By the time my brother Mark and I were ten and twelve-years old, respectively, our summers had settled into a comfortably predictable pattern. Wake up to a sultry, summer morning, have some Hawaiian Punch fruit drink (5% real fruit juice!), King Vitamin cereal, throw on some old clothes, then head out to round up our friends.
Scott, Johnny, Tony, and occasionally the Jelleff brothers comprised our small, stable group. In later years, my older cousin Jimmy would sometimes come all the way over from Stratford to flesh out our crew.
Charlie Finley’s Oakland A’s had just finished a remarkable three-year run as World Champions. Now the Big Red Machine, as relentlessly efficient and mechanical as The Terminator, dominated the baseball diamond.
I was a Mets fan. My brother Mark was a Braves fan because he liked their logo. Scott was an A’s fan, and Johnny liked the Yankees. Tony, a quiet, wiry Portuguese kid, kept his loyalties to himself.
Stopping first at Scott’s house just down the street, we might first trade some baseball cards (Tony Perez for Bert Campaneris straight up), then Scott would show us his latest Iron Maiden or Black Sabbath record. Eventually, we would gather up our uncertain assortment of bats, gloves and balls before sauntering down Maplewood Avenue to collect Johnny and Tony. They lived side-by-side in identical gray two-family houses with no yards, front or back.
Tony’s black-clad grandmother was always sweeping the sidewalk in front of their house. Her smile offered us a view of her few remaining teeth, each one a sentry guarding her ironic, foreign laugh.
Johnny was once again in trouble with his dad, as his younger sister would always gleefully announce to us upon opening the back door to their modest home. Johnny was a tough little nine-year old with a keen sense of humor. He would back down for no one. Slow as Ernie Lombardi wearing a ball-and-chain, Johnny could hit and field, but if a ball got by him, you knew you had yourself at least a triple.
For some reason, it never occurred to us to bring any water along as we trekked over to middle-class Fairfield to play ball. The thirty minute walk wasn’t so bad in the late morning, although the burnt orange sun was already high in the sky.
Playing in Fairfield was always a crapshoot. Sometimes, you got lucky and would be able to play uninterrupted for most of the day. But as often as not, a station-wagon full of pampered, interchangeable suburban kids would invade our field like chubby white locusts. This would usually happen, of course, in the middle of a game.
Someone’s overbearing dad – they always looked vaguely like either Robert Conrad or Lee Majors – would gruffly announce that they had “reserved” the field.
We knew this was bullshit, of course, but in those days young boys generally didn’t argue with adults. And we never happened to have a handy grown-up of our own tagging along to provide us cover.
Johnny would just mutter, “Aw shit,” to himself, and we’d trudge off back up and across King’s Highway past Caldor and the County Cinema Theater (some movie about a man-eating shark was very popular that summer.)
Back in Bridgeport, we would inevitably stop off at the family owned and operated A&G Market where I bought my first pack of baseball cards in 1974. We would purchase a lunch of RC Cola (look under the cap to see if you’re a winner!), and a bag of funyuns.
Fortified with this food pyramid-busting meal, we would climb a chain-link fence and spend the next several hours running, shouting, hitting and throwing on the hot black-tar pavement.
We took the game deadly seriously. Every pitch, swing, and tag was grounds for an argument. Scott, hot-tempered as a drunk Red Sox fan at a Yankee game, would throw his glove to the ground, yelling in his nasally, pre-pubescent voice about what total crap the final call was. Johnny would just laugh at Scott’s antics, which pissed Scott off even more. Eventually Tony or I would have to step between them to get the game going again.
If not interrupted in late afternoon by someone’s mother or young sister coming by to collect one of us for some unsavory, real-world task (Johnny needs to take out the garbage; Scott needs to come home to watch his two brothers; Mark and I need to go to church: “Christ mom, on a Wednesday afternoon? You’ve got to be kidding”), we would play all the way up to suppertime. As if triggered by some ancient primordial reflex, mothers all over the neighborhood would start shouting out the door for their children to come in and get washed up for supper.
Exactly when all of this ended, I can’t really say. It must have been around 1978 or ‘79, but I can’t be sure. One day I was just a kid playing ball with my friends. Then, without warning or regret, it just stopped. Someone may have moved away. New friendships were forged at new schools. Girls suddenly popped up like dandelions on a spring lawn.
I’m quite sure, though, that I had no idea then that the most important time of my life — the period that essentially shaped the man I have become – had disappeared for good, and would one day, many years later, try desperately to avoid being pinned down and recaptured by mere words.