Dad rented an old ramshackle hacienda in Los Altos Hills – 25 acres with live oaks, grape arbors, apricot trees, wild oats, and an old mare named Babe who we could ride bareback if we kept her shod and watered. That is, we could ride Babe bareback – if Babe felt like it. She had her own particularity and when you approached with a bridle she’d either welcome it or step away. An apple helped, but she was older and would have her way. Sometimes I’d just watch her when filling the old bathtub trough with water. Very self-sufficient, she’d groomed a small hedge near the gate. When needed, she would sidestep over the branches and sway her torso back and forth – scratching the itch. Her big brown eyes, too, told the story – and sometimes it was enough to just hug her neck and move on.
Dad came to my little league games on a dirt field down the road. He would sit in the stands for the full game even though I only played the obligatory last two innings in right field. I was terrible.
When I asked him for help learning to hit the baseball, he pulled out an ancient, worn Goose Goslin autograph model glove from his own boyhood that I had never seen before. Then, as if to cement a commitment, we headed out to find the tools we would need for the task.
We took the Plymouth down to Spiro’s Sports in the Palo Alto Shopping Center, and not only did Dad buy me a brand new glove, but he grabbed a bat named Black Beauty (right on the barrel), as well. No one had ever even heard of batter’s helmets. Any other protective gear was for its time, of course, optional. For good measure, he picked up a field knife in a leather sheath for the long walks we took in the surrounding woods. When we got home, he asked about my old woodburning kit and sat right there at the kitchen table smoking J B S into the leather knife case and then lovingly, on the thick thumb of the new glove: “Jim Stockdale – Los Altos Hills Giants”.
I took my stance adjacent the wall we used as a backstop and pulled on the brim of my cap, trying my best to look the part. He had a challenge as he set me up in the batter’s box – a dyslexic left hander with no natural ability – and what seemed like less experience. Dad began to throw pitches over the tin piepan home plate. I hit a few and told him the big guys on the other teams threw it harder. Sure enough – after few went by, a tailing fastball came up as I was leaning in and slapped me in the temple.
I saw stars and started to slump. The last thing I recalled as things started to fade away was Dad in a dead sprint toward me. Maybe I was out for a few seconds but when consciousness returned, he had caught me going down in his cross-legged lap and as I flailed he was rubbing dry, cool red dirt on my forehead. He drew me close, rocking me back and forth in his arms on that hot sunny day even after he knew I was o.k.
…in a moment that I wished could last forever*
* I will never forget how that felt. It stuck with me – and a decade later while languishing in college I recalled the scene. During one particularly low weekend, “Safe at Home” arrived in poetic form.
When the next season opened and Candlestick was bare to the breezes of the bay, he came to my school, signed me out, and we rode up the peninsula in the Plymouth. I had come to the school office when called and our principal, Mr. Addicott, was there to make disapproving noises about leaving school. I mentioned it to Dad as we rolled along and he said, “Well, he has his job to do – and I have mine.” He smiled, looked over at me knowingly, and we spent the afternoon in the sun eating peanuts and laughing as the managers argued about the foul line and the blustering wind.
During those two years, he took me to Stanford Stadium to see international track meets … in one afternoon I saw a Marine named Don Bragg set a new world pole vault record of 15’9¾”. I saw Russian Valerie Brumel hug American John Thomas after winning the high jump, setting a new world record of 7’2”. I was spellbound. As the sun was starting to go down, Dad and I were almost alone in the 7th row watching Wilma Rudolph anchor the women’s 4 x 100 meter relay. I learned more about resiliency, form, grace, and poetry of motion in that one day than I might have learned in a semester of instruction.
Dad taught me to drive by letting me sit on his lap and steer – watching as he explained shifting gears. I was an attentive student at the age of eleven – but even I was shocked when one night he and Mom were going out and while putting on a tie he tossed me the keys and said, “Back up the car for us, will ya.” Out I went, alone with the car this time, stretched out my leg and feathered that clumsy clutch to the point where I had the car perfectly positioned, idling, and waiting with the passenger door open for Mom.
While moving around so much you can’t really forge friendships with other kids. Sooner or later you realize your best friend is right there with you, (when he can be) all along.
And when he’s been around and you know he will go back on the line soon, you remember and cherish these moments. These things you don’t forget.
When walking with him, he could scan the horizon, his mouth would crack into a cockeyed half-smile, his eyes would literally sparkle and he would let a remark fly that hovered somewhere in between irreverence and affection. His dry, droll style could strip the anxious formality out of any room in a heartbeat and let you know, “It’s just you and me here.”
By the end of the sixth grade, we were again on the move. Bidding farewell to the hacienda was, in many ways, an end of innocence. The insular aspects of living down the dirt driveway off Natoma Road had kept the fray at bay. But we were to find our way back to where the dangers were real and the world was too much with us.
The small furniture van took our belongings – and we headed down the King’s Highway to San Diego where the jets were hangared at Miramar and the carriers were docked at North Island.
My brother Stan and I rode with Dad – in the Plymouth.