Fifty three seasons ago, I could hit a baseball. As Micky Mantle and Roger Maris were slamming them out of every ballpark in the country at a record pace, a 13 year old freckly faced kid was belting them out in Salamanca, New York. Micky finished with 54 but missed the final week of the season due to a hip problem and Roger blasted his record breaking 61st homer in October of ‘61.
Because Micky Mantle, my boyhood hero, was a switch hitter, I tried switching it up that year; the year between 8th grade and high school. I grew almost five inches that summer, and was having a ball playing pick-up baseball every day in the field behind the school. Right field had a shorter fence and center field was the school if you hit the ball high enough up the wall where the concrete stopped and the bricks began. Batting left was the smart move for anyone who could master that side of the plate. And for the August of 1961, I was the master.
There were only three TV stations back then, and it was a thrill when we could catch a Yankee game. When the M&M boys were battling neck-n-neck in their personal homerun derby that year, baseball fever was taking over the nation. On August first, Maris had 41 homers and Mantle was close behind with 39. For the rest of the season, every time they picked up a bat, the baseball world held its collective breath. And more often than not, the fans were rewarded.
At St. Pat’s sandlot, we began counting our dingers at the beginning of August to see if we could emulate our heroes. Mantle’s 39 and Maris’s 41 to start the month meant we had some catching up to do. At the end of August, Mantle had cleared the fences 48 times and Maris finished the eighth month of 1961 with 51; both well on their way in their chase for Babe Ruth’s long standing season total of 60. For the month of August that year, a number of the guys I played with were pounding the leather off our battered old ball at a pace that even we couldn’t believe. From August 1 through August 31, I had 52 home runs. I remember, because my last one put me ahead of Maris on that same date.
So, how come you never heard of Dan Moran, major league baseball slugger? Number 1, we played slow pitch. I never could hit a fastball to save my life. Number 2, the right field fence was approximately 140 feet from home plate and an estimated 190 feet dead center would be the distance needed for another notch on the home run totem pole. There was no fence in left, so you had to run the bases pretty fast to get a homer going left. How do I know the distances? The school was still there a number of years ago when I went home to my mother’s funeral. I went back to the school and walked off the distances. The field was a lot smaller than I recalled. But still, that was a lot of home runs for a kid to hit.
My point? I have always liked August. I liked playing ball all day long. I liked being with my friends, and exploring life with our first girlfriends…first kisses…first broken hearts…transistor radios and listening to Little Stevie Wonder with Finger Tips, Part One. The end of August meant corn on the cob, which I would eat as though my life depended on it. To this day, I go after an ear of corn like a man possessed. My family warns anyone at the table of “flying butter when Dad hits the corn as though he is speed typing on an old Remington Rand manual”.
August was always hot, and sticky and an in-between month in upstate New York in my youth. August 1st was a good distance from the last day of school and not far enough into summer to warrant a look at the coming year of teachers and books. I don’t even know if anyone in town had air conditioners. Window fans …drinking from a hose…dousing your head under the faucet and sticking your head in the open refrigerator…that’s how we cooled off. A few minutes in the shade and we were good to go. Popsicles and fudge bars were the treats that never let us down, and grape Kool-Aid was the drink of choice.
Many years later, I got married in an apple orchard in Boulder, Colorado in August. That was almost 30 years ago and I’m still loving it…August and my wife. Vacations happen in August and breezes off Lake Michigan after a hot, sultry day of work at Calumet Park Cemetery reminds me of the goodness of the simple things in life. My wife, my kids, a great job, good health, a nice place to live and cars that run without breaking down. August heat forces one to slow down and smell the roses.
People think about retiring and lose sight of the wonder each day offers if they would only have eyes to see, ears to hear, and a heart that will let goodness in. True, there is a lot of badness in the world. I think we look at the news and cringe at man’s inhumanity to man and secretly, if not subconsciously, affirm to ourselves that we are glad that it is not our name in the headlines. When I come around the corner at night and see my wife’s car in the driveway, I feel that all is good in the world…at least my world, for another day. I do see my home as an oasis away from the death, and despair and wars and bloodshed…on the streets of Israel and the alleys of Chicago. I believe God gave us the ability to not take every tragedy that happens in the world to heart or we could never function.
Being in the cemetery business, I appreciate the power of sympathy and know that I could not function without its cousin, empathy. I have learned to care and yet detach as a family comes in to arrange for a funeral and burial of a loved one. Pick an age, as the obits will show you every day, there is not any one day that is better or worse for a person to die on. Death is death and it is crushing and horrible for those left behind. Paying for funerals is one thing, but going home after a funeral with the awareness that your loved one will never be seen again on this earth…well, that is so very hard.
So, August is here, and I choose to remember the fun times, the fun in the sun times, and the days of hitting home runs and pretending that we were national heroes like Mick and Roger. You, too, can decide what your August will be like. Feel the joy of the sun on your back while you lay at the beach. Breathe in the cool air of your temperature controlled car, and work place and home. Remember the fun you had in your many Augusts of yester-year, and thank God for the many to come. Life truly is what you make it, whether the cards you are dealt are good or bad. Nothing lasts forever, so you might want to subscribe to the simple philosophy of “this too shall pass”, and the next time you see a baseball game, think about what you want your August to look like…and make it happen!
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