Courage... That’s what it takes, according to the old catcher in The Kid From Tompkinsville. Courage to get your head beaten in one day out there on the mound and come back the next day throwing strikes.
The Kid from Tompkinsonville is a baseball novel I read for the first time in the sixth grade. John R. Tunis wrote The Kid in the 1940s, part of a trilogy of baseball novels aimed at sixth grade boys. No matter who he aimed at, the writing is splendid and sophisticated. I can’t imagine I got as much out of this book when I was twelve as I did yesterday, more than a half-century later.
Tunis has the old catcher going up to The Kid’s room in the spring training hotel. The kid has been sitting in the dark, staring out the window, wondering why he ever thought he could be a ballplayer after a disastrous outing that afternoon. When the old catcher knocks, the kid switches on the light. When the old catcher says, “You’ve been sitting here in the dark feeling sorry for yourself…” the Kid wonders how he knew. He knew because he had been sitting in the dark in spring training more than 20 years earlier feeling sorry for himself.
And, yes, I've spent some time lately sitting in the dark feeling sorry for myself.
The old catcher tells The Kid what his mentor told him. It takes talent. It takes skill. It takes hard work. It takes a live arm. But, none of that matters if you don’t have courage. If you have courage, he tells The Kid, you’ll get some sleep and go back out there tomorrow throwing strikes.
In my case, it’s the courage to get old that I need. It’s the courage to get old and not slow down. It’s the courage to get old and not give up. It’s the courage to get old and not live in fear of breaking my wrist or exploding my heart. It takes courage to face getting old, trust me.
It takes courage to face the ever present notion in your life’s work that you might be falling behind yet to get up and do it again the next day certain you must still have something to give.
Lately, the courage I’ve been looking for is the courage not to care. You read that right. I’ve been examining how much extrinsic validation I’ve needed in my life. I’ve won awards in journalism -- even some recently – and I’ve won teaching awards, as well. My bosses have never found me wanting, though a few ex-wives have. But all that validation was just a reflection of my willingness (or unwillingness) to do what they wanted. My whole life, it seems, I’ve been studying for a test.
But what would I do if I had the courage not to care? What novel would I write if I didn’t care whether it saw the light of day? What novel would I write if I didn’t care what people thought of me for writing it? What would I photograph if I didn’t care what a “real” photographer said about my work? Could I play baseball and not care if anyone noticed when I got a hit? Could I play baseball and not secretly keep track of my batting average? Do I have the courage to not care how my bosses evaluate me?
I was listening to Joni Mitchell singing “Both Sides Now.” I’ve looked at life from both sides now; I really don’t know life at all. Well, I’ve looked at life from both sides now and I really don’t know me at all.
That’s a helluva thing to write on your 64th birthday.
Funny, the only place I think I know me is in the classroom. In the classroom I don’t care how I’m perceived. Not a bit. I only care about learning, my learning and their learning. They may think I’m a fool, a buffoon; I don’t care. Did we learn something today? It’s amazing, but I have no self-monitor in the classroom. No self-evaluation. The only thing I ask myself at the end of the day is if something was learned. So I was lucky to fall into the teaching racket. Damn lucky.
Now, as I sit here working up an appetite for birthday dinner, I’m wondering if I have the courage not to care in the rest of my life, the life I live outside the classroom. I’m wondering if I have the courage to find myself, even at sixty-four.
That photograph is me at three. I'm told my uncle kept a copy of it taped to the inside wall of his tank in Korea. Photo credit: Marion H. Lofflin