I will forever be grateful for being able to grow up living next door to my second cousins in the little community of Clay, Alabama. Dad and Mom had four children: Ronald, me, Karen, and Stephen. Jim and Emma had seven: Jane, Jimmy, Rodney, B. W., Jerry, Elaine, and Dede. Dad and Jim’s respective mothers were sisters. Our lives were intertwined in so many ways.
The two properties we lived on were separated by a geographic feature we called “the ditch.” In reality, it was a shallow swale that only had water after a major rain. The ditch was important for it served as the meeting place where we decided the day’s adventures or just met to talk about Tarzan, Superman, Lash LaRue, or some other almost real hero of ours. The ditch also was the outer boundary of the prison which we could not cross if we were being punished by one of our moms.
Jim and Emma’s house was wood frame supported by stone pillars that had no skirting on the side facing ours. Due to the slope of the yard, this provided an excellent place for us to play in the dry soil where we created roads, bridges, lakes, and little towns for our mostly homemade toy vehicles. We could play under there for hours provided one of us didn’t bump our head on a wasp nest which would send the wasps and us flying. Some years later, Jim built a large ranch-style house immediately east of this house and we lost the engineering marvels we constructed under the old house.
When stormy weather was brewing, Emma, with kids in tow, would come over to our house. I don’t know if our house seemed safer or that Mom and Emma had a pact that if we were going to be blown away we may as well all go together. It may have been a matter of safety for them but for us kids it was another play time.
In our two yards we climbed trees, caught lightning bugs, tied June bugs on strings, learned to ride bicycles, and the list goes on. However, of all the things we did, nothing matched playing the game of baseball. As soon as it got the least bit warm, out came the bats, balls, and gloves. By May, one could see the base lines of the infield worn into the grass.
Home plate was located in our yard about half way between our front stoop and Clay-Palmerdale Road. First base was next to the Flowering Quince near the road while second base was across the ditch in Jim’s yard. Third base was back across the ditch near the SE corner of our house. In the middle of center field was a large oak tree and in left there was a gnarly dogwood tree. An elm tree grew about fifteen feet behind home plate. Needless to say, every ball hit into the air was an adventure. And we had more ground rules than any park in America.
Foul balls on the third base side would often find their way through one of the glass window panes of our house. Play was suspended while someone fetched the errant ball and checked to see if my Mom was okay. I never remember a time when my Dad got angry over a broken window as long as it was broken in pursuit of a good game of baseball. He always seemed to have plenty of glass and glazing compound around so we could do the repairs at the end of the day when he got home from work.
Foul balls on the first base side usually crossed the road and, if we were lucky, found their way into Mr. Renda’s turnip field. Most often, they ended up on the road bank with its mass of honeysuckle and other assorted vines and weeds. In looking for our ball, we would often find previously lost balls that were by now waterlogged. We would remove the covers, dry them out, wrap them in friction tape, and then roll them around in the dust to offset the stickiness of the tape. Often a ball would roll into the culvert that went under the road where it intersected the ditch. Jerry, being young and small, was especially helpful in going into the culvert to retrieve the ball.
Occasionally Ned and Dean, our even closer cousins, would come over to play. Their dad was a brother to our grandmothers making them first cousins, once removed. Sometimes other kids in the community would come as well and the yard would be full. Those days were like a day game at Wrigley Field.
When I was eleven years old, Trussville had started an official Little League and we all started playing there. My first team was the Giants coached by Steve Quick. After two years there, it was on to Pony League where I played for the Pirates coached by Paul Durrette. Following Pony League I played a year in Sr. Little League for J. W. Waid. After that, two years in a league in Center Point. Even then, the organized ball we played was flanked by baseball in the front yard
Following the Center Point league, I played BABF (Birmingham Amateur Baseball Federation) ball for Bradford, AL. I don’t think there was a single player on the team that actually lived in Bradford but we did have a few local fans show up for the games. I particularly remember three or four elderly gentlemen that came to our home games. They sat immediately behind home plate. After a few games, we realized they were not there to watch their home team play. They only came to rag the umpires and rag them they did.
I don’t see many baseball games in front yards anymore. I suppose that has given way to manicured lawns by professional landscapers and electronic baseball and other games on x-boxes. I wonder if kids know what they are missing. I learned much about living and loving in that front yard. Those lessons still guide me today.
We lost Jimmy, Jerry, and B. W. way too early and I see Jane, Rodney, Elaine, and Dede infrequently and that usually at a funeral. Still, I will forever be grateful for being able to grow up living next door to my second cousins in the little community of Clay, Alabama.