Friday, August 27, 2004

Swing for The Fences

My teammates called me, Professor CrazySwing. It was a name my Coach gave me and it stuck throughout the season. I was 12, trying to play my last year of baseball in the minor league. The coach looked at me standing there, skinny, tall, mouthy and very very bright. I couldn't hit, I couldn't field, and I could irritate the heck out of anyone with long discussions of TV shows, girls, politics, girls, quantum theory, girls, music, girls, the meaning of life and girls and I could run. He knew I was there to run somewhere and that if he washed me out, I would never get my chance to be on the team.

So he didn't wash me out and for that season, I was the eternal benchwarmer. Next to me on the bench sat Jerry Mosley. The Moz was also a talkative guy and while he could hit the ball more often than me, it wasn't that often.

As the song goes, "the 142 fastest gun in the west and looking for number 143."

It was the last game in a series in which we had become the number 1 team in our league. The coach knew with his young talented tormented blonde pitcher, his big gangly 13 year old hitter, and pretty good guys in the outfield, he was winning the season. He had given me the rule book, told me to memorize it, and when he needed to know what the rule was, he would come ask me.

My coach was a lawyer. It explains much.

In the last game of the season, with no particular reason to think the worst team in the league could take us, knowing he had the season, the coach pointed to me and said, "Professor, you're up." So the benchwarmer who had the worst batting record in the league, mine own true self, would step up to face the worst pitcher.

As I walked past the coach he looked up at me and said with a big smile, "Swing for the fences." Just that. No pressure. No worries.

The first pitch went past me and noticed my big hazel eyes. It said, "Gotcha sucka." The second pitch came past me like his brother. I blinked. As the worst pitcher in the league unloaded his third pitch, I said, "I'm cooked." Then it hit me. What the hell? I'm the worst batter but I'm on the best team. Swing for the fences. I heard the crack of the bat and for one instant, I thought, "It's a homer!" I made it to first base. But I was on base. Wow! The Big Time.

Then I saw the coach motion to the Moz. Jerry picked up his bat and came to the plate. He looked scared. The second worst hitter on the best team was stepping up to meet the worst pitcher. I could see it in Moz's eyes. He knew he had a chance. When that first pitch spit past, he swung hard and missed. The Moz was bummed. Then he got mad. On that second pitch, he smacked it solid and I took off. I made it to third and turned. The Moz was standing proud on first base smiling.

The Coach smiled too. He was proud. His worst players made the bases.

He motioned to his best hitter. I smiled. The best hitter on the best team was stepping up to bat against the league's worst pitcher. I knew this man could bring me home.

He struck out. Game over. Season over. No homeplate for Professor and The Moz.

We walked in from the field heads down, when all of the team gathered round us and smiled. We had made the bases. That was the thing.

My father lay in the emergency room bed waiting for a doctor, knowing the mass against his prostate was going to kill him. We were watching "Some Like It Hot" on the TV hanging in the corner of the small portable room covered in white linen. He kept asking Momma for his pills. She snuck him one. He started to talk about the war. Daddy has once slapped me for asking about what he did in the Navy, but as he aged he told me more stories. Daddy liked to tell stories but until he was old, he didn't talk about the war. It haunted him. When he would see actions he was in on the History Channel, he'd just say, "I never saw any cameras."

My father served as a Seabee. He rode in small rubber boats smong the reefs between the landing crafts as the Japanese fired on them. His job was to restart the Hall-Scotts when some 18 year kid who had played baseball one year before in high school, now a scared Marine hoping the brother of the shell that had just gotten his guys wet wouldn't find him where he stood, hands choking the throttle on the twin-diesels, had killed the engines and left the LST to the mercy of the screaming demons of death falling around them. Get the kid's frozen hand off the throttle, hope the battery was still alive, pull like hell, start it, then jump back in the rubber boat and get to the next stalled boat drifting over the coral toward hell.

He had ridden a destroyer through Halsey's typhoons. He said it was the worst of it. On deck, he could fire a gun and he enjoyed that. In the water, he could dodge, but down in the ship listening to the engines howl and the screws cutting in and out of the water as the ship slid up, over and down the mountains of cold smothering rage around them, he could do nothing. He said it was the most scared he would ever be. When the kamikazes came, he got the one coming for him, but not the one coming for the carrier, so they tied up to it and fought the fires from their own decks.

On the island, he made friends with a pilot who flew patrol bombers. My Daddy loved anything that had an engine, and flying caught his fancy. He was younger than the pilot and the pilot liked that. He taught Daddy to fly. Daddy would go on patrol with him. In those days before pressure suits were common, it was not uncommon for older pilots to lose consciousness pulling out of a dive. The pilot preferred a younger man behind him who could take the Gs better. Wrapped in a towel because a dive makes blood run from his nose and ears ruining his prize jacket, the pilot would tell Daddy, "If I pass out, you gotta bring us home, Bullard."

Dad looked up at Marilyn on the screen in a clinch with Tony, and said, "Yeah, we were flying back that afternoon when we looked down and saw it laying there just off the coast. It was clear and we saw that sub waiting. After dark, he would surface and he would give us hell. I saw the pilot point down and I knew what he would do as he came round and started down. He was going all the way to the water before he dropped that bum. A bum has to hit hard and square on the water to get down to where that sub was at. So he flipped over and headed straight down, engine screaming, my guts all over me, and his face drawed up like a fish. I could see the top of that sub coming faster and faster until he let that bum go. As he was pulling up and the engine was groaning and the wings was cracking, I managed to look over. He hit 'er square on the tower and it blew up. We killed those barstards but they wuz gonna kill us that night. Made me glad. I looked around and I saw the red all over that towel, but as he was slumpin' down, he took the mike and said, "Bring us home, Bullard."

Then Daddy looked at me and Mom and said, "I can beat this." I knew it wasn't so, but I knew he would swing for the fences.

The back of the room of the Tralee museum was packed with a mob of people who had all come to see the Great Man. The man was Neil Armstrong who had flown every kind of plane there was to fly, who had first stepped on the Moon, and was now kneeling next to my seven year old son, Daniel. The Deputy Prime Minister of Ireland listened attentively next to the Great Man, as Daniel told him about the virtual reality epic before them on the screen.

Pushed into the crowd and the back of the room, Paul Hoffman and I and our wives watched as the cameras rolled and Daniel with complete poise told them about our work. An hour before that, Paul and I finished a 24 hour shift doing the final assembly of a work that had been made in 95 days out of beta technology by men all over the planet, none of whom except Paul and I ever laid eyes on one another. And Paul and I had only met a day and half ago.

It was reallllll close.

It was the finest moment of my life. For those men, all volunteers, only email buddies, mostly Dads for all the right reasons built that VR for the children of Ireland. Our team risked much but we were on base.

The next day, it was much quieter and we were back at the exhibit. Children playing around us, and Irish mother came up to me and asked, "Why did you do it?" I said, with pride, "For your children." but Paul, who sat making a few more tweaks, said, "For the fun." The redhaired girl from Kerry leaned into my shoulder and cried.

Around us the Gateway computers hummed. The children were laughing and living in the worlds of Hoffman, the genius who had pulled the project together, Kahuna who proved he was the master builder of ships, Dennis who created his magical worlds using only an Ascii editor and the beta browser, Niclas who would tell us of his days and his loves while he made the final mystery, Rev Bob who always replied with humor when Paul told him he needed to take just a few more triangles out of Bob's perfectly engineered and stunning International Space Station, all these good men who had heard the call to do the impossible, who had made the world's first virtual reality epic, had swung at the fences, and on the only pitch, knocked it all the way out of the park.

And my Daniel was there, his first time on a world stage showing our work to the Great Man who had been to the Moon first, and was there to see what we could make of the dream of space travel for the children of Ireland. Magic is attention focused by belief. We speak it into being and act. The whisper makes the word. The word is the act. Love is the reward. I couldn't have loved my son more than at that moment watching him swinging for the fences.

The night my father died my younger and my oldest brother sat in the room playing the music he had played with us so many Sundays for so many years. As he lay in the next room, we played with all the heart and all the love and all the mistakes we had learned while he had played with us. I sang his favorite, Gentle On My Mind, and we played all the blues and country and rock and folk and classical guitar songs we knew. When we stopped, he died. While now the grieving would begin, the deep sorrow of watching this Seabee join his mates was over. At Daddy's side was a very worn Bible with the signature of a man we did not know dated, 1943.

Two days later, at his funeral I read the elegy, and then I, my brothers, and my cousin played the song I had written ten years earlier knowing even then it was for this day, the song that got me into the Bluebird past Amy's pen years before. When I had told him that I was going to go take a swing at the audition in Nashville's home for songwriters, he told me, "Son, I know you like rock, and you write good songs, but for Nashville, you have to play a country song." So I went back to the studio to write a true song because as Harlan Howard said, "Country is three chords and the truth."

I sang about my Daddy making up after a fight with me when he had been drinking. He asked me what he could do. I was seven, but I said without hesitating, "Teach me to play the guitar." The song was true and it was enough to pass her test. Six months later, I sat on the stage of The Bluebird on a Sunday night and sang my song. I hit it over the fence. Daddy was proud. Hits didn't matter. It was about respect for a good song.

You only play the games you sign up for, and I had already decided that a life at home loving my wife, raising babies, and taking care of them was the best life. Music would always be my friend and like the Moz, if I could get to first base, it could get me further. I decided that home was far enough.

So now the time had come to play it for the family who always asked for that song, a song that would make Daddy cry. Without tears, I played the hardest song of my life, and the sweetest, and the truest. It was not written for the 'natch; it was for loving my Dad. In sadness and courage and practice and patience like the low tapping of a foot on a floor to start a song, we played as he had taught us: to bring it home.

A month ago I played for Kelly, my beautiful boo, the baby, the girl whom I've loved without reserve since her Mother first gave her to me. Before her grandparents and family friends and the assembly of her church, she sang her first solo. A month earlier, my best girlfriend when I was a teen-ager had given me her harp before she left for Israel to become a cantor. Knowing I loved the harp and would learn to play it, she told me to restring it and keep it until she could come back again. In a life time of music and love, this was an iridescent moment on stage with my little angel. As we both stepped up to the plate, her to sing for the first time in public, me to play a new and mysterious axe, we were there together swinging. With my Daddy's hands and my daughter's love, we hit it out of the park.

For all the times you think you cannot do it, for all the times you are scared and you can't see that ball coming, know that it is and when it gets there, you can swing for the fences. You can strike out when you're the best, you can hit when you're the worst, and you can bring someone home that made it to base. There is courage even in the most frightened heart, and there is will in the most frozen hand. I hope for you, that in this life, you will swing for the fences and know how wonderful the moment is when you hit it out of the park and bring it home.

6 comments:

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