An armpit-length beard has a way of drawing attention and comment. Some of the discussion is interesting and promotes conversation (“what motivated you to grow it?”) and some of it is high-water-pants dumb and tiresome (“how long you been growing that?”), but the choice to own this facial hair requires some patient acceptance of reactions from strangers. I have heard it described as ‘scruffy’ (that’s uncomplimentary) and ‘kingly’ (that’s pretty nice; thanks, Marcy).
The beard confers the benefit of starting me on at least neutral terms with any big shaggy/bikery/Vietnamy guy, some of whom have potential to be dangerous if offended, so I like that part. One downside is that some women, incredibly, think they can just reach in and play with it, or want to braid it and otherwise diddle around with it. Not enamored of that part. I never know what sort of reaction it’ll bring. The kids on my last baseball team immediately nicknamed me “ZZ” as well as “Badger” and “Scrap Iron,” all of which fit perfectly, except that I had to look up ZZ Top to find out why. I knew they were a Southern band, but that was it.
It wouldn’t be strange to mistake me for Santa Claus, or at least a younger version. When I describe myself to people, I usually explain that I look like Santa in his dissolute middle age. I get shoutouts from mall Santas at the holidays, and near-constant stares from wide-eyed children (whose parents should correct this discourtesy, but there’s nothing I can do…as a boy I was told to stop, and would have been spanked had I kept it up), so it’d be hard to be unaware of the resemblance. But in my baseball uniform?
Before I tore up my knee, I was an amateur baseball player with minimal talent but significant hustle and combative spirit. When my knees could take it, I loved to catch in spite of my mediocre arm to second base. I liked handling pitchers, wearing the gear, and quarterbacking the infield. I even liked catching the knuckleball, which I also threw during my rare mound appearances. Few catchers like catching the knuck. I gained great amusement watching the batter try to follow it.
One fine July Saturday afternoon in my late thirties, I had just caught a full game at Roy Johnson Field in Kennewick. If you have never done time behind the dish, you may not be aware of the filthiness involved. The mercury exceeded 100° F. Most home plate areas are full of powdery dirt called ‘moon dust,’ which clings to all moisture. Soaked with sweat, and squatting down frequently amid clouds of moon dust for nearly three hours plus batting and baserunning, I was disgusting. I always refused to wear the skullcap. The catcher’s correct gear involves wearing your regular baseball cap backward as the gods intended, and doesn’t include a helmet, so my cap was also gross from the frequent need to toss aside the mask. I wore a royal blue jersey and cap, grey pants, and beige dust which had turned to tan salty mud on the numerous sweaty spots. Each cleated shoe contained its own miniature sand dune. I didn’t need a shower; I needed hosing off.
I’d gathered up all the gear (I assume that we lost, as was our custom) and was leaving the field. My knees ached, and heavy bags of gear hung from my shoulders: one for my regular equipment, and one for the Tools of Intelligence, as the catcher’s gear ought to be called. As I walked behind the backstop toward the parking area, two pleasant-looking African American girls aged maybe seven and five blocked my path. They gazed up at me in wonder, even adoration. Kennewick has a very small black population, less than 2%*; it is 1/4 Hispanic, by comparison. If I had spent my morning coffee time imagining “stuff I expect will happen to me today,” “be adored by young African American girls in my filthy, smelly baseball uniform” would not have made the list. I assumed the kids must be related to the opposing shortstop, a good guy named Taylor who gave us fits as a fielder, hitter and baserunner. With him being the only black player present on either team, this wasn’t a reckless presumption.
I stopped, looked down and smiled. On rare occasions, little kids would ask for autographs, having no idea how insignificant we were in the grand scheme of the game. Not this time. The older girl began with “I want…” and started reciting her Christmas list.
I don’t remember what all she asked for, but most of it didn’t sound too exorbitant. The pony might have been a little over the top, but I doubt I was the first ‘Santa’ who ever fielded a girl’s request for an horse. When she finished, the younger gal took her turn.
Since I wasn’t in my ideal mental frame of mind thanks to aches, fatigue and disgustingness, I was glad it took them a while to finish telling me what they wanted. It gave me time to decide how to react. I decided to play along, with a sidelong wink at their adult relatives wearing amused smiles in the nearby third-base bleachers. When very tired (or drunk), I tend to drawl. “Okay. Well, a couple of things for ya. First of all, please make sure y’also tell your parents, because Ah’m kinda off duty and tired, and don’t have anything to write with, and my memory isn’t what it once was. Also, remember that in order to even have a chance at any of this stuff, you need to be real good for the rest of the year, and mind your parents. Especially no going cattiewhompus in the restaurant. Everyone understand?” Both nodded, still gazing up in wonder. “Good to meet you young ladies. You have a good day now,” I finished. I don’t remember the rest of their reactions, but it was probably the big moment of their day.
Nothing more came of it, though I had a chance to talk with Taylor about it a few weeks later, either before or after another game. They were his nieces. Evidently the incident had amused everyone, which gratified me because any time I’m taken by surprise and manage not to say anything dumb, I count it as a win. In hindsight, it amuses me too. Those girls must be near adult womanhood now, and I wonder how they’re doing. Well, I hope.
If they never got all the stuff on their list, I hope they forgave me.
* Thanks to Kennewick’s deeply racist history as a sundown town, with racially restrictive covenants still technically on the books (albeit unenforceable, and in fairness, it’s unlikely anyone would try to enforce them), few black people choose to live in Kennewick. Same for nearby Richland, which was a different type of sundown town: with the whole townsite run by Westinghouse, one had to work there to live there. By hiring very few African Americans, segregation was de facto if not de jure. Most of the black population of the Tri-Cities (Richland, Kennewick, Pasco) lives in Pasco. Many older black Pasconians much dislike Kennewick to this day, and I can’t blame them.
Not that race mattered here; I just resent Kennewick’s efforts to shovel its odious past under the rug, and have made a decision to remind the city of it online every excuse I get until some official acknowledgement is forthcoming, ideally in the form of an exhibit at the East Benton County Historical Museum. Perhaps they thought me moving to Idaho would make me stop this. Nah. All that has done is put me beyond retaliation. If they can put an exhibit in the museum about the Asatru Folk Assembly’s claim that Kennewick Man (ancient bones found along the Columbia) might have been a proto-Viking, piously stating that they respect all viewpoints on the issue, they can find a photo of the sign on the old green bridge to Pasco that said something like ‘All Blacks Must Be Out By Sunset,’ and talk about those years honestly. The civic spirit of Kennewick is ‘stuff it into the closet until all the eyewitnesses die out.’ To quote Lee Corso: “Not so fast, my friend.”
By the way, any live witnesses to those sordid days are welcome to get in touch and tell me their stories, that they may be recorded. I offer you any terms of confidentiality you wish, and consideration that the memories not be pleasant to recall. If you are younger but have older relatives who remember, it would be a service to history if you could persuade them to speak with me. Memories do not last forever. You may contact me as tc_vitki at yahoo dot com.