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Wednesday, May 2, 2007 10:02 pm

Squeeze play

When the skies turn unfriendly, there’s turbulence ahead

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Untitled Document Two seats have opened up in a Las Vegas poker tournament, and Mookie and I have locked in over the Internet. No time to drive; we have to fly. Mookie doesn’t fly well, and, of course, he’s nuts. The fat man between us won’t trade seats — he needs to overflow both ways. He keeps jabbing a fat finger at an article in USA Today. Kids playing baseball in Ohio are no longer allowed to say anything negative to opposing players. No more “Hey, batta, batta, swing!” Maybe the batter doesn’t want to swing. The fat man is an air-travel talking man, and he has Mookie wedged up against the window. Mookie is an air-travel praying man who bargains with God: “Let me live and . . . I’ll become a missionary.”
The fat man is about our age. He will not shut up. He assumes that Mookie and I agree with the “better in my day” mantra of old men. He does not shut up: “Damn kids today — weak! Why, in our day . . . ”
I don’t always sing the “better in my day” song, because Doc Hobjab’s 2-rpm dentist drill still pains my memory. I think it was foot-powered, like your grandmother’s sewing machine. The fat man raves on: “In our day . . . ” It’s a rough flight, and the plane is bouncing. Mookie is clutching the armrests so hard that his fingers turn deep blue. I have a flashback.
It’s 1953, and Knuckles Kloff is our coach. A chaw of cheap tobacco leaks a constant brown streak down his chin. He cannot speak without swearing: “How many @#&%$ times I gotta @#&%$ tell ya? Choke up on the @#&%$ bat!”
But he loves the game, and he makes bats on a lathe, and he’s donated some of the weed-choked acreage near his house — to be used for kid’s baseball. There aren’t enough kids in town for two teams, so we practice and practice, and four or five times a year another small farm town sends a team our way for a game. Never once does an adult other than Knuckles and the other team’s coach attend a game, unless you count a 16-year-old umpire as adult. Adults work; work is what they do. They do not attend kid games. And in the summers of my childhood many 11- and 12-year-olds are unavailable; they are busy working the farm. That’s what they do. By the time of the last game of the season, our record is 4-0. If we win, we’re champions of the known world! I play first base, but mainly I play bench jockey — it’s what I did. It’s my job to taunt the other team’s players into distraction. We all taunt; my job is to start the raspberry. As always, I take some time to measure the opponents. It looks good. Two guys have acne starting — nine of us screaming “pus mug” as they batted may do the trick. A kid with bad teeth: “Swing, Fang! Swing!”
A fat kid: “Swing, Lard Butt! Swing! Fat man, little stick!”
It isn’t a one-way street. We take as much as we dish out. I take it. I’m small for my age, and I bat to a chorus of “Big head, baby body!” I’ve heard it a thousand times, and I take it! “Taking it” is more important than winning the game. If you can’t take it, you are a sissy — you have rabbit ears. Because I play first base, I can get up close and personal with “refined” insults, and so Mookie and I have developed the con, to be used only once per game. Here’s how it works: An opponent makes it to first base, and I whisper, “Mookie hates you! He’s gonna kill you — fastball right in your big, loud mouth, next at-bat.”
“What?”
“You yelled at Mookie! He’s nuts. He hates you.”
I call time, go to the mound, Mookie sneers his best “kill you” snarl toward first and slams the ball into his glove. Next time that boy comes to the plate, nine guys, including Mookie, are yelling, “Kill, Mookie, kill!” Mookie throws a little chin music, and sometimes the batter “can’t take it” — he goes wide-eyed, his knees shake, he is a sissy, he has rabbit ears. It is beautiful.
Back on the plane, a half-hour into the flight, the fat man raves on and on and on and . . . Mookie rips the arm clean off his seat, slams it into his palm, snarls, stands up, and screams, “Fat man! Little stick! Lard butt! Kill, Mookie, kill!”
Ah, the con! It still works. The now wide-eyed fat man’s knees shake, he can’t “take it,” he is a sissy, he has rabbit ears. It is beautiful. The sky marshals march Mookie to a well-guarded seat for the rest of the flight and to an interrogation after the flight. We both lose money in the tournament, but it doesn’t matter. It was worth it — it was a beautiful flight! Perfect!
Contact Doug Bybee Sr. at dougbybee@sbcglobal.net.
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