Wednesday, February 23, 2011


As the weather warms, my thoughts turn to softball....

I first saw my dad play softball when I was eight years old. He played on the church team against another regional church team one weekend. Dad played shortstop.

That evening after the game I gave my dad my Skippy Chunky Peanut Butter jar with whatever small change I had accumulated at the time along with two one-dollar bills that my grandmother had given me on her last two visits and asked him to buy me a softball glove. A couple weeks later Dad returned the jar to me with the coins still in it and gave me a Bobby Bonds fielder's glove. He told me it had cost a little more than I had given him, but not to worry about the difference. 

I would soon afterward give the same peanut butter jar filled with pennies to my grandmother and not see it again for 30 years. See related story.

I watched my dad play several more softball games over the next five years. He was the quintessential shortstop, played aggressively but encouragingly with his teammates and opponents alike, until he injured his ankle when I was 14 and he never played again. My dad played catch with me from time to time but we never actually played together because the team's coach was also the church pastor, who said I was too young to play. At least one of the pastor's sons was my age and under no such restriction. I never forgot that.

Until I was a young adult, my opportunities to play softball were limited to an afternoon  picnic when I was 12 at summer camp in Minnesota, and the occasional pick-up 20-minute game during lunch recess coached by Mrs. Rummel, Irwin Elementary School's 5th grade teacher. In the early 1980s, I played  two seasons with the Mr. G's Pizza softball team and by the second summer, I was the most senior employee and team coach by default.

Wednesday afternoon, November 10, 1982, I gathered 9 other people around my age and we went out to Messer Field to play softball and found the Tallahassee Community College baseball team practicing also. We challenged each other to a friendly game and they proceeded to slaughter us for the first 6 innings. The score was 12-5 against us in the top of the 7th inning as we came to bat. We scored 12 runs and then held them to only 3 runs in the bottom of the inning to secure the 17-15 victory. Later when the other team offered us celebratory beers from their keg, we had an idea as to how we had prevailed.

We were so excited by our underdog win that five of us piled into a Dodge Dart and drove to Cape Canaveral Beach to view the 5th Space Shuttle launch of Columbia the next day. It was the first post-R&D launch of the Space Shuttle program. Because of the crowds, we had to walk more than a mile to the beach from where we'd parked to watch the launch.

In my second job interview at my current place of employment, I asked about softball and they told me that the office used to have a team. My first summer at FSU I began coaching a newly re-formed team, and 2010 was our our 18th season. I'm the only player remaining from first season. Some of our toddler fans have grown up to become regular players and win sports scholarships to Florida and Georgia colleges. We're very family-oriented and I've never turned down an earnest request or imploring look to play from youngsters if their parents and I thought they could handle it. Several have been significantly younger than I was when I wanted to play on my dad's softball team.

I still have the glove my dad bought me when I was 8. As my fingers grew, they wore through the leather inside, so I had the glove rebuilt ten years ago and it's like new. It's on the small side for me now, but I occasionally let kids who don't have a glove use it. I have my dad's well-maintained, still supple glove, but it's 60 years old and more heirloom relic than sports equipment.

In 1994, a retiring team member named Paul gave me his new Wilson softball glove. At that time I was only a few years younger than my dad had been when he stopped playing ball for good and I was worried that I wouldn't be able to play long enough to break in the glove. Since then, I've been wearing braces on both ankles whenever I play and my glove is now broken in nicely. 

I'm exceedingly grateful for my unanticipated longevity. Last summer my granddaughter Alicia played on my team for the first time and we shared wins and losses in half our season's softball games. 

There is nothing quite like playing competitive softball in 100+ degree Florida weather with a grandchild and feeling 14 again.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Happy Valentine's Day!

George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr, creator of the Ferris wheel, was born today in 1859.

It's Ferris Wheel Day. Honk if you've got one.
My 2008 State Fair Halloween costume, with Ferris wheel, merry-go-round, house of mirrors, freak show, arcade crane game, and voter registration booth won nine costume contests in the Tallahassee, Florida area. 

Happy anniversary to my darling wife Donna.
Photo by Matthew Serlovsky

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

My Grandmother's Pennies

Almost all of them were mine first.

My grandparents lived in Florida and I rarely saw them until they and I were much older and after my family moved back to the Sunshine State. Grammy would always bring chocolate chip cookies when she visited and now I bake them for my own children and great-grandchildren every holiday season in her memory. Gramps passed away when I was a high school senior, but I did get a chance to know and appreciate him. Gramps' story is told in Gramps and Apollo 11

In 1971, I found a penny on the running track at East Brunswick High School in New Jersey. I had never seen one like it before and asked my dad about it. He told me it was a wheat-back penny, and that they weren't made anymore. It was minted in the 1950s. I asked him if it was worth anything and he told me it wasn't worth very much more than a penny, probably not even 2 cents, but that my grandmother collected them. 

A couple weeks later, I was with my mom when she was visiting Mrs. L, who had a nice collection of books in her living room with which I was amusing myself when I noticed a gallon jar mostly filled with pennies on her mantle. I dumped all the pennies on Mrs. L's carpeted floor and pored over them for quite some time making a big pile and a little pile of them. Then, as calmly as I could manage while interrupting their conversation, walked into the kitchen and asked my mom if I could have $3.85. When both Mom and Mrs. L inquired as to what I wanted the money for, I replied that I wanted to buy some of Mrs. L's pennies. Mrs. L declined any money and gave her 385 wheat-back pennies to me. I put them in a glass Skippy Chunky Peanut Butter jar and gave them to my grandmother the next time I saw her.

At the time, I was too young to realize that my grandmother's hobby was over. She had collected perhaps a dozen wheat-back pennies in the 12 years that they had been out of circulation, and I had just flooded the market. Had I not found an old penny at the high school track and spent an afternoon with a gallon jar of pennies, I probably would not have later taken interest in noticing odd-looking coins in regular circulation.

I was careful to collect any silver coinage I saw in circulation minted before 1965 or 1970, depending upon denomination, and was always willing to show Grammy the coins I had collected and ask her how her pennies were whenever I saw her. She would invariably tell me that they were fine and still in her cedar chest. She asked me which of the denominations above penny were worth anything, and before I was 10, I knew all of the valuable coins for which I was looking. Some time later as an older youth I asked her if I could have all those pennies back when she was done with them and she laughingly said yes.

I visited Grammy as often as I could as I grew up, occasionally bringing friends by to stay on my travels and adventures. 

I collected wheat-back pennies for myself over the years and whenever I found one, I thought of the pennies I had given my grandmother. As I was leaving from a visit to Grammy in January 2002, she insisted on returning the pennies to me "while I still have all my buttons." We laughed at that as I left. Although I had asked about the pennies many times, I hadn't seen them since I was a young child. By then I had collected as many wheat-back pennies as I had originally given her. It was the last time I would see Grammy.

My grandmother lived to meet her great-great-granddaughter Alicia, who remembers Grammy.

Grammy had two gifts for me after she was gone.

Among her effects were found a bank check box on which Grammy had printed my name that included several loose wheat-back pennies, which I assumed were her original personal collection, and two small clasp change purses filled with all the silver coins that Grammy had collected since I long ago advised her which ones were valuable. She had switched from collecting copper to silver. The entire collection can't be worth more than a hundred dollars, but to me it's priceless.

Equally priceless, yet absolutely valueless to anyone besides me, was my grandmother's final gift to me... an old pre-Ziploc sandwich bag containing every yellowed letter I had ever written to her as a child.