30 November 2008

Our 2008 Christmas card

Kathleen and I aren't very good at sending Christmas cards. As a matter of fact, I'm trying to recall whether we EVER have managed to send out any during the nearly 19 years we've been married. Oh, we've bought some nice ones during that time and we've had good intentions in that regard, but well, somehow it always got to be January or February by the time we were ready to ACT on those intentions. So we'd always say, "Okay, next year then."

This year may actually turn out to be a little different. It's still November (barely), and while we haven't bought any Christmas cards, we nevertheless have one ready to go. It's not store-bought, though, it's a reproduction – or maybe "adaptation" is a better word – I made of a Christmas card from 1943.

Let me back up a bit and explain.

Over the past 8 or 9 years, I've written up a small handful of stories for my kids – time travel stories that feature the older two girls. I started when Emmy came home one day from second grade and was sitting in a chair crying. She told me the reason was because she'd finished all the "Magic Treehouse" books and there were no more to read.

What could I do? I read a couple of them to see how they were put together, then wrote the first two "Time Scouts" books with Emmy and Rosie having their own adventures in the past. It wasn't entirely altruistic--I also saw an opportunity to teach them some history, something I've really grown to love as I've gotten older.

Anyhow, the first one took them back to the day during the age of dinosaurs when the asteroid hit the Yucatan. That took me a day to write. The second had them spend Good Friday 1865 with Tad Lincoln, and because I wanted to do some research first, it took me a week to finish. I started a third one, that has them and a couple of neighbor boys from Indiana in New York City on Sept. 30, 1927, but after a month or so of writing and researching, I put that one on hold because I was having problems finding some of the info I needed to finish it. So I started the fourth one, the one I've been working on and researching for something like five years now, where they travel back to the homefornt during WWII at Christmastime in 1943 and meet their grandmother when she was their age.

I think my problem is that I like doing the research as much (or maybe more) than I do the actual writing. I have the whole story mapped out, I have a cardboard box and numerous digital folders full of research, but I also have a bunch of eBay notifications set up that let me know every day if certain kinds of popular culture artifacts from Christmas 1943 turn up for auction. Mostly, I copy the images and have built a pretty extensive library of them to give me some idea what the world and the things in it looked like back then. But occasionally I'll also bid on something that strikes my fancy.

I did that a couple of months back when I saw an auction for a lot that contained a small pile of Christmas cards dating from 1943. I won them for a ridiculously low price – I think the shipping cost more than the cards – and when they arrived, one in particular really jumped out at me.

When we moved out here, we rented a house (until we can sell ours up in Michigan) that has an oasis-like back yard, with a kidney-shaped pool, palm and citrus trees and beautiful landscaping. The Realtor had a great photo of it posted on the Web as part of the listing when we were first looking. And one of those 1943 Christmas cards had a picture on the front that could have been a drawing of that same view! The only problem was, it said, "A Merry Christmas from California" and we're here in Arizona.

I've been reading a little about the history of Arizona, and many of the writers compare what's been going on here over the the last few decades to the growth boom in California back in the 1940s. Some even refer to the Phoenix area as "L.A. II," and with all of the palm trees, the desert setting and endless freeways, one can see the similarities.

Anyway, that card inspired me. I tossed it on the scanner, cleaned it up a bit and changed "California" to "Arizona." It was a simple matter to find some appropriate ivory-colored paper and envelopes at Staples to give my new card a slightly aged appearance. Right now I'm contemplating whether to scan a sheet of 1943 Christmas Seals I bought in another eBay auction and include a reproduction of one on my envelopes as well, for the full retro-Christmas experience.

So if I have your mailing address, watch your mailbox. If I don't, send me a note and I'll try to get one of these out to you this year. And if I fail at that – remember, we've never really been good at mailing out Christmas cards – remind me and I'll e-mail you a PDF.

However this turns out, it's been a fun exercise and an opportunity for me to wish all of our friends and family a Merry Christmas or a Happy Channukah or just offer the Season's Greetings and our best wishes for the New Year.

31 October 2008

Halloween again!

Wow, the gaps between posts here have gotten longer and longer. Last time I wrote anything we were still up in Michigan. Now we're enjoying an Arizona Halloween with the temperature in the high eighties.

One thing we've noticed is that no one puts out jack-o-lanterns early the way they do up north. With the weather as warm as it its here, they'd probably spoil pretty fast, and while rotting pumpkins WOULD be scary, I'm not sure we'd want to deal with the insect life they might attract.

There also doesn't seem to be the same amount of house and yard decoration going on here that we're used to seeing up north. Not sure why that is--it would work even better here, since Arizona doesn't go on daylight savings time, so the sun sets even earlier than what we were used to.

Anyhow, the main purpose of posting today is to get a photo of my Halloween-crazed wife up here. Two years back I managed to get the "Married to a Vulcan" posted, but last year I missed getting a photo of her in her costume. The good news is, since we moved and no one here saw her in it last year, she's doing a rerun. (Probably be a good opportunity to go back and revisit some of the other costumes of Halloweens past in coming years as well.)

So without further ado, there she is, Kathleen the Riveter!

19 April 2008

My old baseball glove

Okay, this will be a quick one. I've already forgotten exactly how I happened to find the photo of the glove in my previous post here. I suppose I Googled "Hawthorne baseball glove" or something like that.

I know this much: It found it as part of an auction on eBay. And since I no longer had my old glove – I thought I'd left it at Mom's house, but when I last went looking for it in early 1980, it was nowhere to be found – OF COURSE I had to bid on it.

I was the only bidder – who else would want a 45 year-old baseball glove from Wards? – and won it for $2.99. I'll have to dig up an old Wards catalog, but I bet that was around what it cost back then.

It was a little more expensive if you add in the $7 it cost to ship it to me and the glove conditioner I picked up for $3. But how do you put a price on nostalgia?

I used up about half the conditioner, stuck a ball in the pocket, wrapped a couple of fat rubber bands around it and let it sit for a few days.

Then, about 45 minutes ago, I dug a baseball out of the garage and made my middle daughter (who pitches on the varsity softball team) go outside and play catch with me. After about 5 minutes, she blew the lacing out in the pocket, even though she wasn't throwing very hard.

I had to come in and fix it, then we went back out and threw for about 10 more minutes. This time the glove stood up okay.

It felt just like my old glove, and even though it looks like something out of an old baseball movie, it caught the ball just fine. It's hard to describe the feeling of being out there and throwing with one of my daughters, using a mitt that was such a tangible link back to my childhood.

I probably need someone like W.P. Kinsella to try to explain what that connection feels like when you play catch with your kid, then think back to when you were the kid and it was your dad or your grandfather out in the yard playing catch with you. Whatever it is, it's good.

Oh, and since this glove is less worn than mine was when I last saw it, I still can read the model number on it. It's a Hawthorne 60-4076, near as I can tell, a not-particularly-distinguished glove that's pretty much been forgotten. Google it and see – no hits.

Well, that's not quite right. There should be at least one now, since I remember it, was out in the yard playing catch with it (and my daughter) a few minutes ago, and will be posting this to my blog in a few seconds. So the name of the Hawthorne 60-4076 will live SOMEWHERE on the Internet or the archives of the Internet for as long as there's an Internet. And with luck, maybe someday my daughter will be out in the yard throwing with her daughter or son, maybe even using this old glove.

28 March 2008

Baseball memories

I was reading the coverage of the Minnesota Twin on the Minneapolis StarTribune site this morning, and ran across an article that talks about how some of the current Twins players got started playing ball, as kids. The comments section was full of other fans recalling their own childhood experiences learning about baseball and how to play ball, and that got me thinking about mine.

Baseball first popped up on my radar when, in 1961, I was at my grandparents house and saw a box of Post Toasties with cut-out baseball cards on the back. Having lived in Northern Ireland for a good part of my young life (we returned in 1959), I had no idea what baseball was. My grandpa, who played city ball when he was younger and who, I discovered, was a great baseball fan, explained it to me as best he could.

He let me cut out the cards, even though there was still cereal in the box, and I remember going outside with my new treasures in hand, to show them off to any of the other neighborhood kids who might be outside.

The only card I remember from that batch is Jerry Lumpe, then of the Kansas City Athletics. He was my favorite, because, as i recall, he'd scored more runs than any of the other players on the back of that particular box. Not that I had a clear idea exactly what runs might be. But it sounded good.

I went out to stand by a big elm tree where the sidewalk on Hancock Street met the the driveway at the back of my grandparents house--a spot where the grown-ups could see me and from where I might see some of the other kids. There was a puddle on the sidewalk there, where the pavement had buckled a little, that looked like a square head with a rectangular nose . That Jerry Lumpe card and the puddle on that gray spring day are where my lifelong love of baseball began.

I think it was Ronny Bastyr, who lived a few houses down Fourth Street, who happened by. I showed him the cards, he showed me some other ones he had (in those days kids carried baseball cards around in their pockets, we didn't keep them in ring binders with Mylar sleeves around them) and I seem to recall that we traded a one or two. That was it, I was hooked.

As it happened, that was the same spring that the Washington Senators arrived in Minnesota and became the Twins, so there was a lot of baseball talk going on, even though as a kindergartener, I didn't understand a lot of it. But my grandpa and my uncles watched the Twins whenever they were on TV and it seemed like there were radios tuned to the games in every basement and garage. Evenings, you could walk down the street and follow a game, just listening to the sound of the broadcasts coming from the front porches and open windows.

And eventually, I found a Minnesota Twin or two on the backs of other cereal boxes (and Jell-O boxes too!). They became my favorites, and Jerry Lumpe was forgotten.

Naturally, I wanted to try PLAYING baseball. So my grandpa dug out a couple of his old mitts and took me out in the side yard to throw. One was a big, overstuffed catcher's mitt with a patch on the top front where the leather had worn through, and the other was a small fielder's glove. Both dated from the early 1900s, so the catcher's mitt didn't flex at all and the fielder's mitt had no webbing and was barely larger than an adult hand.

On the other hand, I'd never seen a baseball glove before, so those were just fine with me. And I learned to throw and catch.

Over the course of the summer, I discovered that the other kids in the neighborhood had very different kinds of baseball gloves--bigger, with some sort of pocket between the thumb and index finger, and a kind of hinge that let you flex it closed to hold the ball. But by that time, the season was over and everyone was putting away their gloves and starting to play touch football in the side yards.

By the following spring, I discovered that baseball cards weren't just something you could get off the backs of cereal boxes, you could also BUY a two-sided variety that came in a pack of five with a stick of gum. These could be found on the candy rack at Hooley's Supermarket, just a block down the street. Even better, Kearney's Grocery--on the corner opposite Hooley's--carried penny packs, with one card and a stick of gum in each. So for your nickel, you could get five cards AND five sticks of gum! It was a great world, and I think I'd probably had my first lesson in economics.

For my birthday that spring, my parents got me my first baseball glove—a Hawthorne, with a "Snag-Em" pocket— a 31-inch black bat (the handle of which I taped with white adhesive tape) and a brand-new baseball, all from "Monkey Wards." I'd take those to school with me and join in the games we played on the fields out back and down below the hill.

I think it was that summer when we began playing two-on-two or three-on-three out in our side yard. Most of the houses in our neighborhood were on double lots, and all of the ones that had kids also seemed to have something resembling an elongated baseball diamond worn into the grass--longer from home plate to second than they were from first base to third, because that was the shape of the yards.

Danny Swanson was my next-door neighbor, living in the house behind us, and he had such a field worn into his yard, but because he was the third child, his parents had already endured years of torn-up grass and broken windows. So we weren't allowed to play over there (although we WERE allowed to throw the ball around, just not hit it).

So we made a field in our yard instead.

Home plate was a spot we picked that we figured was far enough back that every pitch we missed wouldn't necessarily roll into the street, but close enough to the sidewalk that there'd be enough yard for the rest of the field. I asked my grandpa to make me a "real" home plate out of a scrap of white formica countertop he had in the basement, and he complied. It was only about half the size of a real one, but I was a kid, it was white, shiny and the right shape, and I was thrilled.

First base was next to a birch tree over by the house. We wore away the grass there, and occasionally put down a scrap of wood or a piece of cardboard, but mostly we just used the worn spot. You couldn't really overrun first, though, without getting a face-full of tree.

Second base was set far enough back so an infielder wouldn't get killed by a batted ball, but where we'd still have room for an outfield, in line with home plate.

Third base was next to a maple tree, right at our property's edge, so any foul balls usually went into Campbell's yard.

Fouls on the first base side were problematic because that's where our house was, with windows, windows, windows all along the side, and we rarely got the storm windows down and the screens (which offered SOME protection) up as early as when we started playing out there each year. Fortunately, we all were right-handed hitters, so we didn't hit a lot over toward the house, but we did manage to break 2 or 3 windows over the years.

When we played, we never needed a shortstop because there was a big elm tree there. And there was a picket fence between Swanson's yard and ours. We confidently said any ball hit over that fence would be a home run, but none of us was able to actually hit one there until we were older and long-since had outgrown the dimensions of our side yard fields.

The first year I remember playing out there we had two "permanent" teams: Danny Swanson and Earl Gersting (who as a year older than us, and lived just up the street, on the other side of Campbell's house) versus Pat Junker (whose dad was the local candy supplier and had a big candy warehouse in their back yard, a block down from us) and me.

We pitched slow and hit as hard as we could and had a pretty good time.

Sometimes Kenny Campbell, one of the older kids in the neighborhood, whose bedroom faced our yard, would open his window and act as our umpire, or at least try to settle the inevitable arguments about fair or foul, safe or out.

Kenny also had a baseball-like game that he and the older guys played in his back yard.

Campbells had a big house, that was set pretty far back on their lot. And the lot itself extended the width of the block, from Third Street to Fourth Street. The house had seen at least two shed-like additions on the back, and there also was a small four-unit apartment building set right up against the sidewalk on the Fourth Street side. Between the sheds and the apartments was a big dirt driveway/parking area.

Kenny had chalked a strike zone on the shed door facing that area and had paced off where a pitcher's mound should be. There were no bases--the apartments were probably only 30 feet behind him to his left, and the driveway out to Fourth Street was on his right. Behind him and farther to his right was a hedge that ran along the edge of the property.

Kenny would spend hours out there throwing a tennis ball at that strike zone. When others of the older kids were around--Kurt or David Swanson, Ronny Minks--they'd step in and bat against him, using a broomstick with an electrical tape grip to try to hit. Kenny would call balls and strikes, based on where his pitches hit in or out of the chalked strike zone. If he walked you or you actually hit the ball, you got a ghost runner. If you managed to hit the ball over the hedge, it was a home run and you cleared the bases.

At first we younger guys were only allowed to watch. But as we got older and learned to hit better, he'd let us bat as well. At least when the older guys weren't around.

Kenny was also the guy who was responsible for my first cache of older baseball cards. In those days, last year's cards weren't particularly valued. They'd end up in bicycle spokes or parked in a drawer or even just thrown away. But I didn't care what year they were from--I had the collecting mania even then, and was learning about baseball and teams and even some history from them. So word got back to Kenny that I'd trade "this year's" for older cards. Because the older ones were considered worthless, I got something like 5 for 1 and ended up with a bunch of random Topps (and a few Fleer) cards going back to 1958.

One of the cashiers down at Hooley's, Mary Gedatus, also took note of my enthusiasm for baseball cards. She mentioned that her older son had a bag full of them that he'd left behind when he moved out, and asked if I'd like them. Of course, I said yes! She said she'd bring them in, so for about a week, I went down to Hooley's every day and asked if she'd done so. Finally, she told my mother that I was "hounding" her about the cards and Mom told me to stop. The next time I was in the store I didn't ask Mary about the cards, but she brought them up and told me if I'd stop by her house (which was only a couple of blocks away) she'd give me the cards.

I still remember her handing me that crumpled paper bag. In it were both Topps and Bowman cards going all the way back to 1952.

Anyway, as a postscript to that story, I probably should explain what eventually happened to all of those cards, plus the ones I continued buying through 1969. At some point in maybe 1968, Danny Swanson and I combined our baseball card collections. We counted more than 4,000 cards, dating all the way back to those early Bowmans I'd gotten from Mary Gedatus. But there wasn't a single complete season set among them.

In 1969, when the New York Mets won the World Series, Danny and I decided we'd seen it all. The Mets had been the expansion team and punching bag of the National League for most of our childhoods, and now they were the world champions. (And the Twins STILL weren't.) We figured this was some sort of cosmic sign and we needed to do something to recognize it.

So we called all the younger kids in the neighborhood together, took our box of baseball cards out in the back yard, and started throwing them up in the air, telling the kids to take whatever they wanted. Then we raked up the rest, mixed with the leaves that had fallen from the trees, and... Well, I'm not entirely sure what we did with them. I could guess, but my guess would make anyone who collects cards from that era really cringe.

A year or so later, I ran across a small box--not that it matters, but it was a box that some plates had come in--filled with random cards that somehow survived--maybe a couple hundred, total. And not long after that, while looking through the want ads for people selling comic books (my latest collecting obsession), I ran across an ad from a guy who wanted to BUY old baseball cards. I called him, told him what I had, and he drove out from St. Paul to look at them. He offered me $25 for the boxful. I was stunned that they were worth that much, but gladly took his money. Looking back, I suppose they were worth a lot more, but at the time, they were all but worthless to me. So that $25 was like found money, at a time when I was earning $15 a week as an usher/janitor down at the Auditorium Theatre.

Anyway, there's fresh snow on the ground here in East Lansing, even though it's baseball season again. When I was a kid, and the side yard was our baseball field, we often got out there to start playing when there was still snow on the ground, but spring training was under way and we just couldn't wait any longer. And usually the grass was still brown on opening day as well (if it wasn't still under the snow). But we always thought it would be cool if we could go out and paint it green, like they did over at old Metropolitan Stadium. Because the grass SHOULD be green when it's baseball season.

28 February 2008

Oak Park Elementary School

A while back, I got interested in trying to get in touch with some of the "kids" (people now in their early 50s) I went to school with back at Oak Park Elementary School during the early 1960s. I subscribed to Classmates.com and sent out e-mails to folks whose names I remembered or recognized, and got a handful of replies.

Life has been busy, so I haven't really followed up. My plan is to scan a couple of old class pictures that I have in hand--a couple of mine and a couple that used to belong to the late Jim Crea--and post those somewhere online. But one of the things I COULDN'T find anywhere was a photo of Oak Park School as it was when I attended, starting in 1960. Repeated Google Image searches came up empty and so did searches of eBay and other sites where I might have been able to locate a photo of the school on an old postcard.

Well, this morning I finally found the darn thing--a postcard with a 1959 photo of the front of the school, which I immediately ordered from a dealer out in Colorado. The reason I hadn't been able to find it before was because the card is mislabeled--as "Oak School, Stillwater, Minn."

If anyone else from Stillwater happens to run across and read this post, look around and see if you have any other photos or from back in the day--people, houses, buildings, street scenes, postcards, whatever. I'd love to get scans or copies and would be happy to post them here. (Or maybe even on a site devoted to "old Stillwater," if I can ever find time to work on it...)