Way back when, I thought I ought to try out for the highschool baseball team. I rode my bicycle over to the field near the highschool, and signed up. They were doing batting tryouts, and pitching was Jimmy Roland. He, together with a kid named Jimmy Hussey, were the two star pitchers of my youth. Eventually I got my turn at the plate. Jimmy threw me curve after curve. They probably weren't the really serious curves he could throw by then, and certainly he wasn't the major league lefthander he became a few years later, pitching for the Twins and the Yankees and several other teams for a nice long major league career. Jimmy wasn't quite Catfish Hunter--maybe Catfish is the most stellar NC pitcher in the firmament--but Jimmy, he was damn good. You know how highschool is, maybe. If you leave home, those people, who were your universe, mostly disappear on their various trajectories, never to be seen again, or at least not until way later (like now, dude), when your 50th Reunion is coming atcha.
Like one of Jimmy's curves. So I kept jumping back from the plate, certain the ball was going to wack me between the shoulder blades, and then I'd watch it float over the plate. This went on for several pitches. Finally Jimmy relented, or probably the coach gave him the signal to let up, and he tossed a few straight, easy pitches to me, which I proceeded to hit well south of the third base line and out into the street, so excited to get one I could see that I couldn't wait. And thus endth my highschool baseball career, which was probably as as-it-should-be as is conceivable--an apogee of fairness. Plus, I got to bat that one time against the great Jimmy Roland, who ten or more years later I happened to see on the teevee, pitching for the Twins, and winning a game in the major leagues.
So we have this website featuring all our classmates, and some of them have put up little bios and pictures from their lives, and many others haven't been "found", and there's a departed section, which I was checking after I read one bio by one guy lamenting all the departed, too soon, too soon. And there's Jimmy. He died last year. After his career he had a nice family, and worked in sporting goods, and was called to work in a hospice, and he'd gotten some kind of cancer, and died. It looked from the little obituary like he'd found a fine, centered life, and had become a very commendable person with his head screwed on straight--which would probably be something of an achievement if you were in the Major Leagues for a long time, although it's happened before certainly, including to Catfish. But damn if I'm not sorry I can't go up to him next month and ask him if he remembers ending my major league career. That would have been really fun. And that moment at the plate--it's as real as yesterday, and sparkles like the air after a hurricane.
And here's a footnote which I find simply breathtaking:
I found out about Jimmy's passing on Sunday, as late as I was for his curveball. Last night a friend of mine called with the news that Bob Barrett, the guy who gave me the wonderful hook for my most notorious song, a song which when I first performed it with the Red Clay Ramblers in 1974, at the Cats Cradle in Chapel Hill, caused people to literally fall out of their chairs, that Bob had died of a heart attack Monday night while driving home from Chapel Hill. He'd felt bad, pulled off to the side of the road, and his body was found later by police. It was his 2nd heart attack, his first coming last winter. I'd had dinner with him last week, and we'd had an enjoyable conversation, with much wry comment from him on the current political climate. His wryness was renown--and was evident well before he gave me that hook at his wedding reception, where he married Margaret Ellen, back in 1973, when the Ramblers were just getting started on a marriage that did not last nearly so long as his. I can report, however, that Bob did not expect Rick Perry to succeed in his presidential ambition. Perhaps optimism was coming on in his older, wiser years, I don't know.
Bob was a noted residential contractor in these parts. I have, through the years, built many a foundation for his very well built houses. He was a man who believed in over-building. His stuff stood up to weather, and falling trees. When hurricane Fran came through in '96, he and I did some nice repairs on some good houses in the Chapel Hill area. He said last week that at least he wasn't in debt, like a lot of the building community around here. He'd gotten out at the right time.
Margaret Ellen had died of breast cancer three or so years ago. Bob and Margaret Ellen were as sweet a couple as you could imagine. Now there's just their 30-something daughter left, who went to school back when with my 30-something daughter. I think when Margaret Ellen died, that's what broke Bobby's heart. Eventually the old muscles just couldn't cope with the broken stuff. There is in fact very little that isn't in the end ephemeral. I think of Bob's nice, quirky, self-built house, full of his life, Margaret Ellen's, Sophie's. The piano, which he and I moved in my old green F-150, which nearly fell plumb out of the truck on the sharp curve on his driveway. The many books. The wood stove sitting on a pedestal smack in the middle of the living room, the beautiful sun room past the kitchen, all those windows facing the steep hillside, which bloomed with bulbs each spring, the big shop building up on that hill, with Bob's tools, and a second floor to that, like a hayloft, with a pingpong table and an old refrigerator with beer, and windows looking out on the tree tops.
Now all of that, every bit of it, is memory. What's there today is what's left. I don't know what will happen to it all. Sophie lives far away, with a sparkling life of her own. Maybe she can rent the place out somehow, or there'll be a distress sale. Otherwise, the desperate will eventually find it, and it won't take long in these times. There ought to be a plaque or something though. Maybe I'll have to have one made myself. Sneak over there some night and drive it deep into the red clay up by that shop.
The man who conceived "You were only fucking, while I was making love" lived here. A true country genius, who never went to Nashville and made it rich. Not "Awww, too bad." though. He lived as well as is possible, and grew wiser and kinder with every passing year. He was uniformly generous. He was a good friend.