Tony the Phil had a pounding headache, which happened the minute he stood up from a dead sleep, and bothered him through breakfast. It bothered him walking to the newsstand to get his copy of the Daily Mirror. It still bothered him as he rode the train to Ebbets Field.
He couldn’t shake it off. Shaking his head made it worse. He closed his eyes. He tried to read the tabloid, but he couldn’t concentrate. He closed his eyes again. Five minutes later he was getting some shut-eye, lulled to sleep by the rocking of the train.
He woke up when his stop was called. He felt a little better. He knew he wouldn’t miss his station when he dozed off. He never did, even though his hearing was bad. It was like his brain screened out the talk of the passengers, but was primed to hear the voice of the PA system.
“Goddamn Robert Moses,” he thought, crossing Bedford Avenue, the ballpark in sight. Everybody knew somebody was going to have to blow up his limo before the Dodgers got a new stadium. Ebbets Field was the smallest park in the National League. The plumbing was bad. Even sold-out games didn’t help, although they helped. There was practically no parking anywhere and the Atlantic Yards was where the team should go. But Moses wanted them to move to a city-owned stadium in Queens. That wasn’t going to happen.
“We’re the Brooklyn Dodgers, not the Queens Dodgers,” the boss had said.
The boss was determined to get a bigger ballpark. He’d been planning for ten years. He was already playing seven or eight of their home games at Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City. They’d played the first one there almost two weeks ago, edging the Phillies by a run. The threat of relocating was in the air. O’Malley was going to face Moses down. He was making his point. There was no doubt about it.
The front office was going to move the team, that was for sure, maybe move out of Brooklyn, maybe even move to the west coast, even though there wasn’t a team anywhere west of Kansas City.
“Christ, Jersey City!” he spat on the sidewalk.
King Hanky-Panky was gone, he wasn’t the mayor anymore, but his gang was still running things, and he was still living like a millionaire, and anybody who said anything about it to him was told he was a rotten commie. There were no shoulders on the Pulaski Skyway over the Hackensack and Passaic rivers and the breakdown lane was in the middle of the bridge. Everybody called it the suicide lane. They were finally building a concrete median this summer to put a stop to the head-on accidents. Once you got over the bridge to Jersey City it smelled like soap and perfume, especially the closer downwind you got to the Colgate Plant on Hudson Street.
It was the first day of May. It was sunny, in the low 50s. By the time they got to work on the field it might hit 60. The team was in Cincinnati playing the Redlegs. The grounds crew had the rest of the week and more to get the field in tip-top shape. After that it was home games the rest of the month.
Tony De Marco walked past the ballpark, crossed Flatbush Avenue, and walked into Prospect Park. He had a half-hour to kill. When he got to the shoreline opposite Duck Island he found a bench and sat down, looking out over the water. He pulled a pack of cigarettes and a Ronson lighter from his jacket pocket. His headache wasn’t any worse. It was probably a little better.
“L & M filters are just what the doctor ordered!” is what the ads said. Maybe a smoke would help him feel better. He leaned back and lit up, watching ducks and a line of ducklings waddle into the water. One of the mallards stayed on the shore, in profile, keeping that side of his eyes on him.
There was a grouping of six and seven-foot-tall butterfly bushes flanking and to the back of his bench. In the summer, once it got hot and the red lilac-like flowers bloomed, the bushes attracted butterflies and hummingbirds. Now that the ducks were back he would have to remember to bring a bag of stale bread to the park.
Tony ate lunch in Prospect Park sometimes when the team was on the road. When they were at home there was too much work to do. He helped roll the tarpaulin out for rainstorms, like everyone else, and he had assigned work, but he didn’t do any mowing. The head groundskeeper made sure the grass was cut everyday if the team was in town, He might cut the infield grass shorter than usual if a bunt happy team was on the schedule. When Jackie Robinson had been faster than just about anybody the grass was often kept long and the dirt in front of home plate watered down for him. His first ever hit for the Dodgers had been a bunt single.
One of Tony’s jobs was laying the foul lines, coaching boxes, and batting boxes. The Colored Comet stole the plate two and three times a year. Tony made sure the chalk line from third base to home was straight as an arrow.
He took a deep drag and felt better. He would have to tell the doc about his headaches. He’s been able to help him with his bad dreams without shock treatments or talking about combat fatigue. He knew most of the VA shrinks yakked it up about hostility and neurosis aroused by war. They didn’t know what the hell they were talking about. They never talked about how goddamned horrible it was.
He was lucky to have found Doc Baird, although when he thought about it, it was more like Doc Baird had found him. He couldn’t remember exactly how it happened. Besides the ear doctor in Japan, who told him he had lost some of his hearing, Doc Baird was the only doctor he had talked to the past three years who made sure to face him when they were talking.
“They didn’t have earplugs or nothing for us,” said Tony the Phil. “They’d say, you just have to live with it. Put paper or cotton in your ears. They didn’t care about us. I had to go to a MASH hospital one time. There was something wrong with me. I thought it might have been pneumonia. That night they brought in a bunch of guys who’d been in a firefight, crying and hollering, all mangled up. I couldn’t stand it. I left and hitchhiked back to my outfit.”
The ducklings swam in a slightly broken line behind the drab-feathered mother duck, putting up a racket to keep her brood together and safe. He had once seen a turtle rise up and gobble down a duckling.
“When did you serve in Korea?” asked Doctor Baird.
“I was there from the start, at Inchon. I got drafted in 1949, right after I turned 21, when the new law said everybody over 18 had to register. I just didn’t have any luck. Only ten thousand guys got drafted that whole year and I was one of them. I didn’t want to go. My doctor wrote them a letter saying I had a bad back and you can’t use him. My boss wrote a letter saying we can’t spare him, we need him for the team, but they didn’t listen to nothing.”
“You didn’t want to join up?”
“No, but when my number was finally up I went down to the draft board. There was a big Marine there. He got us all lined up. He’d hit a guy in the chest. Marine! A couple more guys, he’s hit another one in the chest. Marine! When he got to me he went to the next guy. He didn’t want me. Hell, I only weighed 140 pounds then. They put me in the Army for two years and sent me to Fort Dix. We had a newspaper there, the Stars and Stripes. It said, ‘Fort Dix Turns Out Killers’. They called us killers. I wasn’t mad at anybody. I wasn’t a killer.”
The ducks dipped their heads underwater as they swam, scooping up plants and insects. The drake on the shoreline walked off looking for land bugs. Waddling away he twisted his head around and grunted, then whistled at Tony. He didn’t hear the whistle, just like he barely heard birdsongs.
“You lost almost half your hearing while you were in the artillery?”
“I wasn’t supposed to be, but that’s what happened,” said Tony. “Most of the guys I trained with went to Europe. Three squads of us got sent to Korea. I had to fly to Seattle, wait thirty days, and then they put us on a ship across the Pacific, which took another twenty days. When we landed in Yokohama, we said, maybe we’ll just stay in Japan, but the next thing I knew I was landing at Inchon in a barge. That whole town was blown to bits.
“I was trained for the infantry, but after we landed they said, we have enough infantry guys, we need guys in the artillery. They sent me to the 37th Field Artillery Battalion, 2nd Division. They gave us a patch for our sleeve with a star and an Indian on it. We used to say, ‘Second to None!’ Right away they put me on a gun section and we got orders for a fire mission. We had twelve guns, 105’s, loud, just boom, boom, boom.
“When it was over and guys were talking, I only saw lips moving. I couldn’t hear a damn thing for a half hour, right off the bat. I wasn’t used to that kind of noise.”
“How did you get captured?” asked Doctor Baird.
“After about four months, after Inchon, what happened, they said, you’ve got infantry training, we’re going to make you a forward observer, so I had go with the infantry. My job was to tell our guys where to shoot the stuff. If there were ten thousand gooks in the open, we’d say, shoot the stuff that explodes in the air. It would rain down on those guys, the shrapnel getting them. Other times it was quick shells, the kind that explode the instant they hit the ground, or delays, the kind that stick in the ground and wait a while.”
“You were battling the North Koreans?”
“No, we were fighting the Chinese, tough soldiers. They were good with mortars. If a round landed in front of you, and right away another landed behind you, we always said, get the hell out of the middle. There wasn’t anything but hills in Korea. We would lob over the hills when the infantry was going up one side to take it. We tried to shoot over them, down on the gooks, but sometimes it would land on our own guys.
“That’s what happened to me and my buddy. We got caught up in some wire. You always had to watch for incoming rounds. As long as you heard a whistle, you’re OK. The one that gets you, you never hear it. He got killed, and I got nicked up. I couldn’t get off the wire. I still have scars on my arms. The Chinese picked me up. They had me for about three weeks, but I got sick, something in my stomach, and when there was a prisoner exchange they sent me back. I got flown to Japan and was in a hospital for a month, but I made it.”
Tony stubbed the L & M out under his heel. He tucked his lighter away. It was time to get to work.
“There was one Greek kid I knew, he was a baseball player, but he got a leg blown off. They gave him an artificial leg. He didn’t tell anybody about it and tried to come back. He was still trying to make it in the minors after I got home, but, of course, he couldn’t make it.”
The home plate entrance to Ebbets Field was an 80-foot rotunda made of Italian marble. Tony De Marco went around the back, to a door behind the bleachers in center field. He checked in with the watchman.
“When I got healthy they said, you can go home unless you want to re-up. We’ll give you $300.00 if you do that. We made $90.00 a month and they paid us $45.00 extra whenever we were in combat. But they didn’t want to pay me for the couple months I had left on my two years, so I said, no way.”
“So you went home after you got better,” said Doctor Baird.
“Yeah, I came home to Brooklyn, got my old job back, except my old job was cleaning up in the aisles, and now I’m doing maintenance work.”
After Tony changed into his work clothes in the cramped grounds crew locker room, he walked out to the field. They were raking the sand clay mix today, the infield, foul lines, and on-deck plot. His headache was gone. The ballpark was going to look good for the Giants next week.
“Hey Tony, big night tonight with Phil?” asked one of the three men with rakes on their shoulders as he walked up to them with his own rake.
“You bet,” he said. ”It’s Bilko tonight. Except Bilko this time gets it over on the con men who try to gyp one of the guys. Ike’s going to like this one”
Dwight Eisenhower was a fan of “You’ll Never Get Rich”. Earlier in the season the King of Chutzpah had gotten a telegram from Ike’s press secretary. “The Old Man missed last night’s show.” A print of the show was immediately shipped to the White House.
“You must have seen it filmed.”
“That would be a good bet, too. They made everybody roll around on the floor, except for Phil, in their uniforms because the uniforms came in looking too crisp, too starchy, for being in the motor pool. They looked scruffy enough when they were done.”
The show was filmed live in Chelsea in a building that used to be the armory of the Ninth Mounted Cavalry. It was shot like a play and recorded to film. It didn’t matter that that it was a comedy and Phil Silvers ad-libbed like a man lost in his own schemes. Tony had been in the audience more than a dozen times. He looked forward to Phil Silvers coming up with something off the top of his cue ball.
Tony the Phil was a big fan of Master Sergeant Ernest Bilko, who was named after Chicago Cubs first baseman Steve Bilko. “Bingo to Bango to Bilko” was the way the Chicago radio play-by-play man called double plays involving short stop Ernie Banks, second baseman Gene Baker, and Steve Bilko. Tony never missed a show, unless the Dodgers were playing under the lights.
He wasn’t the only fan of the show among the crew, but he was the show’s biggest fan among them. Sergeant Bilko was a pushy patsy whose get-rich-quick schemes almost always fell flat on their face. His tips never panned out either, but nobody ever bad-mouthed him for trying. They loved him for trying.
“They always lose, but they don’t blame me, because to a gambler a bad tip is better than no tip at all,” said Phil Silvers.
A short man wearing a plaid cap, a stogie stuck in his thick lips, standing on the far side of the pitcher’s mound in a pair of green knee-high rubber boots, waved a hand at Tony.
“Tony, go out there and check the drainage in center,” said Max Ringolsby, the crew chief, pointing over the top of the second base bag. “Duke said something about the grass being damp out there, maybe the drain is clogged up.”
The Duke of Flatbush was one of the team’s outfielders, usually assigned to roam center field. The year before he was the National League’s MVP runner-up. Nobody wanted to see him go head over heels on a slick spot.
Tony walked off the infield, into the outfield, to the middle of center field, and found the drain. He got down on his hands and knees. The ground was more waterlogged than it should have been. Drain pipes crossed the field and water flowed down a very slight fall to a larger drain pipe that ran into the storm water system. The pipe was about four inches below the sand, clay, and gravel that was below the grass.
Tony cut a block of sod from around the drain and dug down to the drain grate. It was stopped up with debris. He retrieved a screwdriver from the tool room and removed the cover. He put it on the ground beside him and started cleaning it. He had the feeling someone was watching him. He looked around the field. Almost everyone was working at something. Nobody was watching him.
But, he could smell a rat when he saw one.
He bent forward and looked into the drain. A dark-eyed brown rat leaned up and looked back at him. He might have been a foot-and-half. His teeth were long, but gnawed down. Rats chewed on anything, cement, brick, and lead pipes. One of the guys fed scrambled eggs to the rats that visited their locker room. Tony wondered what he was doing up in the middle of the day. He didn’t wonder that the rat was in the sewer. They could tread water for days.
The rats bred and lived and died and bred in Ebbets Field. They never left. They’d been there since the stadium was built in 1913 because there were always leftover hot dogs, roasted peanuts, soft pretzels, and Cracker Jack beneath seats and around overflowing trash bins.
“Boo,” said Tony the Phil.
The brown rat blinked and slipped back into the storm drain.
Storm Drain – A Stan Rittman Mystery
Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus.