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We’re at a Softball Game? Who’s Playing?
Summers stretched forever when we were kids. Endless days splashing around at the community pool gave way to pitch-black evenings playing Flashlight in our neighborhood. And once or twice a week, we would all pile into the car to drive the 456 miles (which Google maps now tells me was actually only 18 miles) to Bain Elementary School in Mint Hill, where dad would play softball in the church league.
Some games started early, around 6 o’clock or so. Those games were fun enough, but every so often, dad would have a late game that didn’t start until 9 pm, which was so close to our bedtime. And those games?
Those were magic.
No, not the games themselves. I barely remember the actual games–just impressions of us sitting in the grass or in lawn chairs while sweaty men yelled and batted and ran. Flickering images of Mr. McCorkle keeping score, of white pants with knees crusted with red clay, of home runs and close calls, of foul balls and heroic catches.
That was my dad’s world.
Us kids? We were in it for Ghost in the Graveyard. For blackberry picking and lightning bug chasing. For finding plumes of Queen Anne’s Lace and speaking solemnly about the chiggers who called them home. For rolling down the hillside, all sharp elbows and knees. For licking the single, glistening bead of nectar off the stamen of a honeysuckle blossom after we pulled them through from the bottom.
That’s the trick. Pinch off the calyx, and pull the style through so the nectar collects at the base of the flower. One after another. We were experts.
Driving Into the Past (A Note About the Old Photos)
When it was time to scatter some of dad’s ashes–the bulk of which are in the columbarium at their church, in the niche closest to the tree where we scattered my brother’s ashes–it was not hard to decide where to go. Dad had long said, “When I die, scatter my ashes around third base,” and then he’d laugh.
But I know he meant it.
He had a lifelong connection to baseball and softball that ran deep. He was a great team player and excellent fielder (I won’t bother commenting on his batting). And as an only child, being part of a team, of something larger than himself, was precious.
We were a small group, setting out for Bain Elementary and the ball field I fervently hoped was still there: Auntie Ev and Uncle Ray’s son, Ken and his wife Candace, my mom, The Beloved, and I. And a brown glass vitamin bottle filled with dad’s ashes.
I talked a good game as we drove. “Even if the field isn’t there anymore, it’s the idea of it. We can just scatter them around the playground if it’s not there. I mean, it has been forty years. It could’ve changed. Dad won’t mind. It’s totally the thought that counts.”
In my heart though, I knew I’d be bitterly disappointed if I had to settle for scattering his ashes around a slide on a playground rather than around the spot where he used to slide into third base.
The Ghost of a Ball Field
Pulling into the drive of Bain Elementary the Saturday before Mother’s Day, I was hit by both old and new. There was a whole new school building. A new playground. New parking. But there was also Philadelphia Presbyterian’s haunted–I know it was haunted–grave yard right across the street, same as ever.
The house where the Rosses lived, whose sons Rodney, Ricky and Randy were our ball game friends, was still there along with a piece of their old barbed wire fence entwined with blackberry bushes.
As we walked down toward where the old ball field was, the old familiar low, brick, flat-roofed original school building came into view. It had been hidden behind the brash new upstart of a building.
To the rear of the old school, there was the slope down which we’d tumble, crushing sweet clover and crabgrass as we passed. Smaller than I’d remembered, but there.
My eyes scanned from left to right. New playground, just as I’d suspected, but as I tracked to the right, I saw a creosote-soaked pole topped with light banks. The bulbs were gone, but the housings were there. And there was another. And another.
And right there. There was the concrete pad that used to have the bench bolted to it. And there were the concrete block dugouts, and the concession stand, sullen and abandoned. But there.
And the ghosts of those summer nights all came crashing back.
The backstop was gone. No fencing at all.
No bases. No benches.
I could see the paint peeling from the plywood scoreboard, where numbers used to hang from small cup hooks, signifying the runs scored per inning. But the board was there.
In the middle of it all, the vague outline of the diamond. The ground sunken around each base and slightly raised in the center where the pitcher’s mound used to be. The whole draped in low growing clover and scrubby grass.
It’s nice, flat land, and the school is obviously no longer using it as a ball field. For some reason, they tore down the fencing, unscrewed the light bulbs, pulled up the bases, unbolted the benches. But the bones of the field? The bones they left.
They left the echo of a ball field. A skeleton field.
A ghost field.
They must have left it that way for us. For my dad.
A bubble of the past in the middle of now. Echoes of cheers, the memory of grit on my neck, a hint of honeysuckle floating through the air.
We found the shadow of third base and spread dad’s ashes–the ghost of my father–around it.
It was perfect. Even more perfect than had the field still been active.
My dad, laid to rest in a bubble of the past, around the ghost of his beloved third base.
Always a Kid
After late games, when we would finally pile into the car, sweaty and tired with sticky purple hands, grass stained shorts, and absolutely no idea which team had won the game, our night wasn’t quite over.
Even though it was probably around 10:30–well past our bedtime–and our drive was dark, lit only by the car’s headlight beams, dad would make a stop on the way home to the Kwik Pick to quick pick up some ice cream and root beer so we could make root beer floats once we got home. I can still remember seeing the Kwik Pick come into view around the bend. Orange and red sign, glowing like a beacon, drawing us off the two-lane road and into its air conditioned bosom.
We never wondered what we’d be buying at the Kwik Pick. We were there for two items.
Root beer and vanilla ice cream.
And when we got home at the ungodly hour of 11 pm, dad would make us tall, creamy, fizzy root beer floats.
Now that I think of it, I doubt my mom was as keen on this plan as dad was. I mean, it was past our bedtime. Way past our bedtime.
But dad always was a kid at heart, and I think he bought root beer float fixin’s for us because he wanted one, too.
And Greg and I were all in.
Old Fashioned Creamy Root Beer Float
I haven’t had an old fashioned creamy root beer float in years, but I do remember the ones we used to make after ball games.
Just 2 ingredients–root beer poured over vanilla ice cream–but even as a kid, I had one big issue with them.
I had to wait for the ice cream to melt so the float would be nice and creamy.
How to remedy that? Put some melted ice cream in the bottom of the glass first. Pour in a bit of root beer. Add more ice cream, and then top off with more root beer, some whipped cream, and of course a cherry on top.
Creamy, fizzy, sweet, perfect. An old fashioned root beer float to be proud of. One you can drink right away and not worry if it won’t be creamy enough.
I’m pretty sure my dad would approve.
- 1/2 cup vanilla bean ice cream, melted but still cold
- 8 scoops vanilla bean ice cream
- 4 12 oz bottles your favorite root beer
- 1 cup whipped heavy cream, unsweetened (my preference)
- 4 maraschino cherries
- Pour 2 Tablespoons of melted vanilla ice cream in the bottom of your glasses.
- Top off with about 1/4 of the bottle of root beer.
- Add one scoop of ice cream to each glass and then slowly fill with root beer until the foam reaches the top rim of the glass.
- Plop in another scoop of ice cream. Spoon or pipe on a generous swirl of whipped cream, and then perch a drained maraschino cherry on top.
- Enjoy, and keep your bottle of root beer right next to you, because as you sip, you'll want to keep adding root beer. It's like a bottomless float!
Next time you’re thirsty and feeling nostalgic, do make a creamy root beer float. Not much different than a regular root beer float, to be honest, but no waiting for the ice cream to melt. And give a thought to my dad–I think he’d appreciate that.
Thank you so much for spending some time with me today. Take care, and have a lovely day.
A Note About the Old Photos
All the old photos of kids playing ball were sent to me by an old friend of my dad who found me through the obituary I posted on my blog. He was on the same team as my dad, and my mom’s father was the coach. We have only been in touch a few weeks, but he has promised to find some photos of my dad playing. Thank you, Jimmy Hay.
All the photos, taken in Queens, NY in the very late 1940s and early 1950s, are on their “home field,” which was an empty lot behind my mom’s apartment building. My grandfather had it cleared of scrub and rocks so the team had a safe place to practice.