I could see the ball ripple through the bevel-edged glass of our front door as two boys, about my age, were out front playing a game of catch. It was the first Saturday after our move into the Shaw neighborhood in south St. Louis, and I recall thinking for the first time, ‘okay, maybe this neighborhood might be salvageable after all.’
I was just ten-years-old when we abandoned the suburbs in April 1958, a family swimming hard against the tide of white-flight from the cities in post-war America. We had come from seven years in St. Ann, Missouri, one of the first post-war St. Louis suburbs built for the returning war vets and their burgeoning brood of Baby Boomers.
Since our arrival on Flora Place, I had spent most of my time helping clean, unpack, and finding our way around the new surroundings. Because all three of us kids went to a Catholic school outside the neighborhood, we had to make friends by other means. For me, that meant sports, as I was an accomplished runner, jumper, and thrower, whatever the season, whatever the sport. What I was less adept at was removing myself from the house via parental permission to display said acumen in running, jumping, and throwing.
So, there I was, all pink-cheeked and poised, working the pocket of my Harvey “The Kitten” Haddix Rawlings baseball mitt with my fist. And I’m telling you – because I’d plan these things out ahead of time, like I actually had a prayer of pulling them off – I really thought I had a crack of getting out there and joining that game of catch.
Yet deep down there remained that nagging sense that my chances were slim, at best. Nevertheless, with a deep centering breath, I tucked my glove under my arm, reached for the front-door knob, turned it to release the latch, and began to pull as gently as I could.
Man, for a ten-year-old, this was as about delicate an operation as you could imagine. And if it had worked, who knows, I might have turned into a brain surgeon or something. Not that there had ever been any such scalpel wielders swinging from the family tree. But I kept pulling on that doorknob with the same concentration needed to remove a cancerous node from some poor sucker’s brain pan.
You see, I’d learned during our first week at the new house that the weather strip along the base of the front door jamb held as tight as a triplet to a mother’s nipple. Only a firm yank would release this baby. Problem was, whenever the heavy front door pulled free from the weather strip, the vacuum between the front door and the storm door would break as well, causing the storm door to rattle noisily on its own frame like an aging spaniel with heartworm disease. Needless to say, impressively noisy entrances and exits did not serve ten-year-old kids well in those days when parents remained masters of all domains.
“Come on, baby,” I muttered under my breath. “Budge. Give it to me.”
I peaked over my shoulder; voices, but none approaching. The coast, as it were, remained clear. Yet if this was to be done, the time was now.
Looking back through time’s window, I can see this was another of those losing battles of hope against experience. Nevertheless, I kept at it, valiant for freedom, hoping that I could catch the moment just right. Of course, I didn’t, and my hopes sank like last semester’s grades as the door’s final release brought an audible whoosh! causing the storm door to alert everyone to my exiting gambit.
My heart sank as I let out my held breath and waited. And sure enough, down the front stairs they came, the three family dogs barking wildly. Move to Plan B.
“I’m going out,” I said sotto voce, as I zipped my windbreaker up over a blue-hooded sweatshirt. My intention was to announce my exit obliquely, then get out before either parent realized I wasn’t asking either of them for permission directly. That way, even upon capture, one could honestly plead innocence, having inferred the okay from the joint silence. Didn’t always work, but gave me a hell of a better chance than really asking, because that never worked. So you learned.
Stepping out onto the cracked mosaic of blue and white hexagonal tile on our front porch, I felt the blustery April wind as it worked through the barren branches of the sycamores and maple trees along Flora Place. It reminded me more of the season just past than the one about to come.
Mom was upstairs correcting French tests for her next day’s classes, while Pop, along with my younger brother and older sister, were downstairs removing old wallpaper from the dining room. I had finished rearranging dust motes in the foyer, or some other such menial task. Whichever, being less anal about such matters than the folks, I felt like I had accomplished my assignment sufficiently to explore more private concerns like making new friends and playing catch.
Since this was during the apogee of the post-war Baby Boom, the neighborhood was awash in kids. But Mom, with her aristocratic European background, was very particular about who we played with.
As I bounced a tennis ball down the steps, heading toward the sidewalk for a solitary game of step ball, I monitored the two boys across the street. They alternated skidding ground balls along a concrete infield with long, looping fly balls arced high into the tree-sprouted outfield.
I had seen a few kids since we moved in, but hadn’t interacted or make any friends so far. The plan today was to toss the tennis ball up against the front steps so the other kids would see a fellow athlete had moved in across the street. Then, if my ball hit the point of one stair and shot over my head into the parkway, perhaps I might connect and they’d ask if I wanted to join them. A damned fine plan, too, if I do say so.
Out on the sidewalk, I had already established my rhythm, creating a steady ‘kuh -pock’, ‘thump’ as the tennis ball rebounded off the steps, then the sidewalk before landing in the pocket of my Rawlings’ glove. In time, the cadence drew the attention from the kids across the way, as I had planned. Then it all went sour.
Mom’s voice rang out from an upstairs window, cutting short my dodge as the dogs still yapped incessantly behind the storm door. Dachshunds are nuts, cute but nuts. They never learned the difference between a known and an unknown door open. They just barked.
We had two dachsies, Bozo and his mother Hila, as well as a harlequin Great Dane named Pickwick. And we loved them all dearly.
“I’m just tossing the ball around out here, Mom,” I called to the bay window on the second floor while maintaining my easy throwing motion. “Some kids are playing across the street,” I continued, as if nothing potentially monumental was happening.
“Kuh-pock” went the ball as it rebounded off the face of the steps and walkway. Then “thump” as it hit the pocket of my glove.
“They’re about my age. I’ll just be out front.”
“Maybe end up playing with them.”
By God, I’d said it; made my case clear and concise. Afraid to look up, I could sense mom leaning on the windowsill, taking her weight on her palms as her shoulders hunched. When she spoke, her tongue struggled with the bend of consonants and vowels still new to muscles tethered to her native language.
“Isham?” Mom called out to Pop, as she headed downstairs for support—as if she ever needed that. “Toni is outside.”
And there you had it. Toni was outside. You can imagine the Cold War domino effect that might have on the free world. Yet, I couldn’t help wondering exactly how big a deal could it possibly be for me to be right in front of the house? I mean, for Christsakes.
Still hoping beyond hope, I maintained my cool throwing technique, using a full shoulder turn and easy release. ‘Kuh-pock.’ No big velocity involved, but certainly the suggestion that it was there any time I wanted it. ‘Thump.’ I was going for that Stan Musial tossing warm-up grounders to his Cardinal infielder’s look.
Pop had come to the front door wearing a pair of his army khakis and a plaid wool shirt. He stood nearly 6’2″ tall, and with his stentorian, cultured voice, created a presence of command and respect.
“Have you finished your work?”
“Yes, I have,” I replied, holding onto the ball now, though tossing it reflexively into my mitt, feeling justified in my play.
“Who are those boys over there you are talking about, and do we know their parents?” inquired Mom.
Here we go. Mom and Pop were both decorated war veterans, not the type to trifle with, obviously, but…
“Mom, I’ll have to say, I don’t think you know their parents.”
(And is there a correct answer here? Do you know their parents? You’re still trying to find the bathroom light switch at night, aren’t you? We just got here. Besides, I’m not looking to play with their parents.) None of which I said out loud, of course.
“Because we won’t have you associating with the peasant children,” Mom explained, now having joined Pop at the door.
Ah, the real rub, peasants. Okay, I thought to myself, while trying to crystallize a new game plan for extended freedom. Let me get this straight: I’m ten, and you moved the entire family 10 miles into town from the suburbs, and now you won’t let me go play with the Italian-looking kid who lives across the street who is my age, probably Catholic, and plays baseball? Is that it? Have I identified the madness? Perhaps someone should have canvassed the neighborhood before I got moved out of the only home I had ever known. You do realize they will be auditioning for the role of the banjo player in the movie Deliverance at any moment a few streets over, right?
“Mom, come on,” I whined instead, knowing sarcasm – even though fully clothed in logic – couldn’t possibly elicit anything positive. But at least I kept the whine low so the guys across the street couldn’t hear. “I’ll give you a full report when I find anything out. But I gotta meet them first, myself. Come on, Puh-leeeese.”
Pretty poor fall-back plan, I know. But hey, I was ten. Give me a break.
Later that day, I played my first game of catch with Fran Cusumano (and Bob Brunner).
Today, June 23, 2022, is the 75th birthday of my old childhood friend, Fran. He, Bob, and Steve Davis lived across the street from me when we were kids growing up in St. Louis, Missouri. Danny Slay lived one block up. Together we formed the League of Friends.
Happy birthday, brother. Let’s you, me, Bob, and Danny toss it around again next time I’m home for a visit.
END, Pt. 1