The Virtue Of Cigarettes

My grandmother sat on a large rock, smoking a cigarette and sipping a can of beer while she watched us play in the lake. She was concerned that we keep an eye out for fishing lures and broken glass. Treading on either one could swiftly ruin an entire vacation.

Although the campground boasted one of the finest white sand beaches in the Adirondacks, we opted for the boat-launch that day. It was nearer to our campsite. Rangers kept it clear enough to get a boat in and out of the water, but it wasn’t really meant for swimmers. Aside from the paved launch strip, the bottom was complicated with slippery rocks and fallen branches. Its small beach was pebbly and rough.

My dad was in the lake with my brother and sister and me. My sister stayed close to him for the most part. My brother, on the other hand, swam like an otter, alternately disappearing underwater and popping up where he wasn’t expected.

As a rule, I preferred exploring to swimming. A rotten log bobbing among the lily pads caught my attention. It was heavy, but still had some float left in it. It made a decent submarine when I pushed it lengthwise below the surface.

It was rare for my grandmother to be in the mountains with us, since she was fond of modern conveniences. Not that she was fussy; in fact, she was very comfortable with all sorts of outdoor activities. She was the one who’d taught me how to put a nightcrawler on a fishhook. But I got the impression that she’d “roughed it” enough in her life and wasn’t looking for her leisure time to be rustic.

When we got out of the water I noticed six or seven small reddish-brown bumps on my feet and ankles. I didn’t know what they were, but they made me feel uneasy. My Grandmother took a closer look, and said, “Oh Scotty, you got bloodsuckers on you!”

My instinct was to scratch them off with my fingernails, but she stopped me. In a deliberately calm voice she explained that they had to be removed very carefully; otherwise, their mouthparts might stick in my skin and cause a bad infection. I tried with all my might to cling to my composure.

My dad hustled back to our campsite for the first-aid kit and a saltshaker. My grandmother said she knew what to do. I trusted her, but couldn’t watch. The familiar smell of her smoke comforted me a little.

I remember the heat of her cigarette near my skin as she methodically backed the leeches out of me. Even if I got burned, I thought, it would be better than having those blobby little monsters fastened to my body.

One by one they let go, and were deftly flicked into her beer can for safekeeping. I held still and waited out the eternal seconds. She periodically took a drag to stoke the cigarette. It probably helped steady her hand too. She finished the procedure without once touching the tobacco embers to my skin.

My dad had returned in time to see the last fiend vanquished. He dabbed Mercurochrome on the tiny odd-shaped wounds. Then I could exhale again.



Richie saw me as a catcher. His imagination must’ve been keener than his eye for talent. Squatting behind home plate was the last place on the diamond I wanted to be. I wasn’t built like a backstop, and I didn’t have a rifle of a throwing arm. The equipment seemed bulky and stifling. And playing catcher appeared to be an ideal way to get hurt, which I tried to make a point of avoiding.

This was my third and last year of Little League. I’d spent the first on a Minor League team where we had only hats and t-shirts, not real uniforms. Batters often got four or five strikes instead of three, and any ball hit in fair territory had a solid chance of becoming a homerun.

The following year I tried out again and was chosen by a bona fide Little League team. I would wear the maroon pinstripes of the Giants. They were a perennially competitive team, with a manager and bench coach who were bent on winning. They were tough, focused, and frequently mean. They were impatient with skill deficiencies, but uninterested in developing raw talent. They didn’t like weakness.

Because of my asthma I carried an inhaler with me in case I started wheezing. It didn’t occur to me until too late that I might as well have written “BENCH ME” across my forehead in red magic marker. The only action I saw that year was in the last inning or two of a game. When I did get to play, it was in right field: Little League’s dreaded badlands of boredom.

We lost the championship that year to the other winning-is-everything team, the Tigers. Our catcher, who was the bench coach’s son, threw a tantrum in the dugout. I remember being intrigued and confused by the severity of his reaction. It mirrored his father’s, except that the dad managed to contain his tears.

One of the best pieces of news I ever received was finding out that the manager and coach were quitting after that season. Many of our starters had to move on too because they were heading into junior high. Our star catcher was one of them, and nobody had been trained to take his place. We were left with a significant hole in our lineup.

During the off-season, Richie signed on to take over managing the team. He couldn’t have had a more fundamentally different approach to the game. His primary goal was for everyone on the team to make a contribution. He taught us the game, helped us develop our skills, and shaped us into ballplayers. Underscoring everything was the high value he placed on good sportsmanship.

It turned out that Richie was right about me; I was a catcher. I developed a real affection for the position. It didn’t take long for me to see that the catcher got to be involved in every single play on the field. The perspective from behind the plate was unequaled. I loved discovering the idiosyncrasies of different batters, and moving the target to where I thought they were least likely to connect with the ball.

I especially enjoyed the time-honored baseball tradition of chatter. My variation on the theme was to speak softly to the batter, just loud enough for him to hear. I’d narrate the moment, describing his nervousness and his uncertainty of whether or not a strike was on its way. Would he be able to hit it? Probably not. Maybe the pitch would hit him… When he seemed out of sync and edgy I’d shout, “Swing!” and he’d lunge for one in the dirt. What could be more fun than that!

Like most boys, I wanted to hit homeruns. I wanted to swing for the fences from way down on the knob of a big log of a bat. But Richie envisioned me hitting for average. He helped me modify my stance and my grip on the bat. It turned out that he was right about that too. I hit zero homeruns that year, but I hit safely 29 times in 61 at-bats.

The fact that I remember those numbers so clearly might be symptomatic of glory-days-syndrome, but it’s mostly a testament to the impact of being seen in a hopeful light. Richie imagined my potential and coached me toward it.

He did the same for the rest of my teammates, and we deepened our love for the game together. We lost the championship to the Tigers again, but it didn’t ruin our lives. It was a great year to wear maroon pinstripes.