Sunday, September 14, 2008

The last innings of summer

There are signs every September that summer is over here on Cape Cod, that winter is ahead.
The last of the ripe tomatoes dangle from increasingly brown vines, few strangers are in line at 7:30 a.m. in the coffee shop, the softball fields are empty.
For me, there is nothing sadder about the end of summer than an unused ballfield, still green and playable. From late June to early September, I play for a softball team called The Radish. I play first base and I bat somewhere down toward the end of the batting order. I first played for the team in 1979, when I was a 32-year-old beginning reporter for The Register newspaper in Yarmouth Port, about 15 miles from here.
Then I went away and had a journalism career for 20 years. When Dee and I returned to the Cape 10 years ago, I was invited to play again. And so every Wednesday evening through the summer I leave my pottery studio and drive to West Barnstable. I walk down to the wide green field at the edge of the woods behind Barnstable-West Barnstable Elementary School and there, with other middle-aged men, I play the game I learned in tiny neighborhood yards on Martha's Vineyard more than 50 years ago.
The men I play with represent a range of Cape Cod professions - from housepainter to financial advisor, potter to jeweler, schoolteacher to video-game designer. We have players with brand new babies and players with brand new grandchildren.
Softball doesn't keep us young; some evenings there are more elastic support appliances on knees and thighs than there are fielder's gloves. (One of our players, a college history teacher and Massachusetts state senator, once pulled a hamstring just jogging out to his position in left field. At the beginning of the game.) What softball does is bring us back for a couple of hours to the game we knew as boys, when hitting the pitched ball or picking up the hard ground ball were the most important things in that moment.
We fathers of grown children still kick the dirt when we don't do those things well. I know that if I miss a ground ball at first base, I still look amazed at my glove, as if molecular physics had been changed for an instant on that mid-summer twilight field and the ball had passed unobstructed through the worn leather.
And then I face the next batter, bend my big frame and tap my glove on the infield dirt. Get down on the ball, Hollis, get down on the ball.
Many of us - probably most of us - learned the game from our fathers. It started, in poet Donald Hall's phrase, with "fathers playing catch with sons." Since I began playing again for The Radish, I have gone to the funerals of the fathers of four of these players, my own included.
And maybe that, too, has something to do with the sadness of empty ballfields in September.


Keith said...

greetings from down-cape. it always amazes me how quickly the end of summer happens out here in harwich port....then i drive down the road to chatham and it still looks like july.

Dan Finnegan said...

Nothing brings out the romantic in a writer of a certain ilk... than the first signs of autumn and the end of a yet another season. George Will's got nothin' on you!
Please interpret 'down-cape' for us over-the-bridgers.

Hollis Engley said...

Thanks, Keith. The seasons come differently to us, don't they, depending on which end of the Cape and which side we live on.
And Dan, down-Cape just means that part of Cape Cod to the west. I live in Falmouth, which you know, but you probably don't know that it's regarded as the "Upper Cape." Like so many things here, the Upper vs. Lower designation probably dates to the days of coastal schooners.