Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Flying Leap

               I’d hit another grounder to the left side of the infield. It was probably going to be an out, I knew. But I was 12 years old and I wanted a hit, so I clenched my teeth and ran as fast as I could toward first base. As I neared first base, my cleats pounding the dirt, I saw the first baseman reaching for the throw. I was about a stride and a half short of the bag, so if I wanted to beat the throw I was going to have to make this stride longer than normal.

                I leapt in the air like a clumsy gazelle, and landed just short of first base as the throw landed softly in the first baseman’s mitt. I was still in hustle mode, though, and recognized that I hadn’t yet touched the base. So as I lifted my right foot, just centimeters in front of the base, I tried to graze the bag with the toe of my cleat.

As I did so, I did more than graze the base; I tripped myself. Before I knew it, I was flying headfirst toward right field. I landed in the dirt and chalk behind first base, and closed my eyes as a cloud of dust surrounded me.

                My parents, brother and mother’s parents attended nearly every game I played. At this game, my mom, brother and grandparents were sitting in the stands right along the first-base line. After my self-tripping belly-flop, there was silence for a moment. And then, I heard it: My family erupted in laughter, much louder than anyone else in the stands or dugouts. I turned my head, and they were standing up, pointing at me, covering their mouths, crying tears of laughter. I think I recall hearing the word “stupid” at least once. I know I heard my grandfather’s contagious laugh, which had a rhythmic wheeze to it.
              We all play different roles in families, and sometimes those roles are unhealthy reactions to family dynamics and personal struggles. Other times, those roles are simply a natural part of who we are, and they serve to solidify our familial bonds somehow. In my childhood, I was an athletic kid who also had a knack for being clumsy in dramatic, hilarious fashion.

                There was the time in Wildwood, N.J., when I was on crutches with a broken leg and walked into a restaurant with my parents. I leaned against a curtain, expecting there to be a wall on the other side of it. There was no wall, and I fell to the ground like Danny Kaye doing his best slapstick routine. A waitress rushed over to me, and I smiled at her. “I’m just dropping in,” I said.

                There was the time outside Hershey, Pa., when I had just finished a bumper-boat ride with my brother. I got up to step off the boat, and missed the deck. Next thing I knew, I was underwater, looking up at the inner tubes of these boats, no openings in sight. The attendant pushed the boats aside, reached in and pulled me out before I could panic. I stood there, straightening my glasses, reeking of gasoline, with water dripping off my clothes. My brother, then 8 years old, had already watched too many commercials. He raised my hand and said, “Warren for Pennzoil!”

                The stories go on – the day I tried to teach myself the harmonica and passed out from hyperventilation; the afternoon I was throwing myself fly balls on the front lawn and found myself waking up flat on my back, having missed a ball that briefly knocked me out; the day I was climbing our flagpole and fell, only to find myself hanging in mid-air by the hood of my jacket; and the multiple times I found my Cub Scout self bandaged after trying to learn how to use a pocket knife. It’s no wonder my grandfather nicknamed me “Charlie Brown.”

                When I tell these stories to my daughters, they laugh just as hard every time, and they love to hear them again. It’s almost as if they were there, they know the details so well. My parents and brother seem to enjoy the stories just as much as ever, too. I know there’s something to that. In my adulthood so far, I’ve been a pretty intense, earnest man, who has a tendency to take himself too seriously. As I move into my mid-40s, I’m striving for the joy of the moment more than the stress of perfectionism and to-do lists. Self-deprecating stories seem like a good start.

                I eventually got up from the dirt beyond first base, and kept playing that game. My team probably lost – we lost most of the games that year – and I probably begged my mom for a soda and knish from the refreshment stand afterward. But those are just guesses – I honestly don’t remember anything else from that game except my flying leap. There really isn’t anything else that matters as much. It’s funny how the sound of your family laughing at you in public can feel so much like love.