November 29, 2021

The Pick-up Game

Scott came rushing over as he heard the loud wails coming from his little brother. He grabbed Andy and cradled him like a newborn child while blood soaked his shirt. Rick came running over soon after. By now Alice was screaming hysterically and apologizing profusely.

It was a hot, lazy summer day in August.  There wasn’t a cloud in the sky.  It was the perfect day for a pickup game.  The little boy sat on the dugout watching all the older boys playing baseball at the local little league field.  He silently wished he could play alongside his two older brothers, but he was still too young to play with the big boys.  He had to be content watching from the sidelines, for now.

“Someday you’ll be out there with them, Andy.  You’re still too little yet, you’ll just get hurt.”, the teenaged girl seated beside him tried to comfort him. Her name was Alice.  She was one of the twins who lived across the street from the boys. She was slightly chubby with long wavy blonde hair.  She was the girly one. Her twin sister, Margie, was a tomboy.  She was presently on the field warming up with the boys.

Andy smiled at Alice with his cute boyish smile in response to her words. He knew she was right. He was still very small.  His two teenaged brothers, Rick and Scott were supposed to be watching him while Mom and Dad were working, but Alice agreed to keep an eye on him while her sister played ball with the boys.

His attention returned to the action on the field. Eddie was on the mound.  His brother Dave, a.k.a. Porky, stepped up to the plate.  Everybody called him Porky because he was always a little chubby, especially compared with his skinny, older brother Eddie. Scott was behind the plate playing the catcher position, while his brother Rick was playing in the outfield. Margie was playing first-base.  Chipmunk was on second base.  Chipmunk was a short little blonde kid named Dave.  He was the smallest kid in school, so that earned him the nickname “Chipmunk”.  Sometimes they called him “Hamster” but it didn’t matter, he was just a peanut of a kid.

There was a portable radio in the dugout tuned into WAAF, the local rock station.  The Beatles were playing currently.  They were still popular in 1971.  Vietnam was still in full-swing, and Nixon was president. Everyone, including Andy, wore bell-bottoms and Keds sneakers.  Porky had to wear huskies jeans.

There were several teenage girls seated in the stands watching.  There was Ellen, she was the high school principal’s daughter.  Then there were the Mexican sisters, Rita, Maria and Linda.  Their father was a ginger Irishman, so that’s why they all had American sounding names. Andy had a crush on them…all of them.  He wished one of them were watching him instead of the nerd seated next to him.  His opinions were likely a reflection of his older brother’s.  He was too young to decide who was hot and who was not.

There were at least ten other people at the little league field that day.  This was the place to go in that small town of Baldwinville, MA.  There really wasn’t much of anything else to do. There were no movie theaters, no ice cream shops, no McDonald’s or Burger King. There was Lee’s Hot Dogs stand downtown. Down the street from there was a Rexall drug store. You could get a soda or a milkshake there, but it really wasn’t a place where kids went.

If you were a kid, the only thing to do was ride bikes, watch tv, or play pick-up games with your friends.  It forced you to be social. It forced you to be loyal to each other, because if you weren’t, you wound up very lonely and sad.  Most parents worked, and very few stayed home to watch their kids. Parents didn’t have to worry so much about their kids, because the kids looked after each other. The sociology of that small town of mostly white kids reflected the adult hierarchy of the time.  There was an established pecking order.  The kids pretty much ran things when the adults weren’t around. The only adults to be seen were police officers, and there weren’t many of those, and mailmen.  Occasionally you’d see a utility worker or a construction worker in the area, but for the most part, the kids were on their own.  If anything happened to any of the little ones, like Andy, there would be hell to pay, and Rick and Scott knew it.  They made sure he was in good hands.  Alice was very protective of Andy, almost to the point of being annoying.  Andy wasn’t too fond of her.  He liked her sister more, the tomboy. He could at least play with her and ride bikes, Alice was always much too girly, playing with her dolls. Frankly, he thought she was a bitch.

There was a loud crack as Dave connected with the second pitch that came his way.  Andy struggled to find the ball in the sun as it sailed out past the right field fence. Rick had no hope of catching that one.  Dave slowly made his way around the bases before finally crossing home plate.  He had to be good at bat because he was dog-ass slow running the bases. Rick hopped the fence to go look for the ball in the weeds.  Balls were precious because kids didn’t have a lot of money in those days. You were lucky to have a paper route, but mostly kids had pocket change and that was about it.  The nearest store was a twenty-minute drive to Gardner.

Next at bat was Rocky. He earned that name because he lost his two front teeth from fighting at school, and everyone knew he had a partial plate in his mouth.  He was a skinny kid, and not exactly good looking. He wasn’t a bad hitter though. He managed to get on first base as he drove the first pitch out past second base.  Chipmunk had no hope of catching it, but he instinctively jumped and reached his glove into the air so he could say he at least made the effort. Rick ran to grab the ball as it rolled toward him and slowly tossed it to the little guy to keep Rocky from making it to second base.

Next at bat was Kenn. He was a fair-faced slightly skinny kid with curly brown hair.  He wasn’t the greatest hitter on the field.  He sent a foul ball on a direct arcing path to the dugout.  The very same dugout Andy and Alice were seated on top of.  Alice quickly covered Andy’s head with both her hands to keep him from getting hit.  Andy struggled to free himself from his smothering, over-protective baby-sitter. Scott flipped his catcher’s mask off and ran toward the dugout.  He managed to catch the ball that came down within a couple of feet from his little brother.

“Woah!”, Andy managed to croak as his older brother mussed his hair with his free hand before heading back to the plate to retrieve his catcher’s mask. He cast a smirk over his shoulder at his baby brother as he did so.  Alice sighed quietly.  She secretly had a crush on him, but frankly, there was no hope for her. This frustrated her. This was likely the reason she was so over-protective and bossy.  It was all she had. Her sister often made fun of her because they were so different.

Andy often overheard conversations between Rick and Scott at night in the bedroom they all shared.  They talked about everybody.  They often made fun of the people who they hung around with. Making jokes and stories about every one of them.  Andy learned the value of entertaining stories from quietly listening to these late-night conversations.  Occasionally he would giggle out loud at something funny that was said, and that was when they found out he was still awake. Then of course, like all good older brothers, they’d harass him for daring to listen in on what they thought were private conversations.  Andy knew Alice was a nerd just by the way his brothers talked about her.  At his tender young age, nearly all his opinions were based on what his older brothers thought.  As abusive as they could sometimes be, he loved them, and wanted to grow up to be just like them.

Andy was emotionally scarred by this one incident that was forever seared into his memory.  Mom and Dad were at parent-teacher conferences that night.  They were late getting home, so they must have stopped for coffee afterwards.  Andy was afraid of the dark and having some trouble getting to sleep.  Rick let him come into his bed until he could fall asleep.  Rick could be mean to Andy, and well…mean in general, but he had his tender moments too.  Scott was already snoring by this point, so they knew he was out like a light.

The darkness and serenity were abruptly interrupted when the door flew open wildly, and the light switched on.  There was Dad in the doorway pulling his belt off in one swift motion, making a whooshing-whipping sound as he did so.  He had that dead-eye expression he always got before someone was about to get it.  He stormed over to Scott’s bed and ripped the covers off, exposing the boy dressed only in his tighty-whiteys.  Dad swore as he proceeded to mercilessly whip Scott with the belt.  Apparently, Scott didn’t get a good report from the parent-teacher conference.  Scott wailed as he received blow after blow from Dad’s thick leather belt.  Andy cried out in terror as his brother writhed in pain, screaming at the top of his lungs, taking the beating of his life.  Rick very quickly turned Andy around and pressed his face into his chest as he pulled the covers up over their heads. Andy sobbed for his brother’s predicament. Dad was a monster when he was pissed off.  Dad was always pissed off.

“That’s enough!”, Mom finally hollered after Scott received several blows too many at the hands of his angry father. “That’s enough!”, she screamed several more times before Dad finally let up.

Scott whimpered as he pulled the covers up over his now striped young body.

“Damn bastard!  If I ever get another report like that from school, I swear I’m gonna kill you and bury you in the woods behind Lake Denison!”, Dad bellowed at his son as he turned toward the door.  “Sonuvabitch…”, he muttered as he finally switched off the light and closed the door behind him.

Andy never forgot that moment as long as he lived. He felt so much compassion for his brother after watching him receive the worst beating he ever saw. Though he was too young to realize it, Dad had just quit drinking cold turkey, and it made him mean. Much meaner than ever before.  Dad was always mean, but his meanness went to a whole new level after he wrecked the car one night and didn’t remember doing it. He never drank again.  It wasn’t until Andy got older that he learned his dad was a raging alcoholic.  His two older brothers understood this fact all too well.

The sun began to slide well past midday, and everyone knew it was time to end their pickup game that day. Alice encouraged Andy to slide toward the back of the dugout so they could both jump down to the ground and go home. Alice went first and turned around to watch Andy jump down behind her, ready to catch him if he stumbled or fell.

Andy hesitated.  He looked down at the pile of wood on the ground below him.  There were visible splinters and nails sticking out, and he wasn’t keen on jumping down on to that mess.  He was afraid he would twist his little ankle or get a nail in his foot.  He scooted over to his left to where he thought it would be a safer place to jump down to the ground.  Unfortunately, there was a pile of broken beer bottles he had to clear before he hit the ground.  He knew he could make it if he jumped out far enough. That was his plan as he stood up and got ready to jump.

“You’re not jumping there! You’re gonna get hurt, Andy!”

“No I won’t, I can make it…”, he looked down and curled his little tongue over his upper lip cutely, determined to jump. Confident he could make it.

“Andy, no! Come on, quit screwing around, we gotta go home now!”, Alice yelling now.

“Just let me do it, I promise I won’t get hurt, I know what I’m doing!”

“No!  Stop it right now, do what you’re told, or you’ll be sorry!”, she said threateningly, hands on her hips now.

“You can’t stop me, I do what I want!”, he said, defiantly.

Alice pursed her lips; her face was red now from anger and frustration. This little boy was testing her patience now.

“Just let me do it, it’ll be alright…besides, what are you going to do, spank me?”, he laughed at her.

That was the end of her rope, she finally snapped.  She grabbed Andy by the ankles suddenly, and yanked him off the dugout by his feet in one swift motion.  She realized her mistake, only too late, as Andy fell straight down, his head landed directly into the pile of broken bottles.

Silence for what seemed like an eternity.

Andy screamed now at the top of his lungs as he felt the shards of glass penetrating the skin on the back of his neck and head.  Alice stood there in shock for a second before bending down to pick Andy up from the ground.

Scott came rushing over as he heard the loud wails coming from his little brother.  He grabbed Andy and cradled him like a newborn child while blood soaked his shirt.  Rick came running over soon after.  By now Alice was screaming hysterically and apologizing profusely.

They both pushed her away as she tried to help.  “You had one job!” Scott yelled at her as he got on his Schwinn Sting Ray bicycle. The kind with high-rise handlebars and the big stick shifter you could easily kill your balls on if you weren’t careful.  With Andy’s head draped over his shoulder bleeding to death, he rode off toward home feeling angry at Alice, and fearing what might happen to Andy, never mind what Dad might do to him.  “Please don’t die, please don’t die, please don’t die…”, was all he could think to say as he rode all the way home with Rick riding his ten-speed right behind him.

After pedaling for a mile as fast as he could while still cradling Andy, he finally pedaled down the driveway to their house.  Dad was already home and puttering around the yard with a rake when he saw his two oldest sons jump off their bikes carrying his youngest toward him.  He saw the blood covering Scott’s jersey and he knew something awful had happened.

“What the hell?”, was all he could say as his sons piled into the back seat of the car, both cradling their little brother now.

Mom came out to see what was happening, and she took one look at Andy and said, “Oh my God!  We gotta get him to the emergency room!” She ran in to get her purse and by the time she came out of the house, Dad had already had the car swung around waiting for her.  He reached over and opened her door as she got in.  Quickly he sped off toward Heywood Hospital in Gardner.  He was in a panic.

Andy started looking pale in the back seat as his brother Rick tore his tee shirt off and held it tightly against the back of Andy’s profusely bleeding head.  There were moments when Dad drove past one-hundred miles per hour in his desperate attempt to get to the emergency room in the next town over.

“Slow down, you’re going to kill us all!”, Mom screamed.

Dad forced himself to slow down, but then sped up again, trying hard not to wreck. His eyes always on the rear-view mirror, wondering if this would be the last time he saw his little boy alive.  Mom reached over the seat and rubbed Andy’s forehead, pushing his hair away from his eyes, gazing at his deathly pale face.  The stark contrast between his skin and all the blood made him look even more ghastly. She fought back the tears. She was in a state of panic also, but she held it together much better than her Irish hot-head husband.

Finally arriving at the emergency room, Dad grabbed Andy from Scott’s lap and rushed him inside.  The charge nurse at the desk saw the blood and quickly ushered Dad into the emergency room cradling his son, with Mom running closely behind him.  The other boys were forced to stay in the waiting room.

The doctor rushed in to begin working on Andy’s now nearly lifeless body.  He let Mom hold Andy’s head still while he dabbed the back of the boy’s head with gauze to stop the bleeding.  They had him laying face down on the table while the nurse started an I.V.. They had to give him some blood while the doctor stitched up the back of his head and applied a bandage to his head.

Andy had lost consciousness but after they gave him some blood and sewed him up, he finally came around. They let him sip on some ginger ale while they observed him for a couple of hours.  Thankfully, they didn’t have to admit him overnight, and they let him go home with his family.

The next morning, Andy woke up and had breakfast as usual, like nothing had ever happened. Everything was the same except for the bandage wrapped around his head.  The three boys sat at the kitchen table eating their Rice Krispies when came a knock on the door. It was Alice.  Mom bade Andy to come to the door and talk to her.

“I am so sorry, Andy…”, Alice wept bitterly, “…I didn’t mean it, it was an accident…”

Andy sat on the floor eating from his breakfast bowl, practically ignoring her for the longest time. He finally looked up at her with those big brown puppy-dog eyes and said, “Ok…”, barely audible and mumbling between bites of cereal.  He didn’t even remember what happened after his head hit the pile of broken bottles the day before.  In short, he really didn’t give a shit.  He just wanted to finish his breakfast and go play.  He had no hard feelings about the incident, even though he knew she hurt him, he just felt completely neutral about the whole thing.  He knew it was an accident, and she didn’t mean it.

Alice looked up at Andy’s Mom, still crying, “I am so sorry!”

Mom hugged the girl as Andy went on eating his cereal like nothing had ever happened.  “It was an accident, I know you didn’t do it on purpose. Go home now, tell your Mom that Andy’s okay, it’ll be alright, go on now.”, she said as she turned the girl around to leave, patting her on the rump as she went.  “And don’t feel bad, I know you were just trying to keep Andy from hurting himself!” Mom hollered after her as Alice walked across the street.

It all worked out after that.  There were many more days of pick-up games at the little league field.  They didn’t let Andy sit on the dugout anymore.  They let him sit up in the stands with all the pretty girls, while Alice sat behind the backstop playing with her dolls.  Andy received more than fifty stitches and had several scars on the back of his head for the rest of his life. Other than that little reminder, he was no worse for wear.  It was certainly not the last time he got hurt, but this was one of the more memorable moments of his life.