Shadows sink from the awning of the outstretched arms of the tremendous oak tree and dance at my feet as I sit in my deck chair, gin and tonic in hand, thinking and remembering. On this July afternoon, it’s those priceless summers of the ‘70’s. For you, it may be the summer of the 60’s, 50’s, 40’s, or 30’s. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that every summer of our youth called us forth to fill its empty days with possibility. In the end, we’re left with a string of bloated golden moments hemorrhaging meaning and memory.
The recognizable scent of Coppertone makes me want to do the Jersey Jig and shake the sand from my swimsuit; air perfumed by sausage and peppers summons crowds on Lower Main Street in Fort Lee feasting at the Feast of Saint Rocco. The other day I was sitting in my mother’s kitchen when the sight of her dust mop leaning against the wall conjured summer days long gone. Her threatening screams, “Did your brother take the handle of my dust mop for a stickball game?” echoed in my head.
Then the other day I was in Modell’s with my son roaming the aisles when I came upon a box with a big sign that read, “Stickball Bats.” I started to laugh thinking, “Really? They’re selling mop handles?” Then I saw the price tag and gulped. $25 for a mop handle? Yes, $25 for a mop handle. If our moms had any foresight, they would be millionairesses now and could afford to hire someone to mop their floors.
We never know what event can trigger memory, but for the tanned Jersey boys of summer’s past, now burdened by responsibilities they never anticipated, it’s got to be stickball. Stickball was, perhaps, the greatest of any unorganized sport. You didn’t have to try out for it, you didn’t have to wait for field time, and you didn’t have to buy any special equipment—all you needed was a mom with a mop, tape for the handle, and a pink Spaulding Hi-Bounce rubber ball from Feiler’s or County Discount. Stickball was a pick-up game that could be played pretty much anywhere.
That distinctive hollow pop of the pink rubber ball perfectly connecting with the wood of someone’s mother’s pilfered mop or broom handle; a fusion of excited voices caught midway between youth and manhood; the scraping of black converse high-tops upon the sun soaked gravel; the crack of the bat splitting the ball in half—one part dropping dead to the ground, the other hurling through the air like a spastic spaceship.
The boys from Fort Lee, Englewood Cliffs, Cliffside Park, Palisades Park, Leonia, Edgewater, Fairview, North Bergen, West New York and all towns in-between all had one thing in common (other than their paper routes)--stickball. For Jersey boys, all you needed was a wall to draw a batting box on, or a chain-link fence to string out a box, and a Spaulding. In Fort Lee there was the handball wall of Sixth Street Park, the handball wall of Holy Trinity’s field (anyone in Coytesville remember that?); the south facing red-brick wall of Madonna’s CYO Hall; Westview Park’s chain-linked fence.
In the summer of 1978, my best friend, Mary Lutz, created what was to become the great batting box mystery of Westview Park. For 32 years it’s been a cold case. Until now. In retaliation for her Frisbee interrupting Bobby Peterkin’s perfect pitch, one of the boys indiscriminately tossed it onto the roof of an elderly gentleman’s house. As cranky as he could be, he told Mary that her lousy Frisbee could rot on his shingled roof before he retrieved it for one of us hoodlums. In an act of pure vengeance, beneath the cover of night with only me by her side, Mary withdrew her pocket knife from the pocket of her Levi cut-offs and severed the ties of John Pagano’s meticulously twined batting box. The wrath of all the neighborhood boys greeted us the next day. These pious, genuflecting altar boys promised that the perpetrators of such a heinous crime would be shown no mercy. No suspects were ever charged.
So here’s to all those Jersey boys of summers past and their stickball games, especially the boys from Westview Park who waited 32 years for their case to be solved. Ah, memory…