Archive for the ‘by Josh Wilker’ Category

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Al Bumbry

February 14, 2019

Al Bumbry

Kingdom Come

Conclusion

Al Bumbry came home from Vietnam in 1971 and played baseball like a man hungry for life. Before going to war, he’d played one year of professional baseball, and it had gone poorly, the then 22-year-old college graduate batting just .178 with no home runs, no triples, and four doubles at Stockton, a single-A team in the Orioles minor league chain. After his tour of duty he was 24, the oldest player by at least three years (and in several cases as much as six years) on another Orioles single-A squad, Aberdeen. He batted .336, loudly, almost a third of his hits going for extra bases. The next season, 1972, the Orioles moved him up a rung, to their Double A club. It was in Asheville, North Carolina.

***

After we sprinkled some of my father’s ashes into a stream and then on the grave of Asheville’s most famous son, Thomas Wolfe, we spread the rest of him around the outside of the house he lived in with my mother for the last several years of his life. We saved the last bit for where his favorite cat, Calypso, was buried.

I’ve been working on this stupid post for several days and have dumped thousands of words into the void, missing the mark. I keep trying to define my father, to reach out somehow into the absence as if with a bat, like Al Bumbry is doing on this 1979 card, as if my father could grab hold and I could pull him back.

He’s not coming back.

***

In Asheville Al Bumbry came into the orbit of what would become one of the most famous and emotionally resonant father-son connections in baseball history. The manager of the Asheville club was named Cal Ripken, and his son of the same name was the clubhouse boy. Bumbry would recall many years later, as Cal Ripken Jr. was on the brink of breaking the hallowed record for most consecutive games played, that in Asheville the younger Cal dutifully shined Bumbry’s shoes. The father’s motto to his players was “give me a good day’s work.” The son echoed the father from his Asheville shoeshine days all the way to Cooperstown.

***

My father was hungry for life. He wanted beauty and art and transcendence and meaning. He wanted to go beyond the safe base. He wanted a better world. He was also, like me, crippled on some level with timidity. He hugged the safe base. I have seen this while poring over his belongings. There are letters from his friend, a sociologist who started out with him and then went on to write groundbreaking books of sociological theory. My father wanted to do the same, but judging by his failure to, despite his friend’s imploring, pursue a career in academia that would have supported the reaching for that extra base, that new territory, and judging more intimately by the style of his note-taking that I’ve also been poring over since he died—he has notes in all his books and almost all of them are thoughts that he second-guessed to the point of complete abnegation, crossing out his own words to the point that they are made unreadable—something was holding him back.

***

Al Bumbry kept up his hot streak in Asheville, batting .347 and earning a midseason promotion to Triple A Rochester, where he batted .345, which catapulted him in September to the Majors, where in 11 at-bats he laced 4 hits, including a triple. His blistering skein continued in 1973: He earned the Rookie of the Year award, batting .337 with 11 triples, including, as the back of this card points out, 3 triples in one game, which tied a major league record.

***

“If possible,” my father wrote in his will, “please spread my ashes by the cat.” It was virtually his only personal demand in the document. The other was that all his books be preserved whole by going to my brother and me. By the time we were ready to fulfill the wish about the ashes, we’d already decided that we were going to ignore a literal carrying out of his wish about his books. There were too fucking many. So I now have only fifty of them, almost all of them dense and huge, one for each year for the rest of my life if I live as long as humanly possible.

My father held me in his arms when I was first born. When there was just a little of him left I carried him in a box lighter than a baby to where my mom was pointing.

“Calypso’s up there in those bushes,” she said.

***

A triple, like life itself, is a beautiful fluke. It’s much rarer than an out, of course, and rarer than a single, a double, a home run. Any major leaguer can gather enough fluky luck for an occasional triple. Steve Balboni hit 11 in all, for example, one for each of his glorious years in the majors. But the record-breaking triple-hitter manifests the multitudinous glory of baseball itself. It’s no accident that the image that most often punctuates Pete Rose’s quote about how he’d walk through hell in a gasoline suit to play baseball is of the All-Time Hit King flying headfirst into third base. The triple materializes from a tripling of rare abilities—the ability to hit, the ability to run, and the ability of wanting: wanting life, more life. Triples are the provenance of pitiless hungering joy.

A triple, like any individual life, is an incomplete act.

Someone else needs to bring him home.

***

As I clambered up to the spot where Calypso was buried, I thought about how my father doted on her. She was scared of or outright hostile toward almost everything else alive by the end of her life, but she loved him. She sat on his bony lap and purred as he gently brushed her fur with a comb. He loved all of us that way.

I looked over at my brother before I tipped out the ashes and started to cry. I was thinking, this is it. This is the last of him.

 

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Jerry Morales

February 5, 2019

Jerry Morales

Kingdom Come

Four

Tonight instead of watching the State of the Union address I looked for my father and for Jerry Morales’s basket catch. First I skimmed some of the emails my father sent me, each including a few words from him at most and then a link to sobering news. Sometimes it was just a link. I didn’t read the whole articles tonight, just as I hadn’t when he’d first sent them to me. Still, fragments lodged somewhere in my brain.

. . . rate of climate change now may be as fast as any extended warming period over the past 65 million years, and it is projected to accelerate in the coming decades . . .

. . . abrupt, unpredictable and potentially irreversible changes in the earth’s climate system with massively disruptive impacts . ..

. . . the continuing acidification of the oceans (killing off the basis of the food web: coral, phytoplankton and shellfish) and more climate disruptions, an increased number of hotter days and extreme weather events . . .

. . . loss of polar ice, leading to sea level rise . . . will threaten the existence of low-lying island nations as well as major cities . . .

. . . mass extinctions . . .

I turned to a search for Jerry Morales’s basket catch. It’s what he was known for. He’s not the only player to ever use the basket catch—two immortals, Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente, also used it, for example—but Jerry Morales doesn’t have a whole lot else to fix him in time, so it seems like a bigger deal for him. I figured that everything is available now, digitally, that nothing is ever fully blown to kingdom come, but the truth is some things are just gone. All there is are some words, some memories.

There are no photos or videos of Jerry Morales making a basket catch, at least not that I could find. I took a few different angles in my search, Googling various combinations of his name and “basket catch.” At some point, I Googled Jerry Morales’s hometown, Yabucoa, and “baseball.” I learned that Yabucoa was hit the hardest of any place in Puerto Rico by Hurricane Maria. I found a before and after photo of the Yabucoa baseball stadium. I gave up on Jerry Morales’s basket catch and turned back to searching for my father. I read some of a note he scrawled with a pen in tiny handwriting on note paper and folded into a book he was reading.

It is clear that the capitalist world system is coming to an end. The only question is whether the transformation to another system can be realized through a collectively democratic, pragmatic, gradual process resulting finally in the constitution of a democratic world system or in catastrophic destruction, possibly leading to the end of humanity.

(continued)

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Theories of Child Development

January 31, 2019

unless

Kingdom Come

Three

My father was a reader. My father wanted the kingdom of heaven to come. He wanted it here on earth for everyone, and he believed in the possibility of it here on earth, and he wanted to understand how it could happen, and why it hadn’t happened, and why there was injustice and inequality and suffering, and what was to be done. And so he read.

He read big, bursting novels as a child, Dumas and Dickens and Balzac and Hugo, and then as a young man and for the rest of his life he read philosophers and poets and psychologists and economists and political scientists and environmentalists and anthropologists and, above all, sociologists. He read about suffering and happiness and sex and crime and education and music and war and the beginning of the world and the end of the world. He was in the middle of dozens of books when he died. Last week, on the day before we spread his ashes, I packed my father’s books into boxes, stripping out all his makeshift bookmarks, losing his place.

I found this marker within Max Weber: An Intellectual Portrait. This relic from the long defunct Behavioral Science Book Club, is, as it happens, my cardboard twin, in that, judging from the date in the upper right corner, it probably came into my father’s possession within days of my birth, if not on the exact day.

We have some things in common, my cardboard twin and I, beyond both being a little over a half a century old. We both spent our life in the orbit of our father but obscured to him and him to us. With my cardboard twin and me there’s a persistent grasping, even as we begin to discolor with age, toward bringing the certainty of intellection to the unknowable mystery of the earliest years: my twin has the Theories of Childhood; I have all my cardboard markers, all these gods that came into my young hands in place of my father and long ago got stripped from whatever place they were holding. And with both of us there’s this sense of a debt, of a box forever unchecked, some part of life undone. Something is still to be delivered. Something is still to be received.

(continued)

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Tom Grieve

January 25, 2019

tom grieve

Kingdom Come

Two

“Will the earth last forever?”

My older son asked this a few days ago. He’s seven, the same age I was when I first held this 1975 card.

“Yes,” I said.

It was near bedtime, and near bedtime the night before he started panicking about tarantulas. The point is that near bedtime I will lie to my son about the impermanence of all things. I won’t tell him everything starts and ends with a flash, and there’s no start or end, and there’s no such thing as time at all, just the blazing light of kingdom come.

***

There’s no earthly reason for me to keep coming back to these baseball cards. And yet at the beginning of this month, the beginning of a new year, I pulled four cards out at random and spread them on my desk, and they’ve been here ever since, a thin, insistent barrier between me and earthly reasons. Ralph Houk with his glowing watch and air of impending resignation was the first card, and this one was the second.

It’s from 1975, the first year I started collecting cards, which was also my first full year away from my father. I had only recently learned to read, but when I first held this card in my hands as a seven-year-old, I’m sure I was able to read that simple, familiar first name: it was the name of my mom’s boyfriend. But that second word was more complicated. I didn’t know what it meant, didn’t know that it meant anything. Something was gone, and in its place was this: Grieve.

So I’ve been thinking about this word and its weight, and I’ve been thinking about fathers and about sons. Tom Grieve and his son, Ben Grieve, were both drafted in the first round of the major league baseball draft, making them, I believe, the only father and son duo with that distinction, but that’s not the father and son duo I want to get involved with here. Instead, allow me direct your attention to the father and son that I came across when this card brought me to an article about Tom Grieve’s biggest day at the plate, which also happened to be 10-cent Beer Night:

Meanwhile, the intoxicated crowd continuously misbehaved.

This included a woman running onto the Indians on deck circle and flashing her breasts and trying to kiss the umpire, and a naked man running onto the field and sliding into second base as Grieve hit his second home run of the game.

Also, a father and son ran into the outfield and mooned the fans in the bleachers.

***

“O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again.” – Thomas Wolfe

***

On Sunday in Asheville, exactly one year after a stroke wiped my father’s mind clean, my mother, my brother, and I drove to a path that was the last place where my father took walks. My father was along for the ride too, in a box on my lap.

All his life, my father walked. He walked all over Manhattan as a boy. He walked on the rising and falling paths of Thomas Wolfe’s hometown in his nineties even after recovering from a broken hip. He just walked slower and used a ski pole for balance.

On the drive I brought up on my phone a 2012 live version of Lou Reed’s song “Cremation (Ashes to Ashes),” and my brother turned on the blue tooth so that it could play through the car speakers.

Since they burnt you up, collected you in a cup, for you the cold, black sea has no terror.

We got to the parking lot as the song was swelling to a conclusion. My brother cut the ignition. We got out of the car and inched down the icy path against a biting wind. My mom started to cry a little, and I put one arm around her. I carried the box under my other arm. We headed toward a point in the walkway where my father, on his walk, liked to sit for a little while before moving on.

My mother, brother, and I got to the part of the walkway near the bench and stepped carefully down toward the edge of the stream. My mom took the first turn of dipping a paper cup into the box of ashes.

“Note the direction of the wind,” my brother said, wisely.

My mother turned her back to the wind and tipped the cup, and the ashes swirled and fell to the water and dissolved. My brother went next and shook all the ashes in the cup out into the wind. Then my brother paused and looked down in the cup. He looked over at me and then held the cup up so that I could see. At the bottom of the cup was a large metal screw.

I took my turn at scattering my father to the wind and water, eventually, but not before all three of us laughed until tears welled up and then froze on our cheeks.

(continued)

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Ralph Houk

January 16, 2019

ralph houk

Kingdom Come

One

My dad wore a watch. A series of watches, actually, all shitty. What was his shitty watch pipeline? I don’t know, but I can see it in my mind now, the prototypical Louis Wilker timepiece, the plastic band, the digital readout displaying an incorrect measurement of the current moment. Can I really see it? No, it’s gone. But almost a year into his absence I’m in the sort of seeing phase, which I suppose will eventually dissolve into no seeing at all. There it sort of is, his cheap watch, in between the folded-up cuff of his blue button-down shirt and his pale, thin wrist.

His wrists! I’ve often blamed them for my athletic failings. As much as I loved playing baseball and basketball, all the thousands of hours I played those games, I never got very good at either, and at some point I began to notice that the guys grabbing rebounds away from me had much thicker wrists, which I paired up with that smug truism about athletic mastery: it’s all in the wrists.

This realization that my inherited anatomy doomed me to failure in my chosen pursuits fit in nicely with my overall stance on life, which came into formation for me when I was a teenager, right around the time of the 1984 baseball card shown above that I’ll eventually get to: victimhood. What chance did I, spawn of a bookish ectomorph, have against the strapping plank-wristed offspring of farmers, bow-hunters, snowmobile enthusiasts?

Anyway, this baseball card made me recall that my thin-wristed sociologist father got so gaunt in his old age that he had to poke new holes in the flimsy plastic band to keep the thing from sliding up and down his arm like a hoop bracelet.

***

It’s difficult to tell in this card whether Ralph Houk, the son of a Kansas farmer, had particularly thick wrists, but it would seem that his watch was considerably nicer than any my father ever wore. This is as you would expect for such a widely respected eminence. The nice watch, that prototypical retirement gift, is in synch with a muted, dignified tone of impending capitulation in the card, also present in Houk’s weary body language and the faintly sour grimace creasing his gentle features. He’s had about enough. Can you blame him? I too at that very moment was justifying quitting on baseball—which was, because of my childhood devotion to it, very much like quitting on life—in part because of the soul-extinguishing mediocrity of Houk’s plodding, meaningless 1983 Boston Red Sox. Unlike me, Ralph Houk had been around for a while by that point and had seen just about everything there was to see in this world. He managed Mark Fidrych in 1976 and Mantle and Maris in 1961. He’d won the Silver Star as a soldier in World War II at the Battle of the Bulge, the deadliest battle of the war for United States troops and one of the bloodiest clashes in U.S. history. With the Bird, with the ’61 Yankees, he’d known unparalleled joy, unparalleled glory. And before all that (as he described in a 1994 article by Steve Jacobson), he’d seen men he was responsible for, men standing right beside him, get blown to kingdom come.

***

I imagine that Ralph Houk’s watches told the correct time. My father, who also served in World War II—though thankfully for my own existence on a stateside naval base, far from the action—may have once had watches that told the right time, but by the time I started noticing, this was no longer the case. My father’s watches, like all the timepieces he was in charge of setting, were always wrong, set several minutes ahead of the actual time, as if he never really wanted to be anywhere except some nearby but wholly imaginary destination that he’d never reach.

But of course the watch on Ralph Houk’s wrist in this baseball card, because of the sun’s reflection, tells no time at all. Maybe that’s what we’ll see, the last thing we’ll see. Maybe it’s the last thing my father saw. Just about a year ago he was on his way to the kitchen to get a cup of coffee my mom later found in the microwave. Maybe he looked down at his watch and in the slim dawning moment of the massive stroke bursting in his mind like the birth of the universe he saw on the face of his discount wristwatch a blinding shard of infinite light.

(continued)

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John Christensen (played)

December 21, 2018

John Christensen_marker

Played

4.

I’m gonna read every one of these books, I said when I got the box of my father home. I felt the inevitable failure of this vow almost instantly, as I started and then quickly abandoned one of the weightier ones—Michel Foucalt’s Discipline and Punish, an exploration of the ways in which imprisonment serves as the shaping principle at the root of our gruesome civilization. I got only a few pages into it, all of them given over to an excruciatingly specific description of the methodical torture and dismemberment of a criminal in France in the 1700s. Hoping to keep up some measure of momentum, I then opted for the thinnest book in the pile, which I also found impenetrable and fairly quickly abandoned. It was an early work by Erving Goffman about, among other things, the sociology of play. I found within it a printout of a recent email, an indication that my dad had been reading the book within the last few years. I vaguely remember the email, because after Dad wrote it to me, my brother, and my mom, it sat there a while in all our inboxes without a reply. I figured someone should say something, so I replied: “That’s beautiful, Dad.” He printed out my reply and his initial email and saved it. When I cleaned up his room after he died I found versions of the text in his email message in several places. He kept playing with it, trying to get it right.

***

I suppose what I’m trying to do here is describe a transformation. A baseball card that I never cared about or paid any attention to came into my awareness, and a line of text on the back—“John’s brother, Jim, once played minor league ball”—sparked some thoughts about the notion of play, and I decided to try to play with this baseball card with my sons. So I took it and a few others to the kitchen table with some colored pencils and markers and crayons, and I invited my sons to have at it. They lost interest quickly, but not before John Christensen got played with. I like what happened to him. The marker on his face mutes some of what I, upon first discovering the card, initially read as apprehension. Now he seems more like he’s just playing catch. John Christensen was not far from the end here in this 1988 card, but with the thin, crude smear of color across his face he looks to me as if he hasn’t yet moved to the past tense of the word play.

***

In the games my sons prefer playing with me, everyone is always dying. They die, I die. Everyone instantly comes back to new life every time. It’s exhausting. Every time I die I want to stay that way for a little while, but they want there to be no break in the cycle of death to life. I lie there, having, for example, just been smashed to smithereens by a meteor, which is actually a pillow resting on my face. I was Galactus, omnipotent destroyer of worlds! And now for a sweet moment I’m nothing at all. But they squeal at me.

“Daddy, who are you now? Daddy, who are you now?”

***

Exactly thirty years ago today, John Christensen went from being someone playing major league baseball to someone who once played major league baseball. On December 21, 1988, he was released by the Minnesota Twins, bringing his major league career to an end. I can’t find anything about him after his career ended. Most former major leaguers show up somewhere in post-career incarnations on the internet, but John Christensen seems to have existed only insofar as he was actively engaged in play.

***

As long as you’re alive, you’re in play. Even into his nineties my father kept writing and rewriting that brief cluster of words that I found in the Erving Goffman book and all over his room. He kept wrestling with big ideas all the way to the end. Here’s his manifesto:

Life is a metabolic process of transformation of energy into increasingly complex, diverse, self-reproducing and evolving structures of matter-energy.

The meaning of life—a productive/creative activity—is life itself; the goal of life is more life: more diversity, more creativity, more consciousness, more and deeper understanding of life.

 

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Untitled

December 18, 2018

brothers

Played

3.

Over Thanksgiving at my mom’s house I filled up a large cardboard box with some of my father’s books, most of them thicker and heavier than bricks. On the day we left, as I struggled with the box’s ungainly size and weight down the uneven stone path to the driveway, it occurred to me that I was carrying my father, that all the tomes I vowed to read to somehow keep him alive were probably in total about as heavy as his withered body as he lay in the ICU with his eyes closed and snorted in his last breath.

The photograph at the top of this page is from our Thanksgiving visit, the first one without him. He’s in this picture, in a framed photograph on the right side of the mantle. It’s from his 90th birthday party. All his siblings were gone by the time of that party, but Paulina, the wife of his closest brother, Dave, was there. She also came to his funeral and talked about her earliest memories of my father. She would come into Manhattan to visit Dave at the apartment where he was still living with my dad and their mom, my grandma, and Paulina would wait as the two of them glowered intensely into books for their college studies at a table in the kitchen, and then, for a break, the three of them would go out into the evening and roam all over the city, stopping at every bookstore they saw, walking and talking nonstop about ideas and history and politics and art and books, books, books.

That’s me in the painting above the mantle, in the red bathrobe, attached at the shoulder to my brother and by my gaze to cartoons. My mom painted it 45 years ago. More recently, to entertain the second pair of brothers in the photograph, she created the fire glowing at the center of the photograph. She’s staring into the fire, so you can’t see her face, but her face as it was when she was a teenager, before her life caught fire, is visible in the portrait to the right of the big painting above the mantle. It’s one of the few portraits by my grandmother, who preferred to paint seascapes with no one in them. She must have wanted to capture something with the portrait of my mom, just like my mom wanted to capture something in the painting of my brother and me staring into a television, just like my wife wanted to capture something with this photo of our two sons in front of the fire, just like I want to capture something with these words about the brief fire of a human life. It plays warmly on our faces for a few moments.

(to be continued)