Springtime Flashback Hearkens Back to Youth

Choosing a column topic, a process I once faced twice a week, is a decision that can be influenced by many different factors and stimuli.

Maybe I’ve finished a provocative book, read an interesting magazine article, attended a gripping presentation, seen something on the boob tube, or engaged in impromptu conversation that initiates a strong reaction. Often nature-driven, the narrative may address something I’ve seen during a country ride, solitary hike or, back in the day, hunting an isolated hardwood ridge or thorny alder swamp.

Once in a while, as deadline pressure builds, a totally spontaneous subject is delivered like a gift from the heavens. Other times an idea unfolds during restless bedtime introspection, the wheels spinning to a sleep-interrupting scream. Then, with the topic already settled by still, gray, daybreak waking time, a few paragraphs may begin their development before lifting from the pillow.

This week, the topic arrived quite unexpectedly during an early-morning walk to the backyard, brookside dumping place carved out for weekly pailsful of woodstove ash and embers. As I embarked on this familiar path, I could plainly hear Hinsdale Brook’s jovial springtime rattle from the driveway in front of the carriage sheds, long before I turned north and followed the barn back to the soothing sound.

Standing along the high, southern bank, sandwiched between the kennel and cook-shed under a naked maple, I bore witness to the swollen stream’s audible and visual glee as its cleansing, whitecapped meltwater raced toward the Green River three-quarters of a mile away. Though frosty, spring was in the air, evoking pleasant thoughts and memories.

Not surprisingly, my mind first wandered back to a deep trout-fishing past, a springtime pursuit enjoyed by many. For me, spring fishing was a tradition dating back to childhood and extending well into adulthood, occasionally with wide-eyed sons in tow.

Having long ago learned to analyze trout-stream dynamics, I can still read the runs and riffles, the pools and eddies, from a fishing perspective. Looking down that morning, I visualized plunking a soft pendulum cast upstream from trout in their feeding lairs and dead-drifting my offering past them for an aggressive, predatory strike. Whether using live bait or artificials, success comes down to the angler’s abilities to read water, understand feeding patterns, and present bait in a natural manner without a hint of suspicious drag.

There is no better time than spring for trout fishing; well, then and during sticky summer rainstorms that color the water brown with silt and washed-in feed. But I didn’t dwell long on fishing thoughts that morning. My thoughts hopped like an ovipositing mayfly to baseball, a springtime game that in my world trumps all others – even fishing and turkey hunting.

I’m not certain why baseball memories moved in as I stood along that rollicking trout stream. It just happened, transporting me to a place I love to visit. I suppose the impetus could have been a surprise visit a day or two earlier by an old summer teammate who occasionally stops on his way home to Vermont. Many years ago, we used to play weekend Northern League doubleheaders in places like Bennington, Vermont and Half Moon, New York against good college-age ballplayers.

Then again, maybe the baseball reminiscence was driven by all the gloom-and-doom Red Sox chatter leading up to Opening Day at Fenway Park. Whatever the stimulus, memories raced back more than a half-century to my turbulent Frontier Regional School days, when the “privilege” of playing ball was always at risk if you had a beef with a vindictive teacher, coach, or principal.

I must say that liked my baseball coach. The late Tommy Valiton, a Buckland boy who loved to hunt and fish, was a spirited bundle of mischievous enthusiasm. We became good friends and hunting buddies long after our days at Frontier and before he left this world for the Happy Hunting Ground nearly two decades ago.

Tommy was the lesser of two valuable commodities Buckland gift-wrapped to Frontier. The other was his fellow Arms Academy alum Vi Goodnow, a legendary pioneer of girls’ athletics in the Pioneer Valley, if not the entire Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Both coaches delivered state championships to the South Deerfield school. Not a bad contribution from a quaint little hilltown buried deep in our bucolic western hills.

I hope my memory’s clear, my story accurate. I’ll do my best. It was long ago.

I’d say it was 1969, my sophomore year, when Valiton returned to Frontier with a master’s degree after a one-year sabbatical at the University of Maine. Playing in cold, windy Down East springtime conditions, Tommy had carved out a nice little career for himself in the early ’60s as a speedy center fielder and leadoff man for Coach Jack Butterfield’s Black Bear baseball teams. As a Frontier teacher he returned to his old stomping grounds to secure the salary-boosting degree.

During this brief return to the Northcountry, Tommy couldn’t stay away from the baseball team and its indoor, preseason practices. That should come as no surprise. Hardball was in his blood. And there in the UMaine fieldhouse, he was introduced to an exciting new tool – indoor pitching machines enclosed in mesh batting cages. He immediately recognized what a huge advantage a cage would give his early-season high-school hitters forced to practice indoors.

A winner and fierce competitor, Tommy was always looking for an edge. He knew a batting cage would provide just that. The more he watched the Black Bear hitters honing their stroke in the cage, the more he realized he had to find a way to obtain one for Frontier.

Though I can’t remember every minute detail, it seems we embarked on an aggressive fundraising campaign to raise enough money for an “Iron Mike,” an over-the-top pitching machine, and the needed materials to construct a safe gymnasium batting cage. I think we sold raffle tickets or candy bars to raise the money as Tommy wheedled industrial-arts colleagues to build sturdy metal frames to support the netting. I believe he himself built the protective shield protecting those feeding the machine from dangerous comebackers.

And so, the spunky, little, crewcut devil and former US Marine from Buckland pulled it off. Because of him, Frontier was the first local beneficiary of a batting cage. If I’m not mistaken, that included even bigger Amherst and Greenfield. It gave us an edge, and put us in the Western Massachusetts Tournament when there was only one division for all.

With a good team and high hopes entering my senior year, our promising season was derailed by disciplinary action and ineligibility issues that whittled the roster down to a shadow of itself. Of course, I was right in the middle of the developments. It was sad. The promising team lost more games than it won.

We won our first two games, one of them a thrilling, low-scoring comeback against Mahar Regional School ace George Eastman. Then, a day or two later, I was ruled academically ineligible and our wins became forfeit losses.

I could have prevented the catastrophe had I not cut down my course load for my last two semesters of high school. Instead, having fulfilled my foreign-language requirement, I dropped Spanish and left myself without any academic wiggle room. Down to four classes as I played out the string, I had to pass them all to maintain athletic eligibility.

My problems began with a third-semester creative-writing class taught by an old battle axe named Alice Spindler, with whom I had “history.” The single assignment on which our grade was based was to write a short story. When I submitted my story about an Indian, Spindler accused me of plagiarism without a speck of evidence and flunked me.

She said that although she couldn’t cite the source, she knew I was incapable of crafting such a story.

Well, with my father a sitting school committee member and Coach Valiton eager to reverse the decision, it wasn’t over yet. Strings were pulled to arrange an emergency morning meeting with the principal, vice principal, guidance counselor, teacher, coach, my father, and me. Before going in I was advised that if I played my cards right, the teacher would likely pass me. I was urged to keep my cool, diplomatically defend myself, and offer a contrite apology for any perceived disrespect.

Meeting day arrived, and the teacher spoke first. She came at me with both guns a blazing, airing out a long list of grievances against me. Her presentation so enraged me that, when given the chance, I fired back with a satisfying counter-tirade. A contrite apology was not in play. Although I fought the law and the law won – in my mind I won the battle and lost the war. My baseball season was over.

I’m sure the teacher and administrators felt victorious. They likely believed they had taught an irascible student a valuable life lesson. They were right. What I learned was that it’s better to stand your ground and speak your mind than genuflect to empty, bullying authority.

I went home, put my Wilson A2000 baseball glove away for a while, fished trout streams until the summer American Legion Baseball season began, and never looked back.

I must admit to being humored when Tommy Valiton would introduce me to friends as a former ballplayer of his “who writes for the newspaper and couldn’t pass English.”

What else could I do but curl a sardonic grin?


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