IN THE END, NOTHING TOPPED THE RETURN OF THE NATIVE

September 03, 1989

My wife carefully placed her beach chair into position, tested it for strength, plopped herself down and picked up a book that had remained unopened throughout our seven weeks on the road. "At last," said Donna, breathing a contented sigh, "I feel like I'm on vacation."

We were sitting on the beach in Ocean City, N.J. We always spend part, if not all, of our summer vacation near the ocean. Since I was four, when my parents started taking me to the beach, I have had a special feeling for the ocean. I transferred that feeling to my wife and then to my sons. Now none of us would think about facing September without having tasted ocean salt on our lips in August.

The beach is a kill-two-birds-with-one-stone vacation stop for us, because the town where I was born and raised—Mays Landing, N.J.—is 18 miles inland from Ocean City, on Lake Lenape. Mays Landing is the type of town that people say they've "passed through" on their way to somewhere else. On our vacations, we always find time to stop in Mays Landing to visit my father (my mother died in 1981), who is therefore in constant competition with soft ocean breezes and boardwalk ice cream. He holds his own, though.

Like antique shops, small hometowns are supposed to be quaint and even a little precious, but whenever I enter Mays Landing, a tangle of memories and emotions hits me. I may straighten it all out someday. Then again, I may not.

Mays Landing was (still is, I suppose) the kind of place that lent itself to close friendships. Mine were drawn from a small group that went back almost to the womb—from kindergarten to graduation from Oakcrest Regional High School. For the better part of 12 years we aggravated the same teachers, square danced with the same girls in gym class and, most of all, played the same sports. We were like small boats tied to one another at a dock, drifting apart now and then with the changing tides of social status but never getting too far apart.

That changed after high school. When one leaves home, one leaves behind not only family and friends but also a snapshot of oneself that's suspended in time. It's sometimes hard for those who remain at home to understand old acquaintances when they return, to make the current image jibe with the snapshot of old. Likewise, the native who carried a travel bag of his own memories and impressions when he left does not necessarily understand, or want to understand, the changes in people and places in his hometown. Two of our group left Mays Landing and two stayed. Maybe that's why we grew apart.

But when we met at our 20th high school reunion in the summer of 1987, we all seemed to reach the same unspoken conclusion: We had let friendships die that should have remained alive. We vowed to get together. To men of our age, of course, that means a round of golf. So on the afternoon of Aug. 13, almost two years to the day after we made the vow, Bob Fink, Elwood Williams. Joe Cirigliano and I teed off together for the first time since none of us could remember when. It was a perfect afternoon at Seaview Country Club in Absecon. N.J. The sun had come out after a morning of rain, and my family was in Ocean City, not really giving a Halloween hoot when I came home.

We didn't talk about the past while we were playing. The match was too close for that, with Bob and Elwood winning the 18th to force a tie. We chose dinner instead of a playoff hole, and that's when we eased into the subject of how Mays Landing had touched our lives and how we had touched each others'.

The four of us are a demographer's dream. We are all 40, married and in decent, though hardly breathtaking, physical condition. We average 2.25 children—Joe, Elwood and I all have two sons; Bob has two sons and a daughter (and two stepchildren). We are tediously respectable. Bob is the personnel director for a yacht company in Egg Harbor City, a town that is not far from Mays Landing. Joe teaches mathematics and computer science at Absegami High in close-by Galloway Township. Elwood is a district sales manager for the Kinney Shoe Co. in Baltimore. I scribble for a living and reside in Bethlehem, Pa.

Our children are active athletically, and, though we have all told ourselves at one time or another that it doesn't matter what they do as long as they're happy, we wouldn't have it any other way. Our memories of one another revolve around our days playing baseball, basketball and football in Mays Landing. I see Bob on the mound at age 11, grinning because he has just learned how to throw a curve, and he knows he is going to strike me out. He did. I see Joe at 12, nervously stepping onto the scale before a 115-pound Pop Warner football game. He weighed in at 114½. I see Elwood at 13, staring through me on the morning after I dropped his perfectly thrown pass, which would have won a Pop Warner game against the Egg Harbor Crusaders, our archrivals. We later shook hands and agreed that the world was still spinning.

One of the best things about playing sports in Mays Landing, we decided that night, was that it was as color-blind a small town as there was in the late '50s and early '60s. Elwood, who lived on the outskirts of town, couldn't help but notice that he was black and that most of Mays Landing's populace was white, but, he says today, "It never mattered." He dressed at my house before Little League games, stopped at Joe's before football games and caught rides home with the Finks all the time.

Bob, who lettered in three sports in high school, and Elwood, who lettered in two, were better athletes than Joe and I—we both lettered in one sport—but we all had our successes. I envied Elwood the self-confidence that made him an excellent clutch hitter. Bob the finesse that made him an outstanding pitcher and fine defensive back, and Joe the street smarts that made him a solid blocker on the offensive line. In turn, they envied my moves on the basketball court. I guess they did, anyway.

We talked and laughed, and only toward the end of the evening did we bring up the one thing that was spoiling our reunion—our foursome was not a five-some and it never will be. The other member of our group, Robert John Gasko—Bobby, to everyone—was killed in Vietnam on Jan. 20, 1970, eight months short of his 21st birthday.

Bobby was my first friend, and nobody who comes along can ever transcend that status. He was one of the boats moored at our dock, a Mays Landing Laker through and through, a baseball, basketball and football teammate of all four of us somewhere along the line. We remembered that his death did not hit us until we met at the viewing, trying to grasp the unthinkable, seeing much of Bobby's brief past in one another's eyes. The next day Bob, Joe and I were pallbearers at the funeral, and Elwood looked on, blinking back tears. Bobby died, and it wasn't fair, and I can never return to my hometown and get away from that fact.

The McCallum family returned to Bethlehem, after having spent nearly eight weeks on the road and covering 7,000 miles. It was quite a summer. Chris, 9, now wants to be a rock climber after watching, open-mouthed, the practitioners of that sport out West. Jamie, 12, is deeper into rock-collecting after finding fossil specimens in almost every place we went, from Vernal, Utah, to Ithaca, N.Y. And though she remains a confirmed Easterner like myself, Donna picked up an appreciation of the West's wide-open spaces.

Me? I had to come all the way back to Mays Landing, N.J., for my favorite moment of the summer. It happened during our reunion dinner when one of us mentioned that this past season a tall right-handed pitcher from Mays Landing had broken the Oakcrest High record for wins in a single season. The mark had been held by a curveball control specialist named Bob Fink and had stood for 22 years. The young pitcher had also won the 1989 Robert J. Gasko Memorial Award, which is presented in memory of a former Oakcrest outfielder with a good eye and a sweet swing. The pitcher's name? Joe Cirigliano Jr., whose father was a decent power-hitting first baseman but not much of a pitcher.

I found out that evening that the circle does come around. But rarely does it come around so perfectly.

PHOTOBILL BALLENBERGWilliams (far left and 55 below), McCallum (center; 37) and Cirigliano (right; not pictured below) played on a 1962 Pop Warner team with Fink (48 below). PHOTO[See caption above.] PHOTOBILL BALLENBERGWhen he enters his hometown, McCallum is hit with a tangle of memories and emotions. PHOTOBILL BALLENBERGMcCallum's dad, Jack, holds his own against ocean breezes and boardwalk ice cream. THREE ILLUSTRATIONS

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)