Category Archives: Baseball

Feeling the Burn

I’ve always been fascinated by how childhood’s seemingly minor thresholds turn out to be major upheavals in how a child sees and understands the world, and it has been a common theme in my writing.  Our growth from innocence to experience exacts a high cost, and it’s what we pay, willing or not, to become adults. Last Saturday, March 19, marked the fourth anniversary of the death of my father, Frank Shell. I took one of the stories my dad told me about a lesson learned in his childhood and loosely transformed it into a work of fiction with several lessons. “Feeling the Burn” was originally published in Louisiana Literature*.  I’d like readers’ responses on what was learned that hot summer day.

 

Feeling the Burn

 

“I was hoping we’d get a soda this afternoon.” Fate Taylor kicked a rock repeatedly along the dirt road, weaving side to side to follow its path.

“Now how would that happen?” Terrell, Fate’s older brother by thirteen months, sidestepped Fate’s rock.

“Tell me again how it tastes.” Fate’s bare feet, calloused to convey him through an Ozark summer, were unhampered by the small stones, though he avoided the larger pointed rocks.

Terrell shrugged and chewed his biscuit as they ambled toward the game. “It burns your throat. But the burn feels good.” He added the last with a rise in inflection, conveying he understood it didn’t make sense. Fate watched Terrell’s lips repeat the description he had heard many times. He ran his tongue over his lips again. The heat absorbed the moisture entirely. Terrell kicked Fate’s rock. “But you ain’t gonna get that burn today.”

“Maybe I will,” Fate stuck out his chin in defiance as he looked at his brother.

Both boys had finished the second grade two days earlier, and summer stretched before them like a luscious treat to swallow whole. The next day their father Leland made them chop and stack a hickory hit by lightning for firewood. Cutting into that rock-hard wood burned their shoulder, arm and back muscles. All four Taylor boys crawled into bed at night with nothing left in their bodies that could possibly make provision for their family. They rammed cedar fence posts in the ground, hoed the tomatoes and pole beans, and cleared the meadow of sassafras striplings.

But this afternoon, the local boys of Simms Creek would take on the county seat team of Winnsboro at a baseball game, and Terrell and Fate’s mother Mattie had said they could attend, provided they finished their chores and Leland agreed. That morning Terrell milked while Fate gathered the eggs. They carried their burdens to the cool of the spring house. They wiped sweaty hands on their overall legs, and strained the steaming milk through a white cloth into frosted Mason jars which they lidded carefully and lowered into the spring.

“Think if we sold some of the eggs and got a soda Ma’s miss them?” Fate asked

Terrell frowned as he examined then tossed an egg Fate had cracked. “You blew your chance last year.”

One Saturday late last November, Mattie had their oldest brother Willis harness Jep the mule and drive the family to Greeson’s store in the cart. She sold the pecans that her boys had gathered that morning. She handed each boy a nickel in front of the store. Terrell had purchased a Coca-Cola, bolted it in a few gulps, and then belched with pride and surprise as the burning sensation in his throat ripened. Fate also bought a Coke, but did not drink it immediately. He seated himself on the left end of the store porch and placed the bottle beside him. Terrell tossed a baseball in the air and caught it.

“Hey, think fast!” Terrell fired the ball toward Fate. The ball glanced off Fate’s fingers, knocked over the bottle, and broke it. The dry gray boards quickly soaked up the liquid. Fate rubbed his knuckles, blinked, and glared at his brother.

“Why didn’t you catch it?” Terrell mocked. That night, he described the curious sensation of drinking the cola to his mother. “Burned a nickel is what you done,” Leland said, as he sat at the table and whittled a sling shot for Terrell. Mattie tapped her pointer finger against her lips from behind Leland, and raised her eyebrows at her boys.

I won’t lose it next time, Fate whispered.

Continue reading Feeling the Burn

I Played that Town: the Frank Shell Baseball Story

dadbaseballAbout a third of the way through the twentieth century, baseball was the number one sport in towns large and small across the United States. Villages in the hills of north Arkansas were known for their baseball teams. As soon as the crops were in, friends gathered on quilts or the hoods of their cars in a make-do field, open and clean, sometimes only sporting a backstop, for a match-up with a community nearby. Baseball was quite competitive, even on the local level, and it was into this environment that Frank Shell was born.
Frank grew up with athletics. His father, Harry Shell, though primarily a baseball player, was invited to play high school football for Augusta, Arkansas. Harry was also recruited to play college football. He joined a pro baseball team in Northeast Arkansas, and in three weeks was batting .700. Unfortunately, an arm injury sidelined him. He continued to play baseball on several amateur teams around Zion and Melbourne in Izard County. Harry was a friend and quail hunting buddy of Dodgers pitcher Preacher Roe. Frank’s uncles on both sides of the family also took to the diamond, excelling at hitting. One of Harry’s brothers, Theo, was known for the astounding “crack” the bat made in contact with the ball. Spectators called his hits “King Cracking” because he could find that central “sweet spot” of the bat so well.
In Frank’s earliest memories of the sport, his father took a ball and an old wooden bat beside the house, and pitched to Frank and his older brother, Hoyt. Harry threw hard enough to raise concern in the boys’ mother, Myrtle, who was by no means fainthearted. But Harry expected his boys to move along, learning baseball, and learn they did.
In the early 40s, Little League or Babe Ruth baseball had yet to arrive in Izard County. But by age ten or so, at recess, after school, or during the summer, Frank, Hoyt, and their friends maintained a pick-up game. They would make bases and lay out their rules, sometimes using a ball made out of an old sock wrapped tight or perhaps taped. In one version, an “out” occurred when the batter failed to hit the ball out of the infield. As long as the batter’s hit cleared the infield, he could continue batting. The boys intermingled the line-ups, scurried in at the fork of lightning or when they were called home for supper, but ultimately participated in one long game, drawn out through the seasons and years as they completed fifth and sixth grades, and on.
Sometimes the boys would play in the Shell’s yard. Their mother, Myrtle, took pride in gardening, nurturing petunias, zinnias, four o’clocks, and marigolds, many of the old-fashioned flowers. Often the players would chase a ball into the flowers and break a stem. The offender would pick up the flower and lean it against its counterparts, as if nothing had happened. Frank heard his mother once complaining to a neighbor, “I don’t know what it is about my flowers. They just all of a sudden die.” The boys never revealed the mysterious reason Myrtle’s pretty blooms didn’t survive.

An amusing incident off-field occurred when Shell was about twelve. Continue reading I Played that Town: the Frank Shell Baseball Story