When the time comes that I can't remember who I talked to yesterday, I will still remember the names of Denise Turcotte, Karen Holmes, Gloria Legare, and Marianne Charette. And if you wheel me up to the chalk-laced edge of a baseball diamond some years hence, I know their ghosts will still appear in the mist, like Shoeless Joe Jackson stepping out from the corn in Field of Dreams.
Those were the Nephalim, the giants in the land, in the hard-scrabble Rhode Island town of my youth. Make that the early '60s, before soccer was invented, as far as I knew, and when football was just a tall rumor from somewhere west of Ohio.
If you promise not to tell, I harbor a long suppressed desire to be a 14-year-old boy, but I didn't mind being a girl back then, as long as the Big Four strode the universe, and the Woonsocket Call held the presses nightly to learn their glorious summer stats.
The universe consisted, in those days, of your true sandlot field, a dust bowl of a theater, such as are as rare now as metallic diners, drive-in picture shows, and millinery shops. A ball pulled too far to the left could very well have plugged the window of St. Joe's, old textile mill turned elementary school. And what shall we say of the field's complexion-crabgrass not so much mowed, periodically, as struck with a blunt instrument. It had "character," as they say, in a day when what separated the men from the boys was the defiant grit of teeth in the face of the not-so-random bad hop.
Turcotte was a man in a woman's body, with an arm like a pneumatic drill. She held court over second base, and any other base she had to-plus shallow or deep center field, as the need arose. Holmes, 40 parts talent and 60 parts bulldog tenacity, had honed her craft till she whipped that strike zone into submission. Legare, great with one hand tied behind her back, rubber in her bat, and a magnet in her glove, looked positively bored with most of the opposition's batting line-up as she made short work of them at first. Charette, a natural phenomenon behind the plate, was Mozart to Holmes' Salieri.
I was the hole in right field, and that only when no one better showed. Most often I collected splinters on the pine wood bench bestriding the first-base line (third base had no seating). Parents stood behind the backstop where my father, having skipped supper, split himself between me and my more gifted brother at Little League.
"Boomers" being raised before the age when all the children were "above average," trophies weren't dispensed like chewing gum, in remediation of social onslaughts to self-esteem; and we came by ours honestly: wiped out Our Lady of Victories at Ai, decimated Our Lady Queen of Martyrs at Jericho. (Sweetest of all, that last one.)
But it wasn't the glory so much that counted with me, personally, at least not the winning kind of glory. As I think it over, now in a new century, when the grasshopper looks to drag himself along, and the silver cord is near to severed, and summer belongs to other children, it wasn't about that at all. It was belonging that mattered; the purr of well-oiled machinery, the hum of gears meshing, the being part of a glorious enterprise was what I loved, what I ached for, what pained me dull, like a pebble in the shoe.
A couple of times on visits to Woonsocket I've asked my parents what they're doing now, the Big Four. Three are scattered to the wind, but my father thinks Denise might be a gym instructor at the Mount, which is an answer I accept only since I haven't heard her name on an Olympic roster. And one hopes she's having fun, but I'm pretty sure she'll never have a year like the years of '61 to '65.
Me, I gaze into a summer night sky and, unlike father Abraham, can count the stars. But what he saw is what I picture in my mind's eye, and taste like it's already here: A firmament full of diamonds. A team, all handpicked athletes, where there is no second string and the coach knows you by name. It's in the Bible-twice!-I've checked it out just to be sure. No last-minute batting order change if someone better shows up, either.
"Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake.... Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever" (Daniel 12:2-3; Philippians 2:15-16).