Wednesday, November 23, 2016

The past I am borne back ceaselessly into

The afternoon before Game 5 of the World Series, I went for a run. The weekend before I had skipped the Frank Lloyd Wright Race, my hometown's annual 10K, for the first time in years, because my right knee has been bothering me a little, and I didn't want to aggravate it. I'm not in race shape, but I always go for at least a short run on the weekend. My plan that day was to do four miles. The night before, the Indians had won Game 4, giving them a 3 to 1 lead over the Cubs. It was possible Sunday night would bring the Tribe its first crown since 1948. As my wife could tell you, I'm generally pretty optimistic, not prone to worrying, instead believing things will get done, things will work out. My favorite baseball team is my exception. When it comes to the Indians, I expect the worse. I wouldn't believe they'd win the World Series until it happened, not one pitch sooner, but they were as close as a team could be, needing to win just one more game, and with three chances to do it. They were on my mind when I set out that afternoon, and I found myself pulled towards the house I lived in when I first fell in love with the team, now more than 30 years gone by.

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"And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby's wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy's dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night. 

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther.... And one fine morning—— 

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."


- The final lines of The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

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Mom's Apartment on Lombard

I began by heading south, towards the train tracks that divide Oak Park, and a few minutes in, I decided not just to run by the place I lived when I became an Indians fan, but to run by every place I've lived in Oak Park, because they all speak to some part of my fandom, and some part of who I am today. I went under the tracks on Harvey, turned left on Pleasant, and then, just over a mile into the run, I turned right on Lombard, taking me by the apartment where I lived with my mom for half of every week for a few years. My mom had a print of a painting by a French Realist named Jules Breton, called The Song of the Lark. Is the sun in that painting rising or setting? How does one know Either way, something other than the sun holds the woman's attention. The year I graduated from junior high, 1994, the Indians were having their best season in years. They had a very real chance at winning the division and making the postseason for the first time in my lifetime, and quite a while before my lifetime. Near the end of the summer a labor dispute ended the baseball season early, taking the postseason with it, and my mom moved to Minnesota. Things should not be taken for granted.

Dad's Apartment on Washington

Just two blocks farther south, I went by the building where my dad had an apartment, before he remarried. I mostly remember three things about living there: 1) The day we moved in, I was running up and down the long hallway that ran from the living room in the front of the apartment, to the kitchen in the back. Someone who lived downstairs came up and yelled at us. It was the moment I realized an apartment was not the same as a house. 2) The lunch my dad packed me was always the same: two Kraft singles on white bread, a bag of chips, a twin-pack of Nutty Bars, and an Ecto Cooler. I'm not sure what that has to do with anything, but it seems worth mentioning. 3) Dad often watched an hour of M*A*S*H in the evening; I was allowed to watch the first episode, then it was bedtime, unless they were showing a two-part story that night, in which case I could convince him to let me stay up. My eventual lack of a bedtime altogether owes a debt to Hawkeye Pierce and the brave men and women of the 4077th. Some nights we'd put on a ballgame. The Cubs had only just begun to play night games, and they didn't have many of them. There was no way to watch the Indians. Being a fan back then was limited to checking scores and the standings in the newspaper, and collecting their baseball cards.

Our Apartment on Cuyler

I turned right on Washington, cut over to Cuyler, and went farther south, past the building my family lived in when we first moved to Oak Park, when I was only a few months old. I don't have any memories of living there, because we'd moved again by the time I was three. In fact, I don't even know which building it was, because there are three on that block that look alike, even pictures that exists from our time there don't give me a definitive answer. I wasn't aware of baseball yet, and anything I know of that time in my life comes from the stories of others. I was just a very small human whose sister dressed him up in goofy clothes for the entertainment of her friends. Jennifer also used to give me things that made me happy, all so that she could take them away and bring me to the verge of tears, because she liked the face I made when I was just about to cry. This now seems like good preparation for someone who'd eventually become an Indians fan.

704 Highland

Two miles into my run, I passed Longfellow Center, where I worked during high school and summers during college, and then Longfellow School, where I spent my elementary years. Across from the school is 704 Highland, the house where I lived when I became a fan. The backyard there is where I first played catch with my dad. My favorites were the high flies my dad would sometimes send into orbit above me. Once, just before a road trip, I misplayed one of those satellites, and caught it with my face instead of my glove, leading to a lot of tears and an unhappy car ride to Iowa. My dad took my to games at Wrigley and Comiskey, but neither of my parents cared much about following sports or had a particular rooting interest. It was Mr. Coughlin, father of my friends J.P. and Sean, who really fostered by interest in baseball. Mr. Coughlin always called me "Jason W. Lukehart;" I never knew what the W stood for, but I always liked it. J.P. was a year older than me, and began playing t-ball a year before I could. When I was six, Sean and I were placed on the same team as J.P., which is how I joined the Indians.

708 Highland

Before we lived at 704, we lived right next door at 708. I don't know why we made moved one house over. I don't recall very much from the first house I lived in; what I remember most is lying on the floor of the sun room at the front of the house, learning to read. Sometimes I was with Mom, sometimes on my own. I remember the world of Richard Scarry, populated by animals who put in an honest day's work at practical jobs. Years later I'd branch out to the Hardy Boys, Calvin and Hobbes, Tolkien, and sports books. I found that I didn't really like any of the fictional sports books that were so popular in those days, such as Matt Christopher's ongoing series; I preferred the ones that recapped the previous season, or previewed the upcoming one, or highlighted the Cy Young winners of the 1970s. I loved learning about real players on real teams, from real history. I loved the words, but I also loved the numbers in those books, and the numbers on the back of my baseball cards; I loved that sometimes the numbers told their own stories.

My Apartment on Scoville

At the end of the block I turned right on Van Buren, cut over five streets, turned left, and passed the apartment where I lived during the 2010, 2011, and 2012 baseball seasons. I spent most of that time in a relationship I knew wasn't right for me. I was quietly concerned about how life was going to turn out. The Indians finished each of those years with a losing record, at least 15 games out of first place. It was a time marked by the decline of Grady Sizemore, the team's young former-superstar. Sizemore was born two years after me, and there was something disconcerting about watching someone younger than me fall apart. I could only hope young arrivals such as Michael Brantley, Lonnie Chisenhall, Jason Kipnis, Carlos Santana would someday get the team turned back around. With my own life, I decided to exert more control. I ended that relationship and asked out the intriguing girl I'd met at a friend's Halloween party, I began training to run the Chicago Marathon, and I started a blog. I finished the marathon in 3:59:21, I moved in with that girl (and eventually married her), and my blog got me mentioned in Sports Illustrated and the New York Times, and on Baseball Tonight. It also led to a gig writing for Let's Go Tribe, giving me contact with other Indians fans for the first time in my life.

Maple Park

I was now three miles into my run, but I decided that touring my life in Oak Park and as an Indians fan, the houses and apartments weren't enough. I had to go to Maple Park, in the very corner of town, next to the cement factory atop which a plastic Santa Claus has stood vigil every day since before I was born. I remember only one thing about my first day of t-ball: Coach Jerry told me never to wear shorts to practice again. I came to love Jerry, who once a season ended practice early and bought the entire team ice cream from the Good Humor truck. The Coughlins and my other friends on the team all cheered for the Cubs, but for me that t-shirt jersey, INDIANS in block letter across the front, my very own number on the back, it made an impression. If J.P. had been on the Red Sox, or Mariners, or Tigers, I might now be a Boston, Seattle, or Detroit fan. Those were very bad years for the Indians of Cleveland, but very good years for the Indians of Maple Park, and I became a very good player. In my final year of t-ball, when I was eight years old, we made it to the South Side title game. The winner of that game would face whichever team won the North Side crown, to decide the village championship. The day before the game, I could barely muster the energy to sit up. My mom took me to the doctor, where we learned I had chicken pox. The next evening my dad took me to Maple Park, and a safe distance from everyone else, we watched the game. My replacement at third base made two errors. We lost by one run. It's been 28 years, but I still think about it. I'll die believing that if not for that varicella-zoster virus, we'd have won. It was my first experience with the strain of caring intensely about a game you can only watch.

732 South Elmwood

I took the pedestrian bridge back across the expressway that cuts through the south side of town, and made my way back to Elmwood, the street I've lived on for more of my life than any other. 732 South Elmwood is where I moved my dad and I moved when I was ten, a couple months before he remarried. My stepmom Mary, and her children Colin and Alison already lived there. Colin, seven years older than me, shared my love for sports. We used to invent games to play, including a  one-on-one football battle that was eventually banned after my head struck a radiator. Alison was a tornado in the early years of our family, a teenage girl experiencing the full range of teenage girl emotions. She often raged against her mom and against my dad, but she always looked out for me, holding me blameless in the ruination of her life she believed our parents marriage had wrought. Not long after the wedding, we got cable TV. Suddenly I could watch a lot more baseball games, sometimes even the Indians. Not long after that, the Indians became a force, one powered by the likes of Albert Belle,  Kenny Lofton, Jim Thome, and Manny Ramirez. Colin had a TV in his bedroom, and that's often where I would watch sports, tucked into the small space between his bed and the wall, a spot that felt secure. Not even that space could protect me against Game 7 of the 1997 World Series. After the Indians blew their ninth-inning lead and then lost in extra innings, I sat down in the shower and cried.

The Apartment on Elmwood

Three blocks north of that house is the apartment where I lived with friends after college. I'd been spoiled by eight straight winning seasons for the Indians, and as that era ended, I found myself looking for other ways to enjoy baseball. We played something called MLB Showdown, sort of a cross between baseball card collecting and Dungeons & Dragons. We started a fantasy baseball league. I temporarily moved a bit more of my baseball emotion from loving the Indians to hating the Yankees, who'd won four World Series during the Indians' eight good years, while the Tribe had won none. Yankee Death Day, the day they were officially eliminated from any chance at winning the World Series, became a holiday for me. My roommates were big baseball fans too. Chris loves the Brewers, which serves to remind me that things could be worse. Zak loves the White Sox, so it was probably for the best that by 2005, when Cleveland and Chicago battled into the final days of the season for the division crown. I'd moved out west. The White Sox won that battle, then won the World Series. A month later, I was borne back to the very same apartment. The following spring, Chris, Zak, and went to Cleveland. I saw the Indians play at home for the first time. They lost. In 2007, I moved out of that apartment for a second time, into the city to live by myself for the first time. A few weeks later, when the Indians blew a 3 to 1 lead in the American League Championship Series, I was alone.

Mom's Apartment on Erie

The last old home on my tour was the tan brick apartment building my mom first moved to after she and my dad separated. My parents' divorce was not as traumatic an experience for me as such a thing is for many kids. In part this was probably because I never had to see or hear the two of them fight, and I was allowed to grow up without either of them ever badmouthing the other to me. That isn't to say there wasn't any strain inside me though. Not getting to be with my mom and dad together anymore was sometimes disappointing, and because my sister had gone away to college, she wasn't there anymore either. Both of the apartments my life was now split between were in Oak Park, so I didn't have to change schools, but I wasn't in the same neighborhood as my friends anymore. Everything had been pulled apart. I moved on from t-ball to baseball, so I was no longer playing for the Indians. If my bond with the team was going to break, that was the most likely time. I was in need of the familiar though, and held tightly to my favorite team.

The Tallest Tree in the Biggest Park

My dad was very involved in Oak Park, serving as campaign manager for multiple winning village council and village president tickets, working with the fair housing center, serving as president of the Oak Park Arts Council, and more. To be the son of John Lukehart in Oak Park was to be a child constantly waiting, watching their dad talk to someone. I used to hate it. Eleven years ago this month, my dad was diagnosed with glioblastoma, a relentless form of brain cancer. The initial change in his health was swift and terrifying for me; the next two years were slower, less terrifying, but more dispiriting. He died a few days after his 56th birthday. The intensity of those two years created very vivid memories, which shoved a lot of my earlier ones somewhere deeper, harder for me to access. Old pictures, the sculpture he kept in his office at work, the dining room table that came with him from Iowa.... Those things help me push the sight of him lying in a hospital bed out of my mind. Not long after he died, a small plaque was placed at the base of the tallest tree in Scoville Park, the most prominent park in town: "JOHN LUKEHART," it reads, "DEDICATED TO A DIVERSE COMMUNITY." When I need to, I run through Scoville Park, and as I go past his tree, I reach down and touch his name.

Our Home

I'd run more than nine miles by the time I made it back to the house my wife and I bought last year. It probably needs a new furnace, and mice sometimes get in, but we have a big yard, a sun room that glows in the afternoon, a window that our dog sits in, waiting for us to come home. This house is where I watched Game 5 of the World Series the evening after my run. The Indians took an early lead, but eventually lost. I got a text message from my mom, telling me she found herself cheering for the Indians. "I just like their faces and mannerisms," she wrote. I know better though. My life is mostly out of her hands now, but she'll forever want few things as dearly as she wants me to be happy. This house is where I watched Game 6, two nights later. The Indians got blown out. I went out to sit on our deck, noticing the board that sticks up, wishing I could ask my dad if he thinks it just needs some minor work, or if the whole thing is going to give way. This house is where I watched Game 7. The Indians fell behind immediately, but battled back. They fell behind again, then battled back again. The game went to extra innings, the first World Series Game 7 to do that since 1997. You may recall that I cried at the end of that one. To come so close, and then fall short.... It hurts.

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I've lost the thread of this writing. That run was more than three weeks ago, and a lot has happened in the world since then. I felt something important that day, footsteps taking me back through my life, but the words in my head that afternoon now feel just out of my reach, and I'm not sure how to end this.

The boy watching helplessly at Maple Park as his team lost the big game, he's still inside me. So is the boy crying in the shower about something he couldn't control, and the one lying awake, trying to understand why things fall apart, sometimes even the ones you most want to hold together.

Before all of that there was the boy thrilled to put on his first uniform, the boy eating ice cream in the grass after practice, and the boy posing for a picture, his pants coated with a satisfying layer of dirt. All of that happened here in Oak Park, my blue lawn and my light at the end of the dock.

After all of that, after the final game ended, I wondered if it'll be another 19 years before the Indians get that close again. I wondered what will happen in the next 19 years. I went upstairs and took a quick shower (this time without crying), then climbed into bed. The sound of my hometown celebrating something many had been waiting a long time for would not abate for some time. I lie awake, dwelling on the past. Elizabeth was not quite asleep either, and at some point she gently pulled my arm around her and pressed my hand against her stomach. At first I felt nothing.... then it was there, tiny kicks against my palm: the future.

5 comments:

  1. I love your personal writings. While reading this one I could visualize everything you passed in the 9 mile run and the journey of your life in the various homes all in Oak Park. It's not that I am familiar with Oak Park as I have only visited there a few times in my life. But you made them seem vivid as though I was seeing what you were seeing.
    You are a multi-talented man, Jason. I can't wait to see you in your future as a Daddy. You will soar.

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  2. This is wonderful, Jason. It's your best writing.

    The Sox were winning the division in '94.

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