Sunday, May 24, 2009

summer not in the city

Summer always seems to make me a little more nostalgic - I guess it's because most of my favorite childhood memories involve warm weather - bikes, carnivals, lakes, softball. I'm never nostalgic for shovelling the walk or putting on 4 layers of clothes to go to school. 
I've been even more nostalgic than usual this year since the arrival of warm weather, probably triggered by 2 things - turning 50 and Facebook. Milestone birthdays make you want to get in touch with everyone you ever knew in your life and Facebook has helped me find a few - some who were probably better off being unfound
I may have mentioned it once or twice, but I grew up in small-town Illinois. Centralia, to be exact. Home of the Orphans (yes, that's really the high school team name, I swear). This morning, David mentioned the fact that a couple of the groups he belonged to on Facebook were really growing - Laclede Town and West End both have 70-80 members or so. Centralia's group on Facebook has 709 members. People there just have more time on their hands, I reckon. Except for one grumpy guy about my age who complains continually about how terrible the town has gotten, it's mostly people getting all nostalgic about their summer childhoods.  
But I digress . . . 
Like most small towns, Centralia had a recreational department that offered organized summer activities for a small fee - little league, swimming lessons, baton twirling. I did take swimming lessons, but they didn't stick - swimming is not one of my talents. My favorite - what I longed for all winter - was organized girl's softball. 
I was small for my age and not very coordinated; that meant that I was usually the catcher or more often than not, the right fielder. 
We played night games that rotated between 3 lighted fields. The field we seemed to end up at most was on the outskirts of town, right next to some Illinois Power generators and ringed by locust trees and woods where humidity and bugs just seemed to hang in the air. We played Slo-Pitch, thrown underhanded with a big arch that breaks right at the last possible second and hit with a pretty good-sized bat. Unless the other team had a lefty batter*, right field was a good place to put the smallest, most uncoordinated member of the team - not much happened there. I would stand with my hands on my knees, trying to look fearsome and ready for anything, watching balls sail into center or left field. With the humidity, the lack of a breeze and the size of the ball it would never go very far - just these pop flies that would hang in the air over your head then plop into the grass. 
I remember the one night a fly finally got hit into right field like it was yesterday. Both of my parents were there - highly unusual, because my dad's job involved a lot of travel. The air was so wet you could wring it out with both hands. It was one of the later innings and the grass was just beginning to get covered with dew. I don't remember the score, but we were probably losing - not a great team we had, but enthusiastic - when it happened. A big 8th grade lefty walloped a high fly ball to right field. The crowd and my teammates held their breath. "I've got it!" I hollered and ran like a rabbit, only to slip in the wet grass and land flat on my back. I turned my head just in time to see the ball land in the grass next to me. My humiliation was complete. I decided I was never getting up again.
I laid there for so long that they halted the game. My parents came down from the stands.  The coach ran out onto the field. I looked up into the ring of concerned faces and made a decision.
I would get up. I would go on. Logically, I knew it probably wasn't feasible for me to lay there forever. I wouldn't ever get to watch The Monkees again.  
When I stood up the crowd cheered just as if I had come back from a terrible injury, and I resumed looking right-field fearsome. I don't remember another fly being hit my way for the whole rest of the summer.
You know, I never thanked Micky, Davy, Peter and Mike for the strength to go on.
Perhaps I should.
* Up until probably the early 70's, most small town teachers were totally against left-handism. It was an aberration at best and at worst, a sign of the devil. I've heard stories of teachers actually tying a kid's left hand to their body and making them do everything with their right. I can't think of one left-handed kid in my whole grade school. 
 P.S. The photo has nothing to do with the Centralia Recreation Department, it just looked like summer to me. It ran recently in a sort of nostalgia edition of the local paper. I'm the clown with the Harpo wig on the far right. I was 11.