Hometown haiku

Marshall, Missouri, 1968.
Courtesy of Susumu Wakana

Old streets remind me
I did not know compassion
when I walked them then.


NOTES: I have come into possession of a treasure trove of photos from the late 1960s taken by an old schoolmate, Susumu.  He was our Japanese foreign exchange student when I was a junior in high school in 1968 and 1969.

Across the years and across the internet, we reconnected and he sent me the photos he collected during his year in my hometown.

Susumu saw things through his camera lens that I had long forgotten.  These are shots I would never have thought to take.  Simple street scenes.  Iconic buildings long since torn down.  Teachers and friends long forgotten.

The gift of these photos is almost indescribable.  It is as though I am seeing my hometown again, for the first time.  I’m transported back nearly half a century to the place of my childhood, to the places where I lived my formative years.

No fancy Instagram filters are required.  These photos already have the faded Kodachrome quality you cannot fake.  They come with authentic poignancy.

These photos take me back to my youth.  And my heart is filled with questions.  What if?  If only?  Didn’t I realize?

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Hometown haiku

Baseball cards from the early 1960s
When I was a child
my heroes were immortal.
Now, they’re mostly gone.


Notes:

If you had talked to me when I was 9 or 10 years old, I would have told you I was sure I was going to be a baseball player when I grew up.  Many a long summer day was spent playing sandlot games in the vacant lot behind Fitzgibbon Memorial Hospital in what was universally known as “The Hospital Yard.”

No adult supervised.  A wide range of ages played.  There was Tommy Fox, with his wicked left-handed batting.  Big Wayne Halsey, an older kid, who once hit a ball over the huge trees at the far end of the lot.  Steve Cunningham, God rest his soul, played, and so did the Mounts brothers, Paul and Steve.  And many more long forgotten.

Somehow, we just figured it out, negotiating disputes and triangulating our way to make games fair.  When we didn’t have enough players to form respectable teams, we played games designed for smaller numbers like “Work-Up,” or “Five Hundred.”  These games might not have been as exciting as full-fledged baseball, but they enabled us to keep playing long after most of the other kids had to go home.

So we played until we wore ourselves out, until darkness fell, or until our mothers hollered for us to come in for supper.

To be sure, there was an organized baseball league out at the municipal park, but it was a pretty low-key affair, with maybe one or two games a week.  Not nearly enough to satisfy.

In between these baseball games, I would hang out with my buddy Royce Kincaid and play 2-man whiffle ball.  We had devised elaborate rules that enabled us to play entire games against each other all by ourselves.  We would each pick one of our favorite professional teams, and pretend to be each of the starting players.  We were such fanatics that — even though neither of were ambidextrous — we would bat right-handed if the player batted right, and bat left-handed if the player batted left.

We were pretty evenly matched and the competition was fierce.  We could argue close calls, and learned how to give and take for the sake of the game.  Neither of us wanted to push any argument to the point of risking the continuation of play.

We knew our information about the professional players because were also fanatical baseball card collectors.  For a stretch that spanned about 3 or 4 years, we devoted a very large percentage of our meager kid income to buying baseball cards at 5 cents a pack.  Back then, the cards came with a pink slab of bubblegum dusted with white powered sugar.

We didn’t really care about the gum.  We wanted the cards.  We would beg our parents for cards on every trip to the A&P, IGA, or MFA grocery store.  We would haunt the small neighborhood grocery stores that served our little town back in the days before convenience stores looking for good cards.

We figured out that the Topps Baseball Card Company would release the cards in flights over the course of a baseball season.  We would start the year with every pack full of unique new treasures.  But soon we would start finding our purchased packs full of cards we already had — “doubles,” we called them.

We would still cautiously buy packs here and there, sometimes prying the packs open to sneak a peak inside to increase our chances of getting a card we didn’t already have.

Then, when  we  discovered that a new series had been released, we rush out with our nickels in our hands ready to splurge again.  I remember riding my bike all the way to the west end of town to buy “fresh” cards at a little store that had gotten them  before anywhere else.

We would get together with other guys and trade cards, and show off our collections.  But mostly we looked at the cards and studied them.  I arranged them by team, and position. I studied the statistics on the back and memorized the trivia about each player.  When the St. Louis Cardinals or Kansas City A’s were on the radio, I would pull out the cards of each team and follow along as each player batted.

Back in those days, the Cardinals came in loud and strong on KMOX, and the games were called by Jack Buck and Harry Caray before Harry defected to Chicago.

I got to taste both victory and defeat.  The Cards were in one of their many periods of greatness. The A’s were pitiful losers, more of a backwater club that seemed to always sell its most promising players to the hated N.Y. Yankees just before they hit their prime.

In those days the A’s were owned by impresario Charlie Finley, who pushed the boundaries of good taste and good sense.  He introduced garish the  garish Kelly Green and Gold uniforms, and brought a mule named Charlie O into the stadium.  When Finley moved the team to Oakland in 1968, I washed my hands of them.  The fact that they soon started winning in their new city only made me hate them more.

But, did I  ever have some great cards!  Bob Gibson.  Mickey Mantle.  Hank Aaron.  Roberto Clemente.  Sandy Koufax.  Don Drysdale.  Ernie Banks.  Yogi Berra.  Willie Mays.  Tim McCarver.  All of the greats from the early 60s.

I was sure someday my face would be on one of those cards.

But life has a way of going in unanticipated directions.  I grew up and developed more of an interest in girls than baseball.

In just a few years the cardboard box of baseball cards was shoved back under my bed and largely forgotten.

It was not until I had kids of my own and came back to visit my parents that I inquired about the baseball cards.  They had disappeared, and my mother, who had guarded my old room like a museum shine, had gradually lost her memory.

I had pretty much given up ever seeing the old keepsakes again, when my father remembered that my mother had stashed some of my items in an old dresser drawer in her bedroom.

Sure enough, behind some old blouses I found a small box of baseball cards!  They were not the full set.  It was my old box of doubles.

But it was like a reunion with old friends.  There was Roger Maris and Sandy Koufax.  And Duke Snider and Kenny Boyer.  There was even an old Jerry Lumpe card.  A good player, but never a big star, Jerry was notable at least in our neighborhood because he played for the Kansas City A’s and Freddie Mueschke, the neighbor kid who lived on the corner, claimed to be Jerry Lumpe’s nephew.

We never verified Freddie’s story, but he got a lot of mileage from that claim to fame.

(I was gratified to learn that Lumpe has his own entry in Wikipedia.  He even managed to have such a good season in 1964 that he was named to the American League All Star Team.  That happened the year right after he was traded from the A’s, of course.)

A lot of my best cards were missing.  No Mickey Mantles or Hank Aarons.  But it was still like finding a treasure trove nonetheless.

Mom had reached through the years and through her senility to bless her little boy with one last small gift.  By this time she was lying in a nursing home without a  memory.  But  her gift to me had restored a whole storehouse of memories.

Hometown haiku

House on East Porter Street, Marshall, Missouri
The old hometown seems
smaller than I remember.
Once, it was magic.


Notes:

For Van Morrison, it was Cyprus Avenue in his hometown of Belfast. The fancy, tree-lined street where the upper class lived.  Where a working-class boy went to dream and catch glimpses of aspirational girlfriends.

In my hometown, that street was Eastwood.  It was a shady, tree-lined street with what passed for mansions in my little Missouri farm town of Marshall.  And there here were even a couple honest-to-Pete mansions among them.  Reminders of old money abounded.

To a Johnny-come-lately, working-class kid like myself, it seemed like the coolest place on earth.  I lived on the other side of town.  Not in the poorest section, but definitely in a different layer.  My house was brand new, but it was a plain 1950s ranch house.  Utilitarian and homely.  Decorated in the finest Late Depression.

At first I didn’t have any friends among the Eastwood society.  Unattainable, I thought.  But when all of the grade school kids graduated to junior high, we were suddenly thrown together.

I became buddies with an Eastwood kid, Clyde, who, while he didn’t live right on Eastwood, lived close enough — a long block off of it.

His home was a demonstration of exquisite interior decorating, and his family a wonder of graciousness and hospitality.  I felt lucky to have such a cool friend.

We played football, we raced slot cars, and talked about our growing interest in girls.  I heard Sgt. Pepper’s for the first time in his basement.

When my cat didn’t come home and was eventually found struck to death by a car, I went to Clyde’s to play basketball.  I played so furiously that I eventually egged him into our only physical fight.

Because that’s how 12 year old boys grieve.

In those days of flower power and Vietnam, we did find ways to wage a few political protests, and fight against what we saw was hidebound traditions at our high school.

We eventually began to drift our separate ways, spending more time with girls than with our old guy friends.

One evening, late in our high school years, we sat around a campfire out at the park, vaguely aware that our sheltered years in our old hometown were drawing to a close.  Our oh-so-enlightened conversation including a one-through-10 ranking of our female classmates.

If I remember, we did try to maintain a sense of irony about it.

The photo atop this little poem is a recent shot of Clyde’s old house.

Parable Haiku

Be as gentle as a dove...
Eurasian collared dove. (Photo courtesy of John Marquand.)

Like the gentle dove
I neither hate nor judge. But …
like the snake, I watch.


Notes: My childhood friend and schoolmate, John Marquand, takes some of the most beautiful photographs I’ve ever seen.  He rises early to get the Colorado morning light, and day after day amazes with remarkable nature photos.

He has become somewhat of a bird  whisperer.  I’ve never seen great blue heron photos like John’s.  But he is not limited to birds.  He somehow manages to make even insects look beautiful

John was kind enough to send me this shot of a Eurasian collared dove to illustrate the haiku.