click on image to enlarge
When I heard my mother tell my brother that “The Aunts” had given up their Pirates tickets I was instantly intoxicated with excitement. Yet when I realized, not a moment later, that it was actually my older brother’s turn to go to the game, I sobered up abruptly. Even though the baseball season was only twelve days old, we had each already attended a game. The Aunts, who were actually my grandmother’s older sisters, had taken me with them to a day game the previous weekend. Having become the widowed triumvirate of matriarchy in our family, they were simply known to us as “The Aunts.” Barry had gone to a night game with my dad a couple of days after the opener. The way I saw it, it was my turn to go to a night game and I figured that the whole turn-taking system should be reconsidered and possibly restructured. Somehow, it just didn’t seem fair that it wasn’t my turn. I considered it and went with my first impulse, so I headed for the kitchen to find my mom.
“Mom, Barry can’t go to the game tonight, he has to finish his science project. It’s due tomorrow and he hasn’t even started.” I yelled as I ran, catching my mother at the sink.
“I’ll be done by the time Dad gets home,” Barry cried out from the game room.
“It is his turn,” my mom said to me, shrugging her shoulders.
I dragged my body slowly through the cramped kitchen. By the time I got to the game room, I was in full pout mode. I saw my ever-procrastinating brother hunched over a slew of magazines, cutting and pasting his science project into life. He had waited until the last day, as usual; and he was going to do a hasty throw together job with little to no effort involved. He was probably going to get a good grade for it too, as usual. He was only thirteen months older, but we were very different kids. Fourth graders were years ahead of third graders, yet I didn’t realize this until fifth grade. It seemed that I had to work a lot harder just to keep pace with Barry, and he was aware of it. My personal pout party had begun to blossom into a full-blown sulk session and some heavy brooding was on the near horizon.
“It’s my turn,” Barry said, looking up at me with a smirk.
“You don’t even like baseball,” I replied.
“So, I like the ice cream and popcorn, . . . and you know what?” he asked.
“What?” I muttered.
“It’s my turn,” he said.
He carefully cut out a Redwood tree from a National Geographic and laid it in a neat, flat stack of green. His project almost looked like fun, and I considered staying to help him until I remembered how much I hated him. But, I realized that I only hated him because it was his turn to be hated. It was third grade logic and it seemed reasonable to me. He started humming “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” as he glued and I almost cracked a smile. Barry’s acrimony was legend in our family and as first-born he tended to get his way more often than not. But not this time.
I knew the clock was ticking, so I headed back to the living room to watch the end of Speed Racer and develop a new plan. On my way through the kitchen, I put on my best forlorn look and trudged slowly past my mom, who appeared to be wrestling a chicken and losing. I grabbed a bag of pretzels and sighed loudly for effect. My mom was a pushover and you could always win her affection with even the smallest display of unhappiness. She would try earnestly to make it better even before she really knew what it was. She was known to us for her unrequited warm-heartedness, and I intended to use that to my advantage.
“ I know you’d really like to go to the baseball game,” she cooed, “but you can’t go every time, you have to take turns.” She went back to doing something horrible to the chicken. I could smell paprika in the air.
I grumbled softly, put on a dejected look and headed for the living room. My little brother was parked on my dad’s chair, known affectionately as “the Archie Chair,” so I plopped down into my mother’s “Edith Chair.” I figured I had about ten minutes or so before my Dad got home from work. My two-year-old sister was playing with dolls in front of the television set, and I could smell her ripey diapey from across the room. Speed Racer was almost over, and I’d already seen that episode twice, so I got up and grabbed my mitt and a tennis ball. I headed outside before my mom could come into the room, take a whiff and ask me to change Susie’s diaper. Jeff’s gaze had never left the TV screen, yet he had noticed my impending escape.
“Where you goin’? ,” Jeff asked.
“Outside,” I answered, “to play baseball.”
“Can I play?” he asked eagerly.
“You’re too little,” I told him, “I’m pitching fast.” Truth being, I didn’t want to bean the four-year-old . . . at least, not yet. I was twice his age and had control issues with my fastball. There would be years to come when Jeff’s dubious decisions to repeatedly submit himself to potential bodily harm would result in only surprisingly minor ball-related injuries. He never took the coward’s way out and opted for a helmet, even after he got his glasses. He was a brave kid. As a rule, the physical games I played with Jeff were almost always officially ended by my parents when he began to cry. He learned over time that, if we were ever going to finish a game or have any fun, he was going to have to suck up a little pain and play through it. It toughened him up and he dominated friends who weren’t lucky enough to have older brothers. His curious lack of gratitude has always been mystifying.
By the time my dad’s station wagon started pulling into the driveway I had worked up a small, but noticeable, sweat. When he saw me in the driveway standing on my makeshift pitcher’s mound, he parked instead on the street. I pretended not to notice him and stretched into my best, high leg kick underarm delivery. The tennis ball landed a good foot right of the chalk box which had been drawn in a dull yellow with a soft rock, about kid high on our neighbor’s concrete wall. My dad was getting out of his car, and he looked toward the wall just as the pitch hit. Our dog was barking loudly on the porch, heralding the arrival of “the king.”
“If the batter was a righty,” he said, “you just beaned him.”
“He was a lefty,” I responded, “I was ahead on the count, and I was seeing if he would chase some junk. I’m working on a two-seam fastball that sinks.”
I beamed with what I hoped was an athletic grin, and he smiled back and headed up the steps into the house. Without thinking I blurted out, “We got the Aunt’s box seats for the Pirate game tonite.” As he turned around and looked my way, I added “it’s against the Cardinals, you know, . . . Lou Brock.” That elicited a moderately discernible response, and he tilted his head in recognition as he walked through the front door, petting the dog and shutting her up. I turned my attention back to the wall and envisioned Lou Brock in the batter’s box; but for the life of me, I could not remember if he was a righty or a lefty. If you walked Lou Brock, he would most likely steal second. That much I knew.
Six minutes later, after taking the switch-hitting Brock to a full count, he doubled down the line, stole third and scored the go ahead run on a wild pitch into the jagger bushes. I left the tennis ball in the bushes, like usual, and went back inside ready to do some major league bitching and moaning. Even though I knew it wasn’t my turn, I was intent on going to the game.
The combination of my annoying, incessant pleading, mixed with some authentic grade school variety crying, seemed to begin to work in my favor. The fact that Barry had become involved in a “Star Trek” episode he’d only seen twice was also helping my cause. While repeatedly interrupting his television viewing to remind him just how boring baseball can be, I finally broke him down. He told me to “shut my piehole” and go to the game. Barry admitted that he didn’t really care about it that much anyway, and he added that he was gonna get to go to the next two games in a row even if they were fireworks or giveaway nights. I was excited, instantly enthusiastic and energized; but, admittedly, it was not a proud moment for me. Who says there’s no crying in baseball?
After a manicotti surprise dinner, I got my Pirate jacket and waited for my dad to finish eating. We were always surprised by what my Mom would put inside manicotti and even more surprised at how much of it my dad would eat. I was partial to the mooshed chicken manicotti myself. It had a pleasant, chewy texture with very little spice or flavor . . . just the way we liked it. Of course, I only ate one because I was saving room for some real ballpark food. My dad ate six before cleaning Jeff’s plate and meeting me outside by the car.
Traffic began to slow down on the Parkway as we approached the bridge to the North Side. The other cars merging into the right lane with us were all festooned with yellow and black, and most blared loud music, creating a cacophony of sound in the underpass. My dad had the Pirates AM affiliate on, and we both listened with feigned interest to the pre game talk show. We heard the familiar voice of the Pirates announcer telling us that Lou Brock was to be a late scratch and that Rookie-of-the-Year Bake McBride was to become the Card’s lead off man.
“Aw, boogers,” I grumbled to my dad, “Brock’s not even gonna be playing tonight.”
“Your Aunt Selma likes that Richie Zisk, but Gramma thinks he’s a shlub,” he replied.
I failed to make the connection; but as we slowly crossed the bridge, Three Rivers Stadium came into full view. The Gateway Clipper was already docked in front of Gate C unloading the Pirate faithful. Looking closely, I could even see the statue of Honus Wagner. My eyes took it all in, and I felt that anticipatory excitement begin to grow. Car horns blew randomly, and we veered onto the off ramp heading away from the stadium, toward the North Side and the cheap parking near the community college. The stadium lots were half empty, but I could already feel the pent up energy of the crowd. I couldn’t wait to get out of the car and into the organized chaos. I wanted to look for some Al Oliver wristbands on the way in, and the mere thought of cotton candy made my mouth water. The car ahead of us was covered in bumper stickers. It was marked proudly with a Pirate, a Steeler, and even a Penguin emblem. I admired the impressive sports fan, and made a mental note to look for cool Pirate stickers at the souvenir stands. The bumper sticker on our car read Save Gas . . . Fart in a Jar. We saw it on a family trip to the Jersey Coast, demanded that my dad allow us to put it on our bumper, and it almost always got a laugh from the poor sap stuck behind us in traffic.
After we parked a mile away, we followed the crowd through the lots and the sparse, but loud, drunken tailgaters and headed for Gate A. I knew that tonight we were sitting in The Aunts precious box seats, surrounded only by other privileged season ticket holders. There was a man who sat next to us who almost always gave me a silver dollar. I wondered if he was going to be there. Ken Brett, who was always best known for being George Brett’s brother, was pitching for the Pirates. I had always liked him, and he was my favorite pitcher.
My excitement grew as we entered the stadium and headed for the field level seats. My dad asked if I wanted to get something before we sat down, but I was eager to get settled in, and I shrugged and pulled him toward our aisle. The usher saw us coming, and he approached us holding a dirty yellow rag in his hand. He was even older than The Aunts, probably in his eighties. Taking the tickets from us, he started very slowly down the steep steps. On the way down the steps, I gazed up into the vastness of the upper decks. As we got closer and closer to the field, I felt more and more entitled, almost ennobled. If you sat this close to the field, you were special; and people knew that. Every row we passed, the less special people glanced at me with a palpable envy. We were in the second row, and I could probably remain seated and hock a loogie all the way to third base given the chance.
“Ah, the ladies couldn’t make it tonight, huh?” the old usher asked my dad.
“Well . . . It was our turn,” my dad answered, as he shot me a wink.
“Enjoy the game, fellas,” he said as he polished our clean seats with his dirty rag.
The Aunts, who were generous to a fault, probably tipped this guy five or ten bucks each game. I could tell he was anxiously awaiting a similar windfall from my dad. I was surprised when my dad actually gave him a buck, and he thanked us and sauntered back up the stairs. There were three empty seats next to my seat and two between my dad and the aisle. I sat motionless, absorbing it all, as I scoped the field for players. There were three outfielders tossing long flies to each other and a batting coach hitting grounders to Frank Tavares, the Pirates’ shortstop. I noticed that the bleachers were almost empty, but the box seats were mostly filled. The air was thick with a mixed smell of popcorn and beer. It was a warm, but not humid, early spring night.
“Here comes the popcorn guy,” my dad said, “you want some?”
“Hecks yeah,” I responded.
As I ate my popcorn and got really thirsty, the seats around us began to slowly fill. Hard core Pirate fans greeted each other with high fives, and a few added robust “Let’s go Bucs!” Right before the anthem started, the silver dollar guy finally came with two older ladies. He sat next to me, smelling of cigarettes and beer. I informed him that Lou Brock would not be playing tonight, and he looked impressed. He asked about my Aunts and said, “Hi,” to my dad. The game was about to start and the game time clock, which counted backwards, was at one minute.
“If the Coke guy comes down the aisle, can we get one?” I asked my dad, rubbing salt from my lips and trying to swallow.
“Sure,” he answered, glancing down at the half empty popcorn. “Gimme some popcorn.”
The game turned out to be a pitcher’s duel for the most part, and it was still scoreless going into the fifth inning. I had long since finished my popcorn, a hot pretzel and a coke. Greedily, I scanned around for the ice cream vendor but I was starting to think that I was pushing my luck with my dad’s limited generosity. If I was going to get ice cream, I was gonna have to wait for the offer. My chances for cotton candy were getting slimmer by the inning, and I had given up altogether on a hotdog.
The Cardinal’s left fielder, Luis Melendez hit a solo home run, which momentarily energized the crowd and got the vocal drunks a little louder. The chant “Here we go Buccos, here we go!” came and went with wavering fervor. The crowd had almost settled into a lull, but then we all stood for the seventh inning stretch; and the announcer informed us that there were only 6,319 in attendance. A low murmur went through the crowd, and I heard disconsolate mumbles around us. I looked up into the upper sections, which we referred to as peanut heaven, and saw mostly empty yellow seats. I wondered aloud why more people didn’t come to the game. Dad pointed out that it was on TV, which was easier to watch and a lot cheaper. It made no sense to me at all. I watched eagerly as the Pirates failed to score again in the sixth and seventh innings.
During the bottom of the seventh I grabbed my empty popcorn holder, summoned up my courage, and let out a “Let’s Go Bucs!” with the makeshift megaphone. After Richie Zisk and Dave Parker both singled, there were other voices that joined my chant. My dad patted me on the shoulder and said I was going to start a rally. But the crowd was quickly subdued when Duffy Dyer popped up to end the inning, leaving us only scant hope for a late Pirate comeback.
I was playing with my popcorn holder; and I remember thinking that, if a foul ball were to come our way, I could use the popcorn megaphone to catch it like a funnel. I put it under my seat and practiced grabbing it to catch a few pretend liners, seeing how long it might take me. I think I was starting to annoy both my dad and the silver dollar guy by the time the Cardinals came to bat in the top of the eighth. I tried to sit still.
When Bake McBride doubled to right center, Ted Sizemore singled him home; and the Cards went up 3 - 0. I heard the “F” word three times, and some folks around us actually started gathering their stuff and leaving in small clusters. Even though my dad hated sitting in the post-game traffic, we usually stayed until the bitter end. It was only a little after 9:00pm with one more inning to go, and I reminded him that the Buccos could always rally. With two outs, and Ken Brett still on the mound, the Cardinals sent third baseman Ken Reitz to the plate. Reitz took the count to two and two, and then hit a solid, screaming line drive right toward us. The ball came at us like a bullet.
I remember what happened next in super-slow motion. As the ball came toward us everybody reacted. Most braced for impact, ducking instinctively. This was nothing like a pop foul where a bunch of guys jostled for position and grabbed at the ball with their bare hands. A pop foul was seen as a gold nugget, and deftly caught, could be worn as a badge of honor. This line drive was more like a cannon being fired in our direction, and our platoon simply took cover. It happened so fast that there was only time to react. There was no time to think. Unfortunately, I thought to reach for the popcorn holder, to put my plan in motion. Before I finished my thought, the ball had arrived. It bounced off something really close to us with a sickening thud. The ball landed rows behind us and fans scrambled for the nugget.
I was lying against my dad; and we slowly sat up, looking around to see what the ball had hit. My left hand went to the side of my head and I felt some warm wetness. My dad gawked at me; his eyes and mouth were wide open. I glanced at my hand and watched as blood dripped down my palm and past my wrist. I tried to say something to my Dad, but I could not. I heard strange sounds coming from my own mouth.
“Ti . . . be . . . ti . . . pi . . . ” was all that came out.
Gasps and shrieks came from the front row, and I looked again at my dad. He was white and motionless. People around us had also frozen in horror, and all eyes were on me.
Dad suddenly stood up and grabbed my waist with both of his hands. He threw me over his right shoulder and ran up the aisle like a fireman, almost running over the old usher. It felt as if he took three steps at a time; and yet, the steps seemed an endless climb.
“First aid is to your right!” an usher yelled, pointing ahead of us.
People were all looking at me as I was carried off. A lady was crying as we whisked by, and she clutched her baby tight to her chest. With my back to the field, I wondered if any of the players were watching me and if I were on TV. It was uncomfortably quiet and I could hear muted voices and collective gasps.
As we reached the concourse, the crowd parted out of our way. Two security guards joined us at a jog as they walkie-talkied ahead to first aid. I noticed that we were leaving a trail of blood behind us with small dark drops dotting the ground every few feet. Some blood rolled down my face onto my dad’s shoulder. A dizzy feeling came over me and my temples throbbed. I tried to ask my dad something, but I couldn’t. Suddenly, I smelled cotton candy and I inhaled deeply, almost tasting it.
A group of doctors and nurses were waiting for us by the time I was laid on the cold, metal table in the first aid room. Everybody was talking at the same time, and they all seemed to have a question for my dad. He told them what happened and had his own questions for them. I was fading in and out, and I looked up at my dad. When I saw him look back at me, I finally started to panic and considered being scared. I had never seen my dad look so horrified. This was bad, I thought. The doctors gave me oxygen, held bandages to my head and started to ask me questions about what hurt and where. When I barely stuttered back; I heard my dad say, “He can’t talk!” A nurse yelled for someone to get a pen and paper. Someone cleaned the blood off my hand and handed me a pad. I took the pen and looked again at my father. Without thinking, I began to write the first question that came to my head and handed the pad off. Dad took it, looked at it, shook his head and smiled.
I had written: “Do you think I’m going to have to go to school tomorrow?”
I remember little of the ambulance ride. The sound of the siren was odd in that it never got louder or softer, it just stayed the same volume and pitch, making it different from any other time I had heard a siren. I wrote some more notes to my dad, but it became hard to focus and I felt tired and sleepy. He told me that I was “in shock” and that I was going to be all right, yet his expression seemed to doubt his words. It hadn’t occurred to me to start crying until then; so lacking other options, I began a slow bawl. Yet, when I saw my dad’s face I quickly stopped, because seeing him weep would have been unbearable for me. I breathed oxygen deeply through my nose and thought about how fast we were going past all the other cars, through the red lights and stop signs. It seemed we were traveling by plane, at warp speed, crashing through thick clouds and turbulence. The oxygen tasted clean. I was frightened and I had peed in my pants.
At the hospital things started to get even fuzzier; and I remember being pushed down long halls, banging through doors like the amusement cars on the spooky rides at Kennywood. My brother and I loved those rides, and would get back on after the ride ended, running from the exit to the entrance. I closed my eyes and pretended we were riding along, laughing at the stupid scenery, debating which ride to go to next. There were lots of doors, and lots of banging. My dad was no longer in sight. I was on my own.
A sharp prick in my leg awoke me and I saw a nurse walking away from me with a huge syringe. It reminded me of the air pump we used to inflate footballs. Warmth washed over me, and I stopped shivering. I was being pushed again; and when I came to a stop and opened my eyes I was in an incredibly light room with lots of beeping sounds and a metallic smell. I could hear men talking in calm tones and I caught the words “surgery” and “brain.” This was all starting to seem like a movie to me and I was unsure what was real. A nurse put a clear mask on my face and told me to count backwards from a hundred. At ninety-nine I noticed that the air tasted nasty and thick, almost minty. Then it got darker, and I took a little nap.
I woke up in a fog. At least, I think I woke up. When I looked around slowly, it seemed I had wakened; but I wasn’t quite convinced of it. Through a haze, I thought I saw my dad and some other guys sitting in metal chairs and talking softly. My first thought was something like, “What happened and where am I?” I remembered the baseball game, and it appeared obvious that I was in a hospital. My second thought was something like, “why is my dad talking to Ken Brett?” This confused me, and again I questioned my consciousness. Yet, before I could muster any more thoughts or questions, sleep came over me.
I woke up . . . yet, not so much.
I slept some more, and again, I woke up.
The next time I opened my eyes, I saw my mom with my dad, and they looked happy to see me. My stuffed animal Snuffy, the elephant, was next to me. Holding a small pad and a pen in her hand, my mother was smiling at me. I looked at my left hand and noticed the IV needle for the first time. A soreness, and a general weakness settled over me. I took the pen and pad with my right hand and placed it on the white bed sheet. Bending over me, my mom kissed me gently on the top of my bandaged head.
“You’re gonna be all right,” my mom said, “it’s all over now.”
My dad added, “Rest your voice, and use the paper if you want to ask us something.”
A nurse entered the room and approached the bed with a glass of water and some pills. She handed the glass to me, held the pills in front of my mouth and spoke to me as if I were a preschooler. The pills were purple and round and looked like grape candy.
“Open up, these are your magic pills” she said gently. “You’ll like them.”
I took them on my tongue and drank a big gulp of water. They tasted somewhat grapey.
“How’s your head feeling?” she asked as she fidgeted with the bandages that went around my head like a turban. I thought about it and decided that there was a general murkiness in my head, an indistinct dullness, but no real pain to speak of. My head just felt swollen. I lightly shrugged at her and gave her a dumb look, hoping she would leave.
“Yins let me know if he needs anything,” she said to my folks with a thick Pittsburgh accent, as she played with my IV and checked a couple of beeping machines. She went quietly, leaving only the essence of her mild perfumed aroma.
I reached down for the pen and pad, and my mom helped prop up a pillow so that I could write a note. I wrote: “What happened?”
My parents took turns explaining things slowly and simply.
Dad started by explaining that when the ball hit my head, it broke my skull and lodged a half dollar-sized piece in my brain. He said that the piece went into a part of my brain called Broca’s Area, which controls speech production and the movements of my tongue, lips and vocal cords. This explained the loss of my ability to speak while my comprehension remained intact. I put my hand to the bandages covering my head and pictured my broken brain.
My mother quickly added that the doctor had explained to them that people with damage to Broca’s area can often adapt and learn to speak again using other areas of their brain. She told me that kids have the ability to learn languages quickly and that there was much hope that I would make a full speech recovery. Looking convinced of herself as she spoke, my dad nodded along. This was interesting news to me, and I realized that I had yet to speak aloud.
They went on to tell me about the surgery and about how the doctors had removed the fractured piece from my brain and sewn me back up. There was a small gap in my skull, but I was gonna be all right, they reassured me. Everyone agreed that I was lucky just to be alive.
My dad stepped back, went over to the chairs in which they had been sitting and returned to my bed with a huge baseball bat. He held it close to my face so that I could see it. It was the biggest bat I had ever seen, and I stared at it in disbelief.
“Ken Brett stopped by to see how you were doing earlier, but you were still a little groggy,” he said, “He autographed your ticket.” He handed me my ticket, and I held it gently.
“ Danny Murtaugh brought this bat for you,” said my mom.
“Danny Murtaugh was here?” I thought, wondering why the Pirates manager had come to see me; and if so, why he hadn’t waited for me to wake up.
“Guess whose bat this was?” Dad asked.
I looked at it and gripped it to make sure it was real. By turning the bat so that I could see the bottom of it, I noticed a VIII written in a red marker over what I assumed was the bat size, K44. Being good at math, Roman numerals were easy for me.
“Number 8?” I thought. “Could this really be Willie Stargell’s bat?”
I mouthed the name “Willie Stargell” without making any sound.
Both my parents nodded, beaming with pride. My dad pointed to a spot on the meat of the bat where Willie’s signature had been engraved, right between the words GENUINE (on the top) and LOUISVILLE SLUGGER (on the bottom). I was surprised to see he signed his name Wilver. It seemed so formal. About halfway up the bat, the grain of the wood was visible. Pine tar had darkened the bottom half and I could tell that this was a real piece of sports equipment, used by the one and only Willie Stargell.
“Wow,” I thought . . . “wow.”
My dad pointed to a different spot near the signature and I noticed a quarter-sized bruise in the wood. According to Danny Murtaugh, it had come from a home run that Willie had hit the previous week, and that the bat was the largest legal size that could be used in the Major League. I was amazed by it and I let my eyes explore every groove. My mother looked at me and asked me what I thought of my new prized possession. This time she looked as if she were expecting an oral response. The time had come for me to attempt to say something, and I knew I couldn’t put it off much longer. With an indescribable, deliberate effort, and with a dry, scratchy voice, I looked at her and said one word. It came out of my mouth slowly, sounding vaguely unfamiliar. It was my new voice.
With my eyes still glued to the bat, I said “Wow.”
The next day both of my brothers and my baby sister came to visit. Someone had brought a copy of the morning newspaper, the Post-Gazette, and it was opened on my bed. Barry pointed to the two by two inch article next to the “Family Circus” cartoon.
The headline read: “Boy Hit by Foul Ball ‘Fair’ After Surgery.”
Barry went on to read out loud.
“An 8-year-old boy struck by a foul ball at the Pirate baseball is in fair condition today after an operation and a visit by Pirates pitcher Ken Brett.”
“What’s ‘fair condition’ mean?” asked my little brother Jeff.
“It means Lee’s going to be just fine,” said my mom.
“That’s fair then,” added Jeff.
“A Children’s Hospital spokesman said the boy underwent surgery for a depressed fractured skull,” Barry continued reading, “Lee was struck by a line drive off the bat of St. Louis Cardinals third baseman Ken Reitz in the eighth inning of the Pirates game Tuesday night.”
“This is the good part,” Barry said. “The boy and his father Donald were sitting in a second row box seat beyond third base. ‘The ball came down so fast and everyone else ducked,’ his father said.”
“Why didn’t you duck?” Jeff asked me.
“I was trying to catch the ball,” I replied. Everyone looked at me in acknowledgment, as if the simple act of my talking was something to be admired. Then Jeff asked me why I didn’t take my mitt to the game so I gave him the stinkeye.
“Listen to this,” Barry piped in, still reading. “Brett visited Lee at the hospital yesterday after the operation, but the youngster was under anesthesia and kept dozing off.”
“It’s not fair,” I said. “ I don’t remember him coming at all. Maybe he will come back.”
“Wait there’s a little more,” Barry said. “Brett autographed a stadium ticket and told Lee’s father he would send a get-well card signed by all the Pirate players.”
“Woo-hoo!” I yelped, causing my sister, Susie, to squeal in delight. My mom sat her on the bottom of my bed, and she touched Willie’s bat softly with her tiny hands. I grabbed her and parked her in my growing pile of stuffed animals. She giggled and cupped a little white duckling as if it were real. As I rubbed her back and smelled her hair, I recalled my fondness for her.
“Can I see the ticket?” Jeff asked.
I reached under my pillow and showed it to him. He looked at it closely then flipped it over and read the fine print. At least he looked like he was reading it. He was only four, but he was bright and well on his way to being bookish. He handed the ticket back to me and took the newspaper.
The last line of the article I read to myself later when everyone had gone home. I wondered why Barry hadn’t read it aloud. It ended:
“Donald Krieger said doctors hope to release the boy in a week, but that he won’t be relieved until he hears his son speak again.”
I also read the “Family Circus” cartoon, which showed the kids at the zoo, in front of the lions/elephants sign, squatting to point at a pile of ants. The caption simply read: “Wow! Look! Ants!” I didn’t get it the first time, or the second; and it took a long time before I really understood the joke.
I was pleased to hear that my father was relieved, but I didn’t get to leave the hospital the next week. It wasn’t until three days after surgery that my dad was able to eat and drink again. He told me that some people ate large amounts of food when they were nervous while others stopped eating altogether. He had stopped eating since the accident, feeling as if his throat had constricted, struggling with his ability to swallow. Even drinking water was difficult for him at first. Unlike him, I had a healthy appetite yet I didn’t care for the hospital food they offered up. My mother had asked permission to bring in some home-cooked food, but the doctors said they were monitoring my food intake for the time being and that the matzo ball soup would have to wait. My mother’s cooking would slowly make its way to the hospital over the next few weeks, making her feel better and stronger with each bite that I took.
I opened my get-well cards that came on a daily basis. Many had cash enclosed, which I squirreled into a bedside piggy bank, but only one had a silver dollar, which didn’t fit in the slot. Ken Brett sent me tickets to a game with seats behind home plate (and the protective screen). He wrote in his card that he was happy to hear that I was going to make a full recovery and that he would call me soon, as if we were good friends. Mrs. Snyder, my homeroom teacher, had sent a card, signing it “Janet,” which I thought was especially exciting. She must have made the class write cards as an assignment because I got a box full of them one day. Some of the cards from my classmates were hysterically funny, many sporting pictures of my head, a baseball and me in a variety of unflattering combinations. The printed sound effects were enough to make me laugh. One kid, who was a bully, actually wrote that he couldn’t wait for me to return to school so that he could punch me in the head. Obviously, Mrs. Snyder had erroneously forgone proofreading the assignment before it got to me. I read them over and over again whenever I needed laughter, the best medicine.
I was an over active eight year-old (to put it mildly); and after a few days in bed, I was ready to get up and around. By the end of the first week, I was able to push my IV cart down the hall, past the nurse’s station, and into the rec room. The first few days I went slow so as not to get dizzy. In the long hall, there was a refrigerator that opened from the top, like the one in my school. It was filled with chocolate milk, and free for the taking. I shot a lot of pool in the rec room, and I drank a lot of milk. Being just tall enough to see over the pool balls; I tended to use the bridge a lot and became fairly accurate. I played for hours, setting up trick shots for anyone who would watch. I shot many games with my dad, I beat a nurse and once I even played against a doctor. Interns, who I suspected let me win a few games, made me even cockier and eager to get better. Shooting pool was actually fun.
The one person who played pool with me and never let me win, was my speech therapist: a soft-spoken Chinese man, not much taller than me. He wore little round glasses and had a wiry, black mustache. Being a skilled pool player, he tried earnestly to teach me how to put English on the ball, without much success. Ironically, his competence at billiards English surpassed his ability to speak the English language. I found it odd that someone who lacked total command of his own speech would become a speech therapist. It was like taking art lessons from a blind man, and it became just another challenge for me.
During our daily speech sessions, he would have me repeating word after word after word. Soon, he could tell that I got bored pretty quickly and he tried his best to make the sessions fun. He used comical pictures, books and even a puppet or two. But there must have been certain sounds that I was having trouble with, because I would have to say a particular word many, many times. And, due to his thick Chinese accent, I found myself asking him to repeat himself often. English was his second language, and it was also becoming mine. It was a grueling process. Speech therapy was actually not fun.
“Say ‘apple’,” he would demand of me.
“Apple,” I’d reply.
“Apple,” he’d say again.
“Apple?” I’d respond.
We did an hour of this every day for three weeks, and it got old fast. It was cutting into my pool playing, my cartoon watching, and my milk drinking time. The therapist was a professional, however, and he was determined to do his job. Finally, he told me of a test at the end of our sessions, that if I passed I wouldn’t have to enroll in speech therapy class upon my return to school. I shuddered to think how boring that might be, so I paid attention, and said my lines. But one day, during a particularly boring session, I decided to have a little fun.
Holding up a picture of a baseball bat, he asked, “What is this?”
“A bat,” I said.
There was a picture of a mitt. He asked, “And this?”
“A mitt,” I alleged, looking at the ceiling.
“No, say gruv,” he responded.
I made the transliteration. “Oh, glove . . . ok. Glove,” I said.
He flipped to a picture of a baseball and motioned to it.
I looked at it and got a mischievous notion. I opened my eyes wide, put both my hands up in front of me and exclaimed “No! Keep it away! It’s gonna hurt me!” I pretended it was a big spider, and I recoiled in horror.
He looked at the baseball and back at me. A cartoon lightbulb appeared above his head, and I thought I heard a “ding.” He considered the possibility, and I could tell that he had really bought my act and believed my fear. He put the picture down quickly and stood up. He looked confused, and a little worried. He took his glasses off and knelt in front of me.
“Ree, I’m solly,” he said.
“Lee, I’m sorry,” I heard.
I laughed uncomfortably. When he understood that it was a joke, I immediately felt bad for doing it. He nodded his head and gave me a small bow, but I could tell that he didn’t think it was funny. I let him finish the session without any more acting, but I did use my best British accent, only once, while pronouncing the word “teapot.” I couldn’t help it. I had inherited a congenital family trait, handed down through generations. I was born a smart ass.
Over time, we hammered out a working relationship; and as the days went by, I started to warm up to him. He told me about his family, his three sons and his early years spent in China. Within a week, I understood every word he said, and I only made him repeat himself sporadically to remind him who was boss. He didn’t seem to mind much, and I was starting to suspect that he actually liked me.
The day of the important speech test came and my parents were both there, along with a few other therapists and pathologists. Everyone had come to see the remarkable recovery of The Third Grader who spoke with another part of his brain. It had been thirty-four days since the beaning, and I was eagerly planning on going home the next day. The bandages, which I had come to refer to as my turban, had been removed and my hair had even begun to grow back a smidgen. I noticed the amazed expression of most people when they got their first look at my head. The scar looked like an upside-down horseshoe, had seventy-nine stitches and took up most of the left side of my volleyball-sized head. The scar was about the size of a tennis ball. It wasn’t every day that you got to see something that gross and extraordinary. Eyes were drawn to my head, and every pair in the room was set upon me.
The tests involved a series of pictures and questions that had me pronouncing, enunciating and articulating. It was one of the easiest tests I had ever taken. Yet, toward the end, I’ll admit . . . I started to get a little bored. When a picture of a lightning bolt was held up, my therapist pointed to it, looked at me and said “say erectricity.”
Without hesitation, I said “Erectricity,” in my best Chinese articulation.
“No, erectricity,” he said, smiling and pointing at the bolt.
“Erectricity,“ I said with a straight face.
“Erectricity” he countered, no longer smiling and still pointing.
“Erectricity,” I enunciated exactly as he had, trying my best to appear sincere.
He looked away with upturned eyebrows, at my parents, and the others. As his face got a little pinker, it occurred to me that it was possible that he noticed I had always mimicked his accent, and that only under the intense scrutiny it was becoming apparent. There was an uncomfortable silence in the room. I felt my guilt start to build, and I was actually at a loss for words. I blamed my damaged brain and waited to see what would happen next.
Something warned me not to, but I glanced over to where my parents were sitting. I saw a scowl on my dad’s face that could dry cement. His steely glare held my gaze firmly and I struggled to look away toward my mom. My mother appeared to have stop breathing entirely, regarding me with a mixture of pleading hope and anxious concern.
Then, as I gathered my strength, I said exactly what I thought they wanted me to say, loudly and clearly (in my regular nasal falsetto).
“Electricity,” I uttered.
I passed the test and left the hospital early the next morning.
My homecoming was restrained, yet I felt like a celebrity. Some of the neighbor kids were playing out on the street when we arrived, and they stopped their game and surrounded our station wagon, anticipating my appearance. I imagined exiting my limousine. They gawked at my head, welcomed me home and went back to their game without much ado. My dog greeted me with enthusiasm and led the way up the steps and into the house with her tail wagging furiously behind her. I got my hamster and a bag of Cheetohs and sat in the “Archie Chair,” content to be home at last. I was relieved that my life was returning to normal and that everything was going to work out in short time.
Over the next few months, the get well cards would slow to a trickle, and I returned to school to finish third grade. Kids asked me a lot of questions at first, and the extra attention given to me took a while to get used to. Some of my brazen classmates actually held magnets to my head testing to see if I were bionic. Soon, I went back to being Little Lee and summer vacation came in a flash, releasing me from the acerbic oppression of school. My parents slowly let me engage in the rough and tumble play that my brothers and I were accustomed to while never failing to remind me of the significant gap in my skull. There had been some talk about a follow-up surgery to close the gap with a plate; but no date had officially been set. It was a subject no one was eager to explore. We just chose not to talk about it, content to procrastinate making a tough decision.
One late summer evening, after a hearty Spaghettios dinner, a pick-up game of Nerf football came together in the street. After much debate, my parents reluctantly allowed me to participate. It was the neighbor boys, who were a little older than we were, and a dad or two, playing one hand touch, from telephone pole to telephone pole. We called it “telly to telly” and we played with a football or a frisbee, and sometimes even a pinky ball. I commanded an athletic respect in the pecking order of my neighborhood which gave me hope that my absence had been felt in the many games I had missed, and duly noted. My street, Hastings Street, was a steep hill at the top, but leveled out as you went down the block past our house. It was always a small advantage to be going downhill, but that night my team was going the other way. I was mostly a wide receiver who took long sprints past defenders, going deep on a regular basis. It was widely known that I had good hands and good balance. I showed the quarterback my intended route by drawing a long line from my belly to my chin. I hiked him the ball and burst up the street past my stationary brother. The pass was precise, and I caught the ball without slowing down. As I crossed the goal line, I suddenly noticed a bicyclist approaching us fast, barreling down the middle of the street. Realizing instantly that I had to react quickly, I darted left as he swerved right. Unfortunately, his right was my left. I had guessed wrong and the impact was solid, launching me airborne. My head hit the street concretely and I lost consciousness.
My next memory was odd. I was back at the hospital, in a waiting room with my parents, puking up Spaghettios into a plastic pan. It had never even occurred to me that I ate the little pasta rings without chewing them. When I saw them for the second time, the majority were surprisingly whole. This not only disgusted me, but it kept me from eating Spaghettios for the next ten years. I was just glad I hadn’t eaten the ones with the mini meatballs or the sliced franks.
It seemed that I had speeded up the surgical decision making process, much to the dismay of my parents and a team of anxious doctors. This time a synthetic bone plate was fitted into my skull, filling the gap and protecting my brain. It was becoming obvious, as time went by, that my brain needed as much protection as possible. My dad suggested permanently attaching a motorcycle helmet to my head but decided it might become awkward and stigmatic as I got older. The nurse with the oversized syringe made her second unwelcome appearance, and I was whisked away to the operating room to be reunited with my doctor friends. I got my second helping of brain surgery.
The operation was a success and after thirty-two days of a billiards and chocolate milk-filled convalescence, I was released from the hospital again. The second round of get well cards lacked the novelty of the originals but helped me pass the days and maintain my self-imposed celebrity status. Eventually, my hair would grow back and luckily, the scar would be veiled by its thickness. By middle school, my distinctive condition went unnoticed, and I assimilated with the masses . . . just another brain-damaged kid.
My parents, however, had aged years since (and probably because of) the accident, and seemed to be catching up with The Aunts. My mother had become more religious and claimed that God has given me to her not once, not even twice, but now, three times. Our family grew closer as a result of the whole trauma, but that too, would fade over time.
Ken Brett had called the hospital to speak with me a few times, and the conversations I had with him were short but magical. He called me at home twice, and he sent me tickets to several games with safe seats always behind the home plate screen. I was completely tongue-tied when I spoke to him, star struck and speechless. He was friendly to me on the phone, and seemed authentically interested in my life. I relived our chats with my brothers and friends for years to come, always feeling a little proud and unarguably special.
At around the same time, someone from the Cardinal’s organization sent me a baseball signed by most of the St. Louis players. I matched the names to my baseball cards, and read the signatures many times. One day, as a meaningless joke, in front of my brothers, I crossed out the name of Ken Reitz with a pencil. My brothers were stunned. I circled the name of Lou Brock with a red marker and proudly showed it to anyone who would look at it.
Last winter, as I read through the headlines on a sports web page, a small article caught my attention. It was about Ken Brett. He had pitched for 14 years in the Majors, had played for 10 different teams and was the youngest World Series pitcher in history. It went on to add that Brett was the winning pitcher in the 1974 All-Star Game, had twice lost no-hit bids in the ninth inning and had given up Hank Aaron's 700th home run. I was excited to read more, until I sadly realized it was an obituary.
Ken Brett died at the age of 55 after a long battle with brain cancer.
This story is dedicated to him.