Tom Lawrence has written an entertaining collection of short stories about the adolescent life of boys in the Mississippi Delta circa 1950. These tales are colorful depictions of a past, but not forgotten era full of innocence and southern soul. Tom is also the founder of PorchScene.com and part owner of Front Porch Press, LLC. We want to share one of the stories from Delta Days that is a wonderful recounting of a boy’s adventures in baseball and the ever-present southern church youth group during the carefree days of summer. Here is the first of two installments of “Royal Ambassadors”:
ROYAL AMBASSADORS (Part 1)
It was full daylight when I woke up. I could tell that no one else was awake because the attic fan still pulled the cool morning air across my bed. This artificial breeze brought with it the faint smell of yesterday’s newly mown grass mixed with the rich aroma of Confederate Jasmine and Sweet Olives. There was just the hint of cotton poison and a touch of last night’s DDT truck blending into the overall effect. Summer in the Mississippi Delta.
As much as I wanted to lie there and soak up the cool fragrances’ of morning, I had to get up and get going. Today was Saturday and there was baseball to be played. I slid out of bed and reached for a rumpled pair of jeans and slipped them on. Socks and tennis shoes followed, the whole thing was topped by a faded Mississippi State tee-shirt and Bulldog baseball cap. I was fully outfitted for a day at the diamond.
I grabbed my Peewee Reese fielder’s glove, my Ted Williams Louisville Slugger and tiptoed to the kitchen. I opened the refrigerator and grabbed a bottle of milk. I took several big swigs of the ice cold milk straight from the bottle. I immediately felt a twinge of guilt. My mother didn’t have many hard fast rules, but “don’t drink from the milk bottle” along with “always wear clean underwear” were chief among them. This morning I was violating both taboos.
Oh well, what she don’t know can’t hurt her, or more importantly, can’t hurt me.
She’d probably know I did it, along with not changing underwear, as soon as she got up. I didn’t know how she’d know, but I suspected she had hidden cameras strategically placed throughout the house. Maybe she was just way ahead of her time on DNA testing. Dad and I never knew, but we suspected that she might be a psychic, or possibly, a witch.
I overcame my little twinge of guilt, grabbed a banana and slipped out the kitchen door. I found my bike propped on the side of the open carport. I stuck the bat and glove in my basket, peeled my banana back and headed toward the ballpark.
Little League Baseball started in Williamsport, Pa. in 1939. By 1953 it had pretty much spread across the nation, but it had not penetrated the Mississippi Delta. There were probably several good reasons for this, but I have always suspected that it was tainted by the specter of being a Yankee invention. Anything so cursed would be suspect in a society that refused to celebrate the 4th of July because of the fall of Vicksburg in 1863.
We might not have had Little League, but we actually had something much better. Our baseball was tribal based and was governed by hard and fast customs and rules. There were no inept adult coaches and umpires; these roles were filled by the older guys, who for the most part, were top-quality ball players. The adults in our little world played softball for the Volunteer Fire Department and were a hell of lot more concerned with BBQ and beer than our athletic development.
I stopped by Benny’s house on my way to the park. He was sitting in his driveway, drinking his usual nutritious breakfast of a bottle of Coke. He mounted his bike and we rode the five blocks to the Cumberland City Park, the site of today’s baseball game. Our version of baseball was divided into two distinct groups. The A league, in which the older guys, say from 15 to 18, played, and the B league for the rest of us. Both groups played at City Park and both games were all day affairs, starting about 8:00 am on Saturday morning and lasting till it was too dark to see. The A league played on the Volunteer Fire Department’s softball field which had lights and dugouts. The rest of us played on a much more modest diamond that barely had bases and a pitcher’s mound.
Both leagues organized the Saturday games the same way. The players gathered early in the morning, two captains were voted on, and the captains took turns choosing their players from the available talent pool. Those players not chosen in the first round stayed on the sidelines until one of the starters got hurt, had to go home or just wanted a break. Then the team captain would pick a replacement from the sideline pool. In the course of the day everyone would, sooner or later, get a chance to play. The only way you could advance from the B league to the A was by being invited. Talent ruled the day and good friends might be in different leagues.
Benny and I were regular starters in the B league, but we didn’t want to be late for the choosing. That could mean sitting on the sidelines for several hours waiting for an opening. In addition to leaving the game for voluntary reasons, you were automatically benched if you made an error or pulled some stupid stunt like a balk or a base-running mistake. The system was brutal and there was no appeal. If you wanted to play, you had best learn the game. There was none of that “every kid gets to play” kum baya that Dads, whose sons couldn’t chew gum and walk at the same time, invented.
There were about a dozen guys hanging around the B ball field and we knew them all. Some were regular starters and others were wannabe’s. A couple of kids were as young as nine or ten. We parked our bikes and trotted over to the crowd. Things would be getting started soon. Benny was usually elected as one of the captains. He played a mean shortstop and was a consistent hitter.
I ,on the other hand , was all hit, no field. I had learned to be a switch hitter by playing on an undersized lot when I visited my Pensacola grandparents. You had to bat opposite your natural swing in order to keep the ball out of Palafox Highway. I was probably the best hitter in the B league, which would all change the first time I saw a high school curve ball, but for now I was the Sultan of Swat.
The fact that I was a little iffy in the fielding department and could barely throw the ball back to the infield from my permanent perch in right field, kept me from being a really hot property. I would never be elected one of the captains, but I would always get picked in the first bunch. Benny would pick me up if I lasted for four or five rounds, but only after he got his pitcher and infielders. Benny loved defense and I wasn’t much of a defensive asset. He just stuck me in right field and hoped no one hit anything my way. I rarely made an error, but anything hit deep to right was going for extra bases.
We were just about to start the election of captains when a battered pickup truck pulled all up on the grass and headed our way. Stan Rushing, the youth director of the First Baptist Church stepped out and signaled for us to gather around him.
“Hi guys,” he started, “I’m Stan Rushing, Youth Minister at First Baptist. I have an announcement and some flyers to pass around.”
He started handing out mimeographed sheets and continued,
“First Baptist is forming a Royal Ambassador’s youth baseball team that will compete in the Delta Baptist Convention League. There will be twelve teams in the league representing most of the towns in the Delta. I will be coach of the team and I will be holding tryouts Sunday afternoon. I am hoping to see all of ya’ll at the tryouts. You must be at least eleven years old as of June 1 and no more than fourteen. I will pick a traveling squad of twenty-five. Two guys at each position, four pitchers and three managers. Do any of you have questions?
“I do,” I said, “I’m an Episcopalian, will I be able to try out?”
“Absolutely, your denomination won’t matter, just your baseball skills. The only requirement is that you will have to join our Chapter of the Royal Ambassadors. There is one other little catch: in order to be in the Royal Ambassadors, you will have to attend Sunday school and church with us each Sunday. Other than that, anyone is welcome.”
Oh, that’s all there is to it, huh? I’ll have to really work to finesse this by the goalie at home.
Rushing fielded a few more questions and was soon back in his truck and at work in the local vineyards of sinners. The news had caused quite a stir and everyone was talking about it.
“Well, what do you think about that?” I asked Benny.
“Maybe a good deal. Rushing played baseball and ran track at Mississippi College. He probably knows what he’s doing.”
“Yeah, from the little I know about him, he seems to be a straight arrow, but a pretty nice guy. We’ll have to clean up our language if we do this.”
“Oh, what the hell, that shouldn’t be a problem,” Benny said with one of his big grins.
“Yeah, that’s what I’m afraid of. I’m going to take the flyer home and run it up the flagpole to see if anybody salutes it.”
“I’m sure I can do it,” Benny said, “Hell, they hardly ever know what I doing anyway, and I know Sunday morning won’t be a problem. Dad will be teeing off at the Club and Mom will still be asleep till after Church.”
“I may run into a little more resistance,” I said, “It will all depend on Mom’s current religious affiliations. I may be able to catch her between conversions, who knows?”
We spent the rest of Saturday playing baseball, and by the time we headed home, the stars were peeking out. I parked my bike by the back door and eased into the kitchen. We usually had sandwiches on Saturday evening. I would have been out doing something all day, while Dad would have been playing gin at the VFW or American Legion clubs. Tonight would be no exception; there was no visible kitchen action.
Dad was sitting in his chair watching the end of a Yankee-Red Sox game, eating a sandwich and drinking a beer. He looked up and said,“Hi, how’d you play today?”
“About usual, I got a bunch of hits and didn’t embarrass myself in the field. There is something I need to talk to you about.”
“Am I going to like this?”
“I hope so,” I said, handing him the flyer about the new league.
He read it over and said, “Looks like a good idea to me. Think you can make the team?”
“Probably, but I might need your help getting it by you-know-who. This has religious overtones which means she’ll be all over it.”
“Whoa, Bubba, you’re not going to drag me into that swamp. I don’t discuss religion with your mother.”
“I’ll handle the negotiations; just back me up when she comes to you for the tie-breaking vote. By the way, do you know the brand she is currently into?”
“Last I heard she was a Christian Scientist, but that was a couple of months ago. Today, who knows?”
He turned back to the ballgame signaling the end to our little moment of quality time together. I began to formulate my strategy concerning my mother. She was a kind, caring person, but when it came to religion she was a complete nut case. She had been raised as a Southern Baptist and married my Dad, who had been raised a Catholic and had attended Jesuit schools. As soon as he left home, he vowed that he would never darken the door of another church of any ilk.
When I was born, my grandmother on my Dad’s side had me christened in the Episcopal Church because she had been raised an Episcopalian before converting to The Church of Rome when she married. During World War II, I lived with my maternal grandmother, who was a Christian Scientist. I attended Sunday School at the First Baptist Church, but only because my grandmother’s best friend was the pastor’s wife.
When the war ended in 1945 my parents returned to Mississippi and I was pretty much stuck with whatever my mother was into. We had brief encounters with most of the mainstream Protestant sects and some of the less extreme evangelical groups. There was a brief encounter with the Greek Orthodox Church when mother bought a cook book. She spent a couple of years as a Roman Catholic during which she did her best to convert my agnostic father back to the true church.
He considered all forms of organized religion to be scams designed to manipulate the masses, and besides he liked to play gin on Sunday mornings. He escaped her clutches, but I was always forced to go along with the faith de jour. I had managed to avoid any formal rites of conversion in all but the Catholic Church. She had me baptized before she decided to move on.
When I reached the age of reason, in this case about ten years old, I put my foot down and announced that hence forth I would be attending the Episcopal Church, thank you very much. The young priest at Cumberland’s Church of The Holy Trinity listened to my story, checked it out with my Dad (Mother would not talk to him), and at last my spiritual journey was at an end, or so I thought.
Tonight I would have to appear before mother’s ecclesiastical court and plead my case for a brief detour from my Anglican path in order to play baseball. I did not expect her to be sympathetic to my plan. She didn’t want me to be an Episcopalian, but if I insisted on it, she would want me to be faithful to my creed. Attendance at First Baptist would not please her.
I waited until I had finished my sandwich and caught her in the kitchen puttering about. I brought the flyer with me. I carefully chose my moment and said,
“Mom, do you have a minute? I want to share something with you.”
She turned and looked at me with suspicion and a little apprehension.
“What are you up to now?” She asked.
“Gee, Mom, do I have to be up to something?”
“You may not be aware of it, but the only time you ever initiate a conversation with me is when you want something, and it’s usually something that I disagree with.”
Hmm, she might have a point there. My basic policy is to have as little direct contact with authority as possible, thus reducing the opportunity for advice and instructions. I might have to adjust this to include an occasional casual conversation without a motive. Something to consider.
“Well, this time it is something that I believe you can relate to. I have decided to broaden my spiritual horizons and spend the summer examining other religions. I don’t intend to abandon the Episcopal Church, but I think I should learn about other faiths.”
“I’ll have to admit that you have surprised me with this attitude, and I am certainly pleased that you are open minded enough to examine other beliefs. What do you have in mind?”
“I thought that I would first have a conversation with Father Mullen at Holy Trinity, to enlist his guidance and support, then I might start my quest at First Baptist.”
“You know how I feel about that, but I suppose you need to make up your own mind. I can’t see any real harm in giving it a try, just don’t get consumed by the hellfire and brimstone.”
Actually, I had no idea how she felt about First Baptist or Shintoism for that matter, but I recognized all of the “buy signals” and decided to close the sale before I talked her out of it.”
“I’m glad you approve, you know I respect your views on religion. I’ll get everything cleared with Father Mullen next week and start to visit First Baptist next Sunday.”
“I want you to keep me up to date as you move along your pilgrimage, I might have some suggestions on where you should go next, there is a very interesting new pastor at the Church of God in Boyle. You might want to check them out.”
“Yes maam, I’ll keep that in mind.”
Who knows? The Church of God could have a Lacrosse team, I’ve always wanted to try Lacrosse.
Later, I overheard my mother relating our conversation to my father, who to his credit, grunted in the right places and didn’t blow my cover. He came into my room before he went to bed and said.
“That was skillfully done. I want to award you both ears and the tail.”
“What in the world are you talking about, both ears and the tail?”
“Look it up. Again, well done!”
“Will you sign the parental permission form?”
“Sure, give it to me.”
I was on my way to tomorrow’s tryouts.
I was scheduled to be the acolyte at the early morning prayer service the next day and I cornered Father Mullen in his office studying the collects and lessons for the day. I stuck my head in and said,
“Good morning, Father, do you have a moment to spare me?”
He set aside his cup of coffee and invited me to have a seat.
“What can I do for you, Tommy?’ He asked.
I explained my plan in detail and asked for his permission to carry it out.
“I really can’t see any real harm in what you plan to do. I realize that the quest for spiritual information is really a ruse to get it by your mother, and knowing your mother, I think it is the only chance you had to get her to buy into the deal. I’d rather debate Satan himself than to have a conversation on comparative religions with Kathleen Larch.”
“I figure I could make the seven o’clock morning prayer service and still have time to be at First Baptist at nine for Sunday school and church. I don’t think I’ll be required to attend the Sunday night service so I can still make it to EYC.”
“That’s a lot of religion just to play baseball. I hope you can pull it off.”
“I guess you’ll just have to have a little faith.”
TO BE CONTINUED IN “ROYAL AMBASSADORS” PART 2