Only a child could have loved that park. Thick with dust and thin on amenities, it was actually little more than a field marked by wavering chalk lines, a rusted goalpost and a backstop made from railroad ties and chicken wire. But I cherished that bedraggled patch of Pennsylvania, as deeply as my mother loathed it.
Who could blame her? Our white frame house stood at the end of a road leading to the park's entrance. To my mother, such proximity meant noise and dust and danger. But I loved it and also felt honored to dwell on property that represented an automatic home run for the hardball and softball games that took place on the other side of our hedges.
The park was magical. It seemed that one minute I would be rolling out of bed and the next, I would be embroiled in a pickup game or watching with envy the practice sessions of the high school football team or listening to the banter of factory workers liberated from the monotony of their jobs by bats and balls and an arcane bundle of rules.
I hunted Easter eggs in the park, and at high school pep rallies I cheered for the home team beside bonfires. There were smaller joys, too: the sight of a shining penknife plunged into the crabgrass where we played mumblety-peg, the day winding to a close as my father hit fly balls to me in the twilight. Those lucky enough to have passed large parts of their childhood in one place will appreciate what that park meant to me. It was my turf, my world.
The field had a proper name: Albert West Park. Of course, none of us who played there had any idea who Albert West was. This was fitting, considering the shabby condition of Mr. West's memorial. Pittston, my hometown, was poor. After World War II the coal industry collapsed, throwing our part of the state into a reprise of the Depression. Park maintenance was not one of the community's priorities.
My father remembered better days. "Charley Trippi played here," he would say, smiling at the memory. Trippi, a collegiate and pro Hall of Fame running back, led the Pittston High Panthers to victory after victory in the late 1930s. My parents were in high school at the time. When they went to see Trippi play, West Park had a ticket stand and bleachers and a press box. A generation later, the Panthers had evolved into kittens, and although they still used West Park for practice, they played their games elsewhere. The bleachers were long gone, smashed for firewood. The field's surface had passed from grass to stubble to something like mange, until nothing remained but a carpet of dust bordered by crabgrass, ragweed and dandelions.
In winter the field was white with snow. Each year, after Christmas, the fire department flooded the hardball diamond for skating. After the firemen had driven off in their jangling, chrometrimmed red pumper, my friends and I kept a vigil beside the new lake. The freeze took its own good time, though, and as the western sky turned from ice blue to pale orange to violet, the most impatient among us stomped off through the snow, flinging stones and sticks into the still unfrozen water. Well before nightfall, the cold and the boredom had driven the rest of us home.
In the morning we returned to inspect the ice. Some had skates, others glided around on street shoes. With branches for sticks and a crushed beer can for a puck, we dodged clumps of ice-jammed litter and played what passed for hockey in a town that, in sports as in all endeavors, clung to the basics.
At the first hint of the spring thaw, we began reviving the hardball field—always prematurely. With stones and bats, we chopped ice from the batter's boxes, chose sides and tried to play ball. The first hits stung the batters' windburned hands and grounders caromed off the iron-hard ruts that marred the infield. Balls dropped out of the cold, thin air into gloves that felt as hard and unfamiliar as new shoes. For a day or two, the game itself felt strange.
Perhaps because the park was so bleak, I have especially clear memories of its periphery. One stretch was defined by a weathered plank fence dotted with knotholes. On the side of the park opposite the fence, on higher ground, there was a cemetery. A stone embankment about 10 feet high formed a cliff of sorts that linked the graveyard to the playing field. One day I heard someone refer to this bulwark as a retaining wall, and it occurred to me that it was actually shoring up the cemetery, keeping its pieces of marble and muddy boxes of bones from crashing down onto our field.
Another of the park's boundaries abutted the Brady property. Old Mrs. Brady and her middle-aged son shared a gray bungalow that squatted in a narrow yard filled with apple trees. Mrs. Brady died a few years after we moved to the neighborhood and Eddie, her son, who had been a recluse, was forced to emerge now and then for walks to Argento's grocery store. On such forays, Eddie would pick his way along the sidewalk, silent and mysterious behind the sunglasses he wore even on cloudy days, the slack flesh of his pale arms set off by the flaming oranges and reds and the swirling greens and blues of the loose print shirts he wore.
Our house was perched on a slight rise and flaunted its windows at the power hitters of the semipro hardball teams. Only the strongest sluggers were able to send one over the right centerfield "fence"—our hedges—but every so often someone would hit a ball that knocked white paint from the siding of the house. And almost every summer, some bush-league Mantle would take out one of our windows. Whenever this happened, I secretly exulted, but out of sympathy for my mother I shook my head and made disapproving noises.
The hardball league played only on Sundays. The softball games were my mother's daily nemesis. Each team had a few strapping factory hands for whom hitting a ball into our backyard was child's play. My mother fretted that one of those homers would cut down my younger brother and sister while they played in our yard. As a hostess, she cringed with embarrassment when softballs invaded family picnics, sending food and drink flying and aunts and uncles and cousins scurrying for cover.
Now and then my mother would fight back. She would hide the home run ball. As a rule she was good-natured; despite her hatred of the park she never refused a thirsty user's request for water. But whenever she hid a ball, she stiffened her back against the importuning players. The men would lean over our hedges and plead, "C'mon, lady."
She would shake her head.
The minute they said please, she would hand back the ball.
No doubt this ritual gave my mother some sense of control over an exasperating situation, but her real enemy—the park's dust—was invincible. The dust was almost as fine as the coal particles that ravaged the lungs of the local miners. It soiled her hanging laundry, besmirched her woodwork, poured from her childen's sneakers and left grimy bathtub rings. In the spring it turned to mud that fouled her carpeting.
Worst of all, in her mind, the dust tortured the high school football players who practiced in West Park. Tryouts for the Panthers began in mid-August. On the first day, the candidates would canter past our doorstep, spikes clattering on the pavement, helmets tucked under their arms, and swagger into the park in a crimson blaze of glory. Within minutes they were lost in the dust. I watched as their red uniforms turned sooty, and their contorted faces became filmed with black sweat. Choking and retching, they braved their way through punishing sets of push-ups and knee bends. My mother could hardly bear to watch them toiling under such conditions. Their blackened brows and cheeks and white eye sockets reminded her of the breaker boys employed by the mines in the days before child-labor laws. She cursed the coaches, the game of football and, of course, the dust.
From my midteens on, I spent little time in the park. It belonged to others. Sometimes, though, on spring nights, I would take a break from my homework and sneak a cigarette outside. Flat on my back in the chilly crabgrass. I would blow smoke rings skyward. If it was warm enough, cars would turn in and out of the lovers' lane across the way. Ahead of me, beyond the borders of the park, lay other worlds—cleaner, perhaps, and less ragged, but none, I was certain, any happier.
When I was 19, we moved away. My mother had neither triumphed over the park nor come to terms with it. Gracefully and gladly she retreated and tried to do what I could not: forget that it had ever been a part of our lives.
Anthony R. Cannella teaches English and journalism at Central Connecticut State.