Under the Influence
In his prime, my grandfather
could hit the most beautiful fly balls. Behind his wood-frame house, on
the long narrow lot with the overpopulated rabbit pens in the back and
the fruit cellar where we hid from tornadoes, sat his own field of
dreams. Here my grandfather was king—on the empty diamond, glorious in
its isolation, the clean, white chalk of the foul lines, the unattainable
fence, the comforting summer smell of fresh shorn sod, and the raked
dirt, ground to the fine black dust that is the fertile blood of eastern
My grandparents—bless their
dear departed souls—lived their entire married life on the southwest
My grandfather seemed old to me
then, but he was actually only in his forties, just half his life lived.
His years were structured by routine. Up at 3 a.m., he’d leave for his
job at the
On the baseball diamond is where
I had Grandpa all to myself. While I ran to my position in the outfield,
he stood at home plate, a cigar propped in the side of his mouth, a long
ash ready to drop. He wore his off-work uniform of
In those days, the yard teemed
with snakes—racers, greens, and garters—easy for a city boy to catch.
They curled around my wrist like reptile bracelets seeking warmth and
calming. And even when they bit I hardly gave the pain much thought. Hurt
was temporary then and was easily soothed with the balm of the next
thing—Popsicles, a bike ride, or a swim. What I do remember about those
summer days is this: The world seems large and incomprehensible. The
hardwoods near the house were wild. The Cedar River that flooded and
receded along the edge of the woods was as wide as the
My grandfather’s hitting technique began with a ritual warm-up that is similar to the movement of an oil derrick. Bat in the left hand, ball in the right, he would swing both arms up and down several times searching for the perfect timing, when both bat and ball were in harmony. Then he would lob the ball above his head, grab the bat with both hands, and crack!, a soaring fly—a “can of corn”—to his waiting grandson from the dark, urban streets of Chicago, a place my grandparents equated with Gomorrah. Grandfather would step back from his swing, let out a cloud from the stogie, and admire the arc of the ball that would, for just a second, disappear into the humid air.
At that perfect baseball moment, he seemed to be there and not be there, in a state of in between. What was he thinking? Dreams and feelings he kept to himself. I understood and respected his introspection. After all, I was a shy boy who could not ever begin to express the tide of complex emotions that engulfed me: divorce, visitation, separation, stirring hormones, and a wish to attain baseball purity. Mostly I did what I was instructed to do. I went where I was told to go and each summer at Chicago’s Union Station my mom gave me a kiss and put me on the Empire Builder for the train ride to Iowa to spend long weeks alone with my grandparents.
His revelry would only be interrupted by his certain disgust when he saw me flailing around in center field unable to catch the easy fly. “Jesus Christ!” was all he had to say and I, the sensitive arty boy, was temporarily ruined.
Almost every weekend during
those summers Grandpa would take me along on visits to his parents’
failed farm, somewhere around
These were men who lacked
surprise and who rarely strayed from the arc of the pre-ordained station
of their lives. They knew the general direction their lives would
go—thirty years of toil at factory or farm, a modest pension, and then
all that fishing. They knew that escape routes—
After a half hour or so, Grandpa would come stomping out, toss me a bag of beer nuts, and off we would go to the next town. His emotional change—and the increasingly erratic driving—was startling. It was if I no longer existed, although I sat close to him on the Chevy bench seat. He cracked open the side vent and lit the damp, partially chewed cigar that had been in his mouth most of the day. The summer wind blew the hot ashes back onto my bare arms. The ashes stung, but I refused to flinch. I imagined the sharp stings as snakebites.
By now it was late evening. The
truck headlights shone on moths and mayflies, and the corn and soy fields
were ablaze with lightning bugs. Grandma would certainly be worried,
looking out the front porch windows and getting angrier with each passing
moment. The truck heaved and groaned, and when I dared to look at the
speedometer I could see we were driving eighty miles an hour. Grandpa was
passing cars on steep, stomach-fluttering hills and blind curves,
swerving and swearing as he steered in the general direction of
It was during those wild rides that I felt closest to Grandpa. I never criticized or complained. I kept my mouth shut because I had been raised to do just that. And I dared not judge him. I didn’t know at the time that drinking and driving were wrong. I only knew that I hated the same people he did even though I had not met them. All that mattered was that they had wronged Grandpa, my grandpa who hit fly balls to me in the park behind the rabbit pens, the piles of rusty junk, and the remnant prairie grasses where the snakes basked. I snuggled closer to him to show my loyalty. See, I am your grandson. I belong to you. Placing my head lightly against his shoulder I could smell the oil, the sweat, the Old Milwaukee, and the pain.
At that moment I loved him
completely—my grandfather, who could fix anything that broke down in