It was terribly hot that summer in Fort Qu'Appelle, Saskatchewan. Dust lay in a fine powder across baked ruts where the road curved past the Mountie's house at the end of town, and at the far side of a field of dry grass the lake was a dismal soup of green algae slowly thickening under the unblinking eye of the prairie sun. My place of employment was a shadeless, brown meadow adjacent to the road. There I spent each day fashioning mink cages from a pile of lumber and wire mesh, pausing from time to time to feed some already caged animals a revolting p√¢té of sun-ripened horsemeat and fish.
For reasons that no longer seem very sound I had come 2,000 miles from suburban Philadelphia in an expiring, middle-aged Chevrolet to perform this labor. I had come with my friend Len, whose brother owned the mink ranch that employed us, and we had been lured from home by letters richly embroidered with descriptions of the exquisite fishing thereabouts. My plan had been to pass my off-hours bait-casting on the lake whose springholes, according to legend, were normally a froth of feeding pickerel, while in the shallows, marauding northern pike made life unsafe for anything less vulnerable than an armored truck.
The year I got to this anglers paradise, however, was the year the game fish decided to retire permanently to the lake bottom and so I was forced to seek other recreation. I found it in a crude form of semiprofessional baseball.
I was picked up in an informal draft by the pitcher of the town team (also the town drunk), who wobbled up one day smelling like a lemon lollipop while Len and I were playing catch on our lunch break. His odd fragrance was due to the fact that lemon extract was the one alcoholic beverage legally for sale in Fort Qu'Appelle. In any event we both agreed to play, Len at catcher and I at a position to be determined.
March 30, 1970
The team's manager-first baseman was a hardware dealer named Bud. Because his store also handled sporting goods—like balls, bats, bases and catchers' masks—he enjoyed an abnormal amount of leverage in team decisions, such as whether or not he should play, and where. His choice of first base may not have been the wisest one, for his ability to cope with an oncoming baseball was seriously limited by the fact that he was cross-eyed. Each time there was a play at first he was faced with a choice of two balls, one of them illusory. Out of self-preservation he tended to catch the one seemingly coming right at him, which was fine if that was indeed the baseball. Most of the time it was. Other times there would be great lamentation from the stands. Our lemon-flavored pitcher would assume the imploring, upward-gazing stance of Bellini's St. Francis. And after much scurrying about the real ball would be located, with the runners now at rest on various advanced bases.
By trade and limitation I was a first baseman myself, that being the safest place on a normal team to stash a slow-footed pull hitter until it is time for him to bat. However, Bud was not about to move off first simply because I was eager to play there, so he presented me to his players as a big college shortstop.
The first two innings went smoothly as the other team kept striking out and popping up. In the third their leadoff man walked. The next batter hit a grounder a yard and a half to my right, making a double play impossible. With an extraordinary effort I did manage to backhand the ball. But when I straightened for the long throw to first I could not locate Bud. By all the conventions of baseball he should have been standing as a target in front of the base. Instead he was low to the earth, one foot on the bag, the other planted far into the infield, glove extended palm up like a Hindu seeking alms. I let fly. Bud stayed frozen in his stretch, gamely lining up his glove with what unfortunately was the wrong ball. As the real ball shot past, his face took on a puzzled and somewhat betrayed expression. The umpire, having run halfway down the line from home to cover the play, signaled safe. Whereupon the pitcher went into his Franciscan posture, the spectators booed and the runner continued on to second. Meanwhile, the man who had walked to start the inning suddenly resurfaced at home plate, where he was quite alone. The umpire had not yet returned from first. The pitcher was still imploring the heavens for help. And Len, our catcher, had turned his back.
At this point the umpire called time, and a degree of reality was restored. Up to the final inning the score remained 1-0 despite two more atrocities at first base. Then the pitcher and I doubled back to back. Our next batter hit safely, driving in what proved to be the winning run. The small crowd cheered but melted rapidly away as Bud bore down in an attempt to pass the hat for the players.
If there was any take I never saw it. However, the opposing manager was gracious enough to invite all of us to be his guests at the pub for a couple of lukewarm beers. These became more and more lukewarm beers until, filled with fellowship, we agreed to make it a really big evening by all going to the movies at the town hall, where a cowboy picture was playing. In the opening scene of this particular film a wagon train was under siege by Indians, with redskins galloping around pouring arrows and gunfire into the circle of wagons. To my surprise every paleface casualty brought shouts of "Way to go!" from the left side of the darkened hall.
"Indians," said Bud, sitting next to me. "Sioux."
While the wagon train was being wiped out to the last man (with accompanying applause for each white death) Bud explained that a tract of land just outside Fort Qu'Appelle had been set aside years ago as a reservation for the local tribes of the Sioux nation. These had been joined on the reserve by descendants of Sitting Bull and his warriors, who had fled north of the Medicine Line after slaughtering Custer at the Little Big Horn. Eventually the whole population of the reserve had acquired a strong emotional commitment to the memory of Sitting Bull's victory. In their souls the Sioux braves remained undefeated and untied by the white man, though it was all too evident that they had been viciously scored upon by the oppression and deprivation of their lives in a predominantly white world. In 1947 a Sioux in Saskatchewan had no voting rights, no visible property rights off the reservation, was rarely offered a decent job and was not permitted to buy liquor or drink it publicly. Hence the Sioux were deeply pleased to see white men slaughtered, if only in the movies.
Over the years, Fort Qu'Appelle's white men apparently had come to understand or at least tolerate this expression of vicarious vengeance, and they refrained from shouting back when a shot Indian fell to the bottom of the screen. Partly for this reason the mayhem never migrated, as it might have, from the screen to the audience. And, of course, the whites knew they would win iii the movie anyway. When this inevitably began to happen toward the middle of the film, a few of the younger braves got up and walked out.
In the street afterward the pitcher fell in step alongside me. "Hey, Bowen," he said, leaning close so that no one else could hear, "you want to play more baseball?"
Though it was my feeling we had not yet played any, I refrained from saying so and merely nodded. "I think I can arrange it," he muttered, rubbing his thumb and forefinger together in the classic gesture of the man who can find a fast buck. With a conspiratorial wink he departed, leaving a faint effluvium of lemon on the evening wind. Somewhat puzzled I went to bed.
Nearly a week later Len and I were again throwing a ball around on our lunch hour in the brown meadow when we became aware of a short, powerful man of ruddy-brown complexion standing stock still in the road, watching us. The man stayed there for a long time. He made me uncomfortable and when he beckoned I pretended not to see. But Len went frisking over to him. Like many-big men—and my friend was very big indeed—Len was markedly good-natured. In fact, among all people Len was perhaps the most indefatigably playful man I have ever known. Any experience which did not include a laugh was a dead loss to Len's way of thinking. Unlike me he abhorred the discipline and drudgery of organized team sports. Nevertheless he was such a fine athlete that back home he kept being pressed into service on this or that football or basketball team and would star briefly at each sport until the coach, infuriated by Len's constant laughter and frolicsome disregard for practice sessions, would kick him off. That day in the meadow near Fort Qu'Appelle it was evident that Len smelled a laugh in the swarthy man, who was in fact third baseman for the Senior team of the Standing Buffalo Band of the Sioux.
As the conversation opened, inaudibly far away, Len pointed toward me. Both men looked in my direction, and the Indian said something. Len placed his fists atop one another and swung an imaginary bat. The Indian looked over once more, and I had the odd feeling of being a principal in one of those old Bing Crosby-Bob Hope Road to Someplace movies, wherein Crosby would engage an Arab or African chieftain in this same sort of pantomime, ultimately selling his buddy Hope into slavery or worse.
Sure enough, Len had sold me. The deal was closed with a handshake. White Man and Red Brother smiled. The Indian walked slowly down the road, and Len returned to our place of labor.
"Congratulations," he said. He then informed me that I was to pitch that evening for the Junior Sioux in a practice game against the Seniors up on the reservation. If I did well I would start at shortstop for the Seniors next day at a neighboring town. Normally the Senior Sioux confined their playing to tournaments, eight-or 16-team affairs that began in the early morning with a series of five-inning eliminations, went on through seven-inning semifinals and ended with a nine-inning final at dusk. Some of the opposing teams were pretty good, their rosters laced with a surprising number of National Hockey League athletes who lived thereabouts. The crowds were good, too, and the winning team could usually count on picking up a hundred dollars or more to split. In my year, however, the Sioux had slumped badly and were reduced to scratching for peanuts in a single game here and there.
My tryout on the reservation was uneventful except for a brief pause in the first inning when we had to call time to lead three of the Juniors' horses from short right field, where they had wandered despite the leather hobbles around their forefeet. Following the game one of the Seniors approached me. "O.K., Bowen," he said, "you play tomorrow," and he handed over a gray uniform with the red letters S-I-O-U-X across the shirt-front.
That evening, back at our lakeside cabin, we tuned the radio to the second Zale-Graziano fight. Someone had acquired a bottle of real whiskey, so the evening was a wholehearted success for me until Zale got careless and Graziano caught him coming in with a short right. But afterward some good music got going on the radio, and the last thing I remember was a skinny neighbor boy named Leland, who had a complete set of false teeth, singing Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah along with the Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan station's recorded music. Because his dentures did not fit very well, Leland had to lock his tongue against his upper plate when he sang "Zip." Thus the word came out "Nip." On the third chorus he forgot to lock his tongue, giving the lyric a full-mouthed "Zip!" His upper teeth shot out of his mouth, clicked across the floor for a couple of bounces and lay there grinning. Unabashed, Leland picked up the dentures, dusted them off on the back of his shirt arm, then popped them back in his mouth with a purposeful chomp, to resume his singing. I fell asleep.
I awoke at noon to realize the Moose Jaw station was still on. It was no longer playing Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Doh. Instead a voice of ecclesiastical timbre was reading The Pilgrim's Progress. Three quarters of an hour later he was still reading Pilgrim's Progress, though I had by then acquired all the information I needed about Christian, Mr. Worldly Wiseman, Neighbor Pliable or the Slough of Despond. Before I could move, there was a station break that included a bit by a singing weatherman as follows:
[Lion tamers] work in a cage,
Except when the temperature's seventy-three.
Then the lions are in a rage,
And he'd rather work in the bal-con-ee.
We got up to make steak and eggs. Later in the day two cars full of Sioux, one driven by Bud, the other by the town drunk, rattled down the access road to our cabin. Len and I climbed into our car to follow as the little caravan straightened out onto a dirt road cutting toward a horizon of wheat to the north.
When we arrived at the game site, a pasture just outside a cluster of houses, a strong wind was blowing in from left field, where the grass was very long. To my mild surprise I was sent with the catcher to warm up alongside the lemon-extract king, who was apparently going to start for the Sioux. I should say at this point that there were six brothers on the Sioux team. The rest of the lineup was me, the drunk and someone else I don't remember.
As we took our first throws my fellow pitcher hinted for the first time that he had been my original link to the Sioux. "I was looking you over in that game for the town team," he confided, adding that this time we would surely make some money. I could not then see just how, since the two teams together outnumbered the crowd. As for his scouting me, I sincerely doubted it, although evidently there had been some conversations between him and the hostiles the night of the movie. In any case, he was the only sporting link between the whites in Fort Qu'Appelle and the Sioux on the reservation. As a younger man, when the Sioux were the best team in the district, he had been quite a skillful ballplayer, good enough so the Sioux had cut across ethnic lines to invite him to play. Subsequently he proved himself able also to get firewater after the games. That ended, or so I was told, when the Mountie found out who was running the booze.
Undaunted, he then had turned to supplying lemon extract. When, later, even that treat began to dry up, like his talent for hitting and fielding, the Sioux continued to carry him, out of either habit or loyalty.
By the time the game began, with me as shortstop, the sky beyond left field had turned from blue to a metallic gray. The wind had picked up, blowing grit into our eyes and stirring dust devils along the baselines. We got two runs right away, and for four innings my citrous friend's roundhouse curve, helped immeasurably by the still-rising wind, kept the opposing hitters off the bases. By the fifth, however, enormous thunderheads were building in the west. Upset perhaps by the sudden drop in the barometric pressure, our pitcher blew up.
I was called in to throw, terribly stimulated by the spectacle of my first prairie storm, a phenomenon quite unlike the namby-pamby thundersqualls that had scared me as a child. Most of the western sky was by now a wild, primitive purple-black, interspersed with luminous, roiling patches of gray. I would estimate the wind as gusting well above 30 knots, with fat raindrops beginning to splatter the infield. There was no hope, however, that the home team would call off the game. For with the help of a scuffed ball and the wind I was producing a curve and knuckleball such as I had never dreamed of before.
In the first of the sixth the wind abated somewhat and the storm appeared to be veering away from us. Still, the sky was a fantasy of crackling electricity, the air rolling with thunder volleys sharp as the fire of a five-inch naval battery. We struck out three in a row, and I went out to pitch again. By that time the pitching rubber, a smallish slab of wood anchored to the ground by a single spike, had become so loosened that the rubber itself was no longer bedded. Only the spike still held. When I pushed off to make the first pitch, the rubber spun around and I fell down. The result was a balloon ball that floated up to the plate very slowly and rocketed back with notable speed, coming to rest in right center field for a triple.
I got the next two batters on precarious, windblown, infield flies, but I walked the following pair as the rubber kept slipping around. Then suddenly the storm swept back in our direction, with the wind howling in increased fury from left. I was replaced at the mound by the starting pitcher, who had switched to short. He tossed four straight balls to bring the opposition within one run. With the tying and winning runs now on third and second and the sky almost jet black save for brilliant flashes of lightning, I was called back to pitch once more.
Dimly recognizing the figure at the plate as one of their good hitters, I did my best to bear down. He fouled the first ball almost straight up, but the wind carried it over the backstop and out of the game. At that the umpire, for the first time—and with what struck me as unseemly eagerness—produced a newer and far more visible ball. Rain was again spatting down, although there must have been something more mixed in, for I have never been hit by raindrops quite so solid. My next pitch came in the midst of a great flash of lightning, which unfortunately illuminated the new ball so brilliantly that the batter could not have missed it. And of course he did not. The sound of his bat came just before the thunder and seemed almost as loud.
When last seen clearly, the ball was climbing into the wind toward left field, where our man was retreating at full speed toward the fence. The more the leftfielder fell back, the higher the ball climbed until it seemed to be hanging on the wind high above the diamond. While all this was going on, runners were scoring in great numbers, people on the various benches were sprinting for their cars and the game was either ours or theirs, depending on whether the ball fell over the fence or into our leftfielder's glove.
It did neither. Borne back upon the awesome wind, the ball thudded to the ground no more than 50 feet behind third base just as the third run scored. No one bothered to pick up the ball, since the game was technically over. But for reasons I can only interpret as sheer vanity, the hitter continued on around for an inside-the-park home run, very likely the shortest in history. That, finally, was the ball game and the end of my short summer with the Sioux.
In the 20 years that have passed since then I heard almost nothing from or about Fort Qu'Appelle until I read a magazine story about some Sioux on a reservation in Montana some 100 or so miles south of that where I had played. It stirred me, and I phoned around until I located an Indian native of Fort Qu'Appelle in the Canadian Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development in Ottawa. I opened the telephone conversation by testing the one Fort Qu'Appelle rumor I had heard, that there had been an oil strike. The voice on the other end said no, the oil was farther south, down around Weyburn. But the town sure had changed, he said. For one thing liquor is now legal there, and there are two cocktail lounges. Baseball? Well, there's no baseball as we knew it. That's what the man said, but I do not truly know all this about Fort Qu'Appelle. And I will not find out, for I will never go back. There are some things about that summer and that place that I should never really try to find out for sure.