Sonnet for Love in Late Summer

Wine barrel signed by Orson Welles

“We’ll Sell No Wine…”

“We’ll sell no wine before its time,” we’re told.
The fat and famous spokesman made it clear,
Each vintage has its period of gold.
(You must assess the pressing and the year.)

So, likewise, for each vintage comes a time
The point past which there’s no return at all.
Decay and oxidation work their crime,
And turn your sweetest nectar into gall.

So come, my dear, what are we waiting for?
Our cellar holds a few more bottles still.
Pick one and brush away the dust before
Time turns its contents back to must — time will.
Cast off our caution and our clothes and pour,
And drink with joy until we’ve had our fill.


(2016)

Photo courtesy of TripAdvisor

NOTES: The shorter days and fainter light of September are stirring all sorts of poignant feelings. Something about this time of year makes me want to haul this old poem out of the cellar one more time.

I’m old enough to remember when Orson Welles employed his considerable talent to pitch some middle-of-the-road wine back in the late 1970s. He had been a celebrated actor, who had co-written, directed, and starred in Citizen Kane, what many still consider the best film ever made.

But he was difficult to work with, and had trouble raising money for his projects.  So he turned to advertising to pay the bills. His Paul Masson spots where he declared, “We will sell no wine before its time,” are classic examples of great advertising.

Paul Masson sales reportedly rose by 33% while that campaign ran.

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Midsummer Love Poem

Here comes midsummer's milestone of our love

Here Comes Midsummer’s Milestone

Here comes midsummer’s milestone of our love,
Years since our selfish selves we pledged to yield,
So we’re as broken-in now as the glove,
I wore so long ago while in the field.

Fresh from the store unworn straight to my room,
Rubbed in the oil and every crease explored,
All through the night I savored the perfume,
The musky linseed leather I adored.

Come sober daylight with our job to do,
All awkward stiff not giving either way,
How many sweaty strivings’ deja vu
It took before we as one flesh could play.

Some ragged days I’d spit and pound the palm,
Or hurl the thing against the dugout wall,
But all the while a magic mute and calm
Mutated hand to glove with every ball.

The softening was gradual but sure.
Soon nerves and muscles seemed just like they spanned
From fingertips to join the glove secure,
As if I had been born with one webbed hand.

We’ve come now to the eve of middle age,
Well worn but with a lot of sport to go.
We must each for the other one assuage
Those stinging blows life certainly will throw.

We’ve held through wins and losses and through rain,
That etched new cracks not there at all before.
But loves like this were made to take the strain,
Just like that piece of cowhide that I wore.


(1992)

Notes:

Not long ago, I asked my wife if she had a favorite poem. Her blink reaction was, “the one about the baseball glove.”

It was written sometime in the early 1990s. We were just starting a family. My career was having troubled taking off. The agency where I worked had just downsized, leaving the few of us who remained in a state of anxiety.  I would take long lunch breaks and write poems parked by the side of Lake of the Isles in Minneapolis.

Years before, back in my Missouri hometown, my first love had been baseball.

I cannot begin to total up the hours spent playing baseball, watching baseball, collecting baseball cards, sorting baseball cards, reading about baseball, and dreaming about playing in the World Series.

My first baseball glove was a treasure, my most prized possession.

I knew the starting line-ups of both the St. Louis Cardinals and the Kansas City A’s by heart. Hot summer nights were made tolerable listening to games my little transistor radio. Harry Caray (who broadcast for the Cardinals BEFORE he jumped to the Cubs) was my favorite.  “Holy cow!”

When I played one-man whiffle ball against my friend Royce, we would pick a team and go through the line up as each individual player. If the guy batted right, we batted right. If he batted left, we batted left.

(We drew the line at pitching left-handed, because neither of us was truly ambidextrous.)

Our spare time was spent searching for discarded pop bottles which we could turn into the neighborhood grocery store for two cents apiece. Every 5 bottles meant we could buy two more packs of baseball cards.

Somewhere between the ages of 12 and 13, we discovered girls and moved on to other interests. A long and winding path led me to the love of my life.

We were married 33 year ago this June.

The inspirations for this poem are multiple. I recall midsummer drawing near and along with it my wedding anniversary.

I was feeling that sense of my youth slipping away. But, despite the oppressive job I was enduring, I was confident that good things still lay ahead.

I was also listening to a lot of Van Morrison. His song “Madame George” was stuck in my head. (Quite possible the most poignant song ever written.)

In particular, I was hearing the line where Van does his improvisational scat-singing thing repeating the words “love” and “glove” over and over in an almost hypnotic chant.

My story is about a very different glove, and a very different love. But that merging of the two rhyming words was lodged in my mind.

The result of all of this ferment was this poem.

The only time I’ve ever read it in public, I was told it was “an audacious metaphor.”

I’ll take that.

Today, I post this little poem again. It’s as true today as when I wrote it years ago.

Hometown tanka

The 1969 M senior guys and their pyramid scheme
Courtesy of Susumu Wakana

Dear upperclassmen,
we idolized you so much,
you were like heroes.

Then, that class trip fiasco,
And class trips were abolished.


NOTES:  The class ahead of us in high school was impressive.  It included some very smart and talented people who challenged and inspired us underclassmen.

Counted among its members were some of the best athletes, actors, debaters, musicians and scholars ever to come out of our little Missouri town of Marshall.  When they went away to college in the fall of 1969, they returned on their breaks with fascinating stories of life at their campuses.

I paid close attention to their testimonials, and followed a couple of them when it came time to make my own college choice.

The class of 1969 certainly went out with a bang.  Our high school had long had a tradition of the senior class trip, which involved a long trek to some exotic destination far enough away to make getting there grueling and sleep-deprived.

That year the seniors made the long bus ride to Six Flags Over Texas.  But during the course of that journey, something happened.

The stories we heard were somewhat hushed and confusing, but whatever happened was so serious that school officials cancelled senior trips forevermore.

The next year, there was not even a discussion about our own class taking a senior trip. Not. A. Chance.

The Class of ’69 was already notable in that it had voted to abolish the venerable tradition of selecting the most popular and respected girl to preside over Achievement Night as Miss Fair Marshall.

Now, our heroes had managed to put the kibosh on another tradition.  In a way it enhanced the reputation of the Class of ’69 even further.  In addition to all their other superlatives, they had also become the Biggest Screw-Ups.

I’m hoping some of my old schoolmates from the Class of ’69 might finally come forward with the true story of what transpired on that notorious trip.  Why don’t you just come clean?  Confession is good for the soul and the statute of limitations on your crimes certainly has expired.

Some members of my own class are still a bit aggrieved that we didn’t get to have our senior trip because of you.

It would be good to be able to put the scurrilous rumors to rest, and to finally forgive and forget.

STYLE NOTE:  Like haiku, the tanka is a traditional Japanese short poem form with a prescribed number of syllables.  The pattern is 5-7-5-7-7.

Spring haiku

Bobby Ball standing in the DuBois' driveway, late 1960s. on Rea Street.
Courtesy of Susumu Wakana

There once was a time
when blossoms and I were both
fresh and unabashed.


NOTES: When I was a junior, my high school hosted a foreign exchange student from Japan.  Susumu stayed with the DuBois family, who lived a few blocks away.

A couple of years ago, through the miracle of Facebook, I reconnected with Susumu.  When I discovered he had taken several photos of his days in my hometown, I was excited.  He very kindly shared them with me, and I have been lovingly looking through them and rekindling old memories.

Those photos include precious images of teachers long since gone.  Of friends and classmates not seen for decades.  And simple scenes of my hometown, a town that has changed so much since I walked its streets.

One of the photos was of me.  I don’t remember it being taken.  All evidence points to it being the spring of 1969.  I am outfitted in what passed for a tennis uniform in those days.  I must have just finished practicing with Susumu’s host brother, Dave DuBois.  We were teammates on the Marshall High School tennis team, and we practiced out on the new hard surface courts at Missouri Valley College.

From the foliage, it was early spring.  The tulip tree was in full bloom, but the other trees had not leafed out.  I wore a leather bracelet on my right wrist, which was the cool, hippie thing to do.

My hair was growing out and would need to be cut before football practice started in August.  (Coach Cecil Naylor really didn’t like long hair!)

Ah.  If I only knew then what I know now.

Ancestor haiku

Charlie Barlow and his team

Generations tilled
to eke out a meager life. Now I
scribble in comfort.


Notes:  I have to go all the way back to England in the 1600s to find an ancestor who had a desk job.  To the best of our family research, my great-great-great (etc.) grandfather was a clergyman back in the old country, who had the poor judgment to raise the ire of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

In those days it didn’t take much to get your head separated from the rest of you.  Heretics and troublesome free thinkers could easily meet the same fate.

My forebear wised up in the nick of time and caught one of next boats after the Mayflower to the New World.  We are not sure if he stayed in the preaching business in his new surroundings in the Connecticut Colony, but as far as we can tell, all of those who followed him were dirt farmers.  (Which probably seemed like a safer line of work back then.)

Several generations later, after my great grandfather Frederick Ball narrowly survived the Civil War, he came back  home to find Connecticut getting crowded.  So, he headed west for the promise of cheap land and opportunity.  He wound up in southern Iowa, got married, acquired some land, and raised a family.

One of his sons was my grandfather, and he, too became a farmer, moving to Missouri to chase opportunity.  When my father came along, he showed considerable mechanical aptitude and had hopes of going to school to study engineering.  But the Great Depression dashed those dreams.  Dad had to drop out of school before he finished high school.  To  help support the family he became a farmer.

And  who knows, except for a twist  of fate or two, I might have followed right along and farmed myself.

But  my father had a bit of a mid-life crisis in his 40s.  When I was in first grade, he sold the farm and went in with his brother-in-law and a neighbor to buy a Ford Tractor dealership.  It was his one big entrepreneurial gamble in life.  And for a few years, it looked like it might pay off.

But some lean times for farm prices and some skullduggery by the neighbor-turned-business-partner, and the operation went broke.  They had to sell out cheap, and Dad was forced to fall back on his mechanical skills to make a living.

What this meant for me was that I spent most of my formative years in the town rather than on the farm.  So, while there were centuries of agrarian instincts bred into me, it didn’t take me long to adapt to indoor plumbing, central heating, and really close next-door neighbors.

And I certainly didn’t miss getting up early to gather eggs, milk the cow, or slop the pigs.

Oh sure, I still hoed beans, bucked bales, and detasseled corn as a hired hand in the summer.  But that was a job — not a way of life.

Even if my father had never left the farm, odds are I would have eventually left anyway.  That was the demographic trend during the whole last half of the last century.  The kids went away to school or to a big city for work, and tended never to move back.

It’s been hard on the farming communities.  And I know it was hard on the old folks left behind as their kids fanned out across the country.

When I stop to think about how much different my life has been from the generations before I marvel.  I have no explanation for why my entire adult career has been all inside work with no heavy lifting.

My father’s body bore the marks of a hard life in harder times.  He was kicked in the head by an ornery horse, and had headaches for the rest of his life.  His leg was caught between a hay wagon and a wall, and he walked with a limp.  He even had a few scars from surviving what he believed to be a mild case of small pox.

If the American Dream involves working hard and ensuring your children have a better life, then my parents and their generation certainly did their part.

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.