The next morning began a period that still lives in my fondest memories. Jake and I and the other volunteers for the summer project gathered in one of the Sunday School rooms in the back of Grannah's church to start our tutoring project. Grannah had walked there with us in the morning sun to show us how to get to the church, then had slipped off to talk to the pastor. She made that visit every day, we discovered, usually with a plate of cookies. Apparently, quite a few people brought snacks for the pastor.
There were five of us who had volunteered to tutor kids for the summer—three women, Jake and myself. Kathy Short and Mary Lynn Kopenski were English majors from the same college in New England, going into their senior year there. They actually looked almost like sisters, with brunette hair falling to their shoulders and bright blue eyes. Lorraine Davis had come from Ohio, having, like me, just graduated from college. She was going onto graduate school in engineering. She was short and perky, with dark curly hair and deep-brown eyes. We all hit it off immediately, and I knew we were going to be a good crew for the summer.
We met the A.M.E. minister, who was officially in charge of us volunteers, and two mothers who seemed pleased about the summer project. However, it was fairly obvious early on that, like with many volunteer projects, there was little organization and less money. Somebody had had a concept, but no one had any idea of how it should be implemented and what should be taught. Of course, there were no books and no permanent facilities. We sat around for an hour talking about our project but essentially going nowhere.
After that hour, my patience was getting short. Maybe it was my gender that caused my irritation. Maybe it was because I was a business major. Maybe it was a low tolerance for touchy-feely meetings, which was what it seemed we were doing. Maybe it was sheer exasperation. "Okay! Time out! It looks as if we're going to need to figure out everything ourselves today or we're going to sit around all summer like this—in endless meetings." I looked around. Lorraine looked relieved, but as I looked into everybody else's faces, there seemed to be some measure of relief in them as well. I said more softly: "Is it okay if we spend a while deciding what we want to accomplish and match it with what is possible?" My business-plan training was coming to the fore. I looked at my colleagues, the pastor and the parents.
There were nods of agreement. I continued. "Let's get this organized then. First, what do we want the kids to learn? Second, what's possible? We need to ask what facilities and books we have or can scrounge up, then decide what skills and training we can bring to bear. Third, how do we merge what we want them to learn with what is possible?"
"That sounds like a plan," Jake said.
`'Okay, let's get the ideas out."
I went to the blackboard of the Sunday School room and wrote down our ideas. We spent the next two hours working with the local people to see what the kids needed most, assessed what facilities we had at the various churches and at the local library, which had volunteered to help. Then we identified our own strengths as potential teachers. Finally, we established a schedule—with basics to be taught in the mornings and arts, crafts and other activities in the afternoons.
We would have three of us teaching the three Rs from 9 in the morning until noon, with the remaining two of us available to be tutors, to make sure every kid had the opportunity to keep pace. In the afternoons, we would alternate for the two-hour arts and enrichment classes, except we were informed by the pastor that we would have to fit our schedule in with that of the youth-baseball team that occasionally needed to depart for games in other parts of the county. All of us seemed happy with the arrangement, and the meeting had given us a good chance to get acquainted socially and professionally. We would start the next Monday. The parents and minister were in charge of recruitment.
The following Monday, nearly 40 boisterous kids packed into the church building, with a number of mothers standing on the sides of the room, seemingly all with arms crossed, eager but maybe anxious about what was going on. We spent a few hours sizing up the kids and finally got them distributed into three sections for our three morning teachers. We started the next day and continued through the week. The mothers drifted off as the week progressed and as they grew comfortable with what we were doing with their children.
It was Jake who announced at the end of the first week that he would direct a play and that we all would contribute with set building and stage design, which would set the curriculum for the arts class. No `would-you-all-be-willing-to-help-out?' Just an assumption that we would contribute and that we would be happy about it. And, he was right. After volunteering to lug his suitcase that first day, I was not surprised that nobody objected to his assignment of tasks. It was his way.
"Now, who wants to be stage manager?" Jake asked, looking directly at me as we five sat around one day after class. I tried to avert my eyes, to no avail. There was no hiding from what I was to learn was a master-of-wile's con job, so I became stage manager, which meant, in that case, that I had to make sure everything worked on time and as scheduled. The trouble was, I felt happy to do the job for him.
As part of my job, I had to scour the neighborhood for materials and donations of paint, furniture, barrels and whatever and slowly accumulate them in the already overfull church storeroom, much to the consternation, I suppose, of the church elders.
Jake found out which kids wanted to be in a play, sized them up by giving them poetry to read—most of Jake's heavy books were poetry—then wrote a play to fit the cast. He told me it was easier to write the play himself rather than to find a cast to fit an existing play. I edited what he wrote.
We spent long hours together reading lines to each other to get the vocabulary and dialect true. At night in our double bed for the summer, the lights out, we would talk long into the early hours of the morning, sometimes about what Jake wanted his characters to say in the play and how they would say it.
The play was about coming of age in an era in which official discrimination was ending but de facto discrimination still existed. The kids in the play had to come to terms with each other at the same time as they were coming to terms with a hostile world outside that had just lost its right to maintain segregation. It was done with poetry and humor. It was really good. At least, I thought so.
By midsummer, we were in major rehearsals. We were spending most afternoons and evenings in the church auditorium polishing the parts. The kids worked hard and learned a great deal about the theater, as did I. Jake charmed, pushed and prodded them to give the parts their all. He gave them a chance to improvise their own routines, particularly in the comic parts, stopping only to give helpful suggestions. Jake was intensely wrapped up in the play for a full month. As a consequence, I was, too.
The play was a triumph. So many people came the first night that we had to turn them away at the door and schedule an extra performance—to the delight of the cast. And we had to reschedule the cast party.
Grannah had made cookies, cakes and punch for the original cast party, so she left them for nibbles after the first performance. She went back to her kitchen to make more for the real party after the second performance.
The second performance went almost as well as the first—just a few missed lines, and the kids beamed at the audience ovation. It took them several hours to calm down from the rush of the play, even with a lively and noisy cast party.
It was late when we got home from the celebration. Grannah had left the church auditorium earlier and had gone to bed. Jake and I were sitting on the porch enjoying a beer that we had picked up at the local bar and were listening to the crickets. Jake was still keyed up from the tension of the last month. I was starting to yawn.
"I'm going to bed, Sawyer," I said. "If you come in soon, I'll give you a massage. It'll calm you down." I grinned at him. Of course, I didn't know if I could stay awake long enough even to give him a massage.
I trundled off to the bedroom, stripped down to my boxers and climbed into bed. Outside it had started to cool off, but the cool air had only made a slight dent in the inside temperature. It didn't matter. I was not going to last very long awake. A few minutes later, Jake came in to collect his massage, stripped down to his boxers and climbed onto the left side of the bed. He lay on his stomach with his hands laced under his chin. I rolled over, rose and straddled his butt and started to rub the tension out of his body.
"Mmm," he said. "I really appreciate this, Robbie."
I could feel an immediate loosening of the muscles of his neck, shoulders and back as I alternated between heavy and light touches. Five minutes later, he turned his head and blew me a kiss to mark his gratitude. I continued the massage.
It didn't take long before I noticed two things: First, Jake was sound asleep. Second, I had an erection. I carefully climbed off of Jake so as not to wake him—though I don't think anything would wake him the way he was sleeping. In fact, I didn't even bother to go off to the bathroom to get rid of my problem. It took just a few strokes and a soft tug on my testicles and I was feeling the approaching orgasm. A few more strokes and I was in sensation heaven, spurting all over my stomach and chest. I used my undershirt to clean myself up.
I dreamed that night that the kiss Jake blew me had become a butterfly swirling in a dust devil, circling my head, approaching first my left cheek, then my right cheek before finally landing on my lips. I dreamed of Jake's lips against mine, his tongue dancing with mine before tracing the outline of my lips and us ending up with our mouths coming together in a delicate kiss. The dream was disturbing and erotic at the same time. I woke with another erection. It was dark. Jake was still asleep, so I quietly masturbated in bed, using my undershirt to clean myself up again.
"How public," Jake mumbled into his pillow, snickering, "like a frog." I'm sure I turned beet red, but fortunately it was still dark in the room. I had thought he was asleep.
"Voyeur!" I said, defensively. "And, you stole the line from Emily Dickinson."
"Didn't `voy' a thing." Jake snickered into his pillow. "Probably nothing much to `voy,' anyway."
I smacked his butt. "If I give you a point, will you stop embarrassing me?" More snickers and a muffled "okay" and a finger reaching up to mark off a point on the air ledger. It was worth the price.
Jake was irrepressible, and it was not just into the arts. He had also "joined" the Babe Ruth baseball team as assistant manager at the same time he was directing his play. Somehow, that meant the rest of us tutors "volunteered" to join the team as coaches and assistants. The team consisted mainly of happy-go-lucky, 12- and 13-year old boys from the neighborhood around Grannah's, including a number that were in our tutoring program. The field they practiced on was little more than a dirt patch with homemade bases and no outfield fence.
The manager of the team was working two jobs, so he was grateful that Jake was able to take the kids in the afternoon after our school and to run them through practices. We "volunteers" were there to help out—me to work with the pitchers, Mary Lynn to work on fielding and the others to take statistics, keep score and referee for practices and home games. Mary Lynn had played fast-pitch softball at college and knew something about the game of baseball.
It didn't take many of Jake's practices before the team showed significant improvement. Two weeks after Jake started with the team and a couple of nights after our play had finished, the coach got transferred to another city in a job promotion, so Jake offered to take over as coach and manager for the final few weeks of the season.
Jake had volunteered me to coach pitching because I had pitched in Babe Ruth league in high school and a year in college before my arm went out. The team's pitching was really weak. We were desperate for good arms. Jake and I discussed it, and we decided we had to do something to revamp the pitching. So one day I asked all the boys to pair up and pitch to each other so we could evaluate them. They all chose their friends, leaving one slightly chubby, taller boy unpaired—the boy I didn't really know because he hadn't played too much all season, except the minimum number of innings required by league rules. As the others started to warm up, I saw him standing in the background with a sad but determined look on his face.
I went up to him, a boy whose name I finally remembered was Arturo, and offered to catch for him. I will never forget the shy smile that lit his face and the sparkle in his dark eyes as he finally was able to show what he could do. He walked 60 feet from me as I scratched out a home plate in the dirt. I crouched down, and he started to throw. After five throws, I realized we had our pitcher. His mechanics were so good that they would take very little work. He could locate the ball, and he could throw with velocity. Being chubby, he was slow for a field position; unfortunately, he had never been asked to try out for anything else, like pitching. Despite being spurned, he had kept at the game, playing only limited time, and, I later found out, he had practiced pitching at home against the garage wall. He had been totally overlooked, probably for years, because nobody would take the time to play with him and sadly, perhaps, because his mother was Cuban. [Years later, Arturo pitched in the American League for part of a season, and I was able to say hello at a Mariner game—a game which the Mariners lost, as usual.]
Besides Arturo, we chose the best prospects from the group of other boys, one of whom had not pitched before and two who were original pitchers for the team. Jake and I decided we would teach them how to throw fast balls and change-ups only so as not to put too much stress on their developing bone structure. The fast balls and change-ups needed to look alike from home plate, so that the batter would react to the change-up with a quick, fast-ball swing and react to a fastball too late. The boys learned fast.
Jake worked alternately with the infielders and outfielders, batting flies and ground balls, teaching them how to position their bodies to make plays. Mary Lynn, Kathy and Lorraine were "volunteered" to work with the remaining kids, hitting grounders, playing catch and fixing equipment.
Jake was a natural manager and coach. Most of all, he ensured that we the coaches and the boys all had fun—rigorous fun, but fun nonetheless. He was at his best when drilling the boys on how to do a rundown. He would play the part of a base runner stuck in the rundown and the boys would try to tag him as he tried to scramble either to the next base or to the one he had just left—all the while staying in the base path. It was always a show. He was wily. He would start on his feet, then fall to his hands and knees in a flash. He would dodge and weave, crawl crabwise on all fours, roll over quickly, run in one direction then in the other, always laughing—cackling, really—at his own antics, twisting his lithe body to avoid the tag as the players closed in on him. When we first started the drills, he managed somehow almost always to elude the tag and get to the next base, but as the drills continued, the boys got better and more disciplined until it required a throwing error or a dropped ball for him to get to a safe base.
What was amazing as the days wore on was the entourage of boys who clung to him wherever he went, putting their hands and arms on his shoulders and back. He was a pied piper for them. All notion of skin color was ignored, maybe forgotten. Jake was sunshine. The boys radiated smiles.
When it was warm, Jake would strip off his shirt, exposing his lithe body to the sun, his abdominal muscles rippling with strength, his body slowly turning a bronze color as the summer went on. The locks of hair around the edges of his baseball cap turned into the strawberry blond that I thought they would. In the evenings, the setting sun would make him appear absolutely golden.
The hard work of training paid off for the boys. Each week, the team got better, and they began winning a game or two. After a month, the effort really began to result in consistent win after win, though, given the early season losses, those wins were not likely to get them into the playoffs.
With playoffs out, Jake's eye was on something else. One Thursday, "we" decided to visit the Episcopal priest literally across the tracks in the richer part of town—‘we’ meaning I had the car and he had the idea and richer meaning money and not necessarily character. Jake was trying to arrange a first-ever baseball game between the best of the rich kids and our team; now, we thought of ourselves as the best of the poor kids. The Episcopalian priest from across town had agreed to help him set up what Jake called The Big Game.
The Big Game was scheduled for the Saturday of the following week on the rich side of town. Jake and I drove over one evening to scout the opponents, playing on what turned out to be their beautiful, well-tended field—such a contrast to our dirt patch. We went so that we could survey the lie of the land and the quality of our opponents. We discovered that the other team was very well coached, with good athletes, and that they liked to steal bases. They said they were playing us because they wanted us as a warmup before their post-season play. We expected a really tough contest. Looking at our 10-18 record, they apparently expected a lopsided win and a chance for all their players to get to play.
On the day of the game we formed a car pool for all the boys. The parents who were not driving members of the team and the rest of the spectators followed, forming a parade of mainly old cars moving from the unpaved streets of the poor part of town to the beautiful tree-lined streets where our opponents lived. Jake and I had invited Grannah to go and to sit behind the bench, and she was overjoyed to accept. She appeared on the porch in a Dodgers cap jauntily sitting on her head and a Number 41 shirt, looking more like a 30-year-old than a 70- to 80-year-old that she was. She was excited about the game.
The parade of our cars pulled into the parking lot across town an hour and a half before the game. Jake and I assembled all the boys as they got out of their cars. They looked smart in freshly pressed uniforms as they carried their mitts in hand, and some had their favorite bats as well. Grannah walked by each of the boys, inspecting them, fiddling with their uniforms, making sure the shirttails were tucked in.
A large number of people had already arrived, and they were milling at the entrance to the ball park. Unfortunately, the team had to walk through the middle of the gathered people to get into into the field. The situation looked to me a bit unnerving. I looked at the boys and the bats they were holding and made a decision. "Okay, boys, I want all of you to put your bats in my bag. I'll give them to you as soon as we get into the park." Jake looked at me questioningly. I nodded my head almost imperceptibly toward the ball-park entrance. He looked where I nodded, and his lips formed an O.
Jake walked over to the boys. "Gather round," he said. The team gathered around him. "Don't look all at once, but a few too many people seem to be standing over by the entrance to the field." Of course, all the boys took a glance at once, turning their heads like spectators at a tennis match. They were 12 and 13 after all, but they did keep their glances brief. "Here's what we're going to do. I'm going to lead us in. You boys will follow—in single file, but close to one another. Okay?" They nodded their heads. "Mary Lynn, Kathy and Lorraine are going to spread out and walk alongside. And Rob can bring up the rear—with the bats. We're not going to have any problem." I knew Jake's speech was an act, but he did it so well that I'm sure no one else noticed.
Suddenly, from behind the boys a voice came: "I'm going to walk with you at the front, Jake." It was Grannah. Jake started to object, but her tone of voice left no room for argument. "And I don't want none of you boys to do anything, no matter what." She looked at each of the boys one at a time. Some nodded their agreement; a few were simply cowed by this short, determined woman.
The team and the coaches lined up in the order Jake had outlined. We moved toward the entrance, Grannah linking her arm to Jake's, a parade of underprivileged kids led by a 70-year-old grandmother type and a 20-year-old white man walking into a privileged world's beautiful ballpark. The crowd parted like a silent Red Sea as we walked to the visitor dugout.
The game was an anticlimax. Arturo was absolutely dominant as a pitcher. In the early innings, we easily picked off two of their base runners between first and second in perfectly executed rundowns. After the first pickoff, I looked over at Jake and gave him a thumbs up with a grin. After the second one, the base-stealing attempts ceased. Besides, there were few base runners able to try a steal. We won 10-1 and got a deserved ovation from the crowd after the last batter struck out. The boys looked with wonder and amazement at the applauding crowd of white-faced people.
I learned later that our team was the last all-black team—counting Arturo as black—and theirs was the last all-white team in the city. In the next season, the black boys got drafted into the previously all-white leagues. Jake would have gotten a point from me for that satisfying result, but he had disappeared from my life by then.
By this time in the summer, I had decided that Jake was one of the most remarkable people I had ever met. He could lead anyone—child or adult—into doing virtually anything well, whether they started off willing or not. And he did it by relating to them at the child and adult level at the same time. He had the uncanny ability to make whomever he was talking to seem like the only person in the world for those moments. All the while with an incredible charisma. His eyes were always bright, always bordering on the mischievous and unpredictable and beyond, and his smile was radiant. He was a child and a man at the same time. He was impossible not to like, even by the most bigoted people imaginable.For me, ultimately, he was impossible not to love.
Copyright © 2003, 2016. Comments will be welcomed at email@example.com