At school my friends and I ate lunch quickly and raced out to the baseball diamond to choose up teams for softball. As usual, Ronnie Shaw and Eric Flom were the captains because they were the best athletes. Why Can’t You Be Like Johnny? got picked because everyone liked him and he was fast and a smart base runner. Puddin’ Belly Wright got picked because he always swung as hard as he could, and when he connected it was usually a home run.
Soon both teams had nine players. The five of us who were left would watch the game from the portable aluminum bleachers behind the backstop. Or we could throw a ball back and forth, glancing hopefully at Ronnie and Eric, praying they’d pick us if one of the other players had to leave for any reason. Sometimes, if the score got really lopsided, we were brought in to play in the last inning, as if the team captains had taken pity and wanted to encourage us to keep showing up in case the day came when there weren’t enough players and they needed more.
The game began and Freak O’ Nature and I sat together on the bleachers. It bothered me that Ronnie was probably my best friend and we played fungo all the time on our street, yet the only times he picked me for his team at school was when there were no other players to choose from. Not being picked never seemed to bother Freak O’ Nature. He was happy to throw the ball back and forth or sit in the bleacher kneading the pocket of his mitt, as if creating the perfect pocket was the ultimate goal, not playing in the game.
I sat glumly and watched. When Ronnie’s team came off the field to bat, he sat down next to me. “See the other game?” he said in a low voice, nodding toward the baseball diamond across from ours where the fifth graders played. “Looks like they’re a couple of kids short.”
I went cold inside. Was my best friend really suggesting that I play with the fifth graders? Could life hold a more humiliating disgrace?
“It’s like getting sent down to the minors,” Ronnie said that afternoon after school while we played fungo in the street in front of Freak O’ Nature’s house. “It happens to everyone.”
I was at first base (the storm drain). Why Can’t You Be Like Johnny was at second (chalked in on the asphalt). Freak O’ Nature was in right field (his front yard). Puddin’ Belly Wright was playing left field (Old Lady Lester’s front yard).
Ronnie was at bat. There was no pitcher or catcher in fungo. You bounced the pink rubber ball on the street and swung. It was nothing like the "serious" baseball games at school where full teams played on a real baseball diamond.
“Has anyone ever told you what a jerk you are?” I asked from first.
“Let me see.” Ronnie pretended to think about it. “Actually, no.”
“Well then, allow me. You’re a jerk.”
“At least you’ll get to play,” he said.
“Would you play with the fifth graders?”
“But I don’t have to.”
“Okay, suit yourself.” Ronnie bounced the ball and swung. Thwack! It sailed over Puddin’ Belly’s head into deep left (Old Lady Lester’s rose garden).
A few days later at lunch Freak O’ Nature started playing baseball with the fifth graders. That wasn’t so bad, because everyone knew Freak O’Nature was, well, a freak of nature. But when Dickie Keller also went over to play with the fifth graders, it was different. Dickie was a regular, everyday kid like me.
Ronnie came by the bleachers. “Pretty soon there won’t be any room in the fifth grade game either,” he said.
“Suit yourself.” He left.
That night I went out to the garage where Dad was doing bench presses with his barbells. He grit his teeth and his face turned red and the tendons in his neck stuck out.
“What’s up?” he asked.
“I never get picked to play baseball at lunch. Some of the guys have started playing with the fifth graders. Ronnie says I should, too.”
This wasn’t the first time I’d talked to him about sports. In the past Dad had said I should focus on tennis because none of us were going to grow up to become professional baseball players (although I thought Ronnie was a good enough natural athlete to have a shot) but tennis was a sport you could play your whole life. Ronnie and Why Can’t You Be Like Johnny? played tennis once in a while, but didn’t take it seriously (and even then Ronnie could usually beat me).
“What’s so bad about playing with the fifth graders?” Dad asked that night.
“It’s like being left back.”
“Not everyone’s cut out to be a baseball player.”
I couldn’t bring myself to say what I was feeling -- that I felt like I wasn’t cut out to be anything. I wasn’t a great athlete like Ronnie. I wasn’t as strong as Puddin’ Belly. Nor as smart or charming as Why Can’t You Be Like Johnny? Not even as weirdly uncaring as Freak O’ Nature. Plus, there was something all of them had that I still didn’t have – hair under my arms. Their armpit hair ranged from Why Can’t You Be Like Johnny?’s few sprouts, to Ronnie, who not only had a small forest of underarm hair, but had recently begun shaving his upper lip as well.
I didn’t bring hair up with Dad because I’d already talked about it with Dr. Harwich when I went for my annual checkup and the dreaded booster shot. Dr. Harwich took my pulse, frowned, and asked if I’d been running around in the waiting room. I said no and he nodded and said he thought he understood and maybe I ought to roll up my sleeve. That’s when I asked about getting hair under my arms and he said it would happen when I started puberty. Then I told him that most of my friends already had some underarm hair and he said that everybody entered puberty at different times, but that it always happened sooner or later. Then I asked how much later was later and he said that I’d almost certainly be entering puberty by the time I was fourteen. Then I asked if there was ever a case where a kid missed puberty completely and Dr. Harwich said no and would I please just roll up my sleeve?
“You do pushups and sit ups in school?” Dad asked in the garage.
“Sometimes.” We did them twice a week in gym. Usually, after about four pushups my back began to sag like an old horse’s, and always by the tenth my trembling arms gave out. Strangely, I could do a lot of sit ups, but nobody seemed to care about that. The guys might talk about how many pushups and pull ups they could do, but never about how many sit ups.
“Ever use that chin up bar?” Dad asked. He’d put a bar in the door frame of my room and every once in a while I’d try it. On a really good day I might be able to do three or four chin ups and maybe two or three pulls ups.
“You need to exercise at least four times a week to see any results,” Dad said. By results he meant stronger arms and bigger muscles, but every time I tried to exercise I felt different results -- aching arms and sore muscles.
The next night Dad came home with a brown paper shopping bag. Unlike Mom’s shopping bags, which usually contained boring women’s clothes, or house wares, Dad’s purchases were usually interesting. My little brother Sparky and I watched while he took out some oranges and a metal contraption with a long handle. He sliced one of the oranges in half, then put a glass under the contraption and placed the orange half on a metal cone with holes in it. He pulled the metal handle down and we heard a squishy sound. Orange juice splashed into the glass. Soon there was about half an inch of juice in the bottom of the glass. Dad put the other half of the orange on the cone. “You try it, Scott.”
I reached for the handle, which was about eye-level, and pulled down. A few drops of orange juice began to drip from the bottom of the cone.
“That’s it,” Dad said. “Just pull harder.”
I pulled harder. A little more orange juice came out.
“More,” Dad said.
Gripping the handle with both hands, I pulled down as hard as I could, and got more juice.
“Go on,” Dad said encouragingly.
It was a struggle, but I finally got to the point where no more juice came out. Now about an inch of orange juice lay in the glass.
“Take a sip,” Dad said.
The only orange drinks I’d ever had were Orange Crush soda, Tang, the bug juice they served at camp, and the frozen stuff Mom added water to in a pitcher. The real thing was sharp, tangy, and delicious.
I handed the glass to Sparky, who took a sip and made a face. “It’s sour.”
“You’ll get used to it,” Dad said.
Sparky pointed at the squeezer. “Can I try?”
Dad pulled over a chair for him to stand on and cut another orange in half. Sparky pulled down on the handle with both hands. Red-faced and straining, he grunted, “It’s hard!” as if surprised. A moment later he gave up and hopped down from the chair.
“You’ll have to finish the job, Scott,” Dad said.
I pulled down on the handle until my arms ached and I decided that despite its interesting taste, fresh orange juice wasn’t worth this much effort.
“Good,” Dad said when no more juice dripped into the glass. “I’ll get you up a little earlier tomorrow morning so you have time to squeeze juice for all of us.”
The holes in the metal cone were now clogged with orange pulp and pits. Dad rinsed it out in the sink. Meanwhile Sparky turned to me and whispered, “Lucky you.”
For the next few mornings Dad got me up early and I had to squeeze oranges for everyone. This was almost as bad as when I went to summer camp and the first thing they made us do every morning was jump in the freezing cold pool and practice kicking and breathing. Each morning when Dad woke me, I’d groan, “Do I have to?” Finally, my apparent misery must have gotten the better of him because the morning blessedly came when he let me sleep, and I was never asked to squeeze oranges again.
The lunchtime baseball games continued, and I rarely, if ever got picked. Sometimes I sat on the bleachers hoping I’d get into the game in the late innings, and sometimes I wandered off and shot basketballs or played punchball against the wall. Our version of punchball was like handball only you used a soft rubber ball the size of a basketball. You could always get into a punchball game because all you had to do was wait for your turn. The funny thing was there were no stars in our punchball games. Everybody won and lost pretty much equally. Eventually I didn’t bother with baseball at lunch and played punchball instead.
That summer I went to a tennis camp where you didn’t have to jump into the freezing cold pool each morning. Just as Dad said, I would go on to play, and enjoy, tennis my whole life. I never did get to a point where I could do more than a dozen pushups or half a dozen pull-ups, but after middle school that never seemed to matter.
And just as Dr. Harwich promised, I did eventually grow hair under my arms, and everyplace else, too. In fact, I wound up with so much of it – on my chest, shoulders, and back -- that certain people have suggested I shave or wax it. Like the Rolling Stones sang, “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes you just might find, you get what you need.”
And sometimes maybe even a little more.