Home Run Derby

…Speaking of bullies, we had our fair share. Then again, in those days, being a bully or finding oneself at the receiving end of bully behaviour was a fact of life and par for the course.  One just had to get used to it.  Big Maxx was seen to be a bully. But once you got to know him better you, as I did, would realize that his bullishness was a front for a very innocent, simple minded lad. He was big for his age. a six foot, two hundred pound ten year old. I kid you not. He had a deep, throaty, husky voice: a grown man’s voice. Perhaps Big Maxx was, in essence, well ahead of his time and reached puberty at age 5. And his brain hadn’t caught up.  Perhaps Big Maxx knew full well that his true nature would probably find himself at the receiving end of ridicule.  Perhaps Big Maxx was a lot smarter than we realized. Perhaps he was into needlepoint, or crochet. Who knew? Yes, he did have a very difficult time writing those floral sickening English compositions that our English teacher foisted upon us from time to time.  Memorable themes such as: “The Best Sunset You Ever Experienced Last Summer.”  As in describe it!

The girls in our class thrived on this stuff. Maxx? His composition would be aptly titled: The Best-est Sunset I Never Experienced – Ever! And while “Fig” Newton, the tall blond Amazon of a 10 year old girl, who sat the back of the room by the window, would receive accolades from the teacher for her heavenly, descriptive, but eye rolling, lyrical prose, Big Maxx was receiving gut wrenching guffaws. Yikes! Looking back at that I am sure Big Maxx’s stature was such that the electrodes and electrolytes in his 10 year old brainbox had somewhat of a difficult time in the formulation of a thought, a word, or a sentence then transmitting said thoughts into words, sentences, paragraphs that made any sense at all except for him for it was a long way down from his brain to his fingers. Yes, the fingers that ultimately controlled the stylus: that ultimately transcribed his thoughts, his words, his sentences, his paragraphs onto paper.  But he did get a lot of laughs from us: flora for fauna or fauna for flora; paucity for plethora or plethora for paucity, Romulus for Remus, Remus for Romulus and so on and so forth, and forth so and on so.  Perhaps Big Maxx was dyslexic.  

Yes, we would have a good laugh at Big Maxx’s expense, collectively of course, for there was safety in numbers.  For no one, and I mean no one, would ever think of making fun of Big Maxx to his face.  Then again it may be that Big Maxx was a great deal smarter than most of us in that class. More subtle perhaps, stealth-like, in his own personal objection of having to write such poetic drivel. Yes perhaps Maxx, rather than provoke the teacher’s wrath in refusing to cow tow to a ridiculous assignment, he did what he knew best.  Write the God damn composition, but in his own style to appease the teacher into believing or thinking just how dumb he was – or not.

Yet he was such a good sport and a good friend to me: very strong and very athletic in a clumsy, disjointed kind of way.  We used to play home run derby in the park that backed onto his backyard on those hot dusty summer afternoons in the early sixties – some of the hottest afternoons on record I believe.  Hot and humid, hot and sweaty, hot and stinking hot, but we didn’t care. How hot was it?  It was so hot that you could read the front page of the newspaper from the ink transferred on to your forearm after carrying it over your arm for a few minutes.  Even today, during those hot, muggy days of August, a month that my wife dreaded, I thrived on.  Perhaps those days reminded me of my youth, and those seemingly endless days of summer fun playing games such as home run derby on a hot summer’s afternoon.

To play this game, all one needed was a bat, a rubber ball, some chalk, and three players. Oh and a concrete or a brick wall as a backstop.  One player at bat, one player pitching and another player in the field was all it took. Usually me, Big Maxx and O’Grunts, as his house also backed on to the park.  My house was about a half mile down the road.  But no matter as I lived in that park from dawn to dusk or until the street lights began to flicker.  Jimmy-mum never came to play with us as he preferred to look at, read up on, and study muscle cars.  He did not have an athletic bone in his entire body.

The backdrop for our game came courtesy of the Protestant school, which also ran adjacent to the park, but on opposite sides from the houses.  It was straight to hell for all of us.  Those damn pesky black spots. We didn’t care. After all, what was for? Without us those darn black and whites would be out of their ecclesiastical type of jobs. Like the good Catholics that we were we had to keep those priests and nuns employed after all was said and done.  Otherwise, they might have to get a real job. And, I must confess, which I did every week, we did an excellent job of it.

With the chalk, a 2 foot square was etched out on the brick or concrete backstop. That was the strike zone, which was situated about knee to chest high of the average 10 year old.  The batter had to have some trust in the pitcher if told that the pitch was a strike per se. And three strikes yer out. No walks allowed. That would have been difficult to process with just three players. Then rotate: pitcher to bat, batter to the outfield, outfielder to pitcher, and so on and forth so.  You get the pitcher.  Strike out or hit the ball and if you did it had to be in the air because where the ball landed determined a single, a double, a triple or a home run.  Grounders didn’t count, hence the name of the game.  But only home runs counted for points…

Bull Dogs

…Then there was the game of all games: British Bulldog.  I think every school on the planet that was tied to the commonwealth played British Bulldog. It didn’t matter if you could even spell it or pronounce it or even read it, especially in countries such as India, or Pakistan, Bangladesh.  Oh you say British Bulldog you say. Okay. Let’s play you British Maha-raj-dog you!

This game could be brutal. I truly believe it was the foundation that made the British Empire great or the modern day commonwealth common. If you were weak kneed, fragile, timid, shy, look out.  This was one game where anyone’s, everyone’s disposition or nature, weak or strong, somehow manifested itself in very short order. If you were scared you might as well be wearing a sign that said: “I am scared shitless.”  Okay, let’s go after him. He’ll be the last one standing. It was an unwritten rule. This game was so profound. It provoked the leaders from the followers, the bullies from the bullied, the weak from the strong and the popular from the dispossessed. Too bad! That’s the way it was and was the life of a male elementary student at a Catholic School.  Meanwhile the girls were playing May-pole. Or Hop Scotch! Sounds like fun to me!

How did this game go?

Get as many guys as you could muster in the centre of the schoolyard by yelling out British Bulldog.  Volunteer immediately to be one of the Bulls, that is, one of the guys in the middle of the schoolyard facing about one thousand of your closest friends who are lining up against a fence at one end of the yard. The aim here was that once the alarm was sounded by the Bull one had to run across the open yard enmass to the other side of the field without being caught by one of the Bulls waiting in the centre of the field of play, of course. Caught? No tackled was more like it. Today I believe they might call this “Capture the Flag” but for us it was a tad more brutal and Neanderthal than waving some shitty piece of pink or blue ribbon. Tackled, yes, but in those days the schoolyard at that time of the year, again late winter or early spring, was covered with course green-brown grass sprinkled here and there with rock hard but soon to be well textured mushy, smelly dog turds.  That was the whole point of the game though: to scare the beejeezus out of some of the so called geeks of the school.  Once you were tackled you joined your tackle-er and became one of the Bulldogs in the centre of the field.  The last one standing was the so called winner of the game.  In reality, and by our rules, the last one standing was the biggest loser.

This was definitely the preferred game for bullies in that it was an unwritten rule that the geekiest or so called weakest looking nerdy guy in the school would be the very last one up against the fence. His poor, pathetic perspective of his seemingly small nerdy world would be facing down 1,000 of his closest bully Bulldogs standing in the centre of the field waiting unabashedly to rein down pure unadulterated, pre-adolescent terror on the poor lad. Fun? You bet! A tad mean and ruthless? Perhaps! Definitely. But it was a sure fire way to grow up.

Why would some seventy pound weakling agree to participate in such madness? Simple.  At the beginning of the game there was strength in numbers so one geek would feel somewhat safe and have a somewhat secure but false sense of belonging standing there against the fence at the beginning of this melee, with 1,000 of his so called geek buddies.  Unbeknownst to him though it was the unwritten but agreed upon rule by all of the bully Bulldogs that the designated target would be allowed to run free and easy, again and again, bypassing the awaiting but increasingly growing horde of bullies who would manifest themselves into becoming this vast conflagration of idiots bent upon the realization that this was going to be the very worst day in the poor lad’s short life.

Interestingly, while some of the remnants, or targets, realizing what was about to occur in very short order, might turn and run toward one of the school’s doors. Those that did stick it out found out, somewhat ironically, and to their astonished astonishment and amazing amazement, that they earned the respect of some of the biggest bullies, louts in the school. They unwittingly demonstrated that they had the courage, the backbone, the stupidity to stick it out, get a little bruised perhaps, and wear that badge of honourable dog shit that every British Bulldogger wears on their sleeves. Interestingly, soon after, they relished the thought of becoming a Bulldog themselves: one of the guys, louts, idiots, Bulldogs, in eying down some other poor sod that had the misfortune of becoming a target. There must be some psychological determinant to explain away this form of activity, group think, mob behaviour, or stupidity with security in numbers. How else can one explain how a horde of 600 Bulldogs ran across this field of death with idiots to the right of them, idiots to the left of them, and so ran the 600 idiots (apology to Tennyson)…

Angelic Rocket

…Then there was Jim Reynolds: a tall athletic young man who was very fond of Our Lady of Peace. I say this as he repeatedly repeated the higher grades of the Catholic elementary system, grades six through eight, a plethora of times.  In grade seven, when I first ran into him, I do believe he was sixteen.  He must have been for he smoked and drove a 56 Ford to school. That was cool: to park his beater with the grownups, the teachers, in the school parking lot.  We knew he was a smoker for he always rolled his cigarettes up tight in his short sleeved white tee during the warmer spring weather. Buckingham’s, non filters, seem to come to mind as the cigarette of choice for all young punks at the time. Of course no one seemed to care or to matter in those unregulated second hand smoke days at our school.

A smallish baseball diamond was situated in one of the back corners of our school yard. During the late winter, early spring months, when the last vestiges of snow had all but disappeared and the ground was suddenly covered with trash and rock hard dog shit, we would pull out our bats and balls and set up a game. Teams were not a problem for we played “an up or out” rotational system of play. Somewhat like the Navy’s promotional and downsizing scheme, but I digress. One could remain at bat so long as one did not strike, fly or be thrown out.  You had to be a good hitter to remain at bat. Once you were thrown out or struck out you were in the field and would remain out there until another batter suffered the same fate. Then rotate positions. The only exception to all of this was that if someone caught the ball in the air they would immediately go to bat and the batter would take their place.  

Jim Reynolds may not have been too smart but he was tough. Street tough. And could he ever hit a softball. When Jim came to bat it was pure delight.  He could hit, man he could hit: towering, out of sight fly balls that seemed to go on forever.  No one could match his skill or catch his fly balls.  If you were on base ahead of Jim you were safe by default as a home run was coming in very short order.  I always tried to be on base just before he came up to bat.  

He was a sight to behold.  Standing there full of confidence, a smirk or smear on his face, his lips sometime adorned with a smoke out of the corner of his mouth.  Of course he had to do this by stealth such that he wasn’t noticed by any of the lay teachers. Not the black and whites mind you for they refused to come out during recess, lunch time, before or after school.  I think that this was the only time they could catch a few puffs of their own without being seen by the prying eyes of us turds – as they sometimes called us.  They were probably at prayer but I doubt it.

So here was Jim. His whole frame permeated confidence, self assuredness with an air of arrogance: shuffling his feet like a rabid dog marking his territory after a good piss. The pitcher, watching him suspiciously as he readied his throw, knowing full well what the outcome was going to be and everyone else for that matter.  Yet Jim, for all his size, and swagger and confidence was not a bully: a show-off perhaps but no bully. We all appreciated that.  For he could have easily kicked the living shit out of any one of us if he so pleased for he looked the part.  He was the “James Dean” of Our Lady of Peace. Slicked back brill ” a little dab will do ya” creamed hair, with a trace of growth above the upper lip, muscles bulging beneath his body shaped white tee.  Blue jeans of course, with the bottom cuffs turned up about 2 inches, showing his bright white socks, as was the style in those days.  He was cool, he knew it, and we all marvelled at that, but in a good way. All of us thought that above all else when we reached the age of sixteen that we would all look as cool as Jim but with hope upon hope to be in a higher grade perhaps.

The ball is ultimately pitched by the pitcher.  It comes his way, straight across the plate. As if on cue Jim swings the bat with somewhat of a floral motion, picture perfect, as if in animation, stepping into the ball with his arms outstretched, his elbows locked, with his eyes focused entirely on the seams of the ball as it comes into his sights. “Whack,” ball upon bat, in the sweet spot, Jim’s cheeks and belly wobble like hard jelly as if his whole body’s energy force is transmitted down that bat and into the ball itself.  The pregnant pause as Jim looks up to the heavens, arms outstretched as if giving lordly thanks and praise, dropping the bat to begin his cool saunter toward first base.  He doesn’t have to run hard for he knows, yes he knows, that that ball is gone.  Like God’s angelic rocket, or a holy ghost of a hit, it soars to the heavens above Our Lady of Peace’s schoolyard.  And we, with our innocence and heavenly gaze, are entirely awestruck and enthralled at the power and the sheer majesty of it all as the ball rises up and into the blue cloudless sky.  A pure white stitched canvass ball set against the backdrop of an apostolic blue, like Christ’s resurrection, rising then arcing its way across the heavens then down and out and through a second floor window of our school.


It was like this all the time. The nuns tried their best to curtail Jim’s prowess. Perhaps that’s why they were praying during recess, but to no avail. They would have loved to expel him but his parents were church stalwarts and sat in the front pew at the 1015 high mass. They were quite rich, quite influential and quite demanding. I am told that his mother was the civilian equivalent to Sister Mary Bernice. I would have loved to have seen that.  It wasn’t long though before Jim did leave us. Trade school we were told. Trade school! That prison and so called parallel universe of Catholic elementary school life. Trade School! Failure in the eyes of the church. Trade School! We all shuddered at the thought. Trade School! Say your prayers every night. If you don’t you might just find yourself at Trade School.  Of course, the female equivalent was Secretarial School, or worse, in later years, Home Economics, code for getting yourself knocked up!  The rest of us, if we were good, worked hard, and said our prayers every night, would be blessed in more ways than one could possibly imagine at the time at the local Catholic private high school for boys. Generalists! Arts and Science! If we graduated from the local Catholic high school for boys we could aspire to be “Jacks of all Trades,” “Masters of Fuck-all” And for all of my efforts I became a real “Jack Tar”, although I wanted to be a proctologist.  Somewhat like a plumber.   Perhaps Trade School would have been a good fit for me after all.

I missed Jim after he left. When he was with us he sat in the back of our class. I can still see him sitting there in the tiny desk, his legs sprawled out, arms folded across his chest, with his Elvis like sneer snickering at no one in particular.  He always had a cig ready to go behind his left ear. He was so cool, and quite funny. Like a class clown.  Indeed he intimidated the teacher and swore like a trooper but he was very, very friendly to us.

Jim did leave a legacy of sorts. All the windows of our school that were facing the schoolyard were fitted out with metal screens. Even today, some fifty years later, those same screens adorn the windows at Our Lady of Peace School.  Someone, not completely in the know, might surmise that vandals, petty criminal activity perhaps, presented a causal relationship to those metal screens.  They would be wrong of course for  whenever I look at the school today with their relative protective screened window coverings – for I knew the truth – I would nostalgically think of Jim and his baseball prowess…

Games Children Play

…..What kind of stupid game was this? Run up to some strangers house, knock on their front door, run away, very fast, hide out of sight, then watch the poor sod open the door, look around at nothing, shrug their shoulders, then go back inside.  Why on earth did we find this so hilarious? God only knows. We were kids after all.  This would not have been so bad if we didn’t continue to rant on about this at the same abode.  What did we expect to happen? To get caught of course.  And why did we call it “Nicky, Nicky Nine Doors?” And who was Nicky?

To a ten year old this was very dangerous, exciting stuff.  It was also very stupid.  And if we were really stupid we would find some dog shit, put it in a brown paper bag, run up to a door, light the bag on fire, place it on the stoop, strategically, so as to be about a foot or so away from the threshold, knock hard on the door then run away.  The aim here was for the homeowner, resident, family member, whoever, to open the door, spot the fire bag, stomp on it to put the flames out, and then watch the shit and curses fly.  As we laughed our guts out, it should not have surprised us in the least that someone would spot us and give chase.  But that was the real danger here: the excitement, the adrenalin rush.  If some homeowner did spot us and decided to give chase we would split up running in all directions.  This provided a conundrum to the chaser on who would be the chase-ee.  Pity the poor fool who was the slowest runner for he or she became the obvious target of the homeowner. As kids we were pretty smart that way.  Luckily for me I was never caught.

The dog shit setting and set-up was just one progression of creative thought in this game. Evolution and change management being the very essence and credence of human nature and action, it would not have been good enough just to knock on a door, run away and watch the fireworks develop.  No, no, no we had to come up with the dog shit scenario to make things more interesting.  As things progressed and as we became more mature in game play, we came up with the ultimate challenge: multiple targets. How? We needed at least five players here. The aim was to go up to 5 separate houses, knock hard, run away, hide, then hope to the highest hope that five separate doors would open simultaneously with five confused startled faces peering out into the unknown.  Look to the right, look to the left, look at one another and in a really stupid fashion, shrug their collective shoulders, slam their collective doors while uttering some expletive deletive, collectively speaking of course. The ultimate hilariousness here would have been to include the dog shit with the multiple targets.  But with everything in life there are consequences in trying to do too much with too little.  Synchronization by ten year olds was just too much of a stretch and too complicated to achieve.  On top of that there were too few resources in dog shit and brown paper bags. There was a life lesson here of course and on top of all that this would have been our “Shit Too Far.”….

Great to be Alive

…The incident with the confessional was a weird experience for sure but this next rule was really weird and was pure unadulterated stupidity of the highest order.  As good Catholic children we could not walk past a Protestant school under fear of religious persecution from these protestant ungulates or face eternal damnation, perhaps excommunication, from our Catholic hierarchy – or worse. Damn, what to do.  Hard choices.  For me this was a conundrum for a Protestant school was right along my path home. It was part of the shortest possible route without cutting through the hydro field, which would be next to impossible during the winter months. This was especially important for the adventures of Superman came on at 4pm every Wednesday.  We  had to get home quickly.

We went way out of our way to circumvent that school.  At least for one day.  More black spots! On top of that, the Protestants knew the score. They lay in wait for us Catholics to run the religious gauntlet.  In winter this equated to snowball Armageddon and the second coming. In the warmer months, bloodied noses and bruised egos.  We never won and they always lost. Stupidity ruled the intolerant roost.

It was also on one of those winter school days that I met another one of my life long friends. Sean O’Grady, or O’Grunts for short. I was in grade one at the time.  So was he but we never really knew each other in school.  I met him while walking along the road that ran parallel to the Protestant school yard. This was especially perilous for Sean as his home was adjacent to the Protestant schoolyard so he was damned twenty four and seven. And no matter what he did he couldn’t erase those pesky black spots.

He came up to me and asked, ever so politely but in a high pitched squeaky, weasely voice.

“Can I be your friend”

Being winter Sean had one of those Yukon Hats on. The ones with those unflappable ear muffs.  Only his hat was too small so those ear flaps flapped outwards at right angles to his flappable ears. His gloves, or mitts, were pinned to his snowsuit, which was also a tad small for his lanky frame. The waist was cinched, but at an angle that spoke volumes about his personal regularity. His boots, or galoshes, were of the black rubber type with the orange band at the top – cheap and barely capable of keeping the feet toasty. When you took them off you were left in bare feet as your socks always, always came off in those damn boots.

“Sure” I said

Sean looked sheepish. Funny at this stage of life as Sean would grow up to be one of the most self assured guys that I have ever known. But now, as he looked at me with his coke bottled glasses, clear snot running down from both nostrils, with the viscosity and the fluidity of water just over his upper lip, he queried:

“My name is Sean. What is yours?” he appeared to lisp

“John” I mumbled somewhat with annoyance and impatience. Don’t know why but Sean looked just a tad goofy to me then.  I wasn’t exactly sure how this would turn out.

As it turned out, we became good, no great friends that day. Life long, for ever and ever, for eternity or until one of us was dead.  Sean was lucky because, coming from a good Irish Catholic family, he was one of eight children. Eight children! They must have had a riot in their post war bungalow. Seven boys and one girl. How on earth did they survive without granite countertops? I loved going over to their place. Such chaos, but fun nevertheless.  I only had two older sisters and a younger brother to play with while he had six, of varying ages of course, but at least one older and one younger brother to hang out with.

His house backed on to a park, which backed on to the Protestant Schoolyard. So, in my mind’s religious eye Sean was doomed by proxy. I felt so sorry for him because he could never get rid of those pesky black spots. I didn’t voice my concerns of course and I was tempted by eternal damnation because that park became our world of play.  From the large swing-sets; the huge and grand maple climbing trees; and the baseball diamonds and fields that went on and on forever and were reamed, it seemed, with soft and freshly cut green grass that was darkly pungent, especially after a good trim.  

It was great to be alive, to be a kid and to have a park like this one to play in: to play and to play all day long and well into the evening only stopping for meals or running home the minute the street lights began to flicker on signally the days end and the beginning of a good nights rest, relaxation and sweet dreams.  In those heady days our horizons were only limited by our active imaginations, the soles of our dirty feet and the aroma of our smelly socks…

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