By Mark Godding
I started this blog because of a single summer afternoon I spent with my brother when I was seven. On that day, Barry, who would have been about thirteen, finally gave in and let me play baseball with him and his buddies. It wasn’t a game; it was mostly just them practicing and me shagging after all the balls they hit long or overthrew. Of course, I didn’t care. I was playing with the big boys now.
They started giving me tips like, “Hey, kid! If you’re gonna get any good at catching grounders, you better start running towards the ball.”
Later, when I tried implementing this newly acquired strategy to improve my game, one of the boys came up from behind and tripped me accidentally on purpose. He and another boy slapped each other on the back and walked away laughing.
“What a maroon!” he howled.
My brother just grinned at me from across the field and shrugged. It was his way of saying, welcome to the club, sucker.
When we were done playing, I was happy but I was exhausted and I was covered in dirt. And worse still, I had these wicked welts all over me from the nettles that grew in the field. They stung like hot pepper, especially because I was covered in sweat, and they stung even worse when I rubbed them. And I was itching all over—not good for a kid with allergies—but the scariest thing was that I had green weed juice on my shorts and shirt, and I had those prickly burrs in my socks that you can never get out. All this my mom didn’t tolerate well. I could go into anaphylactic shock because I came into contact with a deadly allergen and, oh well, these things happen; but God help me if my clothes got dirty or messed up!
“Mom is gonna be pissed,” Barry said in a measured voice.
“I know, I know,” I said.
A quiet alarm began to creep over us as we went through our options. You see, I was already getting grounded with a stunning frequency that summer, and getting this scratched up and dirty made me a repeat offender. I was going down yet again and my brother would be remanded as an accessory, something neither of us wanted.
So, we decided to hose me down in the driveway. It had been a hot and dusty afternoon for everyone, so the guys took off their shirts too, and we all cleaned up from head to toe. Then we sat on the hot concrete and waited to dry. Barry and I started to feel a bit better.
After a while, the guys started leaving a few at a time. They were tired and hungry and they’d throw their damp t-shirts over a shoulder and head for home, like GIs exhausted after a long campaign. Barry and me, we went into the house and broke out the Mercurochrome and ate some peanut butter and honey sandwiches. When we finished, he told me we had to go to his buddy’s house at the end of our cul-de-sac, but he didn’t give me a reason why.
* * *
When we turned up the drive, Barry’s friend John was sitting on the porch waiting for us with three lawn chairs and TV trays his mom had set up for us. I suddenly realized that my brother was including me again, this the second time in one day! Man, I guess I am in the club, I thought.
And, by the way, the TV trays were a kind of shorthand for “we’re going to build models!” It was a right of passage for us kids then to build model cars and airplanes and boats, and I used to spend entire afternoons by myself sitting on my porch with a Coke, building models on a TV tray. Moms had an ulterior motive for putting you outside with a TV tray: You didn’t make a mess inside and smell up the house with airplane glue. You learned a lot about car design and construction by building model cars from these kits. And done well, with the right paint and decals, they looked really cool in your bedroom. Moreover, if you wanted to learn the craft of model building, big brothers knew the most.
“Sit down, boys,” John’s mom said. Mrs. Everson was one of the nicest moms on our street. She came through the screen door jostling cold drinks and snacks on a tray, and she stopped the door from slamming with the heel of her loafer.
“Thank you Mrs. Everson,” we said.
“Thanks Mom,” John said, and the three of us set to work on our plastic art.
It didn’t take long for talk to turn to baseball, and I listened carefully as Barry and John talked about everything from the mechanics of a swing to the number of stitches some kid in school got when he cut his calf open on his cleats. Finally, they decided we should grease our mitts and re-tape our bats. I got the task of running back home to get our stuff, and by the time I got back, John and Barry had put the models away and were sitting on the steps.
“’Bout time you got here, you little reptile,” John said just loud enough for me to hear but out of ear shot of his mom. “Now go home!”
My brother was shorter than John but stockier and stronger, attributes I admired in him, and he swung his fist hard into John’s deltoid with muffled whump.
“Lay off him, Johnny. Besides, Marky’s gonna help me with my gear, and not yours. So, stop being a creep!”
“Owww,” John mewled with that crooked grin of his. But you could tell the punch really hurt.
“Johnny, say sorry.”
John just glared over at me.
“Do…it,” my brother hissed. He raised his fist again. “You’re gonna get seconds, I’ll pound you!”
“Sorry, Shrimp-o,” John said honestly.
“It’s okay,” I said smiling at my brother. Barry grinned back at me and then hit me on the shoulder with a whump. “You were kinda slow, Shrimp.”
* * *
It was one of those beautiful summer evenings where the air was quiet and still hung heavy with the smell of someone’s lawn that was mowed earlier that day. And the sun, it was lingering on the corner of John’s driveway in a patch between two box elder trees. By now the porch was in full shade and, thankfully, our clothes were dry. But, it was still hot and we could feel the day’s heat radiating up all around us and through our shorts on the concrete steps.
So, we sat there re-stringing our mitts and wiping them down with petroleum jelly, which I also used on my welts that had by now gone from a furious red to a translucent white. Maybe mom won’t notice, I thought.
Aside from an annoying bug flying somewhere nearby, the only sounds came from Mrs. Everson’s new color Philco in the den at the back of the house. Every so often, a tinny-sounding laugh track rode out of the house on the back of this frigid, cigarette-laced air that came through the screen door and down the steps between us. Then my brother handed me my Louisville Slugger.
“Wrap your bat.”
“Huh? Why now?”
“Because we gotta get going soon. Where’s your tape?”
I put my mitt down, reached into my pocket and handed him the roll of my black cloth electrician’s tape, which was covered with bits of sand and straw, and now petroleum jelly. I thought he’d get mad, but instead he just blew out a sigh and started picking away at the detritus.
“Good grief, Marky. What else you got? Is this it?”
I nodded. John sniggered from the top step. At that, my brother turned to him and said: “Hey Johnny, I just remembered. You owe me a new roll of tape from last week. Pay up!”
“Oh, yeah. I guess I do.” He got up from the squeaky aluminum chair and went to the screen door. “Mommy?” he crooned, “Where’s that bag from the store we got yesterday?” I quickly looked up at my brother’s face and waited until John went inside.
My brother leaned into me with exaggerated eyebrows and slowly mouthed the word MAW-MEE? I giggled and whispered, “I’m a lot younger than him and I don’t call mommy anymore. He’s kind of a baby, huh? Is he a baby? He IS, isn’t he?”
“Shush, Marky. He’s okay. Leave it alone.”
At that moment, I felt a bit ashamed in front of my brother for making fun of this older boy. But then, and for perhaps the first time, I felt Barry really had treated me more like a peer—even like I was one of his other buddies—rather than this pesky little brother who always wanted to hang around. And now we were conspirators who were sharing in a secret we both believed about his friend.
We had almost unwrapped the old tape from my bat by the time John came back out. Barry grinned at me and then turned on his stern and narrowed-eyed don’t-look-at-John-or-I’ll-bust-up-laughing look, so I just kept my head down and finished the bat.
“Here you are.” John flipped the tape from behind his back to my brother. Barry deftly caught it with one hand, almost without looking, and had it out of the box in an equally deft turn of his hand.
“Thanks, Johnny,” he replied.
In the sweep of a single movement, Barry had expertly caught and opened a brand new box of authentic, high-quality bat tape from Sears. And I was in shock, not because of the way he handled it or because he did it so fast, but because my brother was about to let me wrap my bat with his new tape. I was hoping it was with no conditions attached.
“Here,” he said with a big grin. “Knock yourself out.”
Barry stood up on the step and stretched for a distant moon that had just appeared above us in the fading sky. John came to the edge of the porch and they started talking about some new girl, Connie, from the other side of the block who the mothers had said was beautiful and could play Chopin on the piano. Apparently, among her considerable attributes was the oft-whispered acknowledgment—and this was the focus of John and Barry’s conversation—that she had matured early, and for some reason this was of great concern to our mothers. She wasn’t seen much outside of school. Now, rumor had it that because she had once been in parochial school—and had done so well there, at least until the sixth grade—her folks were going to send her to back, probably to Memorial Catholic High next year.
“Marky, what are you doing?” my brother groaned, obviously irritated by what he was seeing. I didn’t know they were watching me wrap my bat. “You’re doing it all wrong, buddy,” he said. “It’s all crooked, sloppy! Let’s unwrap that sucker and I’ll show you, okay?” He sat down next to me and together we unwrapped what I had done.
That’s when John’s mom came to the door and asked us if we wanted to watch TV with her and her dog. We all politely declined and she left.
Barry asked, “Why with the dog, what’s up with that?”
“It’s on Lawrence Welk,” John said. “Whenever this guy comes on and plays the accordion, the dog runs into the room from wherever he is in the house, even if he’s been sleeping, and sits stock still in front of the television to watch. When the guy stops playing, the dog starts howling, and he won’t stop. It’s like he likes accordion music. Sometimes he’ll keep it up until a commercial comes on, and then he’ll stop. The second the commercial ends, he’ll start howling all over till the next one comes on. My mom thinks it’s cute or something.”
Then he added: “Mrs. Walker (the old lady next door whose flower beds were often the subject of the dog’s attention) calls every time he does it to complain that she can’t hear her favorite show with all the racket going on over here.”
“Oh,” my brother said. “Now I’m glad we passed on it.”
“Me too,” I said.
“What’s Mrs. Walker’s favorite show anyway?” Barry asked while we straightened out my tape.
“Lawrence Welk,” he replied, without a hint irony in his voice.
The three of us locked eyes simultaneously–this electricity passed between us–and we busted up laughing. The evening air filled with that goofy, unfiltered laughter that only boys of a certain age can produce, and its only known remedies are to let it run its course, like a terrible infection, or a sharp slug from a fully extended arm.
After we had laughed it out—except for a dribble of giggles that would re-ignite now and then—Barry and I resumed the task at hand while John went back in the house. He said he had to go get something but we knew that he had peed his pants.
* * *
“Okay, Marky, start here at the bottom of the bat and wrap around it one-and-a-half times, like this. Once you get to the half part, start your angle like this,” and he demonstrated the procedure with his own bat. He pulled the tape on to the handle with a deliberate quickness and sureness that only comes from practice.
“Now, you gotta be precise on the angle. It’s less than a forty-five and to avoid getting wrinkles, you’re gonna pull the tape tight, but not so tight that you stretch it too much.” Barry stopped after the tape’s third rank up the bat and showed it to me; the angle on each rank was exactly uniform with the one below. “Now, here’s the thing,” he said, “It’s really important: like anything else, you gotta start it off right. You gotta make your first full spiral turn around the bat perfect, the best you can do. Okay? After that, if you’ve done it right, all the other ranks will follow the same way. Got it?”
I nodded and started wrapping my bat rank by rank. Barry helped me every rotation or so, smoothing the tape with the heel of his hand and making sure each turn was symmetrical. By the time I was about half done he had already finished his bat and had put it aside.
“I don’t think I’m making it tight enough,” I said, even though my wrists were aching.
“Lemme see,” he said, and he took the bat from me. “Naw, you’re doing it good, just keep doing what you’re doing, I think it’ll be tight enough. This is great tape and it’ll last a long time if you do it right.”
I gripped the bat hard and really had to work to keep the ranks straight as it started getting fatter going up the barrel. But I was making it pretty darn tight and it looked better than anything I’d done on my own before. Then Barry intervened to help me get over the hump. He leaned in close and spoke in a low, deliberate voice.
“You see right here, about here where the bat is getting wide? I wanna tell you something, Marky. If you wrap your bat tight and perfect, from about down there to where it finishes, making it tighter and tighter as you go up the bat, you’ll get more power. Did you know that?” I confessed that I didn’t.
“How come?” I asked in that conspiratorial tone we’d been using before.
Barry picked up his bat and held it with his fists clenched around the handle, slowly opening and closing his fingers like he was getting ready to swing.
“You know how when you squeeze a tube of toothpaste from the bottom with the cap on, and then when you open it up, the toothpaste will sometimes explode out? It’s like that. The tape squeezes all the energy in your bat up to the barrel, into the sweet spot, and you’ll hit the ball a lot harder. It’s called inertia or something.”
The silence hung there between us and I just stared into my older brother’s eyes like I was seeing him for the first time. He had just given up probably one of his most sacred secrets to me, and while I was working over the logic of this taping theory in my mind, the dog started howling in a long, pitiful wail that sounded like he was in real pain.
That’s when John came bursting out of the house with the screen door slamming behind him.
“I hate it when she makes him do that,” he cried. “Cripes, that dog! Can I sleep over at your house tonight?”
“Sure, my mom won’t care,” Barry said. He got up to go back into the house with John to get Mrs. Everson’s permission when he stopped and turned to me. “Hey Marky, finish up. We’re going.” Then he gave me a sly wink and they went inside.
Now the lights in the house came on, and the dog started howling even worse with a weird, irritating tremolo in it; that’s when the phone started ringing. Finally the boys came back out with John carrying his pillow and some stuff under his arm.
“Let’s go!” Johnny yelled rushing past me.
Barry and I picked up our gear and the three of us headed to the street. When we got to the end of the drive, we could hear Mrs. Walker next door yelling at Mr. Walker about all the noise the dog was making, and how this is just one more thing—what with all the kids around here always laughing too loud and making a ruckus—that, well, has to stop.
It was just about dark, and I was struggling with my mitt and stuff because I had my bat in one arm and everything else in the other. Barry smiled at me and took my stuff so all I had to carry home was my bat with the new wrap.
* * *
Baseball was a big part of my life when I was a kid. Everyone in the neighborhood, at one time or another, played in the field at the end of our cul-de-sac. For a lot of us, it shaped our lives and cemented long friendships. My brother Barry and his friend John stayed close for years. Both served in Vietnam; afterwards, Barry opened one of the best car service shops on the East Bench. When he retired, he bought a model train store and works there today. John became a banker. Sadly, he died of a heart attack before he was 50.