The story begins with a message on Facebook: “I’m looking for Wayne Scott from the Baltimore area. A Navy veteran, about seventy-two or seventy-three. A relative of yours by any chance?” A phone call to my mother confirms that my father, whose name I inherited and who was close-lipped about his past, had dropped out of high school and joined the Navy when he was seventeen.
I write back to the stranger that I’m the oldest of Wayne Scott’s three sons and that he died of lung cancer fifteen years ago. “I wasn’t very close to him,” I confess, “but I am interested in any recollections you care to share.”
The stranger, Ken, is a friend of my father’s from his service days and is planning a reunion with their old Navy buddies. He’s sorry to hear that Scotty, as everyone called my father, is gone.
I accept his condolences, but the truth is I rarely think about my dad. During my teens and young adulthood I was enraged at him for the way he treated my mother both before and after their divorce; for his secrecy and disappearances; for his failure to pay child support and alimony. Growing up, I’d sometimes felt like an unwanted obligation.
Ken has warmer memories of my father. “Scotty fancied himself a ladies’ man,” he writes. “Whenever we walked into a bar, he would pause in the doorway to make sure everyone saw his entrance. Then he would pick out a girl and start buying her drinks.”
Ken scans old black-and-white photographs of my dad in the Navy in the 1950s and sends them to me. In one shot — taken during a night on the town in Okinawa, Japan — Ken, Scotty, and two other sailors named Jim and Will pose together with their arms around each other. Their shirts are unbuttoned, and my father grins broadly. In another picture the sailors have on dark-blue uniforms with white stripes and hold cigarettes and beers. They exude a youthful bravado. I study the picture of Scotty as a fresh-faced man-boy. If he weren’t my father, he might have been one of the kids who used to bully me on the baseball diamond.
It is 1972, three years before the end of the Vietnam War. Though I am only eight, every night I lie awake in bed, listening to war news on the radio and worrying about being drafted. My family — my mother, my father, my two younger brothers, and I — lives in a narrow brick townhouse outside Philadelphia. The walls are so thin we can hear the conversations and arguments and televisions of the neighbors on either side. We know which families are unhappy. We know which fathers drink and fight with their wives. We know which children get spanked and which parents yell and curse. We know how broke everyone is.
One night, from the room I share with my brother Michael, I hear my parents arguing in the kitchen. I creep out of bed and huddle on the stairs. They are talking about me: how I like to play with girls and wear an apron and help in the kitchen. It’s my father’s fault, my mother insists. If he were more involved, I would act like a boy. I would be more interested in sports. She quits accusing and tries to say it more kindly: “Wayne still needs your influence.”
Soon after that, against my will, they sign me up to play Little League baseball. My father, who loves the sport, is the coach. The baseball is like a stone that another boy hurls at you. When I am not sitting bored on the bench or standing deep in the outfield where the ball never goes, I worry about it hitting me. Stepping up to home plate with a bat, I heave a sigh while the catcher baits me: “Sissy, sissy, sissy.” I wonder which will cause less embarrassment: watching the ball go by and possibly getting walked, or swinging and striking out. If I get walked, I’ll have to keep playing. Halfheartedly I swing and keep missing.
“You’re out!” the umpire yells.
After I return to the bench, my father offers advice on how to stand at the plate, how to swing, how to ignore the catcher’s teasing. It is important that I neither cry nor give up. At home I beg both parents to let me quit.
That long, humid summer our team loses every game. My father remains steadfast, but I see the way his face falls as our opponents rack up runs against us. It is a game, but it matters. As I continue begging him to let me quit, I begin to see that he wants to quit, too. Not only is he the coach of a losing team, but he is the father of a boy who shuts his eyes when he’s at bat.
There is a pitcher we call “Wild Nicky” whose bangs flop over one eye and whose smile curls reptile-like. It isn’t clear why he’s not in juvenile detention. It isn’t clear why Wild Nicky is allowed to be a pitcher: not a game passes when he doesn’t hit at least one batter. Anytime he is on the mound, my dread of going to the plate becomes a crippling anxiety.
With only one month left in the season, we play Wild Nicky’s team. I pray that the batters who are up before me will all strike out, but I am not so lucky. I go to my execution in a daze.
The catcher taunts me under his breath. Wild Nicky does his theatrical, acrobatic windup. I don’t even bother to swing. I just close my eyes. The ball smacks me between the legs. There’s a shock of pain like no other. A singularly male agony ripples through my body, and I cry out. The crowd gasps; my father shouts, “Wayne!” and runs over; and in that second of his rare, delicious empathy, I seize my opportunity and collapse, a wailing martyr.
Though I am not allowed to quit baseball, a new position is developed just for me: team photographer. And I never go to bat again.
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