Recalling A Time Of Wonder
by CAROLE GOLDBERG, Hartford Courant Books Editor
From the Introduction, “A Perfect Day,” pp. xvi-xx
This excerpt, from the Introduction, expresses the theme and spirit of a book that is focused almost exclusively on the experience of a mid-century Midwestern boyhood from the boys’ point-of-view, but seen in retrospect from an adult perspective — similar to the work of Jean Shepherd (who wrote the stories that became the film “A Christmas Story”).
This broad gap between adult life and kid life, once the source of a child’s imagination and independence, has been both breached and forgotten in the ensuing generations. It is was author David Benjamin purpose to recall, record celebrate the last era of “free-lance boyhood” before it disappeared entirely from memory.
The story picks up at a Catholic grade-school father/son picnic — at which the protagonist’s father is absent. He is playing his first baseball. He has misplayed a number of flyballs in right field and shown virtually no aptitude for the game.
…I got to bat four times. These were my first efforts to hit a hardball, which I couldn’t help thinking might unexpectedly veer off the pitcher’s hand and smash into my face, inflicting brain damage so severe that I would end up at the Tomah V.A. Hospital in one of those rooms way up on the top floors with the bars over the windows, from which an occasional bloodcurdling scream would echo across the quadrangle. In anticipation of this youth-wrecking calamity, I winced and leaned backward every time the ball bored in on home plate. Then I swung. Lending impressive weight to the blind squirrel theory, I managed one foul ball in my twelve swings.
Whiffing four times is a dispiriting experience, but one that I shared — I realized much later in life — with Rocky Colavito, Reggie Jackson, Steve Kingman, Mark McGwire. It happens to the greats as well as to the incompetents. Besides, I hadn’t anticipated hitting a ball any more than I’d expected to catch one.
But there was something odd about this game, something unlike all the games in all the kid sports I had played in my whole life up until that day. As the game went on, as my fielding errors and strikeouts accumulated, I noticed that the chorus of derision that greeted my every effort grew louder and harsher. Coming from my peers, this was S.O.P. I was used to ridicule. Kids are mean. They go for the throat. Besides, it was only fair. I was the worst player on the field. I deserved to get yelled at.
But some of those voices were pretty deep.
After the last out, I was standing by the backstop. Kids were hanging around the field, some of them being jostled paternally by their dads. An adult peeled off from the group and shambled hugely toward me. There was seriousness in his stride. When he reached me, he bent down, blocking the sun with a face so large it came to me in VistaVision. He had that male smell that the men in town seemed to wear like a uniform — tobacco, sweat, Old Spice, and Brylcreem.
He leaned close, breathing in my eyes. I had no idea whose father he was, probably Gunderson or Overacker, two of my numerous nemeses. He knew my name, though. He said it.
“Yeah?” I replied.
“You lost the game,” he said.
He pointed at my nose.
He went on.
Point taken. I kept quiet. This was his moment and I would have been rude to spoil it. Was he finished?
“They shouldn’t’ve let you play.”
As he walked away, a bounce of closure in his step, I had an unusual reaction. I was used to kids telling me I stunk. On the playground at St. Mary’s, it was a veritable mantra, usually accompanied by a kick, or a whack upside my head, or a noogie. This dad person had delivered the standard verbal abuse and hadn’t laid a finger on me. Yet, there were tears welling in my eyes.
Typically, the game was forgotten in the next ten minutes, as several dads fired up barbecue grills and started slinging burgers. So, it wasn’t ‘til later that I finally sensed — without being able to express it — something different about that day, and about that dad with his finger in my face.
The Life and Times of the Last Kid Picked started as a short autobiographical sketch about childhood fishing, which is now included in the book as “The Epic Lone-Wolf Trout of Council Creek.”
However, Benjamin’s motives for expanding one reminiscence into a whole book grew from his observations as a smalltown newspaper editor in Mansfield, where he realized that kids in the 1980’s — unlike his own childhood peers — were not drawn to the outdoors instinctively, nor thrown haphazardly outdoors by parents who wanted them “out from underfoot.” Benjamin saw for the kids of smalltown Mansfield a childhood that was organized, scheduled, chauffeured and intrusively — even fearfully — monitored at all times by parents who seemed unwilling, or unable, to grant children the independence which once seemed their birthright. Benjamin saw a childhood so altered — over a mere quarter-century — that it bore little resemblance to his reckless, clueless and exhilarating boyhood in Tomah.
Hence, part of Benjamin’s motivation for writing The Life and Times of the Last Kid Picked was to scold today’s parents for micromanaging their children’s lives into a rigid, stress-haunted routine stripped of childhood’s instinctive imagination. But mostly, Benjamin wrote The Last Kid Picked with no villains in mind, but simply to record a bygone moment before everyone forgot about it.
Moving forward and back in time and ranging through Benjamin’s growing up days in both Tomah and Madison, Wisconsin, The Life and Times of the Last Kid Picked dwells one-by-one on all the games and adventures a kid could experience if left to his own devices. There’s fishing and hunting, baseball, football, soccer and hoops. There are vicious squirrels, voracious reptiles, homicidal swimming instructors and there are tadpoles, thousands of them. The reader meets the hero’s superior sister, his idiot brother (who nonetheless figures out what to do with the tadpoles), his parents and grandparents and a cast of characters that includes an obnoxious sidekick named Koscal, and even more obnoxious sidekick named Fat Vinny, a few heroes — like Fin, Father Mulligan and Paladin, and a vast array of villains, from the thuggish Gunderson and Snappy the turtle to Ed Gein and a creep named Blomeier, who all contrived ‘til almost the every end, to ensure Benjamin’s lowly status as “the last kid picked.”
A typical response to Benjamin’s effort to preserve those nearly forgotten days came, via the Barnes & Noble website, from a reader named Kathleen Reiser. She wrote:
“This book was so good I read it twice. David Benjamin’s wonderful recollections took me back to my childhood days in Ridley Park, Pennsylvania. The prose is superb and with memory shakers like ‘Jesus Christ kid.Go outside!’, I instantly recalled what it felt like to hear those words and fly through the screen door in obedience. But most important, David Benjamin has captured exactly what it was like growing up in the Fifties from the prevailing adult attitudes toward children to the way we all coped with the daily joys and hazards of life. This book isn’t just for Baby Boomer males to remember the Fifties by. Lots of girls swung bats, traversed roiling streams, captured frogs and overturned rocks to see what would crawl out into the light of day. We all had the same great, and not so great, experiences that were uniquely the result of being born to ‘Greatest Generation’ parents and the post-war times they fashioned for us.”
One sidelight on The Life and Times of the Last Kid Picked is that David Benjamin wheedled an “audience” for the book, from his eventual Random House editor, Katie Hall, by sending her an unsolicited letter and enclosing one of his Weekly Screeds, this one about the lost joys of free-lance childhood. He took a chance on Katie Hall, who had edited the bestseller, Flags of Our Fathers by James Bradley and Ron Powers, because she’s a fellow Midwesterner (LaPorte, Indiana) with an affinity for Heartland prose. Although Ms. Hall expressed doubts about her interest in what was apparently a “sports book,” she was sufficiently charmed by Benjamin’s short essay that she agreed to read the ms. of The Last Kid Picked. After reading it, she realized this was hardly just a sports book. She changed her mind and acquired The Last Kid Picked.
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