Shoeless Joe

When we asked young Phil Bencomo, chronicler of all things baseball if he would like to write a Situational Essay, we were unsure of what to expect. His Baseball Chronicle is in many ways a kindred spirit in this massive, lonely, internet world.  Both sites value the narrative over the calculated, and both tend to tread dangerous water when it comes to nostalgia. The following essay is many things. It is America. It sure as hell ain’t nostalgia:

At 3 a.m. on a Sunday morning in August, I sat in the back of a broken-down van, stopped on the highway shoulder 10 miles outside of Rolla, Missouri. Much too close for my liking, cars and 18-wheelers barreled past on the left, blurs of light and sound. The trucks left the van lurching from side to side.

I felt small and powerless, protected only by a thin-walled metal box just feet from the road. Perhaps that’s why, as I waited for the tow truck, I turned my mind elsewhere, flicking on a reading light and pulling “Shoeless Joe” from my bag.

* * * *

My parents, four siblings and I had left our home in the Chicago suburbs seven hours earlier. It was an unplanned trip, prompted by the news that my grandmother, widowed less than six months before and fading fast, would likely last no more than a month. By 2 p.m. on Saturday we’d resolved to leave. Six hours of frenetic packing and preparations later, our aging, seven-seat conversion van pulled away from the house, and we began our 1,700-mile, cross-country journey to Phoenix.

These trips have become standard fare over my 20 years, though there’s usually more than six hours of preparation to them. We’ve driven through every state west of Illinois, save a few, and a handful more to the east.

On our trips west, we usually leave by noon and drive through the night, ultimately spending over 24 hours in the van before stopping — collapsing, really — for a night in Albuquerque, New Mexico. But on this trip, it was not to be.

* * * *

My Mom had been driving for a few hours, with the rest of us sleeping quietly, when the noise started. She’d been awake thanks to coffee and an evening nap, but the loud flapping sound, a puttering perhaps, that came from beneath the hood made both unnecessary. I woke immediately, reached for my glasses and found everyone else wide awake, too.

“Is there a bird?” asked my sister nervously. She’s been terrified of them since one found its way into our house through a vent years before. “It sounds like there’s a bird in there.”

Dad suspected a broken fan belt but, after we’d pulled over, could find nothing wrong. Still, the noise persisted. The call went out to AAA, and I began to read.

* * * *

“Shoeless Joe” is a wonderful book that oozes sentimentality like few other novels. The characters are genuinely good in the deepest sense, and the few villains need only a nudge from the realm beyond to change their ways. Even facing bankruptcy and scorn, Ray Kinsella dances merrily to baseball’s magical tune. It’s nearly impossible to read “Shoeless Joe” and not yearn for the simple pleasures of bat, ball and a lush expanse of the greenest grass.

I realize this now, of course, but at 3:45 a.m., as I read in the back of a Rolla-bound, smoke-filled AAA taxi driven by a lithe, mustachioed man whose slow, drawling words whistled through a missing tooth, Ray’s adventures couldn’t have pained me more. Ray drives from Iowa to Chicago, Cleveland, New York, Boston and even to northern Minnesota, with only a few blank lines representing the hundreds of miles driven from city to city. There are no stops for gas followed five minutes later by a wail for a restroom; no greasy meals from roadside fast food restaurants; no thermoses filled with coffee, to be emptied and filled again; and, most salient to me, no middle-of-the-night breakdowns. The realities of long road trips are unacknowledged in “Shoeless Joe,” but I could think of nothing else.

With every repair shop in town closed on Sunday, we were left stranded in our hotel room, waiting for Monday. We could only hope for a swift repair. “Shoeless Joe” was to be an escape from our troubles, not a mockery of them, but while Ray walked with Moonlight Graham, I ate cold scrambled eggs at a Waffle House and listened to my younger siblings bicker out of boredom. The book’s endless optimism gnawed at me. I didn’t want green grass and sunshine — I wanted someone else to suffer, too. But there is little suffering in “Shoeless Joe,” a book in which all troubles are washed away by time and a little faith.

* * * *

The repair shop, only a mile from the hotel, opened at 8:30 Monday morning. The tow truck driver had the night before told us that the van would make it that far, and he wasn’t wrong. Dad drove to the shop fearing the problem would delay us another day, but, for a change, Lady Luck was with us. The repair took 20 minutes, and we were back on the road by 10 a.m.

Still, I could muster no optimism, even with the aid of “Shoeless Joe,” and I felt old despite my youth. We won’t make many more family trips, not all together. The van’s too old for it, and so are we. I’ll soon finish college, with my sister close behind, and the schedules and lives will grow too complicated. The simple days, with all seven of us under the same roof, will soon pass.

As I read in the van, I wanted more than anything else to love “Shoeless Joe,” to embrace and revel in all the hope and goodwill it represents, to leave all my angst behind with a blown spark plug in Rolla, Missouri. But I thought of my dying grandmother, the reason for the trip, and reality crept in again. I closed the book and watched the trees fly by.

(flickr courtesy of cc:rutlo)

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