The Baseball Desert

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Being friends with God

If you've stopped by here looking for baseball, then I have a little Christmas gift for you: another excerpt from the Bill Bryson book.

Once agan, he's writing about "a simpler world", but what I really love is the voice of the young baseball fan still hiding just below the surface of the witty, well-traveled writer:

In the late 1950s the Royal Canadian Air Force produced a booklet on isometrics, a form of exercise which enjoyed a short, but devoted, vogue with my father. The idea of isometrics was that you used any unyielding object, like a tree or a wall, and pressed against it with all your might from various positions to tone and strengthen different groups of muscles. Since everybody already has access to trees and walls, you didn't need to invest in a lot of costly equipment, which I suspect was what attracted my Dad. What made it unfortunate in my father's case was that he would do is isometrics on airplanes. At some point in every flight he would stroll back to the galley area or the space by the emergency exit and, taking up the posture of someone trying to budge a very heavy piece of machinery, he would begin to push with his back or shoulder against the outer wall of the plane, pausing occasionally to take deep breaths before returning with quiet, determined grunts to the task. Since it looked uncannily – if unfathomably – as if he were trying to force a hole in the side of the plane, this naturally drew attention. Businessmen in nearby seats would stare over the tops of their glasses; a stewardess would pop her head out of the galley and, likewise, stare, but with a certain hard caution, as if remembering some aspect of her training that she had not previously been called upon to implement.

Seeing that he had observers, my father would straighten up, smile genially and begin to outline the engaging principles behind isometrics. Then he would give a demonstration to an audience that swiftly consisted He seemed curiously incapable of feeling embarrassment in such situations, but that was alright, because I felt enough for both of us, indeed enough for us, and all the other passengers, the airline and its employees and the whole of whatever state we were flying over.

Two things made these undertakings tolerable: the first was that, back on solid ground, my Dad wasn't half as foolish most of the time; the second was that the purpose of these trips was always to go to a major league city, stay in a big downtown hotel and attend ballgames. And that excused a great deal. Well, everything, in fact.

My Dad was a sportswriter for the Des Moines Register, which in those days was one of the country's best papers, and often took me along on trips through the Midwest. Sometimes these were car trips to smaller places like Sioux City or Burlington, but at least once a summer, we boarded a silvery plane – a huge event in those days – and lumbered through the summery skies, up among the fleecy clouds, to St. Louis or Chicago or Detroit, to take in a homestand.

It was a kind of working holiday for my Dad. Baseball, like everything else, was part of a simpler world in those days, and I was allowed to go with him into the clubhouse and dugout and onto the field before games. I've had my hair tousled by Stan Musial, I've handed Willie Mays a ball that had skittered past him as he played catch, I've lent my binoculars to Harvey Kuenn – or possibly it was Billy Hoeft – so that he could scope some busty blonde in the upper deck.

Once, on a hot July afternoon, I sat in a nearly airless clubhouse under the left-field grandstand at Wrigley Field beside Ernie Banks, the Cubs' great shortstop, as he autographed boxes of new white baseballs, which are, incidentally, the most pleasurably aromatic things on earth and worth spending time around anyway. Unbidden, I took it upon myself to sit beside him and pass him each new ball. This slowed the process considerably, but he gave a little smile each time and said “Thank you”, as if I had done him quite a favour. He was the nicest human being I've ever met. It was like being friends with God.