by James Freeze
What happens to a warrior’s mind after the smoke clears, years from the end of his war? In this case it was the Second World War and this warrior had participated in some of the bloodiest battles in Germany. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder was not something many had heard of during this time. At least not by that description, but it would show its ugly face later during the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. An emotional/psychological condition, brought on by personal experience of the horrors of war, leaving the soldier with confusion and depression. This doesn’t mean PTSD wasn’t around back then, I’m sure it was, just nobody knew what to call it.
My name is Jim Foster and as I think about it I probably knew quite a few people with this mysterious problem as I was growing up in the 1950s. These deserving men, these American warriors and heroes roamed the streets, lost in their private nightmares, confused and homeless. My parents like many others told me to stay away from these people believing they were dangerous, something I had difficulty understanding at the time. But there was one ex-warrior my friends and I could not ignore because he had become an essential part of one of our summer activities.
Pitcher John had become a local hero to myself and my friends. Of all the strange, unusual, and wonderful characters who wandered the local landscape, John, Pitcher John, John the Pitcher, known by many names, but no matter the name used he was special. He looked like Leon Redbone, tall, lanky, mustache, and a goatee. He had a bad eye which made it seem he was always looking past you. His shoes had holes, his coat was oversized and bulky and his pants gapped open from a rip at the knee.
He carried an old Army duffel bag full of stuff– important only to him .His voice was husky but he could sing and often he would. His favorites were old-time country songs and down-home Gospels he sang proudly and loudly: Amazing Grace, The Old Rugged Cross, and Just A Closer Walk With Thee… just to name a few I happen to like also.
I noticed that grown-ups seemed uncomfortable around Pitcher John, often lowering their heads or even crossing the street to avoid looking straight at him. I believe they thought John to be desperate, broken, probably faithless, and even dangerous. Many people did not accept unkept veterans roaming the streets; they suspected it was an excuse to be vagrant and not work. But every kid who was a part of the Independence Park and Community Center crowd knew him for one particular reason– along with having a baseball and an old worn-out baseball glove– he could pitch like nobody we had ever seen.
The local park was famous for its pickup baseball games. My group had their native baseball heroes, with as many as three making it to the pros or semi-pros. There was even a one-armed outfielder. He was good enough he could have made it into the pros, if only they had drafted one arm ball players. Another one in our group was a chain smoker who could hit any pitch a country mile. There were many other colorful characters known predominantly by their nicknames: Snuffy, Squeaky, Droopy and Maggot, to name a handful. Everybody during the 1950s was given a nickname whether they wanted one or not. One of those 1950 cultural things I guess. Our bunch ranged in ages from 13 to 18.
Even with the wide breadth of ages somehow we all got along, much like the old movie crew from the 1930s “Our Gang.” Buckwheat, a character from Our Gang was satirized many times later, on a program called “Saturday Night Live”. We would choose captains and alternately pick players for each side, never fighting or arguing about our self-induced calls of ball four or strike three. To be completely truthful a lot of that acceptance was due to ‘Fats’ who was the umpire most of the time. Fats, a big man in his 50s, disabled war veteran and retired drill sergeant who lived in the apartments across the street from the ball field. Many times he was available when we were there to pick up a game. And now, many years later, I’m positive we did not realize how lucky we were to have Fats around.
During many of the games pitcher John would pitch for both sides. His talent was exceptional especially when inserted into a group like ours. John had a wicked curveball but more impressive was his killer fastball. I was 14 at the time and scared to death of that fastball. I remember standing in the batter’s box watching a high inside fastball traveling at 90+ miles per hour straight at my head and I wasn’t even wearing a batter’s helmet. I am convinced it is something you have to experience to actually appreciate the fear involved. John seemed to never tire, carrying a smile on his face with every pitch he delivered. It was apparent John would have had a future in baseball if it hadn’t been for World War II.
There came an afternoon when I had a chance to talk with John, one on one, which had never happened before. It was a hot summer day in July in front of ‘Boone’s Ice Cream’, a favorite hangout for my group. Pitcher John had stopped to rest and was sitting on the window ledge at the front of the building. Although it was hot, John had on his long bulky coat with his duffel bag lying close beside him.
“Just resting a bit,” John answered my opening question, “How are you doing?”
I thought John looked tired and noticed sweat drooling down his brow as he took out a crumpled pack of camels, straightened one out, and lit it followed by a deep drawl and a sigh.
John then looked at me and with half a smile said, “How’s it clickin’ Foster?”
I had a little money on me and decided to be a Good Samaritan asking John if he would like an orangeade drink from Boone’s? (A great local delicacy.)
He responded with an emphatic, “Yes– that would be great.”
After returning to the outside with the drinks I sat down on the ledge beside John as we began to enjoy our liquid nectar. Things seemed awkward as I wanted to strike up a conversation but did not know what to say. I eventually stood up and faced John looking straight into his bad eye and then said, “I don’t want to offend you or anything but what happened to your eye?”
John replied saying he wasn’t offended, “Ran into the wrong fella at the wrong time and in a wrong place called Germany,” he said.
A second more stupid question, or maybe just a statement followed: “I bet you get mad about the bad hand you’ve been dealt in life.”
John responded, “I don’t quite know what you mean by that but I don’t believe I’ve ever really thought about it that much.”
Feeling almost apologetic with another question, “Again I don’t mean to insult you but it seems to me you have no set place to live, just wandering around. Do you ever worry about what tomorrow will bring?”
The answer from Pitcher John was one I would not understand completely until many years later after I had experienced life more deeply myself, “Son,” he said, “Tomorrow’s joy is fathered by today’s acceptance.”
I then stupidly remarked, “Yeah, life is hard isn’t it?” As if I understood John’s predicaments.
With a slight but understanding smile and looking past me again with his bad eye John said, “Thanks for the drink, but I better get going – – I got things to do and people to see and– you, I will see the next time around.”
Pitcher John, a down-on-his-luck American warrior/hero, who possessed a well deserved pride and integrity– a quality I have found in few people since. Still today his image lingers in my mind establishing what I have come to understand as an ultimate example of respect.
Jim Freeze is retired and the married father of two grown boys. He has a Facebook account, but isn’t very active on it.