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When I walked into class at Mount Holyoke College the other day, the conversation among students was what you’d expect a few days before Halloween.

They were talking candy.

Marcella said her favorite was Hershey’s Milk Chocolate with Almonds. For Leslie, it was Charleston Chews—all three flavors.  Lauren admitted she liked Mary Janes, and those taffy balls wrapped in orange and black waxed paper, oh, and Milk Duds. Madeline was torn.  “There are so many,” she said, and then opted for Reese’s. Later she confessed to eating seven boxes of Nerds while preparing for her Italian mid-term.  “The mini ones,” she declared.  “And it was Dante!”

(L-R) Reese's, Charleston Chews, Mary Jane and Hershey's Milk Chocolate with Almonds

As a kid, I loved Halloween candy.  Snickers were my favorites and my dad taught me they’re best popped in the freezer for a couple of hours before eating.

But when it came to the whole Halloween experience, my attitude was mixed.  I never liked dressing in costume.  That terrorizing scene in “To Kill a Mockingbird” hit close to home.  I disliked wearing a sweaty plastic mask cock-eyed on my head and worried that someone’s big brother would swoop from behind and scare the daylights out of me.

Come to think of it, the only time I ever enjoyed dressing in costume was for Miss America pageant parties I used to attend back in grad school.  Everybody came decked out as their home state and we laughed at the show’s ridiculousness.   One year when Missouri, my home state, experienced epic flooding, I came dressed as “Becky Thatcher at 30 feet above Flood Stage.”  (Think bonnet and hip waders.)  Another year, a friend took home the top costume prize for her simple yet impeccable salute to Connecticut.  She was “Road Construction. Expect Delays.”

Growing up in Florissant, my neighborhood was a baby boomer’s Halloween paradise.  Streets upon streets of new homes and World War II vets who were more grateful than we ever would know to spend their evening passing out M & Ms. In those days, there were so many kids moving in that you only had to go half-a-block to find someone in your class or scout troop.  David Campbell, Sue Brown, the Clohessy twins, the Frey kids, Pat Gregory, Patty Lawrence, Gail Swick.  They all were just a quick bike ride away.

On Halloween, there was one friend’s house we always visited.

Randy Russell lived eight houses away and we rode together on the same school bus. You get to know someone pretty well riding a school bus for twelve years. Randy was a wonderful kid—fun to be with and kind—and a friendship with Randy came with a bonus.  He had great parents.  On Halloween, Joe and Lucille Russell dazzled the neighborhood.

The Russell family’s Haunted House was well known up and down all the nearby “Saint Streets”: St. Catherine, St. Nicholas, St. Cornelius.  If you were a kid and knew, for example, that the best local ice cream could be found at Bergen’s Dairy, you certainly knew that the Russells were THE stop on Halloween.

Randy’s parents loved kids.  And maybe because they had only one child, they were especially open to entertaining the neighborhood.  About two weeks before Halloween, word would leak out at school that the Russells were going ALL OUT this year.  Rumors began to fly about wild costumes and boiling caldrons and a secret transformation going on that would take their one-car garage and turn it into the NIGHTMARE ON ST. ANTHONY STREET!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Actually the Russells’ Halloween extravaganza was less about terror and more about imagination.  I think they worked for weeks turning electric fans, flower pots and red silk scarves into kettles of monstrous flames.  And then there were the creations of chicken wire and paper mache.  Nothing was bought; every decoration was hand-made. And dry ice.  The Russells always had dry ice.

Every year, we saved the Russells for our last Halloween stop and we left their house smiling and satisfied. Smug even.  “The Russells are terrific!” Gail and I would say, as if their ingenuity were our own. It made us proud that Randy’s house had crowds of people lined up, waiting to get it.  His parents’ creativity made our neighborhood feel special and we walked home puffed up and eager to gather at the bus stop the next day and relive the fun.

Maybe that’s what I cherish most about those Halloween memories:  the sense of a shared experience. All of us knew the Lawrences gave out big candy bars.  We all waited for Mrs. Swick to say something smart alecky about our costumes because she was the funniest mom.  And the Russells, well, the Russells were simply the best.

Thinking about those Halloween nights long ago,  I can see us—a pack of laughing kids racing up to doorbells, knocking each others’ masks off, comparing loot and swapping candy bars.

Halloween brought out in the tribe in us.  We were a neighborhood, October kinsmen—reconstituted in the dark like plasma.

Boo Radley's House from "To Kill a Mockingbird"

The Soothing Power of Squash

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Life has been hectic lately.

You know what I’m talking about.

You lie awake at night with endless lists running through your head. My favorites are the ones that start with tomorrow’s chores and end up twenty or thirty years down the road with a blipping monitor about to go flatline. My escalating lists go something like this:

  • Take pork chops out of the freezer.
  • Get old barbeque grill out of the garage and to the dump.
  • Have a tag sale in May.
  • Too much stuff in the house anyway.
  • What will happen to all this junk?
  • Gotta update the will.
  • Second thoughts about executor.
  • Why did Sara tell me she’d be good at pulling the plug?
  • Make a new list of possible executors.
  • And plug pullers.

Then there’s this mark of full-tilt mania. I’m in Stop and Stop and racing around the grocery store looking for something fast for dinner. [FULL DISCLOSURE: I’m a counter-intuitive shopper. I start with the frozen foods and end in lettuce.  Wrong way, I know. I do that so I won’t run into friends and neighbors, and then have to waltz together through the aisles making conversation.]  Does this make me a bad person? Add that one to the nightly lists, too.

When I’m crazy-busy like I’ve been lately, I often find myself in the spaghetti sauce aisle suddenly seized with terror.  I look down afraid that I don’t have on pants.

Now, I do wear pants.  Everyday.  But since I often work at home, I frequently begin my day by simply pulling on sweats or gym shorts or I might even linger at the computer in a nightie until—uh—let’s see it’s almost 11 a.m. now. Given these deviant habits, it’s just a matter of time before I dash out of the house without ever looking south.

Clearly it’s time to slow down.

Next Barn Over (CSA) Hadley, Massachusetts

Last winter when a new Community Sustainable Agriculture (CSA) farm opened nearby, a friend asked if we’d like to split a share. I’d been on a farm-share waiting list for several years.  They’re popular in Western Massachusetts and the concept is simple: neighbors buy in, farmers get much-needed start-up capital at the beginning of the growing season, and when crops are ready, everyone receives produce that is fresh, plentiful, secure and local.  A win-win situation as far as I am concerned.

What I hadn’t counted on was the therapy that would come in a 100% recyclable bag.

I have never been good at relaxation techniques.  Yoga?  Too public.  Tai chi?  I don’t flow. Meditation?  You must be kidding.  My mother once confessed to me that she made grocery lists in church during the moment for silent prayer. I figure I’m genetically hardwired to be a lousy meditator.

But the farm share experience?  This year it has been a study in relaxation from start to finish.

First there’s the drive. I turn off the radio. No NPR audio clips of Christine O’Donnell giving a lesson on the Constitution. No talk radio chatter out of Boston complaining about the Red Sox. No Golden Oldies station. Not even that good one from Hartford that plays Sly and the Family Stone. And BOY is it difficult to turn off “Take Me Higher!!”

Bull Hill Road

Instead I drive silently past the farmland along the Connecticut River. And I begin to notice things. The horse farm has plowed its field.  The foliage on Bull Hill Road is not as vibrant as it was last year. The Banded Galloways are now in a pasture nearer the road.

“I went to the woods to live deliberately,” Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden.

Good advice, I think, to slow down, take heed and take in.

Once I turn into the farm share, the walk from the dirt parking lot to the barn is a bit of a stroll. At first I was annoyed at the meandering path and wondered why we couldn’t park closer to the barn.  It seemed there was plenty of room.

But the slow walk is another exercise in relaxation. This summer the path between the car and the barn was covered in straw. I grew fond of the straw’s slippery unpredictability. More than once it almost sent me skidding into the U-Pick fields.

The best part of farm-share day are the bins of produce inside the barn.  It’s dark in there and quiet, and the room is suffused with damp, earthen smells. There’s a chalkboard on the wall listing each week’s allotments: half a bag of

Today's allotments

bok choy, one head of cabbage, two turnips, unlimited braising greens.

My favorites are the squashes.  I love their hard-headed brashness.  Bulbous butternut, majestic turbans, comical petitpans. The colors alone are enough to lower my blood pressure twenty points.

Today when I entered the barn, I chose a perfect acorn squash from the bin: dark green with a sturdy weathered stem.   I look forward to baking the squash later this week and scooping out all that steaming orange pulp. It should go well with those pork chops.

I’ll make a little note to take them out of the freezer.

Say Hey

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When I was growing up in St. Louis, the only time my Cardinal loyalty ever was tested was when the Giants came to town.  I loved Willie Mays.  I loved his eagerness. I loved his smile.  I loved the way his cap flew off when he was racing for a long ball out in center field.  He was joy personified.

The Catch. Game One 1954 World Series.

Now that the 2010 season has knocked out all the teams I was rooting for: first the Red Sox, then the Cards, and now the Twins--it’s time to think about that joyful Willie Mays again.

I’m going with the Giants.

I know my baseball allegiance gets a little squirrelly this time of year.  I’m one step away from rooting for a team based on its uniform. Remember the Pittsburgh Pirates circa 1979? NEVER!  Never root for a team that looked like that! But my current commitment to the Giants is actually based on something more than fashion. In a way, it’s a tip of that flying hat to Willie Mays.

When I was writing Curveball, I discovered that Willie Mays and Toni Stone crossed paths.  In 1949, eighteen year-old Willie Mays was playing with the Birmingham Black Barons in the Negro League. Toni Stone, meanwhile, was playing second base for the New Orleans Creoles in the Negro Southern League.  Seeing youngsters like Willie Mays and a teenage Ernie Banks coming up the ranks, Toni decided she needed to be more competitive– at least in the eyes of baseball scouts who were looking for talented young players. She lopped a decade off her age and told everyone that she was 18 years old—even though she was pushing thirty.

On July 25, 1949, the Creoles and the Black Barons were playing a game in New Orleans.  The Barons were a Negro League team (the equivalent of the segregated white major leagues), but they frequently played regional squads such as the Creoles in non-league contests. New Orleans was a wonderful baseball town for black ball clubs and a hard-working promoter made sure there were posters all over the city advertising the upcoming series. There was money to be made barnstorming in New Orleans.

In 1949 both Toni Stone and Willie Mays were having trouble hitting curveballs—a pitch that is often the ruination of young ballplayers.  In fact, scouts for the Brooklyn Dodgers passed on signing Mays, citing his inability to hit the curve.  But, Willie was lucky.  His Black Barons’ coach, Piper Davis, took him aside and told him to use his wrists more and try a lighter bat.  The suggestion made all the difference and soon Mays went from hitting .262 to .311 and drew attention of scouts from Boston and New York.

That afternoon in New Orleans proved to be a lousy day for both Mays and Toni Stone.  The Black Barons won 4-1 in a pitching duel and neither Willie nor Toni distinguished themselves at the plate.  It was one of those days.

But Toni kept her eye on Mays.  He seemed to be going places. And the next year, when Willie’s batting average soared to .353, the New York Giants signed him.  On the way to join his new team, Mays placed his cap and glove on the empty airline seat next to him. “Are you Jackie Robinson?” the white flight attendant asked him.

Playing a road game in Memphis, Toni thought about Willie Mays and vowed to redouble her efforts. Anything seemed possible—first Jackie, then Larry Doby and now Willie in the major leagues, she thought. “I figured that then was the time for me,” Toni said.  And she pledged “to make the grade as the first woman player” in the majors.

By mid-season in 1950, Toni was batting .300 for the Creoles, a remarkable stat since she was still smarting from a bruised left arm after being hit by a pitch.  She rarely let injuries sideline her and even got into trouble with managers who wanted her to sit out while she healed.  Maybe sensing that she had only a few years before her real age caught up with her, Toni bristled at being benched. One time after an injury sent her to a local charity hospital, she was so hopped up to get back in the game–she resorted to extreme measures. After being treated in the emergency room, she flagged down a policeman on horseback and rode double all the way to the stadium. For Toni the meter was running and she wanted to get to the big leagues before it was too late. “I had to play,” she said.  “I wanted to find the heart of the game.”

Toni Stone did move up in baseball. In 1953 the Indianapolis Clowns, the championship team in the Negro League, signed her to a contract.  The next year, she played for the legendary Kansas City Monarchs.

And Willie Mays?  He kept making those remarkable catches and ended up in the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

But Mays never forgot his days in the Negro Leagues. He said that major league scouts misunderstood the showmanship that often was part of Negro League games and passed over a great many players who were serious ballplayers.

Maybe some like Toni Stone.

And that flying baseball cap?  Turns out that was a nod to the Negro Leagues as well.

“I started wearing a cap that was too big for me,” Mays said about his debut with the Giants. “Every time I ran from first to second and wheeled to my left, that cap would simply fly off.” The gimmick was strategy as much as showmanship.  When Willie would pause momentarily to retrieve his hat, “the moment’s delay would keep the fans worked up and make the opposing pitcher think a bit more about the spot I’d got him in,” he admitted.

Willie Mays without his cap.

“Some people call it show business,” Toni said.  “I call it plain hard baseball.”

Plain hard baseball.  Let’s hope we see the Giants play some against the Phillies.  I’d like to see hats flying.  After all, isn’t that joy the heart of the game?

Chasing Ghosts

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During an interview yesterday, National Public Radio’s Michel Martin asked me who I was rooting for in the Major League Baseball play-offs this season.  Her question took me by surprise.  Call me deluded, but I’m still flying the Red Sox flag in my backyard. My beloved Sox had a miserable year and didn’t make the play-offs.

I can't take it down. Pathetic, isn't it?

The Twins,” I said before I realized it.

I think my answer had a lot to do with ghosts.

When I was researching Curveball, I spent several weeks in the Twin Cities. Toni Stone, the subject of my book, grew up in Saint Paul in the 1930s and 40s and developed her talent for baseball on the playing fields in Rondo--Saint Paul’s African-American community. From Saint Paul, Toni went on to become the first woman to play professional baseball in the Negro League.

Most of Rondo doesn’t exist anymore—urban renewal in the 1960s cut a slash through the once thriving area and tore out of the heart of that neighborhood. The house Toni lived in is gone—but with the help of old maps, I could find where she spent her childhood and determine how far away Toni was from the sound of baseball bats cracking at nearby Lexington Park.

As a narrative non-fiction writer, I spend a lot of time chasing ghosts.  Toni Stone died in 1996. Since I couldn’t speak with her, I had to figure out other ways to determine what her life was like. That’s why I went to Saint Paul. I wanted to see where she once lived. Walk where she walked. Hear what she heard. Eat what she ate.  In order to construct scenes and characters in my books, I need to chase ghosts so that I can make them come alive.

I remember a couple of good ghostly encounters in Saint Paul.  One of Toni’s friends when she was growing up was Janabelle Murphy [Taylor]. Janabelle and Tomboy–as Toni was called in her childhood–were Rondo’s best girl athletes. We were “roughnecks,” Janabelle confessed.  After a week of internet searches, trying to find out if Janabelle was still alive and where she lived, I tracked her down to the house where she grew up—one of those rare Rondo homes sparred by bulldozers. When I got to Saint Paul, I called Janabelle to confirm our meeting and then drove over to Rondo.  I knocked on the door and when it opened, there stood a small woman in her late eighties with a sturdy stance and an even sturdier handshake.  “Come on in,” she said. “Wish I had made you some biscuits.”

The rest of the afternoon sailed on from there. Jane and I talked for hours about how the Hallie Q. Brown Community Center enriched her life with its after-school programs.  About Saint Paul during Jim Crow when some white drug store clerks would spit into glasses of Coke before serving them to black customers.  And about being a girl athlete at a time when girls were not supposed to be serious about sports.  One time at Hallie Q after Janabelle had the gym reserved for a girls’ basketball game, the head of the boys’ program told her to leave so his team could practice.  Janabelle grabbed an inkwell and starred at the man ready to throw.  “We reserved the gym and it’s ours,” she said without flinching.  The boys found another place to practice.

Listening to Janabelle taught me a lot about the world in which Toni grew up. I could imagine Tomboy and Janabelle tossing a ball around at the rocky Western Avenue playing fields or standing outside the fence at the local ice skating rink where black children were not allowed to enter. I could begin to see and hear the ghosts.

And then there were the White Castle hamburgers.  Toni loved White Castle.  And she especially enjoyed the beans, she told an interviewer in a newspaper article from the 1950s.  Vowing to seek out verisimilitude wherever I could find it, off I went in search of a Saint Paul “belly bomber.”  I found one.  Or to be more precise, I ordered a whole sack—but couldn’t find beans.  Seems White Castle dropped the beans from its menu sometime ago.

White Castle in Minneapolis around 1936

Undeterred, I took my sack of burgers and walked over to the spot where Lexington Park once stood.  Toni spent a lot of hours at Lexington.  The field was home to the Saint Paul Saints—a minor league team coached by the legendary Gabby Street, former manager of the St. Louis Cardinals‘ Gas House Gang.  In the 1930s, Gabby ran a baseball camp for white boys who were interested in learning the mechanics of the game.  Toni used to the stand outside the field and watch, trying to pick up pointers. Then she found a way in and stood on the sidelines watching.  Street shooed her away and Toni came back.  He told her to get lost and again she returned.  Exasperated, Street finally relented and told the young girl to go out to the field and show him what she had.

Gabby Street

Boy, did she ever.  Street was impressed by Tomboy’s speed and agility and probably was most taken by her heart.  Gabby always thought no one loved baseball more than he did.  But, perhaps, he was wrong.  Several weeks later, Street found out it was Tomboy Stone’s birthday and he gave her a pair of cleats.  Her first.  “It was a miracle,” Toni later said.

As I sat on a bench and ate my White Castles, I tried to imagine the courage it took for a young African American girl in the 1930s to walk into a baseball camp filled with white boys and a gruff old manager whom she didn’t know belonged to the KKK.

I could hear the ghosts and I could see them.  Even though Lexington Park no longer stands, Toni Stone Field now does–right in the spot where she walked onto that diamond for the first time.

I’ll never forget that moment–and three hours later I couldn’t forget eating those White Castles, either.

Maybe that’s why I’m rooting for Minnesota this year. Ghosts are all around us. And in the baseball fields of Saint Paul, someone else must be cheering on the Twins.

Toni always had her name spelled wrong. Even here.