A Change of Heart

20 Aug

            Every town has its legendary characters, and my hometown is no exception. "Mike the Janitor" comes to mind, and so does "Charlie Monument," but this is a story about a local legend who lived on my block.

             As I drove down the street I lived on as a kid the other day, I passed a group of boys playing soccer out in the road. The ball they were using wasn't regulation size, but that didn't seem to bother them. It never bothered us, either, and whenever we had enough kids to form two teams, we played in the street too. Some things haven't changed much.

            On summer days back in the 50's, there could be as many as 8-10 kids playing in front of our house. Mostly, we played stickball, or two-hand touch, or some form of street hockey, using a crushed can for a puck. My favorite was tossing a PeeWee. A PeeWee is a small football, about one-forth the size of a real one, and if you could throw a spiral, you could toss it from one telephone pole to another with no effort at all. It was also great for making spectacular one-handed catches, and was easy to hide when you wanted to fake out your opponent. I don't know if they still make PeeWees, or not, but I haven't seen one now for a long time.

            Back then, we had simple, descriptive names for everything. When we mentioned "the sandpit," or "the second river," or "the woods," everyone knew what we were talking about. The names were self-explanatory in much the same way that all of us in New Jersey understand what people mean when they talk about going to "The City."

            It's important to know that, in order to understand why playing ball in the street in my day could be a problem. Two doors down from where I lived, our neighbor, “Bill Call-the-Cops,” was watching every move we made.

            Bill was an unusual person. He was married to a woman who at one time had been his sister-in-law, but not understanding what an in-law was, we thought she was his real sister. Since none of us could imagine growing up and marrying our sisters, that alone made him suspect. On top of that, he was the oldest person on the block, as far as we could tell, and walked everywhere, with his head and shoulders stooped forward, and his eyes intensely focused on everything around him. Although I can look back now and picture a frail old man, his appearance was menacing to me back then. Maybe it had something to do with his voice, which was deep and gravely, or the way he looked at us, but I had the impression that he didn't like kids. I think I know why.

            Bill had an immaculate lawn, which he cared for night and day, and whenever a ball rolled up on the grass, or under his shrubs, it was a major catastrophe. At first, one of us would simply go over and get the ball, but after repeated episodes of running across his lawn, it became clear that Bill wasn't going to stand for that. He gave us plenty of warning about what he would do, but we didn’t think he was serious until the police cars started showing up.

            George Bullis, or Officer Diamond, or maybe Henny Betton--all legends in their own time--would call us over to the window of the patrol car.

            "Hey kids, stay off his lawn, will you?"

            "Yes, sir."

            From that point on, no one dared to retrieve a ball from Bill's lawn, no matter how much we wanted to. It could be a brand new hardball, an old Spaulding, or a yellow PeeWee. It didn't matter. We just left it there.

            This happened often enough to earn him the nickname, "Bill Call-the-Cops," but one day, when we were playing in the street close to his house, he came out of the side door carrying a cardboard box. It was a typical summer day, warm and sunny, and we probably expected him to fill the box with weeds, or grass clippings, which he did frequently, but instead, he walked to the curb and turned the box upside down. More than a dozen balls of every size and shape spilled out into the street. We stood there with our mouths open, unable to comprehend what we were seeing.

            "There, have fun,” he growled, and walked back into the house.

            No one ever knew what caused that change of heart, and maybe we were too young to give it much thought, but it changed us too. We never looked at him in the same way again, and when I got the news that Bill had passed away, I thought back to the last time I had seen him. I had come home to spend a summer with my parents sometime in the late 60's, right after Viet Nam, and Bill was the first to welcome me back. He seemed genuinely glad to see me, and whenever I was outside, and he walked up the street, he would stop to say hello. We never talked about the old days, or the time he emptied the cardboard box, but when we shook hands and said goodbye for the last time, I had the feeling he missed them as much as I did.

            There's a new generation of kids out in the street playing ball now, and no one seems to care whether or not it lands on their lawn. Maybe if Bill was still with us, he wouldn't care either.

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