It was dark in the back of the war surplus truck. Heavy green canvas cut out all the early evening sunlight, except what shone through the opening at the rear. The women, wearing clean white sweat shirts with a red, double winged A sewn on the front, sat on wooden benches facing each other, joking and laughing to cover their nervousness, their cigarette ends flitting about like fire flies, filling the truck with smoke. I sat between my grandmother and my Aunt Rae, in the deepest, darkest part of the truck, the huge canvas bag carrying bats, balls, gloves and catchers’ gear at our feet. My mother sat with my grandfather, near the opening, where they could see to work out the batting order, and go over their notes for the game.
The old truck bounced through Nappan, made a sharp right turn, crossed the bridge at Maccan, then later, another bridge into River Hebert, home of our arch rivals. The women referred to both the town and the team simply as – “The River,” saying it with a mixture of respect and animosity. The truck stopped at the edge of a mown field, near a dirt infield and chicken wire backstop. Only a few fans sat in the wooden stands behind home plate, but by game time they’d be full, as would the two wooden benches, one set back ten yards from each base line. Taunts, good-natured, but with an edge, flew back and forth between the women getting out of the truck and the ones finishing infield practice.
Dad was back from England, and stationed at #5 Supply Depot in Moncton, so Mom didn’t play for the Amherst Red Wings any more. Later she would play for the Moncton Flying Saucers, and much later, when I was in college, for the Canadian team against the Americans in Goose Bay, Labrador, where she won the batting title at the age of forty-five. That was her last year. She injured her back sliding into third base and Dad wouldn’t let her play again after that. But on those visits to Amherst, in the last summers of the 1940s, my father babysat my younger brothers while my mother and I went to the ball games, sometimes home games in Amherst, sometimes away games in River Hebert, Sackville, or Spring Hill. In September, during playoffs, the retired military truck took us farther; to Truro, New Glasgow, and even Halifax.
My mother pitched and played first base for the Amherst Red Wings from 1935, when they won their first Maritime championship, until 1947, winning their second Maritime title in 1944, five months after I was born. When we were in Amherst, she went to the games and coached first base to help my grandfather, who had managed the team since its beginning.
We piled out of the truck and made camp along the third base line. My Aunt Grace, always eager, grabbed a ball and called on Rae to warm her up. Grace would be pitching that night, and Rae, as always, catching. Rae, later called Snowball for her billowing white hair, caught until she was fifty-three, when she was hit by a throw from the infield while running from third to home and broke her ankle. She died of cancer a few years later. Grace, who began playing senior ball when she was twelve, played until she had both knees replaced one winter, then pitched one more exhibition game the following summer, on plastic knees, at the age of sixty-nine.
While my grandfather ran infield practice, and my mother hit flies to the outfielders, Grace whipped the ball to Rae, who, with a sly twinkle in her eyes, intentionally accented the smacking of the ball into the pocket of her catchers’ mitt, to intimidate the other team. I sat in the dirt, at the end of our bench closest home plate, taking the bats out of the big canvas bag and laying them out with the barrels side by side and the handles on top of each other, the way Rae, patient Rae, had taught me, making a large fan of pale ash bats, all with the labels up, the way you held them when you hit.
During the game, when the Red Wings were at bat, I squatted in the dirt next to the fan of bats. After each Red Wing finished her turn at the plate, I scrambled after the bat and returned it to its place in the fan. I already knew, at that young age, to stay out of the way if there was a play at the plate, or if their catcher or third baseman was chasing a pop foul.
When the Red Wings were in the field I sat on the end of the bench, next to my grandmother, her kind face as worn and leathery as the gloves, and watched her keep score. I knew all the symbols before I even went to school; “K” for strike out, “F-6″ for a pop out to the short stop, a “=” in the upper right corner for a double, and lines in that square tracking the progress around the bases, with a big black dot in the middle of the diamond when a run scored.
Rae, wearing a bird cage mask, shin pads hinged below the knee, and a cloth chest protector, corrugated like a wash board, that wrapped around her sides, over her shoulders and hung down between her knees when she squatted behind home plate, directed the game, shifting infielders and outfielders the way a general shifts his troops, depending on which River Hebert player was at bat, and all the time keeping up a steady chatter.
“No batter, easy out.”
“Play’s at second.”
“Two out, any base.”
My grandfather, with his snow white brush cut, sat calmly on the bench in his suit and tie, smoking his pipe, imperturbable, expecting and receiving equal measures of effort and decorum.
As each enemy hitter settled in at the plate, Grace stared down at them, teeth set, intense, waiting for Rae to set up her target and give her the signal, one for a fast ball, two for a drop. Later she’d learn how to throw a curve. Grace would bring her hands together in front of her waist, as if in prayer, bend slightly, leaning toward the plate, feet together on the wooden pitcher’s slab. Her right arm would swing behind her back, then that quick, powerful stride as her arm whipped out and the white ball exploded across home plate, leaving the River Hebert batter to flail helplessly, or, if they were lucky, pop the ball to third, F-5, or dribble a harmless grounder to the second baseman, 4-3.
I took my jobs as bat boy and assistant score keeper seriously, and the game always ended too soon. If the Red Wings won, the players were animated on the trip back to Amherst, rehashing the game, teasing good-naturedly anyone who had made a misplay. But if they lost, it was more subdued; bad bounces were cursed, misplays berated, opposing players and the umpire vilified until my grandfather intervened.
“We should be good enough to win in spite of a few bad calls.” Or, “They’re a good team. We have to play better than we did tonight if we want to beat them.”
The analysis of the game continued in my grandparents’ warm kitchen, crowded with ball players. I sat silently in the corner, by the huge cream and black stove, taking it all in; the replays, the stories, the intense discussion of strategy, until someone noticed me and I was shooed off to bed.
I slept on a cot in the store room over the kitchen, amongst old gloves the shape of pancakes, worn out chest protectors, catchers’ masks with torn straps, and tattered score books, the fading symbols on each page telling the tale of games gone by. The voices drifting up through the floor gradually faded away as the players, one by one, left for home, leaving only Hank Williams on the radio, moaning a duet with a lonely freight train wailing across the Tantramar Marsh, and I drifted off to sleep, dreaming that some day I too would be a ball player.