by James E. Copple
In 1960, I was 10 years old and living in the Ruskin Heights suburb of Kansas City, an idyllic community occupied mostly by veterans of World War II and Korea. The houses were all the same, with public parks and well-lit streets, and the neighborhood kids would gather on long summer evenings to play hide-and-seek. Everything stopped at the sound of the ice cream truck’s familiar organ music, and we all scurried into the house to find 25 cents for a soft-serve ice cream cone or Popsicle. In no time, those frozen treats would be dripping down sticky arms and onto our shirts, no competition for the summer heat.
Moms would push us kids out the door in the mornings, saying: “Go outside and play, be home for dinner!”
Nobody worried about supervision – there was a community code where we all watched out for each other, and kids knew the collective would police our behavior. Parents didn’t fret about predators, thieves, or malcontents (and I have no memory of such things). Our biggest fears grew from discussions of whether Kennedy or Nixon would be president.
Inevitably, we would gather at the community park, where a baseball diamond called us to daily sandlot games. My older brother Ron played in an organized league, and he seldom joined us (I always felt our pick-up games were a little beneath him). Ron was a second-baseman with uncanny speed and amazing good looks. We always went to his games, and I would sit in the bleachers and watch with sibling envy and admiration.
It was a Saturday afternoon when I went to grab my glove from the room we shared before heading to the field. Ron’s glove was draped over the bedpost and, with little or no thought, I grabbed it. Ron’s mitt was a newer glove with a leathered look from the saddle soap he used to treat the sweet spot.
“He will never know,” I thought to myself.
One of the older guys, who was playing first base that day, smoked and always left his cigarettes at the base of the bag. He was a loudmouth, and many of us were regularly subject to his ridicule. Hereafter, he is to be known as “The Jerk.”
It was my turn at bat, and when I came to the plate, “The Jerk” made a nasty remark about my mother and me (I believe the acronym was SOB). I ignored him, took my swing, connected with the ball, and ran safely to first base. As I stood there, I saw the loudmouth’s cigarettes on the ground. His back was turned, and I impulsively stepped off the bag, smashed his cancer-sticks with my cleats, and ground them into pieces. All that was left was the tattered cellophane case.
My close friend Lee Thompson saw what I had done and looked at me as if I had lost my mind. But it was too late; the deed was done.
What happened next is something of a blur. I know “The Jerk” hit me, grabbed my glove (Ron’s glove), and refused to give it back. I ran home in something of a panic, thinking how Ron was going to kill me.
Several hours later when my brother came home, I fessed up to using his glove and losing it to “The Jerk,” who had insulted our mother. Ron shoved me to the ground and chewed me out for stealing his mitt and losing it. He asked the name of the glove-stealer, pivoted, and headed for “The Jerk’s” house.
“Oh man,” I thought, “This isn’t good.”
Ron showed up with his glove just 10 minutes later and, in brotherly parlance, warned me to never touch it again or he would kill me. I simply nodded – I had no defense and was thankful to be alive. Word spread through the neighborhood that Ron had administered some suburban street justice when he confronted “The Jerk,” but it was less dramatic than that.
Ron had simply told him to give it back or “deal with me,” and “The Jerk” had readily handed it over.
I heard the story when Ron quietly put the perfectly-leathered mitt back on the bedpost in our room. He began laughing and said, “I just saved your ass, little brother – that guy is a jerk.” From that day forward, regardless of my younger-brother, tormenting ways, I knew Ron would always have my back and would save my ass, when and where my ass needed saving.
And 60 years later, I feel the same way – regardless of where I might be, the dangers I might face, the distances I may travel, or the problems I might create, that second-baseman with amazing good looks still has my back.
Share your comments.