BY FRED MILLER
Copyright is held by the author.
CHRISTMAS IS the best. Ask any six-year-old. Filled with dreams and treats every kid craves, it’s a wonder it’s limited to a single appearance a year. Dad assures me that if this holiday came more often, the excitement would fade. I don’t want to believe it, but he’s my dad, and dads are never wrong.
Hints of its arrival come early. On tip-toes I peer over our grocery cart to watch the family chef selecting spices, dried fruits, nuts, whole coconuts, and other exotic fare in preparation for upcoming events. Later, I’ll sit by the kitchen table and watch Mom feed the grinder with ingredients for her luscious fruitcakes and other delectable surprises to come. And though the day is still weeks away, time is not on her side.
Late into the evening she takes scissors to day-old bread and cuts cubes for the turkey stuffing, while together we listen to Jack Benny and Gunsmoke and The Green Hornet on the radio. The finale to her daily toil comes with chocolate icing she’s left in the mixing bowl especially for this small imp.
At school the walls are filled with Crayola depictions of festive trees and wreaths of holly and reindeer and Santas brightly finished in the colors of the season. Paper chains held together with flour paste hang in garlands across the room. And kids of all grades gather in the auditorium for songfests and Christmas skits that bring smiles to every face.
It’s in the air, fresh, clean and nipping at young cheeks and noses. Trips are made on dads’ shoulders to fetch mistletoe from naked oaks and fresh holly with shiny berries that moms will use to decorate their homes. And large red candles will become centerpieces of dining room tables and be seen on windowsills.
The final cue of what is about to occur comes on the Friday following Thanksgiving, when department store windows are filled with mechanical elves and sparkling lights and smart bands strut down Main with a Santa float in close pursuit. Like magic, wish lists appear and treasures are cut from magazine ads and starred in holiday catalogues. And sleep becomes difficult for tots who sense that something unknown but grand will soon appear.
On a cool dusky eve my father takes my hand and we trek through thickets and cross icy creeks on a nearby farm in search of the perfect tree for our parlor. And once we spot a candidate, we circle and eye it and measure it with our hands. I smile and nod and Dad fells the tree, and together we pull it home singing carols we both know.
Soon our home is filled with the aroma of cedar. And Mom bakes cookies, and warm wassail accompanies the unpacking of foil icicles and treasured ornaments. Lights are strung and soon a warm glow appears in the branches of our tree. And groans soon follow as the lights blink and go out. One of them needs to be replaced, but where is it? Dad checks each, one by one, until someone shouts, “he’s found it.” And warm colours fill the walls and ceiling once more.
Each year I rehearse a new list and am gently reminded that Santa has a full sleigh and little guys like me are entitled to one toy, one game, and a stocking filled with candies, nuts, and fruit. And like any child, I cannot choose. After much ado, I’m resigned to wait for a morning of surprises that fill the eyes of a first grader like me.
When the magic day arrives, I’m overwhelmed, three gifts instead of two: a bat, ball, and a glove, far beyond my fondest dreams. And my thoughts return to the summer just past and the tribulations of a young athlete-to-be.
“You’re too little.”
“You can’t play. You have to watch.”
“Don’t get in the way of the ball.”
On the sidelines between home plate and first, I stand and jump and cheer with Pee Wee and my dog, Bo, at my side. Pee Wee is a year my junior and much smaller than me. We’re both too young to play with the long-legged boys on the field — or so we’re told.
Those in the game have no regulation bats, balls, or gloves. They play with a broad stick discarded from a construction site nearby, and a tennis ball loaned to them by a mom.
Pee Wee and I soon tire of being ignored and decide to abandon our posts beside the field. Bo, full of energy, jumps and nips fingers just to assure us he’s part of our team. But when we reach the edge of the outfield, “CRACK!” a hard hit ball sails over our heads and players jump and yell as Pee Wee, with Bo at his heels, races after it. His pitch toward the diamond surprises everyone. He’s much better than his size would suggest. So he’s summoned and placed at the far reaches of the field to recover balls before they can roll into the street. Bo and I stand ready to assist as needed.
Pee Wee allows me to try one, and my pitch is so bad I’m booed by those in the game. After that, I toss every ball that comes my way to my friend who hurls it to the pitcher. And Pee Wee continues to improve with each throw.
Soon he throws one over the pitcher’s head. It lands with a solid thunk in the hands of the catcher who puts a runner out on his way home from third. Pee Wee is now a regular member of the team at right field. I ask to play and everyone laughs. Except Pee Wee. Again, Bo and I stand behind him, ready in case we are needed.
Later, down by the creek we practice with rocks until I, too, can throw the long pitch. We also skip flat rocks across the surface of the water until I’m so skilled I can skip one far downstream.
And the day comes when I pick up a rolling ball, ready to toss it to my friend. Pee Wee encourages me to throw it to the pitcher and, like magic, the ball sails high into the air—over the pitcher’s head and the catcher’s as well. Two runners advance, and voices scold me. After that, I’m afraid to move the ball any further than Pee Wee’s hands.
Then one day Pee Wee’s mom gives us an old rubber ball she’s found. We practice our pitches to one another — for hours and hours. And I get better — and better. The boys at the diamond know nothing of my progress.
* * *
Now on this Christmas morning I’m the proud owner of regulation equipment. And Pee Wee and I continue our practice, he, catching, and me, pitching. The air is still thick with a winter chill, but we don’t mind. Each day I throw and Pee Wee catches. And Bo’s eyes are alert to each pitch. I think I’m improving; Pee Wee says so, too.
And like dawns that tickle one’s senses, spring arrives, and kids take to the streets with cartwheels and hopscotch and foot races. Yet to small boys, this time of year has but one purpose: to play baseball.
Pee Wee and I wander down to the field and are met with wide eyes. Maybe there is a position for me on the team — out in the field, far from the diamond.
Pee Wee stares back at them, but I smile, I want to play.
“Let ’im pitch,” Pee Wee says.
“Naw, we gotta pitcher,” one of the regulars says.
“He can start out in the field,” says another.
Pee Wee slaps his fist into the leather pocket of my new glove. I stand by him and wait. And I want to whisper to Pee Wee that a position in the field is fine with me. But I don’t.
“No,” Pee Wee says, “he pitches and I catch.”
There’s a pause while everyone gazes at the new equipment.
“Okay, we’ll give him a try.”
Pee Wee smiles and races to home plate, but I’m hesitant to move. My friend, squatting behind the plate and grinning, motions for me to take the mound.
What I like to see is what the players call “around the horn”” Once a runner is tagged out at first, the baseman hurls the ball to third where it’s then tossed to second and back to first. And then lobbed to the pitcher. The players say it keeps them limber. It’s fast and exciting. Now I’ll be part of it.
My first pitches hit the dirt and are trapped in Pee Wee’s glove. A runner takes first on a walk. But I’m unable to place the ball over the plate. Another takes a walk, and then another. The bases are loaded. I hear a ringing in my ears and I pray no one can see my legs shaking. The faces of our players are frozen. Pee Wee walks out to the mound, all smiles, and I wonder what’s up.
“Bobby, can you count to 10?” he whispers.
In disbelief I stare at him. “Of course I can.”
“Then do it, and do it before each pitch,” he says and starts back toward the plate. Then he stops, turns and comes back and adds, “count slowly.”
My puzzled look sends mixed signals to our players and theirs. Pee Wee gives me the sign. I nod and start the count. The batter looks puzzled as I wind up, and the ball sails straight across the plate. The batter is caught looking. Our side cheers. I take a deep breath and exhale. And check the positions of our basemen at first and third. It happens again. And again. Soon we have three outs in a row. As I walk from the mound to the dugout, a small voice in my head says, “You’re a pitcher.”
And the season unfolds for this team of Little League wannabes. But our guys will never respond to calls for league tryouts. We’re inner city kids and regulation shoes cost money. Plus there are fees to play in the league. None of us can afford to think of regulation ball. For us, it’s a dream, so we continue to play sandlot ball with pick-up teams from other neighborhoods near the city’s centre. And I get better and better.
One warm day Pee Wee approaches the mound with new instructions. “Pretend you’re skipping a flat rock across the water. My glove is where the rock must level out so it’ll skip. Aim for it.”
And that’s what my mind and muscles respond to with the first pitch. Pee Wee’s glove is close to the ground. I stare and imagine the creek at his glove. The batter swings — too high. And then I have the signal: burn it across the plate. The batter swings too low and has no idea what has just happened.
The season continues into deep summer with boys from other ’hoods who’ve made up team names like “The Cougars,” “The Bulls,” and “The Eagles” and have come to play in our field of dust and clover. And sometimes we venture to better parks where adult softball leagues vie for company honours. And I soon begin hearing my name whispered by strangers on the teams we play. At some point I wonder how they know who I am.
One day in a park far from our home field we play a group of boys with “The Zephyrs” emblazoned across their uniforms. Parents nearby watch and cheer. And this becomes our moment — Pee Wee and me. No Zephyr ever advances beyond first base. We beat them 10-zip. We cheer. And I notice other heads drop and shoulders slump. Parents are consoling them. I look at Pee Wee and he smiles.
“Great game, Bobby, we skunked ’em.”
“Yeah,” I say, but somehow I don’t feel like smiling. And I wonder why this game was so important to “The Zephyrs.”
We start toward home and I hear an adult voice behind us. “Hold up a moment, boys.” I turn and two men approach our group.
“Say, you guys are pretty good,” one says. “What’s the name of your team?”
I shrug my shoulders and look at my fellow players. Gil, our first baseman, says, “The Turtles,” and we all laugh. We don’t really have a team name.
“You boys are not in Little League?” one of the men says with raised brow.
“No, sir,” says Roy, our third baseman. Each of us is looking for a cue to leave.
“Well, you’re good enough,” says one of them. “The Zephyrs are a Little League team and we came here today just for practice. You’re the first to beat us this season.”
“You guys are just swell,” says the other who looks at me. “Great pitching, young man.” They turn and wander back to their families. And we’re so stunned by what we’ve just heard, no one remembers to say thank you.
“You hear that?” Pee Wee says. “We beat a Little League team.” Smiles appear all around.
The seasons turn to fall and we’re back in school. Drawing Jack-O-Lanterns and, later, Pilgrim’s hats, I know the Christmas holiday is fast approaching. And it will be filled with the same exhilarations as in the past, but with a new wrinkle this year. Mom has told an uncle in a distant city of my successes on the mound. And a present arrives — a pair of Little League shoes. Mom tells me there will be money for fees, too, if I can make a team.
I have mixed feelings at this turn of events. And I tell Mom in confidence, I can’t play Little League ball unless Pee Wee can, too. At first she’s puzzled, but, in time, money for Pee Wee’s shoes and fees arrives. And together we qualify for the League. The League officials want to separate us, but we tell them we can’t. Offers are made for me to pitch, with Pee Wee in the field. Again, we refuse — politely, and, together again, Pee Wee catches and I pitch.
What becomes apparent and different for me is that I can hit the ball — hard. Most pitchers cannot. Line drives are my specialty. With a sense of confidence, I know I’ll make it to first base.
And the season begins. We win some and we lose some. Sometimes Pee Wee and I are on the bench so all members of the team have a chance to play. And I continue to hit line drives and race to first base.
But then halfway through the season something happens. The ball reaches first base before I can. I’m wheezing and out of breath. I’m sure it’s just a lingering cold that’s hung on for a couple of weeks.
The day comes when I cannot draw enough breath to reach first. I fall to my knees, and everything goes black.
When I awaken, I’m looking up at my parents. I’m lying flat with my arms and shoulders separated from my head by a foam rubber collar around my neck. My body is trapped in a metal tube and I’m frightened. And whatever I’m attached to makes strange noises like a groaning monster. Mom places her hand on my head to assure me.
With no choice I’m forced to learn new routines. I’m in a contraption the nurses call an iron lung. It helps me breathe without wheezing and with less effort. And there are lots of these machines all around the room with heads and faces of other kids I do not know.
Mom and Dad have gone out for a few minutes and I feel alone. And I start to cry.
“Hi.” I hear a voice behind me, but I cannot turn to see who it is.
“Look in the mirror above you, silly, and you can see me.”
Sure enough there’s a mirror attached to the machine above my head, and I can now see the blonde heard of a girl in the contraption behind me.
“What’s wrong?” she says.
“I’m scared,” I say and for some reason I don’t mind saying so.
“Well, don’t be,” she says. “I’m Alice and this is my new home. Mom says so, but it’s just temporary. I’ll be going home soon.”
There’s silence between us as we peer at each other and listen to the thump-whoosh sounds of the machines.
“What’s your name, silly boy?”
“I’m Bobby,” I say, trying to hide a sob.
“Don’t cry, Bobby. It’s gonna be A-okay. FDR had this disease and look at him now,” she says with a toothy grin.
“He’s the president, silly, president of the United States. He had polio and he whipped it,” she says.
Polio. It’s the first time I’ve heard the word, and I don’t know what it means.
I hear voices and Mom and Dad are back with more comforting words. Food is brought in on trays for all the kids and my mom feeds me with a spoon. And I suppose I shouldn’t mind, because my hands and arms are constrained inside the tube and only my head and face are visible. Soon I’ve had all that I want. I’m not very hungry. Mom and Dad say they’ll be back at first light of the morning. That’s when I realize I’ll be alone all night.
But I’m not alone. Alice keeps pleading with me to stop crying. She says she’ll sing a song to me. And she does. And another. And it’s kind of funny, she can sing only when the pump is halfway through its rotation. There are long pauses between each line of her songs as she awaits the machine that will allow her to take a deep breath.
Soon the nurses have dimmed the lights. And I grow accustomed to the sound of the pumps. A nurse gives me a pill and a sip of water and soon I fall asleep.
Sure enough Mom and Dad are at my side when I awake. I see two nurses and I can feel the machine open to one side — cool air rushes in over my body. And I learn I must be diapered because it’s best I’m not moved at all.
“That’s Alice behind me,” I tell them. And both stroll over to meet her. Alice seems as happy as she was last night.
“Alice says that FDR had what we have and he whipped it. And now he’s president,” I say.
“That’s right,” my father says and nods over at my new friend. “How’d you know that, Alice?”
“The nurses told me,” she says, all smiles.
“Well, it’s true, young lady,” Dad says.
Over the days ahead I become a little more comfortable with the routine, but I miss my team, especially Pee Wee. Mom tells me they all send their best, but healthy children are not allowed in this ward. And I wonder why. Mom says Pee Wee begged to come. Bo, too.
When we’re alone, Alice and I sing songs together, both with the long pauses, of course. We sing The Bumble Bee Song and the Itsy Bitsy Spider, and she teaches me a new one, The Johnny Appleseed Song. It’s now my favourite.
And Alice tells me stories and I talk about my baseball team. And in short order, she’s memorized the names of our players and their positions, too. She’s very smart.
She continues to tell me she’ll go home soon. I want her to get better, but I don’t want to be left alone.
Alice has named her machine “Princess,” so I name mine “G. I. Joe.” Sometimes we talk about school and sometimes about our families and sometimes about our favorite holidays. I tell her my favorite is Christmas. She says it’s hers, too, and that we’ll both be home by then. Maybe we can celebrate together and exchange gifts, she tells me.
Days turn into weeks and I think Alice will soon go home and leave me, but I don’t want her to know how I feel. Doctors and nurses are with Alice most of the time now. Not that I don’t get visits, too.
And one morning I discover it’s happened. I look up in the mirror and Alice’s machine is empty. And quiet. The nurses hesitate when I ask, and then they assure me she has gone home.
Each week Mom reads stories to me and the comics on Sundays. And I get manila drawings from classmates with wishes for a speedy recovery.
Christmas Day is celebrated here at my new home, “G. I. Joe.” And I receive so many gifts I cannot count them. But none from Alice. I’ve not heard from her since she left, and I miss her. Once I’ve seen my gifts, they’re placed on a table nearby, and lifted to eye level whenever I wish to see them again. Finally, my parents take them home.
My personal physician is Dr. Spivey. At first he smiles and speaks to me each time he arrives. And asks questions about my school and my hobbies. Dr. Spivey is a big baseball fan. Lately, his visits are shorter. He just glances at my chart and frowns. And steps away and whispers to the nurses on duty. But he comes more often, every couple of hours or so. And he asks me if it’s easier or harder to breathe now. I can’t tell, it’s always hard. I tire more quickly now. And I’m not very hungry.
In the middle of the night I’m awakened with an ache in my chest. And it’s harder for me to breathe. I struggle to call a nurse, but I can’t. It hurts to talk. And then there’s a flashlight in my eyes. And conversations between people I cannot see. G. I. Joe is opened. I get a shot in my hip. It stings. G. I. Joe is closed. I’m sleepy, but I ache all over. The machine is making more noise now. I’m so tired. I want to go home.
* * *
On a soft morning fresh with dew, Pee Wee walks by my house. There are men and women dressed for church, quietly coming and going from our door. Pee Wee does not know.
The next day he’s back, this time with the boys of summer, but there’s no longer a crowd on the lawn, just silence and a wreath on the door.
Pee Wee walks alone to the door and waits. The others from the curb see my father step out with a bat, a ball and a glove. He places them in Pee Wee’s hands. And the door is closed.
Pee Wee walks back to the street and is surrounded by my friends from the diamond, all mute at what they see.
Once again spring has come, a time for new growth rife with lush scents that drive insects into mad spins. And young boys, lost in mystic dreams, race to dusty plains and listen for a gruff old voice to say, “Play ball!”