We were sitting a good dozen rows up into the stands watching the SDSU Jackrabbits take on the UNO Mavericks in the annual volleyball game for breast cancer awareness that was held at the Sanford Pentagon each year. A whole group of us went to the game… our kids were all teammates on the Pentagon Club Volleyball team for the last couple of years and probably the next few years as well. The girls all sat a few rows behind the parents (too cool to be seen with us, of course). The game wasn’t going too good for the Jacks and to put it bluntly, we were being schooled. There wasn’t much to cheer about. Everyone was slumping slowly lower into their seats and beginning to pay more attention to their cell phones than they were to the game. There was still good volleyball being played… it was fun to watch… this higher level college volleyball. But something happened that flipped a memory switch for me. There was a hard kill by a UNO player that a Jackrabbit player got in front of for a dig, but the ball didn’t pop gently up for her, but instead spun wildly up and out straight in my direction. I stood and without moving more than a few inches reach up and the ball slid directly into my awaiting hands. I threw it back and then nonchalantly sat down again. After a small verbal “attaboy dad!” from my daughter, my thoughts went directly to my dad.
In 1994, the summer after my graduation from college, I moved back to Garretson and I lived in the house that my dad had grown up in and was living in again. It was the house that Dad’s grandparents had built and my Grandma Gert had grown up in. When she moved back to Garretson after marrying Emmett, they lived in this house and raised my dad and his little brother Rolly. Now dad was back to this big empty house and I settled in with my clothes and my boxes of high school memorabilia as I transitioned into adulthood from my college years.
My mom was living in Sioux Falls and was remarried, but I worried about dad, he was still bitter about mom leaving and I think he was struggling to figure out what he could have done different and what he wanted to do different in the future. I stayed with him and enjoyed his company as I assumed he enjoyed having me around too. We’d often cook things and eat dinner together before I would go out with friends, or sometimes we’d go out and grab a bite somewhere. Dad was still a fan of baseball and we liked to go to catch a Canaries game after grabbing a bite to eat. The most common routine was to go to Szechuan on Minnesota and Dad would get his Happy Family and a Miller Lite. I would get Szechuan Beef and a Miller Lite. Dad never had to order. They just knew him and what he wanted. I don’t think I ever saw him order anything else.
After we ate, we’d head over to the Birdcage. Dad was always ready to see the birds play. He’d always bring his glove, even though he never wore it. On a chilly night, he’d bring or wear his LA Angels letter jacket. We’d get there when we got there. Dad had season tickets that were on the third base side, just behind the dugout and as far from home plate as we could get. We got to know our “neighbors” around us and they didn’t seem to attend the game nearly as much as we did. If dad wasn’t going to go, I would take them and take somebody to the game with me. Either a date, which was rare, or a friend. When it was the latter, we’d then go out on the town.
Dad had a love/hate relationship with baseball, I think. You see, the LA Angels jacket that he wore was from the era that his father played for the Los Angelas Angels of the Pacific Coast League. George Emmett Nelson had grown up in Viborg, SD and with his talents on the local baseball team, he was discovered by the Sioux Falls Canaries during an exhibition game in Viborg. He then was sold to Wichita and played with them until LA pulled him into their impressive league. He played with them during a time in which they were a solid and deep team. Many baseball experts still regard them as the best minor league team in baseball history. I could go on and on about Emmett’s baseball history, but I’ll save it for another time.
My dad told me once that he did not have the most congenial relationship with his father. Emmett was not known for being particularly warm and fuzzy. He took pride in his boys but he didn’t tend to show it. Dad shared with me about one time in particular that he was playing baseball and his dad was there watching him play. Dad played first base, I believe and he told me that after kicking a routine grounder and chalking up a needless error, dad composed himself and looked up to see Emmett getting in his car and driving away. I think Dad had regrets about some of their relationship, but I don’t know what he could have done differently to have changed anything. Later, when dad was married to mom and had 2 kids, Emmett came down with pneumonia at age 63 and refused to go to the hospital. After his death shortly after becoming bed-ridden, it was revealed that he died from pulmonary fibrosis (what ultimately took his brothers and his sons and probably was what took his dad too). Dad said it was very difficult to watch him during those last days as he struggled to breath. I think that maybe he wishes that he would’ve insisted on taking him to the hospital and at least making him more comfortable.
Dad and Rolly were both very proud of the baseball they had in their blood. Rolly even played into his young adulthood and tried out for the Twins at one point and was invited to play for one of their minor league teams but opted instead to enlist in the Air Force and went to Vietnam.
Dad became very involved in learning more about the history of the game and the history of his father. He travelled out to Pacific Coast League conventions and met people that knew his dad. He relished the tidbits when he came across them and shared them with us whenever he could. I feel like he was making up for time he didn’t spend conversing with him when he was still around. That was the only regret. I think it’s a regret that we all share. I find myself still wanting to call Dad up and asking him who so-and-so is or where somebody lived back in the year whatever. My stomach sinks a bit as I realize he isn’t there to ask.
I think about the times we spent at the games together and how they were nice. How I didn’t appreciate the innings and outs, balls and strikes… runs or errors. Nothing stands out to me in particular about any one game or moment except that one time that we got to the game a little late and we took our seats and put our feet up. Dad got his bag of peanuts open and we were settling in when a right handed batter swung at a high and inside fastball and it came off the top of the bat by his hands and shot up high into foul territory right towards us. I have a terrible sense of depth with pop flies (I was a good infielder but terrible outfielder) and stared helplessly at this moonshot that continue to get smaller as it came in our direction. I could sense that it was getting bigger and closer as dad stood up, didn’t let go of the peanuts in his right hand and extended his left hand up and barehanded it as if somebody five feet away had tossed it to him. He sat down, flipped me the ball and went back to his peanuts. Our season-ticket seat neighbors cheered politely for him and I sat there amazed at what my dad had just done. I’m pretty sure I gave him a “nice catch!” (the 1994 JT version of my daughter’s “atta boy Dad”).
The volleyball that I caught was clearly larger and softer than a baseball but I like to think that it was my own athletic homage to my dad’s skills. I think of the two athletic moves as being closely related, in more ways that by genetics. But since I brought genetics up, I like to think that Emmett was watching and giving his own “atta boy you two… good catch” to both of us on our performance. Well, thanks for the genes Emmett!
As summer continued to click by, nights would fall sooner and fall cooler. The crisp July nights were a sharp contrast to the hot and humid air of the days spent lazily around the pool. Baseball season was winding up for the different leagues... Pee Wees would be done first, then Midgets, followed by Teeners and then the Legion Team would be playing after everybody else had wrapped up. Their games were the most interesting to watch; the older guys were like watching the pro's to us youngsters. When I was in 5th grade or so, going down to Tandberg Field was as good as a trip to Minneapolis to watch the Twins. Chris and his classmates fielded a pretty good team and I remember when they first donned the baby blue uniforms similar to only the Kansas City Royals at the time. Not many were ready for Garretson to be anything besides Royal Blue and White and these light blue pants and v-neck tops were pretty alien to all of us. They wore navy stirrup socks that matched the navy and white piping that ran up the sides of the pants and then around the collar and sleeves. "Garretson" in Brush Script across the chest and the American Legion patch was sewn on the sleeve. There were no names on the back... just a number... as the jerseys had to be used over and over and over again by many different people over the course of as many years that could support the stitches of the fabric... or until so many of them went missing that they'd be forced to buy a new set.
I would ride my bike up to the ball diamond on the nights of games after supper, or if the night was still hot, I'd go to the pool and swim for a little while until I saw them gathering on the diamond down the hill to to the west of the pool. I'd give myself enough time to get dried off and dressed and then scurry down to the bleachers on the top of the hill overlooking the cutout into the hill surrounding the diamond. It was a natural stadium that Garretson had. It was an fantastic setup for a ballpark. Unfortunately, though, our infield was gravel and though they would drag it on every gameday, the rocks just worked their way up and litter the enormous circle of orange. Seemingly small and insignificant, they would pose dangerous threats to the path of ground balls rocketing in the direction of the infielders locking themselves into a position to prepare themselves for the ball to do one thing when, in fact, the ball would go and do something else completely random. Often, to the chagrin of those infielders, that random direction would be upward at their face. Or at least it seemed like it would happen that way often. It probably only happened once, but sometimes that all it took to put the fear of God into that third baseman that valued the set of teeth that was still intact.
The orange rocky circle was flanked originally by two dugouts that were literally dug out into the ground, but over time the elements took their toll on their structure and every spring and every heavy summer rain, they'd fill with water and prove uninhabitable. At some point in the 1970's those dugouts were replaced by above ground cages like you'd see at any other softball complex today. For the longest time, those new dugouts did not have roofs which of course would have been nice for those players sitting there on those afternoon games baking under the sun..
I'd take my place on the bleacher and watch my brother and his teammates warm up... once in a while if I'd get there early enough and I had brought my glove, I'd get to go play catch with one of the guys if their numbers were odd. Again, it probably only happened once, but to me that meant that it happened often. I'd sit with my friends up in the bleachers and work on a a mouthful of sunflower seeds... perfecting the spitting of the shells out into a little pile. We'd size up the competition as they took to the field... we'd look for familiar players from these other towns that we'd maybe recognize from basketball games, wrestling matches, football games or track meets. We'd see these "enemies" from those other towns... the green ones from Salem, the orange and black from Dell Rapids or the blue and gold from Baltic.
The outfield didn't have a arched fence but utilized the same chainlink that encompassed the football field that made up right field and center field in the off-season. directly between right and center straight at the bus barn's east end behind that fence was the white scoreboard made up of two telephone poles, some slightly crumbling playwood painted white and nailed to a slightly crooked frame that was leaning forward ever so slightly. Black lines painted up a grid of 9 innings and a home and away row with some hooks. I don't know who was given the responsibility of throwing those number boards on those hooks, but that system was outdated soon after the dugouts were replaced which was probably just as good because the forward lean of the that scoreboard with the little ledge on it for that person to walk on was getting less and less safe. I would venture to guess that whomever was scoring those games was probably up to date on their tetanus booster shots, or at least they should have been.
It seems that about the time the dugouts were replaced was when they put in a score keepers "nest" behind the homeplate fence that looked down on the field and housed the scoring controls for the football field scoreboard way out in center field a the back northwest corner of the fencing rectangle. It was out there that a long hit ball was a sure-fire in the part homerun, but one that you'd have to work for should you hit it there.
It was also back into that corner that on those quickly cooling humid summer evenings would slowly change into a cooler night with a gentle breeze sliding over the town and into the face of the batter. The cooler air coming in from the lower part of town down by the river would drift in and a slim layer of fog would begin overtaking the center fielder first, then the other outfielders then it would make it to the orange oval of infield and the banks of lights shining down created a glowing dome around each tower of electric lumination.
It probably only happened once, but in my head, I feel like it was like that at every game I went to. I know in my heart that it wasn't... but if it happened once and it lives in my memory as clear as the smell of the popcorn drifting out of the concession stand up at the pool, then it lives forever and it DID happen all the time; It happens every time that I think about it. Like now when I'm out for a walk and the sun is setting and I can feel the cooling air from the northwest... and I can smell freshly popped popcorn in my head and taste sunflower seeds. These early August nights churning away on the last days of summer and autumn will be here soon. Uniforms packed away, an orange circle that doesn't get dragged every day anymore and the leaves will begin to change. Another year will be gone. One more summer behind me. One less in front of me. Time clicking away once inning at at time. One out, one hit, one ball, one strike. The fog will roll in and envelope us all eventually. The lights growing less intense with the thickness of the fog deeper into those late innings in the end games of our season.
I would ride my bike home after the game was done... peddling fast to get home, the lights of the ballfield still on behind me... their glow casting my shadow out in front of me as I peddled into the darkness. I would race to get home. To tell mom and dad the the score of the game if they hadn't been at the ballpark themselves. They usually were at the games too and I'd be trying to beat them home. I'd want to be there to see them pull the station wagon into our long driveway and watch them as they wondered how I got there before they did. But it seems that they would usually be there waiting for me. Mom would be in the kitchen or upstairs already and dad would be in his chair, with a freshly fixed drink and he'd be lighting his pipe. .. his initial smoke drifting off the bowl of the pipe and out his mouth and nose and filling the air around his head. It'd be drifting across the living room and carrying the aroma of a sweet tobacco... the smell of my dad. It'd hug my face as I walked through it and as I plopped down in the couch and we'd watch the news. I'd play with the drifting waves of smoke in the air and everything would be good. At least that's how I remembered it once.
I'm just a creative guy that's looking to throw all this spaghetti onto the wall and hope something sticks.