Labor Day Memory

Wednesday, September 6 wakes to damp, gray light, with lacy ground fog blanketing spongy meadows. Evocative indeed. Almost spooky.

Striding at my normal brisk pace up the first half-mile of my daily morning walk around the neighborhood, I find Green River Road still streetlamp-lit as the gap between dawn and dusk continues to narrow, daybreak delivered a wee bit later each day. My feet moving, pulse rising, I deeply inhale to open my jets.

My cranial wheels will soon be whirling to a high hum, thoughts dipping and darting like a feeding hummingbird from one topic to another as I walk familiar ground. Most often, they flow down historic streams bubbling with local perspective. I guess some would call it sense of place, which I hesitate to use these days. I’d hate for someone to label me “woke,” whatever that means. If defined as introspective, analytical, and seeking a better way, count me in.

Often, walking alone as light filters in, I imagine what this neighborhood looked like when the paved road was no more than a footpath, a cart-path, a shortcut traversing wetland meadow leading to the old Jonathan Smead saltbox. Considered the oldest house in Greenfield, the Smead homestead stood sentry on the raised eastern overlook. It was built as early as 1739, ancient for colonial settlement in the upper Meadows.

On this day, however, my holiday thoughts take an abrupt turn down Memory Lane, which I enjoy traveling. Perhaps I have been nudged there by cool hints of autumn in the air, by dabs of faint color in some trees, by emerging roadside yellows and purples, and by loose, dry maple leaves crunching underfoot in places. The message is clear. Soon my woodstove will be radiating soothing dry heat for another season ending in May.

The place where my thoughts meandered on this holiday morning was spontaneous, yet totally predictable. I leaped back 41 years to the early-morning hours of September 6, 1982. Labor Day fell on that day that year, when my first-born child and namesake son was born in Northampton. Though he left this world 13 years ago following aortal dissection and botched surgery, I think of him often, especially alone and snuggled into an inner chamber I love to occupy.

Whether quietly walking a hardwood spine where shagbark hickories and black bears roam or slogging through a thorny marsh where cock pheasants crow and partridge drum, thoughts of Gary and his late younger brother Ryan waft through my consciousness like whistling winter breezes. I always welcome such thoughts, be they in the warmth of peaceful dreams or the chill of a frosty winter hunting stand with my back to a stonewall or twin red pine.

My wife, Joey, calls such occurrences “visitations,” which I don’t challenge or try to explain. When the time is right, they just happen.

But why digress? Back to Joey’s Labor Day labor pains and Gary’s holiday birth, which couldn’t have come at a worse time for me. You see, he chose to arrive on decision day of Athol’s annual holiday softball tournament, for which I had found a sponsor and assembled a team of former hardball players who could handle about anything thrown their way.

The annual Pequoig League Labor Day Tournament was a double-elimination affair that attracted at least 24 modified-pitch teams accustomed to playing a faster brand of semi-fast softball than Franklin County offered. The leagues from Athol, Gardner, the North Shore, and Keene, New Hampshire allowed bunting and stealing, not to mention hard-throwing pitchers known in softball lingo as “slingers.” Though these pitchers couldn’t use the 360-degree, fastpitch windmill windup, they were allowed to stretch modified rules by pivoting their hand and wrist out at the apex of their backswing to above their head and snapping it at release to increase velocity and ball movement.

It was a great way to end the season for a pickup team of old Franklin County hardball players who loved the challenge of knucklers, risers, and sizzling heat that could be heard up and in.

At 29 I was the oldest positional player on our team, but not by a wide margin over some. Readers will recognize the Powertown players, such as Bobby Bourbeau, Mike Parenteau, Fran Togneri, and Ray Zukowski. The rest of the roster included my South Deerfield chums, people like Matty Murphy, Eddie Skribiski, Glenn Deskavich, and Big Richie Kellogg. Top to bottom, that lineup came to play and could handle anything thrown its way.

On that final day of the steamy three- or four-day tourney, our hand-picked skeleton crew was marching into Silver Lake Park for the winners-bracket finals against the tourney favorite, a veteran Keene team with fireballer Tim “Whitey” Lepisto on the mound. Gametime was 11:15, and a large, boisterous crowd was expected.

Because our barebones roster had no depth, there was no room for injury or emergency. How do you find a capable ballplayer willing to sacrifice his Labor Day Weekend by sitting the bench as a backup? It’s not fair.

Winners-bracket finals are always huge. The unbeaten winner moves into the driver’s seat, needing one more win for the championship. The loser falls into the losers’-bracket final, needing to win that game and then beat the winners’-bracket foe back-to-back in the championship finals.

I can’t pretend to have been unaware that my wife’s pregnancy could interfere with my availability before I submitted the tourney entry fee. But her late-August due date convinced me to roll the dice, confident everything would work out. It was wishful thinking. You’d have to have known Gary – or both of us, for that matter – to truly understand the long odds against smooth sailing.

Sure enough, the pressure-cooker started to whistle as the tourney approached with Joey more than a week overdue – not uncommon for first pregnancies, we were told. By the time the tourney opened and the pregnancy endured, all I could do was hope and pray to the hunter-gatherer gods that the birth could wait until after Labor Day.

Not to be. Go figure.

When Joey awoke with labor pains at around 4 a.m., I called a teammate to apprise him of the unfortunate situation. Hopefully, I told him, the birth would happen fast. I’d get there as soon as possible. If I didn’t make it for the first pitch, they’d have to play a man short, without a fourth outfielder, like the real game. By 4:30, less than seven hours before the scheduled first pitch, we were off to the Northampton hospital.

We went straight to the emergency room, where Joey was assessed. With fetal distress detected, an emergency C-section was ordered and the holiday scramble was on. A surgeon was found, and I attended the birth, hung around awhile, and was informed that my wife needed rest. It would be best to give her space and let her rest for several hours of post-op recovery. Music to my ears.

Before 11 a.m., I was on my way to Athol with no hope of playing.

I arrived at Silver Lake Park with Keene at bat and up by two runs, I think either 3-1 or 5-3, in the top of the seventh inning. After witnessing the final two outs from the bench with scorekeeper Brudger Bialecki, I went to the third-base coaching box for our last at-bat. I want to say the storied Lepisto was pitching. He was a hurler with many state titles and Nationals victories under his belt. (But, remember, it was four decades ago. I could be conflating one tourney with another. Does it really matter?)

Down to our final three outs, we rallied to load the bases with two outs, sending always-dangerous slugger Murphy to the plate. It was high drama before a festive holiday crowd ringing the fence-enclosed diamond. Murphy was always a tough out and, as usual, he worked the count to 3 and 2. Then, with one mighty swing of the bat, he ended the game in dramatic fashion – sending a towering, game-winning grand-slam home run over the left-center-field fence.

I can’t say for sure, but do believe we went on to win that tournament. If not, we were runner-up. Honestly, I can’t remember. Don’t forget, I was at the time hopelessly ensnared in more pressing family distractions – ones that raced down Memory Lane like a bolt of flashback lightning on that recent, crack-of-dawn, Labor Day ramble around my neighborhood.

It now seems like ancient history to me as I grow old. I have outlived my sons, and competitive local men’s softball leagues have followed the passenger pigeon’s poignant path. What remains are happy memories and fleeting, ghostly “visitations” that come and go like blustery winds. Never ignore their gentle knocks on the back door. Invite them in to savor joyous reminiscence.

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