Coop’s Youth Part 5 – Baseball & Bookends

The cast on my right leg finally came off a week or so after the end of school. All was well with the healed wound and the function of my right leg and I gave up the crutches that I had been mostly embarrassed to show in public and had contributed to me being pretty much housebound the past six weeks during an otherwise glorious (as always) Ann Arbor spring. I was ready to try to put the trauma and stress of my second junior high year behind me and embrace the range of my own chosen activities that was my ten weeks of liberation before I would have to report for duty for one final year at Tappan Junior High.

Part of that stress was the difficult question that Grace Slick would continue to ask me from the rock radio stations from time to time…

Don’t you want somebody to love?

My answer was always yes, but my several experiences with my not quite a girlfriend Cindy that past school year made the pursuit of such a romantic partner seem so impossible. Even if such a partner would declare their interest, even their love, for me, I was both too timid and too somehow self-judging to have the world see me acknowledge her back. My “love life”, whether just holding hands or something more, felt doomed. And of course, as it so often did, my Greek Chorus captured it that spring when the Grassroots started wailing from the radios their latest hit

Your soft gentle motion
Brings out a need in me no one can hear
Except in my midnight confessions
When I tell all the world that I love you
In my midnight confessions
When I say all the things that I want to

You’ll never be mine
I’m wasting my time

Passing so close beside you babe
Sometimes the feelings are so hard to hide

I couldn’t say that I was in love with Cindy. I barely knew her. The extent of our relationship that past year had been dancing together at two school dances with Valentine’s day cards exchanged (though not even acknowledged) in between, plus regular eye contact and smiles in class. But at some abstract level I wanted to be in love, holding hands, kissing, embracing, getting naked together, whatever “being in love” meant. I was so filled with passion that I longed somehow to be requited. I’ve probably heard that song “Midnight Confession” countless times since, and even today, some 46 years later, hearing it still kills me, making me shiver and fill with grief, for some part of that longing that is at the root of me and still not shared with the world.

But it was with a male school comrade at least that I would go on to develop a real and deep friendship starting that summer, to a level that I had not experienced since my friend Molly, the girl next door (across the street actually) during my childhood. His name was Stan and he had been new to school at the beginning of second semester that January, his family recently moving to Ann Arbor from St. Louis.

I recall my first encounter with him was the first day of gym class for second semester, with our “coach” sitting us all down on the bleachers in the gymnasium to orient us to the expectations and rules of behavior in the class. Stan was sitting right in front of me, and all of us who had been in class together last semester knew that he was new. In the ignominious tradition of male hazing behavior, the kid next to me decided to harass this newcomer by flicking his finger at the lobe of Stan’s ear (his ears did stick out a lot!). Stan was startled, but being in the front row and not wanting to draw attention to himself, the newbie, did not immediately react, and when he finally looked behind himself the kid who was harassing him pretended he had done nothing. Stan then turned briefly to glare at me as the possible perpetrator and I shook my head to nonverbally say “it wasn’t me”, but again too timid to snitch on his real assailant, who repeated this little indignity a couple more times.

At the end of class I happened to encounter Stan leaving the locker room and felt so bad for him that my shyness was momentarily overcome and I did my best to explain the details of what had transpired earlier. He was grateful that someone was actually talking to him as another human being and not just an object of ridicule. We discovered we had another class together, though I can’t now remember which one, and an immediate bond formed between the shy new kid and the equally shy kid who sympathized with his predicament. I quickly found him to be thoughtful and intelligent, and like most but not all shy people, not burdened with a big ego. I saw him again leaving school and we walked home together and talked about everything, like we had known each other for a long time. It turned out we had several “small world” type connections. He lived just across Burns Park from me and he had a paper route that was basically adjacent to mine on the south side of the university campus. Our walk home together became a regular thing, and in the ongoing conversations that filled the time, as is my pattern connecting with other good friends since, my friendship with Stan was forged in those conversation.

On one of those walks home together we discovered we were both really into baseball. Growing up and until just a few months ago living in St. Louis, he was a big Cardinals fan, as I was for the nearby Detroit Tigers. But Stan I further discovered was very cerebral, and not so much into playing baseball himself as being a real student of the game from an analytical point of view. As much or more than any other major team sport, baseball is a game of statistics – batting averages, runs batted in, slugging percentage, earned run average, wins, losses and saves and so much more – and Stan was into the numbers. As evidence of his bonafides as a hardcore fan of the game, Stan had a weekly subscription to the Sporting News, which covered all major sports but had a particular focus on baseball, covering the activities of every pro team even during the off season.

Again, Stan was not a jock but an intellectual, who happened to focus his mental acumen on baseball, among other things. The first time I went over to his house that spring (he lived just across the park from me) he showed me a game he had called Big League Manager Baseball. It used statistical information about all the Major League Baseball players to let you simulate a baseball game and have to make the real sorts of decisions to manage a team. Each player had a card with their abilities boiled down to a set of numbers and ranges, based on their statistics from the previous season. A spinner generated a random number between 1 and 100, which you cross-referenced with the particular number and ranges from the player’s card to determine whether they walked, got a hit, or got out. Based on additional numbers on the pitcher’s card, the batter’s chance of getting a walk or a hit would be reduced by a good pitcher or increased by a bad one.

Stan and I played the game initially a couple of times with me managing last year’s Detroit Tigers and him the Saint Louis Cardinals. It took about an hour or so to play an entire nine-inning game and included many of the managerial decisions of the real thing, including setting your lineup, when to change pitchers, bunt and steal bases. I had already developed a longtime love of military simulation games and this was my first encounter with a comparable sport simulation game, and I was hooked!

Stan was also a fan of the musical duo Simon and Garfunkel and had their Bookends album, which quickly became part of my Greek chorus. I had heard their songs on the radio, “The Sounds of Silence” and their recent hit “Mrs. Robinson”, but this was my first close encounter with their music and with a docent of sorts (my friend Stan) as well. Their lyrics covered a lot of the same personal introspection and social commentary territory as The Beatles and the Motown groups, but had a certain whimsical and childlike quality all their own, combining youthful innocence with deep knowing, which was kind of how I viewed Stan as well. I went out and bought a copy of the album, and throughout the summer it provided a soundtrack, particularly in the evenings, on either Stan’s or my brother’s record player.

Stan and I also had in common our adjoining paper routes, and once I was back doing mine after I got the cast off my leg, we decided to do them jointly most every day, first mine then his. With he and I taking different sides of a street and otherwise strategically dividing each route, we could do both in little more time than it had taken each of us to do ours separately. The last third of his route was in one 18-story apartment building (the tallest I think in town at the time), on the northwest corner of Forest and South University, where some 20 of the apartments got papers. We would both ride the elevator to the top floor and then work our way down the stairs delivering papers to alternate floors and meeting in the lobby. I recall it became our ritual to get a smoothie at the Orange Julius in the main floor of the building with its great view of that busy pedestrian intersection at the southeast corner of campus.

We essentially spent the summer together. I would often spend the night over at his house and on several occasions I remember us deciding to stay up all night playing BLM Baseball, listening to Simon and Garfunkel, and drinking orange Hi-C and eating Fig Newtons. We’d pick two teams, usually Detroit and Saint Louis, and play an entire five-game series between them, which would use our entire four or five pitcher starting rotation. We’d include a double-header, which would require each of us to play our backup catcher in one of the two games and stretch our relief staff.

Playing the game would of course be punctuated by conversation, and I discovered that those late night discussions we had about our lives, when we were sugar crashed and bleary from lack of sleep and our defences were down, were some of the deepest and best to be had. And of course the Greek chorus was present, mostly in the form of Paul Simon’s insightful songs embellished with Art Garfunkel’s lilting harmonies. Stan shared with me that his “theme song” was “Fakin’ It” on their Bookends album…

I’m such a dubious soul
And a walk in the garden
Wears me down
Tangled in the fallen vines
Pickin’ up the punch lines
I’ve just been fakin’ it
Not really makin’ it

Stan shared with me his strong existential sense of not being able to be his true self and instead playing this character of the young teen with little personal agency, the kind of role that our junior high experience (now thankfully on hiatus for the summer) tended to thrust us into. He longed to take on the world with his intellect and his passion. I soon realized I was right there with him, and the kinship of fellow travelers in this incarnation grew between us. Still today hearing that song raises the gooseflesh on my arms, as I think of Stan, both our longings to be genuine, and the longing to be an effective actor in life.

I shared with Stan my extreme discomfort with our junior high and with all our adult overlords in general. I shared with him the details of my problematic not quite a relationship with Cindy. We discussed society and politics, we both being rather leftist in our point of view. We discussed popular music which we both followed as spectators and fans like we did baseball.

We seemed truly to be two “dubious souls”, yet partnered (at least for now) in the effort to do our best to be less questionable and arousing of doubt, making us also perhaps like the characters of the namesake song on the album…

Old friends
Sat on their park bench like bookends
A newspaper blown through the grass
Falls on the ’round toes
On the high shoes
Of the old friends

Though unlike my previous best friend and soul mate Molly some eight years earlier, Stan and I did not get physically naked together (I bet we would have if it had been in our libidos), but we did at least let it all hang out conversationally, metaphorically shedding the coverings of our still dubious souls with each other.

The musical poetry of Paul Simon was the perfect catalyst for Stan and my relationship and revelations to each other, plus Simon became another mentor for me bridging to begin to bridge that chasm between the world of childhood and youth and the adult world Stan, I and my other peers were struggling to prepare ourselves to join. Like my Aunt Pat and my substitute speech teacher Michael, both born around the same year as Simon, the musical bard was able to bridge those seemingly incompatible worlds with the youthful bonafides of exuberance and love of life along with the savvy and agency so important to successful participation in the adult world.

Baseball was the unifying theme of my summer. I managed to play little league with my same neighborhood team, though having missed spring practices due to my injured ankle I had lost my position as starting first baseman to one of my teammates who had dutifully been at those practices. Stan and I played his BLM Baseball game at every opportunity, plus studiously followed the pro season, tracking the fates of our two teams, the Tigers and the Cardinals.

Stan’s dad took Stan and I the hour drive into Detroit to see several games at Tiger Stadium. I think my mom even took us to a couple as well. She would remind me from time to time that she had been a tomboy as a kid and no stranger to neighborhood baseball pickup games. She even took great pride in bragging to me that when two neighborhood boys were picking teams, she was good enough, particular in her hitting, to usually be the first kid picked, before any of the boys.

Stan and I got to witness some moments that contributed to baseball history. Tiger ace Denny McLain pitching one of his victories on his way to record-setting 31 wins. Slugger Willie Horton hitting a towering homer over the center field wall and literally out of the park. Inspired by Stan, I too was becoming a “student of the game”, more baseball nerd than jock, and both Stan and I dutifully and enjoyably scored the play by play of the game in the grid provided in our programs. We would note to each other, like radio commentators, that the batter at the plate was two for three on the night or that the manager had signalled for the left-hander in the bullpen.

As fate or random luck would have it, that pro baseball season culminating in Stan and my favorite teams squaring off in an exciting seven-game world series. Even Simon and Garfunkel picked up on the theme in their big hit song “Mrs. Robinson”

Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio,
Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you.
What’s that you say, Mrs. Robinson.
Joltin’ Joe has left and gone away,
Hey, hey, hey

Hey, hey, hey indeed!

Notwithstanding taking us to the baseball games, my mom continued to do stuff that I found discomforting. Now she was beginning to date again, and I don’t know whether seeing her flirting with her date, or her telling me about her intention to date, was the more discomforting. One guy was a smooth talking ex football player turned sportscaster who came to the house once and gave her a book on some of the intricacies of football for the more discerning spectator. She did not seem much interested in the book (or the guy for that matter), but I found the book fascinating and my own introduction to some of the more military like tactics of the game, already being a great student of real military strategy and tactics. I still remember the section in the book about the “safety blitz”, featuring diagrams plus pictures of Larry Wilson, the famous St. Louis (football) Cardinals safety who made this unorthodox defensive move famous. My friend Stan’s intellectual approach to sports was rubbing off on me.

There was another guy she turned out to be more interested in and actually went beyond a date or two to actually “seeing” that summer. He was a dad with two kids roughly my brother and my age whose wife had died. I remember my mom telling me, in one of our sessions with me in her rocking chair and her sitting on her bed fitfully triaging the bills, how critical it was to her that he was a widower rather than a divorcee. My brother and I were brought along over to his house a couple times and played with his son and daughter. I recall that he and our mom even went off for a weekend together when our dad took us down to his place in Xenia for the weekend.

And it was the two final songs from the Bookends album that have continued to evoke Simon’s wisdom each time I happen to hear the songs over the years.

Simon’s whimsical anthropomorphism in “At the Zoo”

The monkeys stand for honesty
Giraffes are insincere
And the elephants are kindly but they’re dumb
Orangutans are skeptical of changes in their cages
And the zookeeper is very fond of rum
Zebras are reactionaries
Antelopes are missionaries
Pigeons plot in secrecy
And hamsters turn on frequently
What a gas! You gotta come and see at the zoo

His inventory of creatures in the metaphorical “zoo” and their spectrum of behavior was a very different framing of the adult world from my own, the seemingly omniscient godlike grownups as overlords to us kids. As a key voice in my Greek Chorus, Simon was suggesting with all his fanciful kidlike imagination that maybe all the adults I felt so afflicted by were just a collection of misfits with their own parochial passions and limitations, just like us younger types. Food for thought at age 13 though by no means convincing proof at this point. I also pondered whether my favorite characters in the list were the orangutans, pigeons or those hedonistic hamsters.

And that coming fall and for every fall after for many years the words of their song, “Hazy Shade of Winter”, whenever I heard it, would haunt me…

Time, time, time see what’s become of me
While I looked around for my possibilities
I was so hard to please
Look around, leaves are brown
And the sky is a hazy shade of winter

Hang on to your hopes, my friend
That’s an easy thing to say
But if your hopes should pass away
Simply pretend that you can build them again

Simply pretend? Did Simon really believe that? Was he being sarcastic? I pondered for years whether intention in the form of imagination really could keep one going despite the reality on the ground.

As the end of August came and I continued to ponder, I felt the dread of having to head back to Tappan for one final year in that place. Now that I had made a close connection with a fellow traveler who I was comfortable with and shared the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom with, why must I return to that place where the spontaneity and self-direction of our exploration of our world must be curtailed in favor of the directions of my teacher overlords. I clearly did not want to submit but did not have the courage to rebel, to speak truth to power, except maybe in my midnight confessions.

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2 replies on “Coop’s Youth Part 5 – Baseball & Bookends”

  1. Another sturdy block in the almost completed edifice, the life and times of the young Cooper Zale.

    The early teens are tough years. What a stroke of luck for you to have Stan as a confidante at that point.

  2. Reuben… thanks as always for your support. Stan (not his real name) was a lifesaver for me that summer and into my next year of school. He was one key part of a series of factors that pushed me into the world of activism, which did not bear full flower until my young adulthood.

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