Stage One: the years when I was not yet aware of Mark Belanger
Stage Two: the years when Mark Belanger was a constant if barely noticed presence in my life
Stage Three: the Mark Belangerless years
This card is from the second year of Stage Two, 1976, and it oozes comforting sameness from every pore. He is the same height and weight, 6’2″ and 175 pounds, as he was the year before; he was born in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and lives in Pittsfield, Massachusetts; he is an Oriole and has always been an Oriole, even before I was born; his batting averages for the three most recent seasons are .226, .225, and .226; and the highlight note underneath his statistics–“Mark hit a Homer in 1969 AL Playoffs”–is just a shorter version of the same highlight note at the bottom of his card for the previous year (“Mark hit a Homer in 1st A.L. Playoff game ever, for O’s vs. Twins in 1969.”).
Stage Two seemed as if it would last forever. I guess I knew on some level I’d get older. I knew, even if I didn’t fully believe it, that eventually I’d be too old to play little league baseball. I vaguely understood that there would come a day when my baseball cards would be a collection of artifacts gathered in the past rather than a living, breathing community that was growing in the present. I even had a hazy idea of adulthood (in my mind it meant living in a house and having everything figured out; I estimated that by age 30 I’d have the pain of life banished). I knew all these things, yet I also never really believed that it would end. How could there be a world without Mark Belanger?
Very near the beginning of Stage Three, I took my first foreign language class, 9th grade French. The teacher was new to the school, and his name was Cormier. He was of French-Canadian descent but grew up in Western Massachusetts, where many French-Canadians had migrated in the days of yore to labor in textile mills. I don’t know Mark Belanger’s heritage, but his last name (was it once pronounced “Behlanjay”?) and his Western Massachusetts birthplace suggest that he and Cormier had similar backgrounds. The twosome also shared a slightly haunted, nervous demeanor. In Mark Belanger’s case this seemed to be the price paid for such enduring competence and steadiness and sanity, the 9-time Gold Glove shortstop unblinkingly scanning the horizon for the bad hops of life, the high-strung chain-smoking sentinel of my childhood. On the other hand, Cormier’s jittery mannerisms turned out to be the trebly upper register of a year-long symphony of chaos.
We never learned any French. Cormier spent each day giving us detentions, allowing us to dare Randy Bradley to eat wads of paper, and telling us about his life. Most of his stories concerned his immediate past–he had until that year been an IRS agent and had just fled Washington, D.C., because he was convinced the angry recipient of an audit was trying to detonate his house with explosives–or his present-day battle with the state of Vermont to prevent the completion of a mental hospital under construction across the street from his new house. Cormier believed he was beset on all sides by wackos. He probably thought we were wackos, too, judging by the way he reacted whenever we turned our attention away from his monologues to talk amongst ourselves. He stopped rambling and fixed whoever was talking with a squinty malevolent stare. His finger would come up and point in the manner of an Invasion of the Body Snatchers pod person identifying someone who had yet to be replaced by an alien facsimile.
“2:30,” he’d say, naming the time he expected you to show up for your detention. Sometimes class was just a long series of 2:30s flung at us by Cormier. As far as I know, nobody ever paid any attention to any of it. I know I never showed up for one of his detentions. I’d never blatantly disobeyed that kind of order before from an authority figure, but the thought of being alone in a room with the guy in an otherwise emptied building was enough to push me into disobedience.
The next year, there was no sign of Cormier. I was in a class with Cormier veterans when a new French teacher came into the room, strange language coming out of her. We just sat there looking at her blankly. She spoke her gibberish more and more slowly, becoming increasingly exasperated at the lack of response. Finally she gave up.
“Isn’t this French II?” she asked, in English. I wasn’t among the few students who nodded. I wasn’t really sure of anything anymore.