ball by sundown. Off I went whistling and skipping out the springhouse, off to humbly accept my “Atta boy”s and high-fives. But in my gaiety, I missed the second step and tumbled to the ground. Beer cans shot up like rockets and exploded all over me.
The taste in my mouth was bitter and awful and my t-shirt and jeans were soaked. But harsher still was the realization that there were no more beers left in the springhouse, nor anywhere within miles. The last five beers now lived in the cotton of my oversized tee and beaded on my brow like sweat.
My head hung low. There was no way I could return to the baseball field, or rather what remained of the baseball field, empty handed. I would never live it down, so I headed toward the house instead. There was only one person who could right this wrong, and it was my mother, Rose.
She was sweeping the porch when I approached, dead grass making way for new fresh clumps from under her children’s shoes. With the passing of years, she claimed I wreaked so badly of beer that she could “smell me from a mile away,” but in truth, it took my hand on the front door for her to stop me in my tracks.
“What on earth…” she started.
I told her what had happened, and she laughed...laughed at me like only a mother can. Anyone else I’d have slugged, but Rose’s laugh was always gentle and eased a multitude of sins.
“Take those shoes off and get inside,” she ordered. “I’ll boil water for the bath and then we’ll see about replacing those beers.”
I sat naked in the tub, anxiously awaiting the hot water, which would awaken all the little cuts and scrapes I had unknowingly acquired throughout the day and sweep my skin clean of beer-laden grass.
Meanwhile, Rose was busy in the kitchen, scouring the cabinets for bottles of liquor and limes before the water came to a boil.
“All’s well,” she cooed as the hot water took my breath away. Little blades of grass rose to the top of the tub and floated in the soapy white water. “Now hurry up and don’t drain the tub. I’ll call your sister Kathie down to get in next.” We were always sharing baths back then, and I considered myself lucky whenever I got water straight from the stovetop.
When I entered the kitchen, Rose was standing there with a full pitcher and a stack of glasses. “Now don’t drop these glasses as we walk to the field,” she laughed. I stacked them close to my chest, and as we walked, I asked her if I could have a glass.
“Maybe when you’re older,” she winked, “but not today.”
The men were hard at work on our new baseball field when we arrived, but put down their tools the second they heard the clinking of ice in Rose’s pitcher. To this day, I’m still not exactly sure what was in that pitcher, but my uncles were more than happy to imbibe, and their thoughts of beer became a distant memory.
When all the glasses were poured, my mother reached into her pocket and pulled out a can of soda pop. “For your troubles,” she smiled, and walked from the field to the farmhouse where Kathie awaited my bath water.
The day would end victoriously, just as I had predicted. The diamond was drawn, albeit with giant rocks for bases, and my brother Roy hit his first double, sending me sliding safe into a grassy third. I displayed my grass-stained knee like a trophy that night, until my mother caught a whiff of beer on my jeans and made me toss them in the wash.
My youngest child leaves for college today. It’s difficult to see his life in boxes stacked by the same door we walked through when he was all but two days old. His mother sent me to the attic for his suitcase while they load the car in the driveway. But for some reason, when I found the suitcase, I just kept crawling toward the back of the attic, perhaps searching for the years that had somehow passed while I was blinking. There in the back, tucked behind Christmas decorations and bags full of stuffed animals, was a cardboard box labeled “The Farm”.
Inside were photos of the original baseball field, with shots of Penny nailing boards atop wooden beams; there were newspaper clippings and baseball cards, with the legendary Joe DiMaggio tucked safely in plastic; there were toy cars and pressed flowers, a bunch of old t-shirts and a Miles Davis record. And at the bottom of the box were my old pair of jeans, which had somehow managed to escape decades of spring cleaning. The dense grass stain on the right knee was still there, as if I had slid into third base just yesterday, Penny’s voice shouting, “Home! Come home!” a phantom in the fields of time. But that splash of beer across the thigh? Long gone, and yet I swear the scent of limes and liquor lingers.
You see, some stains never fully disappear no matter how hard we scrub them; they hold our summertime spirits like a trophy and memories too large for a single cardboard box to contain. There in the attic of the house I built a life beneath, I catch a glimpse of the setting sun; an explosion of color across my well-kempt lawn. I hear an engine roar and suddenly see my children laughing with their cousins on the farm and climbing into the bed of my brother’s old pick-up truck.
Though my stomach quietly sinks with the sadness of good-byes, especially today with my son leaving home, I’m reminded of my father’s words that summer evening of 1949 as the ball soared over third base and I came sprinting toward him—“Home! Come home!”
I open the attic window and look down on my son still loading the car down below.
“Hey son?” I shout.
“Come home!” I smile.
“Huh?” he asks, rattling my daydream.
I clear my throat and try again.
“I mean...if this whole college thing doesn’t work out, there’s always home…
You can always come home.”
The farm will always be home...
Rose and family 1940s
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