Bases loaded, bottom of the ninth, two outs, one ball, two strikes. At this point, it could be anyone’s game. Little League bragging rights are on the line. It’s just one 11-year-old catcher at bat, the pitcher’s on the mound, home plate is dusted off and the masked man in blue says play ball. This could be the year the Mets finally hit a homer out of the park to take the title home. The crowd grows quiet, the sun dips a little lower.
The pitcher winds up. Curveball.
“Strrrrike three!” The umpire shouts, his hammer arm whipping the wind, punching upward in one fell swoop, leaving nothing but a fist in the air. His signature trilled strike “rrrr” sound bounces off the batting cage, creating an echo into the stands. “You’re out!”
“But Grandpa!” the boy says. He turns around and shuffles back to the dugout, one foot in front of the other, shoelaces drooping over cleats, leaving a tiny, crooked trail in the dusty diamond.
The first time my husband Jeffrey shared this story from his childhood it was Illumination Night years ago. We were inside his family Camp Ground house, which sits in the narrow circle of homes in the heart of Cottage City. To all who pass by, the Brown family gingerbread house fits in perfectly with the pink and yellow and ocean blue cottages.
The house belongs to his grandfather, the umpire, the late Richard C. Brown and his wife Carolyn.
Inside the cottage, the Brown family history is told in pictures on the wall, some framed professionally, some taped to the side of the refrigerator. Newspaper clippings and random Camp Ground flyers from the 1990s (“nobody knows how or why they got there”) are scattered throughout bookshelves and on tables and on chairs.
Each photograph tells a different story. Some are of family members my husband barely recognizes; others are pictures he’ll never forget, like the one of his grandfather, the old man in blue in action, mask on the top of his head, grinning ear to ear.
“That was my Grandpa,” Jeffrey said in telling the baseball story that year. “He always made you tuck in your shirt when you went up to bat and he was always fair, never cutting me any slack because I was his grandson!”
Mr. Brown had a gift for somehow weaving Little League, ice cream and church into almost every story he told. This was Island history at its best.
For my second Illumination Night at the cottage, he told me the story of how he built the original Dairy Queen in Edgartown in 1967. There were other pictures, other stories. There was the year the Methodist parish at the Old Whaling Church couldn’t meet at the church because the chimney fell through the ceiling, and Mr. Brown opened up the Dairy Queen for the congregation to meet. Or the year (1987) when he sold the place, and it was rumored that the buyers were negotiating with a — gasp — Burger King.
Jeffrey and I share memories of sipping water and apple juice from paper Dixie cups with his grandparents. We would watch kids flutter about the lawn like fireflies outside, posing for pictures, launching glow sticks in the air like fly balls and pointing to lanterns hanging from familiar hooks that for one night gave Oak Bluffs a fairyland glow. While most people are outside on this special night, we usually spent the majority of the night inside, passing sleeves of snacks bought from the cookie aisle at Reliable Market and hearing stories of the past, amplified by pictures on the wall.
Last November, Mr. Brown died, one month shy of his 98th birthday. At his funeral Jeffrey’s mother brought about 50 photographs to the Whaling Church basement and put them on display. After the service, people pointed to the pictures and shared stories, just like Mr. Brown used to do.
This week Mrs. Brown called me on my cell phone for the first time ever to tell me she had by chance opened up her scrapbook that morning and found an article from a 2011 Vineyard Gazette with her picture. “I just wanted to share that with you because I thought it was such a lovely thing,” she said.
When I got to work, I looked for the article and there it was — a story and a picture of her on the porch next to her favorite lantern, a paper one that’s yellow and red and reads: God Bless All Who Pass By.
I suggested that she bring the clipping to the cottage this year. We could put it in a frame and hang it up together.
Or perhaps I could throw her a curveball and bring my own copy to share.