My father was the oldest of six children. When he was eight years old, his father, an abusive alcoholic, had left the family. Not all together a bad thing. Except it left my grandmother without the financial means to care for her six children. So, around 1942, my grandmother made a decision that would greatly affect the life paths for those six children — she placed the five oldest in an orphanage in their town. In 1942, the only prerequisite for placing children in an orphanage was whether or not space was available — space was available.
My father kept the stories of the abuse he suffered there hidden from us, from everyone — only in the last year of his life did he begin to reveal some of the secrets he hid away so carefully. I spent a day recently with my uncle. He was a much more willing participant to tell some of the stories from the orphanage, as he occasionally held his wife’s hand for a memory jolt and a secure grasp. The boys were beaten, very often. My father bore the scars of those beatings on his back from the time he was 8, until he passed away at 72 — a reminder that time doesn’t heal everything.
My uncle told us of when they first went to the orphanage, he was 5 and my father 8. He said the boys were separated by age which meant my father was separated from the rest of his siblings. But at night, after the lights were out, my uncle would see my father make his way to the bathroom to relieve himself. My uncle would use that opportunity to go to the bathroom as well — with his big brother. They got caught one night on their way to the restroom. My uncle said that once the lights were out, you were not to get out of your bed — for anything. The rules of the orphanage were not to be broken. Young boys have a difficult time making it through the night without a trip to the bathroom. They paid the price. Their shirts were removed and they were beaten with a leather strap from their shoulder blades to the backs of their knees — blood, flesh, tears. Boys, 8 and 5, who learned that wetting the bed was a better alternative. Then, in an attempt to keep the boys from wetting the bed at night, the head of the orphanage would make them all swallow a spoonful of salt before bed — no water. Time does not heal all wounds and some memories remain close to the surface. But, I promised a story of baseball… so, let’s continue.
Kids have a way of surviving… of coping — a resiliency that adults sometimes forget they ever had. The boys from the orphanage had baseball. They were allowed to work on a farm — that was their sanctuary. The farm was run by an angelic couple who brought what peace they could into the lives of the boys for the few hours each day that they were together. My father loved baseball. Lived baseball. My uncle is the same way. But not just any baseball team, the St Louis Cardinals. But neither my father nor my uncle ever played on a team… ever. There was no baseball team at the high school, no little league — but, they played every chance they got. They would prepare a spot in a field at the farm for a baseball diamond. And there, all their nightly beatings, all their scared feelings, all their lonesome hostilities would dissipate — if only momentarily.
The church’s in the area would all form baseball teams — a semi league. The church teams would take turns coming to the farm and challenging the boys. There were probably 30 boys who had, for a variety of reasons, ended up at the orphanage — they were tough and worn and they were, by all accounts… brothers. And during the day they were boys, they played and they fought. They bonded on the baseball field each day. A break from the hard work on the farm, a break from the memories of a house that used to be theirs, a break from their reality. At night, when they returned to the orphanage… they became battle-scarred soldiers. But at night, when everything was quiet, they could seek solace in the promise that the next day a new team would come to challenge them. Baseball was their refuge. Baseball gave them a reason to not succumb to the beatings of the night — because their field would be there, the next day, at the farm… waiting for them.
My uncle finished his stories with a distant look in his eyes… a memory perhaps, of an orphanage that he wanted to forget or of how baseball helped him to remember. The bonds of childhood and the game of baseball are still fresh in his memory — as they should be.