We Would Be Heroes
Every one of my five brothers was bred to play ball.For a long time it wasn't clear which of the boys would make it to themajor leagues, but we had no doubt that The One was among us. We werethe chosen. I do not recall a single moment of my childhood in which Iwas not imagining my family's life -- or my own -- as an epic tale.
I kept a journal from the time I was seven years old.Across the thousands of pages, my handwriting changed -- the wobblyprint gave way first to a bloated cursive and then to a carefulcombination of print and script -- but my purpose was unflagging. I wasdetermined to redeem us, to save us not only from ourselves but alsofrom the terrible possibility of being ordinary.
For their part, my family trusted me to write poignantand glowing accounts of its adventures and exploits. Knowing that ourdays would certainly be distilled into a heroic portrait of a certainAmerica was a grave responsibility. My brothers, therefore, did not havetime to worry about little things like social conventions or rules. Theylived on an elevated plane, and their faith in future fame was absolute.
Before they were old enough to seriously practice thegame, they spent hours in our backyard in Columbus, Ohio, tirelesslypreparing themselves for the sound of the fans going wild."Ahhhhhhh!" they'd gasp, bowing their heads, clenching theirfists and stretching their arms straight up toward heaven. "Aaaaaahaaaaaa haaaaaaaaa."
To create the sound of the fans going wild, they pushedhot air from their diaphragms up into the backs of their throats; thenthey added the sort of hacking that might signal the expulsion of alarge blob of phlegm. Finally, they exhaled. The raspy, wheezing resultapproximated the distant roar of fans behind Red Barber's voice on theradio.
These public broadcasts contributed to our neighbors'ongoing exasperation. My brothers, however, were not concerned. Dayafter day, they created a piece of performance art in which they were,simultaneously, the fans going wild, the player being honored, and theannouncer describing the scene.
With no apparent provocation, the sound of fans woulderupt from various points in the backyard.
"Yeahhhhhhhhh," said the swing set.
"Haaaaaa aaaaa aaaa," said the whirligig.
"What could they be doing over there?" said theneighbor.
"Molly, can't you keep them quiet?" yelled our mother.
"Please, you guys," I pleaded.
But the fans could not be silenced by then, for theplayers had abandoned their positions and were stumbling toward thecenter of the yard. Their heads were down. Their mouths were open. Theireyes were squeezed shut. Their faces were wrinkled as if each werepushing a particularly challenging bowel movement. They collided,hugging and jumping on one another. They were falling together likeecstatic converts leveled by the spirit. They were a writhing pile ofvictory. And the fans were going wild.
Bark-cloth curtains rattled on their plastic ringsthroughout the neighborhood: "Everything OK over there?" Screen doorsscreeched open -- "Can you keep it down?" -- and slammed shut. Babiesawoke howling from their naps and the anguished voices of other people'smothers rose like thistles under our bare summer feet.
"Does anybody even keep an eye on those kids?"
But my brothers then rose from the pile of magnificentwinners to become a team of commentators. They raced to the giant sprucein our front yard and scrambled up its branches. The tree was theirradio tower. Each was determined to be the first to air the news. Thespruce swayed precariously beneath the breathy wail of their broadcast.Boughs snapped. The trunk creaked. Dried needles showered down liketicker tape.
"Did you see that! I'm telling ya, that O'Neill! What ashot!"
"He had some wood on that one, O'Neill did! Heck, Idon't think it's landed yet!"
"What a hitter! O'Neill won the ball game! He won theSeries!"
It happened every afternoon. It was so embarrassing.They were so pathetic.
"My God, Molly, can you quiet them down?" My mother wasinside nursing the baby but with each word -- "All I'm asking for is amoment's peace!" -- she was gathering a head of steam and gettingcloser to the window.
There was no end to it. And so, in the summer of1962, I tried a different beginning. "I'm adopted," I told my friends."You know Anastasia, the youngest daughter of the czar, remember, thatstory in My Weekly Reader? That's my real mother. But don't tellanybody," I would add solemnly. "Otherwise, people might think I'm acommunist."
My real brothers were princes who rode white steedsthrough snowy forests and defended my honor with gleaming lances, notthese small serfs wielding fat red plastic bats on the patch of grassbehind a modest suburban house in the Midwest. No wonder I didn't careabout baseball: I was Russian!
I cultivated the habit of checking for my crown -- justto make sure that I wasn't wearing it in public by mistake and drawingattention to myself. Pat, pat, pat, pat. Using index and middle fingers,I would touch four spots in a circle around the top of my head.
"What in the name of God is the matter with you?" saidmy (supposed) mother. "Have you lost your mind?"
I took great comfort in my secret and superior stationin life, but my royal status also had unforeseen consequences: the moreI became Anastasia's daughter, the more keenly I suffered the pain ofbeing deprived of a family who understood me. Then one evening WalterCronkite mentioned Russia on the news. "What the heck?" said my(supposed) father as I rushed out the front door sobbing and trying torend my garments.
As I came around the corner of the house, I saw that mymother had abandoned the dishes and was standing on the back stoop,waiting for my maniacal circuit to return me to our yard. I swerved toavoid her and headed for the maple tree. I flung my arms around itstrunk and then, in what I hoped was heartbreaking desperation, began towail.
"Now this is ab-so-lute-lyreee-dic-ulous," said my mother.
As she strode toward me, the low heels of her strawsandals creaking through the grass, I realized that it was time to tellmy (supposed) mother who I really was. I braced myself to make theconfession, but then, as she bent close to my ear, the smell of herlipstick -- Firecracker by Revlon -- erased my words.
"You are going to stop this right now and come in andhelp me dry the dishes. I mean it, Molly. Right now. Do you hear me?"
Meekly, I followed her back to the kitchen, took up aclammy linen tea towel embroidered with small chickens, and began dryingthe Boontonware plates. Somewhere between the salad plates and thedessert plates I realized that the daughter of the dead czarina didn'thave the right stuff. Only the female offspring of my parents couldsurvive being the only female offspring of my parents. And so Ireluctantly parted with this fantasy and cast about for something elseto explain my embarrassment, my scorn, and the lonely sense ofseparateness I harbored.
"My brothers are adopted," I told my friends.
In fact, my brothers and I were born to the sameparents but we were raised by different people. Our parents changed,birth by birth, as their worries and consolations expanded andcontracted like an accordion, usually in concert with their cash flow.We also grew up in different worlds.
An entire decade elapsed between my reign as tetherballchamp at Indian Springs Elementary and 1972, when our youngest brother,Paul, began getting ejected from playground dodgeball due to poorsportsmanship. During that decade our hometown became a city, Ohiobecame Kent State, and the country became, however briefly, too cool forbaseball.
My brothers and I therefore have differing accounts ofthe years we shared, but we all imagine the same beginning. There is thesound of a bat hitting a ball, steady and easy, like a metronome. We arein our backyard on Schreyer Place in Columbus. Our ballpark. Thebackstop is the chipped white clapboard on the back of the garage andhome plate is an agreement, a general vicinity. First base is ahoneysuckle that climbs the chain-link fence that separates our yardfrom the one next door, second is the redbud tree, and third a massiveclimbing rose. It is not exactly a diamond. It's more like an isoscelestriangle, with third base about halfway along the hypotenuse. But itworks for games as well as for fielding practice.
Our father is hitting fly balls -- thuk, thuk --and four of my brothers are standing like very small chess pieces in thehigh grass just in front of the overgrown privet hedge that marks theend of our backyard. They are spanking the new leather baseball gloves.They are saying, "Hey batta batta batta." Our father's black hair risesin stiff Elvis waves that glisten with Brylcreem. Dusk is claiming thebackyard and, as he watches the flight of the balls he hits, hisslightly crooked smile is incandescent.
I am standing behind home plate, just out of reach ofthe bat, close enough to see how the hula girls on his Hawaiian shirttwitch whenever our father steps into his long, sweeping swing. Ouryoungest brother is balanced against my hip, facing out toward thefield. He is eighteen months old and he is writhing against my forearm,kicking my thighs. He wants to run the bases.
Thunk! The Wiffle ball sails from our father'sbat. "Lookie there!" he hollers. There is wonder and delight in hisvoice, as if a comet were arching through the humid Ohio air over hisown backyard.
"Eye on the ball," he purrs. "Eye on the ball." Hisvoice is initially soft as he directs his sons and then, as the ballwobbles at the crest of its rise, he explodes -- "Go! Go! Go!" -- like acommanding officer pushing his men out the open door of a plane.
Four of my brothers race through the grass, theirgloves stretched toward heaven, their faces wrinkled fiercely, the tipsof their tongues emerging like so many fat red nipples from betweentheir teeth. I put the baby down and he begins stumbling along thebaseline toward first. He is so pigeon-toed that he trips over his feet,falling and picking himself up, again and again.
I used to imagine that our cheers -- my clapping andcooing as the baby toddled the baselines, my other brothers' shouts --would continue to grow as we did until they finally merged with thesound of real fans going wild.
It always comes back to that.
The sound of the fans going wild is forever. It is themoment when we make up for everything we've ever done wrong, overturnall judgments against us, erase any doubt directed toward us, and ascendto our rightful position very close to the right hand of God.
The sound of the fans going wild is an eternal moment,the moment when we would be heroes. Copyright ©2006 by MollyO'Neill