Gerald Beckman was born and raised on a farm in West Texas, and has practiced law in Corpus Christi since 1969. Since retirement he has written numerous novels. The Family will be available soon on Amazon, to be followed by his other books.
He continues to write, travel, and do all those things he always wanted to do but never had time for. He serves on numerous committees and boards, and enjoys volunteering in community activities such as World Affairs Council of South Texas, International Education Committee at TAMUCC, the Building Committee at St. John’s Catholic Church, and Beautify Corpus Christi.
learn more at GeraldBeckman.com
The December cold front blasting across the brush country of South Texas leached the heat from Ruben Garza’s battered hulk faster than his metabolism could replace it. Sprawled in the sand between prickly pear and hedgehog cactus, he hadn’t moved since midnight. Too much whiskey, a severe beating, and seven hours of freezing wind had produced a stupor so deep one might have thought him dead.
With the first gray light of dawn, his cheek began to twitch. He blinked and turned his head. The first sensation he felt was of cactus needles poking his thigh, then came the stings of fire ants on his back and arms. Sand had worked its way under his pants and shirt, and his throat was so raw he could hardly swallow. His stomach churned with nausea. His head swirled with pain and vertigo. Over it all blew the icy wind.
Goddamn booze...freezing goddamn wind and muscles beat to pulp wasn’t enough. Hadda have a hangover too. Must be the booze what dried out his throat…
With difficulty he sat up, rolled to his hands and knees, then eased himself to a kneeling position. He maneuvered one foot under him, and, almost losing his balance, pulled himself upright. He stopped to let a wave of nausea pass. His back, his neck and shoulders, his head, his whole body throbbed with pain.
An ordinary man might have moaned at such agony, but Ruben Garza was no ordinary man. A grunt was as much concession to misery as he would allow himself.
Read samples of Gerald Beckman's short fiction
Lawyer Jay Rhodes hopes to gain a few easy cases. Instead, he finds himself pulled into the ruthless world of the drug economy.
The pickup came to a slow stop beside the Rio Grande on the abandoned river road. Crickets and tree frogs, quieted by the tires crunching over the gravel at its slow approach, resumed their chirping. Ten miles to the north, the lights of Laredo reflected softly off the thin clouds hanging low in the night sky. The slender driver checked the rearview mirror to be sure no one had followed, then shut off the lights and killed the engine. He wiped the loose hairs of his ponytail away from his face. Not likely anyone would see him here on this lonely road hidden by mesquite and scrub cedars; nobody but teenage lovers ever used it at night. Still, the muscles under his jeans and sweaty T-shirt were tensed and ready to spring. He wasn’t scared, exactly, just careful. He had enough experience in small-time drug dealing to know he had to be careful.
Satisfied that he was alone, he got out, eased the door shut, and crept through the fifty yards of brush leading to the muddy edge of the river. He peered over the black water, first to the left, then the right. Only brush and shadows cast by the half-moon were visible along the opposite bank.
He whistled once, softly, a long, descending note with an abrupt upswing at the end. A similar whistle answered. A flashlight flickered from the far side. A dark hulk began moving toward him. Muffled voices and the occasional splash of a swimmer’s foot sounded over the water as the Mexicans made their slow way across, pushing a bundle lashed to the top of an inflated inner tube.
The driver suppressed his anxiety. He had paid ten grand for the load but had no way to be sure he was getting what he paid for. If the load was short, of poor quality, or contained only weeds and rags instead of marijuana, there wasn’t a damn thing he could do about it. His on-again, off-again operation, even including the present deal, was too small to provide the kind of leverage the big boys had. That’s why he was sometimes cheated. Still, it was more lucrative than selling donuts for his brother who owned the Shipley’s franchise. He’d already put a sizable stash together, a clavo as his Mexican friends called it, of over fifty thousand dollars. Add the few dollars he made selling information to the DEA, the three-fifty an hour he earned at Shipley’s, and soon he’d be able to join his sister in Dallas. Maybe even get back with his ex-wife.
Panting, the Mexicans stood near shore a moment, then dragged their watertight bundle through the mud to dry ground.
“Veinticuatro kilos,” said one. Twenty-four kilos. The best. “Pura Lima limón, directamente de Oaxaca.”
He didn’t dare open the bundle. If it was a dummy load and he discovered the scam right in front of them, no telling what the ignorant wetbacks might do. Better just pay the dumb fuckers and get the hell out of there.
He handed them each a hundred-dollar bill.
The Mexicans huddled so close together they nearly bumped heads. They turned the bills over under the flashlight beam, rubbed them between their fingers, snapped them. One even sniffed his. Ignorant shits.
The load was worth thirty grand once it reached this side of the river. He figured it was supposed to have gone to some petty dealer in Houston. He didn’t know which one, only that it was much too small a load to belong to one of the few shadowy figures whose reputations were enough to make even the breath of men braver than he turn quick and shallow. He knew who those few were and wouldn’t touch their shit for all the weed in Texas. The rest were nothing but punks. That’s why he concluded he could pay the Mexican supplier ten grand to divert this load to him and another two hundred to the peons to swim it across; he wouldn’t have to concern himself with how the supplier would explain the loss to whomever it was supposed to go. The road from the Mexican growing fields to US dealers was full of thieves and double-crossers, and every dealer knew he’d lose an occasional load. Punishment was swift and brutal if the wrong man got burned, but usually a lost load, especially one this small, wasn’t worth the hassle of killing a man.
So, screw it. If this bundle was the real thing, he stood to make twenty grand, and if that meant a one-in-a-million chance of trouble, well, hell, he could live with odds like that.
Still, it paid to be cautious.
Satisfied, the swimmers switched off the flashlight. “We got two kilos more of skunk,” one of them said. “For a hundred dollars more we bring it over too, okay?”
Skunk, a particularly potent variety of marijuana, so called because of its strong odor, was highly prized in some circles, and the price just quoted was awfully cheap. But he already had a buyer for this stuff and didn’t want to complicate his deal. “Another time. Right now this is all I can use.”
The Mexicans stuffed the bills into their jeans and eased back into the black water to return as silently as crocodiles to the darkness on the other side.
The ponytailed driver hefted the load onto his back and struggled up the brushy bank to his pickup. Panting and sweating, he set the bundle on the ground at the tailgate. The air hung heavy, damp, and still. Mosquitoes whined around his ears and ankles, biting wherever bare skin showed. Stinking mud from the riverbank squished inside his sneakers.
He felt along the top of the tailgate for the latch handle, found it, and lowered it.
“Qué pasa, amigo?” A match flared to light a cigarette at the front of the pickup.
The driver’s teeth clenched in terror. A pinch of urine escaped through his urethra. “Who is it?”
Three men, one extraordinarily large and fat, approached him. All had flashlights.
“Qué tiene? A presen’ for me?” The fat man lifted the bundle effortlessly onto the bed of the pickup. The raspy, high-pitched voice was familiar.
The driver was frantic with fear. “Ruben? Mr. Garza? Sure—hey, no problem. It’s yours anyway. I was just going to bring it to you. I—I figured the only way to find out who was stealing your shit was to—to get in on the bottom, so to speak, you know? I was going to deliver it myself, but I had to do it this way to learn who’s been stealing your shit.”
Ignoring his lies, the three men shoved and pulled the terrified man back to the river. There they twisted baling wire around his wrists behind his back, cutting painfully into his flesh. He didn’t dare resist.
“Amigo, there’s only just one way to save yourself,” the fat man said, towering over him, holding him by the back of his shirt.
“Name it—anything—you know I’ll do anything you want. Just tell me what it is.”
“Make me believe you not the one stealing from me.”
“Steal? From you? No way! I’d never do that! God, Mr. Garza, why would you think I’d do a thing like that?”
The fat man stank of sweat and beer. “Convince me.”
“How? How can I do that? Just tell me how…”
One of the others handed the fat man a twelve-inch filleting knife. He pressed the point against the prisoner’s neck below the ear.
“Wait!” the victim squealed in terror, the point piercing his skin. “I know who’s been messing with you. Lemme go and I’ll tell you who’s been screwing up your deals.”
“A bargain, eh? You nothing but gar bait and you wan’ to make a bargain? You got huevos, my frien’.” He loosened his grip. “Dígame.”
“You let me go?” he asked, standing ankle deep in mud.
“You tell the truth, you go free.” He jerked the cuffed man’s collar. “If not, I have to kill you.”
“Whitely—Chief Whitely in Rexsberg. He’s the one you want—he’s the one selling you out!”
“What you know about Whitely?”
“The load you just sent to St. Louis—the DEA knows about it. They plan to follow it to St. Louis and bust the buyers. Then they’re coming after you.”
“How you know that?”
“I—I work at Shipley’s and sometimes the agents say things they don’t think I can hear. Where you think me and my brother learn all the stuff I tell you? We got to get it somewhere, don’t we?”
“Whitely. How you know Whitely tol’ them?”
“Who else could it be? Nobody else knows, except for me and the drivers, and I only know ‘cuz I helped load it, and I ain’t about to squeal on you—you know that. We been together too long. You’re the last man in the world I would fuck with!”
“You know what I think? I think if the Man knows about St. Louis, you and your brother are the ones what tol’ him. You thought you could sell a little information to the Man, then squeal on Whitely.”
“Ah Jesus, Jesus, you gotta believe me!” he sobbed. “We’d never do that to you. Never!”
“I catch you stealing my shit and you think you can throw me off. Not very smart, my frien’.” He took hold of his victim’s ponytail. He pulled his head back and with a slow but deliberate move shoved the knife through his neck, ripping down and forward, then quickly stepped back from the gushing blood.
The doomed man’s head lolled crazily. He fell to his knees, gurgling and choking. For a moment he tried to regain his feet, but could only lunge headlong into the mud. The three men watched as he jerked and convulsed, then they quickly retreated up the bank while the dying man’s heart pumped blood in spurts to spread black on the bank in the colorless light of the moon.
His novel, ROUGHNECKS AND REDNECKS, is about Billy Joe Groten, the son of a tenant farmer new to the small West Texas farming community of Caprock, and Sally Courtney, the daughter of a migrant worker who stops to earn a day’s wages shocking a field of hay grazer, but ends up staying, hoping to sink roots.
Billy and Sally are seventeen years old and classmates at Caprock High. As outliers, they try their best to find entrance to the school’s social scene, but succeed only in finding each other.
Their shotgun marriage has an idyllic beginning, but the mysterious pregnancy and death of the most popular girl in school soon begins to haunt their lives. The excerpt below describes the last conscious moments of that girl.
The novel portrays not only the resolution of the mystery surrounding the girl’s death, but the couple’s battle to climb out of poverty and prejudice.
The theme of the story is that pluck and perseverance alone aren’t always enough to succeed. Sometimes fate plays a hidden but essential part.
Walking along a deserted West Texas country road five miles from home on a cold Halloween night, alone, wasn’t a stunt seventeen year-old Shirley Parsons would undertake if she had a choice. The moonlight had turned the familiar fields and pastures surrounding her into an alien fantasyland, scary and threatening, and she didn’t like it one little bit.
As grown up as she was, she was still afraid of the dark, and as bright as the moon was, it wasn’t bright enough to eliminate the vestigial fear that gremlins and goblins might, just might, be lurking about, ready to pounce. Her good sense insisted it wasn’t so, but she couldn’t entirely shake the thought that if such creatures really did exist, this night would be the perfect time, and this abandoned stretch of road would be the perfect place for them to show up.
The road was wide open and straight as a plumb line, cutting through the middle of farmland stretching to the horizon in every direction. Barbwire fences and bar-ditches choked with dry weeds and grass bordered the road on both sides, and that’s where the real-world night creatures would be skulking, the badgers and rats and snakes, and maybe, if luck was against her, skunks.
She wasn’t particularly afraid of such animals in daylight. As long as she could see them, she could keep her distance and knew they would keep theirs. But she wasn’t sure what rules governed the night. Better stick to the middle of the road and not take chances.
The moonlight should have made walking easy, but her new loafers rubbed blisters on her heel and the tip of her little toe, and the temperature was too low for her light cotton dress and jacket to keep her comfortable. The jacket helped as long as she kept moving, but when she stopped, the chill quickly found its way through to her skin.
She adjusted her gait, thinking it might lessen the pain of the blisters. It did, a little.
She pulled the jacket tighter around her shoulders and limped on.
Thirty miles to the north, on the far side of the Comanche River wastelands, lay the city of Henderson, whose lights set the bottom of the night sky aglow. Individual lights from the refinery and smelter were visible if you looked closely enough, and every few seconds the airport beacon flashed along the horizon as clear in the distance as heat lightning in summer.
The town of Caprock was five miles straight ahead, to the east. It was too small to have refineries or smelters. The only hint the town was there at all was the radio tower winking its lonely red eye a half mile south of town. It belonged to KNEX, whose motto “The Voice of the Cotton Pickers” had been adopted twelve years before, when the high school football team of that name won its first and only district championship.
From where she was walking, the turnoff to River Breaks Road was two miles farther toward Caprock. To get to her father’s 2000-acre farm, she would have to turn there and walk another mile north. A total of three miles to get home if Ollie Thompson didn’t come to his senses. A little less if she cut across the fields.
Set your limits, her mother had taught her. Let your date know right off that the price of a movie and a hamburger doesn’t include taking liberties. Take control and never lose it, she said.
Take control? Ha! Tonight, putting a full nelson on an alligator would have been easier.
The temperature was still dropping.
Jeez, but her blisters hurt!
Forty-five minutes had passed since she slammed Ollie’s pickup door to stomp off toward home on foot and he sped off in his pickup. He hadn’t returned yet, but she expected him to. He wouldn’t let her walk all the way home. He just had to cool off a little.
Still, he had been awfully pissed off. Maybe he really wasn’t coming back. Huh! Even if he did, she’d never go anywhere with him again.
She wished she had let Billy take her home from the Halloween party like she promised him she would. She could handle Billy.
What if Ollie didn’t show up?
Three more miles with blistered feet—but it was Friday night, so there was a good chance somebody would come along pretty soon. The Albrechts, a young couple living ten miles from Caprock, often drove into town for the second feature at the Olympic Theater on Friday nights. Rio Bravo was showing and she happened to know they were both John Wayne fans. They’d be glad to give her a ride home.
Five minutes later she had to take off her shoe. She wondered how far she could walk before her bobby sock wore through. Maybe she could tear a sleeve off her jacket and wrap it around her foot if she had to, but if she were reduced to that extreme and her daddy found out, he’d turn Ollie into a sack of tankage before the sun came up. Maybe even get the sheriff involved. It had to be against the law to strand an innocent girl along an abandoned road this late at night. If it wasn’t, it sure ought to be.
A pair of headlights approached from behind. As it slowed, she turned to face it, continuing to walk backwards. Squinting, she waved one hand tentatively and shaded her eyes with the other. She wanted to be sure it was Ollie before striking the pose she had been planning on, the one letting him know how despicable he was and how miserable and helpless she was.
The vehicle slowed, then stopped, trapping her full in the glare of blinding headlights. Darn that Ollie, nobody else would blind her like this on purpose. He was doing it just to be mean…
She was right about it being movie night for the Albrechts, but was off in the timing of their return. When they finally did arrive, they found not a pretty young girl hobbling along on a sore foot looking for a ride, but a bruised and broken body needing far more help than they could provide.
Baseball as seen on television is the sport in its purest form. It’s where a superman makes a perfectly timed jump against an outfield wall to snatch a fly ball over his back; where a third baseman dives for an 85 mph grounder, scoops it out of the dirt, rolls to his feet and in the same graceful motion shoots it like a rifle shot to first in time to make the out; where a pitcher throws a ball at 100 mph to a target 17 by 30 inches over sixty feet away, almost never hitting a man hunkered six inches away from the target, while making the ball curve and jump, hop, drop, or rise; where hulking batters who can swing a bat nearly as fast as the pitch face those brain-rattling fastballs zipping inches past their skulls without fear; where every player knows instantly and exactly what to do on the next play, no matter what it is, and does it time and time again, flawlessly. That is what people call baseball nowadays. That’s what they talk about, that’s what they analyze, and that’s what they bet on while sitting in their living rooms sipping suds and nibbling nachos. It’s baseball to be sure, but it’s baseball in sanitized perfection. It’s nothing like the baseball I once knew and loved.
I loved the nitty-gritty, the wild, untamed, unsponsored and unorganized, almost totally infertile spawning grounds for professional players that thrived before the disappearance of tiny country schools, before unlimited school sports budgets, manicured playing fields, and helicopter parenting; where kids discovered the game on their own, where they played without adult interference for the pure love of it, where money and fame and free-agenting and endorsements were as immaterial, albeit unattainable, as the back side of the moon; where coaching was nil, rules unknown, or misunderstood, often, even, not applicable, even in the unlikely event a rulebook could be found and the pertinent rule pinpointed. I loved that version of the game so much that, forty-five years later, I still dream of playing it.
I was in first grade when I first swung a bat at a slow pitched softball. I remember it to this day. The ball was tossed by some chubby girl in the fourth grade from what must have been every bit of ten feet away, and I couldn’t hit it worth a flip. There was no backstop, no bleachers, no coaches, no organization, and no rules other than 1) try to hit the ball, and if you managed that, 2) run to first base, not third (a common mistake); 3) chase the ball (actually catching it was rare; even a slow grounder bouncing over the native pasture sod was harder to grab than a panicky ground squirrel); 4) throw the ball when you finally got to it, 5) run after it again, on and on until the bell rang at the end of recess.
Our equipment was one broken bat whose handle was repeatedly repaired by black electrical tape, and a ball whose cover kept coming off until some enterprising young lady had her mom stitch it back on. Rusty plow discs of different sizes placed at stepped-off distances forming a rough square served as bases, and a short piece of flat board placed somewhere close to the middle of the square was the pitcher’s mound — except, of course, there was no mound. In the early grades boys and girls played the game together. Later we played boys against girls, and because we were stronger (loading hay bales all summer long) and faster (endlessly chasing livestock from one pasture to another), the boys usually won. But not always.
As we got older, we got more sophisticated. We chose teams, taking turns, starting with the best, ending with the worst. That was usually Joey Saren, a poor kid absolutely devoid of anything approaching physical grace, but who bore his repeated humiliations with a different kind of grace and no apparent psychic scars. No longer were the games played only at school, where we were limited to a fifteen minute recess at midmorning, a one hour lunch break—wolfing down our sack lunches in less than five minutes so we could play ball—and another fifteen minute recess at mid-afternoon. Now, with the freedom afforded by a few additional years and balloon-tired bicycles, we could play for hours at a time in some farmer’s cow-pasture, using gunny sacks and flattened cardboard for bases. Still no coaching, bleachers or properly laid out diamond, but we did sometimes manage the side of a barn or storage shed as a backstop, and we had learned some of the rules, like a tie goes to the runner, a caught foul tip is a strike and not an out, and what a balk meant, though we could never agree exactly when it happened; and since the umpire was always the worst player (that’s why he was umpire) and knew even less about the rules than the rest of us, he wasn’t much help. It came down to which side shouted the loudest or was the readiest to quit if it didn’t get its way.
Though these games lasted longer than the ones at school, they had a downside that made them less popular than they might have been. Dodging prickly pears and cow pies while chasing balls detracted considerably from the fun of the game.
I was fifteen when I took the next step up the ladder. I was accepted to play for the Umbarger Blue Socks, one of seven teams made up of farmers from my age on up (some guys were pushing fifty) who got together and organized themselves into what they called the West Texas Irrigation League.
We played every Sunday, each team taking its turn to host the game in the town closet to their farms. Never any practice sessions, no warmups, just show up and play. Still no coaching, no grandstands, no snack bars, and mostly worn-out equipment, except for our gloves. Every player had his own glove, a significant investment, and he kept it clean and oiled. One player named Billy Tubman (more about him later), on the theory that if a little bit of oil was good, a whole lot of oil was a whole lot better, soaked his glove in a bucket of motor oil overnight. Like the rest of us, he had no money to spare, so he did everything imaginable to undo the damage, including backing over it with a truck tire to squish the oil out of it, soaking it in a bucket of gasoline to dilute the oil, stuffing flour in and around it, hanging it from a tree limb to evaporate whatever would evaporate, and washing it over and over in hot water and detergent. He finally got it back to a useable condition, and years later, when I got married and quit the team, he was still using it. True story.
The hosting team would provide two new baseballs for that day’s game, which we tried our best to make last. Young kids would race each other chasing the fouls, and if they returned it soon enough to use for the next pitch, we’d pay the winner a dime. Actually, we paid the dime anyway.
Our ball field was bounded on two sides by cow pastures, one along third base, the other beyond left and center fields. There was something about our games that attracted cows. They would start gathering along the fence toward the beginning of a game, and by the bottom of the ninth there were more cows watching than people. And since it’s not easy to housebreak a cow, lots of manure piles were scattered about. Sometimes a foul ball rolled through a fresh pile, which was one of the fastest ways to age a new ball. We had a sackful of used balls for such occasions. We all agreed that if spitballs were illegal, shitballs ought to be illegal too. I don’t remember who came up with that one, but everybody thought it was pretty funny.
But by then we did have a backstop. It was made of chickenwire mesh and cedar posts, and where the mesh overlapped, it was stitched together with baling wire. It didn’t take long for gaps to develop, which were patched, and repatched, and repatched again, until finally a good portion of the backstop was nearly impossible to see through. It made little difference though, since there were so few spectators. Human ones, anyway.
The quality of play was pretty pathetic. Pathetic: how else describe hitting a slow grounder to the shortstop, the shortstop scooping it up to throw to first, overthrowing the first baseman, the ball bouncing off the bumper of a parked car, careening into a patch of pigweeds, the batter rounding first and heading for second while the first baseman looks frantically in the weeds for the ball, finds it, hurls it to third, which by now is the destination of the runner, who rounds third and heads for home while the third baseman, figuring on a sure out, grips the ball to throw home for the tag, only to learn the hard way that a goathead was stuck in the ball which is painfully transferred to his hand, causing another wild throw, all of which results in a home run?
How else describe the visiting team showing up only to discover it forgot its sack of bats, so we, ever the gentlemen, offer to share ours, until the home plate umpire, which they supplied, calls a strike on one of our guys when the pitch was so wild it went behind the batter, and later called another strike when the ball bounced six inches in front of the plate with enough speed and power to cover home plate in dust, which the ump duly swept off with his little brush, and in neither case would change his call, so when their time came to bat we repossessed our bats and forced a forfeit?
Or the time one of our players who had been in a month-long slump hit a solid line drive down the third base line which should have been an easy base hit, but, in an excess of elation, tossed his bat up in the air and when it came down hit his head, dropped to the ground in front of him causing him to trip and stumble, and while he’s picking himself up, the left fielder throws the ball with all his might to first base, which doesn’t quite make it, so the first baseman runs to pick it up, dashes back to first base just as the runner gets there, they crash head on, both collapse to the ground, the first baseman drops the ball and a huge argument ensues as to whether or not the runner is out. It was a complicated question: did the first baseman beat the runner or vice-versa? And what about the dropped ball? Was it dropped before the collision or after? The runner and the first baseman were in no mood to be toyed with and both had already been humiliated beyond tolerance, so the umpire, fearing for his life, refused to make the call. Some genius solved the problem and saved some broken noses in the process by suggesting a coin toss. I don’t remember who won the toss, but everybody was satisfied.
And one more: How about the time during wheat harvest when everybody on the other side was busy cutting wheat (they were from a town a hundred miles south of Umbarger, so their harvest was in full swing and ours was just about to begin), and when their team showed up they were all girls! A high school girl team of fast-pitch softball players. Well, there were rules about who could or could not play on a West Texas Irrigation League team, one of which was, you had to be on the team’s official roster for a certain amount of time, and none of these girls were on that roster for any amount of time.
And they were girls! Sweet innocent little high school girls. So what the hell, a sure win, right? Not exactly a macho thing to do, but the possibility of another mark in our win column trumped any notion of chivalry lurking in our black hearts, so yeah, okay, we’d waive the rules, hee-hee! We‘d even let them pitch to us underhand. From forty feet away instead of sixty? Sure, why not? As long as our side could stick with the overhand style from sixty feet. Let’s get it done and over with.
Who knew they were tenacious, single-minded, organized, coached, trained, talented, dedicated, determined, capable, fast, agile, coordinated, and for this game, particularly motivated? Ever try to hit a baseball thrown underhand at 70 miles an hour from forty feet away?
They beat our pants off.
We had only two pitchers, Sammy Nelson and Billy Tubman, he of oiled glove fame. Sammy was a tall, lanky kid, clumsy and slow as a milk cow, but had a fastball that could suck the whiskers off your chin. And he was wild; oh man, was he ever wild. We won more than one game because of the fear he instilled in at least half of all opposing batters. I can still see the pose of the terrified batters: absurdly open stance, gingerly crowding the left back corner of the batter’s box, crouched, butt sticking over the edge of the box, front leg poised to collapse in a twisting plunge to the dirt, holding the bat at an impossible angle; what made it so fearsome was, the batter never knew whether a plunge toward the plate or away from it would give him the better chance. It’s hard to hit a pitch from a stance like that, but those that did, and the ones brave enough to squelch their fears, were the ones that regularly beat us. Vengeance of a sort was ours though, because a good many of them went home with saucer-sized bruises on their hips and arms.
When he was on, Sammy would whizz the ball so straight down the center that the catcher didn’t have to move his mitt a single centimeter to catch it. Sometimes he could do that several innings in a row, then something deep inside his control center would snap, and the walkathon would begin. A batter would be doing his jittery ready-to-dive dance at the corner of the batters’ box, suffer through four or five, sometimes six pitches flying in his general direction, then, with great relief, trot off to first. Same with the next, and the next. Soon a slow, musical-chairs sort of shuffle was milling around the bases as one player after another took his place in the queue heading for home.
Five walks in a row wasn’t unusual. That’s two runs, assuming no one was on base when the first batter walked.
That’s when Billy would take over.
Billy was a hulking bachelor who lived by himself on a farm about six miles west of town. His hands were the size of boxing gloves and his fingers the size of bratwurst sausages. His regular position was right field, but when he pitched, his specialty was the knuckler.
We all know that when you throw a ball, it spins, and if it spins fast enough in the right direction, it curves, rises, or drops. The reason is that the spin, in combination with the stitches, causes uneven air pressure on one side of the ball or the other. A good pitcher can control the spin so as to make it go up, down, or sideways.
But what if you throw the ball so it doesn’t spin? When that happens, the air makes the ball wobble and the stitches to randomly change positions relative to the direction the ball moves through the air, with the result that it floats like, to quote Willie Stargell, a butterfly with hiccups. It’s nearly impossible to hit. It’s called a knuckle ball, or knuckler, and Billy, with his oversized hands, had the knuckle ball down pat. I always believed that if he had thrown the knuckle ball exclusively, we could have won every game we ever played.
But he wouldn’t do it. He’d generally use it to strike out however many batters remained in the inning he relieved Sammy in, but then, no matter how much we badgered him, he’d revert to throwing what he considered his fast ball and his slow, sissy curve ball. Only problem was, his fastballs were as straight and pretty as the sunrise and not at all fast, and his curve balls had no more curves than a girl marathoner. That’s why he never started. Nobody could persuade him to throw his knuckler if he didn’t want to.
All that was the soup, the unitdy, unholy morass, the confusing, confounding, and endlessly fascinating and mostly unproductive breeding grounds where on rare occasions, true genius nevertheless germinated, and on even rarer occasions came to fruition. I saw it happen. One of our players, a kid named Barry Sizemore, two years younger than I, joined our team when he was fifteen. We went to the same small country school (total number of students including grades one through 12, hovered around fifty. That’s fifty, five-o, fifty), so I knew he was pretty good, but what the hell; he was just a skinny little twerp. He wouldn’t jeopardize my team standing any.
Then in one season he must have added five inches to his height and twenty pounds of muscle to his frame. Long story short: he showed enough promise that his daddy sent him to a month-long baseball school somewhere in Oklahoma, and when he returned, not only did he dominate every game he played in, which was all of them, but scouts began showing up around the League’s dilapidated facilities, not quite believing the five carat diamond they had found in the detritus. Whatever the rules were that governed professional recruiting, they prohibited scouts from even talking to Barry until he graduated high school, but when he walked off the stage on graduation night, he, under his daddy’s wing, signed with one of the majors. I think it was Brooklyn. Later that summer Brooklyn played a demonstration game in Phoenix, and the first time at bat, Barry hit one out of the park.
His mistake was marrying the wrong girl. She didn’t like him gone all the time, so he quit baseball after one year, bought a farm with his bonus money, fathered eight children, lost the farm, divorced his wife, remarried, and now lives in some small West Texas town pumping gas and bemoaning his lost chance. And what a chance it was. He was a natural. The only coaching he ever got, from anybody, was during the month he spent in Oklahoma, where he beat Mickey Mantle’s record for time from home plate to first base. True story.
That’s the baseball I remember and love. Is today’s version of the game better? Undoubtedly.
But it’s not as much fun.
Copyright Gerald Beckman