Baseball Toaster Cardboard Gods
Monthly archives: February 2008


Carl Morton
2008-02-26 14:00
by Josh Wilker


(continued from Bo Diaz)

Chapter Five

We drift down a spiraling river of television static. It feels vaguely familiar. Richie Hebner stopped paddling a while ago. He’s just been sitting there, staring straight ahead. 

I’m ready to go back now, I try to tell him. All I make is a tuneless humming noise, the throat-sound of a mute. Richie Hebner mimics the sound. He does it a few times. He builds the mocking repetitions into a simple melody. He starts tapping a rhythm on the raft as he hums. He adds words to the melody, singing, his voice reedy, barely audible above the sound of the static.

Well, I told the undertaker
Undertaker please drive slow
For the body you are carrying
Lord I hate to see her go    

He stops drumming on the raft. We drift for a while. The curves in the river are getting tighter, as if the spiral is approaching a point.

How do we get back? I try to say.

“Mm mm mm mm hmm,” Richie Hebner says, aping my throat sounds, then repeating them with a hint of the melody of the song he'd been singing. The river bends and the raft bumps into the river’s edge. We spin toward the middle, rotating slowly. Richie Hebner sings some more, his voice as flat as his gaze.

O will the circle be unbroken
By and by lord by and by
There’s a better home a-waitin’
In the sky lord in the sky

Our spinning slows to a stop and I see that the river has drained into a circular pool. We’re floating in the middle of it. Images flicker on the surface of the television static below us, faces appearing and vanishing so quickly they seem to be in the middle of howling.

What’s it going to take? I try to say to Richie Hebner. What do I have to do to get out of here? Click my heels and say there’s no place like home?

The static gives way altogether, as if a lost signal had suddenly returned, and the ground below us solidifies into chunks of frozen dirt. Our raft is gone. We’re sitting on top of a freshly dug grave. The sky is like predawn, overcast, the color of static.

There’s no place like home, I try to say. There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home.

None of it comes out. It just bangs around inside my chest and throat, where it sounds less like the incantatory affirmation Dorothy chanted to get back where she belonged and more like a negation, the zero at the end of the equation of life. You’re born, you drift, you feed the worms. There’s no place like home.

At the rim of the wide circular grave is a red, hard-rubber running track with lanes marked by white stripes, a perfectly circular, perfectly empty version of the crowded oval I used to run on when I lived in Brooklyn during my early thirties. I used to go around and around, weaving through clumps of kerchiefed Ukrainian crones and chunks of concrete and Dominican homeboys and unleashed pit bulls and broken bottles and bespectacled white women pushing expensive jogging strollers and soccer balls bounding free from the dusty game roiling on the inside of the track and drunk guys gesticulating and arguing with phantoms. Round and round I went, feeling even at the time as if I was enacting some audienceless, and therefore meaningless, Sisyphean metaphor. The years went by. Round and round I went. I was waiting for something to grab me, to say that my life had begun. Round and round and round. Finally I decided to leave. Near my last day I went running at the track and my friend Pete came with me and smoked cigarettes on a stone bench, and each time I ran by he yelled at me with a thick, bogus accent, his version of an Eastern European track coach.  

“Rahn! Make strong! Only strong survive! Rahn!”

Within a week or so I had traded the oval track for some suburban streets in Racine, Wisconsin, where my girlfriend’s family lived. Our plan was to stay there until we found jobs in Chicago. Round and round I went, making a circle of the strange, quiet streets.

“You think you know baseball,” Richie Hebner says now. He hasn’t used his one-hitter in a while and I can barely see him. It’s as if he’s fading into the dim pre-dawn light.

“You think you know it as well as anything. You’ve hid in it, taken refuge in it. As you’ve drifted you've tried to make it into something like home.”

I can't even see you, I try to say.  

“But you don’t know who the National League rookie of the year was in 1970, I bet.”

Bernie Carbo? I try to say. I've always hoped that my grasp of useless baseball arcana will someday come in handy, will perhaps free me from a troublesome situation. Maybe this is the moment. But I can feel even as I say my answer that it's off, wrong, and won't deliver me.

“Carl Morton,” Richie Hebner says. I can just barely glimpse him pointing his shovel at someone running on the previously empty circle, a pale guy with red hair and a mustache.

“Best rookie of 1970, a pitcher. Looked like it was going to be his decade. He did OK for a while, never as good as that rookie year, then in 1976 he lost it, and fast. One bad year and he was done.”

Carl Morton plods around the track. Where is he going? Around and around.

“Few years later, he’s 39, goes for a run,” Richie Hebner says. “Same age you are now, am I right?”

I stare straight ahead.

“Yeah, same age as you are now. Goes for a run. Sets off from his parents’ house, makes the whole circle. Goes and returns. The hero's journey. Drops in his parents’ driveway.”

I want to go back now, I try to say. I want to live.

Richie Hebner mocks the sounds that come out of me. Carl Morton circles. Around and around and around and nowhere. The mocking does not disappear altogether as Richie Hebner steers his mimicry one more time into song.

O will the circle be unbroken
By and by lord by and by
There’s a better home a-waitin’
In the sky lord in the sky

(to be continued)

Bo Diaz
2008-02-24 10:44
by Josh Wilker


(continued from Danny Frisella)

Chapter Four

"I was golden," Richie Hebner is saying.

"Drafted in the first round. Right out of high school. Same age as you."

I’m lying on the dock in the middle of the lake beside Richie Hebner, both of us staring up at the stars. The stars look like glow-in-the-dark decals.

Same age as me? I try to say. Nothing but a groaning sound comes out, maybe not even that. I’m in the middle of my life. I’m lost. Or I’m a boy saying goodbye to a broken dog lying in a backyard pit. Or I’m just past the baseball card years shooting baskets with a pale kid who dribbles with both hands. Or maybe Richie Hebner is right. Maybe I’ve changed again, grown a little taller and older still. Maybe I’m just out of high school. Lying on the dock beside Richie Hebner.

"My sole purpose in life was to hit a baseball," Richie Hebner says. "Stand at the plate, wait for my pitch, take a rip." He sits up. The silver one-hitter he’d been holding is gone. Now he’s holding a silver shovel. He gets to his feet and walks to the edge of the dock. I sit up and look around. I don’t quite remember how I got out here. I don’t remember swimming. The surface of the water is a dim gray. Richie Hebner jabs his shovel at the surface and produces a cracking sound. Ice.

"People think purposelessness equals innocence," Richie Hebner says. "They think kids have no purpose and that’s what saves them from an awareness of the affliction that is the human condition." He continues jabbing at the surface with the shovel. I can hear the cracks spreading. The dim gray of the surface seems to shimmer as if coursing with a thin, uneven current. I think I see a figure in the shadows along the dark far shore, but maybe it’s just a bush shuddering in the wind. Except there’s no wind.

"But watch a little kid some time," Richie Hebner says. He keeps jabbing down at the water, holding the handle with both hands, the motion of his arms each time he jabs down like that of someone checking their swing. "They’re all purpose, man. Their purpose might shift a lot from one thing to another but they’re always locked into whatever it is when they’re doing it. Locked in! Then when they get hauled off to school they get purpose shoved onto them. If they go along with it they’re golden with purpose, and if they fight against it they’re still golden because they’re full of their own invented purpose."

The dock begins to shudder, starting to move. I always thought it was anchored. The surface of the water around us seems to have begun breaking into pieces. The figure at the edge of the far shore has gotten free of the ice and has begun to move, slowly, haltingly. The pieces of ice breaking loose are gray shimmering rectangles, the widening spaces in between them just darkness.

"After high school, man, that’s when it could happen," Richie Hebner says. "But not to me, man. I was golden. Like the picture of the guy in the card you’re holding."

I don’t know how it got there but I now have Bo Diaz’s 1981 card in my hand. A few years after that card came out, in the offseason, his skills in decline, another season of being golden in doubt, Bo Diaz was crushed to death while trying to install a television satellite dish. There’s enough light from Richie Hebner and the glow-in-the-dark stars and the gray shimmering from the rectangles of ice to see that in the card I’m holding Bo Diaz is at bat, waiting for a pitch, determined, locked in, nothing else in the world of any concern. The end of his career is far off, and satellite dishes are still years away from being available to the public.

"Pure purpose," Richie Hebner says, as if reading my thoughts. "Waiting for that pitch. Knowing it’s gonna be a bitch. Using everything you’ve got to lock in and just fucking connect." We have begun moving through the water, the blocks of ice thumping against the wood. There seems to be a hissing sound now, as if of wind through trees, but there still is no wind here. We’re moving toward the figure on the shore. Judging from the slowness with which he moves, it’s an old man. He’s pushing something.

"As long as you’re in the batter’s box," Richie Hebner says. "As long as you, uh, as long. Um. Shit." He uses the shovel as a paddle. The dock has narrowed to a raft. The shape of the lake seems to be changing as well, narrowing and pushing forward.

"Forgot what I was going to say," Richie Hebner says. "Always happens on the downslope of the high from this shit. Get all brilliant for a second then it’s Flowers for . . ., for . . . Shit. What was the name of that book about the mouse and the retard?"

Richie Hebner’s glow begins to fade. This makes it easier to see beyond him, to the surface of the lake, which I realize is made up not of rectangular blocks of gray ice but of television sets, hundreds of them piled all around our wooden raft and all the way to the shore, which continues to dissolve, opening out into a narrow extension of the lake. All of the TV screens are hissing with snow, though some of them also flicker with brief glimpses of faces, each glimpse only long enough to make it seem that the figure on screen is in the middle of howling.

"You come to the end of the road," Richie Hebner says. "That’s when. That’s when the shit gets real."

We are close enough to the shore to see that the old man is pushing a grocery cart. He is wearing a red uniform with blue piping and a matching short-billed policeman-style cap, cocked a little to the side. Jauntily. It’s my grandfather. The grocery cart has a French horn lying in it. He’s whistling tunelessly with each of his exhalations, something he did when I lived with him near the end of his life. He wanted to hide that he was out of breath.

I lived with him after I got kicked out of high school. You come to the end of the road. No institutionally imposed purpose anymore, no purpose rising up from within. No skills. No specific wants, nobody wanting.

The two of us, my grandfather and I, we drifted though that summer like we were on a rudderless raft. We watched a lot of TV. We went to a nearby pond sometimes. It wasn’t that much bigger than Lake Champagne. He circled the edge of it, as he’s doing now, except then he swam the whole way in a very slow elementary backstroke.

Richie Hebner is barely visible now, and he rows us into the curving river that the lake has given way to. The borders of all the television sets have given way, too, as if melting together, their snow-filled screens all merging, and we drift forward and down as if on a slow river of static. We are drawing closer to my grandfather.

Up until the summer we lived together my grandfather had played in a brass band that gave oompahing concerts at the town band shell every Friday night. He wore the uniform he’s wearing now. But that summer his lungs weren’t up to it anymore. He lost his last scheduled activity.

I try to call out to him now, but nothing comes out.

One day that summer we went to the giant new Stop & Shop. He was amazed. We walked up and down the aisles slow as reverent monks. He pushed the cart, his portable oxygen tank in the upper basket, the tubes from it snaking into his nose. He kept saying the store was the damnedest thing he’d ever seen.

We’re close enough now that Richie Hebner could reach out and touch him with the tip of his shovel, but Richie Hebner doesn’t seem to notice him, and he doesn’t seem to notice us.

When we got home from the Stop & Shop, I’m sure we watched TV because we always watched TV. TV had a schedule, specific start times and end times. The TV was in my grandfather’s bedroom. He sat in his La-Z-Boy and I sat on his mechanized bed, periodically raising and lowering my head and legs with a remote control. My grandmother’s bed lay empty beside me. One show ended and another began.

I try to call out to my grandfather again. We’re past him. He is walking along the shore in the direction we came. He whistles tunelessly with each exhalation. I try to call out to him one last time. He stops, and I think for a moment that he’s heard me. But I understand, because I know him, that he’s stopping to look around at everything, to marvel at everything, as if the darkness and the static and the star-shaped glow-in-the-dark decals are all the damnedest things he’s ever seen.

(to be continued)

Danny Frisella
2008-02-22 09:19
by Josh Wilker


(continued from Bob Moose)

Chapter Three

Wouldn’t It Be Nice stops, chopped at the first word. That word, wouldn’t, echoes sharp and short like if you clapped once in an empty room. I'm somewhere bright and cold, the sky the color of old sidewalk ice. The overgrown dirt road I’m walking slopes and curves, another downward spiral. I’m taller now, older, just past my baseball card years. This place is familiar, but I don’t know why. Thin bare trees to the right, a graveyard to the left. No sign of Richie Hebner, but Jupiter’s still with me. He keeps his head down, doesn’t bound ahead like he always used to. In fact he keeps lagging every few feet and glancing over at me as if to see if I’ll lag, too. But I keep going. I know this place.

I know this place. And those aren’t grave markers. They’re stumpy posts with electrical outlets, hookups for RVs, one post for each empty rectangular lot. The lots stretch into the distance, all of them empty except one nearby, where someone has parked a dune buggy. The dune buggy confuses me. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one in person. There are a few things on the front seat. A baseball glove, a brown and yellow baseball cap, a white uniform with brown and yellow piping. The shirt has the word Frisella on the back.

I don't know what the dune buggy is doing in the empty RV lot but other than that this place is familiar. We used to come here. It was a town away. This is Lake Champagne, shut down for the season.

First the whole family came, then just my brother and me, then when I got old enough, just past my baseball card years, just me, hitchhiking the few miles to get here. There was a rec room with pinball machines and air hockey and a jukebox with a lot of songs by bands named after places. But that’s back up the dirt road, behind us, and since I first followed Richie Hebner away from the world I haven’t been able to go backward, only forward and down, forward and down.

The thin dirt road empties out to the small grassy area that everyone pretended was a beach. There’s a sagging volleyball net, a basketball hoop nailed to an old telephone pole. Past that the beach slopes down to the small manmade pond with a wooden dock anchored in the middle of it. There was never any place to go but Lake Champagne, and once you were there the only thing to do was swim out to the wooden dock.

As I start moving toward the lake I see something out of the corner of my eye. Beyond the basketball hoop, near some picnic tables, a boy is throwing a frisbee up into the air and trying to catch it. Jupiter has already started trotting toward the boy. I follow him. The boy isn’t very good at throwing a frisbee. He throws and chases, throws and chases, the disc thudding down beyond him each time. He notices Jupiter first, then looks past him to me. He was about to make another solitaire throw but instead he tries to toss it to me. The disc wobbles and dives to the ground before I can reach it, but in trying to get to it I get closer to the boy.

He looks familiar. I’m just past the baseball card years and so is he. Twelve, maybe thirteen. He’s got short hair and is wearing jeans and a too-small blue Cub Scout shirt with the yellow kerchief knotted in front. He’s barefoot.

I pick up the frisbee. It’s one of the small cheap kinds, with spaceship contours and no thin grooves at the edges. It’s the color of lemonade and looks like if you held it up to the light for a while then took it into a closet it would glow. I throw it back to the kid. Jupiter chases it. The throw slips through the boy’s hands and hits him in the chest.

He picks it up off the ground and I edge a little closer so he can reach me. This try is a little better. Jupiter chases it. I can’t quite get to it but I snap it up before Jupiter can grab it. I’m even closer to the boy now. He has pale skin, a few freckles. I just stand there holding the frisbee. Jupiter stares at me, waiting. He makes a little sound. Hrf.

The boy claps his hands once and the sound of it echoes sharp and short like we’re in an empty room. He wants me to throw it. I throw it as gently as I can and it dies halfway. I remember this boy now. Brian is his name. Jupiter chomps up the frisbee and starts to dart off with it, but Brian claps his hands once and the sound again echoes short and sharp. Jupiter stops. He looks over at Brian, then trots toward him and drops the frisbee at his feet. He sits, leans into Brian’s legs. Brian picks up the Frisbee and stares at me. I’ve been edging a little closer but his stare stops me.

I didn’t really know him. He was just this other kid in seventh grade. He didn’t play little league. One day here at Lake Champagne we shot baskets together at the hoop nailed to the old telephone pole. I wasn’t that good but he was so bad I felt sorry for him. The way he dribbled with both hands was the first thing I thought of, some time later, when my mom told me why he hadn’t been in school for a while (I hadn’t noticed his absence). He was sick. Really sick. The same sick my friend Glenn’s mother had, the lady who always wore hats or kerchiefs on her head.

Now Brian is staring past me. He twists his body to throw the frisbee again and I edge closer but this time the throw blasts straight and high, way over my head and beyond. The surprising show of strength reminds me of the day Glenn got mad at me for razzing him about something and he started strangling me. I’d always been sure Glenn was a bigger weakling than I was, but I couldn’t budge his arms until a teacher yelled his name.

I chase after Brian’s throw for a few steps but then just watch it sail against the darkening sky and out over the still brown water of Lake Champagne. An impossible throw, a perfect throw. It arcs toward the wooden dock anchored in the middle of the pond and clatters down with a faraway echo. As it wobbles to a stop it seems to be glowing, making it seem as if a tiny spiral of light is boring down into the dock.

I turn back to Brian. He and Jupiter are walking away, back in the direction I’d come, toward the dirt road.

Hey, I try to say. Jupey. Hey

They can't hear me. I turn back toward the dock. Evening has come on. Richie Hebner is standing on the dock now, smoking his silver one-hitter, glowing.

(to be continued)

Bob Moose
2008-02-19 08:01
by Josh Wilker


(continued from Richie Hebner)

Chapter Two

The downsloping corridor narrows to a tunnel. I keep going. It begins slightly curving to the left as it descends. I catch glimpses of the back of Richie Hebner’s windbreaker for a while but soon lose sight of him altogether. There’s not much light. The cold clay walls and ceiling continue to constrict. I keep going. I start to hunch down to keep from hitting my head. But instead of hunching down I grow smaller. I grow smaller and lighter and younger. This happens with the same slight but visceral inner effort, a tensing of the stomach muscles, that in dreams of flight precedes liftoff. I start to hunch down and instead grow smaller and lighter and younger. Meanwhile, the leftward curve of the tunnel sharpens. I see in my mind the shape of my route so far. I’m in a spiral. A downward spiral. In dreams when the world is too much we lift up off the ground and fly. Here as I move away from the world the way I always do, in a downward spiral, I keep growing smaller and lighter and younger. And I keep going.

Finally the tunnel narrows to a dead end, the tip of the spiral. I’ve grown as small and light and young as a child. I can barely see anything. I can feel where the tunnel comes to an end. There are clumps of hard cold dirt there, like the replaced chunks of a freshly dug hole. I pull at them and through the cracks that open I see flashes of light. I know these cold hard chunks. I know this hole, this grave. I hear a muffled voice. It comes from the other side, below the chunks.

“The fuck?” the voice says.

The flashes continue, accompanied each time by a quick, flinty sound, like a lock opening. And, closer to me, just on the other side of the piled chunks, there is the faint sound of whimpering. I know this whimpering. I know where I am. This is the fall of 1976. I’m 8. I’m pulling the chunks of earth away. On the other side comes the flinty chk and a flash of light. The hole opens wider and I see I’m not the only one making an opening. This is the fall of 1976 and I’m shivering and the long winter is about to start and the ground is frozen and our beautiful dog Jupiter has just died and my stepfather Tom has spent all afternoon weeping while pick-axing the frozen ground to make a grave and we’ve said our goodbyes and cried in the backyard and he’s gone but he’s not gone he’s pulling away at the chunks right now just like I am and here he is.

Here he is alive again.

Jupiter, Jupiter, I try to say, the words buried, tremors. Hey boy.

He barges his muscular body through the opening and begins licking my wet salty face, his whole self wagging. I kiss his fuzzy muzzle and hug him and pet him. When we moved to Vermont he was the beautiful heartbeat of our family, a big red and black and gold song of pure motion in love with everything alive. The stranger who hit him with a pickup truck carried him to our doorway in tears.

Now he darts in the direction I’ve come but immediately returns when I don’t follow. He was always that way. Is always that way. Darting up ahead and then checking back with everyone one at a time, every hike for him a hundred times longer than for any of us.

“Just bought this piece of shit from the mini-mart,” the voice on the other side of the opening mutters.

I pet Jupiter with one hand and pull away enough of the chunks of his beaten grave to allow my body to pass through. Jupiter whimpers but follows. 

Richie Hebner is there, trying to light something with a lighter that can only seem to throw off sparks. He glances at me.

“Hey, pudlips,” he says. “You pack flame?”

I shake my head. He starts trying the lighter again. In the flashes from the sparks I catch glimpses of the room. It’s the size of the kind of basement I never had, the warm and compact all-American sunken playroom of television-show families. Our basement was always a dark, scary place, one of the parts of my family’s attempt to build a new pure life in the country that remained forever unfinished.

Jupiter takes a seat next to me, leaning his body into mine. I can feel the warmth and weight of him.

Richie Hebner finally gets his lighter to work. For a long time the flame lights up his face and his small silver baseball-bat-shaped one-hitter. It also lights up the room. The walls have been painted like the stands of a baseball stadium during a game, everywhere the blurred shapes and colors of a crowd.

I glimpse a man in the corner in a Pittsburgh Pirates uniform, looking as if he has just thrown a pitch. His name is written in black letters beneath him.

Bob Moose.

He has a wad of tobacco in his mouth. It’s a moment of pure life, the beat between something and something. Will the pitch be a strike or a screamer through the box? Will the pitch sail past the catcher and roll to the backstop? Will the fielders then walk to the dugout, the season gone, the regal rightfielder moving particularly slow, as if he knows it's his last time? Anything can happen until it can’t.

The flame of Richie Hebner’s lighter goes out. It’s dark for a while. I feel Jupiter against me and hear him panting. Richie Hebner makes some choking sounds with his throat and then coughs and coughs.

“I knew him,” he says, his voice hoarse. I can’t see anything. “We were teammates.”

What’s going to happen to him? I try to say.

It’s the fall of 1976, winter on the way. Bob Moose, who four years earlier threw a wild pitch that made Roberto Clemente’s last on-field moment a loss, wrecks his car. It’s the fall of 1976, winter on the way. Bob Moose is twenty-nine. He wrecks his car and ends.

What’s going to happen to him? I try to say.

“Man, I’m lit,” Richie Hebner says, still hoarse. There seems to be a chuckle in his voice. The room has grown a little brighter. Richie Hebner isn’t chuckling or smiling. But he is glowing, just a little, like a glow-in-the-dark frisbee. I use his light to find Bob Moose again. Bob Moose is still frozen in the in-between moment, the middle of a heartbeat. 

“He was just a month and a half older than me,” Richie Hebner says. “We were champions.”

What about now? I try to say. I hold onto Jupiter. What’s going to happen to him now?

Richie Hebner just stares at me. Then he turns and walks toward a dugout that has been painted onto the wall below the blurry colors of the crowd. Somehow he walks into the dugout, then through a door to what must be the clubhouse, taking the light with him. I find Jupiter’s collar and hold onto it. In dreams you sometimes find out that you’ve always known how to fly. I find out I can talk to Jupiter, that I have always been able to talk to Jupiter. I don’t even have to use words. I tell him I don’t want to stay here with Bob Moose. I don’t want to stay here in between something and something.

Jupiter stands and starts moving. I keep my hand on his collar. I shuffle along and hold one hand out to feel for a wall but the wall never comes. We descend concrete steps. It must be the dugout. We pass through a doorway into a hallway, Richie Hebner walking a few feet ahead and glowing like a glow-in-the-dark frisbee. There is faraway music now, echoing, the rippling sun-water sounds of the start of Wouldn’t It Be Nice? I let go of Jupiter’s collar. He stays with me. We’re spiraling again, the curve in the hallway opening to a new and growing brightness that the gravedigger walks toward and we follow and he seems to join the light and Wouldn’t It be Nice? and we follow.

(to be continued)

Richie Hebner
2008-02-17 09:04
by Josh Wilker


Chapter One

I’m in the middle of my life. I’m lost. Richie Hebner stands before me.

Richie Hebner stands before me in his windbreaker and his old tyme Pirates cap. He gazes right at me, or maybe through me, gaping, vacant. He reminds me of the older guys in my high school, back when I was in the adjoining junior high, the ones who talked in heroically hoarse voices about getting inebriated and took auto shop and occasionally rained ring-spiked blows down upon one another during publicized fistfights "up on the bank." They had sparse mustaches and interchangeable feathered haircuts and sexually complicit cigarette-smoking girlfriends with interchangeable feathered haircuts. They had part-time jobs that required physical strength and a certain vacancy of gaze.

"You’re Richie Hebner," I try to say. I recall the most renowned of all back-of-the-card cartoons. "You dig graves. Richie Hebner," I try to say. "In the offseason. In the offseason you dig graves." The words amount to no more than vibrations in my body, seismic rumblings.

Richie Hebner just continues to fix me with that gaze that makes it seem he doesn’t quite see me, like he just roasted one in the parking lot with a couple buddies while cranking some Styx on the eight-track. It’s a gaze that makes me feel like I’m the one who’s not quite all here, a junior high nobody, a shade.

It’s still chilly, not spring yet, everything alive seemingly pounded unreachably deep underground. We’re on something like a baseball field, some other shadowy figures in baseball uniforms drifting around.

Richie Hebner turns and walks toward third base. I find myself following. Third base is where they put him when they weren’t benching him against tough lefties. He was a butcher at third base, but he could rake right-handed pitching so they got him into the lineup when they could. Now, he kicks with his cleats at the ground near the third base bag in the familiar chicken scratch dance of the infielder between pitches. His hands are in the pockets of his windbreaker, however, adding to the impression that there isn't going to be any baseball played on this diamond today, that this place I have come to is not quite a baseball field, but rather some shadowy realm that is neither here nor there, the kind of place where you might end up if you were in the middle of life, lost.

At first the kicking of his cleats only traces what look like almost-decipherable messages in the dust. I feel like if I could only read them I could learn how to make my way back to where I belong. But then his kicking begins to carve out swaths in the earth, the earth yielding to Richie Hebner. The swaths cut deep into the earth and soon form a hole as deep and wide as a grave. I stand nearby on the third base bag as if it’s an island, as if I'm afraid that the earth will give way everywhere. Richie Hebner looks up from his effortless work. He is standing in the hole. All but his head and the top of his torso is hidden from view. He looks at me, or maybe through me, gaping, vacant. Then he turns and seems to duck down, disappearing from view.

From far off come the sounds of baseball, the sounds of spring, the sounds of life. Voices calling, the echoing crack of the bat. I step from the third base bag to peer down into the hole. I expect to see Richie Hebner crouched or even lying flat on the floor of the grave. Instead I see the back of his windbreaker vanishing down into a downsloping corridor. I find myself stepping into the grave. I find myself following Richie Hebner down the corridor into the darkness underground.

(to be continued)

Bill Lee
2008-02-11 15:33
by Josh Wilker

Born in the USA

(continued from Bill Campbell)

Epilogue: Home and Away

I discovered America in 1973, when I was five. Before that the world had no borders, no home and away. That summer we drove from New Jersey to Mexico in a white Volkswagen camper. My brother and I rode in the back, and Mom sat up front next to Tom, the longhaired man who had become a part of our family some years earlier, after my mom had met and fallen in love with him on her way to protest the Vietnam War. My father wasn’t with us, though he did fly down later to join us for part of the trip. The day after the Fourth of July, in Texas, my brother and I walked around collecting the remnants of exploded fireworks. The ground was hard and dry, the sun above us huge and hot and close. We must have been at another in a series of KOA campgrounds, but in my memory it seems like we were walking around a wide cracked battlefield at the edge of the known world, the smell of gunpowder still in the air, tiny shreds of red, white, and blue shrapnel everywhere. Afterward we ate chocolate Tastycakes from the campground snack bar, then we got into the camper and made America disappear.

In one hotel in Mexico I almost stepped into a bathtub with a scorpion. Out in the streets, the women all wanted to touch my blond curls. I wriggled away from them. I also wriggled away from the affectionate young American hippie couple we picked up hitchhiking. They rode with us for a while, crushed in the back of the camper next to my brother and me and mauling one another with groping, open-mouthed, tangled-hair love. Then they were gone. We stood on the lip of a volcano at the top of the world, my carsick brother puking. I chased a burro around some ruins. Dad showed up for a while in his button-down shirt then left. We walked up the steps of giant pyramids. My brother got such a bad sunburn that big blisters rose on his shoulders. Gods stared at us from ancient stone. There was a world beyond the borders of the world, strange and magical and dangerous. There were no Tastycakes there.

My mom painted an oil portrait of my brother and me after we got back to America. We are sitting in our pajamas in front of the television. I stare at the screen with something like gratitude, something like love.

I rented Stripes a couple days ago, self-medicating. I’d seen the 1981 movie before, many times, but I needed a laugh and some patriotism. I needed to hear Bill Murray’s speech about how Americans were kicked out of every decent country in the world, how we were homely and lovable castoffs, the whole nation a last-chance kennel of loyal and resilient mutts. I needed the unruly, stinging, incomprehensible defeat of the Vietnam War collapsed to the morphine core of a punchline.

"There’s something wrong with us," orates the boot camp recruit played by Bill Murray. He is trying to rally his platoon in the face of a seemingly hopeless situation.

"We’re soldiers," he concludes. "But we’re American soldiers. We’ve been kicking ass for two hundred years. We’re ten and one!"

Bill Lee, shown here with his Canadian team, avoided having to go to Vietnam because he was a professional baseball player, and with just a handful of exceptions professional baseball players were able to fulfill any military obligations by serving stateside in the reserves or the National Guard. This was how it was during the Vietnam War: some young men had more options than others. Money usually made the difference. For example, if you were a rich guy with a father in the oil business, you could jump to the head of a long, long list of people trying to get into the Texas Air National Guard, thus helping ensure that you will be intact and alive and able, years later, to send other young men to war.

Young men also avoided the draft by getting an educational deferment, which basically means if you had the money or the cultural capital to get into college the armed services left you alone, another obvious way in which the draft skewed along class lines. Even the economic hardship deferment, which in theory was set up to address the needs of the poor, was much more often taken advantage of by the well-off: rich draftees could more easily show that going into the army would seriously damage the standard of living of their families. Also, the rich could hire lawyers to argue their cases, and they could hire sympathetic doctors to declare them unfit for military duty.

I’ve wondered how I would have dealt with the situation. I think I would have gone to college and stayed there as long as possible. Maybe when that option ran out I’d have been faced with the dilemma described by Tim O’Brien in The Things They Carried. O’Brien, drafted just after graduating from college, seriously considered fleeing to Canada. He described his reasons for considering this in a way that speaks to me much more than the reasons that showed up on signs at antiwar rallies. Protesters of draft age saying that they didn’t want to kill, especially in the name of an illegal and immoral war, were fine, but when I imagine myself holding a draft notice I don’t imagine having room for such selfless thoughts. I imagine thinking what O’Brien thought: I don’t wanna fuckin' die.

In the end, he didn’t flee to Canada because he couldn’t face down the specter of going against his family and his town and America. America was too much to turn his back on. America was every memory he ever had. It was a kid in a Lone Ranger mask, a kid at a high school prom, a kid turning a double-play. It was everything. How are you supposed to turn your back on everything?

"I was a coward," he writes. "I went to the war." 

I watched Stripes after watching Full Metal Jacket, the last in a long series of Vietnam War movies I rented from the video store over the past few weeks. Oddly enough, the two movies—one a relaxed, thoroughly enjoyable comedy where no one gets hurt and everyone gets laid (or at least gets to ogle some good old fashioned early ’80s casual toplessness), the other a chilling portrait of war delivered with director Stanley Kubrick’s signature agoraphobic intensity—can be seen as two sides of the same coin.

Both are cut into two parts, a boot camp part and a combat part. Both are somewhat renowned for being clearly stronger in the first part. Both first parts have a dramatic tension at their centers that is missing in their second halves and that derives from the conflict between the main character, in both cases an unusually sophisticated wiseass, and the drill sergeant, played in Stripes by the great Warren Oates and in Full Metal Jacket by Vietnam veteran R. Lee Ermey.

Even certain key details contribute to the mirroring of one movie to the other. The first acts of both begin with the shearing off of the recruits’ hair (though Stripes precedes the scene with an amusing, typically languorous prologue in which Bill Murray’s character loses his job, his car, his apartment, and his girlfriend). Both wiseasses get punched in the stomach by their drill sergeants. Both movies end with the sound of soldiers chanting a popular song as they march: Manfred Mann’s "Doo Wa Diddy Diddy" in Stripes accompanies the platoon’s implied progress toward further bloodless boys-will-be-boys hijinx, and the theme to the Mickey Mouse Club in Full Metal Jacket provides the ironic backbeat for not only the continued advancement through the lurid fog of the savage and savaged Vietnam War soldiers but for an entire war-addicted empire.

The comedy ends with the gimmick of phony newspaper and magazine covers spinning into focus to suggest the immediate destinies of the primary characters, and the final cover, a Newsweek-type magazine featuring Bill Murray’s character, includes a subheading in the form of a question—"Can America survive?"—that both movies attempt to answer, the comedy with a wink and a Bill Murrayesque ironico-sincere Hell, yeah! yodel, the drama with the implication that America will endure but that being born in America will come more and more to mean being born to kill.

From my recent crash course on the subject, I have found that you generally don’t see much of the Vietnamese in the American cinematic re-imaginings of the Vietnam War. In Apocalypse Now you see some villagers from above getting gunned down by helicopter machine guns, then some deranged tribespeople who have adopted an insane American Colonel as their god. In Platoon you see shadowy figures with branches in their helmets, killing and getting killed, and you see villagers suffering the effects of a prolonged scene that evokes the spirit, if not all the excesses, of the My Lai massacre. In Full Metal Jacket you see a thief, a pimp, two prostitutes, and a sniper. In The Deer Hunter you see vicious captors forcing American POWs to play Russian roulette. Coming Home comes closest of all the major Vietnam War movies to eliminating the Vietnamese altogether, the only echo of a Vietnamese person the brief and disturbing appearance of a pointy-hatted "Oriental" ventriloquist dummy brandished by Willie Tyler.

According to sociologist (and Vietnam veteran) Jerry Lembcke, the message and success of the latter movie, which came out in 1978, provided a turning point in how America came to view the Vietnam War. Lembcke writes in his 1998 book The Spitting Image that "probably more effectively than any other film, Coming Home revised history so that the American people, and even many Vietnam veterans, remember the war as a coming home story." The sprawling painful reality of the war shrunk to a tangible myth in Coming Home, Lembcke says, and that myth-making, along with the fact that, as he puts it, "the mid-1970s was a period for forgetting about the war" began to edit out some vitally important facets of the Vietnam War experience. "The reality of the war faded," Lembcke concludes.

One of the elements edited out was the carnage rained down upon the people of Vietnam. The numbers are staggering: Three to four million Vietnamese killed. Actually they are unfathomable. In all my recent reading the image from beyond the edited myth of the Vietnam War that affected me most had nothing explicitly to do with those numbers. It is from a recollection of Jim Soular in Christian Appy’s book Patriots. Soular, who was a flight engineer on the gigantic Chinook helicopters during the war, participated in the forced evacuations that preceded the dubbing of a region a "free-fire zone" (which basically meant that anything that moved within that zone was the enemy and should be obliterated):

I never flew refugees back in. It was always out. Quite often they would find their own way back into those free-fire zones. We didn’t understand that their ancestors were buried there, that it was very important to their culture and religion to be with their ancestors. They didn’t understand what the hell was going on and had no say in what was happening. I could see the terror in their faces. They were defecating and urinating and completely freaked out. It was horrible. After we unloaded the people the helicopter stunk so bad we could hardly stand it. After we hosed it down we sprinkled bottles of aftershave all the way down the length of the chopper.

The other key element that has been edited out of the popular conception of the Vietnam War experience is the antiwar movement. Jerry Lembcke asserts that this elision took a significant step in Coming Home, aided by images of drug-addled hippies protesting soldiers as they returned from the war. He points out that there is no evidence that such a protest ever occurred (on the contrary, protesters did try to stop buses carrying inductees toward the war), and according to some accounts the antiwar protesters were often the first to reach out to Vietnam veterans. Furthermore, there was a much more widespread alliance between antiwar protesters and veterans than has been presented in the prevailing cinematic myths of the Vietnam War. As one soldier quoted in a 1969 Life magazine article put it, "I think the protesters may be the only ones who really give a damn about what’s happening."

Awareness of that connection was all but obliterated by the 1980s. In many ways, the definitive movie myth of that decade was ostensibly about the Vietnam War experience, the gentler aspects of the previous decade's coming home story stripped away. Now it’s no longer about, as in Coming Home, paralyzed Vietnam veteran Jon Voigt rediscovering his lost humanity. Now it’s about kicking ass and taking names. Now it’s about Rambo. And the only mention of antiwar protesters by Sylvester Stallone’s steroidal Vietnam veteran is a blast of vitriol blaming them for America’s defeat and vilifying them for mistreating veterans on their return to America. "Somebody wouldn’t let us win," Rambo mutters at the end of First Blood. "Then I come back to the world and I see all those maggots at the airport. Protesting me. Spitting. Calling me baby killer, and all kinds of vile crap."

With this widely seen accusation of protesters as being stridently opposed to the soldiers, and not the war (an accusation that Jerry Lembcke discovers has no actual backing evidence), the demonization of the antiwar protesters is complete. This demonization, it should be noted, began during the war in the highest reaches of the federal government, with Vice President Spiro Agnew characterizing protesters as "hardcore dissidents and professional anarchists" and accusing them of "demoralizing American soldiers." President Nixon got into the act most notably after his widely unpopular invasion of Cambodia expanded the scope of the Vietnam War, calling antiwar protesters "bums."

This line of thinking was picked up at the State level, with one governor, a former B-movie actor named Ronald Reagan (who would later, as President, earn the nickname "Ronbo") claiming that "some Americans will die tonight because of the activity [protests] in our streets." In Ohio, Governor James Rhodes called the Kent State students congregating to protest the Cambodian invasion "worse than the [Nazi] brownshirts and the Communist element and the night riders and the vigilantes. They are the worst type of people that we harbor in America." Soon after this characterization, Ohio National Guardsmen fired their rifles at Kent State college students, killing four and wounding nine others.

Many years later, as America finally toed the waters of war once again in the 1990s with Operation Desert Storm, awareness of the origins of the demonization of antiwar protesters was virtually nonexistent; conversely, awareness of the myth of antiwar protesters as demons was high. According to Paul Loeb in his book Generations at the Crossroads, students in college during Desert Storm shied away from taking a stance against the war because they were swallowing the myths about protesters of the Vietnam War as facts: "At every kind of college, in every corner of the country, the slightest mention of antiwar activism of that time would impel them . . . to describe how peace marchers spat on soldiers, called them names, and drove to bases and airports with the sole purpose of heaping contempt on the already scarred young men as they returned." By the 1990s to speak out against the war was to speak out against those sent to fight the war. It was to become, as Rambo might put it, a maggot. 


Naturally, the common people don’t want war, but after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. This is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in every country.

I found the above quote in John Crawford’s book The Last True Story I’ll Ever Tell. Crawford was a National Guardsman who served in the infantry during the Iraq War. The quote is from a statement at the Nuremberg Trials by Hitler’s second-in-command, Hermann Goering.

"People say you leave home, go to war, and become a man. I want to be a little boy again." – John Crawford

When I was a little boy there was a girl in my class who claimed to be from Mars. She signed her name everywhere: "Beth from Mars." It was odd, but it wasn’t completely beyond the pale in those days. In the late 1970s, America wasn’t quite all there. It was mired in recession, trying to forget a war. It was neither home nor away. It’s no accident that the biggest movie of that era began with the words "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away." Who wanted to be in the here and now? Who wanted to inhabit the realm of the defeated? Sometimes people were from Mars. Sometimes people were from Ork. Sometimes people were from Lovetron. Sometimes people were just from outer space. 

Bill Lee, known in those days as Spaceman, did odd things and said odd things. His unorthodox behavior ultimately got him banished from my favorite team and from, as it happened, the USA. Then it got him banished from major league baseball altogether.

He proceeded to continue playing baseball all over the world. He plays to this day, ignoring borders, ignoring concepts of home and away. Baseball is his home, his eternal childhood. As he puts it in his first book, The Wrong Stuff, "Like Peter Pan, I’ll never stop enjoying my games."

He loves baseball as much as any little boy. He even believes baseball can be the America of our dreams, the America as a child would imagine it, a game without borders or wars. As something to believe in, you could do much worse. 

"If we start playing [baseball] in Afghanistan and Syria and Iraq," Lee said in a 2005 interview, "we will have world peace."

Bill Campbell
2008-02-10 15:40
by Josh Wilker

Born in the USA

(continued from Steve Garvey)

Chapter Six

I know it's un-American, but I'm going to have to admit defeat here. I spent several hours on Friday trying and failing to finish this series. I spent several hours on Saturday trying and failing to finish this series. I spent several hours today trying and failing to finish this series. Now I say fuck it. I mean who am I, fucking Bertrand Russell? Jesus Christ, I’m just some sheltered douchebag with an unhealthy connection to his childhood baseball cards who read a few books about Vietnam and rented a few movies about Vietnam and then went to great lengths to disguise an ever-deepening confusion about what it means to be born in the USA. I’m going to turn 40 in a few weeks and I’m a childless solitary with a low-paying cubicle job and the social life of a chunk of concrete and possibly a fledgling case of agoraphobia. I’ve spent my whole life dreaming. A few years ago I wore a small American flag pin on my jacket for a few months, but I let other poor fuckers kill and get shot at and get their limbs blown off and meanwhile I denounce war as if I never had anything to do with it and I shove food in my face and I watch my large television and I burn my fossil fuels and I take giant American dumps while reading about baseball in books crumbling from needy overuse.

During one of my shits I read that Bill Campbell was the first official free agent, the first of the sanctioned deluge that followed the pioneering forays of Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally. The card here was created just after that historic signing, as you can see by the crudely doctored Boston Red Sox cap and the uniform shirt that is clearly still that of Campbell’s previous team, the Minnesota Twins.

From my haphazard research I also know that Bill Campbell was one of hundreds of thousands of young American men sent to fight the Vietnam War. Over 58,000 of these Americans died. An additional 300,000 were wounded. Bill Campbell probably seemed to most to have come back unscathed.

"You’re not used to seeing people blown up," he was quoted as saying in a 1999 article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "You’re not used to seeing body bags. When you see it a lot, it changes you. I remember I’d been back about a month when I drove by a horrendous car wreck. It had just happened. A couple people had been thrown out on the street and one guy was just laid open. I looked at it like it was nothing."

I don’t know what else to say about that, or about anything. I know Bill Campbell was a vital member of the 1977 Red Sox, my favorite team of all-time with the possible exception of the boys who finally won it all in 2004. But that latter team was not part of my childhood, and the 1977 team was, and the 1977 team seemed to make every game into an Ali-Frazier slugfest, surging to leads, losing them, making thunderous comebacks, imploding, rising from the ashes, maybe hanging on for dear life, maybe not. Their all-star-studded lineup was so potent their number nine hitter, Butch Hobson, drove in over a hundred runs. But they had very little pitching, except for Bill Campbell, who that year chugged in from the bullpen again and again during catastrophes and found a way to hold back the marauding infidels wearing the uniform of the enemy.

That year was my first in little league. When the season was over we held onto our uniforms so we could march in the Fourth of July parade. We marched as a team through town, other teams in front of us and behind us. My brother marched up front, he and another of the bigger kids holding the sign that said the name of our team. People gripping American flags in their fists cheered as we went by. The parade ended at the little league field, where the whole town ate chicken barbecued by the local rotarians and watched the little league all-star game. A few years later, my last in little league, I played in the all-star game myself, going 0 for 1 (flyout to center) and playing a couple innings in right field, where I threw out a guy trying to stretch a single into a double. Just before the game I'd shaken the hand of the governor of Vermont, Richard Snelling, who was making the Fourth of July rounds. I remember wondering if he saw my outfield assist. That evening everyone gathered in a field on the outskirts of town and watched the volunteer fire department shoot fireworks into the night. It was 1980, one war safely buried, doctored out of sight, the next still a couple decades away. Bright explosions bloomed in the sky. Everyone oohed and aahed. Me, too. I loved it. I fucking loved every minute of it.

(go to epilogue)

Steve Garvey
2008-02-06 15:18
by Josh Wilker

Born in the USA

(continued from Tom Seaver)

Chapter Five

"In the immediate aftermath of the war, the nation experienced a self-conscious, collective amnesia." – George C. Herring, America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam (1979)

In late March 1975, a CIA operative named Frank Snepp made a report to his superior in Saigon, U.S. Ambassador Graham Martin. Martin had been appointed to his post because of his reputation as a hard-liner who would never admit defeat. Snepp told Martin that he had just witnessed, from a plane window, thousands of South Vietnamese soldiers in abject retreat from the advancing North Vietnamese Army, shedding their guns and uniforms and racing into the sea.

The implication was clear to Snepp. It was way too late for heroes or happy endings. Saigon was fucked.

"I don’t believe you," Graham Martin said.

"He had drifted," Snepp recalled in Christian Appy’s 2003 book, Patriots, "into a complete dream world."

A couple weeks before the fall of Saigon, Sports Illustrated featured a picture of a handsome clean-cut man on the cover. The year before, as the American President was being forced from office for criminally subverting democracy, the handsome clean-cut man had become the first baseball player voted onto the all-star team as a write-in candidate. Democracy is dead. Long live democracy!

"Steve Garvey: Proud to be a hero," the cover caption read.

The magazine was surely still on coffee tables and in waiting rooms when the most desperate images of the fall of Saigon reached home. These images—people crowding rooftops, awaiting rescue that would never come—found an awful echo on American soil, across the East River from me, some twenty-six years later.

Look away. Keep dreaming. Look away.

When I was a kid I used these baseball cards to dream myself into the True America, the one I believed existed somewhere far away. A True American was happy and painless. A True American was clean-cut and handsome. A True American looked you right in the eye, no sarcasm or fear or complicated feelings. No weird hippie food or long hair or unusual family configurations or night terrors or secrets. A True American stood proud and tall. He didn’t skulk through his own town like an outsider when he needed to go buy more baseball cards. A True American played every game and collected two hundred hits every year and a hundred RBI every year and was elected to the all-star team every year and wore red, white, and blue and was proud and was a hero.

Denis Johnson’s 2007 Vietnam War novel Tree of Smoke has no central character, no hero. The titular term comes up at various times in the narrative, first as an apocalyptic biblical reference from the Book of Joel ("there shall be blood and fire and palm trees of smoke"), later as the name for a shadowy rogue operation dreamed up by a CIA operative named Colonel Sands. The Colonel, a charismatic, domineering personality and hero of an earlier heroic American war, is out of sight for most of the novel, his general absence heightening the sense that the world of the novel is one without a center or the hope of some kind of redemptive heroism.

In one of his rare appearances, the Colonel gives a pep talk to some soldiers that may or may not be under his leadership, this characteristic ambiguity mentioned at the beginning of his speech when he says, "I do confer with your lieutenant; I don’t pass orders to him. But I do direct our operations in a general sense."

He goes on to give a long speech about the 1966 football game between Notre Dame and Michigan State, the so-called "Game of the Century" that ended in a tie when Notre Dame elected to run out the clock instead of trying to go for the win. The point, which eludes the interest of the soldiers, those pioneers of a post-heroic world, is that they shouldn’t leave the enemy battlefield without a victory.

"We will win this war," the Colonel assures no one.

Steve Garvey was drafted by the Minnesota Twins in 1966 but elected to go play baseball and football at Michigan State instead. Freshman were not eligible to play on the varsity in those days, but it seems likely that Steve Garvey was very near the mythic action in the Game of the Century. It would seem likely even if he hadn’t been a budding football star at the university that hosted the game. When I was using these baseball cards to dream myself into the True America, Steve Garvey seemed, more than anyone else, as if he had sprung straight out of myth, as if he hadn’t been born and raised somewhere but instead had gradually come into focus, going from an indistinct figure on the misty margins of older myths of glory to a distinct and gleaming hero in the bright summer sun.

Five years and one day ago, February 5, 2003, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell spoke at the United Nations, attempting to strong-arm support for a U.S. invasion of Iraq. The wall behind him held a tapestry version of Pablo Picasso’s famous depiction of the horror of war, Guernica. The work has no central character, no hero, just the wide howl of a living world torn by bombs. But as Colin Powell used the fictions of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and ties to al-Qaida to justify war, none of Guernica was visible behind him. A blue curtain had been hung to hide the tapestry from view. A few weeks later, bombs started falling far away.

Here are two versions of history. Both could be said to follow the logic of dreams.

Version one: Steve Garvey did not go to Vietnam because he was a star. He had been a star in college and he was drafted in the first round by the Dodgers and one year later he made his debut in the major leagues, and once you were in the major leagues there was no more Vietnam. The year he made his debut, 1969, he played in spring training alongside a struggling minor leaguer named Roy Gleason. Gleason had played briefly for the Dodgers in 1963, doubling in his only at-bat, then in 1967 after failing to further distinguish himself in the minors he was drafted into the army, the only man to serve in Vietnam after logging so much as a single moment in the major leagues. He was sent home on a stretcher, wounded with shrapnel from a blast that killed the man standing beside him, his friend Tony Silvo. He left behind in Vietnam some personal effects, including his 1963 World Series ring.

Version two: Steve Garvey did not go to Vietnam because there was no such thing as Vietnam. Look at the card at the top of this page and tell me there was such a thing as Vietnam. Look at that card at the top of the page and tell me there was a place somewhere full of contradictions and ambiguity and needless suffering. Tell me there was a place where America has been defeated. Tell me there was a place that replaced our innocence with the knowledge that we were capable of unspeakable cruelties, that mutilated or killed our young men, that even stole one of our 1963 World Series rings. If you tell me there was a Vietnam I'll tell you I don’t believe you.

Some years after I first used this card to dream myself into the dream of America, Steve Garvey left the team with the red, white, and blue uniform. The jarring sight of him in nauseous brown and yellow foreshadowed the coming disillusionment that he was at least as complicated and fallible as anyone else. And the devaluing of the myth of Steve Garvey that accompanied revelations that he, as Bill James put it, "couldn’t keep his underpants off the infield" was followed by a gradual devaluing of his accomplishments on the field, former reverence for his ability to collect hits and RBI replaced by notice of his inability to get on base as often or hit for power as effectively as many of his lesser known peers. History has hollowed Steve Garvey.

The again, history says that Ford and then Carter led this country after Nixon’s resignation. But if a whole country is dreaming, couldn’t it be said that the figure nearest the center of that dream is the leader? Couldn’t you make a case that in the amnesiac years where Vietnam ceased to exist, those years between the faraway intimations of defeat and the coming of the supreme amnesiac American Dreamer, Ronald Reagan, Steve Garvey minded the store? Couldn’t you make a case that Steve Garvey, the people’s choice, the write-in candidate, the proud hero, was the leader of America Dreaming?


Tom Seaver
2008-02-04 14:41
by Josh Wilker

Born in the USA 

(continued from Al Bumbry)

Chapter Four

Baseball came to a halt for a while. Xeroxed fliers with pictures of the missing blossomed on walls all over the city. Obituaries began appearing in the newspaper. Eventually the fliers withered, feeding the next bloom, the glittering fungal explosion of flags.

A metal flag pin the size of a thumbnail came into my possession. I don’t remember how. They were everywhere, these flags. Baseball returned, festooned in flags. In the seventh inning everyone in attendance now rose to sing "God Bless America." I wasn’t sleeping much. "Last night there was a loud noise that woke me," I wrote in my journal on September 18. "I guess it was a slow-moving tractor trailer, but at first, coming out of sleep, all I could think was bomb, shockwave, death on the way." I’d never before worn a pin of any kind, but right around then I started wearing the little metal flag on the heart-side pocket of my jacket.

Baseball and war have almost always marched in lockstep. According to Hall of Fame baseball pioneer Albert Spalding, who learned the game from veterans returning from the Civil War, baseball took root as America’s national game during "the bloody days of our Nation’s direst danger . . . when soldiers, North and South, [strove] to forget their foes by cultivating, through this grand game, fraternal friendship with comrades in arms." During World War I major league teams spent part of each day performing military drills, and several players went into the armed forces, including two of the greatest pitchers of all time, Christy Mathewson and Grover Cleveland Alexander, who both sustained serious injuries during the war. In World War II, major league rosters emptied of anyone determined to be physically able to serve, some of the players spending the war on morale-boosting service baseball teams while others, such as eventual Hall of Famers Bob Feller and Hank Greenberg, won medals for their service and bravery during combat.

The man shown in the 1977 card above enlisted in the Marines in the early 1960s, before his ability to throw a baseball had gained widespread renown. His time in the service predated heavy U.S. involvement in Vietnam. After the Marines he pitched for Fresno City College, then for the Alaska Goldpanners, then for the University of Southern California. By the year I was born, that bloody divisive year of 1968, Tom Seaver had established himself as one of the best young pitchers in all of baseball.

I don’t remember much about the lead-up to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. I just checked my journal from that time and found that I stopped writing about life as I was living it, instead making attempts to disappear into the creation of a fictional world based on my life as a child in the 1970s. I remember wondering if the fiction I was writing had any worth at all. This doubt went beyond my usual doubt about my work, went beyond questions of whether it was good enough. I could look out my window in Williamsburg and see the black smoke rising across the river. How could my stupid little story speak to that?

"I have to go to work now," I wrote in my journal on September 19, abandoning that day’s stab at fiction to speak directly about the world around me for what would be the last time for a long time. "The rubble at the World Trade Center is still smoking. The corpses and pieces of corpses must be charred, black, ashes. I work at a book store. The book store will be closing soon. . . . Nothing is certain. This is why I’m writing about the people I love and the life I’ve seen."

That’s what I told myself anyway. But I think in retrospect it was also a question of trying to find a safe haven. In some ways it was the strangest fiction project I’d ever undertaken, because what I ended up doing was trying to rewrite from scratch a story that I’d already written several years before, the first short story I’d ever been at least temporarily happy with. It was a story about my brother and me visiting my father in New York City during the blackout of 1977. I’d written it in the early 1990s, and then in the fall of 2001 I wrote it again, going to the notebook each day to disappear into the citywide calamity that had never felt dangerous. It had felt, on the contrary, as if we were part of an us, connected to the rest of the people in the city, and more than that it had felt as if the three of us, my brother, my father, and me, were connected as never before. We were all in it together. We were safe.

Imperfections feed perfection. Take the slight imbalance of the card at the top of this page, the right border thinner than the left. This imperfection feeds the impression of coiled energy created by the photo of the pitcher in mid-windup. The lopsided bordering makes it seem the whole world is one slim moment away from catapulting with perfect graceful ferocity forward. Or take the dirt on the knee, the only smudge on the otherwise immaculate uniform. This imperfection further foreshadows the likely perfection of the pitch, Seaver famous for getting his body so low while unleashing his blazing offerings that his right knee scraped the ground. Or take the dulled corners of the card. This imperfection speaks of the card as an active part of a boy’s life, a much-used talisman, and it speaks also of the back of the card, of fingers constantly turning the card from one side to the other, from photo of perfect crackling poise to table of perfect statistics.

And on the back the only imperfection is one that comes from the overlay of history. Looking at the back of the card, seeing the unbroken string of years with one team, no team in baseball history ever as associated with a single player as much as the Mets and Tom Seaver, there is the knowledge that Tom Seaver will soon be traded. It will happen in the middle of this very season, just a month before the blackout, the back-of-the-card perfection forever marred. But it hasn't happened yet. On this card there is only one season after another of excellence. The brief line of text below the statistics highlights the most perfect of all the columns: "Tom extended his all-time mark in 1976 by topping 200 K’s 9th straight season."

He’d been striking out 200 men every year that I’d been alive. In 1977, the year I would later try to escape to as an adult, I looked at this card and followed the perfect line of 200s up and back through the years, each year festooned with other spectacular numbers, stellar ERAs, admirable won-loss records. But none were better than his second year, 1969, the year Tom Seaver and the team he will forever be associated with blossomed into the miraculous.

We went to war. I had my flag pin on. I’d never supported a war before, had never really seen the reasons behind the various U.S. hostilities in my adult lifetime. But if I remember correctly my feelings as we moved toward an invasion of Afghanistan were that we were an Us who had been attacked by a Them, a Them that wanted anyone born in the USA dead, and the Them was hiding in caves in Afghanistan. The newspapers I read kept bringing me pictures of the dead. Could have been a loved one. Could have been me. It scared and angered me. Go ahead, I thought. Blow them and their infantile virgin-glutted paradise to dust.

"If the Mets can win the World Series, the United States can get out of Vietnam." – Tom Seaver, 1969

On October 15, 1969, protesters in cities all across the country staged the largest antiwar protest in the history of the United States. That same day, Tom Seaver took the mound at Shea Stadium in Game 4 of the World Series against a mighty Baltimore Orioles team. An Oriole win would even the series and ensure that it return to Baltimore. Seaver gutted out a 10-inning 2-1 win, putting the Mets on the brink of perhaps the most improbable World Series championship in the history of baseball.

A month later, my mother went to a peace march in Washington, D.C., that topped the October march for participation and impact. The message was starting to get across. The Nixon administration had already begun trying to portray antiwar protesters as dangerous radicals, but it was beginning to be clear that it was more than that. Many Americans were starting to wonder why we had gotten so deep into a war that didn’t seem to make any sense. Housewives from New Jersey were wondering. Tom Seaver was wondering. As far as I can tell, it was the first time the U.S. pastime of baseball ever stepped out of cadence with the U.S. pastime of war.

I tried to go to an antiwar rally, my first, as the Bush administration pushed the United States into a war against Iraq. I’d stopped wearing my little flag pin by then. I'd grown weary of the seventh inning singing of "God Bless America." Or maybe wary is a better word than weary. Now the flags and the song seemed less a way of asserting that We were a We and more a way of stomping out any dissenting opinions while bulldozing toward a new era of war. An invasion of Iraq didn’t seem to make any sense except as a way for rich oilmen to grab oil fields. The people who had attacked us didn’t have any connection with Iraq.

I went to the rally with my mom but we got separated in the crowd somehow. There were cops everywhere and the protesters had been shuttled into a relatively tiny area. The rationale for the treatment of protesters as if they were dangerous had been that it was for "security." There was a menacing feel to the day. Cops in riot helmets, gripping nightsticks, younger protesters getting impatient, knocking over the blue barriers that had turned the city into an asphyxiating maze. I got out of there before hearing any speeches. Fuck it. The war began anyway. Baseball continued. The war continued. I dissolved into one, tried to ignore the other. God bless America. Land that I love.

"On the ground were two blood-soaked Iraqi men," former Iraq War combatant John Crawford writes in his 2005 book The Last True Story I’ll Ever Tell. "Both were on their faces with their hands tied behind their backs. The skinnier one was crying, and with the nudge of the foot someone tried to shut him up. ‘There’s no crying in baseball.’ 

"We all giggled a little at that."


Al Bumbry
2008-02-01 11:39
by Josh Wilker

Born in the USA

(continued from Bob Jones)

Chapter Three

"The Iraq thing has the feel of a potential quagmire where we just get deeper and deeper and deeper involved, and when that happens it’s harder and harder and harder to get out. There’s also the similarity with the difficulty in finding the enemy. In Vietnam, we couldn’t find the V.C., they were blended in with the population, and we’re having the same problem in Iraq . . ." –Tim O’Brien, author, from a 2003 interview

Today in Iraq two severely retarded women were outfitted with remote control explosive devices and sent into a popular outdoor market where animals are sold. According to an AP report by Kim Gamel, the blasts killed at least seventy-three people. Many others were wounded. Many others saw things they will probably never leave behind.

"I just remember the horrible scene of the bodies of dead and wounded people mixed with the blood of animals and birds," said a market vendor named Ali Ahmed. "Then I found myself lying in a hospital bed."

In his classic work of Vietnam War literature, The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien, who served in Vietnam in 1969 and 1970, describes a memory so vivid it had the power to rip him out of sleep twenty years later. In the memory that O’Brien can never leave behind, a mine has just blasted a member of his platoon into a tree.

"The parts were just hanging there," he writes, "so Dave Jensen and I were ordered to shinny up and peel him off. I remember the white bone of an arm. I remember pieces of skin and something wet and yellow that must’ve been the intestines."

"It was indelible," recalls another person who was in Vietnam in those years, a North Vietnamese child named Tran Luong who witnessed the aftermath of the 1972 Christmas bombings of Hanoi. The aerial attack, which came just after the United States promised to withdraw its forces from South Vietnam, killed 2,196 civilians.

"The morning after the bombing, I went to Kham Thien Street with some older children," Tran recalls in Christian Appy’s oral history of the Vietnam War, Patriots. "I saw pieces of hair and scalp hanging on trees."

Al Bumbry was a platoon leader in Vietnam in 1969 and 1970. He won the Bronze Star, which is given to soldiers for "heroic or meritorious achievement or service," then he came home and made significant contributions as a speedy slap-hitting outfielder for the excellent Orioles teams of the 1970s and early 1980s.

He is shown here in the middle of that career, his hunched stance and his facial expression creating the impression of a man guarding private hurt. An earlier Bumbry card in my collection, from 1975, shows on the back his minor league years and the interruption in those years signified by the statement "In Military Service." But on the back of this 1977 card there are only his major league statistics. It’s as if enough time has passed for certain more complicated elements of the past to have faded, the gap in the soothing progression of numbers gone, the wound healed. I don't know if Al Bumbry believed in that kind of anesthetic forgetting. But the country he’d returned to seemed to believe in it. There were no victory celebrations. There were no parades. There was just a general desire to forget the whole thing ever happened.

So what was the weather like in Iraq today? It's not usually something I concern myself with, preferring to fill my head with baseball, but information about the weather came out in the AP story about the homicide bombing mentioned above, probably because it correlates to the body count.

"It was nice weather today," reports the hospitalized market vendor Ali Ahmed, "and the market was so crowded."

It was nice weather on a certain day a few years ago. I was living in Williamsburg, a Brooklyn neighborhood just across the East River from Manhattan. I got up early to beat the crowd at a nearby laundromat. It was a tiny place, and if you didn’t get there early the whole day was shot battling hipsters and middle-aged Dominican women for a free drier. I wrote in my journal a couple days later about what happened next:

I was folding laundry at the laundromat on Bedford Avenue when a man came in and said the World Trade Center was hit by an airplane. He was a loud black man with a slight boozy chuckle and blurriness in his voice, so my first thought was that he was a street person and crazy. The Asian man who owns the laundromat turned on the television and the World Trade Center was burning, smoke pouring out a black gash near the top. I thought: accident. The adjacent tower exploded a few minutes later. I did not see an airplane flying into it and thought somehow the first building produced an explosion in the second. The television screen went blank. The Asian man tried to fix the television. I finished folding my laundry. . . .

All of us in New York have been breathing in dust and smoke and dead bodies for three days. I worked at the book store yesterday and had arguments with three coworkers, then late in my shift Abby called to tell me they were evacuating midtown. They were telling people to run toward the river. I thought: nuclear bomb. I am afraid of dying. The evacuation turned out to be based on a hoax, but for a few minutes I was waiting for the flash. I stole some post cards from the store that had the World Trade Centers on them. I went to Queens after work to see Abby and I was shaky and hollow and scared. I wanted to fuck but we were breathing in dead bodies then I didn’t want to fuck anymore.

I finally put away my clean laundry yesterday. The folded shirts and balled-up socks. I vacuumed the rug. I swept the kitchen floor.

A couple days later I met up with my brother in Manhattan. We went to a bar on Seventh Avenue and Nineteenth Street, the Peter McManus Cafe. There were a lot of off-duty firefighters and other rescue workers there, guys who’d been told, maybe even forced, to take a breather. One of the guys was next to us at the bar and something in him had snapped. He was a big guy and very strong and he kept grabbing onto us, clawing at us. He told us he’d served in Vietnam, special forces, and his training had gotten him onto a list of people called in to help with the rescue attempts at Ground Zero.

"I just can’t do it no more," he said. "I can’t pull out no more bodies. When’s it gonna end?"

He kept repeating versions of these statements. Grabbing us, clawing us. He also said all the bodies he was pulling out were women. And a couple of times he said, "I’m back."

I'm back. 

It’s OK, we kept trying to tell him. It’s OK, it’s OK. It’s over. But he was inconsolable. He was trapped pulling out bodies of dead women from the rubble. He had been in Vietnam. He was back.

"When’s it gonna end?" he kept saying.

(to be continued)