Toward the end of the Vietnam War, best friends Phil Brown and I walked door to door around our neighborhood in our uniforms. Patriots we were, soliciting donations to help pay for equipment and maintenance. Give us a dollar, we’ll give you a ticket possibly redeemable for we have no idea what — something along the lines of a 15 percent discount at a hardware store, or two-for-one meal at the Chuckwagon Diner.
As much fun as it could be to stand around all afternoon barely moving while chomping wads of bubble gum and spitting hot-pink sugar juice, this year it was cutting in on my sacred basketball time, sacred swimming time, sacred frog-chasing time: summertime. For the last two years, in Farm League, we would practice twice a week, tops. But I’d been drafted, and now I was in Little League, on one of the best teams in town. Coach Krimland demanded three hours of practice, five days a week. Not what I felt like doing on my summer vacation.
So I was thinking about quitting, or maybe not, and it was getting on toward twilight as Phil and I approached the Mudgrails’ house — home of Dr. and Dr. Lily A. and Henry D. Mudgrail — which marked the halfway point between the IGA grocery store, to the east, and Eisner’s Grocery Store, to the west.
My family bought some of our groceries at Eisner’s, some at the IGA. Generally, Eisner’s had better baked goods, IGA had better produce. Complementary stores.
But after I was drafted by Eisner’s Little League team, after they gave me a uniform, I developed a mysterious loyalty to Eisner’s Grocery Store. I convinced myself that the quality of Eisner’s produce was now as high as or higher than the IGA’s; I felt unreasonably high levels of self-esteem whenever I put on the uniform.
It was twilight as Phil and I reached the Mudgrails’ porch, where only a screen door was closed. The lights were on inside, and we could see down the hallway and into the living room, where the television set was on, loud, presumably for the benefit of the Mudgrails across the room, out of view. On the wall just inside the front door were two framed photographs. One was a recent snapshot of their son, Hank, in his Army uniform, in Vietnam; the other showed Hank wearing a bow tie and an apron, receiving an Employee of the Month award from the IGA, where he bagged groceries before he was drafted.
Baseball,hotdogs,applepieandChevrolet!sang the Mudgrails’ television set as Phil and I stood watching through the screen door. It was a very popular commercial that featured images of American people enjoying baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet, which is a brand of automobile.
Phil pressed a small, glowing button beside the door, which set off the door chimes, which set off the Mudgrails.
“We’ll be right there!” husband and wife called out from the living room, in unison. A good 10 seconds of mumbles, creaks and newspaper shuffling ensued, at the conclusion of which both Lily and Henry Mudgrail appeared at the mouth of the hallway, approaching, barefoot, wearing matching full-length terrycloth bathrobes, light blue with black embroidered monograms.
The Mudgrails greeted us warmly as they approached, recognizing us as familiar neighborhood kids. But as they reached the door, turned on the porch light and saw that we were wearing uniforms, the warmth in their eyes and voices faded to something resembling pity.
“Oh, dear,” said L.A.M., shaking her head, exchanging a glance with her husband.
“How can we help you?” H.D.M. asked us, in earnest.
Phil was older and had a very low voice for his age. Phil did the talking. “Um, hi. I’m Phil,” said Phil. “And this is Dave. Would you like to buy a ticket to help support Little League?” I held up a ticket book for their inspection.
L.A.M. shook her head politely. “I’m sorry. We don’t believe in Little League.”
“But we certainly hope that you get the help you need,” said H.D.M., nodding purposefully and trying not to frown.
Phil and I looked at each other, then back at the Mudgrails, who, while still assessing us with looks of pity, were also obviously anxious for us to leave.
So Phil nodded and said, “Thanks,” and I waved, sort of, and said, “Sorry for the interruption,” and Drs. L.A. and H.D. Mudgrail said, “Good night, boys, and good luck,” and closed the screen door behind them. And the wooden door, too, as Phil and I walked away.
When we’d put some distance between ourselves and the Mudgrails, I said, “What did she mean, they ‘don’t believe in’ Little League, man? I mean, where does she think we got the uniforms?”
“Be serious, man,” said Phil.
“I am, man.” (We said “man” a lot.)
“You’ve seriously never heard people say ‘believe in’ about stuff like that before?”
“Nope,” said I. “Just God and Santa Claus. That’s the only kind of ‘believe in’ I know, I think.”
“That’s really weird, man,” said Phil. “You usually know stuff like that. I’ve known ‘believe in’ since I was, like, 5.”
“Okay, man,” I said, feeling foolish. “Just tell me what it means.”
“It has nothing to do with believing in God or Santa Claus,” said Phil. “The Mudgrails aren’t questioning the existence of Little League. When they say they don’t believe in it, they mean, like, they don’t believe that it’s a good thing, you know, in general. Like, we don’t believe in the war.”
“Oh, all right, man,” I replied. “That kind of ‘believe in.’ I’ve heard that before, but I thought it was only for life-or-death issues. I didn’t know people used that expression about unimportant stuff like Little League, man.”
“I got the idea that they thought it was pretty important,” said Phil. “Like we were asking for donations for a religious cult.”
“Man,” I repeated, shaking my head. We were almost home now. “How could someone not believe in Little League?”
It took one full weekof Coach Krimland’s three-hours-a-day practice for me to learn how not to believe in Little League. But I still believed in Farm League. So I turned in my prestigious Eisner’s uniform and returned to amateur status, pitching for a team called the Lions. The Lions wore plain green caps and never practiced. It was the best baseball season ever.