Columns » Bob Lancaster

June havoc

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June was the best month even before the advent of the pink tomato made it official.

This might have had to do with school letting out for the summer. You found yourself suddenly strangely in possession of a great bounty. Three entire months of freedom stretched out before you. You'd surely die of old age before the other side of that time gulf loomed. The Russians would surely have bombed us into oblivion by then. Or Jesus would have made his triumphal return, down through the cumuli, come to separate sheep from goat, to tote up in his dread judgment book the accusatory marks denoting each and every whacking off.

Three months of blessed freedom — footloose; quixotic; fraught with exciting but unurgent possibilities.

There were investigations to be made — but only if you felt like making them (you didn't do it for the money, or to festoon a resume, or for any other reason — like the time in olde Pine Bluff when two boys not yet in their teens got the June-idle notion to hitchhike and freight-hop and huckleberry out to the Grand Canyon to see what that deal was all about, and they did — in your case to check out a haunted ravine, a flooded creekbank, an old railroad embankment, the heavy sprocketed ruins of a New South-era cotton gin, an attic out of Edgar Allan Poe, a falling-down but still padlocked shed. On the old Walter Land place.

Not required to make a report on it, or fill out any forms, or bring back any loot although there was often loot to be brought back if you felt like messing with it — arrowheads, fossils, a half-rack of antler whited by a thousand suns. One time there was a cannonball, too heavy to pick up much less fotch home, which its co-discoverer, the Second Gopher Wells, no student of the Late Unpleasantness, identified as a primitive bowling ball obviously discarded because it lacked holes for the two fingers and a thumb.

Goph long defunct now himself, a natural-born second baseman, which takes you back to ruminations on the sweetest of the summer freedoms — the freedom to play ball till you just wore yourself out with it.

This was your kind of ball, the kind that youngsters created themselves for their own edification and entertainment, before the old guys got control of it and organized and structured and formalized it — ruined it, in other words — to compensate themselves for their own lost youth, or for some damned reason, probably the same reason that all these 30-sumpn one-time beauty queens started putting on the Junior Miss pageants, primping their six-year-olds to look like painted midget strumpets and to strut their stuff like runway meat-market lamb or veal.

The old guys always have to monkey with the object of their nostalgia, thinking to bring it forward and help it along, and they always muck it up. H.L. Mencken blamed this cyclical generational failing on "a libido for the ugly," but I don't know that it's not more of an obsession with fixing what ain't broke. Not done maliciously. But sad. Sad for all concerned.

Your kind of ball was helter-skelter come-ye-all, with flexible regulations and rules adopted only because they were absurd. (For example, 99 fouls and you're out.) It was pointless in the sense that there were no teams, no standings, no stats. Nobody won or lost, so there were no heroes, no goats. Such summer ball took several forms. One was called Flies and Skinners, but the most common one was Work-Up.

Work-up was a game that would accommodate almost any number of players, so you had no anxieties about having to ride the pine. It recognized no class distinctions, such as players who had mitts and those who didn't. It didn't exalt the skilled players over the klutzes. Everybody played every position finally, and nobody cared much whether you played yours poorly or well, and everybody got a turn at bat. Sean Hannity would surely espy creeping socialism in all that, but Work-Up was not ideology, it was ball.

A Work-Up game had only a nebulous beginning, and it seldom ended for any reason other than the coming of darkness or a deluge. You could join the ongoing game in progress and you could decamp whenever you were obliged to — as when you were becked to lunch, called dinner, or you had to go get ready to attend Vacation Bible School.

Ah, the VBS. Its mission to keep youngsters' attention out of the Devil's workshop and on the eternal verities during the dangerous summer idleness. Every church of any standing or pretension had one, usually in June, to catch strayers from the straight and narrow early, and it was semi-obligatory that you hit them all. Their main draw was that they served refreshments, a Dixie cup of Kool-Aid, a wedge of pimiento-cheese sandwich with the crusts trimmed off, and a big old Jackson lemon cookie if you held your mouth right. All they asked in return was your pledge to always eschew doubt. Sin could be forgiven but not doubt. Believe and be saved; doubt and be damned.  

Not a bad bargain if the Kool-Aid was grape. Strawberry, acceptable. Orange, not so much. Still occasional guilt pangs at being so shameless a repeat reneger on the pledge.

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