Saturday, October 01, 2011

Pale Blue Eyes by Mike Faloon

I’ve screwed up. I’m driving through eastern New York, halfway to Cooperstown. I’m on my way to the Baseball Hall of Fame to spend the weekend with my dad and my brothers. We’re celebrating our dad’s birthday.

I’m not lost. That’s usually how I mess up on roadtrips, especially when I’m on a route I’ve never traveled before like this one. The drive is really nice. Two lane roads that gently twist and wind with very little traffic in either direction. I haven’t seen a chain store and fast food restaurant all day. There’s just one mom and pop place after another. Sometimes I forget we can still travel considerable distances free of Targets and TGI Fridays.

There aren’t many gas stations along the way either, which is a bit unsettling but nothing compared to the yard sale I pass where some dude is selling shotguns. I know this reeks of creative license but here’s what I saw: At the end of his driveway this guy had three guns laid out on a folding table. A second guy stood on the other side of the table—the one closest to the road—and looked through the scope of a shotgun, not aiming it, inspecting it. It seemed very much like a pending transaction. This is not how friends check out each other’s weapons. That takes place in the garage or the backyard or the basement. Those are also the locations in which I assume home-based guns sales take place. Were there sun flares today? What did I miss?

So the relief that comes from thinking small town America is still alive is offset by illegal small arms sales. (What’s a dose of Norman Rockwell without some Deliverance mixed in?) But that’s not my mistake. I was right to choose backroads over the interstate.

My mistake is the playlist on my mp3 player. In the words of Neil from The Young One the music is making me “all heavy and uncool.” I thought quiet, sparse songs would put me at ease, wash away the workweek, and put me in a place where I could fully appreciate the weekend. That plan has backfired.

The playlist starts with Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You” and Sam Phillips’ “Reflecting Light.” Then there’s a bunch of Kelly Hogan songs, Willie Nelson’s “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” and the song the closes the mix, the song that put me over the edge: Kelly Hogan and Alejandro Escovedo’s cover of “Pale Blue Eyes.” Their version is even more delicate than the original. It’s an equal mix of their voices and his guitar. It feels like they’ve already crumbled apart and they’re just waiting for the wind to carry them away.

There is one line in particular that really gets to me. I’ve heard it dozens of times over the years—first R.E.M.’s cover, then the Velvet Underground original, later Mo Tucker’s version. It’s passed by unnoticed for over 20 years but now it’s burrowed straight to my heart. “I’ve thought of you as my mountain top/I’ve thought of you as my peek/I’ve thought of you as everything I’ve had but couldn’t keep/I’ve had but couldn’t keep.”

Normally it’s a song about lost love but today, after listening to the rest of the playlist it’s become a song about mortality. Not mine, my kids’. How could someone, someone like my kids so pure and full of beauty not live forever?

This is not what anyone wants to think about, especially when they’re driving to Cooperstown to spend a weekend at the Baseball Hall of Fame with their dad and brothers. Apparently the Norman Rockwell/Deliverance hybrid isn’t enough. I’ve let some Beaches seep in, too.

I slowly drive down Main Street and the sadness evaporates. It’s gone by the time I meet up with dad and Casey at the entrance to the Hall of Fame. They’ve already been inside and have come out to meet me. My dad is wearing a “Happy Birthday” button. He’s tickled. The setting, the company, the fact that he got into the Hall of Fame for free because it’s his birthday (or maybe because he’s a veteran—that’s not clear). Dad gives me the details of their drive from Syracuse. Casey makes fun of me. I’m in the right place.

It’s been 30 years since my last trip to the Hall of Fame. My mom tells me we made a day trip when I was a kid. No one else in the family remembers that trip. I do recall coming to Cooperstown for a Boy Scout trip in sixth grade. My painfully lame troopmates could barely wait to leave the HOF. They were far more interested in the Farmer’s Museum down the road.1
As I pay to enter the hall my dad strikes up a conversation with the attendant.

“I got in for free because it’s my birthday,” he says, “either that or it’s because of this.” He points to his Vietnam Veteran hat. Dad served a tour of duty in ’66-’67 leading a transportation unit.

Attendant: “Do you have your 20-year service id?”

Dad: “No.”

Attendant: “Tiffany must have been feeling nice.”

So not only does the Hall of Fame allow you to reenter the place as many times as you’d like once you’ve paid, sometimes they let people in for free because they’re in a good mood.

And that’s just the start. A few strides in we see a display of John Fogerty’s bat guitar, which apparently spent five days under flood waters before being donated. Then we enter the art room. One of the first rooms is devoted to paintings. Along with the Norman Rockwell, there’s also fascinating outsider art (Ray Materson, Charles Fazzino) and a portrait of Turkey Stearns by Kadir Nelson.2

Next we’re off to see the plaques. I’m ready to cruise past the 19th century inductees but Casey lingers. “Harry Chadwick. He wrote the first rulebook and invented the box score. He’s the all mighty father!”

A few minutes into the tour my brother Pat surprises us. We weren’t expecting him for a couple of hours. With the quartet now complete it’s not long before we get into our first argument of the weekend. We love to argue, but we have a different way of arguing. In our family there is a general aversion to conflict, but with that there is also an intense need to voice and cling to opinions. So if you overheard us arguing you’d hear two, or more, different claims being asserted. You wouldn’t hear meaningful exchanges or follow ups or critiques. You’d just hear the same opinions repeated and/or rephrased—ideas cruising along side each other on parallel tracks, shaking their fists at each other. It usually irritates me but not today. Most of the time we hold onto these silly notions until the bitter end. Our claims are seldom mutually exclusive but as siblings it’s our duty to pretend that they are and that something significant is at stake. This weekend the disagreements dissipate rather quickly. This only makes them funnier.

We open this weekend’s round of squabbling with the following: why are baseball gloves bigger now? I make the technological argument: we’ve learned to make better gloves. Pat makes the evolutionary argument: we’ve grown larger. We bow out after two or three exchanges, each convinced that he’s right.

Typically museums are quiet, but the four of us never stop talking. When we get separated for a bit in the broadcasters’ exhibit my dad calls out to Pat, “We’re over here!” To which Pat responds, “I know. I could hear you guys in the next room.”

The general pattern of the weekend is that we argue now and again but mostly we geek out on baseball. After seeing a photo of former Phillie, and 1950 NL MVP, Jim Konstanty we start keeping track of players who wore glasses. We find nine by the end of the day:

Jim Konstanty
Darrell Porter
Andre Thorton
Ken Phelps
Ron Kittle
Greg Luzinski
Reggie Jackson
Julian Javier
Dom DiMaggio

We also see Pete Rose photos and references all over the place. Not having a plaque seems to have little impact. Charlie Hustle is all over the Hall of Fame.

Our second argument: the role of Robert Moses in the development of New York City, specifically his impact on the Brooklyn Dodgers decision to relocate to Los Angeles. Or maybe we’re arguing about the demolition of the Polo Grounds. I can’t say that we listen all that well and I quickly lose track of who’s arguing what. I don’t think we listen to each other. I listen when I’m at home. I listen when I’m at work. But when dudes gather, talk prevails.

My next note simply says “1976, Hal McRae.” He finished second in the batting race that year but I don’t think that’s why I wrote the note. I think it’s because he had cool facial hair on his ’76 card. The sentimental has its place at the Hall of Fame, but so does the silly.

The best exhibit is called “One for the Books.” It features artifacts from historic games. A game ball from Jack Chesbro’s last start of the 1904 season, when he was going for his 42nd win. The bat from Rennie Stennett’s 7-hit game. The spikes Sachio Kinugasa wore when he tied Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games played streak in 1987.3 The more esoteric and removed from my firsthand knowledge of the game, the better. There is one exception, though. Eric Bruntlett’s jersey from a 2009 Mets/Phillies game. I was in attendance that day. I remember being relieved when I saw that Bruntlett—then hitting .128—was starting at second base in place of notorious Met killer Chase Utley. Of course, Bruntlett went 3-for-5. He also recorded the first game-ending unassisted triple play in National League history. Ironically, the two runners were on base as a result of Bruntlett’s miscues at second. Two ground balls were hit to him and both times he failed to get an out. He came so close to handing the game to the Mets. They were down 9-7 with two on and no outs. Then Jeff Francouer smashed a line drive up the middle. I was stunned by how little time it took for my hopes to rocket and then for Eric Bruntlett to record three outs.

The rest of our time in the hall is a blur. I’m too swept up in things to break out my notebook. But not our arguments. I’ll always make time for those. Topic number three: Leaf blowers.

“I’m sorry leaf blowers are not in my lexicon!”

“If you knew how many leafs we have in our yard.”

Like its predecessor this disagreement passes and we’re soon relaxing in a pub. I’m surprised by the extent to which the locals size us up as we walk in. I figured they’d be tired of checking out the tourists given how many of us pass through their town each year. But those seated at the bar make it clear that we enter only with their consent. And that’s fine, it bonds us. The place has a good selection on tap—including a variety from the local Ommegang Brewery—but they also have soccer on both of the televisions.

Casey sees a flyer for the pub’s weekly trivia competition. “We could do really well.” He points to Pat, a research scientist by profession, “Science.” He points to himself, “Movies.” This makes sense. Casey can recall dialogue from a movie he’s seen only once. He points to me and shrugs. He points to our dad. “Old shit.”

Nearing the end of our pints we approach a decision. What should we do next? This could take forever. It usually does. My family does not make decisions quickly or easily. We can take twenty minutes to part ways. We’ll say goodbye half a dozen times then renew the conversation. Our low threshold for conflict renders us less effective than The Three Stooges when it comes to collective decision making.

Take last summer, for example. Dad, Pat, my family and my Uncle Steve’s family had gathered in Gloucester, Massachusetts for the weekend. After considerably maneuvering we made it to a beach but the group was split as to whether or not we should stay. The question before us: stay or return to the beach from the day before.

“With our half price parking voucher it’s only $10.”

No reaction from the group.

“We only have to pay $5 for parking because of the parking vouchers.”

“I need to be in the shade or get some sunscreen.”

“If we’re going to just do a beach for the day, why make this our beach?”

“The seaweed’s not that bad and because we’re protected by the cove we won’t feel the wind. When we went to the other beach it was kind of breezy.”

“There are stones but they’re small and you won’t even feel them when you get a little ways out.”

That’s us. That’s my family, slowly reaching a decision. It’s kind of like a game of football where everyone decides not to use their hands or their feet. Notions are nudged forward but no one will pick up the damn ball and run with it. But this weekend is different. We’re in Cooperstown and we have a clear directive: make dad happy. It’s his birthday. Let him decide what to do. He wants to check out Doubleday Field.

From beyond the stadium we can’t tell whether or not there’s a game. We walk up the runway and see a batter hit a pop up behind the plate. It takes a bounce and winds up in the hands of a thrilled 6-year-old. I stand behind the fence along the first base line. It’s quiet and low key. There are only two people in the third base section of the grandstand. The on-deck hitter picks up a foul tip as the sun ducks behind the trees.

We don’t know who’s playing. The girls in front of us are rooting for players by name. We figure they’ll know and they kind of do. “The Colts are from Massachusetts and the other team is the Sea Dogs, I think.” It’s a ballgame. Why sweat details?

When it comes to dinner there are two frontrunners. One is an Italian restaurant. The other is a pub. At first, no one steps up to advocate for one over the other. No one is surprised by this. We defer to dad who senses that the votes are split. Pat makes his move. As we look at the pub’s menu he points to the photo and reminds us that we would not be eating in the upstairs dining room that is visible through the plate glass window, classy but closed. We would be eating downstairs, in the pub show in the photo. Whoever took the photo used far too much flash. The most brightly lit object is the back of a faux leather high back chair. I have to admit that the picture does suggest Wonder bread and those cheap plastic menus that stick to your arms. Italian it is.

And it’s the right call. There’s no wait for a table and when our drinks come Dad raises his glass for a toast. “I’m going to make this quick.” He almost tears up. “You’re the best sons a dad could ask for.” After what happened this morning I think I understand the look in his eyes a little better.

Back at the motel I put on the playlist. The rest of the songs are pretty and soothing but I skip the Kelly Hogan and Alejandro Escovedo duet just in case.

Mike Faloon is the co-editor of Zisk. His first book, The Hanging Gardens of Split Rock, is available through Gorsky Press. He’s currently working on a one-shot music zine called Learning to Surf.

1 A bunch of 11 and 12-year-old kids from the suburbs choosing agriculture over sports—like the roadside gun sale this too sounds like I’m making it up. But it’s been my steady recollection ever since sixth grade.

2 Next time you’re in a bookstore—you still go to bookstores, right?—check out Kadir Nelson’s We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball. It’s in the kids’ section and the artwork is beautiful.

3 Which I never knew about before seeing this exhibit. Kinugasa eventually ran up a streak of 2215 games from 1970-1987. How did I miss this during the Ripken mania of 1995?

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