BAT AND BALL
by Tim Nestor
"Doesn't that Marine remind you of John Junior?" Mom said.
I had to agree with her. CNN was interviewing a young Marine in the Gulf desert about "standing down" until his unit received orders to go into battle with Iraq. It was November 1990. My parents and I were watching the news together on a Sunday afternoon while my mother prepared dinner. Dinner is still a part of a Sunday ritual with my parents long after I had moved out of the house.
The Marine couldn't have been more than 21 years old. His hair is cut high and tight like all Marines. His blue eyes , smile and eastern accent does remind me of JJ. But just about any young soldier, sailor or Marine reminds my mother of her eldest son.
My dad is called John. My brother is called Johnny or JJ. My parents and I will use the name "John Junior" in conversation when we talk about him. He is my best friend even though I am nine years younger than he is.
JJ and I would hit a baseball off a T-stand out in our backyard when we were young. JJ loves baseball. Dad took us to Connie Mack stadium lots of times to see the Phils play. One day in the '67 season we got to the stadium early before a Sunday afternoon game. We never told my mom but the three of us skipped 11:00 A.M. Mass to get there early to watch batting practice. Richie Ashburn was down on the field near the Phils dugout signing autographs. I knew Richie as a broadcaster but never as a player.
"He's going to be in the hall of fame one day," my dad said. "You better get his autograph now before it's too late."
Dad had bought us each a baseball so we could get Ashburn's
autograph. We made our way down to the small crowd of mostly boys and some adult men gathering around Ashburn. He was smoking a pipe and was signing any paper or ball handed to him. JJ and I both got Ashburn to sign our baseballs. I was only nine years old and didn't know how important that was.
That same summer JJ had finished his junior year in high school and played baseball for the school team. My parents bought
JJ a Louisville slugger for his birthday. His initials "JJ" were burned into the wood just below the Louisville company logo. He played the whole summer and even hit 20 home runs with that bat.
In December 1969, the U.S. government had instituted the military draft for the Vietnam war. JJ's draft lottery number was low. He was drafted into the army and later shipped out to go to Vietnam.
One day in 1970 two Army officers knocked at our door. In our living room they told us that the helicopter that JJ and some others were flying in was shot down over "hostile territory." The military couldn't retrieve the bodies because JJ and the helicopter crew went down into enemy territory. He is listed as MIA--missing in action
I was twelve years old when this all happened. I understood little of the Vietnam war back then. It wasn't until a few years later did we find out that JJ's body was lost in Cambodia. We never had a real funeral for him either. Just a memorial service with a photo of JJ
standing in for a body at the grave side.
With no body to bury, the grief never seems to stop. My mother maintains JJ's room like a shrine. She even changes his bedsheets and dust cleans his furniture. The Louisville slugger and the Ashburn baseball remain in his room--just waiting for him to
come home someday.
I have an itch to hit a few baseballs around like I did with JJ. My father kept our T-ball stand in the backyard even after all these years. A tennis ball was attached to the stand with a string. JJ and I would place the tennis ball on the stand top and swing at it. We'd hit the ball but it would only travel the length of the string--about 30 feet. Dad replaced the real baseball with a tennis ball after it once recoiled back hard and fast and struck me in the head.
I walk upstairs and went into JJ's bedroom. His prize bat and the baseball with Ashburn's signature sit on top of his dresser. The ball was over 20 years old but the ink from the signature still looked perfect. I put the ball to my nose and inhaled. The leather smelled fresh like it just came out of the box. I took JJ's ball and bat and head out to the backyard to the T-stand.
I place the tennis ball on top of the tee and hit it hard. A tennis ball doesn't have the same feel of a baseball when it is hit with a bat. Still it feels good to hit anyway. I place the tennis ball back on the T-stand and hit it over and over again.
It was moments like this that I miss my brother the most.
As I swing the bat, tears stream down my face. Crying felt good right now. I could feel the tears stinging my lips and cheek as the autumn wind swirled around me. I kept swinging the bat despite the tears. My arms became tired and sore. My tears grew into sobs.
Exhausted, I sat down on the ground. God, it is so unfair that JJ died so young. I was too young to lose something so priceless in my life. It has been over 20 years since I last saw him. I want just one more game to play with him.
I stood up for one more hit. I removed JJ's Ashburn ball from my coat pocket. I tied a real baseball with Richie Ashburn's signature to the string attached to the T-stand.
I stepped back and took the hardest swing I could. My hands stung as I struck the ball. It felt good to hit a real baseball again. The ball left the tee like a bullet. I heard the string break and the ball is set free. JJ's baseball sails high and deep and then disappears into the wooded area behind my childhood home.
"Homer! You hit a home run there, kiddo." I hear my brother's voice rise up from deep in my memory.
Yeah , JJ. I did it with your bat and ball, too.
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