A Novel’s Chapter 1: Part 4

Part 1 can be found here.

Part 2 can be found here.

Part 3 can be found here.

Ivan was ready to throw. Only he, Whitey, and I knew what the pitch would be. I had seen several knuckle balls thrown before, but never by anyone pitching in a game I was in. I knew that Ivan was known to toss one now and then, especially as a change-up pitch after throwing a string of fastballs. The Deer Lakers had seen only fastballs today, and couldn’t be ready for anything like that which Toby was about to see.

Ivan’s windup, when it came, looked no different than any others that came before it. If anything, it was a bit faster and more vicious. I thought while I watched it that he had changed his mind and decided to throw a fast one. But when he let go of the ball it came out of his hand slowly. The ball seemed to inch toward Toby. It looked like a straight pitch from where I stood, but afterward Rev. Whitlock told us that when the ball left Ivan’s hand it drifted, dead as a mackerel,The Pitchertoward the backside of Toby’s head. With the ball about halfway to him, Toby ducked in toward the plate thinking the ball was going to be behind him. When he ducked, Ivan’s ball darted suddenly to the left, toward the head of Toby Pooder, son of Bill Pooder, Deer Lake town marshal. With Toby’s head directly over the plate, and with him crouched down slightly, the dead mackerel smacked him directly behind his left ear, a perfect strike.

Bill Pooder ran to the aid of his son Toby as soon as he hit the dirt. Pooder was alternately screaming at Toby to wake up and at Ivan to go to Hell. We all knew Ivan was going to Hell but we liked him anyway.

Within seconds the entire Deer Lake spectator section were screaming, hissing and booing. It all happened so fast most of us didn’t understand at first. But Peach Wiggins did. He stood up from the bench and waved his team in.  We dutifully trotted off the field. I didn’t have far to go since I played third base and our bench was along the third base line. Everything was going along smoothly until our right fielder and slowest man, Willy Perkins, crossed second base. As if he were struck by lightning, he hit the ground when he was blind‑sided by Linden “Lucky” Pooder, the seventy‑five year old uncle of Bill Pooder. The old man must have been doing sixty when he hit Willy.

Though by then the field was covered with screaming fans from both sides, Ivan, halfway between the mound and home plate, saw what happened to Willy. To this day I don’t know if he ran to pick Willy up or to knock the old man down. I’m not sure that Ivan, if he were alive, could tell you either. At any rate, he never got to Willy or the old man. Four or five Deer Lakers, including Bill Pooder, attacked him. Ivan held his own with them until one of them worked his way around behind him and punched him on the back of the head. When Ivan turned around, the others grabbed him and held him upright and Bill Pooder hit him in the face until he fell in a heap, biting the dust for the second time that day. With Ivan down and Willy on all fours crawling to the bench (probably faster than he could have run), the rest of us entered the field, engaging the foe with chest- and belly-thrusts.

It wasn’t long until some of the adults, mostly women, began screaming for order and called for a halt to the violence. The cries for peace worked for the most part, though several minor skirmishes continued behind home plate until Rev. Whitlock managed to gain control through loud repetitions of the Lord’s Prayer. All the Christians stopped, finally, in honor of that ancient supplication. The only non-Christian on the field, our Ivan Ricker, lay unconscious.

My mother, Martha Belt, found me when I exited the field and grabbed me by the arm in case I had any thoughts of joining in the battle.

“George Belt, you’d better not let me catch you hitting anyone,” she warned me.

“Don’t worry, Mother, I won’t. But look at Ivan.”

Mother looked out onto the field. “Oh, my,” she sighed, and went out to attend to our fallen hero. Several other Stillwater women joined her in an examination of Ivan. Responding to a loud order by Peach Wiggins, I joined my teammates behind our bench. There was some swearing going on in that bunch, too. One of the boys asked where Whitey the catcher had gone, and another said he had seen him scramble over the fence at the railroad tracks and head east. He would be hopping the next freight to Comstock, his hometown.

For at least ten minutes after the abrupt end of the game, Rev. Whitlock stood behind home plate and explained to Bill Pooder and some of the more irate Deer Lake folks how young Toby came to be struck by Ivan’s pitch. He went over and over the flight path of the ball and how Toby reacted to it. Some of the participants in the discussion refused to believe the Reverend.

“I am a man of the cloth, sir,” he said to one particularly incredulous man, “and I would not lie about such a thing, or about anything else for that matter.”

As the Deer Lake people came to believe Rev. Whitlock’s story about what the ball did, they had no choice but to believe that Ivan somehow directed the ball to fool Toby into blundering into its path. Their hatred for him grew even more now, as it was coupled with a fear of his apparently supernatural ability to remotely direct the movement of inanimate objects.

“That ruffian had no business in this baseball game,” said Pooder. “Don’t you people know what the rules are concerning school athletics?” Pooder was stammering with emotion, and kept glancing down at his son Toby to see if he had awakened.

“We apologize, Mr. Pooder, for anything that might have happened here today,” said Peach, “but we only put Ivan in the game because we truly didn’t have enough players to make a team otherwise. We didn’t think it would matter, since this was just a friendly match anyway. There’s no regulation as far as I know about such types of competition.”

Some of the Deer Lake folks knew both Ivan and Whitey from their past exploits in local and college athletics. Although the game we played wasn’t really an official school game, the Deer Lake folks argued that they came to Stillwater with a high school team and they expected to play against one. Under the circumstances, and in the spirit of conciliation, Rev. Whitlock awarded the game to Deer Lake on default. No one from Stillwater argued about that, especially with two people from Deer Lake still lying on the Stillwater baseball field.

Ivan regained consciousness on the field for the second time that day. Lucky and Toby Pooder, however, weren’t so lucky. They were placed into wagons and transported to the office of our town physician, Dr. Rufus T. Amber. Toby came to in Dr. Amber’s office. He was diagnosed with a minor concussion and Dr. Amber sent him home with orders to stay away from athletics for two weeks and check in once with his local physician. Lucky, however, had suffered a stroke while in battle. His prognosis was not as good as Toby’s. Doc Amber told Bill Pooder to take his uncle home, put him in bed, and hope for the best.

The only Pooder besides Bill himself who left the field under his own power was his oldest son, Jimmy Pooder, who happened also to be the Deer Lake hurler. Jimmy, a fine pitcher for his age, had the uncommon experience of being the winning pitcher of a game in which his team went hitless, walkless, runless, and suffered nineteen strikeouts. The only hits he gave up were those by Ivan and Whitey.

Several days later, in the Deer Lake Mail, it was announced that Lucky and Toby were recovering slowly, “from injuries they had sustained while being viciously attacked by young brutes on the Stillwater so‑called ‘baseball’ team.” Regardless of the newspaper report, Lucky’s nephew Bill, in a subsequent conversation with our justice‑of‑the‑peace, Ernest P. Newman, denied the old man ever claimed such a thing. The real story, he said, was that his uncle, being slightly senile and a Civil War veteran, upon hearing all the screaming and cursing, suddenly thought he was in a bayonet charge and that Willy was a Confederate soldier. Whatever it was that initiated his headlong run at Willy, he never really did recover. He spent several months in bed and then, after one or two rallies, succumbed to pneumonia. Willy, though plagued for a while with remorse, which was worsened by his neighbors’ continued teasing, lived to a ripe old age, probably because he never played baseball again. But the ghost of Lucky Pooder would return from time to time, disrupting our progress in athletics and causing us setbacks from which recovery was nearly impossible. Some Stillwater residents really thought that Lucky’s death brought a curse upon our town.

Our baseball game was a disaster for several reasons. It was a terrible embarrassment for us to have lost the game in such a humiliating way. It was a disaster for me personally because my birthday had been lost in the uproar. I managed to deal with my disappointment, though, and got over my depression in a day or so. Stillwater, however, in a kind of historical and philosophical way, hasn’t got over that day to this day.

Before the game, certainly, there was animosity and competition between our town and Deer Lake, just as there was between and amongst all of the fourteen towns in our county. But that baseball game gave the citizens of Stillwater not only the bitter taste of humiliation and defeat, but also the wonderful and exciting flavor of sport. Our dispute with Deer Lake would eventually give us a focus for our local pride and a tool by which we could regain our self‑esteem as well as obtain revenge. And, though we couldn’t have guessed it at the time, it would ultimately lead us to a different sport – one that would become so much a part of us that in a short time no one would remember what our lives were like without it. We could, for better or worse, never be the same.

End of Chapter 1

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