Afraid of the Dark
Joe Hartnett dearly loved his grandson, Tommy, with the Chicago Cubs being a close second. As he has done so many days of his retirement, he was watching both play baseball at the same time. It was a sultry day in August and Joe was perched on a bench at the top of the stands of a city park near his home in Melrose Park watching Tommy’s little league game with his laptop open to the Cub-Cardinal game. For his seventieth birthday he had treated himself to a specialty WiFi antenna that picked up signals from a Starbucks located just a few yards away.
Joe had a straight back with strong arms and shoulders from years as a baggage handler at O’Hare Field. His high forehead, short graying hair and lean physique were evidence of former military.
“Come on, Tommy!” he yelled through cupped hands as the boy stepped into the batter’s box. “Hit it out of here.”
A marginal player at best, the twelve-year-old Tommy Hartnett in turn loved his grandfather profoundly. His mother had been killed serving in Iraq when he was two and his father is now working lately in Afghanistan, so his grandfather is serving largely as both mother and father to the boy.
The pitcher was tall and beefy for a little leaguer and he threw the ball hard so that it appeared to be the size of a pea rather than a baseball as it whizzed by a batter. “Strike one!” the umpire bellowed jerking his right thumb up dramatically with Tommy’s bat was still setting on his shoulder.
“Come on ump!” Joe yelled. “It was above his head.”
In a baggy uniform over his thin frame, Tommy was quite certain it was chest high and not over his head, but it went by so fast he really couldn’t say for sure. He stepped from the batter’s box to rub his hands dry for a better grip on the bat. He looked up at the top of the stands where his grandfather was stationed and nodded. From third base his coach yelled encouragement and flashed a signal which Tommy acknowledged. He was on his own to hit, which he reckoned unfortunately was not in the team’s best interest. Tommy moved back into the box and took a couple of practice swings to ready himself for the pitch. The second pitch was down the middle and he swung but missed it by a foot.
“Way to swing, Tommy,” Joe yelled and clapped hard.
Tommy gritted his teeth and prepared himself for the third pitch which came in low but he missed that also.
“That’s all right, Tommy. You’ll get ‘em next time,” Joe shouted loudly causing a spectator two rows down and to the left to turn back and shake his head. “That’s my grandson!” Joe reproved the onlooker, a heavyset man somewhat younger than Joe, who nodded to be polite.
After the game Tommy took the bench seats one step at a time on an angle to meet his grandfather who was still watching the Cub game.
“Look at that Kris Bryant hit!” he stated pointing at the screen. “Best rookie the Cubs have had since Ernie Banks.”
“Ernie was pretty good, huh Gramps?” the boy said halfheartedly for he had struck out every time at bat.
“Awe, he was sweet, Tommy boy. Those wrists of his!” Joe formed his hands to mimic holding a bat and snapped his wrists in a swing. “It looked like he was hitting fungos, but in a couple of seconds the ball was out on Waveland Avenue. Just like that!” Joe reminisced a few moments and then said, “And what a fielder. He had the range of two people.”
The boy half-smiled and his grandfather noticed Tommy’s gloomy mood. He reached over and pushed back the bill on the boy’s sweaty baseball hat that better showed his blue eyes. Tommy fingered his straight blonde hair that had fallen from underneath the hat.
“Sit here with me, son, and we’ll watch the rest of the Cubs game and talk some baseball strategy. Then we’ll get a hamburger and a malted. How does that sound?”
Tommy worked on a smile and sat straddling the bench a row down from Joe so that he could see the screen of the laptop. He was beginning to forget the strikeouts as he especially enjoyed these precious times with his grandfather. “Okay, Gramps.” He looked at the game and asked, “How are the Cubs doing?”
“They’re tied in the eighth but they’ve got the go ahead run on base.”
“Is that Bryant on first?”
“He is, Tommy. Montero’s up with Rizzo on deck. Rizzo’s good so they won’t want to walk Montero even though he’s hot. But they’ll still try to get him to go after a wide one.”
The Cardinal pitcher did just that, but Montero didn’t bite. In short order the count was two balls and no strikes and Joe Hartnett became excited. “They can’t pitch around Montero now. They won’t want Rizzo coming up with two on base. They’ll give Montero a fast ball, and that’s his pitch.”
The Cardinal pitcher started his windup and set with his chin turned slightly to first base eyeing Bryant, and then fired a bullet down the middle. Looking for that very pitch, Montero connected with a powerful swing, rocketing the ball high in the right field bleachers.
“Way to go Cubs!” Tommy yelled, prompting several parents and players leaving the park to cheer. Tommy high-fived his grandfather who then logged off and closed his laptop.
“Let’s not jinx them, Tommy,” he said. “We’ll assume they’ll win. We’ll get that malt and hamburger now.” All was well again with Tommy. His strikeouts were a thing of the past and they were on their way to an enjoyable time.
After having a couple of hamburgers at a stand on North Avenue, they stopped by Peterson’s Ice Cream Parlor on Chicago Avenue in Oak Park for malted milks. Tommy always enjoyed a double chocolate malt that was so thick that one could black out having to draw so hard on the straw. By then he had completely forgotten his dismal day at the plate and was eager to talk about the Cubs of old with his grandfather. With his baseball cap off, he had to brush hair from his eyes.
“What happened to the Cubs in 1969, Gramps? You said they had maybe the best team ever.”
Joe Hartnett pulled the straw from his drink and licked the end as if it was a cone and shook his head looking down at the table. “1969! That was the year for sure. So many great players. Banks, Williams, Kessinger, Santo, Beckert, Hundley. And pitchers! Jenkins, Holtzman, Selma, Regan. I don’t know how many were selcted to the Hall of Fame. But a bunch! They were winning everything. How could they miss being in the World Series? I’d a bet anything they’d go to the Series that year. They were ahead by nine games in August, but then the bottom fell out. They lost everything and those darn Mets won everything.
Then the Mets beat Atlanta easily in the National League Championship. The Cubs would have done the same, and been in the Series. It wouldn’t have even been a contest. Who could explain that? All those great players suddenly couldn’t hit the ball. The pitchers couldn’t get anyone out. Joe thought a few moments and then continued, “I was a young man then, in my twenties. I never gave it a second thought that I might not see the Cubs in a World Series. I just wish they did it in ’69. Now….I don’t know.” He smiled and winked at his grandson. “I’m not getting any younger.”
“Don’t talk like that, Gramps!” Tommy chided anxiously.
“Oh, don’t worry, Tommy boy. I’ll be around for quite a while. I’ll see you to be a grown man.” He laughed and added, “Besides, we’ve got our trip to Disneyland coming up next week.”
The boy brightened up. “What’s it like there? I can’t wait.”
“Nothing like you’ve ever seen. Rides and exhibits. It’s as if you’re going to another world – a Disney world. You know that Walt Disney, the man that started it all, went to high school here in Chicago.”
“He went to McKinley High School. It’s no longer in existence.”
“Wow. He sure must have had good teachers.”
Joe chuckled. “I’m sure he did. So you see how important school is?”
“What should I bring on the trip? I’ve never been that far.”
“I’ll make sure you have the right clothes. And I’ll bring my old Mouseketeer hat for you to wear.”
“What’s that?” Tommy asked, making a face with the mention of a mouse.
“We all had them. We wore them when the Mickey Mouse Club was on T.V. Television was just getting started then. The kids from the neighborhood all got around our T.V. with our hats with the mouse ears.”
“Mouse ears!” Tommy shrieked, prompting several heads in the parlor to turn.
“Like I said, we all wore them when the program was on. And we all had favorites. Annette Funicello was my favorite. She was so pretty and vivacious!”
“I think I heard about her.”
“Yes,” Joe rejoined sadly. “She was sick a long time and we lost her not too far back.” Then he brightened up. “Well, enough of that! Let’s get to-go containers for these malts and get on home. You need a bath and to start getting ready for our trip.”
Tommy relished his grandfather’s zeal and loved these days with him. And he yearned dearly for Gramps to realize his greatest wish – for the Cubs somehow to be in the World Series. If only the 1969 team had fulfilled their calling, Tommy mused.
Several days later grandfather and grandson were packed and off to the airport. The Southwest Airlines flight from Midway to the John Wayne Airport near Los Angeles took most of the day. Tommy had a window seat that he was glued to a good portion of the trip. His grandfather sat in the middle, with a businessman working on a laptop on the aisle. At 40,000 feet the sky was clear, and Tommy was fascinated as he watched the ground pass below.
Farms were sectioned perfectly like the squares on a checker-board, and the Mississippi appeared vast even from such a height. Then there was a great brown and green stretch of the Great Plains that led into the majestic Rockies. He marveled at the vastness of the massive snowcapped mountain range he had only read about in the books at school and seen on television and the Internet. The mountains must be awfully cold, he thought, to have so much snow in late summer. He shivered thinking about it. Tommy looked at his grandfather sound asleep next to him and wondered how he had felt the first time he saw these wonders below. He had likely flown in what was then called a prop plane. Gramps had spoken of such planes but the boy had never seen one. He thought of his grandfather further and wished profoundly again that the Cubs could have given him a World Series back in 1969, as he sadly spoke of it so often.
In time Tommy also fell asleep and was rather disappointed when a flight attendant announced the plane’s final approach for landing and realized, looking back through the window, that they had circled out over the ocean to land from the west. His grandfather, who was still asleep, had told him that the landing might be as such. Tommy had been anxious to see the ocean, but the excitement of seeing Disneyland promptly overtook any regret, and he pulled out Gramps’ silly Mouseketeer hat from a bag and set it on his head. It fit perfectly, and his grandfather smiled, rubbing the sleep from his eyes.
“We’re here, Tommy boy.”
Joe Hartnett went all out for his grandson’s trip, staying at the luxurious Disneyland Hotel. Though Tommy was eager to begin exploring Disneyland, Joe wisely suggested that he take a swim and then they have dinner. By dessert Tommy’s eyes were at half-mast and he nearly fell asleep with a spoon in his hand. He again sensibly agreed to Gramps’ suggestion and went to bed.
Well rested the next morning, Tommy proudly wore his grandfather’s black hat with ears and was having a hearty breakfast in the hotel restaurant. Then he remembered something about California and said to his grandfather, “Doesn’t Grandma live out here?”
His grandfather crooked his head and answered with amusement, “What brought that on?”
“I don’t know. I just thought of it.”
Joe smiled. “Yes, she does, Tommy boy. Yes, she does.” His grandfather seemed to reminisce and then added, “We actually stayed here in Disneyland right after we got married. At this very hotel.” He thought back. “I had just joined the Marines and she was mad as can be at me because the Viet Nam war was on at that time. She was against it and afraid I’d get killed.”
Tommy thought a moment of the mother he never knew and how war must be a terrible thing. His thoughts then returned to his grandmother. “How come she left Chicago?”
“Well, she really left me. Or we left each other.”
“Oh,” he pondered a few moments in thought. “I think maybe she just had too much of the sixties in her.” He looked down at the floor and then back to Tommy and thought about the boy and his life so far. “You’ve missed out a lot on motherly love, haven’t you, son?”
“I have you Gramps. That’s all I need until dad gets back from Afghanistan.”
Joe smiled and winked and then changed the subject, putting on his favorite blue Cub hat. “Are you ready to see Disneyland?”
“I’m ready!” Tommy beamed and they got up from the table.
A short walk from the hotel, they entered the wonderful land of fantasy started so many years ago by the man from Chicago. Tommy’s head could have been on a swivel for he seemed to be taking everything in at once. They rode the monorail to begin with to get an overview of the wonderful park. Then they visited Tomorrowland and Frontierland and Main Street. Tommy had never seen anything like this, and he yearned to see more. By mid-afternoon, Joe checked his watch and said, “I’m getting hungry. Why don’t we go over to the New Orleans Square and get something to eat? I’ve always wanted to see New Orleans and I see the Café Orleans has a meal called ‘Mickey’s Cheesy Macaroni’. Macaroni and Cheese is your favorite. How’s that sound?”
“It sounds great, Gramps! Let’s go.”
New Orleans Square was as Joe had imagined the French Quarter might be. He marveled at the narrow brick streets and the French flavor of the buildings with charming balconies and courtyards. But as they approached the Café Orleans, he failed to notice a strange look on his grandson’s face.
For some reason Tommy felt uneasy, like he had on a day in January when the flu was setting into his body that left him deathly ill for weeks. His grandfather opened the door to the restaurant and then when Tommy stepped in with his hand on the Mouseketeer hat, his world began to unravel. He could no longer see Gramps who was only a few steps ahead, and he felt a sudden rush as if he were on a Chicago subway train that was speeding by all of the stops.
Suddenly, he found himself back in Chicago at what looked to be Wrigley Field, in a dugout with men in baseball uniforms. Trying to gain focus, he at first thought this impossible because he is in California, but they were wearing the familiar Cub home uniforms-white with blue pinstripes and blue stockings. The Cub blue and red emblem was on the shirts and the red ‘C’ was distinct on the blue caps. They were big men with strong arms and shoulders, but for some reason, they didn’t seem as huge as Tommy had generally seen adults. These players had grim looks on their faces, some pacing along the dugout while others sat slumped on a long wood bench with legs stretched out.
“What kept you?” an older man standing in a uniform barked in a gruff tone. “See Yosh inside and get suited up.”
The face of the man was familiar, but Tommy couldn’t place it. The day was bright with a slight chill in the air. He glanced out at the ball field and saw the distinctive green leafy vines on the outfield wall and realized without question that he was in Wrigley Field. How on earth did he get here from Disneyland where he was just a few moments ago, he wondered? And in the Cubs dugout of all places! How often had he dreamed of sitting on the bench in the Cubs dugout! Then he looked out at the first base dugout across the diamond on the other side of the pitcher’s mound and saw that it was full of ballplayers wearing what looked like red and white Philadelphia Philly uniforms. This must be a dream!
“Hey kid, Ron Santo,” a stocky man with a dark complexion extended his hand, introducing himself.
“Tom Hartnett,” he replied and shook hands. Tommy had never used the name Tom. It was too grown up. The name had always been Tommy. In shaking Santo’s hand he felt strength he had never known before and realized he was at least a couple of inches taller than this ballplayer, looking down at him.
“We’ve heard a lot of good things about you. We need the help.”
“You have?” Tom replied, dumfounded.
“Hey!” the older man yelled. “Get going. They’re not going to hold the game up for you.”
Santo winked at the young man and cuffed him supportively on the shoulder. Tom left the dugout through a passageway to climb up iron steps and walk through a cage-like structure over fans that were milling back and forth below purchasing hot dogs and drinks. As he was in street clothes, no one seemed to give him much notice. Tom then opened a door to a surprisingly small clubhouse where a middle-aged oriental man wearing a white fishing hat started to select uniform pieces for Tom without his asking.
“I’m Yosh,” he said shaking Tom’s hand. “Ninety-nine is your number.” He handed the young man a white pinstriped uniform shirt, pants, stockings, a cap, a belt and a roll containing underwear, sliding pads and sweat socks. “You need spikes. What’s your size?”
Tom looked down at his feet, surmising that the shoe size he remembered couldn’t possibly fit on feet that seemed considerably larger than they had ever been. What was going on? Sheepishly, he replied, “I’m not sure.”
The equipment manager looked at him strangely. “You don’t know your size?”
Tom shrugged his shoulders, and Yosh shook his head eyeballing Tom’s feet. “Maybe eleven.” He pulled out a new pair of shiny black shoes with steel spikes from a rack. “Try them on.”
Tom took the shoes, sat on a bench and struggled try to slip them on. “A little tight.”
“Eleven and a half,” Yosh said smiling and provided a second pair that fit perfectly.