Tundra, Long Island, New York
A NEW YORKER'S MID-LIFE, MID-WEST CRISIS OF FAITH. SORT OF.
Most assuredly, were folks from any corner of the Minnesotan landscape to consider frigid winters on this island of well over three million of the most overtaxed people on our planet, there'd be no grand measure of empathy. Understood. That errant passenger from say, Brainerd, upon arriving at Long Island MacArthur Airport and toeing the bosomy terrain on a balmy, December morn, scrambles to an itchy striptease. Layers of hooded sweatshirts and sweaters speedily removed and crammed into the top of an available bag. "Whee! The tropics!" Stories are afforded us. "We plug our cars, don'tcha know, into these electrical outlets outside of supermarkets simply to pick up milk for our frozen children in Downtown Duluth. Keeps the engine block from freezing shut." Yes, that resembles cold. You betcha.
Pronounced images shaped a young boy's ideas about the land of a lotta lakes. Mary Tyler Moore.Too old to be pretty and you wouldn't say so if you thought so for Joey Perillo would wince and you wouldn't want that. And there was the catholic elementary school book report about states where Minnesota was thrust upon the nine year old like a pebble-ridden
snowball packed tightly and thrown neatly. I became the fourth grader who could not only discern St Paul as the capital of a place somewhere near Montana, but a kid who sensed that there was this spot in a different time zone where Irish and Italian Catholics did not hold absolute sway. "Heaven awaits them how, Sister Elizabeth?" "Sit down, William," Sister Elizabeth chortled. She and I really did not know.
What I acutely comprehended back then was that our most miserable New York Yankees; with their very own fourth grade hurlers and third grade sluggers, would warily depart for Bloomington in order to receive their league sanctioned, spring and summer hiney slappings. Watching these Yankees attempt to play the Minnesota Twins of that era was not dissimilar to having to house sit for your neighbor deep into the night. Alone. With no lights. And THE EXORCIST playing over and over in every room until the neighbors returned .
And you were quite sure that they never would. Still, we pre-pubescents would huddle sacrificially before our seven channel TV sets expecting raw slaughter. It was provided. WPIX Channel 11 would air the castration live. And there would be these weekend morning games- first pitch, one hour earlier there, you can look it up- where we would awaken to nightmares: the blitzkrieg piped directly into our suburban air shelters.
Hard cornflake-chinned and footy-pajamaed, we cringed at images transmitted from that graven, shadowed field of horror which would have overwhelmed telephone lines at Child Protective Services of Suffolk County - had it existed -quicker than you could say Lake Minnetonka.(I think that's how it's spelled.) Rod Carew; singling us senseless and scampering freely around the bags - seven, eight, nine times an at bat, I swear!- until he personally double-digited our Bronx Bozos. And the carnage would continue. Tony Oliva; lacing line drive doubles and torrid triples into outfielderless outfields, ignoring our whimpering cries of "UNCLE! UNCLE! WE GIVE UP! UNCLE! " and Harmon Killebrew ; resembling everyones' uncle from Brooklyn to International Falls, hoisting these scorched white spheres, no longer
resembling baseballs, far out into the mid-morning, mid-western sky. Ah, the humanity! Ah, mom and dad! Ah, Oprah, we need to talk. I think.
And so, not too terribly long after the conclusion of yet another World Series during which our pinstripe heroes were getting in two rounds a day in Palm Beach, television stations in New York would provide footage of weather systems unloading bizarre amounts of snow in Minneapolis. I would shimmy up to the top bunk bed and bask in the warm rays of God's certain goodness. Gods who avenge the weak and meek are welcome deities indeed. Further proof of His great winter providence gushed skyward like tea pot steam out from the frosted aluminum windows of our three bedroom Cape Cod on the corner of Church and Hilliard. Yee ha, pardner! My brother and I had been christened Dallas Cowboy fans.
Our father officiated at this our second partaking of the sacrament.(Although he was not yet a Catholic. A story for another time.) In essence, we believed it nothing short of a miraculous equation set infallibly within the majesty of the universe. Dogma. Our father is a Navy Man. Dallas Cowboys' quarterback Roger Staubach- a Navy Man with something our dad did not possess - a Heisman. Our family: Sunday and every Holy Day, Mass-attending Roman Catholics with a mother named ; you guessed it, Mary. Dittos for Staubach upon his catholicity and in 1975 his final seconds Hail Mary offering to Drew Pearson defeats the Minnesota Vikings whose loss, by extension, was a strike finally fired past a Minnesota Twin during our Major League Baseball challenged youth.The logic was impregnable, if I say so myself.
Following the Cowboys from Long Island was hardly difficult sledding; even from a distance of 1,631.76 miles, or so, for they rostered championship personnel every year. Every year. The CBS network biggies in Manhattan, conscious of the team's increasing popularity, the large New York market and most importantly; us, offered our family many a sunny, Sunday afternoon of pleasant viewing. We saw it as further evidence of the world running in a just and appropriate manner. Nothing less, truly, and nothing more. Head Coach Tom Landry exuded the kind of dignity which awed even the growing numbers who found the success of the Cowboys as distasteful as early morning slugs around a pool deck. Not that we had either. This approach to professionalism and what its merits could offer did not elude an appreciative roofer and his two young sons in that blue collar Long Island neighborhood. And while this may sound pollyannish, if not downright nostalgically nauseating; kindly know this. There were these lessons offered from sources conventional and unconventional; even hours after one of us had gotten up, skipped over to the television and clicked it off. Speckled remnants of another Dallas Cowboys triumph fading to black.
Central Islip, New York in the mid-1970's mirrored many of the wealthier communities adjacent to us. But not much. We were fully aware that East Islip, Hauppauge, Smithtown, Commack and oh, practically every other Long Island town had more bucks than we had. (Per capita dollars and disposable income speak, these days). Nearly 50 miles east of Times Square, our town had about as much in common with Broadway as a Wisconsin dairy farm. Irish immigrants traversed the argumentative Atlantic for over seventy years; bridging two centuries, to arrive exactly there: Central Islip. Laboring in the state psychiatric hospital implanted firmly in our town were nurses, custodians, warehouse attendants and pan turners who signaled back to the old sod with an affirmative nod. And send more family. It foundationed a hearty group whose sense of life's fundamental option fortified a community. Newly arriving Italian, German and Polish Americans speared their own hundred by a hundred plots in the 1940's and 50's and the next two decades saw a great rush of Blacks and Hispanics seeking the exact opportunity. By America's Bicentennial, a photograph taken say, during a fire drill at the senior high would have provided just about the coolest Human Relations text book cover ever,man.(Hmm...Is Human Relations still taught or did it meet the same logical fate as Home Economics and Bachelor Living? All 1970's, hey, it's only tax payer money, one credit, feel good courses.) Our generation fed from this open air smorgasbord table set without place settings.The movie theater had closed its doors in the early part of the decade. Bowling alley; a few years prior. But we didn't bowl anyway. Nah, it was outside stuff for us and we didn't need much prodding to scoot out there. Eight track players positioned near playing areas screamed Springsteen's BORN TO RUN album at us until D batteries pooped out and thereby became missiles chucked by the best arm. Iron basketball hoops were omnipresent; minus, of course, the costly nylon nets.Two on two hoopsters would be forced to agree in principle as to whether or not a 20 foot jumper in the wind swished or missed entirely. Odd shaped hockey nets; actually bed sheets over-enthusiastically stapled to discarded two by fours were dragged into the middle of our streets. Encroaching cars were told to "go around". Ice time? Huh? At a rink with wooden sticks, and hockey gloves and skates and pads and pucks? Ha! Who had money for that? I am to this day not certain if we all considered ourselves heartier athletes; more genuinely attuned to the elements since so many of us had parents who were simply unable to escort us into a family station wagon after practice. But some us of kind of did.
And now I suppose a word or two ,or three perhaps, about my classmate Mike Tice may be in order. And as he is Head Coach of The Minnesota Vikings and considering that there may be some of you who are still reading this, perhaps you might stick around a wee bit longer to see if I can tie any of this together. And as for those who have veered off the road and decided to regard re-runs of I DREAM OF JEANNIE on cable instead; not a problem. I'll soon be watching it along with you. That Barbara Eden is something else.
I don't recall ever having spoken a word to Mike in our early youth. He lived on the other, other side of the tracks ,as it were, and we parochial schoolboys didn't do much panning for buddies from that heathen river of the public school system. His family lived at the at the very beginning of Wilson Boulevard; a rather long curb-less thoroughfare whose venues became, shall we say, more interesting as you headed south."Upper Wilson, we lived on Upper Wilson", a Vikings tight ends coach named John Tice will now cheekily assert. Well, maybe so. But, a wrong left turn on Rodeo Drive didn't get you there. (Or anywhere else in our town, for sure.) There was a particular event when I was 11 though; a tryout for our little league all star team where those who had been cut from it were asked to participate in a mock game to prepare us real guys for the real stuff. This gangly kid steps up to the plate and pops one up over my left shoulder at shortstop. And over the fence.( Over thirty years later he contends to have hit two homers that day and he is wrong for I was there.) After the game, as the chosen ones encircled our coach, I glanced over to Applegate Drive where he and his brother John were zipping away on their bikes. Hey, maybe we coulda used this guy, I thought.
Two years later it became time to explore the delirious secular delights of Central Islip High School, yet the home run king and I wouldn't cross paths for a fair while. The varsity baseball field adjoined the football complex whose gracious sprinkler system might spit easterly toward our thirsty dust diamond when wind velocity toppled the F5 rating on the tornado scale. And since Long Islander's singular knowledge of tornadoes is that study in black and white of a twirling, grey stocking manufactured on the set a 1939 movie about a Kansas farm girl and her dog; ground balls hit on our infield were as mysterious as the storm itself. Infielders became sure-handed, bone-chipped or insanely crotch-conscious. And with dead center field measuring 600 obscene feet from the plate, straight away hitters ran home not to high-five celebratory teammates, but much rather home to mothers in woeful attempt to begin the suckling process anew. And wail. That obscure hope for another school district at which to play; well, it wasn't gonna happen.
Football games at Central Islip, on the other hand, were played on grass so lush and epidermal-friendly that were the hash marks removed, Eden would have appeared. Upon this emerald carpet were staged these wondrous Friday night theater arrangements; orchestrated beneath a lavish lighting system where cheerleaders giggled and jiggled with each victory safely at hand. And there were many.The baseball brethren would congregate amid the happy confetti to regard our pigskin pals adorned smartly in brilliant purple and gold. Mike quarterbacked our teams terrifically and was justly rewarded as the top player in our county.Yet, even still, this was not exactly the Rockwellian template where the quarterback marries the cheerleader. Not here. No freakin' way. Not here.
So, Mike and I eventually catch up with each other and we begin to discuss the usual stuff, I guess. Sports and girls, not Aristotelian philosophical standards, for sure. I liked him immediately. We discussed the number 14 on our respective uniforms and I was pleased when he told me of his special allegiance to it. Mine was steeped in the sort of numerical reverence spoken about by large women with Caribbean accents and tarot cards on late night television. My first love wore number 7 on his broad back and I would do the same throughout little league. Mickey Charles Mantle. Born October 20, 1931 in Saginaw, Oklahoma to parents Mutt and....(Sorry, don't get me started.You just never forget your first one.) And then in my early teens I became transmogrified by a Cincinnati whirlwind who attacked every game, every inning, every pitch, yes, every batting helmet and cup adjustment with voracious focus. He loved my game! He wanted to rub infield dirt on his chest and arms! To bite down hard on third base and chew! To sleep on the field to be first up for next day's batting practice! Wow! Thank you for the replacement, Almighty God! And now that Mickey had retired, it wasn't like I was cheating on him or anything, I reckoned. Another thing. Aside from slobberings expressed by Italian great aunts with significantly more facial stubble than my dad; by age 14...well,..how to say this... I still hadn't been kissed .(There. I've said it and I'd prefer not discussing it anymore.) So, Peter Edward Rose became my new baseball lover. And he passed on to me his number during our first date: a Saturday afternoon, NBC Game of the week affair. Yep, NUMBER 14. Mickey Mantle doubled.
I sensed that Mike might uphold the sanctity of our number. On the field he was intense and commanding. Very noble stuff, of course. But for the love of Pete, the number was at stake here.The number.This was big time. As I got to know him better though, I got won over. He possessed this massive,goofy laugh and was masterfully self-effacing- an amiable survival trait - no, an imperative preemptive strike at self in a town where it was always a well reasoned idea to disarm the boys of their wicked weaponry. Wounds of the self inflicted kind were superficial slashes which drastically shortened the healing process. Deftly side-stepping barbs from some of the quickest wits on the east coast- and I'm exaggerating not one bit here- was a life-sustaining maneuver. And although never articulating it aloud, he and I both knew that we were fortunate fellows. Our senior year offered us ample time for careless frivolity. My "going out" with Boomer Esiason's girl at precisely the same time as, well, Boomer. Hee,hee. And my friend is going to marry the cheerleader. Right. Ha ha. We nibbled at some Budweisers, hit some proms and parties, added the essential Human Relations course to our transcripts and succeeded to gradually lose sight of each other after graduation. Marriage and children and grief and joy ensued. The veritable stuff of life.
New Orleans explains itself. Yet, in December 2002 The Big Easy was not availing itself to a life of ease for my big friend as he and his Minnesota club limped into town. At 3 -10 his team was playing crummy football and in this city, dipping about eight feet below sea level, The Mighty Mississip appeared primed to swallow this Viking ship and gulp it down into that watery grave where head coaches begin to look quite a bit like chum. ( A little Long Island fishing lingo there.) I was to be in New Orleans and although we'd forgotten to speak much at all during our adulthood, I did want to slap him on the chest, punch him hard on the arm and assure him that all all would be well. That sort of thing. So, it is Football Sunday and I go to early Mass next to the team's hotel and offer a prayer for my old, yikes, chum. We grab a cup of joe together and talk about everything other than the game now less than three hours from coin toss. Old school chatter, mostly. A hug and it's see ya at the Dome, bro'.
But a Minnesota Vikings victory that day appeared as improbable as Mike putting me in to kick the winning field goal from 63 yards out. Left footed. They hadn't won a road game since very early in W's presidency while the Saints were a mere win away from clinching a playoff spot. N'arlins media had sound reason to proclaim the afternoon a December Mardi Gras in waiting. Les bons temps indeed seemed ready to roll Behind by seven with seconds to go however, the Vikes score. Well, well, well, contemplated I. The extra point successfully made would put them into overtime where anything can happen and even if they were then to lose, there's a great deal to be said for intestinal fortitude and this will show something or other about something or other and....hey!...what the...what the hell is going on here?!... The coach decides to go for two, and they score, and they've won, and the game is over and I'm screaming at the field that it was a gutsy, unprintable, New Yorker kind of call, and there are these Sons of the Confederacy who are also screaming at the field, for different reasons, and cussin' at me, for obvious ones, and it is joyous for my old friend, ( no longer, er, chum) that he has a job- at least for another week- and after the game he instructs the first charter bus in the Viking caravan jetting off to New Orleans International to halt, and he struts out to hug me and subsequently slug me in the chest because I, of course, need it, and they proceed to win their last two games and then the next six in 2003 and here it is 2004 and....well.....they play Dallas, yes, my family's old playmates, THE DALLAS COWBOYS, to open up the season at home.
And so, it's Minneapolis, eh, Lord? I arrive, but this can't be the place. A July afternoon in East Hampton nestled against beach dunes with brunette and chardonnay in hand perhaps, but this can't be September in America's Heartland. What in the name of wacky Wally Mondale are they complaining about around here? "It's ten degrees warmer in St Paul than it is in Central Park," the Twin Cities weather geek barks from my hotel room television. Well, isn't that swell, happy fella. I think I'll go shave. And when the local sports momo sneers through the screen to pontificate - gawking at me from around the bathroom door,incidentally - that the Twins are in a better playoff position than The New York Yankees - yes, God's Yankees; check out the historical record on that one tough guy!- it's high time to bid fast adieu to The Millennium Hotel for this sordid evening. But not before I drop the razor from my hand. Off into the Minnesota wild I lunge. I need immediate respite from this awful happiness; all the while diverting eye contact with the gaggle of Cowboy fans who have invaded this city like vanquishing Vikings. I vant to be alone.
Mike leaves me a field pass at will call. Heading indoors on a sensational 80 degree, late summer afternoon challenges sanity. And I regard not a few Minnesotans entering the jiffy popped structure who turn to take that one last peek behind. January will be four hours closer when they return. Courageous people. So, I head down to the field and there before me, in exacting catholic school cafeteria alignment and remarkable calisthenic symmetry, are Mike's guys; hamstring-stretching in our high school colors - all purply and goldy. Hey this is rather neat, I confessed to self. I don a Viking cap in solidarity. Skol, baby.
The precise moment I begin to massage the back of my lid to conform with hair now running tragically amok for nearly three weeks, I am rocked by a cascade of venomous howling generally reserved for 18th century - let's go have a look at the guillotine festival in the square - France. "Yes, I know I could use a clip around the back of the neck, you fanatical philistines! Lay off! I'll get a quick coif when I get off the plane at LaGuardia!" I then thought about this for a moment. It's my Yankees practice warmer, isn't it? The howling brood has joined in mob cacophony to jeer at my midnight blue pullover with the white interlocking NY over the heart. "Hey, I'm here for YOUR team, you blond people!" I scan the purple haze, anaconda-quick, inviting battle. "Hey, don't ya get it? Check out the hat. I'm one of youse!... Well, why don't ya come down here if you think you're so........" No. They are pointing over my shoulder. Oh. Oh...oh. The old girlfriend has entered the building. Alas, I see her now folks. So dreadfully sorry.You are superb fans. Magnanimous Minnesotan Americans, that's what you are. Let us leer together. The ol' girl has again splendidly shoe-horned herself into that wedding white and silver little number at which I once ogled. She is still alluring. Mesmerizing, quite actually. Beatific blue stars dance on both ears. Her elegant head glistens under pointed beacons of artificial illumination at this mid-day discotheque. The Dallas Cowboys are runway modeling at The Metrodome.
The stadium's thunder has become a child's whisper in the valley now. The vision has lazily transported me back to times of Christmas yore where Dallas Cowboy jerseys have been delicately positioned under our tree. For Mark, signatured in fairly recognizable penmanship, by Santa himself; wide receiver and world class sprinter, Bob Hayes' number 22. Mine, number 74, in homage to defensive tackle Bob Lilly - tagged with the same appropriate holiday greeting and special receipt attached by an elf at HERMAN'S WORLD OF SPORTING GOODS in Bay Shore. As of that morning my brother's life would be forever changed. He became an immediate and vested member of The National Geographic hunted. (We learned a lot from that magazine, actually....Another story).
But my little brother was not some unsuspecting wallaby mindlessly grazing until a mountain lion might drag it off for brunch. No, the little guy was fully aware. He knew it was garbage night out on Sundays and Wednesdays when we'd lug our trash cans across the yard, hurl them over a picket fence and hop over to wrestle them to the street for morning pick-up. Once back over, we'd find it. Ah. Tundra. I'd mentioned it before, had I not? Long Island Tundra. No, not the icy Antarctic sort. And no, not even the Northern Minnesota, try and locate your top lip after nine seconds kind, either. It was Long Island Tundra to be sure. A narrow backyard under a chilled, moonlit sky. A chiseled cement cesspool cover somewhat visible at its epicenter. White caps burping through to the surface after a sisters' seventh rinse cycle; blanketing our winter frontier and freezing it to spiked attention in perfect Proctor and Gamble formation. "Grab the football, Mark...near the shed." Nose running sideways across his checks, he'd prepare himself for another crinkling against glaciered soap suds: crimson-faced in Cowboy white...Ah, yes. Paradise revisited indeed.
The game begins. Things transpire. It ends. A win. A loss. There is no gnashing of teeth. No tempting of faith. The tackled brother; now a New Jersey dad with his own tackling to do, cheers westward.The father; a gallant, great grand pop who has long since navigated to serene ports where sports assume a more reasonable state of import, smiles through the long distance phone call. They concur. And they inquire. And they wait for a response. From me.
It's that town, you see. That one in which none of us any longer reside. Neither father, nor brother. Neither Mike, nor Diane; the cheerleader he long ago married. And neither John, nor Barbara; his own wife also from that town.That town. A distance from here. A distance. Well. It's about time American Airlines head east and drop me off for that haircut as I can no longer risk another reflected glimpse of myself. And somehow I'm reminded of something I'd either heard or read about. (You get to that age, you know ). During the Civil War, a Union soldier proclaims his love to his wife by letter. His desired wish is to someday return so that they might together watch their boys grow to become honorable gentlemen. But there are these giant, invisible cables, he writes, pulling him to duty. He is powerless against them. His sense of country. Far too overwhelming. I see.
How 'bout them Vikings.
William F. Balsamo