Choosing Up Sides
I grew up with my left hand tied behind my back. Well, actually, it was only tied up till I was six or seven.
I figured it was all on account of my Uncle Micah, Ma's only brother. He worked as a newspaperman up near Cleveland. He smoked tobacco and had a certain tendency to get drunk. He also had a tendency to go out dancing all night. But worst of all, he tended to smoke his cigars or drink his drinks or write down notes using his left hand. The hand of the Devil, Pa called it. "Pure backwards of what's right and good."
"Leave a boy go left-handed," he once told my ma, "and he'll turn out wild as a witch-dog, same as your fool brother, Micah." Then Pa hitched up close and whispered down at the both of us. "And I ain't about to let that happen."
See, I had that tendency toward being left-handed, too. Couldn't help it. That's just the way I's born.
Back in the early spring of 1921, we were brand new in town. Crown Falls, Ohio, a little dot on the map that hardly had two cows to rub together. My pa was a preacher and he moved us around a lot. That's how it'd always been, anyhow. Ma said this time was supposed to be different.
The Holy River of John the Baptist Church Council had sent us here.
They always picked us a river town, too. Reason was, then, like John the Baptist back in the Bible days, you could take and fully dunk a sinner when you saved him.
Me, I didn't specially care where I lived, long's we had the river by. My river. The great Ohio. I'd spend hours roving the craggy cliffs above its rushing narrows or working its woody shoreline for treasure. I didn't care a coal bucket about baptizing. What I cared about was trapping and fishing.
And during those first few days, after school and after chores, I spent hours walking trails, trying to find the good hunting spots. Sometimes I headed riverside to check the fishing and scout the streambeds for places to set my muskrat traps.
Towards sundown I might hunker in a backwater cove somewheres and skip a pile of stones over the water. And most times I did it with my right arm. I figured the more I used my right arm, the more natural I'd get.
Then one afternoon during that first week, I heard shouting and cheering rise up from over the hillside. After a spell, I set down my weed scythe and followed a deer trace through the thicket just to see what all the caterwauling was about. From the hilltop, I spied a bunch of boys playing baseball.
I'd heard tell of baseball and I knew something about it, but I'd never actually played the game before. Where I come from, we mostly ran with our own kind. Less chance that way to wander off the path. And on my path, baseball wasn't allowed.
See, Pa frowned on sports. The whole church did. To them, competition fed on vanity and pride, so sports was as sinful as dancing or watching moving picture shows. Pa said those kinds of things were nothing but the Devil's playground, which'd only lead a man to drinking or gambling or woman chasing. "Just like your fool Uncle Micah," he liked to say.
But on that day I figured it wouldn't hurt to watch. At thirteen years old, I wasn't much worried about drinking and such. And besides, baseball held a certain mystery for me. Like the apple that Eve gave to Adam, it was forbidden. But I always figured Adam's mistake was rushing in to take the bite. Whereas a wiser man might've judged the fix he was getting into, then tossed the apple back and gone about his business.
So I snuck on down to the flatlands and stood a ways off, behind a boy who was out there all by himself. He was looking the other way, towards the fellows with the ball.
And that's when something happened. And it soon became the plague of me.
I was just watching. Then one tall, skinny kid stood up with the stick in his hand and they threw the ball at him. He hit it so far, it even flew past that fellow standing in front of me. Clear over his head.
Rolled right up to my feet.
"Throw it in," some boy yelled. "Here, throw it to me."
By then everyone was yelling the same thing. "Throw it. Throw it here. Throw it home."
So I picked up the ball and heaved it as hard as I could. I threw it over everybody. All those players, all that commotion where everybody was running around, I threw it over them all. And I wished I never did.
It was just pure reaction, and I's glad Pa wasn't there to see.
It made a hush come. It was like a giant cloud full of quiet had blown up and smothered every single shout.
They all stopped and looked at me.
"You see that?" I heard one say.
And I knew I'd done wrong. I'd tossed that baseball straighter and farther than any rock I'd ever thrown, and I was so sorry about it. How I's raised, it wasn't allowed.
They all stood pointing and talking—every boy in town—but I just hung there frozen, praying they'd never say a word to Pa.
Bad enough throwing that baseball. But I had used the Devil's arm.
(End of Chapter One)
Choosing Up Sides is published by Philomel Books, a division of Penguin Group USA, New York.
© John H. Ritter, 1998 ISBN #0-399-23185-4.