My first writing love is poetry. Please check out my poetry blog, Ponderable polemics, poetic at https://markluckerpoet.wordpress.com/
“You see, you spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball, and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time.” – Former major leaguer & Author Jim Bouton
I’ve been told – more often than I can count – to take a walk.
I have sacrificed.
Took lots of pitches and touched all the bases. Made it to a few when I probably shouldn’t have, gotten thrown out when I tried to take an extra one…often experienced the thrill of sliding in safe at home.
There are times when I have been left stranded, others when I have been benched. I have been shelled, and pulled for a reliever who could close out what I started.
I have made more than a few long, slow walks back to the dugout.
I loved the game and life – and it returned the favor far more often than it could let me down. Oh yeah, a few pennant races broke my heart – but isn’t that life in a nut shell? I’ve had good winning streaks and a few tough loses.
Hurled a few biting changeups of my own, too. Others will tell you there are times when I’ve been a real screwball.
Sometimes I’ve had to play hardball. I have usually won.
I have been thrown out, tagged out, shut out.
I have balked.
I have loved the game – my life – it has returned the favor.
Now, the grass is greener than ever, lush and rich; the sky is always a vivid blue. In my mind I can always I feel the breeze on my face, breathe in the aroma of oiled leather, hear the distant crack of solid horsehide colliding with polished ash.
Someday I’ll be rounding third and headed for home, with someone waving me on. I’ll know then as I do now that it’s been a grand and glorious event, an extra-innings affair to remember; a ninth inning grand slam in every sense.
It’s hopefully a long time before I need to come out of the game, many years before I’ll need a curtain call to acknowledge the home crowd, tip my hat and then disappear, headed for the clubhouse to hang up my gear for the last time.
Not now, not today.
Hope, potential and promise fill the air, a game has yet to be lost.
A long, blissful summer awaits. There will be highlights and losing streaks, rainouts and glorious days you’ll hope will not end. For now, the joy is in simply taking the field again.
As Ernie Banks always says, “It’s a great day to play two!”
It would be cliché to say that some of the greatest teachers I have had in my life never stood in front of a classroom; the best lessons rarely came framed by chalkboard proscenium. One of the most unique teachers I ever encountered, I had the privilege of seeing in action holding class for his solitary student in a south Denver donut shop.
I matriculated, pushing maple bars.
Ray Rector was an anthropology professor at the Denver University; I was the seventeen year old nighttime clerk at the Donut House, a small, ma-and-pa shop in a dingy, half-block long strip mall at the busy intersection of Illiff Avenue and Colorado Boulevard.
No ivy-covered hall of academia, except maybe to me.
I began working at The Donut House in the summer of 1976, just before starting my senior year of high school. Ray was a regular at the shop, which was just a five-minute drive from the D.U. campus, and he could be found there many evenings grading papers or reading, and drinking copious amounts of coffee.
Morning was the busy time of day at the shop; evenings providing the chance to eat donuts and write, as my more sporadic nighttime clientele consisted mostly of some local beat cops (who always got free coffee) the guys from the Chicken Delight restaurant down the block, and friends of mine from school. We would also get the stray D.U. student or two who would hang out and study.
And there was Ray.
We met early in my Donut House tenure. My usual perch in the evening was on a bar stool situated in the doorway leading from the donut frying area to the back office. This elevated vantage point was centrally located, and high enough that I could easily see over the glass display cases, affording me an unobstructed view of the front of the shop and door.
Sitting on the stool also allowed me to brace my right foot on the door jamb, so I could use my propped-up thigh as an easel for my notebook: ‘The Thinker’ in apron and paper sanitary hat.
This is how Ray saw me one night as he came in for coffee and a cruller. I had chatted with him a few times before, but this particular night I was apparently a little too much in what I was writing, and was a little slower than usual to react to the jingling bell of the door opening.
He greeted me with a chuckle, commenting on how engrossed I was in what he assumed was homework, when in actuality I was actually me writing a poem. Our casual small talk that led to this discovery piqued his curiosity, and he asked if he could read some of my work sometime.
‘Sometime’ became a regular thing.
I worked three or four nights a week at the Donut House, and rare was the week Ray didn’t pop in at least one or two of those nights. He became an ongoing reader and editor of my stuff, offering up elaborate, eloquent critiques from a little round table in a neighborhood donut shop.
That is, when he wasn’t grading his real/classroom student’s papers from the same table by the wall, or when he wasn’t regaling me with anthropological insights on all things word and language related. Ray loved words, as did I. The volume of my writing amazed him, and the quality impressed him. Every night I went to work I brought at least one or two of my notebooks along, hoping for enough time between raised glazed sales to get some good stuff down on paper, and in hope that Ray would stop in – not just to share my latest work with him, but simply to engage in fascinating conversation.
Ray was middle-aged and divorced. He had grown up in rural Oklahoma, traveled a lot, seen and done a lot, and was more than happy to share his stories and expertise. And I was a willing listener, soaking it all in. As an anthropology professor, he had a curiosity and interest in all things human-oriented. This included my regaling him with tales of my yearly summer Greyhound bus jaunts from Denver to my ancestral homeland of Minnesota, and all my summers at the lake. Tales of the northwoods and young love got special attention.
As interested as Ray was in my writing, the process of my writing fascinated him; tales of writing while watching Nebraska roll endlessly by through SceniCruiser windows, my purchase and reading of small town newspapers from various, obscure stops. Overnight layover stays in depots in Omaha and Des Moines, all perfect locales and people-watching, behavioral fodder for my writings.
My perspectives of small-town middle America as a city kid fascinated him, and his interest only intensified after I graduated and moved on to a career in small-market radio, and we continued our friendship via the U.S.P.S.
But that year wasn’t just about my writing; Ray was expanding my horizons.
As often as he was in residence at one of our tables with a stack of papers to grade or a book, he would frequently find himself engaging other patrons (D.U. students, my favorite beat cops, fellow professors etc.) in various lengthy and in-depth conversation on politics, religion, philosophy, sports and more over coffee and raised glazed. I was always invited to participate, which I did when customer traffic (or lack thereof) allowed.
A Formica topped Algonquin Round Table, littered with cake crumbs and sprinkles.
Learning of my Minnesota background, Ray familiarized me with the work of proletarian and feminist writer (and fellow Minnesotan) Meridel Le Sueur, gave me off-beat books on vocabulary building. We discussed my literary hero Sinclair Lewis, and Ray also introduced me to the quirky history of E. Haldeman Julius’ ‘Little Blue Books.’
(Beginning in the early 1900’s Haldeman-Julius began printing 3.5″ x 5″ pocket books on cheap pulp paper. The Little Blue Books were consciously directed at “Mr. Average Man.” Through them, for a nickel, he could buy works by Thoreau, Shakespeare, Goethe, Tolstoy, Sophocles and many more classics, along with contemporary scientific journals and Socialist-leaning political tracts. Haldeman-Julius called his books ‘A University in Print.’)
I have almost always been surrounded by people who encouraged and supported my efforts at writing, but Ray took it to a whole other level; he was my first serious editor – and a damn good, brutally honest one at that. Ray Rector didn’t teach me how to write, but he made me a better writer. And, I’d like to think, a better person.
That’s what the best teachers do, isn’t it?
My senior year of high school had a lot of high points, and one of those was a part-time job working nights at small donut shop. Off all the classrooms I’ve spent time in, The Donut House was one of the sweetest.
Ray and I communicated via mail and phone for a number of years before losing track of each other in the late 80’s. I’ve tried to track him down a number of times since using everything from the D.U. alumni association to a website for anthropological studies and the SSI Death Index, all to no avail. I’m betting he would see the Internet as the ultimate anthropological petri dish.
I’d love to reconnect and get his take on contemporary society – over donuts and coffee, of course.
I’d also like to show him my blogs; this one, and of course, my poetry blog, Ponderable polemics, poetic https://markluckerpoet.wordpress.com/
And I’d like to tell him, after thirty-five years, I’m still taking his nightly parting words to heart: “Be well. And keep writing.”
Thanks for everything, Ray. As we said in our donut days, “It’s in the bag.”
All poetry, all the time.
On long family trips when I was
six, seven, eight, nine – cowboys,
Indians, soldiers and animals
romped in a nappy, synthetic
dark-blue rear-window meadow
other times, that Plymouth field
was simply a ledge on which to
fold arms, place chin, lean on
watching the highway behind us
fade to black while my mother
half-jokingly admonished me to
“Turn around – see where you’re
going, not where you’ve been.”
But I was a pensive-traveler child
At times I still am.
Graduation from high school
meant moving on, getting on
with life, trying something new
somewhere else – leaving
Graduation gifts were practical
to the situation; a typewriter,
a briefcase, cash, sage advice…
a contradictory set of luggage,
gifted by mom and dad.
Not wanting me to go, knowing
I must; wary, hopeful, resigned
questioning all the inevitability
that raising children nurtures
A matched set of five brown
vinyl bags; two suitcases, under-
seat tote, garment bag, shaving
kit, all filled quickly, portaged
across multiple states, stages,
careers, life transitions – stuffed
with the tactile accoutrements
of a life, with room remaining in
corners and zippered pouches
for moments, memories. A life.
A few quick Junes from now
my eldest son reaches the same
well-trod crossroads, whether to
go or to stay will not be the point;
moving on a given, a goal reached
The temptation will be to send
him on his way much as I was; a
laptop, a briefcase, cash, debit card
and a large, sleek, shoulder-carry,
nylon duffle bag along with prudent
counsel to travel light while still
taking it all in; to bring it with him
when he comes back, take it all
with him when he leaves again, but
most importantly of all, to use it
along the way, carry himself well
Loin cloth, tuxedo;
so many moods, so few nights
we have to ourselves
mannequins read the
Kama Sutra; store closes,
they envy Gumby
The young ballplayer drags his bat to the plate, leaving a neat,
shallow furrow in the dirt in which the seeds of success are now
sown; there is purpose to his gait, no fear. He is resolute.
He practice swings the bat in a warped, pendulum loop while his
oversized, red plastic helmet acts a boa constrictor trying to
digest his head. Dogged determination shapes the boys eyes
He stands beside home plate, tongue protruding from the lower
left corner of his mouth in intensity; his face drawn in pseudo-
sneer, he spreads his feet, digs toes firmly into the sacred dirt
The boy is ten.
He looks every bit the ballplayer; body language poised – just
shy of cocky; seriousness finger-painted in bold red dirt streaks
across the white script team name adorning his uniform shirt
His bat slowly rises, coming to rest on his shoulder as he fixes
a nearly-hardened gaze on the adversary forty-six feet ahead;
takes a deep breath, wrinkles his nose to move the sweat off
The pitcher looks at him, cocks his arm, throws. Bait not taken;
a ball! The bat in the boy’s hands wobbles alongside his head,
goes still a brief moment as the next pitch approaches before
whipping violently from his shoulder, thrust in a swept-sword
arc at the hurled sphere coming; arm muscles strain, elbows go
straight, torso and hips spin wildly, eyes close as bat meets ball…
Momentum causes the boy to teeter briefly, before an ungainly
burst from the batter’s box sends him lurching toward first as
the ball, like a flat stone on water, skims the infield dirt, kicking
up four quick puffs of diamond dust and the boy’s thought is of
only one thing; the sudden grandeur of a double – a double! – as
he rounds first, and the ball comes to a stop in the outfield grass
The boy playing right field for the opponents charges in, plucking
the ball from the turf where it has come to rest while in the same
odd, Quixotic-windmill motion he catapults it toward second base
Then it all happens so fast.
The boy has ducked his head rounding first, doggedly running
fast as he ever has or ever will, only looking up in time to see the
ball jutting from the webbing of the glove suddenly before him
the sight alerts the boy’s baseball instincts to his only option;
intuitively he launches his feet out from under him, left leg fully
extended, right leg tucked beneath him, curled at the knee
his left buttock slams into the dirt with a cloud of dust, his body
sliding to a stop a full foot in front of second base, he sees the
glove smack his shin, hearing a soft, excited voice; “You’re out!”
Lying there looking up into fading afternoon sun he can make the
silhouette of his vanquisher; arms raised in exultant triumph, ball
in one hand, glove the other, and a look of surprised satisfaction.
From flat on his back he lifts his head to focus, and through the
dissipating cloud of grit the face of his rival comes into soft focus
from beneth her frayed bent cap brim. No gloating countenance,
the gentle face is a wide smile, large eyes – framed by two tightly-
braided, long, dangling, swaying pig-tails; near the end of each
dangle shiny plastic barrettes the exact hue of her cap and jersey
There is an oddly comforting lilt to her voice saying “You’re out!”
He doesn’t hear moans of disappointment from his team’s bench.
Still on his back, chin on chest, he smiles, repeats; “You’re out.”
His head flops back on the dirt. She leans over him, still holding
the ball, hands on her knees, he again repeats, “You’re out.”
The girl nods. “Yep” she repeats with a broad smile, “You’re out.”
From that moment on, though he will often try, he can never quite
accurately articulate or explain to anyone (even himself) his inate
passion for baseball, his true love. His love of the game.
She played tambourine with
all the musical finesse of a
pyramid of canned peaches
watching her writhe songs –
eyes closed, soul lost in odd
spiritual chords; pop bel-canto
beat unheard by anyone else
one couldn’t help but think
this was one helluva band to
just sit and watch with awe
even if – like me – you didn’t
much care for their kind of
music, or how it was played