I had to have a pine tree taken down a while back. It was bereft of life and leaning a little too close to the front of my grandfather's house. A twister left it topless some time ago -- the tree, not the house.
When I was small, my "sandpile" (we weren't fancy enough for a sandbox) resided at its base. Once, on a particularly miraculous morning, a Native American spearpoint emerged from the fresh sand we'd hauled in from the bank of a nearby dirt road. I was in heaven.
I loved that sandpile. I loved that tree -- even if I did stab it a few dozen times one summer when my grandfather taught me how to throw a knife. An old-timer with an Old Timer. Forgive me.
The pine might be gone, but the memories remain. And there are lots.
One summer, under its shade, I developed a love/hate relationship with baseball. And the St. Louis Cardinals.
I'd sit against the tree -- its cool shadow a welcome break from the sweltering heat -- and gaze with jealousy through the screen door into the living room. The front door was always open -- to welcome airflow and the occasional neighbor.
Inside, my grandfather -- perched on the edge of his armchair and enraptured by a ballgame that seemed to last all day -- was silhouetted against the small, black-and-white Philco TV topped with rabbit ears and tinfoil balls. The bigger the foil, the clearer the picture.
For him, it was a connection to the past. For me, it meant I -- the center of his universe -- was dethroned for at least nine innings.
In the 1920s and '30s, his older siblings would hop freight trains near Doddridge, Arkansas, and jump off in Texarkana to participate in "townball." Which teams they played for seem to be lost to history, but the baseball gene lasted a few generations. Some played their way to law degrees. Some made it to the pros. I made it to the ditch in the front yard.
It was safer that way -- for the windows -- as I learned the ropes.
Once my pitches got straighter and my hits got longer, we moved to the back garden. It was there, in the freshly tilled "outfield" and against a canebrake backstop, that I learned to field balls.
This was my favorite part.
Standing at the edge of the pines, my grandfather would point to a corner of the open field, swing the bat and send the ball hurling with pinpoint accuracy.
As the crack rang out, I would scramble in the loose soil, jumping over rows and squinting against the summer sun -- waiting for the ball to appear above me, as if by magic.
To this day, I can feel the thwack against my hand-me-down glove. I can still see the smile on his sun-darkened face when I caught one. And I can hear his deep, full-bellied laugh when I'd face-plant in that good Arkansas dirt.
Now, it seems, baseball is my connection to the past. But I still have mixed feelings about those blasted Cardinals.