“Mom, what does Kefauver mean?”
She lifts the iron from the collar of Dad’s white shirt. “Estes Kefauver is a man who wants to be president.”
“Why do they yell when they say his name?”
“That’s what politicians do at a convention.”
“So, Kefauver will be president?”
She laughs. “No. They’re going to nominate Stevenson.”
“So, Stevenson will be president?”
“I don’t think so.” She hangs the white shirt on a wire hanger, picks another one out of the basket, and sprinkles it with water out of a re-purposed Coke bottle.
Little fragments of the Big Picture were starting to become clear—as clear as mud. Still, I held out hope that I would eventually figure everything out.
Big things were afoot on the earth. Without beginning to understand them, I knew there was a world of people and events outside the little prairie towns of my experience.
I knew this because the radio told me. Our fine old wood-bodied Philco sat on a table in the hall and was seldom silent, day or night. We heard news broadcasts by Lowell Thomas, Fulton Lewis Junior, and Edward R. Murrow—whom I thought of, phonically, as Edward “Armurro.”
Many details of the news escaped me. What was “the House Un-American Activities Committee”? What was “French Indo-China”? All things of that nature were beyond my ken. But I knew they were out there, and someday I would figure them out.
The small city of Streator—population 17,500—was in those days an almost magical place, filled with new opportunities every day to reframe and re-understand the world. There was such a thing as Little League. I was only seven in the summer of 1952, but maybe I could try out. Dad explained baseball to me. You had to hit the ball, run around three bases, and end up back at home plate. That much seemed clear.
For the rest, Dad took me to see a movie about Grover Cleveland Alexander, a famous old-time pitcher, who by the way had gotten his start with the lowly Galesburg Boosters. In the movie, a fielder threw the ball and hit Alexander in the head, which caused big problems because it made him see double. Dad explained that hitting base runners with the ball was not the right way to put them out. But what the right way was, he did not say.
I tried out for Little League, but the grown-up men who ruled the tryouts were not impressed by my skills. I did not understand all they wanted me to do. “Force him at second!” they cried. Or, “Hurry now, tag up!” I stood there mute, not knowing the code. On the outside, looking in.
They relegated me to something called “the Farm League.” This meant I could go play ball with other unskilled kids. Maybe I would magically improve enough to be chosen for Little League next year. Or maybe not.
As I scuffed across the dusty diamond en route home, a pair of boys I didn’t know approached me. “Hey, kid. Give us a dime.”
I stood and stared. “I don’t have any money.”
“Oh, yeah?” The larger of the two grabbed me by my shirt and pulled me close.
“Yeah,” I said. “I really don’t have any money.” I was almost in tears.
The two boys looked at each other.
The big one let go of my shirt. “Look, kid. Next time we see you, you’re going to have a dime for us, right?”
I bobbed my head up and down, hoping to show abject agreement. “Right!” I said.
I shuddered inwardly on the way home. Those boys would beat me up if I didn’t give them a dime. Why did people want to beat you up?
It was impenetrable. I never wanted to beat anybody up.
When I told Mom about the bullies’ threat, she turned into Roger Benckendorf.
She walked with me to practice the next day.
“Do you have a dime for them, Mom?” I asked, thinking she might not understand the requirement. “I’m really supposed to bring them a dime.”
Mom gave me a strange look. “I’ve got a dime for them, all right.”
I spotted the boys and pointed to the other side of the baseball diamond. “There they are.”
Mom charged across the sun-baked infield and corraled the two kids. I couldn’t quite hear what she told them, but I know she did not give them a dime, and they ran away rather fast. I never saw them again.
I puzzled over why Mom told me she was going to give them a dime when she clearly never intended to do so, but I was starting to understand that you were not supposed to give in to extortion. What the alternative was, though, I still had no clue.
The “I Like Ike” folks greatly outnumbered the “Madly for Adlai” folks, nationwide. We had a new president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, a smiling, bald-headed, grandfatherly man who talked a lot about “nucular” weapons.
Mom told me he meant “nuclear.” Nuclear meant the Atom Bomb.
Larry F. Sommers
Your New Favorite Writer