Orinda, California. Written between 445 and 6pm.
Sitting again at 445 pm in the sunshine with a caramel latte on the street where I grew up in the town I never thought I would leave. Funny thing when you return to where your early memories wonder. Everything that looked big, isn’t. Everything that was far away is now just around the corner. Things that were familiar still are but the changed architecture to beautify the city is judged and accepted by my thoughts of how it all used to be. Orinda quite can’t apply for the small town label that small town America stands under because of the recent arrival of one corporate store that sets it above that status; Starbucks. But I remember when the baseball fields were stock full with 10 year olds and I was one of them. There was no cafe at all back then, just Lord’s Ice Cream Parlor by the old fashioned movie theatre.
It will be one week tomorrow, that I have been visiting my grandmother, after a trying trip to Vietnam. Nestled in a green valley just outside San Francisco, she encouraged me to get out of her house and enjoy. I drive 30 minutes in my Saturday style from her house of 20 years to the town I was raised as a child. Leaving her retirement community I pass underneath the flight path of geese, beside the strolling turkeys, and past the golfers resting after just one hole. Through the “back way” as my siblings used to call it, I arrived at my grade school harboring my 1-5 grade memories. Keys left on the seat next to the wallet and the phone, I stroll in and watch a mother caution her wandering running children in a slow Saturday California voice, “Careful, slow down, slow down”. Sleepy Hollow, with an open yellow gate which normally welcomes the vans and suvs of busy parents on a school day morning, has one student today as I walk in. From a distance I watch as two brothers walk with me holding baseball gloves and a dog. Strolling the yellow gate is locked by the grounds keeper. As I pass it the secured memories of my best friend are opened.
A rose colored cement park bench was built in 1991 for Sam Hacker and his brother near the entrance to Sleepy Holly School. Some people would remark it was built to celebrate life. The two brothers were three years apart. Sam was a best friend of mine who laughed when we found out that my initials spelled his name. I entered the lavender crested cove and sat on the bench and begin a conversation with God while the sun loved rose colored cement warmed me.
Sam Hacker was my best friend and as a 4th grader that is a huge deal. My fourth grade year was a strange year. It was the 4th of 5 years that I had a crush on the shortest girl in school, Lindsay Winter, and I persued her as any fourth grader would, by being a mean boy. I don’t even know what persueing her meant at the time, I just knew I had a crush and the only way to acknowledge that was with deep thought about the age old question, “Do girls have cooties?” Oh how I wish I could go back to the 4th grade me and say “Yes!”
My two best friends from 1 to 3 grade were Grant and Ryan and as friends go, for some reason I got fased out of the Trio Best Buds Club at the end of 3rd grade. Sam Hacker was a year ahead of me. Opening day of baseball is where I met him in my 4th grade season. I think now about how we became best friends so quickly and it was not only because we clicked in humor, the love of transformers and all things explosive, and baseball, but it was partly because of my ostrisised feeling at the time meeting a friend to play catch with. Baseball, there is not really anything like it. Other sports will contend that they are the American pastime, but as fads go, pastimes can never be fased out. I clicked my cleats and ran to third base where my position had been for the seasons before. He was second so our infield was tight and fast. We had so many double plays. He was the 3rd batter and I was the fourth so when it came to the 9th inning, the oponent better had a great pitcher in because of this tag team duo we would think. That season for some reason, the spring time air was so crisp that a baseball smelled better after being hit over the fence than it did in the previous years. For our team wins were being counted as often as Big League Chew packages of grape and sour apple were being tossed out in between innings. I had been on the winning team for our baseball league every year I played. This was my 5 season. Of course kindergarten baseball relates more with counting watermelon seeds in a watermelon competition than it does a game played by common citizen of ancient Greece. But at the time the battle was the same, it was you and baseball, no questions asked (except after strike three, “can I get another swing dad?”) The championship game arrived and yes we were in it. Even more important was the need to win. The Bash Brothers didn’t take our Oakland A’s to the World Series so it was up to me and Sam to keep the Bay Area’s pride alive. So with a swing we won and our friendship deepened.
I remember that year with Sam, when I was 9 (I am now 26). To make money as children, my older brother would water the neighbors lawns on their extravagant vacations abroad. That business was passed down to my sister when earning 30 dollars for 3 weeks of work wasn’t attractive to him anymore. She in turn passed it to me and I don’t think I ever really passed it to my younger brother. On Saturday morning one month after baseball season ended, while the dew still humbled the grass with a bow, I was with Christopher, my younger brother by 3 years, at a house up the street we called “The bunny house”. The bunny house owners had never gone away from all that I can recall so watering their plotted potted plants was somewhat of a honor, since it was after all, the bunny house. On the days that my mom drove me to grade school I would lean as tall as the 1984 Blue Volkswagon seat belt would let me and try to look at the lawn of the bunny house to see if there were any wild bunnies sitting on the grass. So you can imagine how excited me and my younger brother were to water the lawn of the bunny house and the access we had to staking the bunnies out. The day came to water the bunny house and to our dismay, no bunnies showed up even though we stocked and hid and planned and hid some more. My brother and I began our walk home all excited even with the void of the fuzzies. It was only a 20 minute walk from the bunny house to my home at 23 sleepy hollow lane but man on man did my brother and I have a great time together that morning. How much trouble can two boys get into in only 20 minutes? We were walking on the middle yellow line in middle of the street, we held competitions of who could walk on the curb the longest. The excitement grew as we raced up our steep long plant shaded driveway to play front yard baseball. At the brink of drive way where you can see even the top of the hill overlooking our house I stopped as my brother raced by in joy. There on the blue deck, infront of the our blue house with a brown roof, next to our carport full with one blue vw van and one datsun, the grass on the left of me freshly mowed and the sandbox vacant of children but full to capacity with Matchbox cars, was my mother sitting on a chair hunched and crying. I stepped and tip toed and peered to try and see her eyes and sat in the facing chair as my pounding heart switched gears and purpose. I remember each and every word of that morning with her. I remember the words in that following conversation like a landscape that has been weathered to the point where only rocks are left to be rained on.
That memory strides with me as I sit and stare at it from a distance. The sun is setting and the warmth of the rose colored cement park bench is noticed even more with the welcoming of the evening breeze. I sit and converse with God about my thankfulness of life. Those words on that day facing chair facing my mother crying spilled over my lips as I sat on the bench listening to the breeze.
“Whats wrong mom.”
I leaned forward to console her.
Sobbing, “Stephen, Sam died in a plane crash”.
I leaned back and looked to her for consolation.
A copper plate holds etched names, “Sam Hacker 1981-1991” and I rub it continuing my dialog with my surroundings. The memorial bench looks the same today as the day the cement was hard enough to catch and comfort the first tears from his parents. I wonder how many people these days sit like I do and recall. In fourth grade you don’t know much about the world. Everything that is big is huge, everything that is far away seems like an eternity away. Everything that is anything means everythingto you because there is nothing else. And the death of a fifth grader to a fourth grader who was in love with baseball changes even the most basic meaning of a past time.
With lavender in hand I drive around roads and valleys that I was driven as a child. As a child. It seems so far away. I never was behind the wheel yet I know the way. It seems like a different person with different worries different agendas and needs. It, me, my youth, looks like and plays like a mirror tilted to reflect it’s subject but tilted too much so the subject sees themselves from a new angle within their environment. I look at these memories as a viewer and then get caught up in them realizing they are me. I don’t think my youth would seem so distant if standing in between me now and me then wasn’t a Picasso display of foreign lands and multiple homefronts, celebrity weddings, awards, and humble encounters with the dieing, love gained and love lost, gunshots and hospitals, photographs and filmless days, God big and God small, resurrection and birth, Vegas Summers and Detroit Winters.
My right arm is sore as I write this now because I pitched today, at the field we once played, to an empty backstop time and time again. Announcing verbally the game like it would be on television except announcing not the famous plays of my childhood heros, but the infamous plays heroic in my memory. Cheering for the crowd, running the bases, catching in the outfield and throwing home and then standing at third base, quiet and alone, alone with four fields, consuling each other, each hoping for Saturday morning. Four open backstops helping me remember as they talk amongst themselves of when Sam and Stephen walked their fields.
There were many more seasons after that. Seasons where my team “The Yellowjackets”, went undefeated and won the championship. Seasons where in the last inning with a full count, I hit the game winning hit to score the game winning point. Oddly enough the ball was hit through the opponents third baseman’s legs and upon the umpire yelling, “thats the ballgame”, I was tackled by my team before I could reach second base. Seasons and seasons gone and yet none to beat and none so sweet to remember as when I hold the tall wooden trophy of my fourth grade year.
As I walked off the baseball field today, I saw a sports bag in the corner holding only a minor league hat, a lone right handed batting glove 6 feet up on the chain link fence, and the remnants of a baseball that had been used to it’s breaking point. It was only a piece of the skin which was skuffed and alone lost in the land of the infield dirt. It was small enough to be forgotten but big enough to bring with me.