Wiffle Ball - Part Two. by Dale Wiley

As boyfriend and girlfriend, Jamie and I frequently discussed the problem of her breasts. The problem, as I saw it, was that as much as I might praise them, study them, and imagine them when I was away from her, I was unable to touch them. In fact, I was even barred from openly looking at them when they were still fully clothed.

 

Jamie Mason owned two of only six genuine breasts in my seventh grade class. There were eight if you included Charlie Hill, but that was a thyroid problem, and all who studied the breast question left him off the list. As boyfriend and girlfriend, Jamie and I frequently discussed the problem of her breasts. The problem, as I saw it, was that as much as I might praise them, study them, and imagine them when I was away from her, I was unable to touch them. In fact, I was even barred from openly looking at them when they were still fully clothed.

At a time when those around me were discovering all kinds of petting, light, medium-light, and even a few unconfirmed allegations of heavy, my year-long relationship with Jamie had not progressed past hand-holding and the occasional slow dance. One could reflect on this and place the blame on me, say that I was not using the right technique, that I didn’t know how to plumb the depths of her junior-high heart, but I would strongly disagree. Jamie liked me. She liked me a lot. She lit up when I came near, flipped her hair when we discussed our mutual love for U2 (no one else in our class could even spell U2 in 1986 – we were a year away from The Joshua Tree), and we held the record (by three months!) for the longest-running couple. But her aunt had taken her to a Phyllis Schlaffly rally in Springfield a couple of years before, and Phyllis had impressed to Jamie after the speech the need for women to stem the tide of free love, and that no night was a good night until the wedding night.

The divide that separated me from my classmates had been illustrated on our class trip that spring. During an instructional film on fish hatcheries at the Table Rock Dam, in their red-velvet auditorium, I could see all around me kissing, necking, even a little groping. I saw hands disappear. I saw all these things because I was simply holding Jamie’s sweaty hand, receiving the occasional peck on the cheek, while I watched the swirling bacchanal unfolding in front of me. I don’t know where the teachers were; so great was my dismay that I almost wanted to go and find them so that no one would be any happier than I was, but instead I watched tadpoles and sat sullenly.

I tried to get her to understand that mile-wide gap between simple spit-swapping and bra-disabling that I was proposing and the much more serious, late-night Cinemax type of action Phyllis was trying to prevent. But I was wasting my breath. Jamie would go on carrying her torch for me, allowing me to be viewed as the luckiest guy in class, treating me like a prince while at the same time maintaining the steely resolve of a Kremlin guard. I knew enough not to push my luck.

“Dating” in junior high, as we euphemistically called it, basically consisted of three dances a year, FFA Barnwarming in the fall, FHA Christmas Dance, and Homecoming. You sat together at basketball games, because Crane didn’t have football – we had fall baseball. This made us good at baseball and rather boring if you asked me. The rest of your dating life, when someone in the “city” like myself dated a country girl like Jamie, was wherever you could convince your parents to take the two of you somewhere. Problem was, we were both so embarrassed about our parents that we rarely used that option. There was nothing wrong with our parents; looking back on it, it was our teenage unreasonability, but at the time, that didn’t matter. We had to weigh bringing out parents into the equation, and that was just embarrassing.

During the summer, the most romantic time of year, we were the most alienated. However, by our second summer together, I had discovered that my older friend Becky had to drive by Jamie’s house on her way to work at Ken’s Pizza, and Jamie’s brother could bring me home. He liked me even though I figured he knew I was trying to get under his sister’s shirt. He wouldn’t bring his sister in to see me, but he would drive me home, and we would cruise a few times, listen to Autograph and Quarterflash and he would bemoan the fact that he couldn’t score any weed like he could last summer.

I had never toked or inhaled, but I sat there like a Buddha, nodding sagely, hoping he thought I smoked the ganja. Inwardly, I was terrified by the thought of doing something illegal, but I was more terrified by the thought of someone thinking that I was terrified of doing something illegal, so I always told him to count me in should he come across any of the good shit, knowing full well he didn’t really have any other friends and had zero chance of ever even stumbling upon seeds and stems.

This was my arrangement in 1986. Becky dropped me off about 6:30, pretending to kiss me with her gloss-red lips, smacking my butt and sending me on my way. I liked this, as it made Jamie a little bit possessive, and generally got her to sit closer to me, sometimes even close enough to let the side of my arm touch what I was pretty sure was covered-up breast. Jamie had both VHS and Beta, and we usually rented a movie and watched it with all the lights off. We held hands, and Jamie was warming up to giving me kisses that started to last longer and longer. They tasted like cherry candy and bubblegum. She was so pretty, brown hair teased and hairsprayed, just a touch of eye shadow, braces making her lips look full. Jamie’s mother was an alcoholic and her father drove a truck, so no one objected to our sessions as they would have at my house. There, we could occasionally sneak a few minutes of privacy, but they were usually interrupted by my mom flicking the lights on and off from upstairs, her way of making sure anything objectionable ended before she hit the landing. Mom had been very upset a couple of years before when a string of pregnancies rocked the basketball team’s dream season, and I got at least an abstinence lecture a week until the babies were delivered. One of the boys was especially well-regarded, and mom told me countless times that if it could happen to him, it could happen to me. “Keep it zipped,” she hissed.

If it hadn’t been for Jamie’s Schlaffly-loving aunt, I might have already been to second base, because her mom didn’t give a rip, as long as we didn’t keep her from another seven and seven. But even with the kisses, I generally got to watch more of the plot than I wanted to, learning the moves of smooth operators like Steve Gutenberg and Jeff Goldblum. So it was. Most every night.

There’s something about early summer nights, the soft cotton candy of the sky, the hint of chill in the breeze, that gives them a promise that better things are coming. I had that feeling one night around the first of June as Becky wheeled me in, slapped my ass, and peeled back out of the driveway. I could tell the ass-slapping was getting to Jamie, whose breasts, thought absolutely delightful, were a long way from those of Becky’s. I knew that I was much too young for Becky, had too high a voice and was years from driving. But I knew enough to keep my mouth shut and keep this one advantage.

“Why does she always do that?” she asked, arms folded, coming to give me a peck.
“She likes me, Jame. She likes me.” I said it like this was truth, plain and simple, had the correct matter-of-fact expression.

She frowned. “Do you like her?”

I knew better than to press my luck. “She’s too old for me. I like you.”

We took hands and walked out back of her house, down the well-worn path to the pond, at the very back of her family’s land, probably a quarter-mile from her house. Jamie obviously loved the land, and I could see why. The high grass waved back and forth in the breeze, the walnut trees shaded the back of the pond, and we could sit there (or, really, do most any activity there) for hours without being disturbed.

“Are you going to take me to Jeannie’s party?” she asked.

I must have looked surprised.

“You didn’t hear?”

If there’s anything an eighth grade boy doesn’t want to admit it’s lack of knowledge.
I shook my head. “When is it again?”

“A week from Friday. Do you think we can go? She’s promising all kinds of stuff and her parents are going to be out of town.”

“All kinds of stuff” sounded interesting. Jeannie was one of the cuter girls in the class and her parents were dumb enough to go out of town and not take her. I hadn’t heard about the party, but it would be worth any potential grounding to try to go. Jeannie had older friends and I pictured something straight out of a National Lampoon movie. The out of town parent party was the thing of legend. And then I realized I hadn’t been to many parties with parents who were in town. Hell. I spent New Year’s Eve watching movies with my friend Kevin and hoping the people who promised us they would pick us up actually came through. Of course, they didn’t. Yes. I would go to Jeannie’s party if it meant traipsing through a blizzard. Since it was almost June, that seemed like a remote possibility. The prettiest girl in school was asking me. Who was I to say no?

“We should definitely go,” I said, trying to sound like Becky did when she put an extra helping of emphasis on the middle of a word. “You cool with that?”

Wiffle Ball - Part one. by Dale Wiley

1986 was the last year for Wiffle Ball. If you’re looking for that seminal moment, when growing up in your neighborhood ends and the rest of the world begins, that was probably it.

1986 was the last year for Wiffle Ball. If you’re looking for that seminal moment, when growing up in your neighborhood ends and the rest of the world begins, that was probably it. After that it was jobs and preparing for college and envisioning the world in a way someone can only do if they haven’t yet experienced it. 1986 was a bunch of boy snakes shedding their skins of innocence, waiting for life to call.

Wiffle Ball, of course, is a lot like baseball. The same rules basically apply, sometimes tweaked to avoid a game filled with one million strikeouts. The Wiffle Ball, if you’ve never played, has holes in one side of the ball that cause the air to catch the ball and dive like only the dirtiest knuckleballer could hope to do in a regular game of baseball. The balls are brittle and crack and make the trajectory even stranger, but when you connected with a ball, like a pint-sized Dale Murphy or Mike Schmidt, it flew with the majesty of a Rawlings tight-seamed baseball, and made you round the bases with authority.

It was an egalitarian game, with only the cheapest purchase of ball and bat. Back then, though, the money wasn’t an issue. Most everyone’s parents were closely bunched together monetarily, with jobs that didn’t make you rich, but did make you comfortable, often union jobs that are now gone, money in the town that would soon escape and never come back. No one was ever excluded from my group of friends for economic reasons; the only reason for exclusion or prejudice was for being a whiny bitch.

We lived close to each other, and that, more than anything was the source of our friendship. Our town was one big hill, and we couldn’t rely on our parents to take us anywhere we wanted. We were stuck with each other, and luckily that wasn’t so bad.

Wherever we needed to go, we had to Get There Ourselves, our moms reminded us. That generally meant walking, although sometimes it meant a bike ride that was half-easy, half-impossible. Little brothers and sisters wanted to tag along, and some of the girls were among the best athletes. Our ranks had already been raided by the boys who liked jobs more than sports, and girls and cars would soon take the rest. But 1986 still felt authentic and complete. We were obviously going to do this for the rest of our lives, come back with our spouses, always be there for each other and the sport we loved.

There were certain friends who had lived in the same places for long enough that it felt like forever. Matthew lived just down the street from me, Kelly a couple of blocks up the hill, near Aaron. Russ and Bryan lived a few blocks further. Shannon and Matt lived over closer to the pool, and Mark and Jodie lived closer to the highway. Those two were more industrious than all the rest of us put together. There were others that came and went, sometimes Rick, sometimes Angie. Sometimes there were kids who left nothing but a funny story: Eric, who was so annoying that I beat the snot out of him in his front yard, and, most notably in the story department, Greg. Greg’s mother married a Korean strong man named Ho, who delighted my mother the year they lived in the neighborhood by being the best help she ever had. Greg will forever be remembered as the kid whose mother cried when she saw the blood in his wrestling magazine (probably featuring Rick Flair and Bruno Sanmartino or Sergeant Slaughter or somebody) and cut the bloody pictures out and put them in a paper sack and buried them in the front yard.  Even as kids we knew that was exceedingly weird.

Kids came and went, but that was the core. We had imaginations and fun. We ran detective agencies and magazines and football leagues and wrestling federations. We stumbled on abandoned tree houses and forgot to tell our parents where we were. We walked into town with no fear of being abducted and got candy cigarettes and Big League Chew. We once set up a roadside stand where we hoped to catch the killer of a highway patrolman by writing down license plates. We collected baseball cards and baseball sticker books and listened to everything from The Beach Boys to Blondie in my basement. By 1986, we were into Quiet Riot and Van Halen and Def Leppard. We wore the Union Jack just like Joe Elliott and we rocked our Jams.

We went to the pool and caught crawdads in the very cold creek. But more than anything else, we were wild about baseball. Michael Jordan was just in the NBA and would soon steal hearts away. Football was coming, but wasn’t there yet in the way that it is today. I loved hockey, but everyone always looked at me funny anyway. No, then it was baseball, especially in the summer. And to avoid black eyes and broken windows, when school wasn’t in session that meant Wiffle Ball. That summer, it meant trying to block out all the competing future interests to have one more great season.

Seventies Cardinals, And Why They’re The Best by Dale Wiley

Ken Reitz and Mike Tyson

Ken Reitz and Mike Tyson

I had a Topps team card of those 78 Redbirds, all of them proudly posed in those brilliant white pullover jerseys and, most importantly, those vibrant red shoes. I stared at that card. I looked at those mustaches, I contemplated the long hair, but mostly I was awed by those shoes. This was long before Air Jordans and really even Nikes. Those shoes really intrigued me.

My love for baseball began in earnest in 1978. My mom had started teaching me about the game the year before, and I remember watching a little of that World Series, but things started in earnest the next year. I was six.

Of course, this was before ESPN or even cable TV in our town (we had to wait until 1983 to get that). The primary connection to the sport was the radio and periodicals, most importantly the newspaper. Dreaded West Coast trips meant you often wouldn’t learn about the game the night before until much later in the day, because there was no way the final score was making the paper.

Oh I was so intrigued. I had a Topps team card of those 78 Redbirds, all of them proudly posed in those brilliant white pullover jerseys and, most importantly, those vibrant red shoes. I stared at that card. I looked at those mustaches, I contemplated the long hair, but mostly I was awed by those shoes. This was long before Air Jordans and really even Nikes. Those shoes really intrigued me.

My dad had always been a big baseball fan, but I think the rigors of his law practice had caused him to be less interested by that time, but he was happy to jump back in. He often worked very late at his office, and so every day (even on the West Coast!) he would write down the scores of the game and leave them for me on the kitchen table, often with some words about home runs and great catches and the like. Later, he did this for me in hockey as well, which was more important because no one in Springfield, Missouri could spell hockey besides our family.

The first game I ever saw was May 6, 1978, shortly after manager Vern Rapp had been fired by the Cards. We can now pinpoint the date because of the proliferation of information on the internet, but I still have dad’s scorecard somewhere, and have the story of the game from that. But I don’t need a scorecard to remember the gist of it. It was a true pitchers’ duel, between Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry from San Diego and the Cardinals’ John Denny. The score was tied 0-0 late in the game when feisty second baseman Mike Tyson scored the game’s only run, winning the game for the Cardinals.

That was not the greatest era of Cardinals baseball. The hiring of Vern Rapp the year before as manager had been a huge mistake, as his disciplinary policies couldn’t have found a less willing audience than Al Hrabosky and Ted Simmons. Rapp, as I now know from my visits with the people who played for him, was not only stubborn but just downright mean to the players, and things that had worked in the minor leagues. He spent much of his time fixated on ridiculous details, like ridding the Cardinals of their copious amounts of facial hair, instead of dealing with their considerable talent. This was a team that had Keith Hernandez, Ted Simmons (whom he famously called a “loser”), Lou Brock and Garry Templeton, whom Tyson describes as the most talented player he ever played with.

I met and became friends with the star of my first-ever game, Mike Tyson, a few years ago. As you can imagine, there’s no greater thrill than to go to a game with him and just let the stories roll off his tongue, having played during one of the game’s most colorful eras.

Tyson says Templeton had it all: a true five-tool player whose self-medication of certain moods led to worsening of those conditions instead of making it better. Tyson said he felt after Templeton’s trade to San Diego, and with increasing knowledge of such conditions, that the Padres managed to even out some of those edges while still allowing Templeton to perform at a high level.

Once when I was with Mike at a ballgame, I got to meet Rick Hummel, the “commissioner” of baseball writers who has been enshrined in Cooperstown. They immediately turned their attention to the “could have been” year of 1974, when the Cardinals came close to forcing a playoff in the National League East. It didn’t happen, and clearly this is the great regret for that era of Cardinal: a playoff that could have taken the decade in a different direction. That team still had Gibson and Brock, and so many young stars. It would be eight more years, after Mike had retired, before the team would return to the Playoffs.

It is fascinating to get to see these men interact today. Gold glover Kenny Reitz, once a Gold Glove third baseman, is their most interesting artifact, somewhere on a distant planet. At the Cardinal Hall of Fame induction yesterday, when Curt Flood’s widow talked about the twenty-year wait to receive the last of Curt’s seven golden awards, Reitz whispered, “Hell. I sold my award on eBay for $4,000. That’s what I was more interested in!” It was said in a tone that let you know he had no regrets on having done so, and was proud of the bargain he had struck. Reitz is still in remarkable shape, and still heads to the ballpark regularly.

Ted Simmons, the iconoclastic switch-hitting slugger for those teams, was inducted into the Cardinals Hall of Fame as well yesterday, and it was interesting to see him come visit with the players, who gather in a couple of suites during the game. The new inductees were being feted in owner Bill DeWitt’s box, but Simmons came down to the ex-Cardinal suite three different times, and moved regularly among his old friends. He spoke to Mike about Mike’s son’s new position working with super agent Scott Boras, and talked with Cardinals players from different eras like John Costello and Kyle McClellan. As a fly on the wall, it was an interesting thing to watch: Glenn Brummer, he of the 1982 extra-innings steal of home; Danny Cox, mid-80s outstanding pitcher telling the biggest and funniest stories in the room, and a room full of men who signed up for a life-long occupation when they suited up with red birds on their chest.

The 70s were the best-represented in that room, and clearly my favorites, being so closely tied to my nascent interest in the game. I can’t think of a better way to spend a Saturday than with the group of men who survived Vern Rapp and can live to talk about it.

George Altman, Man of Many Talents by Dale Wiley

I have good news and bad news. The good news is I found a great first subject for my newly-expanded vlogging. The bad news is, I stupidly left my iPhone on camera mode, so I caught a picture at the beginning and end, and nothing in between. It’s too bad, because my first subject is a really interesting man, but I’ll do my best to write about the experience.

I had one of those “Right place, right time” moments today, which happen to me often. My friend Mike Tyson (no, not the boxer – the baseball player) asked me to go with him to the St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Fame induction. Mike played for the Cardinals when they were not exactly the juggernaut that they are now, but it was when I was just getting involved in watching baseball, so it’s essentially the coolest thing ever for me to get to go to a game and meet Kenny Reitz or Danny Cox or people I great up watching.

Today was especially like that, as we watched the induction and got to meet all kinds of interesting people, including Mike’s old teammate and one of the inductees, Ted Simmons, and actor Jon Hamm, who was there as a guest of Ted’s.

Don Draper

Don Draper

But the interview was another former Cardinal, a man who lived in many different worlds. His name is George Altman. He is 82 years old, but you would swear he was 60. He started his baseball career in 1955 with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues (in their last year of full operation), played with the Cubs, Cardinals and Mets in the Major Leagues (including making the All-Star Team in 1961 and 1962), then went on to play in Japan, Cuba and Panama. He also bought a seat on the Chicago Board of Trade and worked as a broker for thirteen years.

George said that despite hitting two home runs off him in a single game (“he was just throwing where I was swinging”), he said Sandy Koufax was the greatest pitcher he faced. He thought Willie Mays was the greatest player he ever saw, and said his most talented teammate was Ernie Banks.

George said it was hard living and playing baseball in Cuba because Castro was so unpredictable. He described one time when Castro came to the baseball game and dissidents created a ruckus, including significant property damage. Having been there and seen what actually happened, George said he was a little alarmed to see the next day’s newspaper headline: US BOMBS CUBA AT BASEBALL GAME.

George recounts these and other stories in his book My Journey From the Negro Leagues to the Major Leagues and Beyond. It covers a career which may have led him to play in the most leagues ever.

George now resides in Wentzville, MO. He is a fascinating man whose life has been lived in the most interesting places.

Next time, I promise to learn how to operate my phone.

A Pre-History of The Intern by Dale Wiley

My friend Laurence O’Bryan challenged me to write a little extra story for my blog, one giving some history or context to the world of The Intern. I mulled this over, and thought it might be fun. So here’s a little teaser into what brought The Intern into being … fictionally, of course.

Parties. Women. Cocaine. That shiny boat they kept coming back to every month, sitting on the deck, laughing and trying to shake reality. All of the things that had bought him this personal prison, they were all gone now.

Now, of course, Mark Helper could give the homily about things not being important, how peace of mind was worth all the world’s gold, but down deep he knew it was only because those other things, the trappings of a shallow and sleazy existence, were now gone, no longer attainable without tipping everyone off to the fake company and utterly corrupt existence they now lived.

So what did that make him? A cynic? He was born with that. A failure even as a criminal? It sure felt like it, although he hadn’t officially been found out yet. All those words you would use to describe a good villain? Wretched? Unrepentant? They seemed so trite.

Mark learned today that “authorities” were looking into Daedalus Travel. Not by itself, but as a part of their looking into numerous government contractors. If they took anything more than a cursory glance into Daedalus, it would be curtains. It was the ultimate “shell” corporation, with no chance of withstanding any scrutiny.  It didn’t exist, not really.

Mark’s head felt clammy and he wasn’t breathing right, not since he heard that news. He tried to eat on his way home from the office, but it just didn’t work. He ordered a luscious Indian meal, beautiful and expensive, but he really only nibbled. He kept going back to those words: “looking in” to his company. His fake company. He knew he wouldn’t eat for days.

As he pulled into his driveway, he thought about the man who was creating this grief. Greg Timmons. Timmons had goals and much bigger aspirations than Mark. Timmons was filled with the type of self-righteous steam power that would wipe him out, especially when it could easily be shown how shallow and unimaginative their partying had been, how the money they stole from American taxpayers did nothing more than create a bad Miami Vice episode.

Washington wasn’t coming down on Mark Helper; Greg Timmons was. Maybe not directly, but that was going to be the outcome. Helper had counted on Washington self-congratulation to keep him from being discovered. It wasn’t the problem.

Greg Timmons was.

Dear God.  Could he really do anything about it?

Would he?

Writing “Different” by Dale Wiley

I have a history of writing things that people like. They are quirky, different, sometimes about Amish detectives, sometimes about barbecue chicken parties.  When I was younger, I wrote a column for my local newspaper that was weird and surreal and the kind of thing you would never expect to find in a tiny town’s weekly paper, but it was quite well-received.

But those people knew me. They knew some of the subjects involved in the articles. There was a commonality that allowed me to write those pieces in a way that they were easily (or at least somewhat easily) followed by that audience, but less understandable by people outside the circle.

Then I wrote a novella about TV and TV characters. Very early 90s, very post-modern. Very good. But a nightmare for anyone to publish considering all the rights and trademarks that would have to be dealt with like a Gordian knot. I got an interview with a New York publisher (honestly so long ago I don’t remember which one). But the lawyer in me, who had yet to start law school then,  knows now that the novella, no matter how interesting, never had a chance.

Over the last couple of decades, I’ve written one history-tinged memoir, and I’ve started three dozen other more “normal” narratives, but none of them has led me past the front gate. There’s always got to be something different.

In preparation for finding a publisher for my second novel, Sabotage, I pulled out something I had written and cared about years before. It was called The Intern.  I wrote it at the point I realized I liked reading thrillers as much or more than Proust. But I wanted to make it “interesting” to me, and that meant different. So I like to think that my book has a little more humor thrown in than the average thriller is.  Characters huuuuuuurt when they get hurt. Silly things happen. Stuff that is normally looked upon with horror by the average thriller writer.

And it never found its audience. Part of it was me, getting out of law school, getting married, reproducing, and never following up much with a project I had really enjoyed. But part of it was a culture of agents and editors that want everything they pick up to be safe and sound just like the last thing that got published.

I realize that could be construed as a very “sour grapes” statement. But I also think there’s some truth in it. And as I’ve started my quest to find a place for that novel and for Sabotage, and as I’ve seen The Intern jump onto Nook and Apple best seller lists within days of its release, I think I’ve seen some vindication and much of that is thanks to Smashwords.

So much about traditional media channels has changed within the last twenty years. People have access to technology that rivals the best tools that New York has to offer in their pockets or book bags. Forget Gutenberg; we live in the edge of Streaming Steve Gutenberg. Anything can be at our fingertips in a fashion that would make those aboard the Starship Enterprise jealous.

So now The Intern, born online, midwifed by Mark Coker’s vision for an author-driven device that could open arteries of distribution not for fees, but instead for just a (small) cut of the profits. No feeling that the profits were made on the birth itself but instead in watching a healthy child grow. Mark provided (online) not only critical tools for publishing success but a marketing plan to match, one which explained how to scale the heights of best-seller lists once the private domain of big publishing houses.

And as for Sabotage? Guess what: It’s different too. Multiple points of view, and a short quick pace that will stick with even the quickest attention span. It may well end up having the same birth as The Intern, although I’m hedging all bets until I can see just how high The Intern can reach in its current form.

I’m happy. My “different” book has shown everyone that different doesn’t always have to disappoint; sometimes it can land right among all the sameness it was chafing against.