18 Jul

Step-Ball: Origin of the Game

“How to play Stepball” in Main Line Today (July, 2014).

In the early days of summer, boys and girls escape from school and seize the season with the pent-up excitement of a dog darting out the front door. They yelp, howl and yap, running through yards, hopping fences, pedaling through streets. June days belong to the pack as they fill their hours with Run-the-Bases and Goon-alarm, can-openers and cannonballs.

July arrives, though, and summer slows down. Baseball fields go empty, friends flee to the shore, and a special quietness envelops the days like summer haze. It was on just such a day that stepball must have been invented. It’s a game born of circumstance.

The child is inside, seeking shelter from the 90-degree heat. Perhaps he is nose-deep in a comic book. Or reruns of Dennis the Menace come through the tube. Maybe he throttles a joystick while Pitfall Harry navigates his pixilated jungle.

The mantra begins.

“Go outside! You’re not staying in here on such a beautiful day!”

“But it’s really hot. And no one’s around.”

“Go outside!”

“It’s 90 degrees!”

“Get!”

And so he goes. Sitting on the front stoop, he spots another banished comrade ambling down the street.

“Hey!” he calls.

“Hey!” the other answers.

“I thought you were on vacation.”

“Just got back. Man, no one’s around.”

“I know. Wanna play stepball?”

“Sure.”

And the two begin their first game.

Standing just off-center from a set of stairs, the “batter” throws a tennis ball at the bullnose of a step with all his might. The rules are simple. If the “fielder,” standing a predetermined number of feet away, catches the ball cleanly – be it a grounder or a fly-ball – the batter is out. A misplayed ball leads to a hit. Balls shot over the fielder’s head lead to a double, triple or home run, all depending on the previously agreed-to landmarks reached. Anything that cleared the telephone wire across the street  was an automatic round-tripper on my home field (no running required!).

Standard Wiffle ball rules also apply: four fouls (tennis balls that either slam against the screen-door backstop or veer too far left or right) are an out; three outs an inning; and six innings to a game.

So the game began, and so it continues, summer after summer, for children in neighborhoods throughout the land, regardless of demographics or economics. Have a tennis ball and can find some steps? You’ve got yourself a game – and a perfect panacea for boredom on those steamy midsummer days.

Too few friends in town for a game of baseball or Getaway? Too hot to exert much energy? Banished from the house? Worry not.

Grab a friend, find some steps, and “Play ball!”

20 Jun

A Tree House All Their Own

Treehouse

“The Tree House: Every Child’s Home Away from Home” in Main Line Today (July, 2013).

Moms have their kitchens, dining rooms and living room—their porches, gardens and bedrooms. Truth be told, they have the whole house.

Dads have their garages and basements, or so they think. Such areas are really on loan from their spouses, giving wives time away from their husbands under the false pretense that we’re escaping them. Well played, moms, well played.

Children, however, can claim almost nothing as an exclusive domain. Theirs for 18 years, a bedroom comes with as many contractual obligations as a lease: Make your bed; wear clean underwear every day; don’t climb out the window or throw your sister’s dolls from it; no boogers on the walls. It’s enough to drive a child out of the house – which ultimately, I guess, is the idea. But if they’re lucky, outside of mom’s house children can escape to their very own space – the tree house.

Such a hideaway spot allows children to discover the world on their own terms. It fosters imagination, promotes independence and acts as a sanctuary from those dangerous creatures on the ground (moms and dads).

My children’s own sanctuary in the trees took shape over the course of the past year or two. Salvaged timbers, windows and stockade fencing were plucked from trash heaps and reassembled into an elevated 10-by-10-foot fort. Thousands of nails later, I watch my kids with envy as they disappear into their tree house.

One day, it’s a quiet spot to read a book or watch birds feast at the feeder dangling outside its window. The next, it’s a venue for a club meeting, accompanied by Popsicles and top-secret plans and adventures.

It is also equal parts hideout and headquarters for neighborhood superheroes. Noticing the ladder to the entrance missing one day, I inquired within. Seems it had been pulled up into the tree house.

“To keep the villains out,” my son explained.

Naturally.

When not playing host to a club meeting or the neighborhood’s pint-sized Justice League, the tree house often turns into a museum. Some days it houses a natural history exhibit of collected sticks, rocks and flowers. Other times, it’s full of paintings, drawings and colorings by aspiring artists. It is, by all accounts, a tree house all their own.

Like the American flag hanging from it, the tree house symbolizes freedom and independence. Me, I often look over at the fort and sigh. I have no basement. The garage is a mess.

Look out, kids! I’m moving in.

19 May

The Smiley Face Flag

“Passing the flag to a new generation” in the Philadelphia Inquirer (May 19, 2013).

It hung from the house like a beacon. Unlike most flags on the block, however, it paid no tribute to country or ancestral motherland. Rather, it honored a state of being: the simple, yellow, smiley face flag, broadcasting its message of happiness. Regardless of weather, and sometimes even in spite of it, the flag flew, an eternal smile on its face.

Just as the lighthouse guides the lost traveler at sea, the flag hung proudly on the home for all to see. It spoke of the nature of the home, and the man who put it there.

It was also the first thing my children spotted when we turned onto the street. “We’re there,” they’d shout, their faces reflecting the flag itself. “Grandpop’s!”

Over many years and countless visits, my children learned that flag had many messages to share.

It was a pronouncement: Happiness found within!

As well as a commandment: Only smiles allowed!

And if you broke the commandment, it was also a prescription: Smiles and hugs heal!

Such were my children’s visits to that house with the flag – memories filled with smiles. After all, their grandfather insisted.

The flag not only greeted them upon their arrival; it was also the last thing they saw during their departure. Having taken the flag down from its perch on the house, their grandfather would stand in the starry night, waving the flag like a crazed signalman at an airport. It seems the flag had more messages to share.

It was a request: Remember the smiles!

As well as a directive: Go forth and smile!

And, waving that flag in snow or storm, it was a gospel proclamation: Happiness reigns!

Looking in the rearview mirror as we drove away, the man and his flag would follow, walking down the middle of the dark street and waving that smile for the world to see. Slowly, the yellow would fade away. The smile would not. Someday, I thought, my children would come to appreciate the message of the flag – and the crazed man waving it.

Sometimes, someday arrives sooner than expected.

It was a cold, winter day when the grandparents came to visit. Stories and smiles were shared, laughter heard, and bread broken.

When the visit was drawing to an end and my three-year-old son saw his grandparents gathering their things, his eyes popped with sudden remembrance.

Wait!” he hollered, then disappeared to the garage. He came back with a three-foot stick he had collected in the yard weeks prior. I wasn’t sure what its intended use was at the time of its collection – sword, bow, brother-whacker – but it quickly became apparent.

Dad, I need tape!” As I went in search of tape, he retrieved an oversized piece of paper adorned with impressionist-style crayon artwork.

Quick, Dad!

He rushed to tape the paper to the stick, grabbed his shoes, and hurried outside in time to give his grandparents a proper farewell.

I looked at the scene before me and smiled: the pint-sized boy and a flag just his height. He waved it in the winter wind. His grandparents pulled out of the driveway and disappeared down the street. The flag continued to wave until their car was completely out of view, broadcasting a message of its own:

Smiles are contagious.

19 Apr

“Indecisions, Indecisions”

“Decisions, Decisions” in Main Line Today (May, 2013).

I stand in aisle nine and stare blankly at the toothbrushes. There are 97 different kinds to choose from – each one recommended by a different dental association. I pour over the options, weighing my mouth’s needs with each toothbrush’s specialty.

I find the one perfectly suited for me, but it only comes in pink. I can’t rightly go home with a pink toothbrush, so I go through the exercise again until I find the best runner up.

All told, I’ve burned 10 minutes and haven’t even made it to the toothpaste yet. And I’ll likely have a cavity at my next check-up anyhow (in which case I should have gone with pink).

The process repeats itself in aisle after aisle. 32 types of light bulbs; 21 different detergents; chocolate chips in 16 shapes, sizes, and flavors; and 1,289 pasta sauces (somewhere in this sea of red, there must be a jar that reads “marinara”).

By the time I leave the grocery store, the moon has replaced the sun and I’m left with heartburn, a headache, and an utter sense of uncertainty about the stuff I’ve just purchased.

According to the Food Marketing Institute, the average number of items carried in a supermarket is 38,718 (63 of which are likely kinds of shampoo). Not that it’s any better elsewhere: The home store has 86 kinds of caulk, the pharmacy 132 ways to get rid of a cold, and the shoe store at least 61 types of sneakers for a sundry of ambulatory activities.

Sometimes, I’ll bypass brick and mortar altogether and try my luck online. With the web’s untold options and countless opinions, I find these escapades even more fruitless – as in my recent request for a new potato peeler. Mary from Minnesota absolutely loved the peeler I was considering, while Bob from Idaho found it dull and mediocre at best. Idaho Bob should know too, but perhaps he’s just a potato peeler snob. Then again, renowned blogger Potato Patty gave it a four-spud rating on her website. “I would have given it five potatoes,” she wrote, “but it didn’t do such a hot job with apples.”

Three hours flew by, and I still had reservations about the potato peeler. Frustrated, I shut the computer down, having accomplished nothing.

Utterly paralyzed by uncertainty and frequently emasculated by choice, my daily life continues to be colored by the seemingly unending mantra: “indecisions, indecisions.”

Take away my choices ad infinitum, please!

27 Mar

Walking in the Air

“The light is out there… somewhere” in the Philadelphia Inquirer (December 14, 2014).

I imagine a boy on a plane, flying through the night sky, holiday travelers sitting side by side and row by row. Save for a few overhead spotlights shining down on crossword puzzles and magazines, the cabin is dark. The muffled hum of the engines outside lulls the passengers to sleep. The child would not join them. Sugarplums could wait.

He looks around in disbelief: eyes shut, heads bobbed, pages turned. It seems he alone appreciates what could soon dwell on the horizon. It’s just as well, for in the quiet darkness, he feels as if he is the keeper of a great secret. Back at home, he often hides beneath a fort made of blankets and sheets, leaving the adults in their world while disappearing into his own. Such is the cabin now.

He turns to the window and watches. The red strobe on the wing slowly blinks, casting the only light in the dark sky. As he stares, the boy’s mind becomes a metronome, conducting the orchestra’s silent waltz:

On-2-3, Off-2-3, On-2-3, Off-2-3.

He surveys the darkness as he counts, looking for another red light.

It has to be out there. Somewhere. Even if I can’t see it yet. It has to be!

He hopes, prays, and watches.

On-2-3, Off-2-3, On-2-3, Off-2-3.

The window fogs up with breath. The child takes his finger and traces his name backward in the condensation. If he appears now, he’ll know it’s me! Just as quickly, he squeaks the window clean with the side of his hand and refocuses.

The light is out there . . . somewhere. He is out there . . . somewhere . . . flying . . . with me!

The boy gazes.

Some 35,000 feet below, faith is just as strong in a young girl. The house is festive and noisy, but the hour is getting late. Soon it would be time to call the celebrations a night and head home.

“Do you think he’s close, Dad?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Let’s go check!”

With that I follow my daughter out of the house and into the wintry eve. Standing on the sidewalk, we look toward the heavens. The sky is clear and the moon new, giving the stars a chance to shine this holy night.

“Look, Dad! Look! There he is!”

I follow her gaze.

And there it is, a blinking red light making its way across the sky.

I kept time:

On-2-3, Off-2-3, On-2-3, Off-2-3.

My daughter stands transfixed at the awesome sight above her, stunned yet not surprised, in disbelief yet believing. After a magical minute or two, the light fades into the night. She quickly retreats into the house, excited to exclaim the good news.

I simply stand there and smile, thinking to myself, “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”

15 Feb

The Blue Plane (Yes, THAT Blue Plane!)

The Blue Plane in Darby

The famed blue plane perched on Skiles Fielding Montague’s roof in downtown Darby, PA.

“Taking Flight Lessons from Darby’s Skiles Fielding Montague” in Main Line Today (March, 2013).

It sat there for years — one of those oddities that gives a place character and becomes the stuff of legend: the tiny powder-blue plane inexplicably perched on a roof in Darby.

Parked atop a historic Queen Anne-style home on Main Street, the plane has commanded attention and demanded explanation for decades. It remained a mystery to me throughout my youth. Pre-Blue Route, it was the highlight of any trip to the stadiums, the Walt Whitman Bridge or the airport.

More recently, I penned a short letter expressing wonder over the landmark. I addressed it simply to “The House with the Blue Plane on the Roof,” Main Street, Darby, PA.

Two days later, a letter came from one Skiles Fielding Montague, flight simulator salesman. That blue plane, he said, was a GAT-1 single-engine simulator, and he’d placed it on his roof in 1977 to help advertise his business. The explanation was followed by an invitation: Would I like to fly one?

And so it was that I found myself on Montague’s doorstep. A giddy sense of fear overcame me. What if it’s all a farce?

When the door opened, I was greeted by a bearded guy who could’ve easily passed for Burl Ives. Montague ushered me into the backyard, pointing to a small building in the corner. “That’s where the flight simulator is,” he confided.

We opened the door, and there it was: a working model of the very plane over which I’d marveled. Montague opened the door of the tiny simulator. I climbed aboard, and he sat down next to me. The space inside was exceedingly tight, much like an enclosed roller coaster or one of those fancy four-quarter sit-down arcade games you’ve seen other kids play.

All the windows — including the windshield — were spray-painted white. “Anyone can fly when they can see where they’re going,” said Montague. “The trick is to learn to fly by using the instrument panel. This, my friend, is what it’s like to fly through clouds.”

For the next half-hour, Montague gave me my first flight lesson. Explaining the various gauges on the instrument panel, he taught me how to steer the plane using the foot-pedal rudder, while also keeping  an eye on the speedometer and altimeter. I proceeded to buck the simulator left and right, frontward and backward.

Had we been 5,000 feet above Darby in a real plane, we’d have crashed on someone’s roof within seconds. I was a truly terrible pilot, but Montague was patient and kind, reassuring me that the coordination necessary to fly takes time to develop.

Coordination or not, I was on cloud nine. I’d uncovered the mystery of the blue plane.

27 Jan

Building a fire in the snow

Guest column in Delaware County Daily Times (February 27, 2014).

The night is silent save for the compression of snow as my shoes slog through the yard. God mutes the world with snowfall, and suddenly the slightest sound we make is an intrusion on that peace. The snow below talks with each step I take just as the snow above begins to its place.

I reach my destination and set to work. Wind-fallen branches have been stacked together, a depressed and discarded collection of woody arms that once reached out to the sky in glorious leafy coats of color. I grasp and lift, bend and take; the branches give, crack, splinter, break.

Quickly a mound forms in the center of the stony circle. Stick by stick it grows. The higher the mound, the higher the flame.

But sticks alone will not do. With snow covering the earth, wetting the wood, something more it needed to help the spark along – perhaps the wood’s more opinionated offspring. I reach into my back pocket and pull out the folded newspaper. This will do.

First the front page: death, disaster, discord, and discontent. I grab the page with my fist and crumple. Then tucking the newsprint under the pyre as if making a deathbed, I reach for A2 and do the same. Fire and fuel join death and destruction.

One after the other, quickly the pages crumple and quickly the bed is made. He said-she said pages! Buy this-do that pages! Blame him-sue them pages! Pay me-watch me pages! Fear all-change law pages! Kiss her-want him pages!

In such heavy snowfall, I use almost the entire newspaper. Having read it all, the ensuing warmth will feel even greater.

I grab the last page of newsprint and pause. The characters of the comics stare up at me. I carefully fold the page and place them back in my pocket.

Then, bending down, I strike a match to the paper. Immediately the ink, the words, the letters, they begin to turn to ash; and within minutes the entire world has disappeared, replaced by the warmth and light of burning timbers.

I stand back and watch.

Snow is falling.

Flames are rising.

And the world is mute.

19 Jan

Life lessons for the superhero apprentice: Lessons 1-6

A repost, a refresher, and a revival – with more superhero lessons to follow soonish…

At 4 years old, my son has just one problem in life, and it plagues him night after night. Lying in bed, a never-ending debate runs through his mind over which superhero he should be when he gets big.

Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk. Even Plastic Man remains a viable option. Each, after all, is unique, offering a child endless possibilities in the way of costumes, superpowers, weapons, vehicles and villains.

I may not be a superhero, but as a parent, I hope I’m providing him with the lessons he needs to become one. Here are six that were handed down to me:

Superhero Lesson #1: Things Just Happen: Sticktoitiveness and the Superhero

Superheroes aren’t perfect. Sometimes they crash—and it’s not always the cape’s fault. Or the villain’s fault. Or anybody’s fault, really. Things just happen. Superheroes don’t waste time blaming. If they crash, they brush it off and get back into the air.

Superhero Lesson #2: Trust Your Spidey Sense

Always trust your Spidey sense. If you’re ever unsure about a situation, it’s best to follow your gut. It could be what superhero move you need to make to capture the villain. It could be what to say to someone who is upset with you. Or it could be whether or not you should do something someone is asking you to do. Not sure what to do? Follow your Spidey sense. It’s why superheroes have it, and it’s usually right. With a little practice, and a lot of faith, you’ll learn to trust it.

Superhero Lesson #3: The First Step: Visualization

Visualization. To be successful in anything, first be successful in your mind. Visualize yourself making contact with that baseball before you even step up to the plate. Picture every moment of the event. Your hands gripping the bat. Your legs balanced and ready to step forward into the pitch. The crack of the bat as the ball flies through the air. Your legs darting out of the batter’s box as you sprint along the base paths. First picture it in your mind, and your body will know what to do when the time comes to face that first curve ball.

Superhero Lesson #4: Prayer: The Superhero’s Ultra-Top Secret Weapon

When you hear an abulance siren as it races down the road—be it close by or far off in the distance—take a second and say a little prayer for whoever is in need. Superheroes can’t be in all places at all times, but their prayers can be.

Superhero Lesson #5: Words

Choose your words carefully. Most mere mortals assume that the greatest of superhero powers come from radioactive accidents, genetic mutation, or intergalactic immigration. The truth of the matter is, superheroes master the most common and yet most difficult skills first. Chief among these skills is one’s ability to choose words carefully. For example, certain words should not be uttered by any superhero. These include the words “never,” “can’t,” and “I give up.” Other examples include words such as “hate” and “kill.”

Just the same, there are certain words in the vocabularies of all superheroes that should be said now and again, and sometimes these are even more difficult to master. Examples that fall into this category include the words “help” and “I don’t know.” The thing is, superheroes can’t do everything on their own, and they don’t know everything there is to know. Superheroes are aware of this imperfect quality, no matter how super they may be. Choose your words, and the words you choose not to use, very carefully.

Superhero Lesson #6: The Ultimate Lesson: Gratitude

Gratitude. If there’s one thing superheroes do well, it’s appreciating how lucky they are. After all, it’s not everyone that can fly, sling webs, or turn green with bulging muscles when danger looms. Superheroes are lucky, and they know it. That’s why they end each day with a prayer of thanks. So as you lay in bed at night, eyes closed and ready to recharge your body for another day of saving the world, spend a few minutes thinking about everything you’re thankful for. God. Your family. Your friends. Your home. Anyone and anything that made your day better. This is one of the most important exercises a superhero can do, and like all exercise, it makes you even stronger.

I look over at my son, fast asleep, and say a prayer of gratitude for this little superhero-in-training. My dream is that he achieves his. I say a prayer too for the superhero who shared these lessons with me – my father. Though he may be gone, he lives on. After all, superheroes are immortal.

29 Nov

Making Tracks

“Along for the ride” in Main Line Today (December, 2012).

The burgundy engine hums to life with a subtle twist of the wrist, leaving behind fathers with suitcases and moms clutching the hands of children. Frozen on the platform, the tiny figures wait for a train they’ll never board.

The ride is corky smooth, over fields of green sandpaper and through snowy mountains with papier-mâché peaks. Orchard trees mix with tall evergreens. Boldly standing too close to the tracks, one tree is quickly uprooted and lies awkwardly on its side, a casualty of the passing Pennsylvania steamer.

Emerging from the picturesque countryside, the train descends into the valley and its town of lampposts, park benches, and stalled cars. Lights glow from the houses, church, movie theater, gas station, and hardware store. Townsfolk mill about; boys deliver newspapers; carolers sing; families skate on the mirrored pond. Some brave the cold to catch It’s a Wonderful Life at the drive-in. A nearby baseball field sits empty.

The tiny engine pushes on, past water towers, quarries, and factories; over trellis bridges and back to the station, where the dads with suitcases and moms with children still wait patiently. A quick engine switch, and the journey begins anew.

So it goes with the time machine that is the model train. No matter the engine – Conrail, Santa Fe, Union Pacific, and the rest – the train has the magical ability to stop time. Frozen in the moment like the motionless figures on the platform, the conductor is freed from the future so that he may enjoy the present while reliving the past.

Women often question the allure of the model train for grown men. (If you’re a female reading this, I commend you for getting this far.) But the attraction is quite simple. As boys, it was a hobby that allowed us to fashion our own world free of the busyness and silliness we witnessed in the one ruled over by adults. We lived in the moment, and hoped it would last forever.

I’m convinced that it all goes back to the book of Genesis and our desire to escape God’s world and create our own. On the first day, boy created the platform and laid the grass. Day two brought the tracks; days three and four, the mountains, trees, and ponds. The fifth was dedicated to villages and their frozen inhabitants.

But there was something missing. Boy was lonely. And so, on day six, he invented the model train.

Years later, we’re still trying to create our own world, a refuge from that busy and silly adult world in which we now live.

Sadly, our fantasies are typically relegated to a small plywood platform in a cold basement or garage – and even then, it’s often just for the month of December. After that, it’s time to pack up our world into cardboard boxes again. Life must go on.

Still, we’re happy to vanish to the place of our banishment, so long as we can turn that knob on the transformer, send power through those tracks, and bring an engine to life.

You see, day seven is our day of rest. Eve has her world, and we have ours. And God saw that it was good.

Copyright 2015 Michael T. Dolan.