Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Willie, Jimmy and the Mike

Two brothers who are close in age can be a bit troublesome. There is usually a lot of arguing and out and out fighting. But sometimes, the two can really be two ends of the same stick. Such was the case when this writer was growing up. Michael was only 22 months younger and as the youngest of the family, often got the short end of things. He was the one who got acne and eczema. He had to wear special shoes because of a foot problem. Plus, he had no middle name. In one of those flukes of things that happen in families, the guy just wasn't given one. And it has always bugged him. Of course, his two older siblings (this writer and an older sister) told him it was because he was a mistake. Michael's parents were only going to have two children and Michael was an oops. His mother cherished him, but we kept him grounded (let's paint this in the best light) with our barbs. Perhaps our meanest barb was to ask him to point to his head and say his initials (M. T.). We laughed like crazy, but it took him years to figure out what we were laughing at.

Jimmy Conrad was Michael's age and lived right around the corner. His father was a pen manufacturer and you've probably used one of those pens at some point in your life. Jimmy was one of those kids that could do everything with ease. He was a flawless shooter in basketball, a good pitcher and a good all around athlete. His only problem was that he was kind of short. Jimmy became our third brother. Either he slept over the Tasker house or the two Tasker boys slept at his house. The Tasker boys went on all of Jimmy's family vacations and vice versa.

The thing about the triumvirate was that all three boys loved the same things. It was the Yankees, the Knicks and playing sports from the moment we woke up to the minute the sun went down. The trio all loved to watch the games and to keep score. Truthfully, watching the games over at Jimmy's house was better because he had a color television and the Tasker boys only had a black and white. Plus, Jimmy's father installed a refrigerator in the family room downstairs just for Coca-Cola. That thing was always packed with those perfect green bottles.

That basement also had a ping pong table and a pool table. So if it was raining or if the trio got too hot, there was something else to do. And truthfully, there was always something to do. For this writer, there is a real sadness that the most common refrain from kids today is that they are bored. The trio was never bored. In fact, this writer can't remember a single boring moment of childhood.

In winter, there was football and basketball. If we couldn't find enough kids to play a game of tackle, there was a game where turns were taken as the quarterback with the two receivers alternately using the curb like an out-of-bounds marker to see who could make the best catches and stay in bounds. Basketball was played at the park about a mile away or over at Mickey's house, a boy about six blocks away who had a half court in his back yard.

There were blocks-wide games of tag and other such games. Bikes were ridden for miles just to go wherever the trio wanted to go. But of course, the best was the summer. Not only was there no school, but there was an entire day to play some kind of ball. Most days included a morning game of stick ball with other kids of the neighborhood. The games were five on five and two manhole covers were a home run. You had to hit the ball in the middle and between the curbs, or it was an out. Broomsticks were the bats and Spalding red rubber balls were the only balls to use.

After stick ball was wiffle ball. This was always a three-person game with just the three friends and always played at Jimmy's house because he had a garage with those squares as a design. The squares guaranteed a strike zone. Willie, Jimmy and the Mike each were their own teams. One would pitch, the other would bat and the third would play outfield. After three outs it was time to rotate. Willie would switch hit, but the other two batted right-handed. Jimmy was the fastest pitcher, but Willie could really make that wiffle ball dance.

When Jimmy wasn't around--which wasn't often--the Tasker boys would play a game called, "Ground Ball to Short." Paced diagonally across the street and about sixty or seventy feet, each player took turns being the shortstop and the first baseman. This game was played with a baseball, which would get beat to heck as it got torn up by the pavement. Each game was nine innings and an out was recorded with a clean field of the ball and an accurate throw to first. Errors meant base runners and four base runners meant a run. This writer was the better first baseman but Michael was the better shortstop.

Then there was stoop ball. This again involved the red rubber ball. This game was always played at the Tasker household because those front steps (or stoop) were perfect. This game simply involved one player throwing the ball hard against the steps and the other player as the fielder trying to catch it. Again, this game was a nine inning game with the two players taking turns as the fielder until the three outs of an inning were recorded.

Frisbee was another great pastime and all three boys became very good at long-tossing that disc. There was also a lot of golf, played mostly at a nearby par three course. One time, the Conrad vacation was to Mickey Rooney's resort in Pennsylvania which included a golf course. That was a really memorable time. One time, this author hit a beautiful shot on a par three hole where you couldn't see the green. We all had our own golf carts and this author couldn't wait to see where that shot landed. So off he went on his cart tearing down the hill. The cart path crossed the fairway and half way across it, there was a loud ping sound off the side of the cart. This author looked back to see a very angry Michael jumping up and down because his brother had just ruined his shot.

On the weekends, Mom took the three boys to Laurel Lake, a man-made lake in Montvale, New Jersey. Mom always scraped up enough money to fund a family membership there and not only did it have sand beaches, but this big fountain in the middle. It's where we all learned to swim and dive off the diving board. We also used our trusty red rubber balls to dive into the water. We all loved making diving catches. In one of the true tragedies of life, the lake was filled in and is an office park now.

Willie, Jimmy and the Mike had plenty of ways to amuse themselves. This writer created a baseball game made of dice and each roll was a value for a single, homer, strikeout, walk, etc. If memory serves, a double-one roll was a homer and a seven was a strikeout. The trio played a full league's worth of games before graduating to Strat-O-Matic baseball, which was much more sophisticated. The three boys played thousands of those games every summer.

Two or three weeks of the summer were spent in Wildwood, New Jersey. The Tasker family rented from this lovely Italian family named Tropia and the Taskers (and Jimmy, of course) had the entire upstairs. The house was only a half block from the beach and the boardwalk. Those two or three weeks were easily the highlight of childhood, but did contain one last bit of sadness. When this author was seventeen and the other two were fifteen, a call was received at the Tropia's. Jimmy's parents had split up and Mr. Conrad took off. Jimmy was devastated and Mom drove the three hours that night to take him home.

For some reason, that event marked the end of Willie, Jimmy and the Mike. Jimmy just left us after that. He still lived in the same house but didn't want anything to do with the Tasker boys anymore. It was hard to understand and in fact, it still is today more than thirty-seven years after the events. Soon after, this author went by himself to New Hampshire College and Mike found new friends. The inseparable were separated and all that is left are the grand memories of all those fun times for kids just being kids.

Michael lives in South Carolina with his family, which is a long way from Maine. Who knows where Jimmy is. This author tried to find him on social media one time but his name is way too common to succeed. His father died in Florida. Perhaps his mother is gone now too. Wherever you are, Jimmy, you were like a brother and you are missed. Thanks, Mike, and thanks, Jimmy, for the memories.

1 comment:

Charles Simone said...

Awesome...except the sad part, of course.