The House of Ebbets

Please keep in mind I knew Harley Coleman way before he was the Harley Coleman and just a boy with a layer of baby fat it seemed he was destined to carry for the rest of his existence. Pudgy boys who tried to sit by themselves during recess at Roosevelt Elementary never quite succeeded in their goal to be left alone, which is the curse of all pudgy boys who want to be left alone. Boys, and some of the girls, found a way to pass Harley as he sat on the timber beams laid to hold the pea gravel as the safety measure to prevent injury should a child tumble off the merry-go-round, which we all did, and they never let Harley be. There was too much enjoyment in taunting the kid for his name, his crazy father, his ill-fitting clothing, the patch of blonde in his brown curls, the simple fact he appeared to be content taking it. The students loved teasing him, and it appeared as though a perverseness in Harley loved being teased.

Then Harley became Harley, and what I mean is he stopped being the little boy and became the man we all know, or think we know, Harley to be. There is a streak in him still desiring attention, even if negative in nature, even now as he wastes away in prison while writing autobiography after autobiography about his exploits to challenge the notion the story of a life cannot be told in one book but requires a full fourteen to tell the tale. Those of us who live in Arnold’s Grove know about them because Harley made certain we would know, but maybe you don’t.

There is a fine wing added to our hospital built to recapture what the first hospital looked like named The Harley Coleman Maternity Ward. Many who would one day labor at Harley Coleman Implements, Inc., came into the world at the Harley Coleman Maternity Ward and were tended to by Harley Coleman Funeral Services, thereby assuring his name would be tied to hundreds of Grovians from cradle to grave. We have the Harley Coleman Convention center that, on a cool autumn evening in 2001, opened its doors and welcomed Bob Newhart to its stage. Our bowling alley, another structure sharing its name with Harley Coleman, was the first place in town to outlaw smoking and suffered the consequences when teenagers who once bowled there to sneak cigarettes from its machine had to find somewhere else to foster their nascent habit. Who names a bowling alley after themselves? Harley Coleman, that’s who.

When I would attend a ribbon cutting for one of these places, and while I named several, I don’t need to name them all, I could still see the little boy with the snot-smeared cheeks sitting out childhood moments he should have enjoyed but for whatever reason did not. While he became the something else he wanted people to see, I often thought he, too, could still see himself at age ten. Should I say I could see him exercising a grandiosity way back then? It would be a lie, and a lie is such a specific distortion of reality. A lie has so much more intent than any other human expression, or at least, that’s what I say when I attempt to say something of meaning. When the entire block of Grand between second and third streets was razed and replaced with the Harley Coleman Arts Center, I started to get the idea he thought about himself in a way none of us ever had.

Harley turned his eye to Weeghman Park in 2001, and it didn’t mean much to me with respect to Harley Coleman. I suppose the bulldozers rolling into Weeghman on my 35th birthday caught my attention due to me already in such a place of reflection, as maybe a lot of people are when they reach the age of Constitutional qualification to run for the White House, so I gave more thought to myself than to Harley. Under the great weeping willow, stuck over in the northeast corner of the park, I debated the topics of the day with my best friend, Chad, about who would win the Cola Wars, would anyone ever hit 62 home runs in a season, was Sarah Dreyfuss stuffing her bra, did Darth Vader lie to Luke.  Even now, with Weeghman long gone and its replacement something of a sad yet also funny memory, I can hear the wind rustling the weeping willow’s branches, see my Reeboks kicking its fallen leaves, feel its bark as I attempted and failed to climb it.  My memory is tied to the weeping willow now long gone as is the concrete swimming pool built during the Depression, the rusty rocket ship slide and the children who risked lockjaw to enjoy it, and the Donald Duck teeter totter Grovians used to measure just how far the Little Sioux had come out of its banks by how much the duck was under water. There weren’t many of us in attendance the day Weeghman began its journey into obivlion since watching the demise of a beloved place of childhood was far less a priority than getting in a full day’s work. The Sentinel assigned a photographer, but the actual business of the day, just the rolling in of the machines sent to level the site, was so anticlimactic it failed to make the next day’s front page. Not much happened, but it would not always be so, and Harley had plans for Weeghman guaranteeing the place would make front page news for more than three years. It also landed him in prison, which is nothing more than a footnote in the whole of the story.

♦♦♦

Maxwell’s has always been a favorite for Grovians as it was believed to have the best ribs in Siouxland. Do I go there too often? When a question such as that gets asked the answer is always already known, isn’t it. I celebrated the 35th for a few days, days blurred with hangover and foul cigar smoke, and brought the brouhaha to a close with a rack and a half. It was not a surprise when I entered the tavern to see Harley at the counter because Harley was usually at the counter for supper. He was there so often when I would go I knew he ordered a pork tenderloin sandwich, the patty twice the size of the bun attempting to contain it, but only ever finished half. Why he never ordered it without onions and rather pushed them aside each time remains a mystery to me to this very day. Why I decided to talk to him is as elusive.

“It’s really going to boom when this humidity breaks,” I said to him with my foot on the brass bar.

“Nothing like a good storm,” Harley said. “Sweet summer rain.”

Small towns, with the finite number of changes possible day after day, month after month, and year after year, tend to lend themselves to conversations without true beginnings or real endings. Every conversation is the continuation of the last, and I don’t recall the last time I said, “hello,” to someone.

“What went on at Weeghman today?” I said.

Harley, in the middle of a bite of his half tenderloin, nodded. A smidge of mustard attached itself to the corner of this mouth, and to his credit he wiped it away. Immediately my mind recalled him wiping snot from his nose back at Roosevelt.

“Might slow us down. Might not. To be honest, I don’t even know what’s on the schedule right now,” Harley said.

I thought he might be fibbing me.

“So you don’t know every backhoe in four counties is leveling the park as we speak?”

“Okay. Maybe I do know the schedule,” he said.

It was then Harley struck me as so ordinary. There was a man who made a billion dollars with such diversification he was the most-power builder of computers, distributor of spirits, banker, and bookseller in the state. He should have been dining under the shadow of the Old Capitol, brokering megadeals, pulling a string or two, not destroying his colon with his millionth slab of deep-fried, golden, brown, and delicious proof of a higher power. Cripes, it looked as though his shoes were at least a decade old.

“How’s about you tell me what you’re building out there so I don’t have to sniff out another lie,” I said with a smile. Why the smile? I never disliked Harley, and maybe if I were friendly to him, a feeling I was genuinely having at the moment, then maybe he’d give me a scoop no one else had.

“A ballpark.”

That was my scoop?

“A ballpark?”

“For little leaguers. To replace Pederson Park.”

How a fattish man with wind-burnt cheeks could look impish still baffles me, but the look he gave with his response tipped me off he was lying again, and how to catch him and get the information became the order of the moment. Harley wasn’t having it, though. He stood from his stool.

“Then why not buy Pederson and rebuild there?”

Harley placed a five next to his plate and patted my shoulder.

“All in good time, Travis.” There was no way I could stifle the laugh at him getting my name wrong. That was Harley, too, for while he knew me just as he knew everyone in town he managed to think himself talking to someone different than the person there. He was aloof, as I thought so many billionaires to be even though Harley was the only resident of Arnold’s Grove worth ten figures, and it amused me.

I watched him leave the bar and wondered just what the Hell the guy was up to.

♦♦♦

A few of us took to heading to Harley Park, we called it Harley Park as we knew the place would have his name on it somewhere, to watch the progress on his newest indulgence. It took four months for the shape to come together, but it did, in fact, turn out to be a ball park. An enormous ball park without the playground equipment, the small block concrete rest rooms, picnic areas, concession stands, and half a dozen playing fields I normally associate with municipal land set aside for boys and girls to learn baseball and softball and for adults to relive their glory days while their waistlines expanded.

Harley was building a full-sized major league stadium right where Weeghman Park used to be, where the weeping willow under which I had my first kiss was now nothing more than memories fading to black.

“The guy has always been certifiable,” Tom said.

“Okay, I get it looks as though he’s lost his mind, I mean, a baseball stadium in the middle of nowhere? But we don’t know what he’s going to do with it,” I said.

There was a bluff just to the north of Harley’s monstrosity, and we would meet there just before sundown to see the amber light dancing on the concrete and steel. It was also a fantastic excuse to drink a few beers with old friends. The construction site was something to behold, and in its beauty and its insanity, I felt it my obligation to give to Harley the benefit of the doubt. Doing something so ridiculous and so mind-bending eccentric had to have good reason, and while Tom and Paul, two buddies of mine going all the way back to elementary school, might be skeptical, I was desperate to see how the lunacy resolved itself.

“It looks like Wrigley,” Paul said.

“It looks nothing like Wrigley,” Tom said. The two loved each other, but their true passion was arguing with each other.

“I think I’ve seen it, and it’s not Wrigley,” I said.

While I enjoy baseball, its history and I are not bedfellows in the least. Quiz me on the previous decade and I would never be able to give you the teams in each Fall Classic. It never struck me as something I had to know so it was frequently the case I did not.

“Okay, Einstein. Make your guess then. You’d say something like Fenway Park, or maybe old County Stadium because it had, ‘the best brats west of the Mississippi,” Tom said. He crunched his can of Hamm’s and tossed it aside where it landed among the relics of our previous trips to Harley Park. Paul and I looked at one another and decided not to question Tom’s dubious handle on geography.

“Dodger Stadium,” Paul said.

Aha.

“The Dodgers did play there, but it isn’t Dodger Stadium,” I said.

♦♦♦

When I think back on it I realize just how crazy it was to have an exact replica of Ebbets Field on the east side of town. Just thinking, “I drove past Ebbets last night,” was something I could not grasp no matter how hard I tried. Keep in mind Arnold’s Grove is a town of five thousand people. We have precisely two factories, a meat locker, a grain elevator, four schools including junior high and senior high, a rinky-dink movie theater built a decade before Hitler invaded Poland, nine churches, a radio station whose greatest public service is telling us when to head to the basement lest we find ourselves somewhere over the rainbow, one Victorian home built on the great hill at the south end of town, in all likelihood, only to provide one structure in town kids would fear due to a century of rumors of haunting. In our little town notable mostly for how unassuming it is, a little town so nondescript the label, “Small Town,” has to be applied for it to have have any meaning, was Ebbets Field, home of the Brooklyn Dodgers, the place where the Boys of Summer never walked off its surface having earned a parade by virtue of securing a championship. Pee Wee Reese, Jackie, The Lip, Don Newcomb, Ralph Branca’s eternal bad pitch, The Duke, Hilda, the Sym-Phony. All the brilliant wonder of a neighborhood team relegated to the pages of history when an owner cut out the soul of an entire borough to make more money elsewhere.

On the evening of October 3rd, the anniversary of the eve of Brooklyn winning its only title before the club picked up stakes and moved, Ebbets 2 was alight. The towering letters above the entrance to the famed rotunda lit the dark fall night. To give the area the feel of something other than early harvest in a rural community, the Kiwanis set up a stand with dogs at 1955 prices where my friends and I watched the builders for two years. It was BYOB, of course, and it was a great night. With construction officially over, Harley’s main event was scheduled for three o’clock the next day, and we even had a Brooklynite milling about, telling stories of when he was seven years old and listened to National Treasure Vin Scully call the final moments of the only time Brooklyn would not have to Wait Till Next Year. The guy from Brooklyn was old, of course, and he might have had some of the specifics of the Series wrong, but he was there, enthusiastic in the moment, and maybe thought himself as one of our own for just a few hours.

None of the good feelings could prepare us for how surreal October 4th would be.

♦♦♦

“Welcome, welcome,” Harley said, over and over again, pumping the hands of the 1,214 people who made time in their day to attend the official whatever it was Harley had planned. His ribbon cutting ceremonies infrequently featured an actual ribbon, and they were always marked with esoteric references to how whatever building he was dedicating impacted his life and his personal history. That was Harley, through and through: he was the writer who never cared to write the backstory for his current tale to make any sense, and we were nothing more than the confused readers.

NewsCenter 4 sent its newest reporter, a pimply faced kid just out of college who stumbled over the big words he peppered into his report, the one hundred miles through browning fields of corn and soybeans to cover the event. The city manager attended, but the mayor did not; he and Harley never got along. The fifth graders from Jefferson Elementary took a field trip out to experience it. It wasn’t an enormous doing, but it also did not go wholly unnoticed.

Harley stood to the microphone, and eventually, the crowd silenced itself.

“Grandpa, what would life have been like had you spent as much time talking about yourself as you did the Brooklyn Dodgers. Who were you, really? Who were your parents? What were your dreams, your aspirations, your failures and the life lessons they taught? Where did you want life to take you? What mark upon the land did you want to make? What was the Battle of the Bulge like, and what did you think as you watched the tips of your fingers turn black with frostbite while listening to the Wehrmacht trying to kill you? You taught me about the Brooklyn Dodgers, but I now wonder who you were. I shall always wonder.”

As Harley’s speech continued, as the letter to his paternal grandfather filled the air and left us all wondering just what he meant, I had the feeling of anticipation grow in me. It’s difficult to explain. Listening to what could be a mad man talk to his deceased grandfather with Ebbets Field and the Arnold Grove Water Tower in view at the same time should have been enough to make me focus on how bizarre it all was, but the hair standing on the back on my arm stood for some other reason. A rush of adrenaline pulsed through my body. For the first time in my life I became acutely aware of a sixth sense.

I turned to Tom.

“Something is going to happen.”

Tom loved rolling his eyes at me, and he rolled them again, but I knew I was right. Then Harley said the last words into the microphone he would ever again say as a free man.

“And so, Grandpa, this is for you.”

Harley pressed a button. A recording of the 1812 Overture blared through the period-correct PA system inside and out of Ebbets, and the tinniness of it missed the effect I thought Harley wanted. It wasn’t quite Earth shattering, which was the last thought I had before the Earth actually started to shatter.

The shock wave from the start of the explosion hit hard, but I was uncertain whether it was as brutal because of the force or because I had no idea explosives were on the card. The building started its collapse in the outfield, and two chain reactions, one on the left side and the other on the right, snaked all the way round to the Ebbets Field letters above the rotunda. It was over in a matter of seconds. The Tchaikovsky was gone and we were left with only the dust of hundreds of tons of concrete and air filling the air.

It was impossible to take my eyes off the sight so I have no idea what the faces of other people looked like.

Somewhere in my mind, and maybe this was just a flicker, I had the notion it should have been the funniest damn thing I had ever seen in my life.

The Arnold’s Grove Police Department did not feel the same way.

“I am going to have to take you in, Harley,” said Lieutenant Molly Perth.

“For what?” Harley said. He sounded rather indignant about it.

“I don’t know right now, but there has to be something illegal about building a stadium then blowing it up. Permits or something,” she said. In the ten years I had known her, and we had a bit of a thing for about three months at the turn of the century, I always found Molly to be fair and to view her job more about justice than the law. Now Harley had her pretty worked up; people who didn’t know her wouldn’t notice it, but I did.

She slapped the cuffs on Harley’s wrists and started walking him to her prowler.

As for me? I had to know.

I quick stepped it up to him and tapped him on the elbow.

“What was that, Harley? All the stuff you said about your grandpa and how you loved him. And being a Dodger fan and all. What was that?”

Then, for the first time since I met him in second grade, I saw a smile of genuine pleasure cross his face.

“I hated my grandpa.”

Molly stuck him in the back of her car, climbed into the driver’s seat, and pulled away.

♦♦♦

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