IN GRADE SCHOOL, I found a lovely book in the library called, “The Red Schoendienst Story” (Gene Schoor, Putnam, 1961). It was the biography of an American baseball player. But for me, it may just as well have been a biography — if not an endorsement — of the country.
From humble beginnings, suffering through adversity and against harsh odds, a Germantown, Il coal miner’s son became one of the finest players in the big leagues. It was a story of determination. It was also the story – more deeply – of right conduct and moral authority.
“The Red Schoendienst Story” led me to believe that if you provided “good service” (the approximate translation of the surname Schoendienst) you were liable to succeed. Just like America.
I loved the USA, our newly mighty neighbour about seventy miles to the south. At the very least, I loved the idea of the USA. I loved the Kennedys, and the space program, the Peace Corps and the grainy TV broadcasts that came to us from this nearby titan. Most of all, I loved baseball.
I remember our minor hockey trips to Warroad, MN, where the Marvin Window company dominated the town. The Marvin boys were star players and their business was impressive – an icon in our part of the world. Everything about America then seemed like these grinning, shouting Marvin boys, their slapshots echoing off the boards in the brand new arena with their name in ten-foot letters on the wall. It was a place where sleeves were rolled up; where you expected to succeed by working hard and enduring without complaining. It was a place where one of the Marvin offspring – a daughter – ending up running the show for more than twenty years.
Life was good of a day in the quiet north woods.
I grew and aged and kept my eye on America. Some of my innocence was shed as a consequence of life’s confusions. Likewise, events seemed to conspire to impede America from its apparent course. The Kennedys were killed; MLK was shot down; Vietnam revealed its vile nature – from My Lai to napalm. I met Vietnam veteran helicopter pilots at a fishing lodge in Northern Ontario and knew – in minutes – how the world and everything in it was ruined for them. Irredeemably frozen in a horrible place and time, these were young men, not much older than me at the time. I was still a boy, but they had skipped that.
I saw the humiliation of Nixon and could almost smell the foul rot. I was reminded of a dirty halloween prank – back when quite a few farms still had outhouses, kids would throw fishheads down the hole. Next spring, on a still, sunny day after the thaw, it was like a bomb had gone off – the stench seemed to bore holes into your skull. It was unbearable and yet you were somehow drawn closer, sniffing cautiously – to see if it was really that bad.
As a young man, I cowered, clinging to my naive, “Black Like Me” sensibility, as I met salesmen and business connections from the US. After sizing me up (how would I react?) they would probe a little harder. “How’s your red n***er problem, up there? Hear they are quite an issue!”
Shocked, I’d taste the bile in my mouth and quietly change the topic, my morals offended but my fear – to lose the account or jeopardize my job – prevailing. Shame on me. And why was I shocked? I’d heard that and worse on my side of the border. Hatred is not exclusive.
Travelling for business to Charlotte, Atlanta and Dallas, I saw the ugliness all around me. And yet, it was always counterbalanced – and more – by an abundance of bright, determined, decent-minded people. They had that old Marvin fervor; the can-do attitude. This rigorous, well-intentioned segment of American society knew what was nonsense and what was not. They discerned as I did, they believed as I did; they acted with courage in the face of hatred and bigotry. At least – they did when they were with me. As I did when I was with them.
Life carried on and then stopped when the planes crashed. So much violence distilled into a few terrible hours. I suffered too through “Shock and Awe”, watching bombs fall, missing only Slim Pickens riding one of them down, with one hand waving free, silhouetted by the sea.
I grimaced with the world when the “Mission Accomplished” banner was unfurled.
Columbine and the long string of gun deaths, ongoing today, have hollowed me out.
In recent years, I’ve watched as we scurry from place to place listening not to Red Schoendienst turning two at Sportsman’s Park, but to athletes-cum-entertainers who earn a lifetime or more of Schoendienst or Musial or Kaline salaries in a single year – regardless of the value of their service. We daily revere the repugnant and the loud and the swaggering. The world’s population, heads bowed and thumbs twitching, are bedazzled by Entertainment Tonite emperors, who know not what they do.
Who cares about content or character, so long as we click on it.
Just another old man complaining. But then on Sunday night, I crept as near to the stench as I dared: the Presidential debate. What has happened to the America I loved? Teetering, has it now been shoved aside completely by an unapologetic vulgarian? A blabbering pipsqueak pandering to racial, gender and religious bias. A merchant of hatred. The caricature of a misogynist in sad, pinstriped splendor, strutting the stage.
Is he not exactly the blustering bully you pick out — the one you walk up to and challenge to make the pack back down?
Who will disavow him?
Certainly, the America I loved was an idealism. It was a dream but it was based on truth. For me, a truth wrapped up in a invigorating, unassailable collage of people and things epitomized by baseball. It was Springsteen self-confidence and Dylan introspection. It was Kurt Vonnegut, Janis Joplin and Ken Kesey. America was awesome, before everything was awesome. Brash? Sure, sometimes, but big-hearted at the same time. Abiding and good.
I am hopeful that after this long election season of humiliation, the real America will come back. I doubt it, but I’ll keep watching, in case it does.
Copyright Mitchell Toews ©2016