Back Then

Back Then

A Story by Paul Bauer

 Summer days we played baseball on a vacant lot at a place called the Pickle Factory. None of us boys, neither our fathers nor our grandfathers, knew why it was called the Pickle Factory, but that is what everyone called it, so we did, too. When it rained, we waited inside the empty factory, trading baseball cards, bragging about what we would do to the Fulton sisters behind the shed over on High Street. In the damp concrete Pickle Factory, Billy always swore he smelled pickles, he didn’t think the Fulton girls were cute so what did he know?

            The four of us�"Tommy, Billy, Jimmy and me�"wore Howdy Doodie suspenders, metal clasps holding baggy shorts high on our chests and black, Converse All-Stars purchased at Polsinelli’s Secondhand in Little Italy.

            Baseball was all we had back then.  We West Side boys knew our fate. Eight years of school, then a lifetime punching wire at the spring factory or greasing tracks, pulling heavy levers at the railroad roundhouse. That’s what our grandfathers did before going off to France and what our fathers did before landing at Anzio. We would do the same, play baseball at the Pickle Factory then stamping wire or turning steel horses till we waded through rice paddies in places we couldn’t pronounce.

 Maybe we would get lucky, catch the eye of one of the Fulton sisters, or maybe the eye of the pigtailed Donna swinging on her front porch over on Treen Street.  For now, we had what we needed: a few hours on summer days playing ball at the Pickle Factory.

We had never seen a major league baseball game. Chicago and Wrigley Field were two hours by train, two weeks by paycheck. Baseball cards and small, pulp magazines�"Baseball Digest, The Sporting News, Baseball News�"motivated us to read and to dream.

            We arrived at the Pickle Factory mid-morning, after waiting for Jimmie to finish his accordion lesson and Tommy to feed his dog, an old mutt who growled at us and snipped at our bicycle tires. At the Pickle Factory, we stacked our bicycles against the wall, a dirty flour bag of brown baseballs and two cracked bats, bound by carpet tacks and black electrician’s tape. Cardboard bases, a whitewashed brick pitcher’s rubber, five splintered clothesline poles holding a twisted chicken wire backstop.

Most days only the four of us played taking turns hitting and fielding and yelling the insults that would become adult anthems, vocal bonds linking us to each other and to our past. Other boys joined us sometimes, but I don’t remember their names.

There was Johnny from Goose Creek, remember him because his family used an outhouse, couldn’t imagine sitting in one of those wooden boxes in the middle of winter. I wanted to ask Johnny if his a*s got cold but never had the nerve. My mother would have been mad at me if she found out I asked.

 I shared my baseball glove and a sandwich with Johnny; my mother packed an extra ham and cheese. “Now if Johnny comes, you share with him and ask after his grandfather. Be nice to him, you hear me?” On days he didn’t come, I ate his sandwich, feeding the bread crusts to the crows pacing the outfield grass.

            Johnny cared for his grandfather; a little man wrapped in a blanket on the front porch who yelled at us when we rode our bicycles past Johnny’s house. Mother said he wasn’t right in the head, came home from some island in the Pacific and just sat on the porch all day mumbling. We avoided going to Johnny’s house. Instead, we rode our bicycles four-wide down Treen Street, hoping the pigtailed Donna would be swinging on her porch.

            But, most days, just the four of us played ball and that was fine with us. We were friends and in some strange way unknown to eleven-year-olds, we sensed we were making lifelong friends, back then.

            More than anything else of those days, I remember Tommy’s knuckleball, how it bobbed and weaved, riding the summer breeze towards home plate. I never hit it, not once. Jimmy could. He was a better player than we were. Once Jimmy hit a home run breaking a window at Sam’s Bar across the street in right field. Afterwards, Sam gave us free cokes, letting us sit in the air-conditioned bar, leaning our elbows on the polished bar drinking and cussing like our fathers did after their shifts at the spring factory. 

            Today, I drove to Tommy’s funeral in my hometown. I was coming back home because I couldn’t hit Tommy’s knuckleball, I owed it to him.

            The funeral home was too cold smelled of summer flowers and cheap hairspray. The name on the Remembrance Card, Thomas Gibson, didn’t seem right. When you are young, you never think of your friends having last names.

I sat on a hard metal chair in the back of the empty room, a flag draped brown steel casket and a single floral basket, “Love you Uncle Tommy.” I didn’t look at the casket. Tommy would always be the boy toeing the whitewashed brick pitcher’s rubber, Howdy Doody suspenders riding high, the boy trading baseball cards sitting on an empty factory floor on rainy days.

            I planned to stay but a few moments, revisiting our summer days at the Pickle Factory, saying the final good-byes four boys could not have imagined when we were running the dirt base paths. After I was certain Tommy knew I had come and that I remembered him, I headed back home to wait my turn.

            Isn’t it odd, the things we remember at the end of our lives? Why of all the places I have been, the people I have met, the cheers and boos I have heard, why would I carry for so long, for so strongly the bobbing and weaving of a muddy brown knuckleball floating on the summer breeze?

© 2020 Paul Bauer

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Added on July 2, 2020
Last Updated on July 2, 2020
Tags: hometown, hometown stories, nostalgia


Paul Bauer
Paul Bauer

Whitsett, NC