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patterns of ink

How fruitless to be ever thinking yet never embrace a thought... to have the power to believe and believe it's all for naught. I, too, have reckoned time and truth (content to wonder if not think) in metaphors and meaning and endless patterns of ink. Perhaps a few may find their way to the world where others live, sharing not just thoughts I've gathered but those I wish to give. Tom Kapanka

Thursday, May 06, 2010

The Voice of Summer

It's been a busy week, and I know longer live in the immediate Detroit area, so forgive me if this news is a couple days late.  On the radio Tuesday morning, I heard the voice of Ernie Harwell.  It was a tribute of some kind, but I didn't hear until Wednesday that he had died at the age of 92. I was thinking about it as I went to bed, and in those strange early-morning hours when our subconscious sorts out life, I was either dreaming or thinking about him. I wasn't really thinking about the man Ernie Harwell as much as his voice, which for the first half of my life was the voice of summer.

Oh, I’d seen Ernie's face several times on TV through the decades, but it was his voice that was an old friend. If he had called me on the phone, I would have known him within a few words of greeting. There are probably hundreds of thousands of Detroit Tiger fans who know exactly what I mean. It was Harwell’s never-changing voice that filled the summer soundtrack of my life (from roughly the time I was five to about age forty-five).

I  remember hearing ballgames in the background from my grandparent’s front porch, from my neighbor's patio, from various houses as I delivered papers, and from different blankets in the distance on the beach. As a teenager, my brother Paul always had the game on his transister radio no matter what else we were doing. Even when I lived in Iowa in the 80's and 90's, I discovered that my car radio could pick up WJR at night. Don’t ask me how it traveled 700 miles, but on some nights at a particular spot in the park near our home, I could sit in my car and hear Ernie calling the game. It was magical…as if I had drifted back in time. I did this often in the late summer of 1984, those months before the Tigers won the World Series. If I was fortunate enough to catch a game on TV in those years, they were covered by George Kell and Al Kaline, whose voices had the same power to make me feel like I was not so far from home. But I have heard far more Tiger games in my life than I have watched on TV, and that's why Harwell's voice is so fixed in my mind.

To be honest, I am not a huge baseball fan. I rarely sit in front a TV glued to a game. It’s a background sport to me (until a team I care about is in a pennant race). On certain summer days, however, baseball has an ambient quality no other game can match—especially when heard on a radio. It takes me back to summer days of long ago. The crack of the bat, the roar of the crowd, and Ernie Harwell’s voice chatting away from a little box at the end of a picnic table—the score may have mattered in the moment, but in hindsight it is secondary to the sound effects themselves.

I mentioned I heard Harwell's voice this morning in my head. It wasn't a dream so much as an early-morning memory before I woke. Here's the scene I recalled:

I was dozing off on a blanket in the shade of trees at a place called Marysville Park, just south of Port Huron. It would have been the summer of 76,77, or 78, because I'd been working midnight shift at the Ford Vinyl Plant—hence the nap on the blanket at noon.

The centerpiece of that park for over fifty years has been this old steam locomotive. As I lay on the blanket, I could hear children’s voices and the hollow metallic echo of their feet stomping in the coal bin of the train, and I remembered the many picnics long-past when my brothers and I would have been among those kids. Between that train and me, were three tables pulled together with my Uncle Bob's family and our family getting ready to sit down and eat—and somewhere in the distance someone was listening to the tiger game. There was a cool breeze coming off of the St. Clair River, and I had pulled the edges of the blanket around me. I must have looked like a giant cocoon there on the lawn, but between the sounds of children in the distance, a dozen familiar voices nearby, and Ernie Harwell’s folksy tones filling the air between, it was an unforgettable sliver of time—how else could it have blown like a dandelion seed to the part of my mind that dreams?
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Part Two of "Four in Corduroy" coming this weekend.

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