May 22, 2006
I woke from a dream of serpentine neckties with forked tongues, grimacing paper-shredders, and sinister staple-removers snapping their jaws as if to say, "Welcome to the end of your youth." Even when I opened my eyes to the grassy hillside and saw a gopher shoot out from a hole in the earth, I still could not shake the image of my own paper-lacerated hand suddenly emerging from a sea of documents the way a single hand sometimes emerges from the cemetery ground in B zombie flicks.
I was in the quiet park at the top of a long hill in a residential neighborhood where the houses of people who have learned to succeed in my nightmare stand among rows of large shady trees and the open spaces of vacant luxury lots. It was a ritual of mine--driving to the park that was usually empty except for the occasional city engineer who tested the structural integrity of the swing sets, the monkey-bars, even the sandbox no less than three times a week--and falling asleep in the shade of a large avuncular oak tree with bark so warm and soft that sometimes I swore I could feel it shiver at the touch of a light breeze. That park was my own little haven, my own little place where I went to escape panic, or boredom, or the sickening idleness of a summer without the prospects of a job or an internship. On that particular day, I brought a copy of the job-ads with the intention of calmly sorting out the possibilities for the summer, but I ended up sleeping beneath the gentle oak tree with the newspaper draped over my bare legs.
I was awakened not by the sound of the city engineer who usually laughed like a schoolboy as he sailed through the air on a swing, nor by the rustling sound of gophers scurrying in and about their intricate network of tunnels, nor by the sound of my own agitated snoring, nor by the shivering of the gentle oak. I was awakened by the sound of roaring engines as a convoy of minivans and sports-utility-vehicles invaded the parking lot of my quiet park. Something about the urgency and assured sense of purpose with which the convoy entered the lot made me nervous, and a vague feeling of nausea intertwined with curiosity made me want to know what the convoy was about without knowing what it was about.
It turned out to be a little league team. But "little" doesn't begin to describe the toddlers that filed out of the vans. Some of them wore baseball caps that completely enveloped their tiny heads and mitts that spanned the length of their torsos. Some of them looked fresh out of the womb. A battalion of parents accompanied the little leaguers: pot-bellied men and their disproportionately attractive wives. The women immediately separated from the men, occupied the opposite corner of the park, and began setting up yoga mats. If you saw the way their husbands marshaled the children out of the vehicles with their ape-like grunts and moronic enthusiasm, you'd know why it was necessary for these women to practice yoga.
Then, as I hauled myself up from the ground and neatly folded the classified ads, I saw the man who was the unmistakable leader of this band of toddlers emerge from the front seat of one of the larger vehicles. His belly was smaller than those of his cohorts, but his chest departed from the rest of his frame in an assertive expression of raw physical power--a pectoral harkening to his days as a big leaguer. He had a jawbone big as a Union Jack and a broad confident smile that reminded me of a character I remembered from my own childhood: Gaston in Disney's Beauty and the Beast. And I noticed many of the beauties at the far end of the park sneak glances at him as they bent their heads around their twisted limbs.
And yet, for all of his apparent physical strength and self-assuredness, and in spite of the burgeoning calf muscles that seemed to fill his socks whenever he took a forward step, Coach Gaston was powerless to stop the children from fidgeting with their oversized baseball apparel and tossing their hats into the air.
"Guys, stop messing around. You're not good enough to mess around," he bellowed in an absurdly low voice. But the children paid little attention. They minced helter-skelter in uneven lines and made mincemeat of the fielding drill the coaches were trying to run. It was clear that the only people who wanted to be there were the coaches, and even they were so discouraged by the team's lack of discipline that their simian enthusiasm waned to a dull sort of indulgence.
"All right, Timmy, that's great that you know how to play the national anthem with your armpit, but when are you going to learn how to catch?"
"Daddy, I want to pitch."
"Were not pitchers today, son. We're fielders."
"But daddy"-- a collective roar of delight and someone had finally spotted the gophers. The children left Gaston to his assistants and crowded around the permeated ground.
"I want to be a gopher when I grow up," said one of the boys.
"Me too!" said another.
I was enjoying myself--any distraction from my depressing search for employment would have been a welcome one, but there was something inspiring about the insouciance of the little leaguers--and a kind of nostalgic comfort washed over me. Having spent too many years of my own childhood in the company of overzealous little league coaches, I especially appreciated the small victory that was unfolding before me. The children didn't want to learn baseball. They wanted to play in the park. And they did.
"Uh, hey you guys," said Gaston. "Hey, uh, I didn't want to tell you guys this, but, uh," and then his face lit up with the sheen of a new idea, "Uh, there are lots of snakes in those gopher holes. Snakes that bite...hard."
"Snakes!" The children cried joyously. And then they fell to the ground and slithered collectively--a group of bodies writhing hysterically on the grass under the crestfallen eyes of their fathers. The park was filled with laughter and the women at the far end of the field shook their heads and rolled their eyes at the dumbfounded pot-bellied men.
"Baseball was never like this when I was growing up," murmured one of the fathers.
"Sure wasn't," said Gaston through his massive clenched jaw and row of perfect teeth. And then he roared. He literally roared at the children.
"Who's gonna show me how quickly he can retrieve this pop-fly?" And with that, Gaston drew the small aluminum bat he wore like a sword on his belt and sent a ball soaring through the air. The children momentarily diverted their attention from the gopher holes to watch the traveling ball. What were they thinking? The ball seemed so far away that it may have been an airplane in the eyes of the children, or it may have been a rocket, or a falling star, or whatever it is that children dream about. I do not remember what exactly children dream about. Their heads and open mouths followed the ball's ascent. Whatever extraordinary thing they saw sailing through the air became a ball again as soon as it touched the ground. The children quickly resumed their play and the fathers fumed like angry gorillas. I was surprised that no feces were thrown.
I tried to resume my job-search in the classified section of The Times but it was no use. The children had left too great an impression and the disappointed look on Gaston's face was too precious to let slip away. It was more than disappointment on the face of the fathers--I think I saw jealousy as well. I was certainly jealous, at least for a while. Seeing those kids playing in the park and seeing their father's wanting to usher them off to adulthood via baseball helped me realize that youth is not to be squandered. Soon the park was empty again, the children having emerged as the victors that day. The only other car in the parking lot was that of the city engineer, who had also been there all along enjoying the spectacle. And when the engineer tested the playground equipment that day, he did so with a glowing inward smile, relishing the victory of youth.