A COLLECTION OF STORIES ABOUT PEOPLE AND LIFE EXPERIENCES
A COLLECTION OF STORIES ABOUT PEOPLE AND LIFE EXPERIENCES
I couldn’t believe my luck. Instead of staying home in Oklahoma, as usual, I was going to be able to spend my entire summer in Missouri visiting Jay Hammond, my favorite cousin in an extended Italian-American family.
What an ideal vacation! An escape from parental supervision.
At age 13, I was just about to start high school in Tulsa. Jay was a cool 18-year-old, and headed for college that fall. I figured I could learn a lot by hanging out with him. He had just traversed the unknown landscape of education and life that I would soon be exploring.
Jay lived in Springfield, about 180 miles away and a straight shot up Route 66. He was an only child, but I had always looked up to him as a surrogate big brother. Sure, I had a younger sister, but that was different.
I thought Jay was hilarious and fun to be with. I also admired his mom, my Aunt Virginia, one of my mother’s two sisters, who I saw as chic, easy going and fun-loving. Jay’s dad, Merritt, was tall, sanguine, a bit stodgy and quite frugal. He had been working as a printer at the local newspaper until the union went on strike and then he spent his days walking a picket line. Understandably, he was pretty grumpy about the situation and had begun to supplement his income by distributing postcards.
When my parents drove me to the small, yet tidy suburban Hammond house at 1258 South Ferguson, I was excited and anticipating adventures. They lived in a quiet residential neighborhood, the last house in a long block that dead-ended at a dirt road leading to a big nursery for growing plants and vegetables.
That was quite a contrast to our house, which was on a side street between Tulsa’s two major hospitals and within walking distance to a spiffy new shopping center. It was a carpenter-style bungalow built just after WWII on a terrace about six-feet above street level.
Curiously, my mother and her sister referred to both homes as “cibunia,” a Patois word which I translated as hovel, a deprecating term that seemed witty to me.
Although we were first cousins, Jay and I hardly looked as if we were even from the same gene pool. He was a rail-thin, gawky six-footer who shaved daily. I was just five feet tall with peach fuzz. He was affable and confident in a way I envied. He was also enterprising and always seemed to have pocket money, a trait we shared at the time. I collected old newspapers from neighbors and sold them to a recycling center for instant cash.
Throughout that hot summer, Jay and I slept outside the house on army-surplus cots. It was magical to sleep in the backyard under the stars and to awaken at sunrise to the soft cooing of mourning doves.
To this day, when I hear mourning doves, I recall that experience years ago.
Sleeping outdoors seemed perfectly safe in those days. But one morning, I woke up and saw that Jay wasn’t in his cot. I started looking for him, first in the shop and the house. Then, I scouted around the neighborhood, in case he had just gone for a walk. I found him three houses up the street, still asleep and sitting in a chair on a neighbor’s front porch. I gently woke him and walked him back to his house.
I'd never encountered sleepwalking before and found it both fascinating and a bit terrifying. The scary part was that Jay had no idea what he had done. It didn’t happen anymore that summer, as far as I know, and we never talked about it again
To earn spending money that summer, Jay brought me along with him to work as a caddy at the Hickory Hills Country Club. I knew little about golf, although I was aware that my ornery Uncle Eugene in nearby Monett was an absolute shark on the local course.
I can’t explain why, but Jay decided we ought to work under aliases. So from the outset, we adopted the oddball names of Pierre Krollenhammer and Wallace Rufus Greene. Caddying turned out to be lucrative and a revelatory social experience. I was actually far more comfortable talking to strangers than I expected, albeit under a fictitious identity.
We drove to the golf course in Jay’s old car. It was a green 1939 Plymouth (or Dodge?), a 2-seat business coupe with a floor shift transmission and an open-air rumble seat in the back. I rode in the rumble seat when Jay’s petite girlfriend came along.
In addition to lugging golf bags around for 18 holes, Jay and I would often walk to nearby Fassnight Park, which had a big, outdoor public swimming pool. To get there, we had to wade across a shallow creek just beyond his backyard and then walk through an open field. I suspect we went “swimming” more for talking to young girls in bathing suits than cooling off after a hot day on the links.
Major league baseball was our shared obsession. Daily we pored over box scores and statistics in the sports pages of the Springfield Leader & Press. I knew the entire St. Louis Cardinals’ lineup and especially admired the stars who were small in stature—namely Eddie Stankey, Phil Rizzuto, Elroy Face, Nellie Fox, among others. I identified with “little guys” because I hadn’t yet had my final growth spurt.
In lawn chairs in the backyard, we listened to the Cardinals’ boisterous broadcaster Harry Caray deliver the play-by-play action over a radio in the shop. I identified more with sidekick Joe Garagiola than the loudmouth.
The major sponsor of those programs was Griesedieck Brothers Beer and it’s easy to imagine where an adolescent mind went with that.
I learned about Jay’s favorite Cardinal pitcher, “Dizzy” Dean, who was known for clownish on-field antics and colorful language. Diz seemed to be a quasi-role model for cutting up while performing well.
We spent almost all of every day and night outdoors because there was no air conditioning in the house. I often browsed through the boxes of kitschy postcards stored in the shop, while Jay used a hand jigsaw to make small plywood figures of his favorite baseball players before applying leftover model-airplane paint. The figures’ models were taken from his curated baseball card collection. I still have my cut-out of Elroy Face, a fierce, little left-handed pitcher, Jay made for me that summer.
Local softball in the fast-pitch league was also the focus that summer. Namely, the spunky Barnes Store team Jay was managing. It was an unlikely assemblage of athletic talents. Lanky pitcher Tim Buff was the ace. I can still recall his full-circle windup and whiplash delivery.
And the teamwork was remarkable.
Not only did those guys win almost every game, the league and state championship, but, more importantly, under Jay’s leadership they also bonded and became life-long friends. Clearly, Jay’s ebullience was the catalyst for the team’s high spirits and camaraderie.
I served as bat boy for that ball club, so I got to know the players as well. It was a heady experience being an outsider on the inside.
After games, Jay and his teammates would celebrate with a beer at a drive-in joint, and, consequently, that summer I had my first Budweiser. It seemed like a rite of passage into adulthood for me.
Jay was the first person to treat me as a young adult, even though I was five years his junior, and I appreciated that forever after
I still remember the soundtrack of that summer -- a hit tune called “Sh Boom” performed by The Crew Cuts. We played a 45 record of it over and over.
“Life could be a dream sweetheart,
Hello hello again sh-boom and hopin’ we’ll meet again, boom sh-boom,
Hey noony ding dong alang alang sh-boom, Life could be a dream.”
The events of that summer and that song have been ruminating in my mind since Jay died peacefully in his sleep on Feb. 19th, 2020. He had turned 84 two weeks earlier and I phoned him on his birthday, Groundhog Day, as I often did. We talked about my Elroy Face cutout and about the prospects of the Cardinals for next season.
It was a satisfying goodbye.
Sh boom! Sh boom!
John English is a professor emeritus at the University of Georgia and a widely published journalist.