Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Wednesday Whatnot: My Own Quisenberry Tree, Ten Years After, and Tornado Sirens

If you've never been here before, well welcome. There is no longer rhyme nor reason to the postings here, but such are the times.

It has been a long, long time since anything original, of substantial length, found its way to post format here inside the House of Georges, so I'm not sure if what follows the jump is any good. Hell, I'm not sure if anything every published on here was any good, but this piece bit at me to be written, and when I started it, it felt good.

I wasn't sure where it would end, but I knew it was going to keep gnawing away at me If I didn't finish it. Now I have, and with the click of your mouse, may ye be the judge of the miscellaneous ramblings that follow.

As a kid, it seemed like we moved around a lot. I’m certain there are others who moved more, and we were a far cry from the kids of military families that you meet at school, but my elementary school, as a kindergartner, closed after one year there. After a new school for first grade, and in the window of time between the beginning of kindergarten and the end of first grade, my folks divorced and started seeing other people. My dad got this bacheloresque apartment with a Murphy bed, which, for the record, was the coolest thing on the planet for weekends with him, and when that lease was up, he moved into this house with these two gals, Tammy and Cheryl. They were nice enough, didn’t mind my sister and I being over on weekends, and didn’t even raise too much of a stink the Saturday my sister did a somersault onto their new puppy.

But then relationships for each of my parents developed, and each pair took the second-marriage plunge. My mom’s new husband saw a work transfer take him immediately to Atlanta. My dad and his new wife got a condo. It was a neat place. We spent a lot of weekends there. I remember the negative space in between each stair that we’d unsuccessfully hide in, the yellow CostCo stool in the kitchen that I’d sit on while my stepmom prepared meals. And there was the neighbor whose condo shared a wall with theirs. He had this brown hound named Sam who seemed to spend every night outside, which is sad in and of itself, but even sadder considering that for every police, fire, and ambulance siren –- or tornado-siren test -– he would croon a big, long howl for every emitted wail.

Dad told me that the piercing sounds hurt his sensitive ears. It used to drive me bananas, and even scare me a touch, but in hindsight, I think Sam was lonely. But this condo was neat in that it sat on a corner lot, was largely undeveloped, and as a result, had significant land with tall grasses outside its front door, and beyond the back-yard fence. And as a project in first grade, each kid in Miss Gravino’s room was given a baby tree to plant. I remember feeling nervous because our house was on the market, and we were set to move to Atlanta, so I didn’t know where I would plant my tree. Dad, whether he meant to or not, always had a strange way of soothing qualms and finding solutions, and so it was decided that we would plant it off to the side of the condo, about 50 feet from the front door, visible from the spot where he parked his van.

And so we planted it, right before we joined my stepdad in Atlanta. That same summer, my dad and his wife had a baby girl. By the following summer, they were expecting their second, and had thus, outgrown the condo. So they found a new home out south, and it was a sad day to say good-bye to our tree, having noticed its growth on visits in town to see dad. But dad promised, as he was prone to do, to bring me by to check in on the tree, which we did, and it was always a soothing visit. It’s like Joe Posnanski says: our memory is a strange thing. I can remember what that condo looked like, inside and out. I can remember receiving the tree in my first-grade classroom, and I remember the day that we planted it, but I can’t remember what kind of tree it was.

What I do remember is that my dad swung by the condo periodically to check on the tree, and at one point, my guess is that he discovered markings and ropes and signs of forthcoming construction right there in the space the tree occupied. Either that or he had a conversation with someone about it, but either way, he contacted the appropriate person/people, and to my amazement, got them to agree to move the tree just out of the way of the incoming plot on which they were likely going to build a new unit. He informed me of these proceedings via mail, as he, for a stretch, was really, really good about writing to us in Atlanta. And I remember being so excited to see with my own eyes that the tree’s life had been spared. I think that I questioned the plans to add on to the complex, and had a hard time understanding why they would choose to extend the lot when we had so clearly laid claim to it by planting our tree.

But nevertheless, dad took me by the condo the next time we were in town for a visit, and there it was: a precious square of pink tape surrounding the tree’s new section of earth, and some staked-down rope, that anchored the need to straighten the tree’s growth.

The other day, as I read Posanski’s piece about Dan Quisenberry, my mind, my senses, my emotions, and my memory were flooded. I even, in fact, had to reach for a Kleenex. Okay, maybe two. Baseball, minus 1994-1999, has always been a huge part of my life. I’m not sure how old I was when dad took me to my first game at Royals Stadium, but I was a young kid, for sure. I remember U.L. Washington and his toothpick, fat Willie Aikens at first base, Willie Wilson, Amos Otis, Frank White, and of course, George Brett. I remember the smell of beer and peanut shells, the ever-troubling conundrum of the guilt associated with littering the concrete by your feet with dozens and dozens of shells. I remember always being awestruck by the fountains beyond the outfield wall, that the signs out there could change their advertisements electronically.

I don’t think they called it Crown Vision back then, but the scoreboard was always a fantastic sight, offering stats, scores of other games in progress, and comic relief via the screaming cartoon ball they’d play when someone drilled one deep, or the fielder stretched out in his lawn chair when there was a “lazy pop fly.” I remember dad’s boomingly gruff holler of “WillieWillieWillieWillie!” every time number six came to the plate, or made a great play in the field. I remember quickly memorizing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” and I vividly remember pitching changes. When one occurred for the visiting team, it was Cab Calloway on the big screen doing “Minnie the Moocher.”

When the Royals swapped hurlers, this crafty white car zipped out of the bullpen and delivered a reliever, and sometimes, that guy was Dan Quisenberry.

I played ball for 11 years and I still jump at the opportunity to play when it arises. But not softball. For the life of me, I cannot read a softball’s projection from the outfield, and I can almost never hit one out of the infield. But somewhere along the line of my baseball-playing days, I acquired a catcher’s mitt, and it was nothing shy of fantastic. It was such a spectacle, so different from my glove, a wisp of a hope that I was on my way to having enough equipment to gear up an entire team. But what it really meant was that playing pitch-and-catch in the yard was much more feasible and realistic, and I would always spend a significant chunk of my time “on the mound” pitching submarine style, like Quisenberry, who was, I realized later in life, always a silent hero of mine. I paid Kent Tekulve no mind in those days, even though I had his card, and had even seen him pitch on TV.

The same goes for submariners I see today. Impostors, shot a soft thought across my brain. You’re no Quiz. And it was in that new house, the one out south, that my dad and his family moved into, that I discovered an enormous basement. Once they had settled in, it took all of five minutes to shuffle some things around and arrange an obstruction-free stretch – that had to be, just had to be, 60 feet, six inches long. And on the far wall, I made a square out of masking tape that was most definitely 17 inches wide, and knees-to-jersey-letters high. Or so I pretended. And I grabbed my glove, and a tennis ball, and spent hours down there, pitching nothing but submarine style, drilling the “strike zone” time and time again. I developed such a zone down there that I frequently found myself annoyed when my sisters would all come down to play dress-up.

Before concocting that pitching lane, though, I too, would pitch normally outside, with a buddy, or my pops, and every once in a while, throw in a submariner with the token “Quisenberry!” holler that Posnanski so poignantly nailed.

In Atlanta, I became a Braves fan. I of course liked Dale Murphy the most, but there were some others -– Bob Horner, Chris Chambliss, Brett Butler, Pascual Perez, Claudell Washington, Biff Pocoroba, Steve Bedrosian, Phil Niekro -– on those teams that I admired. I remember enjoying my new friends in our temporary second-grade home. Later in the year, construction on our home was finished, and we moved into it, and it was a great neighborhood, with great schools, and I made more friends, and was even there for two whole school years. We played and built forts in the woods, and, when we weren’t playing organized baseball, we were playing it in someone’s driveway. And I have fond, fond memories of those long summer days, but I can also recall thinking vividly and quite frequently about Kansas City, the life we’d left behind there, and of course, the Royals.

Dad would always give me standings updates in his letters. And I’m certain he knew more about how the Braves were fairing -– or more accurately, were not -– in the National League. We used to dream together that there would be a Braves-Royals World Series, a reason for us to have a visit in between Christmas and summer. But it never happened, and in 1985, my mom’s second marriage fell apart, and back to Kansas City we came. It was right after school let out for the year, so I was around for most of the ’85 season, but probably not immersed in it until the playoffs.

That World Series was awesome, of course, and dad took me out of school for the championship parade, and all was right with the world. I don’t remember paying much attention to the baseball season in ’86, probably still elated over the Royals’ championship, but I do of course remember those infamous playoffs with Mookie Wilson, Ray Knight, and of course, Bill Buckner. And then, I remember like it was yesterday: Boy Scout camp in early summer 1987. Osceola, MO, home of H. Roe Bartle Scout Reservation along the Truman Reservoir. Visitor’s Day came around, and with the influx of parents and siblings to see their sons came the news that Dick Howser had died. And I was absolutely stunned.

Being only 12, and largely naïve to most everything in the world, I just didn’t get it. I remember thinking that he wasn’t an old guy, so how could he be dead, that he’d just taken us on a great championship ride, and what would we do now? Having never really, at that point, experienced loss in the form of death, I was really bummed. But I also secretly remember thinking: At least it wasn’t one of our players.

Some 10 years after, those feelings surfaced again. The news of Dan Quisenberry’s death seemed even more surreal, even though I’d lost a grandfather and an uncle, and was old enough to have read and heard about the deaths of many a celebrity. It just didn’t add up. He’d gone in the same fashion as Howser, only six years younger. The following year they planted a tree in Quiz’s honor. It sat along the edge of the highway just outside of Kauffman Stadium. And I was definitely part of the “Almost nobody knew about that tree.”

Some 10 years after, as so eloquently put by Posnanski, the Missouri Department of Transportation mistakenly tore it down amidst a highway-expansion project.

At the time Mr. Posnanski was putting up this piece, a good friend of mine, reached a point in a personal project that I felt worthy of a mention. He’s using Facebook status updates to run through his top 50 songs of all time. The day before Posnanski published his “The Quisenberry Tree” post, my buddy published number 43 on his list: “I’d Love to Change the World” by Ten Years After. He said: “One of my earliest memories was my mom playing this song on our record player and dancing around. I still love this song even if it is a bit apathetic and preachy. Sorta like me. "So I leave it up to you."

Now I’m not going to get into a debate about the musical prowess of Ten Years After. Calling any of their tracks not named “I’d Love to Change the World” a hit, is a generous compliment. I did, at one time, own a copy of “A Space in Time,” the album that spawned the single. It is not worth owning beyond having a copy of that one track, but it is perhaps worth noting that it was released in 1971, which I imagine would’ve been Quiz’s freshman year at the University of La Verne. The U of LV, by the way, employs the team nickname Leopards, which I find fitting for the submariner.

That is, his life, both on the field, and off, can get you in spots.

It’s funny: Today I was driving to pick up a client, and, like every other first Wednesday of the month in Kansas that I can remember, I heard the practice tornado sirens sound. At first, they just blasted my ears on the close ends, and seemed oddly distant on the far ones. If you’re not familiar, picture a bullhorn that rotates from a spot high above the ground, like on a water tower. The thing slowly spins while it screeches, seeming like 40 ambulances driving through year ear canal when it faces you, yet propped up somewhere in a neighboring county when it does not. But they were sounding, and I paid them little notice initially. But as they are prone to, they sent me down memory lane of the Wednesdays in Kansas schools listening to the sirens, wondering if these practice audio-blast songs and all the countless tornado drills – sitting in a row, Indian-style, along a concrete wall away from glass, heads in laps, hands on heads -- would really have us equipped for the day that a twister actually blasted through our neighborhood.

The point, though, is that now, thanks to my childhood, a hero submariner, a great writer, and the Internet, I now have forged some bizarre connection to Dan Quisenberry, tornado sirens and the band Ten Years After. I’ve always loved the line “I’d love to change the world, but I don’t know what to do.” If I did, I might start by not giving Dan Quisenberry brain cancer. But then he doesn’t offer lines like, “I never ask ‘Why me.’ Why not me?’” And there would be no tree planted in his honor, no road crew to tear it down, no Posnanski to write about him, and no sparked memories of my own tree. No connection to Ten Years After, and no burning desire to pen these pages.

So like my friend, and his connection to the song’s lyrics: “I leave it up to you.”