SPRING TRAINING rockets me back to childhood. And Betsy Ferris.
One sad thing about growing up is that we leave childhood friendships behind -- easy, comfortable friendships, formed because we were the same age, lived on the same block or liked to jump rope. There was nothing complicated about having a best friend. Problems were solved as easily as "one, strike, three, shoot, shoot, shoot."
"Odds or evens," we'd call and then thrust one or two fingers from a clenched fist. Two matches out of three determined the winner. "One, strike, three, shoot, shoot, shoot." I could beat Betsy. She always put out two fingers.
Betsy Ferris and I were bosom buddies, friends forever. Our friendship survived the same boyfriend, different schools and a fierce Brooklyn Dodger/New York Yankee rivalry. If you grew up in New Jersey in the '50s, you were not just a baseball fan; you were a Yankee or a Dodger. It was like being Catholic or Protestant.
I wore a shiny blue jacket with soft white felt letters that declared rTC my Dodger loyalty. Betsy was a Yankee. She didn't have a jacket, but she did have a baseball signed by the Yankee players. I studied Yogi Berra's signature carefully. "Do you think he really signed it -- in person?" I asked.
"Of course," she answered.
I was never sure.
But baseball wasn't just Ebbetts Field or Yankee Stadium. Baseball was 714 Berkeley Ave. From the first spring-like day through the best days of summer, the sounds of CRACK-THWAP and cries of SteeeeRIKE, rose from behind the rhododendrons. From the tree stump, to the brick path, to home, we mimicked our heroes: Joe D., Campy, Scooter and Pee Wee. We memorized their averages, flipped their cards and even wrote them fan letters. Almost any afternoon and all day Saturday you could find the neighborhood playing baseball in our front yard.
"One, strike, three, shoot." We chose sides, declared rules and settled our own disputes.
Grass never grew in our yard.
Betsy's lawn was manicured. Her dad spent Saturdays edging flower gardens and pruning trees. Two apple trees held a huge rope hammock. When we weren't playing baseball we would lie in that hammock, squinting at patches of blue sky between branches, imagining ourselves baseball heroes. ("Man on second, two outs, Ferris at the plate. Preacher Roe winds up, kicks, delivers . . .")
It was the final playoff game in 1951, a warm September day. The Dodgers were on their way to another pennant. They were playing the Giants at the Polo Grounds and had taken a 4-1 lead into the ninth inning. The other kids had wandered off, confident the game was over. I waited for the third out. All the windows were rolled down in my father's Studebaker, and the announcer's voice droned above the 5 o'clock neighborhood noises. Branca replaced Erskine on the mound after two singles and a double put the winning run at the plate. As the sun glanced off the car's hood and exploded on the windshield, I pushed thoughts of home run out of my mind. Bobby Thompson came to the plate.
"Throw strikes!" I pleaded with the pitcher. And then there was the crack of a bat and that voice: "The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!" I turned the radio off quickly, but I still hear the voice.
It followed me across the back yard and up the stairs. I went to my room and shut the door. I thought about staying there until the World Series was over. I could hear the other kids across the street calling the news to each other. Earlier in the summer we had hooked up a walkie-talkie from Betsy's bedroom window to mine: two cardboard tubes connected by a string stretched tight across the rhododendrons.
"Can you hear me? Can you read me? Over."
"I hear you. I read you. Over."
Betsy never mentioned the game. So it was with best friends.
I was 13 when our family moved away. We never thought to write. We separated, we went on and we lost track.
I wonder if she remembers. I wonder if she misses the greenness of it all.
And I wonder what happened to that shiny blue Dodger jacket.
Betty Driscoll writes from Monkton.