In The Wee Small Hours Of The Bottom Of The Ninth

One year ago my step-son, M____, and I stood in the seats behind home plate at Growden Memorial Park, in Fairbanks, Alaska. It was just after ten P.M. and the park was lit in shifting series of hues, ranging from a fading gold to a subdued gray as the threat of rain remained as much an unfulfilled promise as the nearing but never quite there sunset. We were listening to a local group’s rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner”, awaiting the beginning of the annual game played in celebration of the summer solstice. On that evening the home team Alaska Goldpanners were playing the Orange County Surf. The Goldpanners began hosting the contest in 1960 but an unlighted ballgame has been played on June 21 in Fairbanks every year since 1906. I first read about it in, if memory serves, an article in Sport magazine, when I was just about the age that M___ was (eighteen) as we got ready for the first pitch. If you are not reading something I have written for the first time then you are undoubtedly aware that have I am possessed of what might be charitably referred to as a somber nature that I do my best to hold at bay with the closest thing I can provide to sarcastic wit. All that being the case it would surprise no one that my “bucket list” is populated with items of a more existential nature: try and die less ashamed of my life than I am now, see if I can manage to do something of consequence. That sort of thing. And be at this ballgame. Just once. By the time I got there I had been thinking about that night for more than thirty five years. M____ had heard me speak of it more than a few times in the roughly fifteen years I’d been a part of his life and found the whole idea interesting enough to be excited to make the journey with me.

The vacation had been, to that moment, something of a mixed bag for me. To begin with, I had received a crash course in the difficulties in travelling to the farther reaches of this country. Without launching into an extended dissertation on the complexities of cross continental movement, suffice it to say that the best option available, if one wants to fly non-stop from New York to Alaska, is to successfully run for the office of president and then let Air Force One work out the details. Totaling up all the time at various tasks (drive, wait, fly) we were a little over fourteen hours door to door. It wasn’t as much fun as I make it seem. We landed in broad day light at two A.M., shuttled to the hotel in just a few minutes and pretended to sleep for five hours. After that, things started to look up in a hurry. Although the baseball game that is the featured element of this piece is one of Fairbanks’ more prominent attractions the area is not completely bereft of other points of interest. In the days leading up to the above mentioned contest, we dined at the world famous (maybe) Big Daddy’s and had some of the best barbeque and wings around (absolutely), learned the joys of reindeer sausage and passed on the candied salmon. In addition to our culinary adventures we were able to take a tour on a paddle wheel riverboat which allowed us to visit the camp where Susan Butcher’s family still trains sled dogs to run the Iditarod, and take a walking tour through an Athabascan tribal village that has been functioning for over ten thousand years. The day after the game we spent a few hours at the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum, indulging my stepson’s fascination with any and all mechanical conveyances. Aside from a brief review I’d read about Big Daddy’s I hadn’t anticipated any of it, and I can honestly say the few days we were there were pleasantly surprising in how much entertainment they provided. All of which was wonderful but none of which was why we were sitting roughly 190 miles south of the Arctic Circle waiting to watch fifty young men do their best to run after a dream they had probably been chasing since not long after they first learned to walk. M____ was on a trip he’d talked about since I’d first brought it up to him as a third grader. I was about to end three and a half decades of speculation. And, I must confess, there was a bit more than that at stake for me.

I first met my step-son when he was just two tears old. His mother and I began dating when he was three and he has been the light of my life ever since. All that love comes with a price. I have always worried about him. He is, in many ways, a lot like me and more than anything I’ve tried to make sure that he ends up living a happier life than I have. School has been, to varying degrees, a struggle for him and I’ve been hard on him in the hopes of teaching him to be as tough with himself as he needs to be. None of it has been easy but M____ has continued to push himself along, and although he’s had a few near misses, he’s never failed to get to wherever he was supposed to go next. As he began college we were, to no great surprise, in a state of real mixed emotions. By the time he’d graduated high school two things had become obvious to us. He was a smart kid with a memory for subjects he was interested in. He didn’t like to read, and it showed in a variety of ways. As much as it felt as if he had a genuine chance to succeed academically, it was also undeniable that he hadn’t demonstrated the sort of disciplined approach to school that would’ve given us the sort of assuredness that we craved as he went off to start the next phase of his education. His freshman year had results ranging from the top to the not-quite bottom; a couple of close calls but no failures and a mix of A’s, B’s, and C’s. It was quintessential M____. Enough success to sustain hope, enough trouble to give that hope an undercurrent of tension. In light of all that we’d had more than a few unpleasant but constructive conversations concerning what he would need to do to improve his grades and keep attending college. He said he knew he’d have to become a better reader, and that he would dedicate his summer to doing that. Those conversations, and the odd combination of optimism and anxiety they inspired in me had been filling my thoughts in the weeks leading up to the moment I described when writing the opening words of this piece. M____ had performed in agonizingly typical M____ fashion. Not long after he first arrived home he started reading, and seemed to be really committed. Slowly, over the course of the intervening weeks, he’d tapered down, not stopping, but dropping off in volume, and requiring more reminding than should have been necessary. By the time we took our seats I found myself preoccupied with the book he’d brought with him and how remarkably unread it appeared to be. There was no escaping it, and I must confess it changed things for me. Not that I didn’t enjoy myself. I did. The game ended with a Goldpanners walk off home run. All the other stuff I’ve written about was a lot of fun. But. But looking at my step-son and thinking of what wasn’t happening and what the cost of all that inactivity might be, I felt some distance from everything. When I answered questions about the trip my voice sounded flat to me. When I thought back on it the images in my mind’s eye were clear enough but not particularly evocative. In the weeks following our return from Alaska we went a few more rounds over his reading, and by the time he went back to school M____’s efforts had stepped up, not surprisingly, enough to leave us in a place where all possible outcomes seemed likely.

A year goes by pretty quickly at my age but it is still a considerable amount of time, and allows for a lot of change if someone makes it their business to try and grow up. It was a year I think we might look back on one day as a turning point in M____’s life. The year my step-son learned he had it in him to do what he needed to do. I can’t predict the future any more than the next person but I can honestly say that when I imagine him in a classroom this fall I think things will be better than just okay. When I think of where I was this day last year, it’s a different memory now. I’m sure that most of that difference is a reflection of the calm that now colors the way I see his future. Still, when I close my eyes and place us in that very small ball park under that most unusual night sky, I can’t help but think that everything looks different in the light of a midnight son.

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