Posted by: Ryan | January 31, 2010

Barnstorming

I’ve discovered that as part of Trip Three of my itinerary, I can attend two Lancaster Barnstormers games, on Friday and Saturday night. The Barnstormers are part of the independent Atlantic League, and teams in this league are not affiliated with any  major-league clubs.

I’m glad I can take in these games. The Barnstormers are, in a sense, my true Home Town Team, even though the club is only a couple of years old, and was established well after I left Lancaster for good. But like other facets of my relationship with Lancaster, I feel debts and obligations to the Barnstormers, more than I feel any true affinity for the club itself.

If we’re going on *feelings,* instead of oughts and shoulds and musts, my minor league heart belongs to the Reading Phillies, where I fell in love with baseball again at the age of 23 (more on this in my essay, Why the Minors?). Or maybe it belongs to the New Hampshire Fisher Cats, where I have seen about a dozen games over the past four years, and where my wife rented a luxury box for me and our friends for my 40th birthday, almost two years ago.

Still, I feel like I *should* love the Barnstormers, because both sides of my family have lived in Lancaster County since the early 1700s, and because I was fully expected to take my place – or, more accurately, my father’s place – in the Lancaster Mennonite community once I reached adulthood, and because for the past 20 years Lancaster City has been on the cusp of becoming a cool little bohemian city, or because Sue and I once lived there, and made it our home for a while.

OK, that last one got me.

Here’s the weird thing about Lancaster City: it’s the one place where I feel more at home in an urban environment than I do in the surrounding countryside. If you haven’t gathered by now, I’m a bit of a hick. I’m content to feed my woodstove in the winter and putter around in the garden in the summer. I like dark. I like quiet. I’ve known this about myself since the first years of our marriage, when I was falling back in love with baseball, and was rediscovering another childhood love.

Right after we got married, Sue and I lived in a smelly, dark one-bedroom apartment on Mulberry Street in Lancaster. The bedroom had two windows onto the sidewalk and street, and in warm weather the noise of cars passing, and of people talking and laughing as they walked back from the downtown bars, kept us awake. So we slept on a futon in our living room, folding up the creaking frame every evening, and pulling it apart and re-making the bed every night.

We tried to fashion a garden in the back yard, but although I had grown up hoeing potatoes and picking peas in my parents’ garden, 15 miles away in Strasburg, I didn’t know the first thing about growing food. A large oak tree shaded the spot Sue and I choose, blocking the sun at all hours, and, predictably, nothing grew, except some yellowing cucumbers that swelled grotesquely at one end, like half-inflated balloon animals.

Midway through that first married summer we gave up on the garden, and I took to reading in a wire-framed, canvas butterfly chair set on the patchy grass. A friend from church – two short blocks away – gave me an Edward Abbey book, Fool’s Progress. I finished it in a matter of days. I walked to the Lancaster Library and checked out all of the Edward Abbey books they had, books about sleeping without a tent in the Arizona desert, about driving enormous American sedans through sandy washes until the cars sunk to their axles, about living how you wanted to live, without worries about what you were *supposed* to do, or concerns about the expectations of others.

I sat in that canvas chair and became entranced with reading once again, remembering how my brother and I had sat in twin red rocking chairs on the porch of our Strasburg house during our childhood summers, bare feet on the white porch post, plowing through books from the Strasburg Library, taking breaks only to pee behind the garden or get more mint tea – “meadow tea” – from the Tupperware container Mom kept in the fridge. Ten years later, I read and I read in our patchy back yard, the whole time forming the idea of a different kind of life, a life away from traffic and upstairs neighbors, and I vowed that when our lease expired, Sue and I would find a place to live in the country.

God found us a place (I still thought this way at the time). A co-worker had been renting a small brick farmhouse from an Amish family in the aptly-named burg of Farmersville, and told me that he was, providentially, leaving his rental the same month we wanted to leave ours. He arranged for us to meet the Amish farmer at the house on a Saturday morning, after the milking chores were done.

It was perfect: a stand-alone house with two large bedrooms, lots of sun, a kitchen where you could entertain a dozen friends, plenty of tilled earth beyond the lush back-yard grass for a garden. It was dark. It was quiet.

It was terrible. The place was surrounded by other farmhouses, and the Amish and conservative Mennonite neighbors on the road gathered on their porches to examine this young married couple who might be moving into the midst of their community. The farmer spoke at length about the need not to hold any parties, and hinted, ominously, that his family was next door, and they would know if we did anything wrong. We shook hands with him, and said we would think about it, but a half-mile down the road we both exploded into disbelieving laughter. No way. No f*cking way. Driving back to Lancaster City that afternoon felt like returning home again, like sliding your hand into the infielder’s glove you used all through high school, and I began to realize that what I truly wanted wasn’t quiet, or darkness, or even gardens, but something like freedom.

We found a better place in Lancaster City, a block north and a block west of our Mulberry Street apartment, and life changed. We now had two floors, a room where Sue could set up a small art studio, and a small porch with green indoor/outdoor carpet where we could eat breakfast and look across our new back yard at the rooftops of the red-brick city. We bought frozen baguettes and Vermont cheddar at the fragrant specialty-foods store around the corner, Mandros’ Market, where Mr. Mandros listened to the Phillies on a transistor radio behind the counter, and bickered in Greek at his long-haired son – who manned the deli counter, and looked distinctly unhappy with the choices that brought his life to this store, this deli counter – as we paid for our bread and cheese.

We met friends downtown at the Lancaster Dispensing Company, pulling open the glass door on Thirty-Five-Cent Taco Night to find a table full of college buddies drinking Bass Ales. We enjoyed a welcome that was unthinkable to me five years earlier, when I was in high school, and was certain that those who drank beer would never escape the fires of hell. I made my own beer in a glass carboy that my mother had once used as a planter – Mom and Dad were now missionaries in Kenya – and played guitar on the futon with my brother, him home from Berklee School of Music for Thanksgiving break, drinking that dark, yeasty stout, singing songs together about floating away and leaving home.

In a year we were gone to Vermont, living atop a hill two miles long, driving a canvas-roofed Jeep on barely plowed roads. We were gone to that new life I first glimpsed in those Edward Abbey books. But nearly 20 years later, I can still smell Mandros’ Market: Parmesan cheese and onion-soup mix and garlic bulbs. And I try to go to Barnstomers’ games whenever we’re back in The County. It’s good fun; some of the players (Carl Everett, Antonio Alfonseca) are recognizable from their time in the majors, while most of the players never made it past Double- or Triple-A. I like to get a beer when I go there, as it’s a rare chance for me to have a cold one while visiting my teetotalling family.

But I find I don’t spend much time actively watching the game. I more often sit and think about those two years Sue and I lived in Lancaster City. I look at the same buildings that we lived among, and I get that rare sense that life isn’t linear, but moves in circles. It’s as if a time never ends, as if somehow, we’re still driving back into the city after looking at that Amish rental house, glad to be returning home.

Home is Vermont now, I say. It’s our little house on the west-facing hillside, with the woodstove and the now-proficient garden. But sometimes I feel as if you can have several homes, several places where you once anchored your soul as you moved through life. Going to see the Barnstormers is the best way I know to feel like Lancaster City is home again, an oasis in the middle of a county of oughts and shoulds and musts.

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