Friday, April 29, 2011

The Blonde and Blue-Eyed Bringer of Truth

En route to the camping site, we traveled through Commerce, Oklahoma, the hometown of Mickey Mantle. Of course I stopped to snap a few pictures.

I stood in Commerce and read the the following poem from

Kansas poet
BH Fairchild, I though about Mr. Mantle.

"Body and Soul"
by BH Fairchild

Half-numb, guzzling bourbon and Coke from coffee mugs,
our fathers fall in love with their own stories, nuzzling
the facts but mauling the truth, and my friend’s father begins
to lay out with the slow ease of a blues ballad a story
about sandlot baseball in Commerce, Oklahoma decades ago.

These were men’s teams, grown men, some in their thirties
and forties who worked together in zinc mines or on oil rigs,
sweat and khaki and long beers after work, steel guitar music
whanging in their ears, little white rent houses to return to
where their wives complained about money and broken Kenmores
and then said the hell with it and sang Body and Soul
in the bathtub and later that evening with the kids asleep
lay in bed stroking their husband’s wrist tattoo and smoking
Chesterfields from a fresh pack until everything was O.K.
Well, you get the idea. Life goes on, the next day is Sunday,
another ball game, and the other team shows up one man short.

They say, we’re one man short, but can we use this boy,
he’s only fifteen years old, and at least he’ll make a game.
They take a look at the kid, muscular and kind of knowing
the way he holds his glove, with the shoulders loose,
the thick neck, but then with that boy’s face under
a clump of angelic blonde hair, and say, oh, hell, sure,
let’s play ball. So it all begins, the men loosening up,
joking about the fat catcher’s sex life, it’s so bad
last night he had to hump his wife, that sort of thing,
pairing off into little games of catch that heat up into
throwing matches, the smack of the fungo bat, lazy jogging
into right field, big smiles and arcs of tobacco juice,
and the talk that gives a cool, easy feeling to the air,
talk among men normally silent, normally brittle and a little
angry with the empty promise of their lives. But they chatter
and say rock and fire, babe, easy out, and go right ahead
and pitch to the boy, but nothing fancy, just hard fastballs
right around the belt, and the kid takes the first two
but on the third pops the bat around so quick and sure
that they pause a moment before turning around to watch
the ball still rising and finally dropping far beyond
the abandoned tractor that marks left field. Holy shit.

They’re pretty quiet watching him round the bases,
but then, what the hell, the kid knows how to hit a ball,
so what, let’s play some goddamned baseball here.
And so it goes. The next time up, the boy gets a look
at a very nifty low curve, then a slider, and the next one
is the curve again, and he sends it over the Allis Chalmers,
high and big and sweet. The left field just stands there, frozen.

As if this isn’t enough, the next time up he bats left-handed.
They can’t believe it, and the pitcher, a tall, mean-faced
man from Okarche who just doesn’t give a shit anyway
because his wife ran off two years ago leaving him with
three little ones and a rusted-out Dodge with a cracked block,
leans in hard, looking at the fat catcher like he was the sonofabitch
who ran off with his wife, leans in and throws something
out of the dark, green hell of forbidden fastballs, something
that comes in at the knees and then leaps viciously towards
the kid’s elbow. He swings exactly the way he did right-handed
and they all turn like a chorus line toward deep right field
where the ball loses itself in sagebrush and the sad burnt
dust of dustbowl Oklahoma. It is something to see.

But why make a long story long: runs pile up on both sides,
the boy comes around five times, and five times the pitcher
is cursing both God and His mother as his chew of tobacco sours
into something resembling horse piss, and a ragged and bruised
Spalding baseball disappears into the far horizon. Goodnight,
Irene. They have lost the game and some painful side bets
and they have been suckered. And it means nothing to them
though it should to you when they are told the boy’s name is
Mickey Mantle. And that’s the story, and those are the facts.

But the facts are not the truth. I think, though, as I scan
the faces of these old men now lost in the innings of their youth,
it lying there in the weeds behind that Allis Chalmers
just waiting for the obvious question to be asked: why, oh
why in hell didn’t they just throw around the kid, walk him,
after he hit the third homer? Anybody would have,
especially nine men with disappointed wives and dirty socks
and diminishing expectations for whom winning at anything
meant everything. Men who knew how to play the game,
who had talent when the other team had nothing except this ringer
who without a pitch to hit was meaningless, and they could go home
with their little two-dollar side bets and stride into the house
singing If You’ve Got the Money, Honey, I’ve Got the Time
with a bottle of Southern Comfort under their arms and grab
Dixie or May Ella up and dance across the gray linoleum
as if it were V-Day all over again. But they did not
And they did not because they were men, and this was a boy.

And they did not because sometimes after making love,
after smoking their Chesterfields in the cool silence and
listening to the big bands on the radio that sounded so glamorous,
so distant, they glanced over at their wives and noticed the lines
growing heavier around the eyes and mouth, felt what their wives
felt: that Les Brown and Glenn Miller and all those dancing couples
and in fact all possibility of human gaiety and light-heartedness
were as far away and unreachable as Times Square or the Avalon
ballroom. They did not because of the gray linoleum lying there
in the half-dark, the free calendar from the local mortuary
that said one day was pretty much like another, the work gloves
looped over the doorknob like dead squirrels. And they did not
because they had gone through a depression and a war that had left
them with the idea that being a man in the eyes of their fathers
and everyone else had cost them just too goddamn much to lay it
at the feet of a fifteen year-old-boy. And so they did not walk him,
and lost, but at least had some ragged remnant of themselves
to take back home. But there is one thing more, though it is not
a fact.

When I see my friend’s father staring hard into the bottomless
well of home plate as Mantle’s fifth homer heads toward Arkansas,
I know that this man with the half-orphaned children and
worthless Dodge has also encountered for the first and possibly
only time the vast gap between talent and genius, has seen
as few have in the harsh light of an Oklahoma Sunday, the blonde
and blue-eyed bringer of truth, who will not easily be forgiven.

What a great poem! Mr. Fairchild works some magic with words.

bring the truth,

Thursday, April 28, 2011

A Fistful of Dynamite

Mr. Crankypants has been rattling his cage more than usual, so we put a 2nd padlock on it. He's wound tight. He's like a stick of dynamite in a Sergio Leone movie.

The other day I was driving up on campus and Mr. Crankypants was in the passenger seat. We're stopped at the crosswalk and this college student - talking on his cell phone, eating an apple, and listening to his Ipod - leisurely crossed in front of us. The kid was more intent on talking and eating rather than crossing. When Mr. Crankypants saw that the kid was wearing flip flop when the temperature was in the 40's, that was the straw that broke the llama's back. Mr. Crankypants threw a vicious elbow into my ribs, and snarled, "Hit the son of a bitch!"

Then he rolled down the window, pounded the side of the car, and screamed, "Hey! We're driving here!"

In his sleep, Mr. CP's been mumbling something about John Boehner's country-club tan. I don't know what that's all about, and I have no intention of asking Mr. CP about it.

With him being gloom and impending doom, I've decided to take him on vacation. I'm taking him camping, where he'll sip whiskey, eat cabbage bombs, and sleep underneath the stars. There he will live an idyllic existence free of idiots, politics, and absurdness. I'm hoping that the stick of dynamite will be reduced to a mere firecracker.

We'll send you dispatches from the road.

chompin' on a bit I just can't spit,


Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Holding It Together with Gardening

I come from a long line of gardeners, so my summer childhood scrapbook is filled thick with the following snapshots:

  • sitting underneath my grandparents' car port snapping green beans.

  • digging potatoes

  • My Uncle Raymond dropping by our house sharing the bounty from his garden

  • zucchini, zucchini, zucchini, zucchini, and zucchini

  • rhubarb

  • snakes in the strawberry patches

  • eating a jalapeno in my Uncle Don's garden and sprinting toward the water spigot to attempt to cool the burn

  • standing in the garden with a salt shaker and eating tomatoes off the vine

  • riding in the back of a pickup as a it crosses the creek (pronounced "crick") on my way to my grandparents' garden (Once upon a time people rode in the beds of pickups)
With the exception of a few herbs I grow to use in my cooking, I don't keep a garden. I think a lot about what is lost because I don't garden, and it makes me sad. Lately my daughter has asked if we can plant a small garden. It makes me happy to think that this urge to garden might be in her DNA. Maybe she and I need to break ground on this project as a way to reconnect with those relatives from my past.

With these thoughts and memories pinballing in my head, I reflected on the following passage from Ted Kooser's wonderful book Local Wonders: Seasons in the Bohemian Alps:

According to the TV weathermen-all smiles at six this morning- today is to be one of the "top ten days of the year!" He was exclaiming his own prediction of good weather, of course, but most of us among his early morning viewers are hoping that this will be top ten day of the year in ways other than that. I for one am hoping that it will be among the top ten days for making a few pints of applesauce from our bruised and wormy windfalls and also among the top ten days for gluing together my late mother's cutting board, which during the past week split in half and by so doing opened a crack in my heart, into which a good deal of syrupy sentiment trickled.

Mother would never have paid "good money", as she would have said, for a gourmet cutting board, heavy and thick as a layer cake and cleverly fitted together from finely planed strips of chocolate-dark and sugar-light hardwoods. No, her cutting board was three short pieces of one-by-four pine, glued together into a surface about the size of a piece of typewriter paper. She probably bought it at a yard sale. On this crude table, which over the years turned roast beef brown from the oil of store brand cheese and the juice from whatever fruit was on sale, was inscribed her kitchen's history, scored into the surface by a dull paring knife with the rivets gone from one side of the handle. There are chapters on flaky pie dough, thick egg noodles, and round steak hammered to a pulp.

When she died by sister and I were dividing her few belongings, I kept mother's cutting board. At the time I didn't have a sentimental attachment to it, but I thought my wife and I might be able to make some use of it. I hold on to nearly everything that comes my way.

And we have used it, nearly every day. It is my generation's time to slice store brand cheddar on it and dice the sale carrots and core whatever poor apples might fall from our trees. And I am going to make applesauce today not so much because I like applesauce but because it would please Mother- and, for that matter, her mother and her mother's mother- to know I don't intend to let those miserable little windfalls go to waste.

So, on this top ten day, the first thing I am going to do is to carry the halves of my mother's cutting board down to my shop in the barn and glue them together. And then I'm going to clamp them to dry - clamp them with heavy iron pipe clamps, tightly, so tightly my fingers hurt twisting the handles, because there is so much I want to hold together.

I love the last sentence.

plow to the end of the row,


Monday, April 4, 2011

South Wind People

Kansas is named after the Kansa Indians, whose name means "people of the south wind." As yesterday's blast furnace, southern wind, stirred whitecaps on farm ponds and rocketed temperature into the low 90's, I was reminded of the aptness of my state's name.

Before the wind wreaked havoc on my weekend, I enjoyed a beautiful Saturday afternoon walking the Kansas River levee trail. The river is the main attraction.

However, after about a mile into the walk, the cottonwoods blocked my view of the river, so I set my eyes on other sights:

Which one of these items did I really want to bring home?

the answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind,

Friday, April 1, 2011

Poem in my Pocket: I Believe by Jim Harrison

April is National Poetry Month. For me every month is National Poetry Month, but my fire for poetry burns much hotter in April. Last year I celebrated Nation Poetry Month by spotlighting some poems on this blog, but I also tried to spread my passion for poetry in more conventional ways. For example last year, I participated in Poem In Your Pocket Day (I know this sounds odd, but I like odd), where I carried the following poem in my pocket and shared it others:

I Believe

I believe in steep drop-offs, the thunderstorm across the lake

in 1949, cold winds, empty swimming pools,

the overgrown path to the creek, raw garlic,

used tires, taverns, saloons, bars, gallons of red wine,

abandoned farmhouses, stunted lilac groves,

gravel roads that end, brush piles, thickets, girls

who haven't quite gone totally wild, river eddies,

leaky wooden boats, the smell of used engine oil,

turbulent rivers, lakes without cottages lost in the woods,

the primrose growing out of a cow skull, the thousands

of birds I've talked to all of my life, the dogs

that talked back, the Chihuahuan ravens that follow

me on long walks. The rattler escaping the cold hose,

the fluttering unknown gods that I nearly see

from the left corner of my blind eye, struggling

to stay alive in a world that grinds them underfoot.

I don't know what everything in the above poem means. Experience and age are probably essential to completely understand everything.

However, I do know this: Everyone needs to carry a poem around with them that states his/her beliefs. The words should be original, not phrases cut and pasted from some pop cultural artifact or something processed and sold. The words should be real and true and sincere and unabashed. The words should steer clear of politics and religion because those well-worn sentiments are best suited for bumper stickers and protest signs. I don't know if I can write something like this, but I'm going to try and when I finish, I'll fold it up and place it right next to my organ donor card.

There ain't no money in poetry; that's what sets the poet free,


PS. Poem In Your Pocket Day is April 14th, so start selecting your poem today.