ARLINGTON, SOUTH DAKOTA, 1959 — Grampa had made a barbecue grill out of cement blocks, and we scorched hot dogs and hamburgers and ate them on buttered — buttered! — buns. After lunch Dad and Grampa played catch, Dad wearing my catcher’s mitt, and Grampa wearing his old Bill Doak glove with the stubby fingers.
Grampa sometimes used to play catch with me, but he was always so careful. He’d be wearing his little half smile. I’d pound the mitt, and yell, “Pour it in, Grampa! C’mon!” And he’d toss one easy as pie right into my glove — outstanding control.
“Throw me a knuckler, Grampa, c’mon!”
Grampa gripped his knuckler with two fingers, and I could see how he threw it, he let it slip — I always had to grab a knuckler with three fingernails and push it, flinging my hand open. Here it came, lazily drifting through the air, Grampa’s knuckleball, rotating half a turn in sixty feet, and he’d never throw it hard enough to break or drop or anything. Not to me.
It’s a struggle to think how old my father was that day; just past thirty, a full generation younger than I am now. Still kind of a skinny kid, with all that great black hair he always had, and that I never inherited; his face open, smiling, his tongue stuck out one corner of his mouth as he followed the flight of the ball.
Grampa’s half-smile widened a bit. I was standing by the barbecue, off to one side, between Dad and Grampa. Grampa fired the knuckler. Right out of his hand it began to fizz like a root-beer float. Halfway between the two of them it shuddered, accelerated, and dipped. Dad made a grab for it as it skittered between his legs, missed, looked up, grinned, and gave one explosive laugh: “Ha!”
Mom always says Grampa was born in the wrong time. I’m not sure about that. The wrong place, maybe. He was born about the same time as Babe Ruth and Christy Mathewson, and about the same time, too, as Winston Churchill. Grammy, who was three years older, was born less than a decade after Custer’s Last Stand — which happened not that far away from her home town in South Dakota.
When I was a kid in Arlington, a man in our church was 107, amiable and deaf — Grammy could talk to him, though, and once talking, he never shut up. “He’s mine,” I remember Grammy saying to him once, tousling my hair, and meaning me. So I knew a man who had known the Civil War, and the west before barbed wire. What’s the lesson in that? We’re all so very, very young.
Still, it’s such a long, long time ago that I was a boy, in a world no kid today can even begin to understand. I feel like Huckleberry Finn, trying to tell them about it; and for their part, they look at me as though I’m a tree suddenly come to life, presuming to talk.
ONE TIME THE SUMMER before Grampa died I rode my bike to the ballpark to watch the men’s team play a night game. Grampa was in his police uniform, on duty, and with half the town at the park, he spent most of the game wandering through the grandstand, talking to his friends. The umpire chain-smoked, tossing his lit cigarettes to the dirt behind home plate for safekeeping between batters. Arlington’s men, a hard, loud, big-gutted crew, played some other small town, and I don’t remember who won. When the game finished up, Grampa gave me a ride home, and after our toast and coffee with the crickets singing outside, we all went to bed, me in the annex room by the back door that we called “the little kitchen,” with the windows on three sides, and Grammy and Grampa in their room on the other side of the kitchen proper. No doors closed anywhere. My room didn’t even have a door.
Halfway into dreams, I woke up.
“Oh, no, Grammy! Grampa! Oh, no!”
I had forgotten my bike at the ballpark.
Grampa got up, pulled his trousers and a jacket on over his pajamas, and drove me to the ballpark, all dark, where, leaning against the right field fence, just where I had left it, we found my bicycle. No lock. No chain. Nobody had bothered it. I got on the bike and pedaled out of the rutted parking lot, with Grampa right behind me lighting the way with the headlights of the old Ford. Up the hill through the sleeping town, down the long slope by the schoolhouse, around the sharp corner to the right, then left up our street, the Ford muttering along behind, just the two of us all alone in beams of light in the middle of the night.
Back home, Grampa stepped out of his trousers and jacket and got into bed. Grammy laughed. I went to sleep feeling nothing but gratitude, not knowing it was possible to feel anything but that — no guilt, no remorse, no stupidity; these are the overlays of the afteryears. Grampa went to sleep without a word, without a murmur, his duty done, his grandson safe, home.