It was just a few days after the 100-year, or 500-year flooding of the Yellowstone that the river broke its banks and ushered in the loss of a lifetime of dreams, promises and property for many of the areas defined by that river. The dog park—where my coffee mate and I like to visit while we sip our coffees, tell stories, and discuss those worlds most familiar to us—was under water, the road leading to it rutted and impassable.
We found a space a mile or so away in the parking area behind the civic center. A large pile of rocks and gravel guarded the two giant cottonwoods that towered over us, their lowest branches swaying in the morning breeze. Intermittent rain fell in mere drops, barely marking territory on the windshield.
To our left, a hundred yards away, were the city-managed ball fields—a complex of fields where the diamonds vary by size to meet the needs of players by age. There’s a cinder-block concession stand, an equipment shed, some grandstands, and on each field above-ground dugouts.
We couldn’t begin to fathom why those fields weren’t populated by kids with skinned-up knees, sweaty T-shirts and the equipment needed to play a made-up game of ball: a bat or two, some scuffed up balls, and everybody’s own mitts. The fields were empty. Completely. Nobody was shagging fouls, practicing sliding, playing a little pepper, or just having a catch with a pal.
It’s what I’d have been doing on any summer’s day sixty years ago.
And with all the on-field action, comes the fantastical narrative that each kid imagines: the play-by-play of heroes in pinstripes.
Back, back, back he goes! And he snatches it from above the outfield fence! What a play! What a catch!
The hero trots back to the dugout and awaits his turn at bat.
Today’s kids don’t know what they’re missing. The play, the outdoors, the name-calling, the shoving matches—each a part of the sandlot life. And the kids in my little town don’t even have to find an empty lot to mark with bases made from flattened cardboard boxes. From my casual observances of the fields here, nobody plays unless it’s a scheduled game or a practice. That level of organization is something I recall from my own youth. We couldn’t wait for the Little League game to end and our parents to go home from the single field we had in the back lot of a United Van Lines depot. That was when we could pickup the game from where we had left off that morning in a lot adjacent to an alley.
My coffee mate grew up in Upstate New York, in a town with a baseball diamond in the schoolyard. So did I, but when school let out for summer, the playground was fenced off, its gates closed and locked. But we had no problem playing on vacant lots, our imaginations wedded to turn those over-grown fields into our own Wrigley Field. By the end of the day, the grass had been trampled down and we were in baseball heaven. My parents never had to ask what I’d been doing all day.
Every now and then one of our sandlot fields fell to developers. The flat space was replaced by mounds of dirt next to the hole that would become somebody’s basement. We played on the hill and in the hole until it was time to find a new empty lot.
Baseball and reading and piano practice filled my days. On Friday and Saturday nights, I played drums in a trio that played the popular tunes of the days. Although I was being paid, I felt short-changed because I couldn’t play ball on those days. I’m not sure why.
When my father’s fortunes turned a bit, we left Chicago’s West Side for greener pastures—pastures that would one day be home to a few horses, which we rode across hill and dale. There was a creek nearby, and we would catch tadpoles and dap the surface for a sunfish or crappie.
But there was still baseball with my country neighbors. It was a constant.
In town, we’d shoot hoops on unforgiving concrete courts.
I’d like to say that I’m glad I didn’t have video games and devices that could take me to new worlds of information and entertainment. But I don’t know because it wasn’t an option. I had baseball and a rusted bike—freedom to a boy is represented by wheels. I can’t, however, believe that my childhood would have been richer for having had those electronic things.
Now, I can sit on my front porch for an entire afternoon without ever seeing a kid zoom by on a bicycle. The same is basically true about skateboards, although I understand that the skate park is well used.
We didn’t have skateboards in the Fifties; we had scooters. My dad made me my first one from a short length of 2×4, a wooden orange crate, handlebars fashioned from a piece of 1×2, and a salvaged roller skate. It took no particular skill to ride the thing. And we didn’t have a scooter park to practice death-defying acts of scooter skills. For us, getting across the four lanes of Roosevelt Road took all the derring-do any of us could muster.
Courtney, my daughter and partner-in-crime, told me the other day that she and her friends relied not on devices but on entertainment of their own device. She’ll be forty soon, falling neatly into that gap between board games and electronics. She regaled me with stories of misbehavior that had escaped me in real time. Much of her activity was borderline vandalism (I’ll apologize to anyone whose mailbox might have been a target) and all of it was with the main ambition to have as little to do with “grown-ups” as was possible.
That, she told me, was how she and her friends spent their leisure time.
It reminded me of my not wanting my parents to be anywhere even close to where I played baseball.
Photography by Courtney A. Liska
Greek Roasted Potatoes
I love Greek food and have always been impressed by their serving both rice and potatoes at the same meal.
2# Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and quartered
½ cup water
¼ olive oil
¼ cup fresh lemon juice, strained
2 tsp. dried oregano
2 cloves garlic, minced
Salt and pepper, to taste
Heat oven to 450°.
Place potatoes in baking dish. Add remaining ingredients and stir to combine. Bake uncovered for 50-60 minutes. During baking, toss and add more water, if necessary.
Greek Rice (Spanakorizo)
2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 cup long-grain rice
3 cloves of garlic, minced
8-12 oz. baby spinach, rinsed and roughly chopped
½ cup chopped fresh dill
½ tsp. ground cumin
2-1/2 cups water
Salt and pepper to taste
Juice and zest of one lemon, strained
1 Tbs. red wine vinegar
In a large skillet, heat the olive oil and sauté the onion until soft, about 2-3 minutes. Add rice, stirring over medium-high heat, 2-4 minutes. Stir in garlic. Pour in water and stir. Add spinach, dill, cumin, salt and pepper.
Over low heat, simmer, covered, until all liquid is absorbed. Add lemon juice 2-3 minutes before rice is cooked.
Transfer to a serving bowl and toss with lemon zest, 2 Tbs. olive oil and vinegar.