Papa and I had the big house on Divine Street all to ourselves. We decided we were going to a ball game.
We had big plans, the Old Man and I, but they didn’t quite work out like we expected.
Papa loved baseball, especially what I call “hungry” baseball, minor league ball, the kind where the players are still more concerned about playing the game than dating starlets, making political statements or endorsing shoes for profit. We lived in Harnett County back then, in the ever-growing shadow of Wake County, and not that far from Durham. In fact, we were closer to the Durham Bulls park than to the beach. Traffic around the Triangle was always bad, but it wasn’t legendary yet.
My sister was married and gone, my brother had moved away from home, and Mother was on a trip with some friends, so Papa and I had the big house on Divine Street all to ourselves. We decided we were going to a ball game.
Papa humored me by breaking out a map to plan the route (he knew it by heart, of course). I counted out what newspaper and lawnmowing money I had, and Papa volunteered that if I was a little short, he would help with a souvenir if it wasn’t too expensive. I opted for the black straw snapbrim fedora, just like my dad’s, since I didn’t have a Bulls ballcap and I wanted to be like my father.
So we set out on that hot Saturday morning, the Old Man’s Chrysler rolling up the road at a reasonable 60 miles per hour, air conditioner blasting. I think we made a quick bathroom and coffee/Coke break in Fuquay-Varina, then headed back out on the open road, figuring to land at the old ballpark in plenty of time. We had gone there once before, and I was looking forward to the excitement of watching a ballgame with my father from the stands in a “real” stadium, or the closest we could get to the parks Papa talked about visiting in the 30s, 40s, 50s and early 60s. To me, the Roman coliseums could have nothing on the green fields where American gladiators in cleats and jerseys had battled it out for pennants.
Parts of Durham still smelled like tobacco back then; I guess some of the streets still plunge below ground level, between retaining walls of old, stained brick that were laid around the time of the War Between the States. We bounced across railroad tracks and through rundown business districts that later became trendy nightspots, bars and jazz clubs I visited as an adult. We were going to stop at a men’s store Papa had visited when I was a baby, but sadly, the place was boarded over and long-since forgotten. Papa found a radio station that was broadcasting a pre-game show, and we both had a hard time containing our excitement.
We weren’t very far from the park when the temperature gauge slowly rose to the redline, and steam hissed from between the chrome teeth of the Newport.
Around 40 years have passed since that sunny afternoon, so I cannot recall if it was a hose, a thermostat or even the radiator. I do know we more-or-less coasted into an old-school service station with a two-bay garage on one side and a glassed-in office and waiting area on the other. The building had been white when it was originally opened, likely back in the 20s, but it’s doubtful it had seen any paint for decades, unless someone driving a Sherwin Williams truck pulled in for gas, oil or air. Over the entire place was a thin coat of grease and soot and exhaust and rubber from the dead tires stacked beside the building.
The owner had to call his mechanic to come in – apparently he didn’t usually work on Saturday, being a city mechanic and all. I fretted and fumed as only a frustrated little kid can, although I tried to maintain my manners, rather than embarrass myself or risk Mother’s wrath if Papa told her I misbehaved.
The garage was a fascinating place, with the filthy, friendly-looking Bear Wheel Alignment sign over the machines by the wall, piles of dead starters and alternators and carburetors guarded by snake-like hoses, the smells of gas and grease and rubber and antifreeze and cigarettes, the obligatory shaky-looking light fixtures on the ceiling, and the noise of the compressor kicking in every few minutes to replace the pressurized gas that powered the air wrenches and other power tools. There was the obligatory project car to one side – I want to say it was a Hudson – and I remember I was proud that my Old Man could discuss it as an equal with the mechanic and the owner.
The day was hot, and in the equally-greasy waiting area/office, there was a drink machine that required a quarter and a dime to open a door so you could pull your bottle from an angled holder, then open it on the side of the box. The snack machine itself looked suspect, but the crackers were fresh. I was proud to pay for the first round of drinks and snacks with my own money.
There was a ridiculously loud but efficient air conditioner, stacks of catalogs and magazines and newspapers crowded on tired vinyl and chrome furniture – and a radio.
The radio was a turquoise-green transistor model that only played AM. It had a plastic dial with the numbers worn off or obscured by years of use. I don’t think it had a coathanger for an antenna, but it may well have.
It turned out the owner of the shop was also a Bulls fan; he had been a player, although he never made it to minor league level. So we listened to the game – my dad the former player, coach and manager, the garage owner who couldn’t quite cut it in tryouts, and a little boy who was disappointed at not visiting a ballpark. We downed sweating-cold Cokes and nabs opened with a pocketknife, rather than hot dogs and paper cups half-filled with ice and served by a barking vendor hustling through the stands.
I believe the Bulls won that day; I’d like to think it was an exciting game, but I was half-listening to the play-by-play, while half-listening to Papa swap stories with a new friend. They told stories of games and players who never had the limelight of Ty Cobb or the diMaggios or Babe Ruth, but who left a mark on those whose love is baseball, rather than a passing fancy with players.
Whatever the repair was on Papa’s beloved car took through the fifth inning; when he paid the bill, he had to tell me that even if there was enough left of the game to see, it wouldn’t be prudent to spend money on tickets and food, considering how far we were from home. I agreed. We listened to the rest of the game on the radio, and Papa even let me turn the volume up far too high.
We made up for it later that summer, with one of the last games of the year, when Durham did bring home a big win with a double play that would have turned the head of a major league scout, had there been one in the half-filled, roaring stands that August evening.
I was disappointed that we didn’t get to see a ballgame that day, but it was okay. I got to spend time with my Old Man that didn’t involve getting a newspaper written, assembled and printed. There were no politics, no crime reports, no society news, no arguments between world leaders or town board members.
There was a boy in a snapbrim hat like his dad, drinks so cold they sweated condensation, and two men who could say the words “remember when?” and be assured the listener likely did, indeed, remember when baseball was about the game, not the politics and the celebrities, when it was played in old brick stadiums that in their own way, rivalled anything ever built for the gladiators of Rome.
Back when baseball was baseball, boys wanted to be like their daddies, there were still adventures to be had, and memories to be made.