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Chapter 1, Sputnik by the Bay
There was a time when I was Billy Pierce, the high-kicking lefthanded pitcher of the Chicago White Sox (211 career wins, 169 losses). But being only about two and a half feet tall, my impact on the game was small. I had another name, too, but no use for it. When my mother called out, "Time to get to bed, Scotty," I reacted with elaborate inattention, as if she must have been calling to a stranger. Within a few moments, my heedlessness would force her to track a trail of toys to find me at play in our apartment. "What did I say about bed, young man?" she would demand with a mother's mock reproach. And I'd demand back, "What did you say my name was?" "Ohmigosh, Billy," my mother would rush in to add, "Billy, I almost forgot. Big game tomorrow. Time to get to bed, Billy." Once (this is a childhood story that may explain too much) I was standing below our kitchen counter as my mother defrosted the freezer when a couple of ears of frozen corn, flinty as bricks, rolled off the ledge and rang my head. Bong! Bong! My mother leaned down with alarm and took hold of my shoulders. "What's your name? What's your name?" Blinking back tears, I answered. "Billy Pierce." If I had replied with the name she'd given me, she would have feared brain damage.
I liked Billy Pierce because my father did. I could tell he admired certain traits in Billy Pierce and I wanted him to find them in me, too. My father said that Billy was stylish, nervy, and classy (the words he also used to distinguish Adlai Stevenson, Jack Paar, and Edward R. Murrow). Stylish for the way Billy would raise his right foot high as he stepped into a pitch, adding some force to his throws and baffling a batter's view, and nervy for the way he'd throw a curve when he was three balls down in the count and the bases were full.
"Goddamn, Patti, did you see that?" he'd call out to my mother as he watched some game, and she bustled about elsewhere in the apartment.
"Goddamn threw a curve to Kaline with the bases loaded, and got him to chase it." When my mother sent back no reaction, my father would turn to me, where I sat on the floor to watch my father watching the game.
"Nervy, Scotty, Billy's nervy. Bold." He'd shake his head in admiration, a different sort of waggle from the ones he would award me for looking clownish. "Gutsy. A classy guy, too." Classy was a word that was taking shape in my mind, between my father's work (he was a wandering comedian) and Billy Pierce. Classy guys were gentlemen. They shook hands, remembered your name, and stopped to say hello to children. Classy guys reached for the check and tipped more than the minimum. They said please, thank you, and--when it came to it--I'm sorry (as in, "I'm sorry, Patti, okay? I'm sorry").
My father's best friend, Jack Brickhouse, whom I called Uncle Jack, was a classy guy who was the play-by-play announcer for both the Cubs and White Sox. We came to see Jack at the park one Saturday, and he said he had a surprise. Uncle Jack took us through a winding tunnel that emptied out near the steps leading down into the dugout, right up to the bench where only players could sit. There was a man at rest there, a morning's sweat gleaming on his raspy chin, like drizzle drying on the infield grass. He raised a reflexive smile at Uncle Jack.
"You know who this is, don't you, Scotty?" I had a suspicion. The man I revered, it turned out, spoke with a slight sibilance, a delightful suggestion of Daffy Duck.
"Hey, Ssscotty. How are you, Accce?" Ace was a baseball nickname, I knew even then, for a team's best pitcher. Meeting the flesh-and-blood ace I knew only as a flickering, small screen, black-and-white figure, I guess I got too full for a four-year-old; and began to cry.
"Hey, Scotty." My father stepped forward. "You know how much you love Billy. Say hello to Billy." But Billy Pierce had already looped one of the liveliest arms in the American League lightly around my shoulders. "Say, I'll bet you're a pretty good pitcher," said Billy Pierce. "Let's take a look, Ace." My father and Uncle Jack had sweet rolls in their hands (in those days, locker rooms stocked sweet rolls and cigarettes for players' snacks, rather than vitamin bars and zucchini strips) and took off a corner. "Okay, Ace, stand up straight to get the signal," admonished Billy Pierce. "Now, give us a pitch." But what did I really know about pitching? I stood up straight, my shoulders braced against Billy's knees, shaking my head and scowling for a signal, the way I'd seen my father mimic pitchers. I paused, picked up my right hand, squeezed the sweet roll horsehide, and then--kicked out my right leg, Billy-like. And stopped. The confectionery sphere stayed in my hand. What, after all, did I know about pitching? Be stylish, be nervy. But from above, I heard the friendly rumble of the three most eminent men in my world, laughing pleasingly. "You taught him well, Ern," Uncle Jack said, while Billy Pierce rubbed an encouraging hand over my head, the way he might rough up a baseball, and my father beamed to see something in me that so clearly traced back to him. "Attaboy,ÊAce!" he said. "Atts-aboy!"
In those days, we were on the move. But wherever we landed, we were Chicagoans Abroad. Years before any other civic characteristic signified the city in my mind--fierce winds, mob hits, or fractious politics--I grasped that my parents and I came from a place marked in my mind by Billy Pierce, Ernie Banks, Minnie Minoso, and George Halas. City of Broad Shoulders, White Sox, burly Bears, and hapless Cubs.
We lit out for San Francisco, on one of the last cross-country trains. For years, my parents would delight in their recollections, "We sure saw the country, didn't we? We sure saw things!" But I mostly remember the french toast in the dining car, and taking a bath out of a bowl. When bedtime came on our first night out, I campaigned to be tucked in to the upper berth. But my father wouldn't allow it.
"Oh no,ÊAce, don't you know what can happen up there? The train stops in the middle of the night. You get thrown through the window, and the glass cuts you to ribbons. Or, you pop out through the curtains, hit the floor, and crack your skull wide open, just like an egg." My father had served with the British Army in North Africa and played a card my squalling could not match. "Listen, pal, I've seen men with their skulls cracked open. I've seen their brains spill out, all over the ground, just like scrambled eggs. The buzzards eat them for breakfast. Do you want that to happen to you?"
They tucked me in to the bottom berth and I nodded off, twitching with visions of cartoon buzzards eating scrambled eggs off Santa Fe railroad china. Within a few minutes, my father poked his head and arms into the berth, and shook me gently; it might have been the first time I had seen him become shy. "Hey, pal," he said in a low tone. "Hey, Ace. How would you like to sleep on top?" He had brushed his teeth, washed his face, patted himself down with Lilac Vegetal, tied himself in to his drawstring pajamas--and then found he was too large to squeeze into the upper berth. "Great view up there," he said. "I'll bet it's a lotta fun."
"Oh, I know, but Mommy and I will tuck you in real tight--"
"that my skull would crack open--"
"Hey, Ace, don't worry about that. You know we wouldn't let anything happen to you! It'll be a lotta fun up there. Trust me." We might have crossed into Nebraska by the time I was nervy enough to let myself be moved. When we arrived in San Francisco, my mother insisted that we set off on a tour of that dreamscape, riding up Nob Hill on a clanging cable car and descending into Chinatown, where I gnawed on my first egg roll, speared through a chopstick like a Popsicle. Near dusk, we boarded the ferry that passed within hailing distance of Alcatraz.
"They call that The Rock, Scotty," my father explained. "They lock people up there and they can't get out."
"Who do they lock up there?"
"Bad people. People who hurt other people." He began to find rhythm in the routine. "People," he went on, "who don't laugh at Daddy's jokes. People who don't root for the Cubs or the White Sox." My mother began to laugh (can I say girlishly? She was in her mid-twenties) as she overheard my father's little list of scoundrels and low-lowlifes. "Little boys," he concluded, and we all began to giggle, "who don't go to bed when their parents tell them to."
When we landed in San Francisco, we ran into rough times. My father, who was after all a comedian, was berated by the city's leading columnist for being funny. Funny, rather than witty, which was more to the worldly taste of the columnist and the cut of the city's culture. The columnist derided my father for telling mother-in-law jokes, dialect stories, and wearing polka-dot bow ties, calling him The Big Wind from Chicago; which only made me feel all the more like an offspring of a hometown I was too young to recall.
My kindergarten classmates didn't read newspaper columnists, but their parents did. Several of my schoolmates sneered at me for being a Chicagoan (apparently a drear identity in dazzling San Francisco). The teasing bewildered my mother, an Irish Catholic who had married a Jew. She had faced enough anti-Semitism to cautiously prepare me for the chance that someone might taunt me as a kike or yid. But--a Chicagoan? One day, a cluster of older kids put me up against a corner of the schoolyard.
"You know Al Capone?" they demanded. The name meant nothing to me. I reacted with fatal hesitation.
"You gotta know Al Capone," said the apparent ringleader (I don't mind recalling that his name was Brad). "Al Capone is the most famous person in Chicago, and he's bad."
"I know Billy Pierce!" I shot back into uncomprehending faces. "I know Billy Pierce!" Apparently, my tormentors didn't. To conceal their embarrassment, they tied me against a tree with a jump rope. A strange, solitary kindergartner encircled by first and second graders--fighting back seemed futile. Crying left them unmoved. But fear inspired an early form of passive resistance: I wet my pants. Brad and his cohorts stepped back, disgusted, shrieking, wailing, wiping their hands desperately on their shirts as if kindergarten pee was radioactive. The older boys and their girlfriends ran away, appalled and pinching their noses, which, however, still left me lashed to the tree, my legs turning cold and clammy. Within a few minutes, a teacher came by. But she apparently deduced that having yourself tied to a tree and peeing in your pants must be some crafty new tactic to avoid class. She took me inside to be upbraided by the principal, a kind woman who saw at once that something more dismaying had taken place. I was sprung from class and sent home. I suppose the trauma of the ordeal should have left me saddened and wiser. But aside from a damp pair of pants, I felt triumphant: nervy, classy. A few jerks who didn't know who Billy Pierce was got scared off by a little bit of pee-pee. Bullies ought to be made of sterner stuff.
My father's attackers were not so easily routed. Clown, fool, silly --words that only delight a five-year-old son--began to attach themselves to his name.
"Minor leaguers," was my father's biting explanation. "Minor leaguers, that's what they are here." It was 1957, and though reports abounded that Brooklyn's Dodgers and New York's Giants were scheming to head west, San Francisco was still minor league territory. "They think they're so classy out here," he complained. "So, so, so--what can you say?--lah-dee-dah and all. But at the end of the day, pal, they're still minor leaguers."
Saturday mornings, after he came off work and had a nap, my father would take me to a movie theater down by the wharves that showed nothing but cartoons. Old Popeyes and Mickeys that had been threaded though so many times, there were small, dark scars scratching the frames. My father would lay his head back, laugh with me through the first cartoon or two, then fall deeply asleep; the snorts of his snoring as colicky and comic as Goofy snoozing in his sleeping cap.
"Pssst: yer father's snoring," another adult would hiss, "Plllease!" Gently and urgently, I'd touch his wrist. "Uh, Dad?" He would awake in a cartoon state, all banging elbows and clanging cow bells as he shook stars out of his head. "Huh!?!?!? Huh?!?!?! Oh, sorry, pal, just resting my eyes . . ." Years later, when I began to cover wars, I would remember seeing some of the young sailors on shore leave who would come to watch the cartoons--they were after all not much older than us chortling children--and I think it touches me more today to remember how young those seaman looked, in little boy bell-bottoms, the hair on the back of their sunburned necks as short and fine as a kitten's. If they couldn't get laid on shore leave, they could at least laugh at Daffy.
After the cartoons, my father would steer us on a walk through the streets of North Beach leading away from the wharves and try to teach me how to read the lettering on license plates of tourist buses that churned their motors along the docks. Once, he pointed to a building at the end of a runway and announced, "Look, Scotty, that's DiMagge's place."
I knew that Joe DiMaggio was considered the greatest ballplayer of his time, and his time was just a few years past. DiMaggio had retired from baseball in 1951, married Marilyn Monroe, moved out of that marriage after just one season, left Hollywood, remained devoted to Marilyn, and came back home to San Francisco where, it was said, a number of the men working along the wharves still remembered, "Joe? Helluva bocci player. Helluva bocci ball player."
Once, we walked inside DiMagge's place. He wasn't there--rarely was, they said, except maybe late at night, for a nightcap, and early in the day, before they opened, to run over the receipts. But the place was cool and dark and creaked like a ship when you walked over the flooring into the bar. I had a Coke. My father had something added to his, probably so he could, straight-faced, later profess to my mother, "We just had a couple of Cokes."
The man behind the bar recognized my father; and my father expressed his appreciation with a joke.
"I'm sure you've heard this," he began, "but in case you haven't: Man walks into a bar with his dog, and the bartender says, "Sorry, buddy, we don't let dogs in here.' "
"Lemme guess," the real-life barkeeper interrupted. "The dog says, "And at these prices, I'm not surprised'?"
"No, no," said my father. "This is another story. The man says, "But sir, my dog can talk.' The bartender says, "Don't test my patience, buddy,' and the man says, "No, no listen,' and says to his dog, "What goes on top of a house?' The dog barks, "Roof, roof!' Well, this just irritates the bartender, who says, "Buddy, get your dog outta here!' And the man says, "Wait, wait, listen to this,' and turns down to his dog to ask, "What holds a tree in under the ground?' The dog thinks for a minute, then barks, "Root, root!' Well, now the barkeeper is really getting angry. "I'm warning you, buddy,' he says, "don't make me call the cops!' And the man says, "Please, just one more chance,' and turns down to his dog and asks, "Okay, don't disappoint me now. Who was the greatest homerun hitter of all time?' Well, the dog knows that one easy, and barks, "Ruth! Ruth!' But the barkeeper isn't impressed. He gives the heave-ho to the man and his dog. So then, the two of them are out there on the street. The man is embarrassed. The dog can tell that his master is humiliated. So the dog looks up at the man and says, "Hmmm. Perhaps I should have said DiMaggio?' "
The man behind the bar leaned over, laughlessly, and tapped my glass. "Son," he said amiably, "I'm cutting you off. Your dad needs help with his jokes."
"Sliding, Joe was like velvet," my father began to recollect. "No dust, no muss, no fuss, just bing, like he was sitting down on a pillow, take your base. DiMagge was the greatest in the world, lemme tell you."
"Better than Billy Pierce?" My father was caught for a moment between truth and kindness; and, after a moment's contemplation, conjured up a reasonably truthful form of kindness.
"Billy's a pitcher," he said finally. "Joe was an outfielder. Can't compare."
"What if Billy pitched to Joe?"
"Oh. Well, I guess it would be about even. Joe just makes it all look so easy," he continued. "Nice 'n' easy does it all the time. You never saw Joe sweat. He glided over to catch fly balls that would make other people trip over their feet." My father stepped down from the bar stool and knotted his hands, as if holding on to the end of a bat. "I mean, most players, swing out, ooomph!, like they're chopping down a tree." And here, with intentional clumsiness, my father lunged out with a phantom ax. "But Joe," and then my father straightened up tall, squared his shoulders, and braced his stomach visibly. "Joe made it all look easy. Fluid, elegant. He never gritted his teeth, never frowned, never smiled when he hit a home run, because he didn't want to rub it in to the pitcher. Class, that's the word for him, even today. Class. He makes it all look easy, nice 'n' easy." Even then, I could detect that my father passed on this appraisal with a performer's envy. Once, when I was flushed with a fever, my mother had folded me into their bed, and I pretended to be asleep when my father came back from some kind of show. He sat down heavily, lit a cigarette, threw back a drink, as he did when no one was watching, and then stood up to let his shiny jacket slide down from his shoulders. His shirt, I could see even in the smoke and gloom, was dark and slick with sweat. His sweat caught the light like a wound.
One Saturday morning we passed a confectionery shop showing candy baseballs and bats in the window. Back on the street, my father tossed a small, sugar-white marzipan baseball toward the stance I had struck up with a miniature, orange marzipan bat at my shoulder. "Steeerike one!" he called out. "Steeerike two!" And then, before he could work me to a full count, my father said, "Let's eat the equipment, Ace, before they can catch us."
On succeeding weeks, we delved deeper into the stock of the shop and discovered some real treasures that were stored farther back. The candy maker also made life-size marzipan dog turds and beige-and-orange splotches of candy vomit. The confectionary discharges looked impressively lifelike when sprinkled with sugar crystals that glinted under the counter light. My father and I giggled as we gamboled down the street, biting into marzipan dog turds and hoping to be overheard.
"Gee, Dad, these are great!"
"Sure are, son. And best of all, you can just pick 'em up off the street." Ho-ho, all you lah-dee-dahs. Once, we bought a third turd to bring back in a sack to bite in front of my mother. "Look, Mother, what we found on the street!" She was not at all fooled, but mildly, generously amused, laughing and looking on, lovingly and a little helplessly, at the couple of clowns dancing in the doorway. "My boys, my boys."
The puddles of candy vomit, while artfully accomplished, seemed somehow not as delectable or diverting. There must be tenured scholars in Chapel Hill and Madison who have researched the reasons as to why candy turds are funnier than candy vomit. But my father had a routine in mind when we brought home a confectionery vomitus and laid it on the bathroom floor of our hotel room, splashing the ersatz spew lightly with water for added verisimilitude.
"Okay, Ace," he said in a hush, "go tell Mommy."
We had rehearsed my part--he used to call me "my little trouper"--while walking home. "Mommy, Mommy, come quick!" I called out, "Daddy's sick!" Tender concern sprang to my mother's face. Without hesitation or question, she rushed toward the bathroom where my father stood unsteadily, holding his stomach and contriving to look green.
"Oh, that's all right, my little boys," she said gently, so gently and sweetly that my father and I swapped quick, guilty glances. "Don't worry. Come on out of there. Mommy will clean it up." But my father held my mother off with his hand, waving her back from the mess at his feet.
"Oh, don't worry, honey, I'll get it." And then, my father reached down with professional poise, picked the marzipan vomitus up in his fingers--and took a bite.
My mother shrieked: high, shrill, a curdling Hitchcockian screech that seemed to change direction in her throat and turn into laughter: helpless, hopeless, weakening, wonderful.
Our stay in San Francisco lasted a little less than a year. But it was the year in which I first began to mark my life as a fan. One night, during the World Series between the New York Yankees and Milwaukee Braves (which began right after morning cartoons in San Francisco, in the days before nighttime World Series games played for prime-time audiences), my parents bundled me up in the middle of the night to stand with them on the roof of our hotel to watch the Sputnik satellite trace a line of light in the sky. It was like trying to glimpse a worm wiggling through a plate of spaghetti. I doubt I actually saw it. But I remember the mood on the roof. It was one of the first times outside of a funeral parlor that I was expected to share an adult sense of sobriety.
The Cold War was on, and the Russians had captured the high ground of outer space. They had an atom bomb, half of Berlin, and could now wink down on us from the heavens in which the Soviet socialist state did not believe. Who could say there wasn't a bomb aboard that small, glimmering gnat of a star? Sputnik may have been the smallest mite in the night sky, but it cast a shadow on the world to which we had become accustomed. All at once, there seemed something mad and misplaced about New York and Milwaukee purporting to play a World Series. The weight of some new world seemed to be sliding toward those grim men with gray faces on the Red Square reviewing stand, smiling down mirthlessly at their missiles, as if they were beholding prize orchids.
"It's very small," said my father, pointing up and squinting at some speck he thought to be Sputnik. "No bigger than a basketball, really."
"How does it stay up?" I asked. A thoughtful pause ensued, as the tumblers in my father's mind spun around and clicked. He turned to my mother and laughed. "Well . . . I guess . . . I just . . . don't . . . know . . ." I tried to throw him a suggestion.
"Could Joe Di hit a ball all the way up there?" My father seemed relieved to see a way out. "Yep, he sure can," he said quickly. "I'll bet Joe could hit one up there." A scientific imprecision, to be sure, but a valuable reassurance at the time. The Russians might be able to send basketball-sized orbs around the earth, but they needed huge, brutish rockets to propel them, baring flames and blaring thunder. Joe DiMaggio could do it without straining and sweating, no muss, no fuss, nice 'n' easy, swinging a slim wooden bat with an uppercut toward the stars.
I hope I have reached the point in life at which I no longer have to believe that every scrap of wisdom uttered by my father turned out to be a nugget of gold. He was a warm-hearted, quick-witted, friendly, and funny man who, like the rest of us, was also often foolish and wrong. He had a delightfully effective way of disarming his own advice by adding, "What the hell do I know? I can't even figure out how to make people laugh." But I think that jokes can endure longer than wisdom (that may be why many of us cannot recall all Ten Commandments--the list cries out for a joke; often, we just add our own). One of the most persistent insights my father ever passed on is that jokes work best on a rhythm of three: one, two, three, and throw the punch line, as in roof-roof, root-root, Ruth-Ruth, and then, Hmmm. Perhaps I should have said DiMaggio? In a moment in that year in San Francisco, with Sputnik spinning on overhead, Willie Mays and the Giants packing up at the Polo Grounds for the trail west, and my mother, father, and myself trying to find life's punch line, I realized that my father could make my mother laugh in a way that unlocked something between them that was precious and astounding. I probably even felt a little left out the night I overheard that laughter in our bathroom. My mother's howls and cries, shrieks and smiles, chiming off the chipped hotel shower tiles: we're alone, in love, adrift, and alive.