Tommy HelmsApril 23, 2009
Some of childhood’s confusions:
For a while I thought there was a musician named Bob “Dillon” and another completely different musician named Bob Dylan (first syllable pronounced “die”). I think I understood that they were somehow connected, that they might even maintain some sort of a friendship despite the stark differences in their personalities. Probably keeping with the fact that I knew of the former personage from hearing the word out in the world and that I knew the latter from reading the name silently to myself, I envisioned Bob Dillon as a somewhat grizzled, road-toughened adventurer (when he finally died off in my mind he did so by fading into my growing awareness of that singer of hoarse-voiced odes to the road-going past, Bob Seger), and I envisioned Bob Dylan as a reclusive bookish enigma, a guy who wrote songs for others to sing, perhaps including Bob Dillon. Maybe once in a while the recluse would appear in a club where another musician was performing and they’d beg him to come up to the stage, but he’d wave them off, preferring to stay in the shadows, sipping from a complicated, umbrella-garnished drink.
For a while I thought my father was “a google” years old. I thought this because it’s what he told me when I asked. I guess he didn’t want to tell me his actual age. (By the time I started asking he was in his late forties and early fifties.) I understood on one level that no one could actually be a google years old, but on another level I believed that if anyone could be it would be my father. He didn’t live with us for most of my childhood, and when he came up for visits it was always apparent to me that he was not like the other adults in the Vermont town where I lived, who were either hunting-jacket-wearing natives or gradually aging hippies. A lifelong clean-cut urban intellectual with thick glasses, a button-down shirt, and a tendency to daydream and absent-mindedly trip over things, my father didn’t fit either category. So maybe he was another category altogether, a man who had been around forever. Who would, it followed, always be around. That’s the thing with these childhood confusions. They are on some level at least partially willful.
For a while I believed I could fly. I sometimes had these dreams that were so realistic I was never completely sure, nor did I want to be sure, that they had not actually happened. In them I would be walking around my town and feeling the grit of the day, the weight of the earth, the actual indisputable details of existence, and I would suddenly remember that I could step up into the sky. Part of what made the dreams seem real was that my departures from earth were never seamless liftoffs. Instead they involved some work. It was like getting a bicycle moving from a dead stop on an incline. And then, as altitude increased, it was more like making a bicycle move on a straightaway. I would fly through the sky all over my town, amazed by my freedom, amazed that I kept forgetting that I had access to such unspeakable joy.
For a while I thought Tommy Helms was an immortal. The fact that he didn’t ever show up in lists of other immortals in any of the baseball books I was constantly poring through actually lent even more mystery and magic to his person, though as time went on I had to strain to continue willing this persisting misapprehension of reality. The singular source for this sweet confusion was this 1972 card, my only 1972 card, which I got along with a few other cards from before my time at a tag sale in my town.
I believe the odd combination in the flashy, battered card of sparkling celebratory newness and what seemed to be great age fostered the notion that Tommy Helms somehow existed outside of time altogether. I had never seen a 1972 card, so the design, particularly the brassy three-dimensional letters of the team name, surely wowed me, as it was more spectacular than any of the cards I had, and in my mind the more spectacular something was, the newer it was, so the card must have seemed by some miracle to have come to me from the future. But the extremely weathered condition of the card, which was in worse shape by far than not only all my cards but than any of the other cards I got at the tag sale, along with the plain fact that the player pictured seemed to come from an earlier time than any player I’d ever seen on a baseball card, set the card in a far distant past. The immortals I knew about, such as Walter Johnson, Lefty Grove, and Babe Ruth, all stood outside of time, their iconic status immune to the erosion of years, but Tommy Helms achieved immortality by seeming to levitate above time. The card, already deep into the process of fading away, would only increase Tommy Helms’ magic as time went on, his gradual disappearance only widening his vast presence on a timeline stretching far into the distances of the future and the past.
It didn’t hurt that the card was so beaten up that I couldn’t study what were in actuality decent but decidedly mortal numbers. It also didn’t hurt that around the time I got the card at a tag sale Pete Rose made a gripping run at Joe Dimaggio’s unbreakable 56-game hitting streak, and in doing so he broke the estimable National League hitting streak record set by an old-timer named Tommy Holmes, who I immediately assumed, despite the difference in their last names, was the same player as the immortal in my tag sale card.
I eventually admitted to myself that Tommy Holmes and Tommy Helms were two different players altogether, and that even if they were somehow the same guy—if they somehow formed one amazing player who set a hitting streak record in 1945 and then magically stuck around long enough to add several solid seasons in the late 1960s and early 1970s as a slick-fielding middle infielder—I still wouldn’t own a card as priceless as the card that, for a little while, I thought I owned.