It was because of the Willevers, who lived across the street from my family in 1963, that I learned at the age of ten just how unstable and twisted adult life can be. It was because of them that I knew that even in a seemingly safe, affluent, all-American suburb, outwardly normal families sometimes teeter on the precipice of self-inflicted calamity. Because of them, I found out at an early age what a dead body looked like. A fresh one.
My home town of Oak Hills, Minnesota boasted a new village park with a swimming pool, tennis courts, and most importantly by far, two baseball diamonds. For me and my buddies, summer vacation and baseball were synonymous. We didn't much care for Little League, with all of the pressure and self-consciousness inflicted on us by adult managers, umpires, and parents constantly monitoring and fussing, taking all of the fun out of it.
"Grown-ups are stupid," said my best friend, Jeremy. "They ruin everything."
It was thanks to Jeremy that we did not need grown-ups to organize baseball games that were infinitely more fun than Little League. A precocious, self-reliant, red-headed Wunderkind who was never more serious than when he played ball, Jeremy got on the phone and pulled us all together at the village park three afternoons a week. He and I tossed a bat, hands-upped with no topsies, chose sides, took the field, and played all afternoon, razzing and ribbing each other the whole time. We took occasional breaks to wrestle, throw water balloons, or chase down the ice cream truck.
In my memory of those glorious games, I’m always happily in center field, the sun is always shining, my team is always winning, I never make an error, and time does not exist. There will always be another inning, another game, another sunny afternoon, another summer vacation, forever.
When we weren’t playing baseball, Jeremy and I were often laughing at dirty jokes, practical jokes, Mad magazine, or our own waggish remarks about how stupid grown-ups were. We rode our bikes all over town, getting into the sort of minor mischief ten-year-old boys will, if unsupervised, like playing with firecrackers and slingshots, and putting pennies on the railroad tracks. It was a gas. Most of the time, our parents didn't know where we were, or what we were doing. The only restriction imposed on me was that I had to be home in time for dinner.
If a game was close and I was having a good day at the plate, I was prone to losing track of the time and missing dinner entirely. When I did, my father never said a word, because in order to impose discipline he would have had to interrupt his post-prandial tippling. It fell to my mother to be the disciplinarian. Her technique was limited to biting sarcasm, which stung like pineapple juice on a canker sore.
One hot, cloudless afternoon in mid-July, a three-run tie went into extra innings, and not only did I miss dinner, I had to pump my bike pedals like I was in the Tour de France to make it home before sunset. I was sure I was in for a sarcastic keel-hauling worthy of Don Rickles.
When I got home, an ambulance blocked the driveway, which shot a pang of fear through my chest. Did my father have a heart attack? My parents often talked about having heart attacks. So often, in fact, that I sometimes thought I was having a heart attack.
I was relieved to see my parents standing on the front walk, talking to the neighbors from across the street, Joan and Tom Willever. Joan, a petite brunette, wore pedal pushers and a bare midriff blouse. She had a face that gave me the same funny feeling inside that I got when I looked at a cute ten year-old girl. Tom was tall and lanky, with a crew cut and a tattoo on his forearm. From my parents' stiff bodies and grim faces, I sensed something peculiar and deadly serious was afoot.
"That's it, right there," said Tom in a loud, commanding tone. He jabbed his index finger at the sidewalk. "That crack is pitched up almost two inches. Joan tripped on that."
My mother glared at my father, her face full of anxiety and agitation. My father's face was flushed.
“No, Tom, that's not where she fell," said my father. “She fell stepping off the front door step. I think the sun got in her eyes."
I dropped my bike on the front lawn. Blood ran from Mrs. Willever’s left knee. She had skinned it pretty severely, but I'd had worse skinned knees that my mother treated with Mercurochrome and a Band-Aid.
An ambulance? Weird.