Never Hit Your Sister in the Forehead with a Baseball Bat-
It makes a Bad Impression on Her Mind
Our neighborhood was a microcosm of the Southern California exponential expansion. For the first three years, after we moved into our 1920's era home on Fellowship Farms (soon to become Fellowship Street) in 1955, our house was the last one on the street before the orange groves commenced. Long renowned for its vast citrus groves, Southern California was also known for its benign climate and its open-door policy, so houses were being built at an unheard pace. In order to make room for them, the orange groves had to go. As a result, new tracts of homes were springing up all over Southern California, replacing the orange trees with streets and homes, which in turn filled up with families with lots of kids.
My own family provided a pretty good foundation for any neighborhood as far as supplying kids was concerned. There were nine of us altogether, although Kevin did not come on board until 1966, so he missed this whole era that I am covering. If we wanted to break out a game of baseball, there were always the four older of us boys, who could play a perfectly legitimate game of over the line. We needed no other contributing participants, so any other additions were simply icing on the cake.
Baseball was one of the few playing surfaces that I could compete with my three older brothers on semi-equal terms, in the sense that an outfielder had an equal shot at catching a batted ball, whether he was five feet tall or six feet. Of course, I couldn't hit the ball as far, but that wasn't necessary-all that was necessary was to hit the ball safely and get on base.
Being very quick, I could do this. Even in over the line, or especially so, I was on equal footing, because all a batter had to do was hit the ball past one infielder, in a field closed off to right field, and he was safely on board. There was no base-running because there weren't enough players to allow for this, so superior size or skills were not required.
There was another reason why I liked baseball, because my sister Jean Therese could play. When I was still too small to keep up with the big boys, JT and I were inseparable. Our birthdays were one year and six days apart, so that for six days each year, I was “two years” older than she, before going back to the status quo.
I used to get so much enjoyment out of teasing her unmercifully about this fact, and all was well and good, until after we hit our twenties, when suddenly the whole age thing started to have some undesirable reverberations. Now, when I'd talk to her on my birthday, she began to tease me about being so much older than she. Turn about is all fair and good, but by my current reckoning, she's had the last laugh now for about the last thirty years, with no end in sight. Sigh.
As preschoolers, JT and I spent endless hours during the winter months playing together happily. “Winter months” has a somewhat oxymoronic connotation in Southern California, a land where the annual average rainfall rarely exceeds the twelve-fifteen inch range. Included in our activities were hours of building forts or castles out of couch cushions and blankets, with chairs and pillows inserted where appropriate. We used the same components to construct the “store” where we would buy and sell a warehouse of items carefully set aside over time by Mama.
Empty metal Quaker Oats tins jockeyed for position in the store with square metal saltine cracker boxes and a cornucopia of Corn Flakes, Rice Krispies, Rice, Wheat, and Corn Chex boxes. These items meshed well with an assortment of carefully chosen (more for longevity's sake) empty grocery items for us to stock shelves with, or to put in our shopping bags. Mama was a genius when it came to promoting activities that were long on imagination and play-acting, and short on necessary, exhaustible supplies or direct parental supervision.
While my allegiance to JT as a solo playmate began to waver as I got older, I looked forward to playing games with more level playing surfaces, and baseball was one of them, because she could play too. Like all close siblings, we had a warm friendship, interspersed with dramatic squabbles. At times I was fiercely jealous of her for the simple reason that, as anyone from a large family can attest to, competition for attention could be lethal, and with three older brothers, and three younger brothers, I was hurtin' for certain, as far as individual attention was concerned.
As I reflect back now, I am better able to understand my nicknames. Besides Marky Maypo and Mark Oatmeal, there was Clown, Clownie, and the Babe. The last was not a reference to my superior baseball skills, so much as a commentary on my placement in the hierarchy of the family structure, or an editorial on my level of maturity as I traveled the treacherous path of adolescence, with three older, vastly more competent mentors, more than willing to dispense direction and advice to me. No wonder I was torn between wanting to keep up with their big-brotherly pace, or wanting to hang with JT, where life was not only slower, but I was the engine instead of the caboose.
There were times, though, when I would get jealous of the attention JT received from my father, who worked hard to impress upon his sons, that girls were somehow deserving of special attention for the mere fact that they were girls. The four older boys (and eventually, all seven boys) used the lower of the two bathrooms in our house, while JT was allowed access to the parent's bathroom. Of course, it makes perfect sense now, but at the time it was one of several sources of attention that JT got, that I did not.
I took to calling her affectionate sort of nicknames, cute monikers like Miss Queen, Queenie, Sergeant, or the more direct Dog. I think Sergeant came originally as my response to a possible militant attitude being developed by JT as a defense for my name-calling. She'd complain to Mama, and Mama would scold me, and I would go back and hound JT more mercilessly than ever, because, as I saw it, I was all she had. There was no second choice.
When outside we had the whole back lot to play in, plus the next-door empty parcel that served as one of our baseball fields. In the spring the mustard greens grew as tall as we were, so we carved canals through the field and pretended to be pioneers moving out West. Or I was Davy Crockett and she was Annie Oakley (who cares if we took poetic license with time or locale?) and we had a whole passel of problems to contend with.
In the summer we rode our bikes through these same paths, back to the farthest corner of the lot, where we had the greatest kitchen experience, making mud pies, returning later to find perfectly formed, hardened “pies,” that were then good for...something. We're still working on that one. I guess it was the first of the highly touted process versus product debates, in which process was clearly deemed more significant than product.
Baseball was another example of process versus product, where process is everything and product (as in, who won?) was not even on the radar. Though the orange groves were now gone and replaced with tract homes, our street was still well-equipped for playing ball, in an old-school sort of way, with one acre lots and front yards with screened-in porches and sidewalks.
There were the two vacant lots, one directly across from us, and the one between our house and the start of the tract homes that JT and I played in. So that meant two different venues from which to choose as far as a game of baseball was concerned. Early in the morning or anytime after dinner, we played next door, so as not to bug either Mrs. Downin on the left or Miss Buck on the right of the field across the street.
However, once the day was under way, we played across the street, in marathon games that would begin as soon after breakfast as kids could spring loose from summer chores, and go all day. They would continue until the dinner hour demanded that kids who did not want to sit on the steps and listen to the sound of the rest of the family grubbing down, get back to the house in time to wash up before grace was said prior to eating.
Those who did not hear the bell (or did hear it but opted for one last at-bat) and arrived late for dinner, were invited to occupy said steps until Papa figured you had learned your lesson, or more likely when it was deemed essential that you join the table before the food was gone. In our house, everyone filled their plates before saying grace to give everyone an even chance, so sitting on the steps was decidedly not a good strategy to practice.
The rules of the baseball game were simple. You couldn't strike out, thereby ensuring that all willing participants would be allowed to play, and there was no limit to the number of kids who could play at one time. My older brother Brian and I had to be on opposite teams in the early days, because we were the only southpaws, and there was only one left-handed glove. Therefore we-or rather, I-had to be sure that we never ended up on the same team, or I would be the one without a mitt.
Whereas you couldn't strike out, you could foul out, because chasing foul balls was time-consuming (especially trying to locate a ball in tall grass...“Dear St. Anthony, I hope you're around; we've lost our ball and it can't be found.”)
Also, these days predated aluminum bats, so we were constantly aware of the need for exerting caution when it came to what the bats could be used for. No bat could be used in other play activities that might result in damage, such as using it to pound in the pup tent stakes, or as a pry bar for gaining entrance to the ancient shed back behind Mrs. Downin's house that was filled with unlimited possibilities for entertaining bored kids. Also, there were strict rules governing how teams were chosen, who got to pitch, and who got to be the umpire.
Our games would begin as soon as we had enough players to be able to field a first baseman and at least two outfielders. We could close off right field, since both Brian and I were right-handed batters, and no one else ever tried anything as exotic as switch-hitting, and simply make any ball hit to the right of center field foul, or we could open up the field if there were enough to fill all of the positions.
All kids who showed up were allowed to play, as long as it was deemed that he or she could handle a batted ball well enough to avoid injury. I liked that everyone could play because that meant that JT could play too. Her enthusiasm dipped for a little while after she got hit in the forehead with a baseball bat, but she came back stronger than ever. I promised her that I would never swing a baseball bat in her vicinity, and she forgave me. She proved to all of us right then and there, with all of that blood flowing out of her noggin, that she had a spot on the baseball diamond of life, any time she showed up.
Kids came and went, depending on the responsibilities each had to account for in order to be able to break free and play in the game. We didn't mind, though, if players came and went, because the game itself never stopped. The score could easily end up 77-73, though no one ever kept track of the innings-why bother?
The games would break up only when the depleting ranks made everyone realize that the time had arrived. We could always come back out afterwards, but that rarely happened, because there were too many dishes to be washed, and besides, though coming back outside was generally the norm, it was to shift the focus from day sports to night sports.
“Red Rover, Red Rover” was a favorite whenever we got together with cousins because the more who played the better the fun. The way it worked was that two teams, chosen with all of the pomp and circumstance possible for the occasion, lined up about thirty feet or so apart, locked hands or arms and then squared off.
First one team and then the other would start the chant of, “Red Rover, Red Rover, send Markie right over”, whereupon, I would disentangle myself from my two neighbors and race at the other line of kids, trying to break through their interlocked arms. If I succeeded, I returned to my team with the two players in tow who had allowed me to break through; if I did not succeed, then I joined the ranks of that team.
We were passionate about hide and seek, the ultimate night game.
The rules were simple, and yet complex. The boundaries could be as expansive as the neighborhood allowed, or as restrictive as the number of players dictated. The cry of “All ye, all ye out, in come free” was the ultimate goal, signifying victory for the ones still hiding, but most of us favored the more exhilarating approach that required teamwork so that one player could entice the seeker away from 'base” while another player came racing in from the berry gardens to arrive home, free.
The berry gardens consisted of blackberry bushes planted down the side of our property, dividing us from the Tranbargers', stretching the whole two hundred feet or so down the side boundary. Every ten feet was a four by four redwood post, with baling wire stretched between the posts at twelve inch intervals. That way, the berry branches could be positioned to climb up the wire, allowing the berries to avoid contact with the ground and to make them more accessible for picking.
The net result over the front one hundred feet or so was a neatly weeded and maintained stretch of very productive blackberries. Mama paid me a nickel an hour to weed and maintain the berries, so that she would have unlimited amounts of blackberries for the jam that was so popular in our house.
A nickel an hour sounds pretty lame, until you think about what you could do with a nickel, or more importantly, what you could do with a dime. At Sav-on Drug Stores, you could buy any regular-sized candy bar (which was bigger back then, than they are now). The kicker was that any candy bar or things like M & M's, Good and Plenties, Milk Duds, Sugar Babies, Red Hots, Thin Mints, Laura Scudder potato chips, or any of that sort of thing, was a nickel apiece, or three for a dime. So especially if I were able to find a couple of coke bottles on the way to the store, at three cents per, I only needed to start with one nickel, so an hour's worth of labor was worth it for the whole package deal.
Empty soda or beer bottles were veritable gold mines of financial revenue, as we used to search along the routes to the library or to the store for empties that we could redeem. The nice thing was that you could search the same patch of ivy a hundred times, and still hit pay-dirt because it was too easy to miss them one time and hit the next. Of course, we never could figure out why people would dump perfectly good redeemable bottles away, but eventually, the whole system dissolved when plastic soda bottles took over the market.
Nowadays, you still pay for the empties, but you only redeem a fraction of that cost when you recycle. Too bad for today's kids, who could still gather up aluminum or California Cash Redemption plastic, but then they'd have to go to the recycling center, which is not the same as merely plopping your empties down on the store counter for cash on the barrel.
The back half of the berry gardens, stretching all the way out to the rear of our property line, were allowed to burgeon out of control, climbing up the rows of baling wire and the redwood posts, and growing up into the air, to a dizzying twelve to fifteen feet high, spilling out in both directions, forming a one hundred foot long by eight feet wide rounded bank of blackberry bushes.
At least, that's what you saw from the outside, and most people did not have the skills to imagine what it would be like to Brer Rabbit your way into the center of all those blackberry thorns. If someone had managed to penetrate the seeming wall of prickly badness, what he would have found inside was a cool oasis from the relentless Southern California heat, an endless tunnel, which after being carefully manicured to remove all stray thorny branches, afforded a paradise for summer games that replaced baseball on the days when too many kids let too many distractions get in the way of real life, the pursuit of baseball.
In these gardens we also played an endless array of card games, including Solitaire, Double Solitaire, Spit, Oh Hell, Canasta, Hearts, Pinochle, War, Cray Eights, Old Maid and Rummy. Later would come Spades, and with maturity, the king of all games in our family, Bridge. In order to be allowed to play Bridge with the grown-ups, you had to be old enough to not only know the complexities of the game, you had to be able to sit still long enough without flapping your jaws, to allow for the play of the cards. For me, it meant twelve years old, for the older boys, not so late.
One card game that we played with Papa was Poker. He was old-school all the way, and so we learned to play accordingly. We played every year on New Year's Day and other occasions when Papa was off of work because of this holiday or that.
The rules were sacrosanct. Everyone put his ante into the pot before the deal, everyone placed bets in sequence, and the dealer called the game (as long as it did not include any wild cards, other than the Jokers used for aces, straights, and flushes). The person to the right of the dealer cut the cards, and lo and behold the poor kid who flipped a card face-up during the deal, because it meant that the order of the cards was disrupted, and that was decidedly a bad thing.
I held my tongue when I played Poker with the boys and Papa. Surprisingly, this was a game in which all were cordially (even enthusiastically) welcomed as long as you were seen and not heard, and as long as you brought loot to the table. I don't even think it was a matter of “easy pickin's”, at least as far as Papa was concerned, if not big brothers, so much as it was simply a matter of the most basic type of real life lesson: you pay to play, until such time as your luck, or your skills picked up enough to be able to reasonably expect to compete on even enough terms to avoid the quick down and out. Those were depressing because they were expensive lessons in the game of hanging with the big boys.
On the other hand, as on the baseball field, this was a game with a potentially level playing field, in the sense that I could get dealt three cowboys as easily as anyone else. More often than not though, I would go for all the marbles by drawing to an inside straight, or keeping the ace-king-queen of spades, and drawing for the jack and ten. The ability to play good poker derives from experience, and as in the game of life, it costs to play.
Papa played a lot of Poker when he was overseas, during WWII, and he understood the role that this kind of entertainment played in the real world. The rigid structure of the poker games was to provide me with a keen advantage over others who fancied themselves Poker players, as I maneuvered my way through the military madness, after being tripped up by the only lottery I ever won, and ending up in the green machine in 1972.
My poker playing included an eighteen hour game on my first flight over to Korea, one interrupted only by a two hour layover in Alaska (going over the pole), a delightful sojourn, as Alaska was an eighteen-year-old state, meaning that we hit the airport bar the way a sponge would hit a thimble-spill of water. It made the second half of the Poker game very lucrative for me.
However, there was no age requirement to sitting under cover of the blackberry bushes, so we played endless games of cards while Mama took her nap, after lunch, during the long summer days when baseball was on the back-burner. She would latch the back screen door so that we were effectively kept prisoner outside of the house, while she lay down for a desperately-needed rest from her responsibilities. We dared not wake her up, so we found occupations that took our minds off the idea of trying to get back into the house (where we ran the risk of being put to work peeling potatoes for dinner, or sweeping off the back porch prior to Papa coming home from work) and focused on entertainment.
When we wanted something more mercenary, a little more cutthroat than cards, and something guaranteed to keep us busy for one or more afternoons, we went for the Monopoly game. This was actually a compilation of several Monopoly games, from over the years, to form one very complete game, with enough money for banking purposes, and enough houses and hotels to provide the greater Miami area with a lifetime supply. Any number of players could play, and we had our own handy house rules which allowed us to bypass any of those pesky restrictions which prevented Monopoly from being played the way it was intended.
Many of these rules governed the banking policies. First of all, the bank was obviously the nucleus, around which all other facets of the game revolved. The idea that a player would have to add houses and hotels to acquired property, only as income allowed, was preposterous. Why wait, and allow other players to perch with impunity on your land, without payment, simply because you lack the pecuniary measures to defray the cost of a hotel? Each player merely fortified the banking experience with paper and pencil, to keep track of money borrowed from the bank, so as to ensure repayment.
No one argued with this rather questionable business practice (not to mention a flagrant violation of the rules to Monopoly), for the simple reason that the same policy governed the borrowing of money from the bank to pay off the penalties for landing on another's property. Therefore, if you wanted to get paid for the one thing by allowing a player to borrow money from the bank, you couldn't very well quibble with other reasons for borrowing money from the bank, not if you wanted to be able to take advantage of the same opportunity yourself, when you landed on Boardwalk, with a half-dozen hotels on it.
Even the lucky kid owning Boardwalk and Park Place, had to be judicious when it came to deciding exactly how many hotels to install, for the simple reason, that a person landing on Boardwalk, finding out that he/she owed twenty thousand clams, was like as not to simply decide that taking a walk on the Boardwalk, was not as fun as taking a walk up to the store for a twenty-sixer, that is, a twenty-six ounce Pepsi, sure to take the edge off of the most pressing of thirst issues.
In addition to providing valuable, hands-on math training, the Monopoly games also provided kids with entertainment that could easily extend to a second or even third day, if opportunity and circumstances allowed. Afternoon games always transcended all time restraints for the simple reason that no one could ever make it for too long without some sort of water play. This could mean lounging in the ten or twelve inch deep wading pool, playing water tag, playing slip and slide on the water soaked grass, long before Mattel starting selling strips of plastic to be sprayed down with water to allow for slip and slide play. We had squirt guns, water balloons, hoses with nozzles, hoses without nozzles and we had sprinklers. There was an endless amount of water, and if the summer gods were really smiling down on us, the tank would overflow.
The tank overflowing was a uniquely rural experience, taking into account that our house used to border vast unlimited groves of orange trees. There was a cement tank built on the adjacent empty lot, which was an early municipal entity, designed to provide water in a rural setting for household and crops alike. The tank itself was about thirty feet in diameter, stood about fifteen feet high, and had no bottom, only sand.
Occasionally, without any rhyme or reason, the tank would overflow at a prodigious rate, sending a waterfall cascading over the top with a thunderous noise, and swamping the surrounding area with water. It was deep enough to float anything that we could find to launch, to paddle ourselves around, taking advantage of the water wonderland provided by the overflowing tank. Later, this tank would come back into play when the county no longer had a need for it, but we kids sure found a use for it.
Meanwhile, our Monopoly games, interspersed with water play, competed for our attention with cards, baseball, bike play and another favorite year-round occupation, jigsaw puzzles. This was an activity that could be performed by one kid only, or as many as could comfortably (and peacefully) gather around the board to gain access to the puzzle pieces. The only problem was the challenge of keeping track of the pieces long enough to get them worked into the puzzle.
Brother Brian held a grudge against me for what seemed like most of my youth, for the offense of having gotten a hold of a puzzle piece at the tender age of somewhere around eighteen months, and having chewed it beyond recognition. He reminded me of that fact every time we ever started a new puzzle, as if to inform me that, if I did it again, he would add that to the original offense and appropriate punishment would follow.
I remember the four older of us boys being challenged by Auntie Anne to see how quickly we could assemble a one thousand piece puzzle, and us spending large chunks of our four day visit to accomplish this. Smart Auntie Anne.
The pieces of our childhood summers continuously remind me of a an era long since removed, but not forgotten. As I see the way today’s small children achieve entertainment, it always seems to include something technological. Gone are the days when kids made up their own rules for their own games, and worked together to achieve their goals, and I wonder sometimes how that contributes to later cooperative efforts in other areas of life, be they sports, the work place or relationships.
Everyone should know that there was a time when television, advertising and technology in general, took a backseat to kids with imagination and creativity. Kids figured out how to spend their free time, because if they did not, Mama could always find something for us to do, and it usually had something to do with a potato peeler or a broom.