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Spring/Summer 1998, Volume 15.2

Essay

 

Wayne Carver

Turning Toward Plain City


Wayne Carver is professor emeritus at Carleton College, was Chair of the English Dept., and Director of American Studies program. He also edited the
Carleton Miscellany. His work appears in Esquire, Western Humanities Review, etc.

 

[Thursday, October 3, 1872]… Started [from Logan] with brother and sister Lane to attend conference in SLC. We were undecided about going to Plain City but when we came to the road leading there, the horses turned that way, so we went and had a pleasant visit with our friends.
                              —The Journal of Mary Arm Weston Maughan (Unpublished)

In April of 1946—leaving the army in Europe to flounder—I took my discharge at Fort Dix and went into New York City to see my first major league baseball game. At Ebbets field I saw the same game I had watched and played all my life in Plain City: green grass and real dirt and greasy smoke rising off the Coney Island Red Hots mixing with sauerkraut and cigarette and cigar smoke. Ebbets field needed only the smell of methane gas, sagebrush, wild onions, and cow manure coming in from the sloughs of the West Pasture to have the life-giving smell of the Plain City square on hot summer afternoons during the ball game.

Those crazy Brooklyn fans and that noisy band in the lower grandstand and the fat lady shaking cow bells in my ear did not make more of a racket than the honking& of automobile horns and the screaming of the whole town made when the Plain City A team of the Weber County Farm Bureau League was playing at home and Dick Skeen, our big catcher, was hitting home runs through the branches of the trees that lined the outfield across the graveled road from the meeting house.

I don't know when the first ball game was played in Plain City, but it would have been played on that same square that John Spiers with the north star and a piece of rope laid out the town after the settlers arrived from Lehi and Kaysville on March 17,1859. They arrived on the snowy sage brush plain on a Thursday. Give them a day to unpack, look around. By Saturday the 19th, game day, Spiers had laid out the square. Did they play a game of ball on that slushy diamond as soon as it was laid out?

I think they did. No one knows for sure. I establish by emphatic assertion—how do you think history is written—made?—that the first baseball game played in Plain City took place on Saturday, March 19,1859, that it was a game of running goal (work up) and that it was played in the snow and mud to the delight of everyone.

When I was a boy the outfield of that diamond was a mixture of grasses, from salt grass to Kentucky blue, with large patches of sand burrs behind short stop and out toward left center field. To this working federation of grasses and weeds was added dry and drying cow chips and

puddles of fresh cow manure, larding the lean earth courtesy of the cows going home from the West Pastures. Those puddles produced Plain City outfielders of exceptional fortitude and agility. Like the variable fences and tilted base paths in the major league parks, the Plain City square created a considerable home field advantage, for every evening Monday though Friday, we practiced in the stuff. It was no bother.

Sometimes I think my whole childhood was spent on that square. It was always there, beckoning me to come and play. "To the square," we said. Never "the diamond." It was there, had always been there, is still there. Everything around it has changed.

Baseball for me is baseball as it was played on that square in the 1930s and early 40s, before the war ended it forever. I cannot remember a summer evening when I and my brother Norm—the real ball player in the family—did not, after chores and a hurried supper, go up to the square to catch flies, field grounders, play catch or pepper, maybe take a couple swings with the bat—doing it right in there with the town teams.

And the games on Saturday afternoons—the games and the crowds and the ice cream and soda water, and the smell of tobacco smoke in the hot clear air! I'm not scared by talk of secondary smoke and how it's out to kill me. If I have to die—I don't see why I have to—I want to die from smoke I inhaled in Olsen's store and along the third base line.

It all comes back. The games, the noise, the smells—hot days and blue skies and Bill Freestone coaching at first—LOOK OUT! LOOK OUT! LOOK OUT—and Gus Richardson's yellow Globe A-1 coupe on the shoulder of the road under the sycamores across the street to the west of Carl's store. Born in Plain City, big-bellied Gus came out from Ogden to coach third base, a stationary, stately balance at third to Bill's screaming and hand-clapping and jumping up and down at first. And sometimes after one of those glittering ten-minute desert-country showers that settled the infield dust and sent us all scurrying under the trees or into the parked cars or across to Carl's store or the Confectionery (beer hall)—into the washed air rose the spicy smell of wet sycamore leaves mingling with the new smoke along the base lines as play resumed. I spent the happiest hours of a happy childhood watching and playing baseball in the grass and dirt and sand burrs and cow manure and tobacco smoke of that town square.

A NOTE ON THE SOURCES OF MAGIC AND THE USES OF ENCHANTMENT

For baseball in those days in Weber county was magic, played in an enchanted world in the pit of the depression. It was not religion. Religion was in the meeting house across the trees and the ditch and the road, from centerfield. We had to go there because getting to the Celestial Kingdom depended on it. The Celestial Kingdom sounded like as good a place as any to spend eternity.

During the week baseball drove religion from our minds. Religion said, "Thou shalt not enjoy this life during this life. Later—much later. For now, put your shoulder to the wheel and push along." In baseball we found the pleasures that spring from this earth, now. Up on the square in the summer evenings and on summer Saturdays, baseball transformed this world, not the next This world is the world that needs to be transformed. Transform it or go crazy. Heaven takes care of itself. It took me a while to learn that. 

Maybe baseball was magic for me because I was young and magic comes easily to the young, who are magicians. But I thinned a lot of sugar beets, milked a lot of cows, weeded and topped a lot of onions, cut a lot of asparagus, and mowed a lot of hay in the mosquitoes at Blossom. No magic there. Getting in the hay and threshing grain? OK.

So was picking up potatoes, even on a Saturday morning before the game. 

"Well, now," Dad would say, leaning against a locust tree, turning his dirty felt hat in his hands. "If you kids'll just bring them spuds over here, I'll pick'em up."

Small laughter. Then into the field, Dad on the digger. OK but not magic.

From my Dad I learned life's greatest lesson: know what's important in the scale of things. Do what's important first. We never missed a ball game because of work.

No, the magic was not in being young. We were young and we played basketball in Singleton's barn. We played football: five step, touch, tackle. No magic there, except for the winter smell of hay and of sycamore leaves in the fall on the east side of the square.

Maybe I liked baseball because it was the only team sport short skinny kids can play. I was a team player. That is for sure. I would have been a good one, if I had made the teams. But no—that is too easy. There was something else about baseball. It was—well? It was magic!

Someone has said that we used to like baseball because for the duration of the game it was once again a hot cloudless summer day in 1910. Nineteen Ten was a pretty good year. Virginia Wolf said that in December the post Impressionists were exhibited in London and human nature changed. Once the stuff of beef and ale and railway schedules, it was now to be like a luminous halo—or something. Gossamer. Delicate, trembling stuff.

Whether the Post-Impressionists changed human nature nearly as much as the cork-centered baseball—introduced in 1910—changed the nature of baseball is still hotly argued. It's difficult to know exactly when changes happen. Virginia was being emphatic. Baseball has the statistics. Even Cobb's average bounded upwards 37points in 1911, the first full year of the new ball. Virginia skinny-dipped with Rupert Brooke, but twelve years passed before Jacob's Room shimmered onto the page. Down in Louisville in December of the year of the change, Cap McGann shot himself through the heart because his thirteen years in the majors had ended the year before. No matter how luminous human beings had become or how high batting averages rose (20 points, over all) the Old Adam stalked the earth, Four years later, in the land of the Post-Impressionists, a few million luminous halos began to walk into machine gun fire and the good times were over, everywhere.

Except in Plain City~ up on the square, where the fall out from eruptions of magic made the days of war, depression, and bone-wearying work glow through my childhood like the swamp fire above the sloughs below the hill in the pastures west of town.

FREMONT'S BLUNDER (AN INTERLUDE)

John C. Fremont came to Plain City on September 12, 1843, sixteen years before that first ball game was played on the square. With Kit Carson he had been out in the lake to the island that Stansbury would name "Fremont Island." Fremont called it "Disappointment Island," for it lacked the fresh springs and lush vegetation he expected. He found some pelicans, a magpie, and many prickly pears. Crushed, they paddled to Little Mountain, gathered the rest of their party, and took off for the Hot Springs on a route that took them to where Plain City would soon be. A near genius, Fremont in the long run disappointed everyone and everything disappointed him. If he had waited sixteen years for the settlers and another 73 years for the ball team to mature, he would have seen the greatest ball game ever played. Always in a hurry, he went back to Fort Hall and into History and to the other failures and disappointments waiting for him there.

I had to wait, myself, nine years, one month and one day after my birth to see that game. Somethings—like enchantment—you can't hurry. Or live forever in a wallow of disappointment.

ELWOOD (DICK) SKEEN

(April 14,1908-June 30,1977)

On Saturday June 18, 1932, Plain City beat Layton 10 to 9 to tie Clinton for first place in the Weber County Farm Bureau league. Most of the details

Senators, and the Saint Louis Browns. He was in the World Series with the Senators and the Yankees.

Whatever made his career in the majors so brief, whatever course his life took, it was all part of the Great Design. He came back to Layton and played Farm Bureau ball just in time to be in Plain City on that June day in 1932. He must have been disappointed to leave pro ball. But he could not be in pro ball and in Plain City at the same time. And without him there, I would have jumped about with everybody else when Dick hit those balls, the game would have ended, and I would have returned to the onion and potato fields still wondering what life would do with me. I have not wondered since. I wonder at the wonder of it. Spence was there to put Dick alongside Babe Ruth, Gehrig, Double X Foxx, Gehringer, Cochrane, Grove, Hornsby, Bottomley—those distant, unapproachable phantoms I knew all about and believed in, as I believed in Bomba the Jungle Boy and the Army Boys in France and as I believe today in Caius Marcius Coriolanus and Anna Karenina. To be in Plain City that day was Spencer Dewey Adam's purpose in life, his calling. I had gone to the game to smell cigarette smoke and left enchanted for life.

I don't suppose Spence knew that, considering the slipshod way these matters are handled. I hope he knows it now. It would console him for his disappointing trip to the big show—for his cup of coffee, as they say in the movies. Only in the movies, probably.

Fremont and Carson missed all that, too, although their footprints were still pressed into that ball diamond where radiance glowed off the sand burrs and cow manure. They went back to where the hot springs at the foot of Ben Lomond spread 33.50 parts of iron peroxide (Fremont's measurement) across the barren land, turning it rusty red, and took the trail back to Fort Hall into the gray world of thwarted ambition and busted dreams.

COMMUNITAS

In the days of my youth and before, games with their rivalries were more than fun and the stuff of memories. They were the way communities were made out of the bleak settlements in the sagebrush and grease wood and alkali flats between the Lake and the Wasatch range. Religion was the same from town to town, and the answer to "Who's on the Lord's Side, Who?" was immediate: "We are." Against whom? "Everybody beyond ye mountains high and the arching blue sky." Wasatch-front Mormonism sounds a bit narrow and mean in this enlightened, proper, murderous age. But it had its magnificence. We were the children of pioneers, and of a few acres of earth and a patch of blue sky and of a history that was rehearsed and revised continuously in Sunday school, priesthood meeting, mutual, primary, and at the rummy dives and beer halls and the gas stations and the general stores. We were home there, even when we were beyond the mountains at war or school or work. Wasatch-front Mormonism has been replaced by the Universal Church.

The universe has no children. It takes in a few orphans, chilly exiles in a chilly, roofless house.

We lived in fierce tribal rivalry with other villages. We knew who was for us and who was against us, more than half the struggle to know yourself. Clair Folkman used to say, "Nobody beats Plain City. Nobody! Ya hear? Nobody!" Alas. A lot of teams beat Plain City, but never when the umpiring was halfway decent. Take the 21-3 drubbing Clinton gave us one hot August afternoon. What can even Plain City do when the umpire won't give your pitchers the corners?

On August 19, 1912, my grandfather, wrote to his son, Walter L. Carver, who was on a mission to the North Central States:

Well, I expect all your friends from PC have written you about the ball game at North Ogden last Sat[urday] so I will not say much about it only that it was a very disgraceful affair. There were faults on both sides. But of course it is a little worse on the home people for them to start fighting with people who come to visit them! There is a few up there who are very quarrelsome and the way they acted is a disgrace to that town. And I must confess we have some here who is not much better but I do not think we have one who would and that was the cause of the row. He was the worst I ever saw in my strike innocent by-standers like those few in N. 0. 1 think our boys would of won the game alright if nothing had happened: the umpire was very unfair experience. I think in a few days things will of cooled off a little and most of it will be forgotten. But not all ever will be: N.O. had trouble of the same kind with Hooper boys a short time ago. Hooper told them if they came down there they would do up the whole bunch so they were afraid to go and forfeited the game to them! Well, that is enough on that ....

Those tribal loyalties are gone now. The villages are scabbed over by housing developments and industrial parks. Most of them now have two or more Mormon wards. Plain City has seven. There are no teams in any sport representing the whole town. The rummy dive is gone. There is no longer a store or even a gas station, where folks can sit, smoke, chew, drink soda water, eat candy bars and ice cream cones, play cards and talk about Saturday's ball game. There are no ball games.

Baseball brought hard-pressed people together, for each other in the name of the town and against the barbarians outside the walls. Although nearly everyone was a Mormon of some sort, baseball cut across some deep and bitter racial and religious lines.

To play baseball you had only to be a pretty good ball player, a hard thing to fake. The players didn't need temple recommends or mouthfuls of Sen-Sens. Devout Mormons, Jack Mormons, lapsed Mormons, ex-Mormons played together. Children of Southern European Catholics played with and against the Mormon children of Scandinavians, English, Welsh, and Scots. On the Plain City team that won the 1930 Weber County Farm Bureau A league championship at least five players were descendants of some of the large group—about one-third of the community—that left the Church in 1870-71. After this deep and bitter breach, baseball with its nightly practices up on the square and the gatherings at the store when it got dark, the games on Saturday afternoons, the joy of victory and the sorrow of defeat, the fund-raising dances—all of it—helped a lot to bring the town back together in a game that united the meeting house and the rummy dive.

A couple smudges appear in this picture. Only tiny Slaterville occasionally had a Japanese on their teams, though Japanese families lived in nearly every village. And there were no black players. Outside of Ogden, there were no blacks.

Once a touring team of black baseball players played an exhibition at Plain City against the town team. I was maybe twelve. They let me catch fly balls with them in practice. I talked with one of them about my chances of making the major leagues. "Your chances are a lot better than mine," he told me. I felt a little sad that such a friendly man knew already he would never be good enough to be up there with me. I never doubted I would be up there. The game was magic. 1 was enchanted A perfect match.

"…BUT HOW YOU PLAYED THE GAME."

Southwest of the Hot Springs where Fremont paused on his way to and from Plain City, the land is flat and red and stinky. Pleasant View played most of their games there, because up on the bench (where the school and meeting house and the pleasant view were) the diamond was rocky and small and if you tripped you landed in Farr West. Looking across that stretch of red land addled your senses. It was a dead land brought to life on Saturdays when red specters moved across it in a game that was not of this earth, In that nether world Lew Wilkinson's jerky motion and sashaying curves balls unmanned the strongest men of the county. Watching the game moved decent men to commit rash acts.

I was a decent and enchanted boy. I was driven to go along with my decent Dad in a subtle scheme to pull a losing game out of the fire of that red ball diamond.

Now God does not frown upon a bit of subtle cheating, if the game is baseball and the cause is Plain City's. He does not go along with debased umpiring at North Ogden, for umpiring of that kind is not subtle. He doesn't actually encourage it. He just stays out of the whole affair, looking on with a dark pleasure He cannot completely hide.

Dad was managing the Plain City B team. I was keeping score. I held both line ups, for Pleasant View lots of times had trouble fielding a complete team, let alone having a score keeper. Before the game Raymond Jones named their batting order and I wrote it in my book. The sole keeper of the only written record on either side, I went to the third base line and watched Wilky's fluttering pitches make awkward, lurching, lunging dervishes out of some good hitters. Elmer Singleton was good for us—in a couple years he was in pro ball—but his smoking fast ball in that malignant place was only of this world and in the seventh inning Pleasant View scored their only run. Wilkinson had us shut out.

When we took the field in the bottom of the eighth, Dad came over to me where I was jotting down the O's for the inning and squatted down. Without looking at me, he whispered, "We've got to do something." I thought so too. Those fellows, " he said, looking straight ahead, but nodding toward the Pleasant View players, "they're not paying a lot of attention to us."

"They think they've got this one in the bag," I said.

"Elmer's got them swinging," Dad said. "He'll hold them the rest of the

way.

"A pretty big 'if'," I said. The tail end of our batting order was due up, Wieser, Eph, Rimes. Firm in the faith and exalted by the Priesthood, they couldn't hit a balloon.

"Well, I'm not ready to give up, " Dad said. "When the boys come in, I BE let's send the top of the order up. Those fruit pickers won't notice."

You couldn't beat Pleasant View for orchards.

"Maybe Norm and Glen and Lloyd can get something started, " he went on. His voice was getting kind of dreamy. "Wieser and Eph and Rimes'll understand."

"Well, " Dad said after a long silence. "What d'ya say?"

I could hardly believe my ears. My own Dad! The guy Abe Maw told me every Sunday morning in priesthood class to take my moral problems to. Until that moment—squatting in that red dirt—I had never had a moral problem. I had to think a while. All I had to do to start Dad's plan was to sing out the hitters' names when they came in and add something like, "Come on, Norm, let's get a hold a one." No one else would know.

I looked around at the rusting land we were playing on. Near home plate, stinking reddish-brown water trickled between banks of brown crusted salt. A few black weeds poked an inch or two above the flat land and to the northwest a slag heap from a smelter that long ago had failed to extract wealth from the mountains around the lake humped cold and alone against the blue line of Promontory. I looked down at my score book. Still 1-0. 1 looked at the names at the end of our batting order, those good, decent, hitless friends. I looked up at the sky. A chill sliced through me. I knew then what I would learn later: in this life we live and die alone.

I stood up. "OK" I said to Dad. "I'll tell them."

When Plain City trotted in for their last time at bat, I got hold of Norm and Glen and Lloyd and told them what we are going to do. Then I told Wieser and Eph and Rimes.

No one batted an eye. They knew who could hit and who couldn't.

"Ok, Ok, " I said, clapping my hands. "Let's go, Norm. Make'im throw strikes." When I was away observing the war, my score book was lost. But I remember that Norm got his pitch and hit a slow roller and was thrown out, 6-3. Glen went down, lunging and twisting after a red bouncing ball. Lloyd went down, somehow. It was over,

We packed up our rust-colored bats and gloves and baseballs and put our rust-colored bodies in the back of Alf Charlton's rust-colored truck and went home to Plain City, down Center street, without a single toot of the horn.

AGENBITE OF INWIT

I've thought a lot about that game. I don't cheat a lot. I am enchanted and haven't had to. I always figured Dad never did, not again, anyway, although he went into county politics after the war when he couldn't work the farm by himself.

The next-to-last time I saw Dad alive, he asked me if I wanted to take a ride. We drove from Plain City down to Blossom and looked at the old place. Then we went up to Ogden Valley. We drove slowly and talked, but not much. At Eden Dad had me drive past the old Carver place, where great grandfather Carver had placed one of his families. In those days Eden was a long way from Plain City, where the other wives and families were. "I never knew Grampa very well," Dad said, "He was always there, but remote. He died when I was sixteen. He was a Patriarch in the Church." We must have talked some more. I think we both knew that something big was ending, although last things were the last thing we were going to talk about. It was a good ride, the kind talk spoils.

As we came down the divide into North Ogden, Dad asked me to go north through Pleasant View, on the old road along the base of the mountains. As we came out near the Utah Hot Springs, past the ruins of the old spa, and turned onto the road to Farr West, I asked Dad if he remembered the conspiracy we had hatched together in that rusty dirt.

"Yes, I do," he said. There was a long silence. "I'm ashamed of what we did."

"Boy," I said, "I'll never forget it." I was glad he'd said "we."

By then we were passing the squalor of Smith and Edwards war surplus store."

"Wasn't that the limit, though?" I said. "Cheated and still lost."

We had turned south, then west, and were headed home down Center Street. Suddenly Dad sighed, a heavy sigh, and I thought he started to say something. After a while, I said, "What is it?"

Dad was shaking his head slowly. "Oh, nothing. Nothing." He paused, sighed heavily again. "You would a thought Norm could a got hold a one of Wilky's pitches!"

It exploded, as if pressure had been building up for forty years.

He had his head back against the seat in a kind of reverie, I suppose, thinking of a dirty trick that was dirty only because it hadn't worked.

We were at the Second Rock Crossing of the Plain City canal, where Abe Maw had been baptized when he was eight and confirmed by my grandfather and where Let England had a pasture where Rex McEntire and Vernal Moyes and I used to ride our bicycles or ponies to go swimming. From there, if you stand on tiptoes, you can see Fremont's "Disappointment " Island ten miles to the southwest with Little Mountain just off its north end. Then I remembered that late one night not long before I went off to war, parked in Dad's old '38 Plymouth in the clump of willows by Let's pasture gate, I too had gone down swinging, lurching desperately at the low-breaking curves of an un-enchanted girl from the western part of the county, down there where the Weber enters the Lake, where Fremont camped before going out to the island that disappointed him so.

Sitting there beside my Dad—who deserved to end his days with memories of victories, even tainted ones—I felt bad about everything. A black surge of anger thrust itself into me, and I was possessed by a vast and very personal disappointment about the way things go in this world.

Sometimes being enchanted just isn't enough. But what can we do? Life's great purpose is to break our hearts. It never fails.

We continued down Center Street, our heads turned toward Plain City, our dying town, two aging, silent men, each alone. Each with his separate grief.

 

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