It was late September and I could feel winter coming. The leaves had changed color and the grass was nearly brown. Winter was always around the corner in Granite City. Snow often fell in October and stayed until May.
At Westforest Elementary, teachers made us go outside for recess at lunchtime almost year-round. If it was over twenty degrees, we were sent out to shove each other on swings, play handball, and conspire how to kiss. Kissing was something we thought we wanted to do but hadn’t figured out why yet.
47 of us were split into two classrooms between two teachers: Mr. Birch and Mr. Smedge. Mr. Birch had all of his hair and a tightly groomed beard, and he taught math and English with an anxious wooden stick. Mr. Smedge had a bald, round head with a few patches of thin, gray whisps that blew from air ducts in the classroom ceiling, and he taught science and social studies.
Both Mr. Birch and Mr. Smedge wore plain polo shirts with short sleeves whether they were inside or outside because, to them, only wimps wore coats when it got cold. They treated teaching like they were coaches of a hockey team. Barking and yelling their lessons through thick Stearns County accents that sounded like German immigrants who had escaped from a Canadian prison.
If you could still see some grass on the ground, our fourth-grade teachers didn’t let us choose our recess activities. Instead, they made us play softball. There were no mitts; just one ball and one bat. Mr. Birch was the catcher and Mr. Smedge was the pitcher for both teams. We either scattered throughout the field or waited for our turn to bat.
I loved the concept of sports. I collected baseball cards, owned a football helmet, and played soccer every summer. But I was an atrocious athlete picked last for most teams. I ran well but that was usually to get away from menacing older bullies.
That autumn day, I would become the worst softball disaster Westforest had ever seen and my broken face would be proof.
At lunch, I managed to finish swallowing the piles of wet meat, mossy bread, and half-cold beans on my yellow lunch tray. I usually ate with Lon Feah and he was lucky enough to bring his own brown bag lunch. Sometimes, Lon would share one of his Twinkies with me. It was the last thing I’d eat because it washed away the taste of my offensive hot lunch.
With the delicious taste of chemically manufactured liquid marshmallow and yellow sponge cake still on my tongue, Lon and I got up and entered the slow-moving line with my other classmates. We walked toward the Lunch Ladies who stood in front of industrial-sized plastic garbage cans wearing hair nets.
The Lunch Ladies hovered over us like gnarled trees as we quickly handed our lunch trays to them to be scraped clean. Their blue kitchen smocks were covered by food-stained white aprons. One of them had a dark mustache that matched the color of the cockroach-sized mole on her face.
We survived the gauntlet of kitchen creatures. Then, we hustled to our coats and baseball caps hanging in the hallway near the door to the outside.
I saw Marty Bangles and his best friend Chad Flunderson down the hall grinning. Plotting. Marty and Chad were good-looking and well-loved by the teachers and girls. Marty had jet-black hair and was good at all the sports he played. Chad was Marty’s blond sidekick; an elementary school Igor.
After whispering together for a while, Chad turned around to the boy behind him. Phil Scheets was short and had a large head that seemed to weigh more than his body. Chad looked at Phil, smiled wickedly, wrenched back, and slugged him hard on the left arm. Marty laughed and a group of girls giggled nearby.
Phil exclaimed, “Ouch!” then followed up under his breath with, “Buttlicker.”
“What’d you say?” Chad puffed up and asked.
“Nothin’,” Phil replied meekly.
Marty got in Phil’s face and said, “I hope so.”
Chad and Marty started shoving each other while Phil rubbed his arm and dropped his large head sullenly.
I finished putting on my cap and coat, and I looked out the window. A sickly sun peered through the northern sky. It looked orange and cold outside. I wished I hadn’t forgotten my gloves at home that day.
Then, we were all let out into the chill and orange light.
Mr. Smedge was especially revved up that early afternoon. He yelled at the class, “Get out there, boys! Get movin’, girls! I want cha ta get some good innings in before dey blow dah bell!” he yelled.
Mr. Birch and Mr. Smedge believed that sports led to a good education and that athletic kids like Marty and Chad had promise. Smart, awkward kids like Lon and me bothered them.
That’s why I was dumbfounded when Mr. Smedge looked at me as he walked to the pitcher’s mound and called out, “Braahnson! Get on first! You’re playin’ first base today.”
I walked to the first base bag and stood there nervously. This was a position of action. Balls needed to be caught and thrown. I rubbed my cold, bare hands together and prepared, imagining myself as my baseball hero Rod Carew.
The first batter was Heather Kirkegard. Mr. Smedge stood on the mound and yelled out, “Okay, Heather! Ya got this one. Swing hard!”
The ball arched slowly toward home base, Heather swung and missed the first pitch. Mr. Birch caught the slow lob and threw it back to Mr. Smedge. She connected gently on the second pitch and the ball sputtered forward, rolling straight to Mr. Smedge who scooped it up and then threw it to me underhanded.
Heather got close to base but I caught the ball and tagged her out. I thought to myself, I can do this! Recess is only ten minutes long. I can handle this.
Then, Marty Bangles walked up to hit. My confidence waned. He swung the bat like he was in the majors warming up. Steely-eyed and determined.
“Come on, Marty! Knock it outta the park!” Chad screamed from behind the batting fence.
I stood near first base anxious and quivering slightly. My hope was that Marty would hit it into the outfield, run the bases, and I would have no job to do other than watch him run.
Mr. Smedge brought his arm back as if it were an upside-down catapult and tossed the ball high into the air. It dropped slowly and Marty dug in with his carefully crafted batters stance. He cranked back, swung, and connected. There was a loud crack! But the ball flew into the dirt, bounced, and landed straight in the hands of Mr. Smedge.
“OK, Brahnson!” Smedge yelled. “Here ya go!”
He threw the ball underhanded to me again. Lightly and cautiously. The ball fell into my hands with ease. I was ready. I would get Marty Bangles out for the first time in recess history.
I walked over to the base and held out my hand waiting to tag Marty Bangles. I was ignorant about all the rules of softball, so in my mind, I needed to tag him physically. Mr. Smedge definitely knew the rules and even though I had one foot on base, he didn’t call Marty out.
Marty Bangles was running at me full speed and I was standing with one arm outstretched waiting for him. Mr. Smedge stayed quiet.
Several weeks earlier, in late August as the school year began, my dog, Zeb, got out of his pen and escaped. I grew up in the country a mile away from the suburbs and the nearest neighborhood. All that surrounded my family, Zeb, and me were corn and wheat fields, swampy marshland, and a few lines of pine trees.
Zeb was half German shepherd and half-wolf, but he was not cunning and vicious as many people thought when they first saw him. He was a big, beautiful beast with a dopey, friendly personality. But Zeb yearned to run, so I understood why he often escaped. The countryside around us was a dog’s playground.
When Zeb was out, he chased jackrabbits across the empty fields after the farmers harvested. He relished treeing raccoons and sometimes got into an argument with a skunk. All of these antics were a constant frustration for my dad. Although Dad crafted a seven-foot-high pen out of spools of old farm wire, Zeb always discovered a way to escape.
This time, Zeb was gone for three days, and my dad went out driving the countryside in his rusted-out Volkswagen van looking for him. He called his name for hours. There was no sign of our family dog and we began to think he might not come home.
On the third day Zeb was missing, our phone rang while my family and I were eating dinner. My dad answered with his usual blunt and gruff, “Bronson’s.”
My mom, brother, and I watched him grow concerned under his long, thick beard, then he became very angry.
“Well…here, listen…I don’t think he’d do that!” my dad growled. “That’s quite an accusation. I’m driving over now!”
My dad brusquely whisked out of the kitchen, not saying anything, and took off in his Volkswagen in a cloud of driveway dust. The rest of us looked at each other to acknowledge the strange event and returned to our plates.
My dad arrived home after it was dark, got out of his van, slid the rear side door open, and Zeb leaped out full of excitement. His silly, open-mouthed expression meant he was glad to be home.
Zeb was placed in his pen and Dad came inside. He still looked very upset, so I moved into the living room away from the tension but where I could still hear the conversation.
“That bald, old peckerwood! I had to give him a wad of money to get Zeb back,” my dad complained.
“Why is that?” my mom asked.
“He said Zeb ate his goddamn sheep! But I don’t believe a word of it.”
“Who? Who made you pay to get our dog back?” Mom questioned with concern.
“Stupid! Stupid is his name.”
“Come on. Who?” she asked again.
“Chuck! Chuck Smedge.”
It turned out that my new fourth-grade teacher, Mr. Smedge, was an amateur shepherd, and he accused my dog of eating his missing sheep. Now, he was standing on the pitcher’s mound silently watching Marty Bangles charge toward me on first base.
Marty had decided he was going to knock the ball out of my hand and stay safe on base. He was a trained little killer when he played sports. His father made sure of it.
I watched with wide eyes, my arm sticking straight out with the ball, as Marty ran directly into me and collided at full force. As I went down, his knee went up into my face.
My three front teeth were cracked off inside my mouth immediately. Then, Marty’s knee rammed into my nose, smearing it off to the right and breaking it. Finally, his knee landed in my eye socket. Blood spewed in all directions. My face was demolished and my head flew backward, slamming against the ground and knocking me out for a few seconds.
When I became conscious, I raised up off the ground, and a waterfall of red began pouring out of my face. Marty was laying next to me on the ground with a stunned expression. Blood and saliva gathered on my shirt, in my lap, and on the ground. I immediately burst into a petrifying scream.
Mr. Birch ran from home base and was at my side in seconds placing a shirt around my face to catch the blood. He helped me stand and started rushing me inside. I went into shock and the world went into a fuzzy tunnel, then to black.
After the emergency room, I went home to heal. My face swelled up and stayed that way for days. My eye closed shut and was surrounded by a radiating palette of yellow, red, blue, and black. My nose was too swollen to see which side it bent toward, and my mouth looked like a pumpkin at Halloween.
After a horrific trip to the dentist and a week of recuperating at home, I went back to school. It was a Monday and my face was still deformed. Some of my classmates kept their distance, while others were fascinated by my wounds.
At lunch with Lon, it wasn’t as easy to eat one of his Twinkies with my newly fixed teeth, but I ate it anyway. When we went outside for recess, I didn’t have to play softball. I just stood and watched from behind the batting cage.
The game was played as usual but with Mr. Birch on the mound and Mr. Smedge catching. There were lots of strikes, a couple of base hits, and a pop fly that was dropped by the outfielder.
As I stood watching, Heather Kirkegard left her place in the batting line, came over to me, and said plainly, “They let Marty Bangles stay on base that day. They said he was safe.” Then she walked back.
Winter came and so did the bitter cold and snow. We didn’t have to go outside for recess to play softball anymore. Instead, we played floor hockey in the gym.
My face healed well except for a curve in my nose. Mr. Smedge never looked directly at me again, and he never found his missing sheep.