Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Dogtown Hero

Fiction by F. T. Rea

June 3, 1959: A lean boy with sandy hair and blue-gray eyes, 11-year-old Roscoe Swift lived in a nine-room stucco house with his mother's parents. The 40-year-old house was in Dogtown, south of Richmond proper.

Roscoe's grandfather was an architect. His grandmother taught children to play the piano. Their yard had two apple trees, a cherry tree, a plum tree and three grape vines in it.   

His mother lived in her studio apartment over a garage that accommodated two cars and his grandfather's seldom used workshop. It was about 30 yards from the house. She was a sometime freelance commercial artist who preferred to work at night and sleep in the day. No one referred to her drinking ways as "alcoholism." When the weather didn't suit her she wouldn't venture outside of what she called her "carriage house."

Everybody else called it a "garage." There were spells when Roscoe wouldn’t see his mother for a week, or so.  

When Roscoe was two years old his mother and father had split up. His father went back in the Army and subsequently died in a helicopter crash somewhere in Korea. Since his mother refused to talk about his father -- she had destroyed all photographs of him right after their separation -- the boy's blurry picture of the dead man had been pulled out of the air.

When his mother wasn't within earshot his grandmother would sometimes say, "Your Dad had a wonderful smile." His grandfather told him his father had frequently gotten him preferential treatment from the brass when he was in the Army, because he was a "pretty damn good outfielder."

Roscoe liked it when his grandfather said with a chuckle, "Your Dad played on the same baseball field with some pros."

When he imagined his father, rather than in a military uniform, or a coat and tie, Roscoe usually saw him in a Depression Era baseball uniform, like what he'd seen Lou Gehrig and Dizzy Dean wearing in newsreels.

For as long as he could remember Roscoe had been in training to be a hero. It wasn’t something he talked about much, but it was usually close to the heart of his striving. He was a strong reader and had already inhaled many a biography and adventure story about heroic figures. To steel his nerves he had tested himself with daredevil stunts. He wasn't one to back down from a fistfight, either. At camp the summer before, he had won a National Rifle Association Sharpshooter patch, which he kept with other treasures in a cigar box, hidden where nobody would find it.

On this day a significant test of Roscoe's mettle had arrived: he was playing the biggest baseball game of his career. Remembering the lucky Ted Williams baseball card he’d slipped into his back pocket before he’d left for school, as he walked toward the batter's box Roscoe looked at the perfect blue sky and smiled ever so slightly.

Mostly, school was easy for Roscoe. He took pride in being able to turn in a paper first and get every question right. His difficulties in school stemmed from his class clown inclinations and his quick temper. Good grades in conduct weren't a given.

He liked reading about history and he enjoyed drawing, but baseball was what mattered most to him. During baseball season, using the box scores in the morning newspaper, he routinely calculated the up-to-date batting averages of his favorite Major League players before he went to school.

Two of the fifth-grade classes had finished the season tied, forcing a playoff game to decide the championship. Following lunch, all four fifth-grade classes at Gittes Creek Elementary had been given the afternoon to watch the two teams settle the issue. Which was a treat, because all the previous games had been played during recess, within that time frame.

Students with no taste for baseball had the option of watching a black and white 16mm documentary film about Jamestown's 350th anniversary. Thus, there was a pretty good crowd for the title game.

With one out, Roscoe's side was two runs down. As he took his practice swings, he reminded again himself of the situation -- bottom of the last inning, men on first and third. "No grounder," he said to himself, silently, as he knocked red dust off his canvas sneakers with the bat ... as if they were baseball spikes.

A group of some 20 men of all ages, fathers, uncles and a former minor league ballplayer from the surrounding neighborhood added a measure of authenticity to the crowd. Girls from the two classes in the championship game were acting as cheerleaders. No one could remember that ever happening before, but it suited Roscoe just fine.

In 1959 baseball was still unquestionably America's National Pastime. In Dogtown even fifth-grade baseball in the last week of school was important.

Swift stood in the batter's box on the first base side of home-plate. Originally trained as a right-hander, he had decided that if Ted Williams -- the best hitter in the game -- batted left-handed that was good enough for him. Besides, to Roscoe, for some reason a good southpaw swing looked better to him. He’d been practicing batting left-handed for a couple of months in neighborhood pickup games. Finally, the switch had to be tested in a situation with something more on the line.

Standing crouched and barely touching first base, Roscoe’s best friend on the team, Bake, cheered him on. "Pick out a good one. Hit your pitch, Number 9."

Even though the boys weren't wearing uniforms with numbers on them, during games most of the starters on Roscoe's team called one another by the numbers they would be wearing. Since Bake's favorite player was Willie Mays, he was called "24," or "Number 24."   

However, a couple of Roscoe's teammates were imploring him from the bench to bat right-handed, like usual, since everything was at stake. Butterflies the size of eagles disquieted Roscoe's stomach.

Stepping out of the box, the Roscoe took three slow and deliberate practice swings. He looked at the crowd standing along the third base line. The cheerleaders for his side were chanting, "Ros-coe, Ros-coe, he's our man. If he can't do it, nobody can!"

His grandfather, who had taken the afternoon off for the first time in Roscoe's memory, stood in the shade of an ancient oak tree with the other men. Peering under the flat brim of his straw hat Rocsoe's first baseball coach watched the action, as only he could.

The other team's cheerleaders and classmates booed and hooted at Roscoe from the first base line. He dug in and did his best to put them out of his mind. However, there was a particular girl with a strawberry-blonde ponytail and lively blue-green eyes cheering for the other team. Her name was Susie and he never failed to notice her.

The best thing to say to Susie never came to mind when she was near. Sometimes she made him feel short of breath. So Roscoe mostly watched her from a distance ... frequently with a sense of longing that baffled him. Although Susie was calling for his team to lose, that very second, he was thoroughly glad she was there.

Back in the box, Roscoe shifted most of his weight to his back foot and turned his front foot thirty degrees toward first base. Relaxing his hands, he jutted his chin out and squinted like he was aiming his .22 caliber rifle.

The pitcher threw the first pitch outside and in the dirt. It got by the catcher. But the ground rules didn't allow stealing bases, so the guys on base stayed where they were. Sure the next pitch would be across the plate, Roscoe leaned back and prepared to cut the ball in half.

With the infielders behind him chattering like magpies, the hurler went into his stretch and fired the pitch. Roscoe liked it and took a big roundhouse swing.

Whoosh!

Roscoe nearly lost his balance as the sudden explosion of laughter from his opponents and their classmates pierced his armor of concentration. Nonetheless, he didn't look at anyone on either baseline. He knew he'd shut his eyes as he'd swung the bat.

Roscoe felt his cheeks flush as he pulled his baseball cap's brim down on his brow. Again, he relaxed his wrists and fingers.

"It only takes one to hit it!" Bellowed his grandfather through cupped hands.

Roscoe leaned away from the pitcher, to put more weight on his back foot. He remembered to take a deep breath, which he let out slowly as the pitcher confidently cut loose with another fastball. Swinging from his heels, Roscoe rolled his wrists just exactly as his weight shifted toward the pitch. The bat tagged the ball sweetly.

Cah-rack!

The ball left the infield with dispatch. After clearing the leaping second baseman's glove by two feet it took a sharp nosedive and evenly split the closing distance between the right and center fielders. The pair frantically chased the top-spinning sphere down the grassy slope.

The utter perfection of the bat’s perfectly timed kiss on the horsehide's sweetest spot resonated through his body. The sudden furor Roscoe heard seemed like it was far away. He ran like a monster was chasing him. Just before he rounded second base the ball plopped into the trickle of a creek that bordered the schoolyard. He almost caught up with Bake.

"Slow down, man," Bake advised over his shoulder with a sarcastic chuckle. "Those goons haven't even found it yet."

Roscoe's euphoric classmates were jumping around wildly. His grandfather beamed as he waved his hat back and forth over his head. Teammates, suddenly champions, were pounding Roscoe on his back as he crossed home plate.

Roscoe looked at Susie on the quiet side of the field. The way her head tilted to the side, the position of her limbs, something about her stance, or her gesture, made him feel disoriented. It was as though he was viewing the event from different angles, simultaneously. He felt both inside and outside the scenario. His mind raced as everything seemed to be moving in slow motion.

Straining to pull all the elements together, to grasp all he was sensing, Roscoe heard an explosion.

Boom!

Then he felt a strange calm. All he surveyed seemed vivid and in its place. It occurred to him that he hadn’t loped around the bases, a la Teddy Ballgame. He'd been far too excited to feign nonchalance. More importantly, Roscoe had remembered to not tip his cap. If the batting king and ace fighter pilot of the Korean War, Ted Williams, never tipped his cap to the public on his home run trot that was good enough for Roscoe, too.

Roscoe felt like he was above all of his dark doubts. Soaring. He was in a place where heroes don't have have to tip their caps to anyone. Meanwhile, Susie had vanished.

Later on, Roscoe realized no one else had heard the explosion. Although that made no sense to him he dropped the subject and stashed that mystery in the same hidden space with an accumulating stack of guilty haunts and developing theories.

The moment's hero sensed then that the memory of how it felt when he hit that baseball, perfectly, would never leave him.

* * *

All rights reserved by the author. The Dogtown Hero with its accompanying illustration are part of a series of stories called Detached. Three remaining stories will be added, eventually. Links to the five others which have been finished 
are below:

Central Time
A Perfect Rainy Day
Maybe Rosebud 
The Freelancer's Worth
Cross-Eyed Mona

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