Wednesday, February 03, 2010

The Dogtown Hero

-- Fiction by F.T. Rea
June 3, 1959: Roscoe Swift, a lean boy of eleven with sandy hair and blue-gray eyes, lived with his mother and her parents in Dogtown, just south of Richmond proper.

For as long as he could remember Roscoe had been in training to be a hero. Although it wasn’t something he talked about, it was at the heart of much of his striving. He was a strong reader and had absorbed many a biography and adventure story about heroes. At summer camp he had won a National Rifle Association Sharpshooter patch. His grandfather's guiding words on being honest, fist-fighting and baseball had been etched into his psyche. He had repeatedly tested his nerve with daredevil stunts.

On this day
the most significant test of Roscoe's mettle had arrived: He was playing the biggest baseball game of his career and the whole game was on the line.

Roscoe smiled, remembering the Ted Williams baseball card he’d slipped into his back pocket for luck before he’d left for school. He blocked out all else to remember the situation: Bottom of the last inning, men on first and third. With one out, his side was two runs down.

Actually, Roscoe lived in the two-story 1920’s stucco house with his grandparents. His mother lived somewhat detached in her studio over the garage, which was about 40 yards from the house. She was a sometime commercial artist who didn't usually venture outside in any weather conditions that didn't suit her mood; sometimes she wouldn't answer the phone or the door. Sometimes he wouldn’t see her for days.

When Roscoe was two years old his mother split up with his father, who went back in the Army and subsequently died in a helicopter crash in Korea. Since his mother refused to talk about his father -- she destroyed all photographs of him right after their separation -- the boy's blurry picture of the dead man had been pulled out of the air. His grandmother liked to say his father had "a wonderful smile."

His grandfather told him that his father had been a good baseball star player he was Army, so he had gotten preferential treatment. When Roscoe imagined his father he saw him in a baseball uniform with pin stripes.

School was easy for Roscoe. He took pride in being able to turn in a paper first and get every question right. Most of his trouble stemmed from his unpredictable temperament -- his quick temper stood in the way of him getting a good grade in conduct.

Baseball was what mattered to Roscoe. During baseball season he routinely calculated the up-to-date batting averages of his favorite Major League players before he went to school.

Two of the fifth-grade classes had finished the year tied, forcing a playoff game to decide the championship. Following lunch, all four fifth-grade classes at Gittes Creek Elementary had been given the afternoon to watch the two teams settle the issue. Which was a treat because all the previous games had to be played during recess.

Students with no taste for baseball had the option of watching a black and white 16 mm documentary film about Jamestown's 350th anniversary. Thus, there was a pretty good crowd for the title game.

As he took his practice swings, Roscoe reminded again himself of the situation. "No grounder," he thought so hard he could hear it. He knocked red dust off his sneakers with the bat, as if they were spikes. "Drive it out of the infield. No double play."

A group of some 20 men, fathers, uncles and a few grizzled ballplayers from the surrounding neighborhood added a measure of authenticity to the crowd. Girls from the two classes in the championship game were acting as cheerleaders. No one could remember that ever happening before, but it suited Roscoe just fine.

In 1959 baseball was still unquestionably America's National Pastime, and in Dogtown even fifth-grade baseball in the last week of school was important.

Swift stood in the batter's box on the first base side of home-plate. Originally trained as a right-hander, he had decided that if the best hitter in the game -- Ted Williams -- batted left-handed, that was good enough. Besides, to Roscoe, for some reason left-handers just looked better swinging the bat, in general. So, he’d been practicing batting left-handed for months in neighborhood pickup games. Finally, the switch had to be tested in a real game ... a game that mattered.

This was it.

Roscoe’s best friend on the team, Bake, cheered him on as he stood ready to run, but still touching first base. However, a few of his teammates were still imploring him from the bench to bat right-handed, since everything was at stake.

Butterflies the size of eagles disquieted Roscoe's stomach.

Stepping out of the box, the batter took three slow and deliberate practice swings. He looked at the crowd on the third base line. Cheerleaders were chanting, "Ros-coe, Ros-coe, he's our man ... if he can't do it, nobody can!"

His grandfather, a workaholic architect who had taken the afternoon off for the first time in Roscoe's memory, stood in the shade of an ancient oak tree with the other men. Peering under the flat brim of his straw hat Rocsoe's first coach stoically watched the action, as only he could.

On the first baseline, the other team's cheerleaders and fans/classmates booed and hooted at Roscoe, who dug in and did his best to ignore them.

However, there was a particular girl, with a strawberry-blonde ponytail and lively blue-green eyes, cheering for the other team. Her name was Susie and he never failed to notice her. The best thing to say to Susie never came to mind when she was near. She made him feel short of breath. So Roscoe watched her from a distance ... with a sense of longing that baffled his eleven-year-old understanding, but it couldn't be ignored.

Although Susie was surely calling for his downfall, he was more than a little glad she was there.

Back in the box, Roscoe shifted most of his weight to his back foot and turned his front foot thirty degrees toward first base. Relaxing his hands, he squinted and squared his jaw.

The pitcher threw the first pitch outside and in the dirt. It got by the catcher, but a no-stealing ground rule didn't allow the base-runners to advance.

Sure the next pitch would be across the plate, Roscoe leaned back and prepared to cut the ball in half. The pitcher went into his stretch, as the infielders behind him chattered like magpies.

Roscoe took a big roundhouse swing and nearly lost his balance.


The laughter from his opponents and their classmates pierced his armor of concentration. Nonetheless, he didn't look at anyone on either baseline. He knew he'd shut his eyes as he'd swung the bat. His cheeks flushed as he pulled his baseball cap's brim down on his brow. Again, he relaxed his wrists and fingers and slowly leaned away from the pitcher, to put more weight on his back foot.

"It only takes one to hit it!" Bellowed his grandfather through cupped hands.

Roscoe took in a deep breath and let it out slowly.

Working from an exaggerated stretch, the pitcher confidently cut loose with the same pitch -- a fastball. Swinging from his heels, Roscoe rolled his wrists just exactly as his weight shifted toward the pitch; he tagged the ball sweetly.


Over the second baseman's glove the ball left the infield with dispatch. It took a sharp nosedive, as it evenly split the distance between the right and center fielders. The pair frantically chased the top-spinning sphere down the grassy slope, all the way into the winding trickle of a creek that bordered the schoolyard.

The utter perfection of the bat’s perfectly-timed kiss on the horsehide's sweetest spot resonated through his body. Roscoe heard the furor like it was far away. He ran like a monster was chasing him. Rounding third base, he nearly caught up with Bake.

"Slow down, man, they haven't even found it yet," Bake advised over his shoulder with a sarcastic chuckle.

Roscoe's euphoric classmates were jumping around wildly. His grandfather beamed as he waved his straw hat back and forth over his head.

Teammates, suddenly champions, were pounding him on his back as Roscoe approached home plate. Meanwhile, his capacity to comprehend the moment was red-lining. He looked at Susie on the quiet side of the field. The way her head tilted to the side, the position of her limbs, something about her stance, or gesture, made him feel disoriented.

It was as though he was viewing the event from a number of different angles, simultaneously. He felt both inside and outside the scenario. Roscoe's mind raced and the rest of the world seemed to be moving in slow motion. As he strained to pull all the elements together, to grasp all he was sensing, he heard an explosion.


Then he felt a strange calm. Everything seemed extra vivid and in its place. As he crossed home plate, it suddenly occurred to him that he hadn’t loped around the bases, a la Teddy Ballgame. As far as the ball rolled he could have, but he'd been way too excited to act nonchalant.

Roscoe stifled his smile. Most importantly, he had remembered to not tip his cap. If the batting king and ace fighter pilot of the Korean War, Ted Williams, No. 9, never tipped his cap to the public on his home run trot -- which he never did -- that was good enough for Roscoe, too.

Looking to find Susie in the confusion, Roscoe was soaring above all of his dark doubts. He was up there where a real hero doesn't have to tip his cap … or sit quietly at his desk until the last bell at school rings. Susie had vanished.

Later, when Roscoe asked around, he found out no one else had heard the big explosion. Rather than ask too many questions, he put that mystery in the same secret place with some other mysteries, a few theories and a stack of guilty haunts.

* * *

All rights reserved by the author. The Dogtown Hero is part of a series of stories called Detached. Two remaining stories, set in the '70s, will be inserted, eventually. Links to the six others which have been finished are below:

Central Time
Fancy Melons
Gus the Bookstore Cat: The Film
Maybe Rosebud
The Freelancer's Worth
Cross-eyed Mona

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