Posted by: Ryan | March 28, 2010

I Reminisce about the Days of Old

We’re heading down to Pennsylvania next weekend for Easter. It’ll be a quick trip, but I’m sure we’ll squeeze in at least some of our usual side jaunts that make me look forward to the journey: buying hams and dried beef at Stoltzfus’ Meats in Intercourse; loading up on blanched celery, Darjeeling tea, and plantains at Central Market in downtown Lancaster; visiting our friend who owns a used clothing store/funky gift emporium on North Queen Street, a block that was cool even when I was in high school.

We’ll only be in Lancaster for two nights, so I’m not sure if we’ll have time to drive out to Strasburg, the small town where I grew up. Dad sold our half of the blue duplex less than two years after Mom died, a year after he remarried, 13 years ago. Last summer his second wife, Betty, died of breast cancer, which is why we’ve been taking more trips to Pennsylvania (and why I’ll be staying with Dad for two legs of my minor league trips).

It never takes as long to get out to Strasburg as I expect. The passage of time has compressed the winding back way from Lancaster City from an epic drive full of signposts and significance into a scant, ten-minute blur. All of a sudden, we’re in Strasburg, driving up the hill past the old Rineer’s gas station, where Dad had a charge account during my teenage years, and where I could sign my initials beside his name in a spiral-bound notebook instead of paying cash.

There are parts of Strasburg that haven’t changed much in 30 years. It’s still ringed by Amish and Mennonite farms, the air still smells like cowshit, and blasts from the steam whistles of the Strasburg Railroad still split the silence on weekends. Our old house has changed, though. Our neighbor bought it from Dad as a rental property, and cut down the two huge maples that shaded the house during the sticky, corn-growing summers. The wrap-around porch needs painting, and the garage needs a new roof, a replacement for the shingles that Dad, me, and two of my college friends – who worked for a Amish roofing company and knew what they were doing – nailed on more than 20 years ago.

I really don’t miss the old place, don’t wish that I could go back inside and have everything be as it once was. I had a hard time as a teenager. I wanted a life that wasn’t centered around our church and the activities of our Mennonite Youth Fellowship, but I didn’t know it yet. I was so incoherent in my feelings and desires that I only found peace when sitting on the front porch of that house late at night, headphones on, listening to Astral Weeks or the Velvet Underground’s third album while the rest of the family slept in the dark house behind me.

Earlier in my adolescence, back before Van Morrison and Lou Reed and Sony Walkmen, I would also be up nights, listening to the sounds of the softball games taking place across the road from our house: the ting of aluminum bats, the hum of the lights, the manly roars that greeted a home run. You could set out from our driveway, cross Lancaster Avenue, and cut across a couple of fields to reach the chain-link backstops of the Jaycee’s Park. But I never went to my Junior Midget baseball practices that way. Fields were nigh unto sacred; you didn’t just walk across someone’s corn. I rode my bike down Miller Avenue.

Until I was in junior high, I attended public school, first at Strasburg Elementary, a short walk from our place, and then at Hans Herr, in the adjoining town of Lampeter. But by the time I was playing Junior Midget ball, I went to Locust Grove Mennonite School, a place where I got in trouble for having magazines that printed out the lyrics to popular songs, a place where we filled time between lessons performing Sword Drills: someone would shout out a Bible verse and we’d all flip through our scriptures, seeing who could find the passage the quickest. I was fully enveloped in the Mennonite world, a track which would lead me to a high school, a college, a marriage partner, and a career, all within the faith.

The only part of my life that *wasn’t* contained within the Mennonite world when I was 13 years old was playing on the town ballclub. A few of the other players were Mennonite – that was inevitable – but the majority had Atari or Intellivision game systems in their rec-room basements, had parents who smoked, or were divorced, or both. These guys had tasted beer and giggled about drinking – and about doing “it” with their girlfriends – during long innings on the bench. The first time Dad took his turn driving kids to the games, a teammate pulled a New Testament out of the seat-back pocket of our VW Rabbit and snorted at the chapter called, “Titus.” From then on, I tried to ride with other kids in their parents’ cars, even when it was Dad’s turn to drive.

But the other players liked me OK. I once was the star of the team, back before everyone else started growing, back when my ability to catch anything hit in my general direction more than made up for my lack of pop at the plate. I remember a rare night game at Jaycee’s Park, against our staunch rivals from Gap, where I played second base and smothered grounder after grounder, preserving the no-hitter of the coach’s pitcher son. I got a special back-slap from the coach after that game, and a sundae instead of the usual small cone at the Freeze-and-Frizz.

I remember more clearly a game I joined in the third inning, late in my town ball career. I arrived from a day-long track meet, held for the area Mennonite schools at a nearby Christian college. I was put in at shortstop – not my normal position – and although I was tired from the relay races and the long jump, I played ball like I had always wanted to play ball, throwing out a runner from deep in the hole, catching a pop-up with my back turned to the infield. I singled in the tying run, stole second, and broke for home on a liner to the outfield. The coach wound his arm like a propeller at third base, and I rounded the bag, and slid, safe, with the winning run, while my teammates exploded with joy in the dugout.

Except I was called out.

We were packing up after the loss – no trip to Freeze-and-Frizz this time – when the coach again slapped my back, softer this time, and said, “You did all you could, Ryan.”

There were town ball games after that loss, but I don’t remember them. The other kids continued to grow, and I continued to stay small, and town ball was soon dominated by guys who would star on their high school teams, and beyond. (One of those players, Mike Saurbaugh, is now the manager of the Akron Aeros, one of the clubs I’ll see this summer). I was eventually cut from my Mennonite high school baseball team, then the soccer team. I started hanging out solely with kids from my high school, smart guys with deep record collections and computers in their basements. They introduced me to the Velvet Underground, and Monty Python, and irony.

But they had always been picked last in P.E. They had never ridden with a teammate and his blonde, cigarette-smoking mother in a sky blue Fiat convertible, singing after beating Gap at their bumpy diamond below the railroad tracks. They had never howled with this friend and his glowing mother along with Bob Seeger and the Silver Bullet Band, zipping past the cornfields, going home.


  1. i forgot about putting that roof on your dad’s garage!


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