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The Rainy Season: “it was only a couple of chickens”

An excerpt from The Rainy Season, by Tucker Elliot

We made our way outside the station and past vendors selling fruits and vegetables. I even recognized some of the fruits, which sometimes can be a real challenge. One old lady was selling ice cream, and another was selling popcorn. People on the opposite side of the street were cooking and selling fish and assorted meats.

“Chyka waits up here,” Indira said.

There was even an old lady selling hepatitis-on-a-stick. That’s what we called it in Korea, anyway. It was mystery meat cooked over hot coals on a wooden skewer. People would eat the meat and throw the stick on the ground. Then the old lady would pick up the stick and use it again … which is why we called it hepatitis-on-a-stick.

“Chyka will bring students to meet us. They will greet us traditional way.” Indira held her hands about three or four inches apart. “They will offer hands like this. Put your right hand inside. They will take your hand and bow, and touch your hand on forehead. You understand?”

“Not even a little bit.”

I was too distracted, because along with the skewering, cooking, and selling, there was a cage of cute, furry, bunny rabbits. It confused me for about a second. Then I saw the fire pit and a lump of meat in a familiar shape. I cringed, and I’m not even all that sensitive. Soukpa was also staring at the fire pit. She didn’t seem to be upset, though. In fact, her mouth was watering and she was licking her chops.

“There she is. Just watch and do like me,” Indira said.

Chyka was dressed in a coral batik tunic with long sleeves and a skirt. She also had her head covered, something she hadn’t done in Jakarta. She obviously had dressed up for the occasion. I felt bad for coming in jeans and a polo shirt.

The real sight was the boy and girl she’d brought with her.

They were nine or ten years old and all smiles. The girl wore a sarong and the boy wore pants and a vest. Both outfits were cut from the same coral batik as Chyka’s tunic, like the whole ensemble had been one big class project.

Chyka held out her hands, three or four inches apart. Indira offered her right hand. Chyka clasped hold of it, bowed, and touched her forehead against the back of Indira’s hand. The whole thing was repeated, first with me, then with Martin and Will, and on down the line. Chyka greeted every member of the group, all in the exact same way.

Then the kids greeted us.

Chyka had been reserved and quiet, but the kids couldn’t stop giggling.

The girl touched her forehead against the back of my hand. She had long black hair pulled back in a ponytail and brown eyes as big as saucers. She held on to my hand, furrowed her brow, and leaned close toward me. “Are you pak guru?” she asked.

“Does pak guru mean teacher?”

She nodded emphatically.

“Well, yes, I guess I am.”

Her face lit up. “My name is Lucy. I am from West Java, Indonesia. I am nine years old. Thank you for come to visit my school.” Lucy giggled and smacked her forehead against the back of my hand a second time.

“It’s very nice to meet you Lucy.”

Then the boy took my hand and banged his skull against it. He said, “My name is Davi. I am from West Java, Indonesia. I am ten years old. Thank you for come to visit my school.”

They’d rehearsed just like Soukpa. It was cute, sad, and impressive, all at the same time. “Thank you Davi. I’m happy to be here.”

Lucy and Davi went down the line, smiling, giggling and banging hands against their foreheads. They even got a few hugs from Soukpa and some of the other teachers.

We left the train station on green mini-buses that were close cousins with tuk-tuks. They had space enough for seven or eight Indonesian passengers … the equivalent to three or four foreigners. Maybe only two foreigners, if one of them was Martin.

The mini-buses would make a great roadblock on The Amazing Race because the whole system functioned (or not) on local knowledge. The mini-buses had numbers—presumably indicating routes—but no corresponding maps or signs had been posted along the city streets. I boarded with Chyka, Lucy, Davi and Indira, plus a couple random Indonesian passengers. We sat on benches that faced each other in a space smaller than the boot of my Jeep. The rest of our group had to wait for the next mini-bus with the same route number.

A few minutes later we got off the mini-bus near a school with beautiful architecture and landscaped grounds. “Is your school here?” I asked Chyka.

Lucy and Davi laughed at volumes worthy of Indira. Chyka said, “Here is very good school. We take another bus.”

Three confusing transfers later, I told Indira, “There’s no fast way to get anywhere in your country.”

“This is fast way, but we take pretty way back to Jakarta just for you.”

“First class?”

“Oh come on, we did first class on train already.”

The last mini-bus left us beside a becak stand. A becak is basically a rickshaw, only it looks stranger, is less reliable and more dangerous. The carriages are in the front, and the drivers navigate on bikes that could have been imported from Amsterdam during the heyday of the Dutch East India Company.

Chyka spoke Bahasa and pointed at a steep hill. Indira translated, “We go this way, one more kilometer by bike.”

“You’re kidding, right?”

“Chyka take this trip every day to come Jakarta for conference.”

So then I shut up and got on a becak.

Chyka, Lucy and Davi shared a becak. Indira, Soukpa and the other teachers all followed suit, pairing up to share rides. Martin stood in the street and laughed. “There’s not a driver in Indonesia that can pedal me up that bloody hill.”

I decided to forgive Martin for deriding my coaching skills last night. It was potentially an embarrassing predicament, but he had the good humor to laugh at himself. He was also right. The becak drivers all waved “no-no-no” when they saw him. I climbed from the becak and said, “I’ll walk with you.”

Will shrugged and said he’d do the same.

In the end it was less than a kilometer. We climbed the hill and on our right was a beautiful mosque. A stream cut through the middle of the expansive property. We crossed it on a small footbridge, and on the other side we followed a well-beaten path to the outmost corner of a picturesque field and a cluster of utilitarian buildings.

Indira was waiting for us. “You have your notecards?”

“Yes.” I’d asked her to translate some simple sentences into Bahasa so that I could read them to Chyka’s students.

“Any question for me?”

“No, let’s go meet the kids.”

There must have been five or six buildings total, all roughly the same size. Not that any of them were big. I can estimate square footage with roughly the same accuracy as I can guess ages … but what I can say for sure is that my classroom in Germany (largest class size: 29) was roughly twice as big as the building where Chyka was teaching her orphans.

All forty of them.

The students came outside to greet us. Apparently their outfits had been a class project. All the girls wore sarongs and all the boys had pants and vests. The same basic outfits with a few variations in colors and patterns. All forty students greeted us exactly as Lucy and Davi had done at the train station.

I’ll never forget it.

The door to the classroom wasn’t typical. It was thick and heavy wood-on-wheels, and it rolled open just like the barn door on the farm where my grandmother was raised. The windows in the classroom weren’t typical either. They were square holes. No screens, no glass, no shutters. Just open squares.

The students filed into the classroom.

Along one wall were wooden cubbyholes. Kind of like bookshelves. The room didn’t have any desks or chairs. The kids took mats from the cubbyholes and sat on the dirt floor.

The room was clean. Tidy, anyway. For a room with a dirt floor and holes for windows, it was spectacular. It was organized, cared for, and obviously important to its occupants.

I glanced at the ceiling. It had a blue arrow and the word “Kiblat” to show the orphans the way to Mecca.

Chyka and Indira spoke to the students in Bahasa.

Maybe one of them introduced me. I don’t know. Martin and Will stood near a hole-in-the-wall window. Soukpa sat on the floor with Lucy on her lap. The rest of our group did the same with other kids.

I stood in front of everyone with my notecards. They’d been a great idea last night at Starbucks. Not so much this morning. I managed to get through a few words when I heard a hybrid tsk-clucking noise and thought Wallach had stormed the classroom.

It was only a couple of chickens.

Real chickens.

The kind that walk around clucking and pecking. Which is what they were doing. Only no one else seemed to care, or even notice. This is normal? Obviously I had a little hiccup reading my notecards.

Understandable.

I was talking to forty orphans who had to share a dirt floor with two chickens. No one in college had ever prepared me for this scenario. I stumbled through a few more words, but it was getting ugly, fast.

Lucy raised her hand. “Pak guru?”

“Yes?”

“You can talk English.”

Well, okay. “Will everyone understand me?”

Lucy gave an ultra-serious nod. “More than you talk Bahasa.”

The chorus of laughter and bobbing heads settled the matter. What do you say to that? I’ve no idea. It was simultaneously heartbreaking and inspiring.

You see it, right?

How was I supposed to go back to Germany and life-as-normal and teach? How was I supposed to pretend I’d never seen these kids, or experienced this moment? It would be impossible, of course.

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The Rainy Season: “the only truth that matters”

An excerpt from The Rainy Season, by Tucker Elliot:

In my mind I’d placed rings around the hotel. The high-end shopping, restaurants and other luxury hotels were in the first ring—Prada, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Tiffany’s and dozens of other brand names fit for Fifth Avenue. Not that downtown Jakarta would ever be confused with Manhattan, but persons with substantial means could certainly pass time in Jakarta without any major inconveniences. In the second ring were places like Chili’s, Pizza Hut, KFC, 7-Eleven, Circle K and Dunkin’ Donuts.

We’d left the first and second rings behind after five minutes of driving … in traffic.

The_Rainy_Season_cover-HIGH-RESIn the third ring the streets were narrow and dark, almost sinister. People lit fires on sidewalks to burn trash or cook food, or both. There were steel barricades with heavy padlocks in front of every doorway, and they made every residence look like a prison. They probably felt that way, too. The motorbikes that weren’t playing Frogger on the streets were chained to the same barricades that fortified the houses. Half-naked kids were panhandling in traffic. The first ring glowed in the distance, lit up by consumerism that was brought to Jakarta courtesy of western cultures and Christian nations, and it influenced impoverished Muslims in the third ring, who wore Manchester United tee shirts with “Rooney” on the back, twisting further the attitudes and perceptions of those who were bent already toward radicalism.

Maybe we should build a McDonald’s on every corner and declare victory. Or did we try that already?

The traffic got worse and soon we were at a complete standstill. There were four or five local men in various states of undress standing in the road, but the only police officers in sight were sitting off to the side and seemingly unconcerned about the situation. The locals were ostensibly directing traffic to alleviate the jam, but it was pretty clear they were in fact causing it to further the panhandling efforts of the kids.

Indira said, “Soukpa, close your window.”

Soukpa had barely registered what Indira had said when a hand slammed loudly against the van. Soukpa cried out in surprise and nearly fell from her seat, but it was only a boy, maybe eight or nine years old.

The boy cried through the window in English, “I hungry!

Soukpa quickly reached into her tote bag.

Indira grabbed Soukpa’s arm. “No,” she said. “You must not give the boy money. You see the men? The boy work for the men. The men will take anything you give the boy.”

Soukpa was horrified. “Who give boy food?”

Will said, “It’s difficult to say no, but Indira’s right.”

Soukpa’s hand came out of the bag with a banana. She had no money to give the boy, but she was prepared to give away the food she had pinched from the breakfast buffet.

Indira shook her head sadly. “I am sorry.”

The boy banged his hand repeatedly on the side of the van. Soukpa was obviously torn, but she put the banana back into her bag. I’d never seen a face with such a pained expression. The boy just banged away, again and again, and his antics drew unwanted attention to our van from the people on the street, sidewalks, and other cars. He screamed, “I hungry! I hungry!” It was uncomfortable, to say the least. Indira spoke Bahasa to our driver, who then climbed out of the van and chased the boy away with a few harsh words.

“I am sorry,” Indira said again.

The city assaulted us with its hellacious cacophony, but inside the van it was eerily quiet.

Indira finally gave everyone a big smile, and then she asked, “How many Indonesian men does it take to direct traffic?” I didn’t say anything because I had no idea if she was being serious. No one else said anything either. Indira laughed and told us, “All of them. The women work and cook and clean and make babies and pray five times a day, but the men have nothing better to do.”

“How long are they going to keep us here?” I asked.

“You do not like my joke?”

“It’ll be funnier after they let us go.”

“They let us go soon, I think.”

The police officers finally stood up. They blew whistles and chased the men and kids from the street. Our van began moving again and a short moment later I saw firsthand how completely the filth and squalor of the third ring had enveloped the train station. Wallach had the right idea, avoiding this place. The van had barely slowed when a crowd of men descended on it, waving and motioning our driver to park in twenty different places.

Indira said, “How many Indonesian men does it take to park a van?”

There was a chorus of “all of them,” and this time it probably would have been funny if not for the women, children and street vendors waiting for us in all twenty different places we were being directed. It was a relief when finally we parked and climbed out of the van, but immediately there were countless people staring at us—specifically at me, Will and Martin—and while most were simply curious, others were outright hostile. My ideal for blending in would be for no one to see or hear me, ever. Good luck with that. Not here, not in this scenario. Sometimes blending in means acute situational awareness and the right attitude. Act as if you belong. Which is why I approached the ticket office the same way I’d left the airport the other night: no big deal.

Being with Indira obviously helped. She made all our arrangements. On that account, Wallach had been right on target. The listed price was 7,000 rupiah per ticket. Indira haggled and finally agreed on 5,000 rupiah. Our group of sixteen would travel for less than ten dollars. Indira had knocked a buck-fifty off the total, which I found incredibly amusing at the time.

I don’t have a lot of experience with trains, but the “train station” picture I had in mind had been formed by Seoul Station and London Liverpool Street. My picture was off just a bit. Well, in truth, I wasn’t even on the right canvas. In Seoul and London the train stations have concourses with high-end shopping and fancy restaurants. The train station we departed from that morning had a dirty 7-Eleven with about half of its shelves stocked.

I bought a bottle of water and sat quietly on the platform.

There were only two tracks, but after a few minutes Indira realized we were sitting on the wrong side. We climbed an escalator that didn’t work, crossed over to the other side, and found benches dirtier than the ones we’d just left.

I decided to walk around the platform. It was elevated and I could see a long line of people standing outside a small grocer across the street from the station.

Indira walked over and said, “It is really sad.”

“What is?”

She pointed at a sign I hadn’t noticed: Western Union. “It is the same in every city in my country, a long line every morning to get money family member send from overseas. It comes from your country, Dubai, Europe, but not from my country. The people will not even take the money in rupiah because they no longer trust it. They will take U.S. dollars from the Western Union.”

“I had no idea things were this bad. If all I had seen of your country was the area around the hotel then I would think everyone in Indonesia is rich.”

“Indonesians believe all Americans are rich.”

“Trust me, they’re not.”

“Indonesians believe American schools are the best in the world.”

“American schools have eight hundred million problems. At least.”

“You can see Central Jakarta from here. See how tall my city is?”

She was right. The skyscrapers and luxury hotels could easily be seen in the distance.

“It is very easy for the people to see, but almost impossible for them to afford. We believe every American is rich because every American that come to my city can afford Central Jakarta.”

“The ones who can’t afford it don’t come. You know it’s that simple.”

Indira nodded. “I know. But here the only truth that matters is what the people can see. The city grows taller, the people here live in the shadow, foreigners shop in stores that are not Indonesian so your money will not stay in my country, but your money will make life more expensive for every Indonesian with no choice but to stay.”

“You’re not going to self-detonate now, are you?”

Indira smiled wryly. “My sister is secretary in Central Jakarta.”

“Is that a good job?”

“If you work for foreign company. My sister is secretary for Indonesian company.”

“What’s the difference?”

“She has not been paid her salary in six months.”

“She hasn’t been paid in six months, but she’s still working there?”

“Yes.”

“What about you?” I asked.

“I get half my salary in U.S. dollars. I am very lucky because I can help my sister and my parents.” She thought for a second, and then added, “The only time I think to self-detonate is when I have to work with people like Wallach.”

“He has that effect on people.”

“You are lucky to be American. Do you know why I work so hard for this conference? I will help Indonesian teachers. The teachers will help Indonesian children. The children will help my country.”

“Then I came along and said nobody you invited to the conference had any answers. Sorry about that.”

Indira let loose her outrageous laugh. “Oh come on, Mr. Strange. I tell you many times already that I am not blind. I can see you do not trust easy. I also think you forgot how to trust yourself. But I trust you, and I know today you will help Chyka.”

I really had no idea how to respond.

“You wish to change the topic. I can tell.”

“No, we can talk about Chyka. Is it a good job to be a teacher here?”

Indira shrugged. “A government school is not good. I think maybe four hundred U.S. dollars a month is normal salary. Better than my loners, but still not good. Private teacher is good, and international teacher is rich, but only if you are foreigner.”

The train to Bogor finally pulled into the station.

“Thank you for doing this,” Indira said.

“You’re welcome.”

“I need one more favor.” Indira reached into her purse and came out with a nametag identical to the two she’d given me already. “Please wear your nametag all the time,” she said, struggling mightily to keep a straight face. She clipped it to my shirt before I could protest.

“Did you at least get me a first class seat?”

Indira laughed so hard, she could barely catch her breath. I saw why when I got on the train. It didn’t have any seats.

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The Rainy Season: “An indiscriminate giver and taker of life”

Prologue

Its headwaters flow out of the Tibetan Plateau along with the Huang He and Yangtze rivers in an area that is part of Qinghai Province, China. Its name is Lan Xang Jiang—literally, the “Turbulent River”—and it flows southeast through Yunnan Province and the Hengduan Mountains for more than fourteen hundred miles before it turns fully south and takes on a different name for the rest of its journey: the Mekong.

The_Rainy_Season_cover-HIGH-RESIts currents are no less turbulent in Burma or Laos where the river is a line of demarcation, the place where China ends and Southeast Asia begins—but here its name has a different meaning, given by peasant farmers in Laos who depend on its waters for fish, transportation, irrigation and life.

Mekong is the “Mother of Water.”

It’s an appropriate name given that the river crosses nearly three thousand miles on its journey from the mountainous terrain of Tibet to its delta in Vietnam before emptying into the South China Sea—and at various points along that path you can stand in Laos and look north across its waters into China, south into Cambodia, east into Vietnam, or west into Burma and Thailand.

No matter the border, the Mekong has been an indiscriminate giver and taker of life in Southeast Asia for thousands of years.

It’s a paradox like civilization’s other great rivers—be it the Nile, Indus, Euphrates, Ganges or China’s Sorrow the Huang He—for without its waters life is a daily struggle for survival; yet with its waters life is a daily bet that natural disasters and diseases will visit someone else’s village, because it’s not if, but when it’s going to happen that’s the relevant question.

My first glimpse of the Mekong came from the window seat of an MA-6 at about three thousand feet as it was on final approach to Pakse International Airport. The twin turbo-prop engines and narrow fuselage fitted for about four dozen or so passengers weren’t designed to instill one’s confidence in flying—and the plane being manufactured in China was no help in that regard, either—but for someone who has never had a fear of flying the one thing that was a very real concern as the plane descended through clouds and banked hard to the right was the weather. It was summer, the beginning of the rainy season in this part of the world, and for the last ten minutes the plane had been buffeted up, down, left and right at the behest of high winds and torrential rain—but then the river came into view, and whatever worried thoughts I’d had were pushed from my mind. I stared out the window, trying to take in as much as possible, because this river, more than anything else, was a visible symbol that represented why I’d embarked on this journey in the first place: my dad survived a war that he fought beside this river; my uncle died in that same war; and now I was here because of a war, too—that other indiscriminate giver and taker of life.

This new war began before my nieces were born but it continues today, even as they prepare for middle school, which means the only world they’ve ever known has been one that’s at war, and they can’t picture it in any other form. I belong to the other group—the one made up of people who not only remember how it was before but who, because of this war, have lost something along the way. Not a spouse or mom or dad or brother or sister, like so many others, but a small group of society that lost a part of our humanity all the same.

When you’ve lost something that important you go searching for it.

I did, anyway.

The MA-6 descended rather smoothly, all things considered—though we’d been so low flying over the river that it felt like we were making a water landing. I could see villages, boats and people whose way of life I’d known and experienced only through books, pictures, and videos, but one I’d soon walk amongst. The runway was an elevated strip of asphalt cut through a rice paddy, and the terminal was built to resemble a Buddhist temple. The plane landed and I disembarked with the rest of the passengers onto a tarmac area that was considerably lower than the runway. No doubt it was meant to facilitate the runoff of water during the rainy season. It also meant sloshing with carry-on luggage through seventy-five meters of ankle deep water.

But I didn’t care about that.

I stood on the tarmac as the other passengers scurried to the terminal. The sky was low and gray and I braced myself outwardly against the rain and wind. Inwardly I steeled myself for what was ahead. The first flight on this journey had been more than three weeks ago, but in reality my whole life had led me to this place. I had seventy-five meters left to cross on foot, one final passenger terminal to navigate, and a rendezvous with destiny on the other side—for at that point I would have gone as far as possible by all other means. For the rest of this journey I’d be relying on the river.

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On Teaching

A few quotes on teaching from You Look Like A Teacher, The Day Before 9/11, and The Rainy Season. You can read more Tucker Elliot quotes on Goodreads.


“In large part, we are teachers precisely because we remember what it was like to be a student. Someone inspired us. Someone influenced us. Or someone hurt us. And we’ve channeled that joy (or pain) into our own unique philosophies on life and learning and we’re always looking for an opportunity to share them—with each other, our students, parents, or in our communities.”

The_Day_Before_9-11_FINAL-RGB-72dpi“The only thing worse than losing hope is to be the reason someone else loses hope.”

“The reality for teachers is we don’t know if we’ve been successful or not. It takes years to see how a kid turns out, and it’s impossible to know what role we’ve played, for better or worse. It’s why so many teachers burn out—our successes are limited and rarely celebrated, but our failures are always out there for everyone to see and judge.”

“The task of teaching has never been more complex and the expectations that burden teachers are carried out in antiquated systems that offer little support—and yet, teachers are finding success every day.”

“Teaching isn’t rocket science. It’s about being engaged, listening, paying attention. Despite conventional wisdom, you don’t need to talk a lot to teach well. You do need to care, though. Not so much about what people think of you or whether or not they like you, but about the kids and doing what’s best for them.”

“It’d be easy to blame everything on 9/11 or the wars that came after. It’s really about the choices we made. By necessity we adapt to the realities of the world we live in, but if we forget that how we live shapes and influences the world around us, then we’ve already lost.”

“It felt like we were reliving the first day of the school year, when students and teachers do the get-to-know-you dance—teachers tell students something about who they are, students pretend to care, and then vice-versa.”

“The look of a smug teacher is priceless.”

“Educators are in the news, too. Usually that’s bad. I had a favorite college professor. He used to tell us, ‘If you make CNN as a teacher, you’re probably going to jail.”

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The Rainy Season: “like toughened, battle-tested men”

I was a teacher, athletic director and varsity soccer coach on an overseas military base on 9/11. The Rainy Season is my second memoir on the subject. This excerpt is set in Korea nearly eight months after 9/11.

The Rainy Season

EXCERPT

The picture.

I was impossibly young. I look back now and barely recognize the gaunt figure with the hard face. He is a stranger with a clenched jaw, dark, swollen and hollow eyes … until I see that I am flanked on either side by Sami and On-nee.

Then I remember everything.

Will jogged across the field and congratulated me. We shook hands like toughened, battle-tested men. After which Will had cracked a smile, and then he congratulated me a second time with half-a-man-hug, like friends do when they are done pretending to be toughened and battle-tested.

The_Rainy_Season_cover-HIGH-RESOur quest for trophies and Far East had begun ingloriously three years earlier with a spectacular thrashing from Will’s team in my first-ever match as varsity soccer coach, but I had promised Ray this moment would come …

Far East. Japan.

… and now Ray sprinted onto the field, bursting with pride and emotion. He shook my shoulders and proclaimed, “We did it! We did it!” For emphasis he tossed in a few colorful expletives. My student-athletes—including Ray’s daughter—were in earshot. But as Ray would say, they’re military kids. They were already familiar with the vernacular.

Our boys and girls teams gathered for a celebratory picture. I can still feel the icy Gatorade. It rained down on Sami and me. It’s one of the few times I can remember hearing On-nee shriek in laughter. Sami had loved it. She thought it was the single, most amazing thing she had ever experienced. I had acted annoyed. But late that night I stood in the middle of the field, alone, long after everyone else had gone home. I thought about my team, and I relished the orange stains on my jacket and jeans. I felt tremendous pride, and so much love, and my whole body began to shake with joy and trepidation. Joy, for our great achievement; trepidation, for adding three weeks to our season.

Far East meant two additional weeks of training followed by a weeklong trip to Japan with more than forty military students—all during a time in which analysts offered daily assessments that mutilating American military families was at the top of al-Qaeda’s wish list.

On a good night, I was sleeping three to four hours. On a bad night, I was taking two to three migraine injections.

On the day before 9/11 I had weighed 165 lbs and ran twenty-five miles a week—but eight months later I weighed 147 lbs and ran thirty-five miles a week.

Only I wasn’t healthier.

In fact, it was the opposite. I rarely ate real food. My diet was Pepsi and Maalox. My health was deteriorating rapidly.

Fatigue.

Stress.

But I didn’t take any sick days. I didn’t complain. I didn’t make excuses. My students’ parents were at war. I got up each morning and worked harder.

The Sunday after we clinched a trip to Far East, I met Sami and her mom outside the Post Exchange. Julie was Sami’s mom, and I think she was the quintessential military spouse—confident, unflappable, and resilient no matter the crisis. In an evening gown she’d be elegant and flawless, but give her a gun and cammies and she could pull that off, too. Julie was tall, blond and athletic, and Aaron—Sami’s dad—had by all accounts won the lottery.

On that Sunday afternoon, Julie bought fifteen kids meals from Burger King and I bought a case of grape soda from the Exchange.

Sami asked me, “Where’s On-nee?”

My phone beeped before I could answer.

“Is that On-nee?”

I checked the incoming text and told Sami, “Someone should really buy you a phone. Yes, it’s On-nee. She’s going to meet us there.”

Julie said, “She’s not getting a phone. You driving or am I?”

“Actually, I was going to walk.”

“Me too, mom.”

Our military community had four posts—one was thirty minutes away, but the main gates for the other three formed a loose triangle. If you used back alleys—and Korea is the world capital, I think, for back alleys—then you could navigate between any two points within that triangle in less than ten minutes. A large apartment complex facetiously referred to as the DoDDS ghetto was inside that triangle. I lived in the ghetto, along with many other teachers. Also inside that triangle was a tiny two-story house with a narrow yard, rusted swing set, and a beat-up ajumma cart.

Julie shrugged. “Easier than finding a place to park.”

Sami raced ahead, toward the pedestrian gate that led off-post.

I told Sami, “Stay close.”

I carried the grape soda and half the Burger King bags. Julie carried the rest. A fast-minute later we reached the pedestrian gate.

I told Sami, “Hold up.”

Sami jogged in place and talked smack. “Hurry, old man.”

“Bench warmer,” I said back.

“Hey, that’s low.”

Korean soldiers and police officers manned the gate, along with a few American MPs. I paused a beat to look around anyway. Inside the perimeter wall was our safety zone, but outside the wall the “buddy system” was in effect—and the reason the “buddy system” was in effect is why I paused. The threat to Americans was very real.

I saw nothing unusual, so I told Sami, “Okay, stay close.”

Sami took off again, like a boisterous puppy freed from its leash.

Julie said, “This works better anyway. It gives us a chance to talk.”

“About what?”

“You know all about Sami’s incentives, of course.”

I nodded. “Sure.” Sami’s parents had made plans to travel to Japan for Far East—and they had also bought tickets for the 2002 World Cup, which was being played in Korea and Japan only a few days after Far East.

“All year we promised to take her to the World Cup. A once-in-a-lifetime chance, right? I mean it’s being played in our own backyard, practically. We told her maybe Far East. If she kept her grades up and did well in school. Well, she’s been spectacular. It’s her best year ever, and not just academically. She’s never fit in or belonged to anything so special. She’s never been this excited about school or anything else for that matter.”

“What’s the problem?”

“Iraq is next. You know?”

“That’s what everyone is saying.”

“I’m not just saying. It’s a fact. Aaron already got orders.”

“Orders? To where?”

“Sami and I are going back to Tampa. Aaron is going to Qatar to plan Persian Gulf The Sequel, coming to a desert near you in about a year’s time. Maybe less. Aaron says next March. It’s really not something I should joke about. It’s important, I know that, and no one needs to explain it to me. But Sami is going to be devastated. She’d be okay if it was only the World Cup, but it’s going to kill her to miss Far East.”

“You can’t stay until the end of the school year? Or go back separately?”

She shook her head, and her voice broke just a little. “Aaron is going to war. He needs us, and we need to be with him every day we can.”

“When do you leave?”

“The same week you go to Japan.”

We caught up to Sami at an intersection and she jogged in place again. “Why are you out of breath, old man?”

I wasn’t out of breath. Or old. I said, “Practice squad bench warmer.”

Sami popped me in the shoulder with a left jab and a right cross, and when the green man lit up she hit the crosswalk at a full-on sprint.

“She’s going to be devastated,” Julie said, again.

“When are you going to tell her?”

“I don’t know. Maybe tomorrow. Aaron thinks he can get us orders to Germany.”

“Germany? What for?”

“As we build-up to Iraq he’ll be in and out of Germany. We could see him maybe once a month. If we stay in Tampa then we won’t see him for a year or more. I should be grateful Aaron’s career is fast-tracked. Most spouses don’t have options.”

“I’m sorry.”

Up ahead was the front entrance to the market. Sami held up, but Julie called out, “You’re fine. Go ahead.” Sami raced headlong into the teeming market with its warren of dirty stalls and rancid smells.

I thought, Sami, wait … but Sami and her mom had visited the orphans every week for months. The market was safe enough. I said nothing.

Julie said, “You know about her friend Angel?”

“Sami talks about her all the time. Angel’s mom is pregnant.”

“Angel’s family is in Germany. Maybe God has a hand in all of it.”

Julie and I entered the market just as Sami jetted around a corner and into a narrow alley.

Julie said, “Sami tells you everything, doesn’t she?”

I gave her my best noncommittal shrug.

“Of course she does. So you already know that Angel’s family isn’t the happiest. I’ve been bitter lately to be stuck in Korea with Aaron off God-knows-where half the time—but Angel’s mom is in a worse situation. At least I’m not pregnant.”

Julie and I made it around the corner and into the narrow alley. Sami’s red hoodie was a blur in the distance. She broke left and out of sight into yet another alley.

“Sami tell you Aaron and I had a big fight?”

“No,” I lied.

“He’s already been to Qatar two or three times. I thought he was in Tampa.”

“I know it’s been tough,” I said, wishing she would change the topic, and suddenly feeling anxious about Sami being out of sight.

“Angel’s mom—”

Julie never finished her thought. We heard scuffling and a loud clatter in the next alley, and then a man began to shout angrily in Hangul.


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The Rainy Season: “for every war there is a hero”

My memoir The Rainy Season is set to be released this fall by Black Mesa Publishing. Here’s a quick/first look at a scene in Indonesia that plays a pivotal role in the story. In this scene we had just left an orphanage in Bogor and were on the highway to Jakarta.

The Rainy Season

The_Rainy_Season_cover-HIGH-RESWe rode in silence for the rest of the trip. Somewhere along the way Maya and Gita fell asleep. A large shopping center alongside the highway had “Indah” in its name. I thought, it’s got nothing on Chyka’s orphans. In the distance a train was heading south. I thought about the rooftop kids.

I felt helpless.

At last a highway sign indicated we should stay left for the airport or merge right for Jakarta. Far to our left I could see a commercial airliner on final approach to Soekarno-Hatta. Far to our right I could see the outline of tall city buildings. The imagery was hard to ignore. In the midst was an impoverished world filled with dangerous radicals. Some believed it was God’s will to crash airplanes into buildings. Some recruited children to self-detonate on buses and in coffee shops. It must be incredibly difficult to hold fast to hope when you live in such a world. It’s also hard to keep faith with humanity when religious ideology is used as an impetus for war. But I believe that for every war there is a hero … and for me, Jakarta will always be Indira’s city.

The traffic snarled and soon the streets became narrow and dark, almost sinister. Our green mini-bus made its way deep into the shadow of Central Jakarta, and I knew we were almost home.


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Gates Brown and the Gods of Baseball

PRODUCT DESCRIPTION

The Sandlot meets Field of Dreams as three young brothers chase baseball immortality in this coming-of-age story from the best-selling and award-winning author of The Day Before 9/11The Rainy Season, and 11 Bombs.

Gates Brown and the Gods of BaseballMatty Ryan—or as he’s known on the sandlot, “Matt the Bat”—is desperate. For three long years he’s been battling his brothers and best friend for the title “Sandlot Home Run Champion” … but now time is running out for the baseball-crazed middle schooler.

The title will be won soon. He can feel it.

But for Matty and his brothers, something magical is in the air … and it’s bigger than a made-up title for a game played on a backyard sandlot. It’s an extraordinary talisman—a gift from the gods of baseball—and it has the power to make all their baseball dreams come true.

EXCERPT

PART I

“Mustard and Relish”

Gates Brown went to jail for a short spell as a teenager. He would later quip that in high school he’d taken some English, a little math, and a few hubcaps. A black male in mid-1950s Ohio would have found it exceedingly difficult to overcome such severe missteps during adolescence. Maybe it was a loving family member or a caring teacher that helped Gates Brown get his life on track. I don’t know, but if I had to guess I’d go with … a coach.

Whoever it was, Gates Brown could have wound up in jail long term—or worse, dead—but instead he was a profoundly different person in the 1960s. He was also a professional baseball player.

Gates Brown was not a superstar, but he was beloved in Detroit—which fate or luck or the gods of baseball had declared would be his home for the entirety of his thirteen major league seasons. Tiger Stadium was only one hundred and forty miles from the pasture where Gates Brown had played high school baseball.

He was in his sixth season as a part-time outfielder for the Detroit Tigers when he made national headlines in 1968 for his exploits on the diamond … though not entirely because of his skills. The always-pudgy Brown went into the clubhouse and grabbed a couple of hot dogs during a game, but before he’d finished eating, his manager sent him into the game as a pinch-hitter. Not one to waste good food, what he did next is what people primarily remember about his career: Brown stuffed the hot dogs inside his jersey to hide them from his manager, stepped up to the plate, and ripped a liner toward the right field gap.

It should have been an easy double, but the right fielder made a great play and cut the ball off before it could split the gap and roll to the fence.

Gates Brown was never fleet-footed, but he was a ballplayer and he knew how to hustle. He legged it out and slid safely into second on a bang-bang play. It was only after a few perplexed stares from the umpire and opposing players that he realized—much to his horror—that he had mustard and relish all over his jersey. Gates Brown hustled back to the dugout after the inning was over, despite the fact he must have known what was coming.

Mayo Smith was Detroit’s manager.

The ensuing conversation between Smith and Brown wasn’t for kids or the fainthearted. Smith cut loose a torrent of profanity, levied a $100 fine on the spot, launched a second profanity-laced diatribe, and then, eventually, he asked: “Why?”

Gates Brown smiled sheepishly. “I was hungry.”

As for his team, Detroit was the best in baseball and claimed the AL pennant with 103 regular season wins. The Tigers would face the NL champion St. Louis Cardinals in the 1968 World Series.

It was an epic showdown that featured some great individual performances—most notably in game one, when Cardinals’ ace Bob Gibson notched seventeen strikeouts to set a postseason record.

And here our story gets interesting …

In that same game, Mayo Smith sent Gates Brown on as a pinch-hitter in the eighth inning. The fans in Busch Stadium barely noticed him. And why should they? Gates Brown was destined to be a number, just one more victim for Gibson.

But Gates Brown didn’t strike out.

He didn’t get a hit either. Gates Brown hit a lazy fly ball. The grainy black and white game footage shows Gates Brown hustling around first and on his way to second when the ball was caught in shallow left field. An easy, routine out.

Hardly dramatic.

Stay with me though. This is important. Gates Brown slowed a bit as he neared second base, and then he jogged across the infield grass and back to the Tigers dugout. Gibson’s masterpiece was complete a few minutes later and the Cardinals had won the opening game of the World Series.

In a best-of-seven series, and with the knowledge that the dominant Gibson would surely be pitching again in game four and, if necessary, a decisive game seven … it was literally do-or-die for Detroit in game two.

The Tigers won.

The series was tied a game apiece. However, Gates Brown did not play. He sat on the bench—sans hot dogs—for the entire game.

St. Louis won games three and four. Gates Brown was a spectator for both games. He never even sniffed the diamond. The Cardinals were one win away from clinching the World Series … but then the unthinkable happened.

Detroit won games five and six.

The series was tied, but no thanks to Gates Brown. He hadn’t gotten off the bench since game one. The only time he’d been on the field was during pregame warm-up. But the Tigers had rallied and forced a decisive game seven.

Against Bob Gibson.

Gibson’s record setting performance in game one had given the Cards a 4-0 victory. In game four the Cardinals had won 10-1 … and Bob Gibson had not only pitched his second complete game, but he’d also hit a two-run homer.

The odds were long against Detroit, but this was exactly what kids dream about as they race barefoot across backyard sandlots—long odds, a chance to be the hero, to win the big game and be the absolute best in baseball. Someone would have to step up for Detroit.

And why not Gates Brown?

Gates Brown must have thought he’d get a second chance. After all, he’d been called on to face Bob Gibson in game one … but fate or luck or the gods of baseball had a different plan. Gates Brown would not be the hero. He got one at bat as a pinch-hitter in game one, and then he never got off the pine for the rest of the series.

I learned about Gates Brown when I was a kid.

There were heroes on the diamond to close out the 1968 World Series. Gibson was dominant once again, but he was matched inning after inning by Mickey Lolich—and it was scoreless until the seventh. That’s when Jim Northrup stepped to the plate and won the World Series with a two-out, two-run triple … for Detroit.

Gates Brown was an improbable world champion.

But he would never be a hero.

I always wondered, how badly did it hurt after a lifetime of dreams and hard work to make it to the World Series … and then get only one at bat? It was the most painful baseball story I’d ever heard. Gates Brown would go on and play another seven years in the majors, but he never again made it to the World Series. A thirteen-year major league career … and yet Gates Brown is remembered for hot dogs, mustard and relish on his jersey.

PART II

“The Sandlot”

I grew up outside and barefoot in rural Florida. My town—think Podunk—had one stoplight, forty churches, sixty lakes and two thousand blue collar workers who mostly had to drive elsewhere to look for whatever work they could get. I had a big brother named Aaron and a kid brother named Eddie. My name is Matthew Ryan (no relation to Nolan, sadly), but my friends used to call me Matty or—my favorite—Matt the Bat, if we were on the sandlot behind my parents’ house.

I should probably clear up one thing right away: we did have good shoes, it’s just we wore them to church three times a week. If we wore them while traipsing through the woods or streaking around our sandlot base paths then we would have to clean them every Wednesday and twice on Sunday.

Barefoot, then.

I also said rural Florida. In reality, I meant forty-miles-to-the-nearest-fast-food-restaurant-rural Florida. Maybe that helps with the image in your mind. Add the ubiquitous four-wheel-drive trucks, gun racks, country music radio stations and Bibles, and now you’re closing in on the full picture.

It was the mid-1980s and I’d seen a few color TVs in Sears and Kmart, but cable hadn’t come to our neck of the woods and my parents weren’t willing to buy an expensive TV just to see our rabbit-ears-antenna-fuzz in color. But a friend of mine did get an Atari for his birthday. Pong and Asteroids were all the rage for about three weeks, and then life got back to normal. For my ninth birthday I got a pellet gun. It was taken away three days later when I won a bet with Aaron, who didn’t think I could hit our dad’s dog in the butt as it chased a squirrel across our backyard.

I had my own baseballs, bats, gloves and hats—we all did.

I also had one thing no one else did: an enormous cowlick. It was cute for a three-year-old. Not so much for a ten-year-old ballplayer. Aaron would take off his batting helmet and his drenched hair would be matted against his forehead. Just like a real ballplayer. My hair would be matted for about two seconds, and then an obstinate sun-bleached lock would pop up and begin doing the wave.

One night I found a grainy black-and-white picture of my dad. He had a shaved head and an army uniform. I asked my dad, “Were you a soldier?”

He nodded, and then took away the picture.

It would take a few more years for me to understand how a granite wall in Washington could bring my dad to tears, but for the moment it was enough that I asked him, “Can you shave my head?” That night I sat shirtless in the yard, and I cheered when the mighty cowlick fell to its death. It took three or four rounds of butchering with a well-oiled pair of scissors, and then came the water hose, disposable razors and shaving cream. Then it was done, and I felt like a real ballplayer. I felt like a man. It was an amazing childhood. I wish I had appreciated it more then. Maybe it always works that way.

Aaron was fourteen months older and a year ahead of me in school; Eddie was five years younger. And no, my story is not about “middle child syndrome.” But did I get upset when my teachers greeted me on the first day of school with “oh Aaron was just the best student ever”? Sure, a little. Was it annoying that Eddie got to do “big boy” things when he was just a tike? Maybe.

Okay, I was in the middle … but I wasn’t stuck.

Me, Aaron and Eddie were close. If Aaron was an ace student and teachers’ pet who also received an unbelievable amount of attention from cheerleaders, then I was cool with it. If Eddie had twice the personality and life experiences of any kid his age in the entire state of Florida, well, good for him. At least I had one thing going in my favor. Ace student? Beloved by teachers and cheerleaders? Crack sense of humor? An abundance of good luck? Ha, not even close.

Something better.

Off-the-charts better … because I was Matt the Bat, and I could hit a baseball a country mile.

Atlanta had a terrible baseball team—it’s just a fact—but Dale Murphy was my hero and lazy summer nights were spent rooting for the hapless Braves as they struggled to achieve something close to mediocrity on the AM dial. My parents built the first and only house they would ever own during this same period of time. My dad had been an outstanding high school athlete. My mom had won a beauty pageant in college. They’d met, married, and set out to build their own version of the American dream.

Now my dad was a businessman and my mom was, well … Super Mom. Paul, my best friend who you’ll meet shortly, once said, “Hey, Matty, think your mom can throw us some extra batting practice?”

You see?

Super Mom.

My dad carried a few extra pounds thanks to job-related stress and long years spent behind a desk—but that didn’t slow him from playing ball with his sons. He’d race home at lunch for a quick game of catch, and then in the evenings he’d hit us fly balls until literal bats—the nocturnal kind—came out to play in the darkness.

Soon after we moved into the new house a man came around with a huge tractor and backhoe. He hauled away a few trees. He trimmed countless limbs. He worked magic with the earth and rid the yard of wild shrubs … and lo and behold, when the work was completed our backyard had been transformed into a sandlot diamond with an in-ground swimming pool in the deepest recesses of centerfield.

We spent countless hours on our sandlot.

The best game in town was plastic baseball. It wasn’t wiffle ball in the sense you see kids playing today—it was baseball, but the bats and balls were made of hard plastic. We played games, kept stats, tracked won-loss records, home run totals, single game records … the level of detail in our record keeping was astounding. Our friends came over and we’d play, argue, fight, play, argue, fight … and play some more.

After all, we were boys.

And speaking of friends … I met Paul for the first time when he was three hours old—which made me about two-and-a-half hours old. Our moms shared the same doctor and delivery and recovery rooms in the hospital. Call it fate or luck or divine intervention from the gods of baseball, but Paul’s family lived in the same backwoods Podunk town as my mom and dad. We were practically neighbors, and soon we’d be teammates. Paul and I would play our first official game together as five-year-old tee ballers, and we would play our last game together as high school seniors. Our first game would be glorious. Our last game would destroy my life.

I learned many baseball stories from my Grandpa Joe—Babe Ruth’s “called shot” in the World Series; Lou Gehrig’s “luckiest man” speech; Ted Williams’ home run in the final at bat of his career—but my favorite was Josh Gibson. If you believe the legend, then Gibson, who was an iconic Negro Leagues player, had once hit a baseball completely out of Yankee Stadium.

For the record, I believed it.

It was a feat that no major league player had ever achieved. In fact, most people thought it was impossible. But it was the ultimate goal for sluggers … and I was Matt the Bat, remember? The backwoods and often backward Podunk town where we grew up was a long way from the Bronx, but why should our goals and dreams be any different? The tree line in our backyard had been trimmed to create a natural and very reachable sandlot home run fence in left and right field, but the house and covered back patio that were beyond the swimming pool in straightaway center were a bonus gift from the gods of baseball.

This was our Yankee Stadium.

We had a solemn conversation during our inaugural sandlot season. Paul said, “I don’t think it’s possible.”

Aaron, in his intellectually-superior tone, said, “The wind will be stronger in the afternoons. It could help like it does sometimes at Wrigley Field. I think we should chart home run balls and wind direction.”

For a long beat no one said anything … but then Eddie, Paul and I laughed raucously. You see our parents had banned verbal insults and hand gestures from our backyard sandlot and the consequences for even the mildest violation were swift and severe. A “stupid!” would earn a one-week suspension from all sandlot-related activity. So we adapted and used over-the-top non-verbal cues instead. The right look or an exuberant laugh could adequately convey “stupid!” or pretty much anything else we didn’t want to be caught saying.

Aaron’s face turned red. “Fine.”

I said, “First one to hit a home run over the house should get a title.”

“A title?” Aaron repeated.

“Yeah. Like Hank Aaron is the All-Time Home Run King. First one to hit a ball over the house should be called the Sandlot Home Run Champion.”

“I like it,” Paul said.

Aaron shrugged. “Fine. But we need rules.”

Paul laughed again. “You need rules. The rest of us are cool.”

Aaron ignored the comment. “It can’t bounce off the patio and over the roof. It can’t bounce off anything and over the roof. It has to clear the backside of the roof on the fly. Got it?”

Paul said, “Write it down Einstein.”

“Got it?” Aaron said again.

Paul smirked.

Eddie nodded solemnly.

“Got it,” I said, and then we spent the rest of the day trying to hit a plastic baseball completely out of our Yankee Stadium.

Anna was my age and strawberry-blond with tiny red freckles on her cheeks and nose. We had met in fourth grade when I was forced to sit beside her on a crowded school bus. After a few awkward minutes, Anna had whispered, “You smell like fish.”

I shrugged. “I went fishing.”

“Before school?”

“Yeah.”

“Oh.”

We had been bus seatmates—and maybe even friends—ever since. But now we were in junior high, and suddenly Anna lost her baby fat and grew three inches taller than me. It bothered me at first, because I had been waiting for the growth spurt my parents said was on its way. But then Paul and some of my friends had begun hassling Anna about her recent pimples outbreak. That bothered me too, only in a different sort of way.

It was very confusing.

On this particular Friday afternoon, Anna and I were seated in the middle of the bus and on our way home from school. Eddie and his elementary school pals sat a few rows ahead of us. Aaron and Paul sat a few rows behind us.

Anna told me, “You’re in a crabby mood.”

“I have a problem.”

“You have two brothers plus Paul. If you only have one problem, consider yourself lucky.”

I did a quick three-sixty to make sure no one else could hear me, and then I said, “Aaron hit a monster home run last week.”

Anna’s face twisted into “give-me-a-break” mode. She said, “You’re so weird, Matty.”

“I thought for sure it was going to clear the house. I got lucky because the wind had died five minutes earlier. If the wind had been blowing to center—”

“And you’re pathetic.”

“What? Why?”

“I know all about the home run competition. It’s all you’ve talked about for three years. But now you have an actual problem staring you in the face, and you’re so obsessed with baseball that you haven’t even noticed it yet. Pathetic.”

“Actual problem?”

Anna rolled her eyes. “The one we talked about during lunch today.”

In reply, I gave my best “look-who’s-loony-now” expression—a carryover from my parents hard and fast rule about insults on the sandlot.

“You have no idea what I’m talking about, do you?”

I gathered my backpack. “Next stop is mine.”

“We only have one week left until summer, Matty.”

“Right. You mentioned that at lunch. You see? I was listening.”

Anna rolled her eyes a second time just as the bus came to a stop in front of my parents’ house. “You’re such a lost cause. Good luck with your baseball game.”

Now I smiled. “Thanks, see you Monday.”

Anna shook her head coyly and gave me a folded piece of paper.

“What’s this?”

“A note, obviously. You moron.”

No girl had ever passed me a note. “What am I supposed to do with it?”

“Just read it! Okay?”

A chorus of oohs and aahs made its way up and down the aisle. Anna’s face was crimson, and she turned toward the window to try and hide it. I felt more confused than ever. “See you Monday,” I said, again.

I raced up our long driveway and inside the house as Paul and Aaron assaulted me with typical junior high barbs regarding Anna, her feverish face, and the note I was guarding so closely it could have been a Honus Wagner tobacco card.

As for my quest to be “Sandlot Home Run Champion” … Anna had been right. We’d been chasing that title for three long and exceptionally frustrating years. Eddie wasn’t a serious threat because of his age and size—but I hadn’t added any inches or pounds in months, and now Aaron was in the midst of a full-on pedal-to-the-metal growth spurt. I felt panicked and stressed. It was a huge problem, and it was made worse by the fact Aaron had nearly won the title last week. I hung a breaking ball out over the plate and Aaron’s eyes had lit up big as saucers. If he’d been wearing shoes then he’d have come out of them. That’s how fast and hard he jumped on that mistake of a pitch.

I hung my head as soon as the ball left the bat.

Aaron had flipped the bat and yelled, “Go! Go! Go!”

Paul was in centerfield and he yelled, “No! No! No!”

Eddie was playing left-center, and he tore after it, as if he could leap and bring it back. Fat chance. It was long gone, an absolute bomb. And then at the last possible fraction of a second, the ball had inexplicably and gloriously dived. It was easily the farthest of the thousands of home runs we’d hit during the past three years, but it hit the awning ten feet short of sandlot immortality.

Aaron was furious.

Paul was giddy.

Eddie was encouraging. “Aaron, that was so close! You almost did it!”

I felt relieved, but it was short-lived. Aaron’s rapidly developing muscles were a major problem. Now it was Friday afternoon, one week until summer vacation. The title would be won soon. I could feel it. I had to do something drastic, and fast.

I thought about a fight Aaron and I had a few months earlier. He had punched me in the stomach, and then lied about it to our parents. Aaron had gotten away with it, because his punch hadn’t left any visible marks on my body and our parents didn’t know which one of us was lying … which gave me an idea.

Aaron would bat first this afternoon. I took the mound, with Paul in centerfield and Eddie in left-center. On our sandlot it was possible to field nine-man teams or play one-on-one or any other combination.

We were limited only by our imaginations.

We used a tin barrel salvaged from our great-grandmother’s farm as a makeshift catcher and ball-strike umpire. It sat on its side with an old office chair offering support. A fastball that hit inside the barrel made a distinctive ping, but whether or not it actually hit inside the barrel was irrelevant to our game—any pitch that hit the barrel was an automatic called strike.

It was mistake-free, and a perfect umpire.

Sometimes a breaking ball would land inside the barrel and the spin would cause it to circle furiously like a wheel being spun by a mouse. It was kind of cool, especially if the pitch had been taken as a called third strike.

We modified a few baseball rules for our sandlot: two outs an inning, “pitcher’s hand” and “ghost runners” to name a few. For “pitcher’s hand” to work on bang-bang plays the batter would yell “safe!” when his foot hit the bag at first, and the pitcher would yell “out!” when he caught the ball—either by fielding it, or receiving a throw from another fielder.

We even had double plays.

If a “ghost runner” was on base in a force out situation, then the pitcher could get a double play by fielding the ball and touching the pitcher’s mound before the batter reached first base.

On this Friday afternoon, my first pitch drilled Aaron on his left thigh. Aaron nearly violated our parents’ rule. “Ouch! Watch it—”

“Careful,” I chided. “Use a wordy dird and you’ll be on the patio all weekend long.”

Aaron took a calming breath. “Man on first. Don’t hit me again.”

I nodded, and then drilled Aaron in the back.

“Hey!”

“Sorry,” I lied.

“First and second,” Aaron said, angrily.

My next three pitches were in the dirt, and now Aaron was angry and frustrated. Perfect.

“Three balls, no strikes,” Aaron said.

I nodded, and then drilled him for the third time.

Are you kidding me?” he yelled.

I shrugged, as nonchalant as possible. “If I’m gonna walk you, I might as well hit you.”

“You turd!”

“Got you,” I said.

Eddie yelled, “Mom! Aaron is cussing at Matty!”

Aaron shook the bat at me. “You did that on purpose.”

I smiled, smugly. “Prove it.”

Aaron had to sit on the back patio and watch us play the rest of the afternoon. He should have been suspended for a week, but apparently my smugness had tipped off our mom that something else was going on. But for the moment I didn’t have to worry about Aaron stealing my title.

I’d worry about it again tomorrow.

That night I closed my bedroom door, sat on the floor, and unfolded Anna’s note. In large block letters she’d written, “You should call me this summer. I’ll come watch you play baseball.” Beneath it she’d written her phone number.

Call me?

I had never called a girl. It felt weird—maybe even good—but I had no idea what I was supposed to do.

I woke early on Saturday and played fungo while Aaron and Eddie slept. A fungo is a special bat used during fielding practice—but it was also one of our favorite words, and used generically fungo could mean practice or even a solo game.

It was also a great euphemism.

“I’m going to hit some fungoes” with carefully placed emphasis was a not-so-subtle threat between brothers—and we generally got away with using it.

The game fungo was great because no one had to pitch or run bases. The batter would simply toss a ball in the air and hit it as far as possible, and then we used our game experience to judge if it was an out or a base hit. A game was ten swings, an out was minus two points, and a hit was one point per base. A perfect game was forty points—ten home runs—but a typical score was a more realistic twenty points.

I had already played six or seven games when Aaron opened the back door and yelled, “Paul will be here in five minutes! Five minutes to game time!”

Aaron slammed the door shut.

The living room was on the other side of the back door. It had a large window, and I could see Eddie and Aaron racing about and getting ready to play. I have no explanation for what happened next. I panicked, obviously. But why?

Because—

Today.

It’s going to be won today.

—I had a sense, a premonition that I couldn’t ignore.

Aaron opened the back door and yelled, “Three minutes! Three minutes to game time!” Aaron slammed the door again, and I knew the next time it opened that it would be too late. I was out of time, and I had no other choice but to run full speed to centerfield and hurl a ball high into the air and over the house … and that’s exactly what I did.

I ran inside and screamed, “I did it! I did it!”

Aaron turned pale. “No, no, no!”

I raced out the front door with Aaron, Eddie and my parents close behind. I found the yellow plastic baseball and said, “You see it! You see it!”

My dad picked it up. “Congratulations, Matty! Matt the bat, Sandlot Home Run Champion!”

I began to jump up and down. “Yes, yes, yes!

Aaron yelled, “No, it doesn’t count!”

“Yes it does! I did it!”

Aaron shook his head violently. “It wasn’t a game situation! No one was pitching! That’s a rule, someone has to be pitching!”

“You’re jealous. Stop making up rules!”

Aaron began to plead. “But dad…”

“Hold on, son. Everyone calm down. Matty did hit a home run over the roof—”

“Yes I did, I really did!”

My dad hesitated a beat. “That’s what I said, Matty.”

“But—”

My mom said, “Matty?” She said it with the voice. The one every mom keeps in her arsenal. An awkward half-a-beat later my parents recognized the full truth buried beneath my vehemence.

“Busted,” Aaron said gleefully.

“Shut up, turd!”

Which only made things worse. I had to sit on the back patio and watch Aaron, Eddie and Paul play without me for a solid week—and unlike big league players, I didn’t get an appeal or an arbitration hearing. It was the longest week of my life, and all these years later I still remember the day my suspension was over. It was a magical day, and it changed everything. It was the same day Gates Brown came into our lives.

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Contents

Part I

“Mustard and Relish”

Part II

“The Sandlot”

Part III

“The Talisman”

Part IV

“Curses”

Part V

“Heroes”

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