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No matter. If it is urgent, they can always write me a letter. I open about half my mail and read about a quarter of what I open, stopping if it turns out to be a request to write an article. "We would be most interested if you would ..." That sort of thing. There was a time when I would open letters with a kind of desperate urgency, very often tearing what was within-notice of a clearing-house sale! I would snatch phones out of their cradles almost before the first ring died away, scared that whoever was on the line would hang up before I could find out what they wished. "Hello? Hello?"
Now it was different. My sister said that I myself was like a phone with the volume dial turned way down, almost off, so that I was just about out of it. Dead in the water. When she peers at me with her hard intelligent eyes, gray-green and beautiful, I know she is thinking about giving me a good stiff kick.
This time I picked up the phone. Perhaps I thought it was my sister. Perhaps it was because I just happened to be close by, indeed looking down at the phone when it went off. As it was, I let it ring six or seven times.
"Hello?" Captain Leroy T. Smith was on the other end. "Smitty" everyone calls him. I had met him in Vietnam, where he was a helicopter pilot, flying-or "muscling" as they called it-a two-rotor-bladed Chinook up into the hills to the fire camps with supplies.
Just this year I had run into him by chance on one of the St. Petersburg beaches-Madeira Beach it may have been, or Treasure Island out by the Aquarium. No matter. I remember two college kids in jams throwing a red Frisbee, tossing it half speed so that a golden retriever they had with them could run along underneath, leaping up from time to time to snap at it.
Smitty and I shook hands and we remarked on the coincidence of meeting on a Florida beach in such pleasant circumstances. He told me he had left the military but was still flying. He was the pilot of the Goodyear blimp Enterprise, stationed in the Tampa area. I saw him from time to time after that. He even came around to the bungalow in Pass-a-Grille. He was easy to be with-a big man, amiable, and my silences did not seem to bother him in the slightest. He would mix himself a drink or get something out of the refrigerator. Sometimes he would pick out a book from my sister's library, settle back, and read. "Listen to this," he might say, and read a passage to me that had interested him. Once, I said aloud that he reminded me of a large peaceful animal-an elk. That didn't seem to bother him at all. He never left without asking me if I would like to go flying with him in the blimp.
Indeed, that was why he was telephoning. "Bob, it's such a nice day. I'm taking up a couple of people from the Mets. Their club trains here in St. Petersburg, you know. They made the request a couple of days back. Plenty of room, Bob, and the air's so clear I'll guarantee you'll be able to see across the Gulf to Mexico!"
Ordinarily, I would have turned down such an invitation. It involved so much preparation-worrying about the right directions to the airfield, wondering if the car was low on gas, even concern that I might get airsick. So what I usually say in such circumstances is that I am sorry but I have committed myself to go fishing.
"Smitty, I've committed-"
"Come on, Bob. It'll do you good."
I have an aversion to people who say things like "It'll do you good." They feel something is wrong with you-a sentiment delivered with hearty, yet unctuous, sincerity. But in the case of Smitty, his concern was legitimate: he knew I was hardly functioning. He was very matter-of-fact about it. He said, "Kid, come on. It's a fine day for a ride. We'll just drift above the fields."
"It seems odd, doesn't it. The bigwigs. Nelson Doubleday, Frank Cashen, the general manager. And you. The surprise guest."
"Okay," I said abruptly. "Just this once."
It took me a long time to start the Volkswagen. Almost everything I need is within walking distance in Pass-a-Grille. On occasion I drive into St. Petersburg to see Amory Blake, the psychotherapist. The car sits at the end of the driveway under a thatched shelter that leaks badly. Its engine coughed into life and I backed out across the palmetto fronds, which crackled sharply under the tires; I never seem to have enough energy to go out there and sweep them clear.
The blimp seemed enormous moored in the field. A grid panel of light bulbs was set along its vast flanks to flash messages at night-"The Super Skytacular." As we walked out Smitty told us that in the old days the blimps carried loudspeakers through which advertising slogans were shouted down-discontinued, finally, because people were startled and didn't cotton to being bellowed at by "voices in the sky."
Counting Smitty and his copilot, whose name I've forgotten, seven were in our group. I recognized Nelson Doubleday and Frank Cashen of the Mets management, and Davey Johnson, the manager. Their pictures appeared regularly in the St. Petersburg Times. With them was a thin, athletic-looking gentleman wearing a Mets warm-up jacket and a baseball cap with its orange N Y. Smitty whispered to me that he was Mel Stottlemyre, the Mets pitching coach. He was carrying a large leather bag.
The Mets contingent got up in the front of the gondola, lugging the leather bag with them. There were six passenger seats. I sat myself down in the rearmost. No seat belts. Behind me was a panel-sized reproduction of an old-fashioned dirigible with a grid of sails to direct it. The cabin was done in gray-blue. The seats were upholstered. The windows, big and bay-sized, had a slight overhang, so one could almost look straight down. A dozen men were below us, hanging on to guide ropes and running alongside. The ground fell away. Three ropes hung down off the bow, streaming back as we picked up speed. The racket of the two engines on their pods made conversation difficult. Above the front windshield was a large mirror-presumably so the pilot could keep an eye on the behavior of the passengers. I caught Smitty glancing at me. He winked. Alongside his seat was a big wheel that directed the pitch of the blimp. He leveled us off at about fifteen hundred feet. We were heading inland. The big windows were open at the top so that the warm breeze off the Gulf poured in on us. The gondola seemed outdoors ... like an open gazebo on a summertime lawn. The wind was fresh, and I was glad I had come.
We spent about fifteen minutes easing above the patchwork country east of the Bay region, passing over cattle meadows bordered by drainage ditches. I heard one of the Mets people up front sing out, "There they are!"
Far below I could see a small contingent standing in the middle of a field looking up at us, their faces pale against the green background. Two vans were parked off to one side; their roofs glistened in the sun.
"I don't think we need to be quite so high up," I heard Nelson Doubleday saying. "I'd bring her down to about a thou. We've calculated that's about the right height."
I could distinguish that the group below was composed mostly of baseball players. I could see their peaked baseball caps. Two or three men were wearing blue field jackets; I took them to be coaches. The propeller blades were feathered. We hung above them.
"Can we get this window open?" Cashen was calling.
Stottlemyre had a walkie-talkie with which he was in communication with the group on the ground. The instrument squawked and Stottlemyre said into it, "We're close to dropping one. Is everyone ready down there? We're about two minutes away."
The leather bag was hefted into position by his seat. Stottlemyre reached in and produced a baseball. Suddenly it was perfectly evident what he was going to do: lean out the blimp's window and drop the ball down into the cluster of ballplayers far below.
He spoke into the walkie-talkie. "How's our position? You got Reynolds directly below?"
Stottlemyre leaned out, his head and shoulders over the bay windowsill; I could see him sighting his target and letting the baseball drop. Distinct, it seemed to hang off his fingers for just a second before it bore down toward the meadow, quickly infinitesimal, and I could see one of the Mets standing in the middle of a wide circle start tottering around, his minuscule glove up-a catcher's glove it was evident to me even from that considerable height-as if he were shading his eyes from the sun.
From up in front of the gondola Nelson Doubleday, craning to see out one of the windows, called out, "How'd he do?"
The walkie-talkie murmured by his ear and Stottlemyre looked up. "Apparently Reynolds muffed it. He backed away and missed the ball by ten feet. The ball stuck in the meadow almost out of sight. They tell me it's kind of boggy down there. Reynolds is not having a good time."
Cashen said, "Let him regain his composure and we'll try again."
Stottlemyre said into the instrument, "Wait'll he regains his composure. We're going to try again."
I have always enjoyed dropping objects from high places. I was raised in a tall apartment house in New York City, fifteen stories above an interior courtyard, into which, during my adolescence, I dropped a steady barrage of objects-water bombs, tennis balls, an occasional golf ball, filched from my father's golf bag, which would crack alarmingly against the concrete far below and soar back up an amazing height toward me, reestablishing its properties as it hung at its apex before falling away again. What else? Stones from Central Park, pencil stubs, paper gliders by the dozens, and the detritus that should have gone into a wastepaper basket often going out that window. Best of all, I had a wooden bomb-shaped projectile with feathers at its tail to steady it in flight. It was equipped with a nose cone that sprung back on rubber bands so that pistol caps could be inserted. It was the ultimate object to drop from an apartment window. Down the long cliff of the building it would go on a direct line from the fingertips and explode on the concrete far below. Heads would emerge from various windows. Later I would venture down to retrieve it for future use.
All of this came to mind as I watched Stottlemyre reach into the leather ball bag and lean out of the blimp's window to let another baseball loose.
"May I drop one?" I found myself saying from the back of the gondola.
Up until then the small Mets contingent had paid almost no attention to me. They must have assumed I was an employee, a member of the blimp's crew. They looked surprised, but one of them-Nelson Doubleday, I believe it was-motioned me forward. I moved up the aisle. Stottlemyre said, "Give it a slight spin as you drop it out. Otherwise it'll flutter down like a knuckleball."
I leaned out. The blimp had turned so the open window faced west and in the distance I could see the blue slate of the Gulf stretching to the horizon.
Once again I felt the exhilaration I remembered from childhood-starting the ball on its swift progression to the BB-sized thing disappearing into the cluster of Mets below.
Mel Stottlemyre's walkie-talkie squawked and we heard a burbled voice announce that Reynolds had caught one.
"Great!" Nelson Doubleday exclaimed. "Now we're getting somewhere! Tell him he's got the record. Gabby Hartnett caught a ball from a blimp eight hundred feet up. We're at a thousand. He's in the books."
Mel Stottlemyre repeated the message into his walkie-talkie and reported that Ronn Reynolds did not seem particularly excited. He wanted to know if since they had the record, they could all go home.
Nelson Doubleday said, "Let's have just a few more and then we'll call it quits."
"That's quite a coincidence about Gabby Hartnett," I said. I told them that Gabby Street of the Washington Senators had once tried to catch baseballs tossed off the top of the Washington Monument. As a joke the last thing thrown out from the top was a small grapefruit. It had burst in Street's glove, a frightening spray of seeds and pulp, and he had cried out, "I'm dead! I'm dead!" The Mets contingent did not seem especially amused.
I was allowed to drop a few more. We stayed above the field for about fifteen minutes. After a while Nelson Doubleday called out, "Well, they got a taste of it, okay?"
I went back to my place in the rear of the gondola. On the way to the landing field I came under a certain amount of scrutiny. Heads turned and I was inspected over the backs of the upholstered seats. Frank Cashen talked briefly to Smitty and then he came down the aisle. I could see Smitty's face looking a little grim in the big mirror.
Cashen sat down opposite me. He seemed slightly embarrassed. His bow tie bobbed as he swallowed. "How did you happen to know about Gabby Street?"
"I've forgotten. Research, probably. It was interesting that they were both Gabbys."
"Do you mind me asking what you do?"
"I do very little," I said. "I'm a reporter originally, but I've been recuperating."
Cashen looked shaken. "What kind of a reporter?" he asked slowly.
"A kind of free-lance writer," I said.
"Would I know your name?" he asked.
I told him. Robert Temple. He nodded.
"I know your name," he said. "Look here," he continued. "I feel awkward telling you this, but there's been a grave lack of communication. You're not supposed to be up here in this gondola. What's been going on here is a ... secret ... a kind of closed practice."
I said I was sorry I had intruded. I told him what had happened-that the invitation had come from the blimp's captain that morning. I was sure neither of us had any idea that we would be meddling in some private affair, especially anything as mysterious as dropping baseballs into a field from a dirigible!
"I wouldn't have come if I'd known. I simply came along for the ride."
"Would you mind if we kept in touch with you about this?" he said.
I shrugged. "That's fine with me, Mr. Cashen."
Excerpted from THE CURIOUS CASE OF SIDD FINCH by GEORGE PLIMPTON Copyright © 1987 by George Plimpton. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted July 15, 2012