August 19, 2014 | by Ross Kenneth Urken
Chasing down one grand slam.
It was my 3,664th day on Earth, as I later calculated, and I was in a Little League fantasy scenario in Princeton, New Jersey. Play-offs, bases loaded, up at bat against an intimidating pitcher with a gnarly high kick. For an instant, my Louisville Slugger met with the ball, the leather and rubber shape-shifting against the aluminum. A roper up the middle into deep center—I can still feel the smack off the fat of the bat. I’d hit an inside-the-park grand slam. This was my finest moment as an athlete. It’s forever seared into my brain, scored by the cacophony of yelping mothers and fathers loud enough to drive kids away from the ice-cream truck to investigate.
This year marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Little League’s existence, culminating in August’s Little League Baseball World Series in South Williamsport, Pennsylvania. Williamsport’s Carl Stotz founded the league in 1939 by rounding up his nephews and their neighborhood friends. With the added attention to Little League this year, I began considering my brief moment of glory and how many children over the decades have received such a jolt of confidence—or the opposite—on ball fields nationwide.
The league has since ballooned into an international behemoth, with more than two-hundred thousand teams in all fifty states and more than eighty countries the world over, from Uganda to Kyrgyzstan. Each year now, more than two million boys (and some girls) play ball—their teams often sponsored by local businesses and larger corporations—and get schooled in triumph and failure, sometimes life and death. (The year 1956 marked the first on-field death in Garland, Texas, when Jerry Armstrong hit the twelve-year-old Richard “Rick” Oden in the head with a pitch.)
Our own conquests may not occur in front of the forty-five thousand live fans and more than a million TV viewers the Little League World Series attracts, but they mold our characters nonetheless, before modest collections of parents and siblings. Still, I realized how little detail I actually recalled from my big day. Who was the pitcher? What was the weather like? How old was I exactly? Read More »
June 19, 2014 | by Ross Kenneth Urken
Sleep-away camp revisited.
Five miserable summers straight, I made the trek to Camp Saginaw, a.k.a. Camp Saggyballs. The cornpone setting in Oxford, Pennsylvania, was the backdrop for my induction into the myth and ritual of the camp, whose songs and traditions served mostly to perpetuate the philosophy that this was the best place on Earth. It was not—what with the mediocre campfires, the soggy waffles, the deflating banana boat on the murky lake.
Still, I attended until I had earned the only slightly coveted green Old-Timer shirt, affixed with an Indian chief insignia; until I’d scraped my knuckles raw enough times at the gaga court to develop permanent scars; and until I no longer became teary-eyed when “Total Eclipse of the Heart” played at the roller rink while the girl I crushed on slow-skated by with another boy.
Most important, I attended until, at long last, I successfully snuck to Girls’ Camp at midnight.
How many nights over multiple summers my bunkmates and I had stayed up plotting Project Angel Raid! We dressed in all black or navy blue, talking with our flashlights pointed up to the rafters, only to fall asleep in our sweatpants and hoodies. Come morning we hit our mattresses with a heavy fist—yet another failed mission …
But there was an added incentive the summer I turned twelve: I met Jill, she of the freckled cheeks and strawberry blonde hair. So what if she wore corrective glasses because she was slightly cross-eyed? She had taken a shine to me, and it was important for me to demonstrate my devotion with the type of bravado brandished only during a caper. Read More »
October 3, 2013 | by Ross Kenneth Urken
Down among the counties that help earn New Jersey its Garden State moniker, there lies the hamlet of New Egypt. Within it is the sixty-acre blueberry patch my grandparents used to own. Drive down I-95 through Newark toward the shore to see the world flash from soot gray to Granny Smith green as you are surrounded by towering cornstalks.
Four years ago, my wife, Tiffan, and I made the pilgrimage to Jersey from Manhattan in lieu of our usual fall foliage trip (long story short: I had seen a movie that dissed soi-disant leafers and felt suitably shamed). Plus, I had heard that from back-to-school time through Thanksgiving, Emery’s Farm offered seasonal activities—pumpkin picking, hay rides. Tiffan is from Oklahoma, and I seize any opportunity to conjure country trappings.
But I did have some legitimate claim. This farm, after all, was whither the brand name “Ross da Boss Blueberries” sprang, emblazoned on the cellophane securing the fruit in its green cardboard cartons. When my grandfather, Danny Passoff, retired from running a successful tomato business, he bought the blueberry farm as a pet project with my grandmother, and during summers, my sister and I would work on the farm.
Standing there on that fall day, I told Tiffan about those summers on the farm, about picking the choicest berries and dropping them into my pail—an old coffee canister—with tinny thuds. In the onomatopoeic language of Robert McCloskey’s classic children’s book Blueberries for Sal, this is described as “ku-plink, ku-plank, ku-plunk.” By July, the bushes are heavy with the luscious blue fatties, their puckered sepals folded back, mushy marbles that squish deliciously between the teeth. In my memory, that time in my life is, like Sal’s, rendered in the book’s distinctive navy-and-raincoat-yellow palette.
In McCloskey’s book, a childhood favorite, little Sal goes with her mother to Blueberry Hill, only to get lost and temporarily switch mothers with a bear cub. Sal’s mother finds her wandering child by recognizing the cacophony of the berries—“ku-plink, ku-plank, ku-plunk”—she throws into her bucket. Read More »
February 14, 2013 | by Ross Kenneth Urken
Three Fourth of July weekends ago, on a crowded Hampton Jitney, beach bag strategically placed so no one could take the seat next to me, I watched a flustered blonde board and sit down directly across the aisle. Think Marilyn Monroe gone boho in the East End swelter. The LIRR had broken down, and she had spent several frustrating hours in the humidity of Westhampton waiting for a train that wouldn’t be fixed.
By contrast, I was cool and composed, having spent the day at a painter friend’s vernissage. At the time, I was a lowly twenty-three-year-old magazine intern and had met the artist while covering an event. Now I was craving some solitude. Slouched and brooding, knees tucked up into the seat before me, I closed myself off. Coupled with my tote-bag force field, I hoped my general vibe said, “No conversation please.”
As she threw down the bag slung over her shoulder, I saw she was clutching a faded pink hardcover, a book of collected poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay. I caught her looking at me—a glance I interpreted as one of contempt. People who take up two seats... But when she had settled in and we began to furtively study each other through the half-light, I realized my misappraisal: she was more curious than anything. We tested the limits of our peripheral vision like elementary school pupils.
The captivity of a bus—coupled with the urgency of a short trip—blends with the spontaneity of bus reservations (compared, say, to planes booked in advance) to make chance encounters inevitable and last minute shifts in fate possible. Millay’s poem “Travel,” in retrospect, seems freakily appropriate for the cancelled LIRR and the day’s noisy disruption: “The railroad track is miles away, / And the day is loud with voices speaking, / Yet there isn’t a train goes by all day / But I hear its whistle shrieking.”
She would later tell me she was struck by how relaxed I appeared when she, by contrast, had undergone such an ordeal. How composed my body language, how casual my unbuttoned shirt (truth be told, what she interpreted as Zen was really just exhaustion).
I decided to say hello first, and we started to talk; the memory of the exact exchange is hazy, imbued as the moment was with the fluttering nerves and saccharine rush of a first encounter your subconscious recognizes as significant before you truly do.
She was an actress who nannied in the Hamptons between roles. Judging by my madras shorts and boat shoes, she assumed I was some kind of pool boy. Not quite, but I was probably one of the few on our bus without a family home somewhere between Quogue and Montauk. We playfully guessed each other’s names.
“Vanessa?” I said. (What, does he think I’m some kind of bitch?)
“Joshua?” she tried. (Is it that obvious I’m Jewish?) Read More »
September 10, 2012 | by Ross Kenneth Urken
At its best, my slice backhand follows the flamboyant path of a violin virtuoso’s bow striking the climactic note of a concerto—from above my right shoulder plucked diagonally down to my left shoestring. The ball’s tone is a hollow pok on hard courts and a chalky chh-chh on clay that dies on the second bounce. All these dramatics—mere vestiges of a time when I wanted to impress Angela, my middle school crush.
Angela played number one singles on the undefeated coed spring team at our private school in Princeton, New Jersey. Her long Italian American locks springing along with her high jumping-forehand, her second serve ball tucked in the spandex beneath her pristine tennis skirt—she was a vision of beauty to watch. Her movement around the court traced the Etch A Sketch path of someone fully in control of the game’s portrait.
In Lolita, Humbert Humbert describes how Dolores Haze plays singles at least twice a week with a classmate, Linda Hall, employing teasing tactics against her and “toying with [her] (and being beaten by her).” The particular beauty of Dolores's tennis game is, for Humbert, a prerequisite for an amenable afterlife, or so he whimsically hyperbolizes one crisp afternoon as Dolores plays in Colorado: “No hereafter is acceptable if it does not produce her as she was then, in that Colorado resort between Snow and Elphinstone, with everything right …”