So Long, Frank

I was surprised by how hard Frank Robinson’s death struck me. I’m sure that many of you, even those casual sports fans, are aware of the news given that Frank had a 21-year Hall of Fame career, and was baseball’s first African-American manager.

Baseball players have life-cycles. They begin as rookies, then reach their peak. Eventually, their skills deteriorate, and they are replaced by the next generation of players. They go into coaching or the television booth, where the home runs get longer and the stories get funnier, and eventually, the inevitable end that befalls us all, befalls them.

I know this as an adult, but it was not the adult in me that received the news.

The reports on Robinson featured various clips and photos. There were Frank and Brooks Robinson joking with one another, both young and in their prime. In the background of one photo stood Mark Belanger, who died at age 54. There was Paul Blair, whom I saw hit a homer for the only run of the third game of the 1966 World Series, and who died the day after Christmas in 2013. Curt Blefary, whose 22 home runs netted him the American League’s Rookie of the Year in 1965—his ashes were scattered in Memorial Stadium before they tore it down. Curt Motten, Elrod Hendricks, Mike Cuellar, Pat Dobson, Earl Weaver—all gone. And Dave McNally: I never think of him, but what I think of his 1964 baseball card, looking so young and just a little lost, like a kid.

 

It was my 9-year old self who pushed his way through all the adults that I had ever been, and stared at the television, which was tantamount to looking down on Frank’s casket, wherein a little piece of himself lay.

At the beginning of the year, I wrote in this blog about Satchell Paige’s famous line, “Don’t

Dave McNally in 1964 when he was 22 and I was 7.

look back: Something might be gaining on you.” We know what that is, and it has now overtaken Frank Robinson, but the children who we were, and who remain in us don’t understand it. That’s why they mourn so sincerely, and so deeply, untainted as they are by social conventions. At 9 years old, almost all of life is in front of us. At almost 62, a large chunk of life is behind me, and now, so too, is Frank Robinson.

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New Look and Special Valentine’s Day Price for Secret

We here in the lower Shenandoah Valley are all giddy as I write this, what with blue skies and predicted highs approaching 60 degrees today. The polar vortex–which I take to be either a weather phenomenon or a Star Wars villain–has departed at least for the time being. None of which has anything to do with my topic; I’m just excited about it!

My topic actually concerns The Secret of Their Midnight Tears, which, if you have not noticed already, has a new cover, one created by Janell Robisch of Speculations Editing in Luray, VA. Janell also created the cover for The Boys We Knew.

Set during World War II, The Secret of Their Midnight Tears tells the story of five young people who come of age at a time when the world is coming apart. It’s not a love story per se, but love is almost always a part of coming of age, and with that in mind, The Secret of Their Midnight Tears will be offered as a free download on Amazon February 13-15th in honor of Valentine’s Day. Of course, everyone reading this post has already read the book (right?!?) but you can tell all your friends that they should take advantage of this special offer. Guys, you’ll note that the offer runs one day past Valentine’s Day because . . . well, we all know how guys can be. And guys, if she likes it, then get her the sequel, The Boys We Knew for no special reason. Getting her something for “no special reason” is better than any official “Valentine’s Day gift.”

Remember, whether you’ve read it or you’re going to read it, positive reviews are always helpful.

Now, leave your device and go out and enjoy some sunshine while we have it!

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Don’t Look Back; Something Might Be Gaining On You

The great baseball player/philosopher, Satchel Paige once said, “Don’t look back, something might be gaining on you.” When I first heard this as a kid, it sounded amusing, although I didn’t quite know why. Now that I’m almost 62, I know exactly why: Satchel was wise enough to understand that what’s gaining on us is Death. Some might not find that too amusing, but what are you going to do? Cry? That’s a waste of the time, which is fast running out. Some of us, like those say, at or north of 62 are running out of it faster than those who are say, 32. Although, young friends take note—the rate at which Death is closing the gap is the same for all ages.

Don’t look back because you’ll discover that Death has the inside track. Furthermore, it’s important to understand that He abides by no rules in this race. He’ll drop colds, flus, pneumonia, arthritis, bursitis, meningitis, toothaches, headaches, back aches, illness, sadness, depression, loss, loneliness, and a thousand other obstacles in your lane. For agitating good measure, He might throw more obstacles in your lane than in someone else’s lane.

Doesn’t matter. Don’t look back.

Walk, jog, run, bike, swim across that Finished Line.

Cross it with curiosity, with a smile, with a hearty laugh.

My license plate holder says, “If I die dancing, I’ll die happy. It’ll suck for my partner though.” Drag me to the corner and keep dancing, partner. You have to.

Yes, Death is going to win sooner or later, but sooner or later, when Death breaks the tape just ahead of me, I want Him to shake my hand and say, “I had to work to catch you!” I’ll laugh and say, “I gave you a good run for your money!” He’ll respect that, and laugh, too.

It really is a friendly competition. After all, Death is just doing His job—we’re only allowed so many laps on this track.

No, we’re not going to finish first in this race, but then that’s not how our success is gauged. It’s how well we compete. How well did we surmount the obstacles in our lanes? Did we help other runners overcome their obstacles? Did we keep looking ahead?

Don’t look back: Something is gaining on us, and that’s okay, because we really haven’t been racing against Death at all. We’ve been running with Life.

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Fixing Our Dysfunctional Political System

There are very few political statements that can be made anymore to which virtually everyone will agree, but here’s one: Our republic is totally dysfunctional. The game that the political elites and the power brokers play is ruining the United States of America. It’s time for We, the People to change the rules of the game.

First, we do not need term limits. We have those every two to six years. They are called elections. Given the number of politicians who are continually returned to office, what we really want are term limits on other people’s representatives because we usually send back the same guy to represent us. Forget term limits; instead, let’s insist that members of Congress live under whatever law its members pass. No special retirement plan, no special health care, etc. etc. If it is good enough for us, it’s good enough for them. If We, the People were to insist on that simple principle, members would self-limit their terms for the simple reason that they gain nothing by hanging on. It might even attract what the Founders envisioned, which are citizen-statesmen, who serve out of a sense of civic duty, and then go back to whatever it is that made them successful in the first place. George Washington and Harry Truman were both happy to return to their farms despite the fact that they could have run again, and if our current politicians emulated those two gentlemen, the United States would be a happier, more efficient, better-led place than it is now.

Second, we don’t need campaign finance reform, we need campaign finance elimination. The two major political parties have a monopoly on political speech because if there is one thing that Democrats and Republicans agree on completely, it’s that no other political party is going to get a slice of the Power Pie. Policies are not advanced in the public interest, but as a means to a bigger piece of  the Pie. There is no other way to explain how politicians and entire parties switch policies in the blink of an eye, yet without batting one. It’s a special talent, I suppose.

What we do need are publicly financed campaigns for all federal offices, and to distribute those funds equally across as broad a political spectrum as possible. Let’s give ourselves some options, and shop for solutions at the mom and pop parties rather than the large monopoly parties. After all, mom and pop stores often are more in touch with their customers. If a political party can garner a certain percentage of support in any state, then it receives an equal share of the campaign finance money, allowing them to sell their ideas in a competitive market. For example, say at least 15% (or maybe even 10%) of the population of a state identify as Libertarians (again, for example), then they receive one-third of the campaign money. If they get 15% and the Green Party also receives at least 15%, then that money is divided equally four-ways. Independent candidates may be accommodated in the same way.

We’ll give all the parties four weeks to invest their share in any way they choose, be it buttons or bumper stickers, TV ads or newspaper ads, or slogans disguised as ideas. Four weeks is plenty of time to convince us for whom we should vote. (And while we’re at it, we could base the total amount for the campaigns on the federal debt. The higher the debt, the fewer campaign dollars parties will receive.)

Our current batch of political “leaders” equate being in power with being a player in the nation’s business, forgetting that the government is meant to be the referee. It’s time for We, the People to throw a flag on political monopolies. Let’s make sure that the playing field is level.

Third, it is important to understand that we have been a party to our own ruination. The way we allow our country to be led by our federal representatives is akin to handing the car keys to a bunch of speed-crazy kids, who just want to drive our car without maintaining it. We’ve been in the back seat, just along for the ride, and now we look up to find that our car is dirty and dented. Furthermore, they have steered us in the wrong direction, for clearly, this is not where we want to be.

We need to make these political drivers pull into a rest stop, so that we can get out, stretch our legs, and recognize how we all came to be in the same car in the first place, that is to see what binds us. We are NOT bound by a common religion, language, or ancestral heritage. We are not bound by race nor ethnicity. We are not bound by any commonality save one: We all believe that our individual rights, chief among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, were established upon our individual births, and that we have formed ourselves into a government designed to protect these rights, and not to grant them, because such rights are not the government’s, nor any human institution’s to grant.

If we no longer agree on that, then our American journey has become nothing more than a joy-ride with no real purpose except to kill time until our demise.

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The War Was Not Destined to End in 1944

As the summer of 1944 drew to a close, the expectation for Victory in Europe grew. After all, the Allies, who had stormed the Normandy beaches on June 6th, liberated Paris in a mere 80 days, accepting the surrender of the French Capital’s German garrison on August 25th. A remarkable example of home front expectations exists in the September 5, 1944 edition of the Winchester Evening Star in an article detailing Berryville, Virginia’s schedule for celebrating VE Day, which was clearly viewed as imminent. Berryville was, and remains a small town, resting a few miles west of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Shenandoah Valley’s eastern border. Berryville went so far as to schedule, quite meticulously, what would happen in town, when “V-Day” arrived:

If the signal of the surrender of Germany is blown before 7 a.m. stores will not open.

If the signal is blown between 7 a.m. and noon, stores will close by noon.

If the signal is blown between 12 noon and 3 p.m. stores will close as soon as possible.

If the signal is blown after 3 p.m. any week day except Saturday, stores will close at 6 p.m. and remain closed the following day.

If the signal is blown after 3 p.m. on Saturday stores will remain open until their regular closing.

The headline in the next day’s edition of the Evening Star read, “Battle to Crush Germany Is About to Begin.” Berryville, Winchester, and the rest of the United States was eager to celebrate the “crushing.”

In fact, however, the Allies had moved so swiftly in pushing the German Army out of France that supply lines had become long, and supplies themselves were scarce. In addition, the hard-fighting, fast-moving troops were worn down. Many of these exhausted units were sent to the Ardennes in Belgium to recuperate, as were inexperienced troops who would undergo further training there because Allied command regarded this region as “quiet.” In fact, a great deal of activity was taking place on the German side of the Ardennes. A massive troop build-up was underway, one which, for a variety of reasons, Allied intelligence failed to detect.

At 5:30 a.m. on December 16th, the forest quiet gave way to a massive, 90-minute artillery barrage. The German offensive, code-named “Operation Watch on the Rhine” was underway, totally surprising the Allied command, and overrunning those green and exhausted American troops. We know this fighting as the “Battle of the Bulge,” a name that “was coined by contemporary press to describe the bulge in German front lines on wartime news maps,” according to Wikipedia, which features an excellent article on the entire campaign.

There was, of course, no mention of the fighting in the December 16th edition of the Evening Star, and no paper was published on Sunday, the 17th, but the headline on the 18th read, “First Army Strikes Back At Advancing Germans.” A sub-headline read, “Fierce Battle Is Expected To Become One of Most Decisive.” A sub-sub headline noted, “U. S. Positions Overrun.”

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The war was supposed to be over by Christmas. Reading the succeeding days’ headlines, one can feel the uncertainty and anxiety of the contemporary readers:

“Americans Battle Desperately to Check Germans.”

“Great German Drive is Rolling on Unchecked.”

“Fighting Continues Fiercely As Germans Press Offensive.”

Other grim details were reported, including the massacre at Malmedy, and that Germans had infiltrated American lines by wearing American uniforms. The Evening Star front page the day after Christmas noted in a sub-headline, “Foe Expands Belgium Bulge; Now Aiming Drive At Paris.” This was the first time bulge appears in any Evening Star headlines.

We know how this story ends, of course. Airborne troops, still in their summer fatigues, were moved into Bastogne, the key point in the American line. Their commander, General Anthony McAuliffe refused to surrender, issuing his famous reply of “Nuts,” to the German commander when asked to do so. The paratroopers held the all-important crossroads, the fog which had so aided the Germans, cleared, allowing superior American air-power to exert itself. General Patton broke through the German lines, relieved Bastogne, and by January 1st, the German offensive had stalled. By the end of the month, the German army was in retreat.

Image result for photos of the battle of the bulge

Fighting during the Battle of the Bulge was bitter and desperate.

Winning the Battle of the Bulge cost the American army 105,102 casualties, according to an official Army report.

While the Allies pursued the Germans through a bitterly cold February, American Marines were landing on the hot sands of Iwo Jima. When Victory in Europe was finally declared on May 8, 1945, America was still in the middle of the vicious fighting on Okinawa. VE celebrations broke out across the United States, but overshadowing the joy was the coming invasion of Japan, which American planners estimated would cost one million casualties. We know how that story ended, too.

It was not just the Battle of the Bulge that began 74 years ago yesterday. A two-week period of terrible uncertainty fell on the home front, and darkened the Christmas season almost as badly as Pearl Harbor had done three Christmases before.

The Holidays are always a good time to pause and reflect; we might want to reflect on what it was like during the Holidays in 1944 both in the snow-covered Ardennes and in Berryville, Virginia, where the potential for joy was replaced the reality of war.

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If Only the Walls Could Talk

Driving to work down Route 44 with the sunroof open on a fine spring morning, Jason Murray looked over at the abandoned farm-house that stood perhaps 30 yards from the side of the road. Jason had the sense that other drivers never noticed the old structure, surrounded as it was by trees that had grown up in what was once its front yard. Jason had spotted it on the first day he had taken this route, and something had made him look over at the old house virtually every day since. He often wondered about who must have lived there over the years, and tried to imagine who had it built, and that first day that the original owners had moved in, which clearly was decades ago.

Just since yesterday, daffodils had bloomed along the side of the old house, while other sprays were scattered throughout the trees. Virtually every time Jason passed by, he thought, One of these days, I’m going to explore that old house!

For some reason, today was the day. Perhaps, it was because he was early, and he expected an easy day at the office, and so, he could afford the time. Perhaps, it was the daffodils. In any case, he ignored the rusty No Trespassing sign and tested his footing on the front porch, for he did not want to fall through any rotten boards.

Encountering a staircase upon entering, he carefully made his way up, and entered one of the bedrooms. Dust beams danced in the sunshine that filtered through the glass-less window. All was dim, cool, still.

“It’s about time you got here!”

Jason jumped when the cheery voice broke the silence.

“Who’s there?” he stammered.

He called out again, then called down the steps. When he did so, he heard the voice behind him.

“What took you so long?”

He returned to the bedroom from which he came. It was brighter and warmer, but a chill ran through him that was so severe, he felt frozen where he stood. Had someone slipped drugs into his 7-11 coffee? Was he having a seizure, or perhaps dying? For there was no doubt that it was the house itself that was talking to him.

“Yes, I’m talking to you, Jason. I’m so glad that you finally stopped in. I don’t think I can hold on much longer.”

Jason took a deep breath. “You’ve been waiting for me?” he said as his eyes darted about in an attempt to discover where to direct his voice.

“Thousands, maybe tens of thousands of people have passed by since my last family lived here. Very few of them have recognized that there is Life in me.”

“How can a house be alive?”

“I didn’t say that. I said that there was Life in me. You never just glanced at me, Jason, you looked at me, you really looked at me. You’re the one, Jason, the one to whom I must pass on this Life.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Go to the doorway and look.”

Jason did so and noticed a series of notches that began about three feet above the floor and stopped about five feet above the floor.

“Yes, there. . . . Ah, Timmy. He would run through me, laughing so hard that it tickled my walls. He came down with the flu, though in the big epidemic back in 1918. Two weeks later, my floorboards were wet with his parents’ tears. They couldn’t stand to live here anymore, so they sold me to a couple with eight children. Eight! The love that filled me. . . . Those boys—there were seven of them and the one girl—would cause their mother all kinds of consternation, climbing out that window there, and down the trellis that used to hold up Mrs. Cooper’s roses. She was the one who planted all the daffodils; she did love her flowers. Then, the war came along, World War II, that is, and the Cooper kids all served, even the girl. Ruth was her name, and she became an army nurse. Only Russ, the oldest boy, came back to the farm, but he brought a wife with him. British she was. She had a big, four-poster bed which she dearly loved. . . . In fact, go out in the hall and down a ways and look at the wall.”

Jason did so and his eyes fell on a spot that had been plastered over.

“When that thing was delivered, they left it on the front porch, so Russ had to lug it all upstairs and he banged the headboard into me. He cussed like he was still in the Army! And, as you can see, he didn’t do a very good job of patching me up. I didn’t mind though. Why I could show you a hundred nicks and dents and spots and they all have a story!”

The house fell silent.

“What happened next?”

“Hmmm? Oh, Russ and Patty, that was her name, Patty, they had three girls, but it was just the two of them here when the state roads people came along and told them they were buying the farm. Needed it to build Route 44 out there. Russ didn’t mind selling as there wasn’t any money in being a small-time farmer anymore. That was about 1970. Or ’71. Oh, well, the time doesn’t matter.”

“And you’ve been abandoned ever since?”

“Not exactly. I was filled up with Life. All of it, every bit of it, every ingredient that goes into it. Joy, sorrow, sadness, passion. One hundred and two Christmases, hundreds of birthdays. Four first kisses on my front porch, countless tears over everything from skinned knees to lost loved ones. You don’t feel abandoned when your full of such memories, but I have been waiting.”

“For what?”

“For you, Jason. People move into houses all the time. This old house needs to move into you. You see, people, animals, trees, even houses live, and then they die, but Life—ha! Life is a different story. Life is eternal, but you can’t expect it to just float around out there with no . . . home. It needs a place to be. That little slice of Life that was mine is now yours.”

“What am I supposed to do with it?”

“Remember it, respect it, learn from it.”

“How do you know I’m the right person?”

“You stopped, didn’t you? . . . It’s been nice to have someone cross the old threshold one more time, but I’m thinking that you need to get to work.”

Jason looked at his watch. “I guess so. I . . . I don’t know what to say.”

“Just say good-bye.”

Jason walked out the front door and stepped off the front porch, being careful not to step on any rotten boards for he didn’t want to impart any further damage to the place. He turned and looked over the old house.

“Good-bye,” he heard himself say.

“Thank you,” came the answer.

Jason walked back to his car and went on his way, but it was a good thing that this was an easy day at work. Upon sitting at his desk he called his wife just to tell her that he loved her. Later, when he remembered that he needed to cut the grass when he got home, he thought he would see if his daughters wanted to ride bikes instead. After all, they wouldn’t always think it was cool to have Dad along.

When it was time to head home, he felt a certain wariness that he could not explain to himself, but as he drove along, he knew. He passed the spot where he had parked that morning, then began peering through the trees on his right. Sure enough, the old house had collapsed.

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Library-Digging Unearths Another Boots Nugget

I found a reference to my old friend and subject, Cletus Elwood “Boots” Poffenberger the other day while combing through microfilm of the Winchester Evening Star from September 1, 1944. A page two article headlined, “Park to play Wildcats Suday; Will Clash with White Sox Monday,” stated that “Boots Poffinberger (sic), former big league star now playing in a southern loop, may be with the ‘Wildcats’ Sunday according to Russell Potts, Park secretary. Williamsport is Boots’ home town.” The Winchester Park were a town team as were the Winchester White Sox. Every Williamsport team, including the present high school, have been nicknamed the Wildcats since, probably General Williams founded the town.

Did I mention that Boots was a real character?

The “southern loop”mentioned in the article is probably a reference to Boots’ time with the Nashville Vols of the Southern Association, which ended in 1941. Indeed, Boots was in a “southern loop” in a manner of speaking as he began pitching for the Parris Island Marine Corps team in 1943.

A September 5th article details the game, a Park victory, but neither the write-up nor the boxscore indicated that Boots was present, which a check of Boots Poffenberger: Hurler, Hero, Hell-Raiser (p160), explains. Boots had hoped to return to Williamsport in September, but his leave had been cancelled. Boots did get home the following month, and naturally, he played a ballgame then.

You never know what you’ll find digging through old newspapers and it’s always rewarding to come across something or someone you know well. It was nice to visit with my old friend, even if the visit was a brief one.

One question for my Winchester friends: Does anyone know where Winchester Park played its games?

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