Archive for March, 2015

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  • March 30th, 2015

The Snow Leopard

By Joel M. Vance

I spent my childhood Saturdays at the Museum of Natural History. My friends were numbing their minds at the Southtown Theater, watching Zorro defy El Lobo, but I was prowling the echoing halls of the museum.
The museum fed a spark of wildness in me. I was a city kid in reality, insulated from nature by miles of concrete, but I was a 10-year-old mountain man in my imagination.
I loved the old museum with its clacking marble halls, its musty mummies! I knew them all. There was a mummy that you could X-ray. Push a button and, magically, the funereal windings vanished and ancient bones glowed starkly in a black crypt.
It was an era of atomic innocence. God knows how many roentgens I soaked up watching that Middle Eastern corpse reveal its skeletal secrets.
Halls of pure magic gloomed in every direction. I marveled at the monstrous knucklebones of Tyrannosaurus rex, an 18-foot-tall horror
peering down at me with a bony grin.
Neanderthal man glowered from a diorama. I glanced furtively at his bare-bosomed mate. She was not exactly Miss America, but pre-pubescent kids take their cheap thrills where they can get them.
But it was the animals that tugged me to them. I took art lessons and wanted to capture them on paper. I felt the onetime wildness in those musty creatures that triggered deep sympathetic vibrations in me. I pestered my parents for sketch pads, water colors, oils, anything. And I camped in the darkened halls sitting cross- legged to sketch elands on the African veldt, a cougar frozen in mid-swipe at a pesky Arizona hound, a mighty Alaskan brown bear at awesome attention.
One animal pulled me to it again and again, a Himalayan snow leopard. The mount had begun to go yellow and gray with time, but the taxidermist somehow had caught a remote fire in the glass eyes. “High in the Himalayas,” the placard read, “the snow leopard prowls with regal grace. He owns this lofty domain and bows to no other animal, including man, of whom he has little knowledge and no fear.”
There certainly was no fear evident in the sleek cat who stared at me through the rippled glass. He was posed walking away, three-quarter view, his head turned to look back along the line of his pawprints, which began at the glass. Distant mountains mourned under veils of falling snow. Snow crystals glittered under the leopard’s paws If there was anything to reincarnation, I wanted to return as a snow leopard. But I couldn’t capture the essence of the creature in my drawings. They looked like a cartoon cat, Tom of the Himalayas.
Every Saturday I stuck my drawing pad under my arm, bought my ticket downtown, and rode the rattling train to the museum stop. Each time I tried to draw the leopard and each time I tore the sketch up in disgust.
One day I was in deep concentration, trying to catch the line of the jaw as the animal looked back at me. This is my country, the smoldering eyes said. I live here in the lofty snowfields and you are an intruder.
“That’s pretty good, kid.” I jumped, startled. I hadn’t been aware anyone but me was in the hall. There was a soldier standing near me, nearly obscured by the gloom. His face and uniform were sidelighted by the diorama. He leaned on a crutch with an empty trouser leg pinned up.
“No, it isn’t,” I said. “I can’t make him look right. There’s
something I can’t catch.”
“He’s special, isn’t he,” the soldier said. “He owns that cold place, you know.”
I looked at him, startled. It was exactly the way I thought of the leopard and I nodded, eager because someone else shared my perception. “It’s like he’s trying to say something,” I said, then was embarrassed.
“That’s what I used to think when I was your age,” he said. “I’d come down here every Saturday and dream away the day and I used to think this old cat was talking to me.”
“Me too!” I exclaimed. “I’ve been trying to draw him for a long time.”
“I just liked to look at him and dream about the future,” the soldier said. “I always wound up here with that cat.” We were silent for a long time. It was not an uneasy silence. He understood the lure of the leopard.
“What do you think he’s trying to say?” the soldier asked.
“Gee, I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe that it’s his secret place and we ought to go away and let him have it.” I thought about it. “Or maybe that he wants us to follow him to his secret place–that’s why he’s looking back, like he’s waiting for us to catch up.”
I stopped. It was more than I ever said to adults and I was confused. The soldier barked a short laugh, without humor. I was hurt. I thought he was laughing at me.
He saw it and put a hand on my shoulder. “Hey, no! I’m not making fun of you. It’s just that I used to think he was asking me to come with him, too, just like you. The way he’s looking over his shoulder like he wants us to follow him.”
He made a clicking noise with his mouth. “Kind of nuts, huh?”
He took a deep breath. “When I was your age, I knew I was gonna grow up and go to the mountains and climb up where that leopard lives and see him. It was more than just a kid dream. I really believed it. Just like you believe you can draw him.”
He was silent and I didn’t say anything.
“I wanted it more than anything,” he said. “It’s still a dream, I guess. But that’s all it is now.” He shifted a bit on his crutches.
I didn’t know what to say. We looked at the diorama and the snow leopard looked back at us. The unbroken snowfield shimmered into the distance. The leopard’s coat was frosted with the fresh-fallen ice
particles and glittered in the diffused light.
I looked into its golden eyes and delicious terror startled me. I felt the chill fire of the high mountains and the hot predatory glow of the lithe cat. For an instant, I was the cat, content with my sleek power, the urge to kill always present, but always controlled.
Then the fire faded from the cat’s eyes and it once again was only a moldy stuffed animal in a museum display. I took a shuddery breath and licked my dry lips.
I remembered the soldier and looked at him. There were tears on his face, glistening streaks highlighted by the light from the diorama. The tears webbed the lines on his face with silver.
He sighed and rubbed at his face. “I hope you find your leopard, kid,” he said. He turned and I heard the rubber tips of his crutches squeaking against the floor as he moved away, finally becoming only a dim shape in the shadows. Then he was gone.
A gaggle of girls broke the thick silence of the hall as they raced into it, giggling and shrieking. They were about my age, a school class on a field trip.
“Oooooh! Look at the pussycat!” one squealed. “Isn’t it cute!
Wouldn’t you just like to hug it!”
“It’s adorable!” exclaimed another.
“Are you drawing it?” cried the first girl. Several of them jostled each other, trying to look over my shoulder at the sketch of the leopard. I turned the pad over.
“I’m not doing anything!” I snarled. “It’s none of your business!”
“Old grouch!” one girl whispered, and another shushed her and they all giggled and raced off to gawk at a polar bear, rearing to regard onlookers with haughty disdain.
I turned the pad back over and looked at my sketch, then at the leopard in the diorama. The leopard was just another long-dead animal in a museum case, and my drawing was just another crabbed sketch without meaning.
I gathered my materials together, stuck the sketch pad under my arm, and started down the long hall, cramped from sitting for too long.
Perhaps some day I would take out the sketch pad and open it to the drawing of the leopard and, with a sure hand, I would alter the stiff lines and bring to life the wild invitation.
This was one drawing I would not destroy as I had the previous ones. It was no better, no worse than the others, but it was different.
Perhaps when I had more knowledge, more experience, I could claim the spirit of the mountain cat and show it in my drawing.
Perhaps some day I would find our snow leopard.

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  • Blog
  • March 10th, 2015

Puppy Pickin’

By Joel M. Vance
If there is one irrefutable piece of dog advice I’ve given over more than 30 years of owning bird dogs, it is to pick your own puppy—don’t let someone else impose personal bias. Drive for days if you have to, but look those fuzzy little charmers in the eye and pick the one that seems right.
That said, I look back over those 30 plus years and realize that most of the time it was the puppy that chose me. They have a way…..
McGuffin was the Godfather of the clan and theoretically was not my pick. He came from a Boston litter, too far for me to travel. But he was out of a female originally owned by Dave Follansbee, the Godfather of the French Brittany in America and Dave vouched for the puppy. I heard shrill yips from the holding area of the freight terminal at St. Louis’s Lambert Field and shortly stuck a puppy carrier on the back seat for the drive home. The outraged furry mite squalled at such indignity and I relented and let him out. He crawled into my lap and instantly went to sleep, having made his choice of lifelong friend and we were just that for the next dozen years.
Andy Vance, my son and longtime hunting buddy, allegedly chose Pepper, Guff’s daughter and the eventual matriarch of all the Vance dogs who have followed. Here’s the way it actually happened: We drove to Iowa where a litter awaited his choice. Eight puppies lolloped around the back yard, falling over each other, sniffing flowers and tiring, one by one.
Andy debated (he was a thoughtful twelve years old). “How about that one?” I suggested, eager to get on the road home. Andy put that one down, picked up another squirming Brit. “Or that one.” He pondered. We sipped soft drinks and Andy finished his and rolled the empty can toward the center of the puppy scrum, like a faceoff in a hockey game.
All but one of the puppies ignored the can, save for one tiny black female. She worried the can until she got a grip on it, picked it up and brought it to Andy. “That’s the one,” Andy said, cuddling the bright-eyed puppy. It was the start of a 13-year love affair. “She liked me best,” Andy said in explaining his choice. No doubt about it though. She chose him.
Ultimately Pepper became mother of an eight-puppy litter and one by one the puppies went home with new owners. Andy kept a lusty male he named Dacques (Doc in the Americanized version—they were, after all, French Brittanies). I hadn’t planned to keep a puppy but one day I went to the kennel and there was only one little black and white pup left, a chunky guy who looked bewildered as if wondering what had happened to all his littermates. He looked so woebegone that I went in the house with him in my arms and told my wife, “There is no power on earth strong enough to separate me from this puppy.
That was Chubby who was the steadiest, most reliable and sweetest friend I’ve ever known. Once he lay beside me when I was miserably sick on a Minnesota grouse hunt, and when I woke the fever was gone and I felt fine. I called him my feel-good dog. He had healing powers.
He survived a broken leg and another time a foxtail awn went between his toes and worked its way up his leg until it required surgery. The only force that did separate us was death when he was a dozen years old and still game to go. I shot a woodcock over his point not long before his last illness and I think I knew then that it would be the last time we’d share a hunt together.
Perhaps he did too since he always seemed to be so finely tuned to me. He made a perfect, rock-solid point and retrieved the dead bird to my hand. I can’t speak for him, but my eyes filled with tears.
Missy was the only puppy so far chosen right out of the womb. I midwifed her mommy all night as she delivered eight puppies at intervals widely spaced enough that I never got back to sleep between deliveries. I wanted a female and No. Five was a creamy honey brown and white color different from her littermates. She looked like a chewy caramel and she was just was sweet as one nearly 14 years later. I guess technically I chose her instead of the other way around, but if she hadn’t been that candy-sweet color she might have gone to delight someone else.
I have a vivid memory of Missy and her brother Scruffy on point in north Missouri, with a covey pinned between them, a textbook example of dog teamwork. Scruffy was the perfect instance of a puppy who made the choice for me by being unwanted by anyone else. His name says it all—he was an unkempt little pup who reminded me of Pigpen in the “Peanuts” comic strip. He was barely big enough to escape runthood, and looked as if he’d been soaked in a downpour and hadn’t quite dried out. I tried to give him to two friends, both of whom declined (possibly because Scruffy looked like a used car with broken springs, an engine that sounded as if it should be shelling corn and a salesman who says, “Trust me—this baby is a diamond in the rough.”)
Which he was. Early on he showed feistiness far beyond his size. Timid in puppy fights, he opted for retreat in lieu of combat. But he became a hunting machine so consumed by following his nose that he was once gone for three days. We’d given him up for lost until one night I heard a familiar and demanding bark at the door and there was Scruffy, contrite, weary, hungry and for the only time in his life, hunted out. He also became a handsome dog, an ugly duckling of dogs.
Molly picked me by virtue of being everything I look for in a puppy—inquisitive, lively, mischievous, reeking of intelligence (not to mention, later in life, of cow manure and decaying dead wildlife). You can bathe an errant dog, but you don’t wash away the good stuff.
I drove 1400 miles round trip so Molly could pick me and she made it easy. She and her littermates rambled around the back yard of her owner but one by one they fell asleep. Except for the then-unnamed Molly who had too many places to go and things to see. One burly male kept annoying her, wanting to do Dog Wrestlemania, but Molly shrugged him off and ultimately wore the big bully out. She had places to go and things to do. “That’s her,” I said, just as Andy had said with Pepper years before..
Molly of all our dogs has been entirely too smart for her own good. She learned quickly how to jump and flip the latch on the kennel so everyone could enjoy unsupervised recreation. A snap fastener curtailed her Great Escape so she redialed her insatiable curiosity.
She was paired with an experienced setter on her first real hunt. I thought I’d winged a bird on a covey rise but we couldn’t find it. The setter hunted dead with less and less ardor until we finally gave it up and moved on. Some time later I realized that Molly wasn’t with us. The last thing anyone wants is a lost young dog, so I started back to where we’d last seen the pup.
Halfway there Molly appeared with my bird in her mouth, not chewed, not sloppy with saliva. She had not given up on the cripple even though we had and she never has since. She’s the best dead bird hunter we’ve had in three decades. Retrieving is an obsession.
On the flip side, although she was extremely popular with the other dogs when she let them out to play without Daddy yelling but not with the young male with whom we hoped she would fall in lust. After she nearly bit off his nose for it being where she thought it didn’t belong, Andy and I forcibly restrained her while the intimidated male fumbled his way to a consummation devoutly not wished by Molly.
In due time she grudgingly delivered five puppies and weaned them as quickly as possible. She had more important business than mothering. The puppies slumbered in a warm pile and one night while he was watching Sports Center Andy said, “I need a puppy fix” and he went to the kennel in the night and grabbed the first one that came to him. The puppy nestled in his arms as if it belonged there and together they watched the latest baseball scores and thus Stewie picked a Vance.
His brother picked me. He chose me by becoming the Canine Christopher Columbus. He had the inquisitiveness of Charles Edison. Overlong ears, like a hound, and big bones and a horsey face, he was no bench show champ. His brothers were pinups for bitches by comparison. I had promised pick of the guy dogs to a young friend, but by pickin’ time, I had fallen in love with the gawky pup and had named him Captain Adventure for his incessant passion for exploration and a wonderful lust for life.
When Cap proudly retrieved a dried cowpie from a neighbor’s pasture as if it were a trophy rooster pheasant I began to pray that my friend would not pick him. Fortunately for all of us, he took Cap’s brother and now Cap brings me towels, shoes, the shop broom and once a pair of lost reading glasses, not to mention a quail or two.
And he hunts with such unbridled joy, bounding like an African springbok, that he’s just pure fun to be around. And he’s mine….or, come to think of it, I’m his.
-30-

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  • Blog
  • March 5th, 2015

Knucklehead

By Joel M. Vance
The old Soo Line rails didn’t see as many trains as they once did, but still enough to keep a station agent in place. Rusty Adams had been the agent until he got drafted and subsequently lost an arm in Korea.
I suppose I could blame Rusty for part of my impressive track record of misdeeds, but it wasn’t his fault that I was too apt as a pupil-—better with a baseball than with the little Martin guitar he’d bequeathed to me. Because of the knuckleball that he taught me I managed to hit my coach in the throat and become a star. I’m not sure which I was more pleased by.
The Soo was as much a part of Birch Lake as the veneer mill and the lumberyard and the Bluegill Bar. The trains were as regular as the sun in their comings and goings. Trains passed through, four or five a day, heading north from the Twin Cities to Superior and back south again.
The trains passed a quarter-mile behind our house, across a pasture. If the air was still and the night quiet and I happened to be awake I’d hear a freight clattering over the sagging rail junctions, then moaning hoarsely at the town crossing. And then it would be gone and I’d hear only the sound of a whippoorwill and I’d swallow hard with sudden night fear as moonlight spilled through the window.
There were occasional passenger trains. My cousin Hal and I would stand along the tracks and wave at the passengers who looked impassively back at us. When we grew older we began giving them the finger, but that got no reaction either, except once from a little girl who looked to be maybe five or six who solemnly returned the gesture.
I put a penny on the tracks when I was nine. Just as the train came around the bend and it was too late to dart out and retrieve it I had a horrible prevision of the penny derailing the locomotive which would plow into the mill woodlot, killing everyone on board.
And it would be my fault. As the steam screamed from the ruptured engine, mingling with the shrieks of the maimed, the bloody engineer would stagger over to the town constable, old Elmer Blosser, and gasp, “I was a penny. One uh them goddam kids put it there! I saw it just before I hit it! Oh God!” and he would quiver like a shot rabbit and keel over dead.
And Elmer, whose gut was about one million times larger than his brain, would draw his rusty old pistol and come looking for a terror benumbed nine-year-old kid.
I knew it would happen. I was having one of those frightful experiences I’d read about in Reader’s Digest (“I Saw Death’s Terrible Face”) where someone has a prevision of disaster. I shut my eyes and waited for the crash, my nerves singing. But the train went past just as it had done for all my life, and I got weakly to my feet and looked for the penny.
It had been jostled off the track by the train’s approach and hadn’t been touched. I never tried that trick again. It was bad enough to do the stupid things I often did unintentionally without setting out to wreck a train.
Baseball season was short, crammed into spring after it got warm and before school let out for the summer. I was Scuz Olsen’s catcher. Catching is the most unglamorous and painful job in baseball. You’re sandwiched between a batter and an umpire, imperiled by the wild swings of inept batters and the wild fastballs of inept pitchers of whom Scuz Olsen was the epitome. Your fingers belong to anyone who can break them, but your knees belong to you…which is painfully apparent every time you struggle out of the crouch. Burly baserunners do their best to body check you into eternity or shred you with their spikes. Every fielding play is tougher than anyone else’s—have you ever tried to catch a ball hit straight up.
Scuz Olsen, that unlovable loudmouth sleazeball whose weakest muscle was between his ears, was our pitcher. He was strong enough to throw the ball through a brick wall but he couldn’t put a wrinkle on a ball to save his life. Accordingly he either grooved pitches for fastball hitters or threw wild pitches somewhere in the vicinity of the Pleiades. Coach K, a corpulent and crude older version of Scuz, loved his erratic pitcher.
After Scuz hit six straight batters trying to throw a curve, Coach K ordered him to stick to the hummer. He Dutch rubbed Scuz’s unruly crewcut and said affectionately, “Quit tryin’ to be cute and just throw the damn thing.”
My problem was to convince Coach K that I had a secret weapon to win ball games. That wouldn’t be easy. He considered me a tribulation in comparison with which Job’s plague of boils as no more than a mild eruption of adolescent pimples.
“Coach, let me pitch batting practice,” I said. “You don’t want Scuz hurting his magic arm.” Coach K was inclined to refuse on general principles, but he was too lazy to throw practice himself and he certainly didn’t want to risk the Scuz. Nobody else could get the ball over the plate, assuming Scuz ever did.
He chewed it over, like tough meat. “Okay,” he said finally. “But no funny stuff.”
“Like what, Coach?”
“How the hell do I know? You just got a history of funny stuff.”
I took a couple of baseballs and strode to the mound, king of my heaped-up domain. Perhaps winning a presidential election or being named the Supreme Allied Commander is as gratifying as facing a batter from that slight promontory, but I would have to be convinced. I was born to pitch, no doubt of it. I threw a few straight pitches, a la Scuz Olsen until Coach K’s interest shifted to the outfield where he fungoed fly balls.
Then I threw a knuckler to Hunk Dayland. It was a beauty that floated in like a barrage balloon then dipped sharply as if it had suddenly gotten tired. Hunk swung with everything he had, missed the ball like a foot, and the bat flew out of his hand and skittered toward second base.
“What the hell was that!” he shouted. Hal trotted over and picked up the bat and flipped it toward the plate.
Coach K whirled around when Hunk shouted and he echoed, “What the hell is going on?”
“He threw something funny, Coach,” Hunk said.
“Did not!” I said. After all, there was nothing funny about a knuckleball.
“He’s got somethin’ on the ball—spit or somthin’.”
“Lemme see that ball!” Coach K snarled and I had one of those inspirations that is so blinding at the time that the possible ramifications are obscured. All I could see was opportunity. I did not see the absolute disaster that was imminent.
Coach K was wearing a glove to field the throws coming in from the outfield and I figured if he had a glove he knew how to use it. I took a deep breath, dug my fingernails into the ball…and threw the best knuckler of my short career.
Coach K stuck a hand out for the big floating baseball and it darted up his arm and hit him smack in the Adam’s apple. If I had wanted to make a dramatic statement I’d certainly done it. He staggered around like the Mummy of horror film fame, making strange sounds and I wished that I had been abducted as a baby by Gypsies to Romany where they don’t throw knuckleballs that assault their coaches. The team looked at me in shock and fear. I’d created harm on a teacher—not just any teacher, but Coach K, the Attila the Hun of the faculty.
Coach K was unable to scream outrage at the team for a couple of days, which was a blessing, but it gave him time to refine his glower, mostly directly at me. I continued to catch and Scuz continued to pitch.
We played the Edgewater Tigers at their field in mid-August. Any athletic contest with Edgewater was a grudge match and baseball games were the worst. There usually was a substantial fight, either on the field or in the stands when the two teams got together. Once the umpire, a Birch Laker, charged into the stands and assaulted the Edgewater town constable who had shouted that the umpire had “the eyes of a mole in a manure pile.
And yeah, ya eat worms too, yah dumb bohunk!” I thought it was kind of funny, but the umpire threw off his mask, fumbled his thick glasses on so he could see and went after the constable. That wasn’t a smart move in Edgewater and the umpire spent the night in the Edgewater town jail and was replaced in the game by a local who called every Birch Lake pitch a ball and every Edgewater pitch a strike, including one that bounced in the dirt six feet in front of the plate, skipped over the catcher’s shoulder and hit the ump in the crotch.
Naturally our bench cheered loudly. It’s always fun to see someone who has been decked by a crotch shot clutch at his knee or ankle because he doesn’t want to grab his balls in front of a crowd. Unless of course it is you who has been hit. Scuz Olsen was ejected when he went inquired solicitously of the umpire, “Hey, how’s yer knee? Ever gonna be able to pee with it again?”
So, here we were again at Edgewater for another game. “Like goin’ home for you ain’t it?” Scuz said to me. “You gonna catch for both teams?” He was referring to the unfortunate incident the basketball season before when I scored for Edgewater after being unsettled by the twin cheerleaders cheering for me because they thought I was cute.
I, likewise, thought they were cute also, especially the one who had apologized. I sometimes had daydreams about us getting together, despite the social pressures against such a liaison from our respective home towns. Remember the Capulets and the Amulets or whoever they were. And the Hatfields and McCoys.
Janette (or was it Annette) was in the stands along the third base line and my heart jumped. My heart belonged to Debbie Miller, but she was away at a Girl Scout camp and Annette (or was it Janette) wasn’t. I still had the occasional fantasies straight from the steaming pages of a Mickey Spillane novel.
I waddled suavely over to the stands in my catching gear and said, “Hi, remember me?”
“Sure,” she said. “How could I forget?”
“Which one are you?” I asked.
“I’m Janette,” she said.
“You’re the one who likes me,” I said.
“Well…did…” she said. “I mean I still do, but….” She didn’t need to say anymore. I’d insulted her terribly at the track meet and never did figure out how to apologize. I cursed myself for being a churlish fool. Ask her for a date! I thought. Make a silly, improvisational speech about love and infatuation (which, at that time, were synonymous). Tell her we were fated for each other…maybe to run away to far and exotic lands…..
She interrupted my reverie. “This is my boyfriend, Arnie.”
Arnie looked like a human storm cloud. He was about six-four with muscles on top of his muscles. He looked as happy to see me as if I’d just killed his dog. I gulped and muttered something about how glad I was to meet him (yeah, and you, too, Mr. Hitler) and hastily retreated to the infield, stumbling over my spikes. So much for fantasy. He who hesitates is lost, I remembered and also. The moving finger, having writ, moves on. If it had writ for me, the words were, “So long, sucker.” And with the middle finger, too.
“You’re doing it again,” Coach K growled at me in the dugout. He jerked his head toward the twin. He already had seen me with them in basketball and track and now I was consorting with the enemy, albeit an enemy as cute as enemies can get.
“We’re old friends,” I said.
“Yeah, right,” he said. “They got you in the Edgewater Sports Hall of Fame yet?” I opened my mouth and shut it again.
The two towns had agreed to alternate home plate umpires after the fracas between the umpire and the constable and it was Edgewater’s turn. The umpire was florid faced and sweating. Judging from his breath he had indulged in a heated pre-game warmup at the Edgewater Tap, the town’s equivalent to the Bluegill Bar. As he draped his chin over my left shoulder to see the first pitch I nearly fainted. It was a combination of Bruenig’s Lager and world class halitosis and it hung in the air like a mushroom cloud. Yet another reason to take up anything but catching.
Edgewater got out to a four-run lead and then we cut it in half with a couple of runs. For Scuz it was a pitcher’s battle. He was keeping his straight arrows low enough that the batters couldn’t get under them and only hit screaming line drives and hot grounders, some of which we flagged down for outs.
I even contributed by tagging a man out at the plate. He came down the line like a Soo Line locomotive. I clutched the ball to my chest like a spinster having caught a bride’s bouquet and gritted my teeth. The collision sent me flying a dozen feet behind home plate, but I held on to the ball. I counted my bones, hoping none of them were in more pieces than issued and decided I was still alive. “Way to go!” Coach K shouted, clapping. I saluted him smartly and took a bow. He shook his head and quit clapping.
In the third inning I singled up the middle and took a sizable lead off first base. The pitcher lobbed a throw over to keep me honest, so leisurely that I didn’t need to slide back in. The first baseman ritually slapped me with the glove and I said, “Only about an hour late.”
“Get you next time, Dick Breath,” he said pleasantly.
I took my lead again, rocking back and forth, looking toward Coach K. No steal sign but that surely was an oversight. I knew I could steal on the Edgewater pitcher, a gangling farm kid with an elaborate stretch that seemed to take forever. They say you steal on pitchers, not catchers (which is a fiction propounded by catchers to absolve themselves of responsibility).
Coach K must not have his head in the game I thought. I’ll save him from himself. So I took off with the pitch…or what I thought was the pitch. It turned out that the Edgewater pitcher had the most deceptive move to first of any pitcher in the history of baseball. It was an obvious balk, but not to the umpire who was both from Edgewater and legally blind. He signaled no balk and I was caught in a rundown that ended with an ignominious tag between the shoulder blades that nearly broke my spine.
I trudged back to the dugout, my head down, expecting humiliation. I was not disappointed. “Boys, all together now: what is the steal sign?” Coach K asked the question in a voice guaranteed to catch the attention of Aleuts on the polar ice cap.
Scuz raised his hand as if he had the answer to a difficult math problem. “Forget it, Olsen!” snarled Coach K. “I’m asking a rhetorical question.”
“But coach I know the answer!” Scuz exclaimed. It was possibly the first time in his life a teacher had asked a question that he knew the answer to. “It’s when you touch your cap brim,” he said. Coach K noticed the Edgewater third base coach leaning toward us, listening.
“Oh, great!” he snarled. “Now the whole world knows.” He glared at me. “It’s all your fault.” I had the feeling that if Coach K got a dose of clap he’d somehow blame me for it.
I led off the sixth inning with us still trailing 4-2 and got around late on a fast ball and dribbled a single between first and second. The first baseman played off the bag and I took a lead just beyond him.
Coach K, being childish, had refused to devise a new steal sign since Scuz had loose-lipped our old one. “What the hell difference does it make,” Coach K growled. “You don’t pay any attention to it anyway.”
I glanced toward the dugout and saw Coach K slowly shaking his head from side to side. I suspected he meant “No, don’t steal” but I thought perhaps he was being bothered by a pesky deer fly. It was a risk to try a second steal but I figured that the element of surprise was in my favor and besides when you’re already in a manure pile a little more shit won’t make much difference. I took off on the second pitch and this time I caught the pitcher napping. But not the catcher who had been waiting the entire game to demonstrate that he had an arm like a recoilless rifle. I was out by six feet.
As I trudged once again back to the dugout I could see Coach K searching the bench in fury, looking for a substitute. But it was haying season and several players were bucking bales instead of playing baseball and we were down to nine players. I’m sure he was considering playing with eight, leaving right field wide open, just so he could have the joy of plunking my ass on the bench but he decided against it, perhaps hoping that if I continued to play lighting would come out of the blue sky and turn me to a pillar of ash. Maybe he knew how toxic the umpire’s breath was and hoped I’d be asphyxiated.
Aside from a continuing low growl, like a sound from an engine with a bad bearing, he said nothing. And then Scuz stepped on his own hand. It was on a dribbling ball his by the Edgewater third baseman to Scuz’s right. Scuz sprang toward it, reached down for a bare-handed grab…and stomped on his pitching hand with his left foot.
He did a somersault and came up howling. No bones were broken but he had several cleat gouges in his hand and obviously couldn’t pitch. Coach K looked skyward. “Why me?” he asked. “I’ve tried to be good.”
I cleared my throat. “Coach, how about letting me pitch the rest of the game?” He looked at me as if I were a lab specimen that had gone out of control. He raised his eyes again and repeated, “Why me?” Then he gestured feebly toward the mound and I assumed this meant I was to take over as the Bobcat pitcher.
Hunk Dayland came in to catch. Scuz went to right field where we hoped he would languish, unbothered by fly balls. We shifted position until we had nine players more or less where they were supposed to be and I strode to the mound. What a proud moment! I was master of all I surveyed. It was a heady feeling like when I was a little kid playing King of the Hill on a dirt mound and gained the summit and defended it against the other little boys scrambling up the slopes.
My first warmup pitch was about four feet over the catcher’s head. It clinked off the screen. It takes practice to learn to pitch downhill. Gradually I brought my delivery down and by the time the first batter stepped in I was in the strike zone. My first pitch was right at his head and he toppled out of the way and leaped up, shouting at me. I picked up the rosin bag and fluffed it. You don’t apologize for throwing a knockdown pitch, even if it was an accident.
I glanced toward the Edgewater stand and saw Janette and her boyfriend laughing together….at me. She was making gestures and it took no expert at Pantomime Quiz to figure that she was recreating the basketball game episode for Mr. Muscle Beach. She pumped her arms, like a cheerleader, then mimicked dribbling and watching the ball bounce into the stands. Arnie, the Man Mountain, guffawed. She made an idiot face, slackjawed and vacant. Supposed to be me, no doubt. Arnie whooped. My face flamed and I actually felt tears well. Tears of anger. I gritted my teeth and gripped the baseball as if I were trying to squeeze blood out of it.
I was fed up with being the butt of everyone’s cheap shots—Coach K, Scuz Olsen, Arnie, Janette (or was it Annette)—the hell with the whole damn bunch of ‘em. My next pitch was right down the pipe and it popped in Hunk Dayland’s glove like a rifle shot. He wasn’t much of a catcher, but he was big and tough and if he couldn’t stop pitches with the glove, he’d do it with his body.
I threw another fast ball past the Edgewater batter, pretending Hunk’s glove was Arnie’s face. Strike two. Then I threw the knuckler. It ambled along, looking like the moon, and the batter nearly dislocated himself swinging at it. He missed it a foot.
“Goddam illegal pitch!” he shouted at the umpire. “He’s throwin’ a spit ball!”
“I’m throwing a knuckleball, you meathead!” I shouted back. “And there’s nothing illegal about it!” “Lemme see that ball,” ordered the umpire. Snarling, I threw him the best knuckler ever. It did a commendable boogie-woogie, darted under his outstretched hand, and boomed off his chest protector like a bass drum. “Jesus!” he exclaimed. “You’re outa here!”
Coach K erupted from the bench, heading for home plate. “You leave my pitcher alone!” he shouted. My pitcher! It had a ring to it. He and the umpire stood jaw to jaw, yammering while I wandered around the mound, kicking at dirt and feeling very satisfied with myself. I glanced to the stands and saw Janette and Arnie with what I interpreted as glum expressions, although they probably were simply bored.
Finally the two men finished examining each other’s ancestry and the umpire grudgingly admitted that the knuckle ball was legal. I was still seething and proceeded to pitch a no-hitter the rest of the way. I stuck out seven of the 11 batters I faced, six on knuckleballs. We won 8-4 and the game ended on a piddling popup that I caught barehanded.
I wanted to throw the ball at Arnie and shout at Janette, “Souvenir for you and your lunkhead boyfriend,” but I didn’t because I knew Arnie would use the ball on me as a suppository. I juggled the ball for a moment, then dropped it on the mound and walked toward my old pickup truck. My arm was numb, as if I’d pulled every ligament, tendon and muscle in it, which I probably had. I suspected I’d just left my pitching career on that untidy heap of dirt behind me, but I didn’t care.
“Nice game.” It was Coach K and he was smiling at me. It took a long moment to recognize him without his usual scowl. I checked behind me to make sure he wasn’t talking to Scuz, but, no, it was me.
I nodded. Lose a girlfriend, win a coach.
That’s life.

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