My Religion Is a Lot Like the Game of Baseball

Chapters Chapter 1 Early Years Chapter 2 Patty Chapter 3 1-room School
Chapter 4 Friends Chapter 5 High School Chapter 6 Grandpa
Chapter 7 Marianne Chapter 8 Rookie Chapter 9 At the Plate

Chapter 3 - One-room School

Wins or loses in Major League Baseball are sometimes determined by how well the manager understands human nature.

Joann rode into my life on a bicycle.  The first Monday of Spring Break had turned into one of those unseasonably warm days in early April.  She had to have seen me out playing to choose this time to come riding by in her shorts and summer top.  I hid behind the trunk of the nearest large maple tree and as her approach changed directions, I circled the tree.  The day had started cool and I had not changed from the wool pants some relative had found in a bargain basement.  I looked at myself, at the wool pants and at the jacket I’d worn on the coldest days in winter.

My mother was hanging clothes on the clothesline.  She waved at the girl and called to me, “Look who has come to see you.”

Joann had hair that glistened like thousands of tiny copper wires and the straightest, most even teeth I’ve ever seen, even to this day.  When she got off her bike and stood near me, I could see we were almost exactly the same height.  She asked if I wanted to come to her house to see the baby kittens.  My mother encouraged me to go and I went in my wool pants and winter jacket.  I walked as she pushed her bike to the corner of the gravel road that ran past where I lived and up the hill on the gravel road that ran past the farm where she lived.  I went with her through the gate and inside the picket fence that separated the house and yard from the farmyard.

The kittens were in a box on the grass near the fence.  Joann cuddled each one and looked at each one with tenderness.  I didn’t know how to handle kittens.  I was aware of perspiration and itch from the wool pants.  Joann’s mother, with a metal pail in one hand, opened the back door and came to where we were.  She was about the same height as the two of us.  “I am so glad you live close.  Joann has never had a playmate who lived close.”  She walked on toward the barn saying over her shoulder, “Joann likes kittens.  Not everybody does.  I hope you will come back soon.”

Mound School

Mound School

When I was ready to start fifth grade, the rural school I had attended the year before closed for lack of students in that district.  In my new one-room school were kids from surrounding farms who had known each other most of their lives.  Until then I had been a good student.  As a third grader I had read with the fourth-grade reading group, and when the teacher found me helping a fourth-grade girl with the arithmetic problems she had put on the blackboard, I began using the fourth-grade arithmetic book.  In the new school when I should have been listening to the teacher, I tried to identify the unusual bird resting in the tree outside the window.  Was it on its way to warmer climate?  Or I’d watch clouds change into objects and dust clouds rise from the plowed fields.  I was overwhelmed with the fear of not being accepted by these kids.  All of their dads were farmers and mine was a carpenter.

Last day of school

Last day of school

Recess was no better.  That was when the other kids played baseball.  Until that time I’d only heard about baseball when I asked my dad why he wore his cap backwards with the bill covering his neck.  He was proud of having been a catcher on a baseball team when he was young and told me “that is the way catchers wear their hats.”  During recess I sometimes feigned illness, but most of the time I had to stand on the sidelines and watch.  By November it was too cold for baseball.

After school and on some weekends, Joann and I played in the attic at her house and sometimes we played board games at my house.  I could not get to school without passing her house.  We didn’t wait for each other.  If she was out when I passed, we walked or rode our bikes to school together.  We almost always rode home from school together.

One day we got to school a little early and some of the others were there, too.  We gathered together on the slab of cement that covered the well that held the drinking water we accessed from the pump in the center.  The slab gave us a little height advantage as we watched a small figure alone on the gravel road that lead to the school from the south.  There was great deal of speculation as to who this person was.  Claudie came from that direction, but it was too small to be Claudie.  There was little doubt he or she was coming to school and we were excited.

I had been wrong in assuming the kids at Mound School were all farmers’ kids who had known each other all their lives.  Some of the kids came from large, productive farms and some from smaller, but productive farms.  Some were children of the “hired man;” some barely eked out a living on the farm, and some came to the farm to help (or be helped) by relatives, as was the case with this new first-grader we called Little Bucky.

During the winter and early spring months, there was lots of snow.  Recess and lunch hour were used for building a snow fort.  None of us could wait to get on our coats and mittens and pack more snow on the walls of the fort.  Those walls were so high and thick they were still melting when the weather warmed enough for baseball.

Dean was the most respected kid in school.  Many times he arrived at school, took off his coat without hanging it on the coat hook and sat at the piano to bang out Circus Rag or something else in the style of Scott Joplin.  As soon as we finished the Pledge of Allegiance, it was Dean who accompanied as we sang America or Star Spangled Banner.

There was no doubt Dean was the manager of the baseball team.  The captains were Dean and an eighth-grade boy who could hit the ball to the end of the playground.  We played, “Choose Up” as the way to split into two teams.  I was chosen as a last resort for either team.  Little Bucky was assigned pigtail catcher, a position I was too old and too tall for.  Dean told me to play outfield.  When a ball was hit in my direction, I waited for the ball to land, then went to pick it up as it rolled on the ground.  The hitter would continue to run while the kids yelled at me, “Why didn’t you catch it?”  “You are supposed to catch it!”  Other times the ball would come right at me and I’d let it drop to hear dejected “oooooo-nooooo’s.”  I learned a baseball rule: when the outfielder doesn’t catch or drops a fly ball, the batter can run to base as easily as if he had got a hit.  Our equipment was a ball, two bats and one glove for the catcher.  Eventually, the fear of stinging hands if I caught a ball was overcome by the greater fear of hearing those oooooo-nooooo’s.  At last I caught a fly ball and everybody cheered.  Dean patted me on the shoulder.

Wins or loses in Major League Baseball are sometimes determined by how well the manager understands human nature.  Many players attribute their success to a coach who helped them with their stance at the plate or their grip on the bat.  A pitcher may thank the pitching coach for detecting the way he falls off the mound or drops his shoulder when he throws the ball.  If I had a “manager” in Dean, I had a “coach” in Joann.

My mother was not one to go to the store and shop for clothes.  She made them herself or ordered from the catalog.  My shopping experience was with my dad in hardware stores and lumberyards.  Joann seemed to choose the right things to wear at the right time in what seemed to me the perfect combination of color and style.  She never failed to tell me if what I was wearing was the appropriate thing.  There must have been many days she couldn’t say anything.  A player cannot always make the adjustments the coach suggests, but the coach can make the player aware of what needs to be corrected.

Joann and I spent many hours together and what we did most was laugh.  We had a good time doing nothing.  Joann’s mother could see something funny in almost any situation.  There was never a “down” time when we were near her even though she cooked, baked, cleaned, sewed, fed chickens, helped with farm chores and cared for her big love: flowers.  She had all kinds of blooming flowers including giant-sized dahlias.  She was never too busy to say or do something to make us laugh.

Junior Belton was two grades below us in school.  For some reason Joann and I began going to his house to visit with his mother, Mattie.  I suspect Joann’s mother knew Mattie was lonely.  When we got there, we’d park our bikes close to the side of the house and then walk to the back door.  This was so Mattie would ask, “Did you come on your wheel?”  Mattie’s word for bicycle threw us into fits of laughter and she’d laugh, too.  Mattie talked non-stop except for an occasional slurp to collect excess saliva.  Most of the time I didn’t listen to what she talked about, but trained my ear on what was coming from the Philco radio sitting in the middle of a round oak table.  An extension cord reached from the radio to the socket where a light bulb could have been hanging from the ceiling above the table.  Sometimes I’d stop to listen when Mattie talked about her son she called either, “Junie” or Samuel Glenn Belton, Junior.  She referred to her husband as Samuel Glenn Belton.  There was no doubt in our minds that Samuel Glenn Belton and Samuel Glenn Belton, Junior were the lights in Mattie’s life.  As we got on our “wheels” to ride away shaking with giggles and eyes tearing with laughter, each of us was hiding what we knew: Mattie was a lonely woman who needed and appreciated our visit.

In our “play” time, Joann and I were outgrowing simple board games and “dress up.”  Entertainment in those days was radio programs and movies.  Before any movie started in the theaters, “The Eyes and the Ears of the World” came first.  We saw movies with Kate Smith singing “God Bless America” with its opening phrase, “While the storm clouds gather far across the sea.”  It was 1940.  Through the Selective Service, young men were drafted for one year of military training.  Some farmers were deferred from the draft.  Even though my dad relied on my brother to do the driving and assist with building barns, Ben, the brother 11 years older than I, was drafted.