Monday, March 26, 2007

From the Dusty Archives: How I Became a Yankees Fan

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness; it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity; it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness; it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair; we had everything before us, we had nothing before us; we were all going directly to Heaven, we were all going the other way." (Charles Dickens—A Tale of Two Cities.)

As the afternoon sun poured onto the desktops it illuminated the dust. I sat...head down...pretending to read, but gleefully watching my classmates inhale the shiny particles. Mimi and Jenny—they were Brownies. They were the pretty ones. The teacher always picked them for hall monitor or sending a memo to the Principal. Their mothers were home all day long and would stop by to bring the class cupcakes.

Tommy Johnston had eyes that could cut glass. I tilted my head to see if he was breathing in the dust...but this time, I imagined the dust was poison. The kind of poison they spray in wars. The kind that would kill you within seconds. No one would know until you dropped like a rock. You would look fine until 1 second before you died.

Tommy Johnston was breathing the dust. I smiled.

As the bell rang I grabbed my shawl. I loved my shawl. It was the only "hippy," kind of clothing my conservative mother would allow me to wear. My shawl was pink and purple with these happy and joyful paisleys dipping and turning in every direction. Chartreuse and was soft. Sometimes I slept with it.

Jimmy Joe Mayer and Tommy Johnston began to yell—Jimmy Joe was my friend. He had been born with a hole in his heart. He was small, like me; so we were always the last two in line...year in and year out.

Jimmy Joe told me one time we were standing outside, waiting for the teacher, in the pouring rain that he was afraid he would die as a kid. I told Jimmy only bad kids die young. Jimmy asked me why so many bad kids were still alive. I told Jimmy I didn't know.

The red etch-a-sketch flew to the ground and slid under Jenny's desk. "See what you did" Tommy Johnston snapped, while pushing Jimmy Joe away from him, into the blackboard.

"I hate you" Jimmy Joe yelled lunging toward Tommy Johnston...his eyes welling up with tears, his face bursting with a crimson anger, his fists clenched so tightly that his white knuckles didn't disappear when he unclenched his fist to wipe away a tear.

The etch-a-sketch lay on the ground—blank.

He gently picked it up...cradled it in his hands...exhaled into sobs, and fell to his knees.

As his shoulders and head dropped he whispered, "It's gone. It's gone. I hate you, I hate you...I will always hate you for this." I slowly tip-toed from the both, toward the door...looking down, I saw nothing on the etch-a-sketch, but a tear.

I don't know if Tommy Johnston was the first person I ever truly hated, but at that moment, I truly hated him enough for all the other hate I would ever need for anyone else for the rest of my life.

As the rain shot through the plumes of grey exhaust from the car in front of me, I wondered. I wondered about the new season. I wondered about the players. Other teams—the rivalries. I wondered how long it could possibly take for them to finish up with my order of large fries and cheesecake.

I shifted the car into park, took my foot off the brake, sat back, exhaled, and turned up the radio. As the plumes of grey fog mixed with the falling rain I saw particles of silver dust.

"Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? Our nation turns it's lonely eyes to you."

Tommy Johnston's mother bought Jimmy Joe a new Jimmy Joe had not only lost the picture of Joe DiMaggio he had worked on all winter. But Jimmy Joe's etch-a-sketch lost it's little "sketcher," pin when it hit the ground.

It couldn't sketch a thing. Tommy Johnston had the idea that since Jimmy Joe had a new one, Tommy Johnston wanted to take the broken one and put it on the train tracks. Tommy Johnston heard that etch-a-sketch's were filled with dynamite, and if you hit one hard enough, or set one on fire, they would explode into a million pieces that would shoot into the sky for over a mile.

The moon was almost full as we crept in the overgrown lot. I only went because Jimmy Joe asked me to, but I was shivering and I was frightened. The field was uneven and I kept falling into the shawl getting caught on the stickers. Tommy Johnstone was laughing and running toward the tracks, yelling back to Jimmy Joe and me to, "Hurry up."

"This is as far as we go," Jimmy Joe blurted, his chest heaving from the half mile walk. "What do you mean, you baby?" Tommy Johnstone yelled, his silouhette elongated by the moonlight stood 70 feet tall on the weed tops. "Just go do it," Jimmy coughed, "go on."

We crouched down into the dewy weeds, looking toward the east part of town as we heard the train speeding up. The powerful thumping of the engine coming in faster beats. "Are you sure it's on there?" Jimmy whispered as I slapped a mosquito near my ear, "Yeah, it's on there alright. Just you wait and see," Tommy Johnston boasted, his eyes wide open, licking his lips as the headlight came toward us.

I adjusted my windshield wipers as I entered the freeway. An 18-wheeler pulling up right behind me, I opted to lay low on my arrival—feeling the burst of water as he shot past me. The hot oil burned my fingertips as I reached into the bag. I licked the salt crystals off my fingertips, and took a deep breath as my heart sank when I heard the first few chords sneaking into my ear...

"Hello darkness, my old friend
I've come to talk with you again
Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Still remains
Within the sound of silence..."

I had chosen to never listen to that song after the summer when I was in 3rd grade. Tonight something in my heart was ready. Something made me let it come in. Something caused me to turn it up and exhale...

I let it permeate me. I let my heart feel the flood I'd held back for so long. I felt the pain behind my eyes and throat grow sharp...and heard myself breathing heavily as my eyes filled with tears.

As the windshield wipers slapped the dirty freeway water off of/and back onto my glass-and-steel pseudo-"confessional," of a car...I felt the presence of the past. I felt the sting. I instantly realized the floodgate that were opening in my mind, and the memories hit like a tsunami.

"You're a liar!" Jimmy Joe screamed, throwing his hands to his sides—just a silver puff of smoke! That's all I saw! Just a silver puff of smoke!"

As we slowly walked in silence through the field, I played the impact over and over in my mind, like the very dust particles everyone inhaled that day, sparkling with the train's headlamp—like glitter in the twinkling of an eye.

It was a Saturday afternoon, I could hear the faint tune of the ice cream truck perusing the neighborhood.

My mother yelled my name from the living room.

As I neared the bottom of the stairs, I could see a mountain of clothing waiting for me—as well as her messy hair and exhausted eyes.

I knew better than to try and argue with her when she had that look. As I sat down on the floor, I heard her talking with my dad in the kitchen, adult chit chat, boring grown-up stuff. I looked up at the television—baseball.

I looked back at them, and back to the television. Would I? Could I get away with changing the channels? The rule of thumb in my home was no one under the age of 99 was allowed to change the channel, day or night.

The most random, God-awful programming was almost exclusively selected by them. I was certain this was one of those bad things that happen to children when they grow up, they become boring sadists to anyone younger. Especially their own children.

As I reached for the shiny silver knob just a foot or so from the tip of my nose, I heard my mother yell, "Don't even think about it."

As I sat back down on my heels, I began to feel imprisoned. The pile of underwear, towels, and socks seemed like Mt. Rainier. I grabbed a sock and made a decision. I can't really even remember why, but I remember when.

Since I had no other choice than to sit in front of this mind numbing sport show, then I would pick a team to root for. I remember looking at the players, looking at their uniforms and trying to decide who would be "my team."

I found the mate to the sock and folded it into a ball. The players all look alike, and I could never like this stupid game anyhow. I can't even hit a ball with a bat. But Jimmy Joe could! Just then I looked at the score...and I decided to choose the team that was losing.

That team was the New York Yankees.

The Yankees won that day, but I was never able to tell Jimmy Joe.

Jimmy Joe never returned to school that Monday. He had drowned in the American River on Saturday, trying to help a younger child who had fallen out of a raft near the rapids. The younger child survived, but Jimmy Joe was brought to the shore, lifeless.

That Wednesday afternoon, my teacher called me into the hallway. She reached into a book and pulled out a card. She handed it to me and said, "Jimmy Joe's mother brought this to school to give to you. It was his. And she wants you to have it."

It was a 1952 Topps Baseball card...I'll never forget it. The impish smile on the face of some old guy.

But that old guy, he was wearing my New York Yankee's hat! The team I had picked while folding clothes the same day Jimmy Joe died.

I lost my best friend in the 3rd grade. I was all alone at the end of the line in the hallway at school, and life would never feel as innocent and curious again, I thought.

But Jimmy Joe knew someday I would find him again. The New York Yankees were Jimmy Joe's favorite team, and I never knew that until my teacher handed me that Topps card after I had picked them as my team while folding clothes...

That's where it began.

A few years later, when I was in Junior High, I remember being in p.e. and my teacher demanding I spit out my chewing gum.

I recall clearly being sent to the front office and explaining, in tears, that I had been chewing that wad of gum since the playoffs—and if I stop—the Yankees will lose the World Series.

They gave me a Kleenex...and a note for my teacher to let me chew.

Tommy Johnstone was a Dodger fan and would try and make me cry when I would wear my Yankees hat or talk about baseball to any of the kids. Tommy Johnstone was convinced Ron Cey was the best ball player God ever created. 1977 and 1978 were the most hellish years I believe I ever faced as a Yankee fan due to Tommy Johnstone and Ron Cey. But, in the end, the Yankees won...and Tommy moved away.

(Someone told me Tommy Johnstone went to prison for check fraud some years later...but I never really looked into the story to see if it was the truth. It sounded fairly probable to me and I wouldn't want to remember him any other way, quite honestly.)

I carried my Topps card in my back pocket for years, until it disappeared one day. I never was able to find that I am an adult, I think it was probably laundered and didn't survive. I believe my mother shielded me from the broken heart I wouldn't have been able to bear at that time in my life.

I remember the day my mother took over an hour to console me when she discovered my No. 44 Reggie Jackson t-shirt had not survived one of the only washing/drying cycles it had ever been subjected to. I wanted to bury it in the backyard at sunset, and: we did.

I remember Bucky Dent. I remember Reggie. I remember Billy Martin yelling and screaming. I remember George Steinbrenner punching someone in an elevator.

I remember the day Thurmon Munson died, and Bobby Mercer not only spoke at his funeral, but played in a game that night against the Orioles that few will ever forget..

I remember thinking the crowd was booing Lou Pinella...and telling my mom I would never go to Yankee Stadium, where they boo their own. She went on to explain to me they were yelling, "Lou."

Friends came and went. I fell into and out of love. I went to college and grew up, and the Yankees were with me every moment of the way..

I remember when we farmed Jeter. Rivera. Posada. Bernie. Pettitte.

I remember finding myself in a motel room, some years later...bored...homesick...clicking through the channels...and there they were—my boys in pinstripes.

It had been years since I had paid attention to baseball. I had become sidetracked with other things in life...distracted by the seeming demands of being an adult, and yet: there they were.

The playoffs—Jeter & Williams—some kid named Maier interfering...and I was home.

Years would go by but somehow, I always found myself watching my boys in the fall. A few times they went all the way—a few times not.

I grew up with the Yankee haters.

Hell, I fell in love with, and subsequently lived with one. And literally, he would come into the room, while I was watching a game, and point out how they sucked, how stupid they were, how they were overpriced assholes.

He's gone now, they remain.

Honestly, I can't remember a time when the Yankees weren't a part of my life. Then again, I remember thinking I could never imagine not seeing Bernie on the field, or Paul O'Neill.

I know. It's only baseball.

But, to's more.

It's life.

It's being a part of something bigger than keeping an appointment, paying your bills, and gassing your car.

It's the opportunity to ride on the wings of your favorite slugger and round those bases with him.

It's the bottom of the 9th, two outs, 3-2 count—bases loaded—and relishing the anticipation.

I am so grateful for every moment I have laughed, cried, argued, and mused over my team—the New York Yankees. I wouldn't trade one moment of my many years with them for all the tea in Boston. I have learned alot through these many seasons of triumph and glory—disappointment and loss—sometimes it's heaven, sometimes it's absolute hell, but, this is life...and they will always be a part of my life.

As I reached the parking garage elevator, my fries had grown cold. My nose was stuffed, and one quick glimpse in the mirror informed me of my need to avoid all contact with others. I pressed the elevator button and glanced behind my shoulder to the garage camera, aimed right at me.

Just then, to my right, a Porsche pulled through the gate on the west side—as I glimpsed to see it...I beheld the raindrops illuminated against the night glitter...dust...memories...everywhere...and I smiled...

(Dedicated to Jimmy Joe Mayer)