Archive for the ‘Rollie Fingers’ Category

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Rollie Fingers

April 3, 2007

The Mustache Ride, Chapter 2

In 1969, my mother met a young man with facial hair. She was riding by herself on a bus to a peace march, her clean-cut husband at home with my brother and me. I think the facial hair on the young man amounted to a scruffy week-old growth, but that fledgling beard, along with his round wire-rim glasses (like those made notorious at that time by John Lennon) and other similarly-themed sartorial details that I am not exactly sure of (but that I have, in my endless compulsive imagining and reimagining of the moment, nonetheless guessed at: shoulder-length hair, a bristly wool poncho, a lopsided homemade corduroy cap, maybe some sort of necklace medallion purportedly imbued with shamanic powers) communicated membership in that loose-knit tribe of young, predominantly white men and women that was either (depending on your viewpoint) breathing joyous new life into a stagnating, death-bent, unjust world or trampling the norms and values of common decency and traitorously undermining the stability of American democracy.

In other words, my mom met a hippie.

Previous to the peace march, while chained to a toddler and a fat, wailing baby in a generic suburban housing unit, my mom had begun romanticizing the exploits and lifestyles and passions of these young people. She was not alone. Today the idea of the hippie has been reduced to a comical stereotype: the unshowered space cadet in the broken-down Day-Glo VW bus, the starry-eyed, sloganeering peace-and-love simpleton, the brain-fried anachronistic acid casualty, confused by and/or oblivious to any cultural or technological advances occurring after the deaths of Janis, Jim, and Jimi. But in 1969 hippies were a potent cultural force that seemed capable—to both those who romanticized them and those who feared and loathed them—of changing the world. For my mother, I think they also represented the life she had always hoped to live, a life of meaning, community, significance, and, most of all, passion. She signed up to ride the charter bus to the peace march because she wanted the Vietnam War to end, but also because she wanted to become part of the colorful world she was romanticizing. In my novel, The Kappus Experiment Sings, the fictional character inspired by my mother talks about this growing desire to "get on the bus" in the months leading up to the peace march: 

I caught glimpses on TV, read articles in the wrinkled copies of the New York Times Max brought home on the commuter train. I felt like I was watching the violent birth of a new galaxy through a cheap telescope. The Human Be-In, campus takeovers, the riots in Chicago. Woodstock. We are stardust, we are golden. And then there was the brand new image of the world, taken by the Apollo 8 astronauts while orbiting the moon. Here for the first time was the whole fragile blue earth, one world, our world. And in all the other images: here were the people singing in millions of different voices the clear single note of that vision: This is our fragile blue moment. Ours!

I wanted my voice to be part of that song.

So that was 1969. Let’s jump ahead to 1972, the year the Oakland A’s, with Reggie Jackson in the lead, shattered baseball’s long-held clean-cut look. I was four years old, still oblivious to baseball, and living in a house with my brother, mother, father, and Tom, the man my mother had met on the bus to the peace march. 

My father now wore a mustache, albeit somewhat incongruously, and Tom’s scruffy beard and shoulder-length hair had bloomed into something worthy of a man who had been shipwrecked on an unmarked island for a decade. I imagine that his appearance (which consistently attracted the attention of members of the New Jersey police force), combined with his undefined status in our family to make him the focal point of scrutiny by outsiders of his and my parents’ strident experiment in open marriage. (For more on the open marriage experimentations of the early 1970s, see the Cardboard God profile on Mike Kekich and Fritz Peterson.) The experiment had been based on the idea that maybe the family, challenged by the new love that had first sparked on the bus to the peace march, could not only hold together but could perhaps even grow into something capable of embracing a bigger, wilder love than previously imagined possible within the traditional model of the family.

(Hippies. Love them or hate them, it seems to me you have to at least admit they swung for the fences.)
Now let’s jump ahead some more, to 1978. That’s the year this card became property of my 10-year-old self. By now the family, which had moved from New Jersey to rural Vermont four years earlier, had morphed back into something approximating the nuclear family norm, albeit with Tom in the father slot and my dad an occasional visitor from his apartment in Manhattan. The family, minus Dad, had moved to Vermont with hopes (at least among the two attending adults) of attaining a utopian rural self-sufficiency. My mom was going to grow all our food, and Tom was going to be a roving blacksmith. He installed a small forge in a used Dodge van, cutting a hole in the roof of the van for a peaked metal chimney. The kids of East Randolph, Vermont, thought this implied the van ran by the burning of wood, an idea that they worked into the arsenal of mockery they aimed at us. I imagine the farmers Tom was hoping to have as clients had a similarly withering view of the unorthodox van, if not also of the unorthodox longhaired, long-bearded blacksmith; either way, he was never able to drum up much business. After a few years the back-to-the-land dreams faltered substantially in the face of one small disheartening crisis after another, like a dead-of-winter car repair bill overmatching a paltry bank account built on the occasional sale of a fireplace poker that Tom had hammered into shape on his blacksmith anvil. By 1978, both Tom and my mother had given up on total self-sufficiency and gotten regular jobs.
I imagine the late 1970s for Mom and Tom and other former hippies and weary back-to-the-landers as a somewhat anticlimactic, diasporic time. Because I relate everything to baseball, I see this miasma as something akin to what the scattered members of the ’72–’74 championship A’s were experiencing at the same time. The early ’70s had been a turbulent, exciting time in which they had banded together against a hated authority figure (Charlie O. Finley), and come out on top for what was one of the most extended periods of triumph (and undoubtedly the most colorful of such periods) in baseball history. Similarly, Mom and Tom and the people they identified with felt that they were rejecting the idiotic edicts of a corrupt despot named Nixon to stake their own claim to a golden life. And while they never quite got there, in retrospect it always seemed that those woozy, careening, love-drunk years were something of a championship run.
And now there was a feeling of being spread out and scattered. For Mom and Tom this feeling was hard to define, more just a sense that they were on their own now, not part of some movement with great uplifting momentum. For the A’s the scattering was literal: Bando to Milwaukee, Campaneris to Texas, Reggie, after a stop in Baltimore, fittingly reunited with the limelight in New York, Catfish there with him but fading into the polluted sunset, Rudi on the Angels, Blue on the Giants, etc., etc. The most symbolic exile of all, for both the way he symbolized the strident zeitgeist-embracing look of the dynastic A’s and for the nauseously drab brown and yellow anonymity of his new surroundings, was Rollie Fingers, shown in the 1978 card at the top of this page displaying a pitching grip with what seems to be an expression of tentative, nervous supplication, as if he is hoping the expert grip will somehow gain him a release from the exile of toiling onward in obscurity with the 93-loss Padres.
But of course this is not the first thing you notice about the photograph. The first thing you notice is the very thing that Rollie Fingers had most in common in 1978 with the man my mother had met on a peace march almost ten years earlier.
The mustache. 

Of all the A’s, only Rollie Fingers fully carried his essential A-ness with him into the wandering years. The A’s had been an excellent, superbly well-rounded team, but they had also been an iconoclastic emblem of the times. Rollie, who would gain entry into the hall of fame on the strength of his pitching, remained a living monument to both aspects of the Swingin’ A’s. As for Tom, his entry into the 9-to-5 world signaled the final goodbye to the long hair and the wildman beard, which had been in remission for some time, but in their place now was a Rollie Fingersesque handlebar mustache. "The times are never so bad that a good man cannot live in them," St. Thomas once said. And the times are never so deflated and drab that a spirited man cannot fight against them with a mustache that curls up at both ends.

Go forward some more to 1982. Tom’s job in the company had changed from customer service to dealer rep, and he had begun traveling all over the country to visit stores that sold his company’s wood stove. I’m not really sure why there was a wood stove store in San Diego (maybe there was an industry conference there), but on a trip out there Tom brought back a San Diego Padres cap for me that closely resembled the one on Rollie Fingers’ head in the 1978 card. Rollie Fingers himself had moved on by then to the Milwaukee Brewers, and my family was on the brink of going its separate ways. 

One day I wore the cap into the high school where I was a freshman with bad grades and no extracurricular activities besides participating sparingly in brutal junior varsity basketball defeats. The varsity basketball coach, Viens, saw me wearing the cap in the hall. He’d never said anything to me before. He stopped me and squinted up at the cap. He wore a tie and a short-sleeve button-down shirt.

"The Padres?" he said, his upper lip curled. 

He had short hair. A clean-cut face. 

"Why in hell would you want to wear something from the Padres?"

"I don’t know," I said. I took the cap off and looked at it. It was different. It was from somewhere far away. And Tom had gotten it for me. 

I wasn’t able to verbalize any of this.

"Losers," Viens said and walked away.
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