I see the boys of summer in their ruin…

Well that whole rapture thing was a bit of a bust. Bummer. I was really looking forward to pretending I had been hoovered up into heaven, and not coming to work today. But while it may have been a disappointing weekend from a divine point of view, it was not without it’s share of Armageddon. The tornado sirens went off both days, and we had to huddle in the basement watching every Minnesotan’s favorite TV Sport. Emergency Weather Broadcasts.

Seriously, after having spent 17 years in this state I can now explain the finer points of “wall clouds”, and “hook echoes”. Minnesotans are total weather geeks. We know the obscure in’s and out’s of weather ephemera better than we know the rules of baseball.

Sunday’s tornado was the closest call we’ve ever had. It passed within a 1/2 mile of our homestead. We suffered no damage, and bizarrely, looking at the yard afterward we didn’t even have leaves fall off of the trees. I guess that’s normal in a storm like that. The damage is confined to a narrow area. Watching the news, it seems like the folks in North Minneapolis got the worst of it.

Once the storm had passed, the sky cleared, and it was another achingly beautiful spring evening. The sunlight shone in golden beams upon the neighborhood, as if the storm never happened. It was a dream like summer evening, and Mrs. 20 P. and I sat on the front steps with the pups, as the kids played in the yard. They had been shaking with fear just an hour before, and now they were as carefree as could be. Kids are like puppies that way. They live in the moment. I remember those days, and can place my finger on the moment at which they ended.

It was 1983, the last summer of my boyhood. I was fourteen years old, transitioning from freshman to sophomore years of high school, and caught somewhere between childhood and young adulthood. That summer was to be the last of the worry free, unencumbered, summers of my youth. It stretched out before me in bright sunshine, and dappled shade, three months of freedom from the tyranny of alarm clocks. Late nights spent watching late night TV long after Dad headed off to bed. Mornings spent sleeping until 10 or 11 o’clock, only to be awoken by the scuffling sounds of sneakers in the gravel driveway, followed by footsteps and voices on the back porch, and the tinny knocking of kid fists on the screen door.

My bedroom window at 20 Prospect was right above the back porch steps, and I could hear the neighborhood kids gathering below on the porch steps. Ranging from 9 to 14, the boys of Prospect Avenue would gather for sports every day from spring to fall. Summer was the height of our baseball season, as the street hockey sticks were put away in the basements and garages, and the ball gloves and bats came out.

Eventually the knocking would cease, and the kids would start calling up to my window for me to get out of bed so we could play some softball. As the kids in the neighborhood had grown, and the number of them multiplied, our ball games had moved from wiffle ball played in the backyard, to softball played in the park around the block. Being the oldest, I was expected to be the team organizer, equipment provider, and chief umpire for the games. In addition to the collection of bats and balls that had accumulated over the years from my big bruddahs beer league softball, I also had a collection of old Frisbees that served as the bases. At times there seemed to be no end to the treasures and effluvia that collected in the cellar of 20 Prospect, in large piles, and cardboard boxes, crammed in every corner.

That was also the summer I had received a glove for my 14th birthday. It was the first new glove I had gotten since 2nd grade, and I spent much time looking through the Brand Names catalog picking it out. In the end I selected a softball glove as big as a peach basket. It hung off of my spindly arm like a suitcase, but I loved it, and spent hours rubbing it with neatsfoot oil, and storing it with a ball stuffed deep in the pocket, and rubber bands around it to give it the necessary shape.

Rolling out of bed, and getting dressed, I would collect the equipment, and we would set off around the block on our bikes. I suppose we could have walked over to the park, but our bikes served a dual purpose. The park we played in was a large grassy, tree speckled square in front of the Blind School, known as Centennial Park, although I never quite understood what centennial it was commemorating. The park had once been the front grounds of the Blind School, and in the 1800’s had been lined with walking paths, lily ponds, and a large gazebo. At some point it had become a city park, but had always been kept undeveloped. Perhaps that had to do with the fact that the park was on the side of a a large hill. In the winter it served as the premier sledding hill in town. In the summer, it was just a shady, grassy place to walk the dog or play a game of catch.

The NYS School for the Blind in 1868. The pond at the lower left would become our ball field 114 years later

The maple trees that had been planted along the walking paths in the 1800’s had grown into a woods, and the walking paths had long since been overgrown with grass. There were no baseball diamonds in the park, or any other playing fields. But in the clearing where the old lily pond had been filled in, neighborhood kids had worn out a baseball field. The maple trees served as a towering, leafy roof above the field, and made pop flies a challenge. We’d park our bikes in a semicircle behind the home plate dirt spot, to form a backstop, and set out the Frisbees for our bases. After choosing up sides the games would begin. With only 9 or 10 kids, it took a bit of range to cover the field. Line drives would bounce off the trunks of the maples that served as foul poles, and determine if the ball was fair or foul. Balls hit deep to center would bounce and roll into the trees and make throws to home a real challenge.

Cenntenial Park in 1910

We could have chosen to ride a few blocks farther and play on one of the real ball fields at McArthur, Austin, or Woodward field, but Centennial was our park, and it seemed only natural that we would have our games there.  The list of ground rules for which trees were in play, and which were foul, was long, but there was no beating the cool shade of those maple trees on a hot summer day.

The park today

At the time it never occurred to me that this would be the last year I would spend playing ball with the neighborhood kids. I had played it all my life, from the time that I was the little mop haired kid that was relegated to right field, right up until I was the defacto league commissioner. But I was fourteen now, and my interests were about to change. I had discovered girls a few years before, but it would be at least a year before the girls discovered me. That last summer of my boyhood would be spent on the ball fields during the daytime. My evenings would be devoted to soccer practice, or long rides on my ten speed out past the Community College, and the Airport north of town, and into the mucklands of Elba. When night came I would be hanging out on Chris’ front porch, talking for hours about sports, and girls.

By mid-August it was over. Football practice had begun again, and I was sentenced to three-a-days in the buzzing, swampy, heat. The next summer would be spent in Drivers Ed class at the Community College, mowing lawns, playing soccer, lifting weights with the football team, and pursuing girls at the Trojans game. If only I could have found a way to bottle it up, and store it away. What I wouldn’t give to take one of those bottles down, and pour myself one of those lazy summer days right now.

I think of those times now that 20 Prospect Jr. is 10, and lil’ Miss 20 Prospect is 11. These are those magical years when they are big enough to do the big kid stuff, but still small enough to be able to spend the day playing, unencumbered by responsibility. So I watch them bouncing on the trampoline, or playing 4-square in the driveway, and know what they do not. That in another 30 years, these memories they are making will shine like gold in their middle aged memory.

Dylan Thomas was right. We are the sons of flint and pitch. O see the poles are kissing as they cross.

11 thoughts on “I see the boys of summer in their ruin…

  1. Pingback: Knee high by the Fourth of July « 20 Prospect

  2. First off…
    Major points for being able to use the world effluvia in a post. I have been racking my brains for YEARS trying to work that one in.
    The summer of my 14th year was spent laying our newly cut jean shorts in the driveway and stealing the keys to our parents cars so that we could reverse and forward over them until they were worn perfection. Very much like the loving care you bestowed upon your glove.
    I also broke the world record for consumption of grape soda and RC Cola that year.

    • I think I could challenge you on the consumption of RC Cola. I used to down 1 quart bottle the way a hobo knocks down Thunderbird.

      • OR the way Lemmy from Motorhead puts away a bottle of Jack.
        Why did RC Cola not unseat the giants?
        Pepsi & Coke had nothing on the RC.

  3. Pingback: Strat-O-Matic « 20 Prospect

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