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THE PORTSIDER

Skipping in the Rain
By Staff Writer

Three Armenian guys hold lemons. Old men, gray of face and hair. Heavy set. Brown polyester slacks, yellowed shirts, sleeves rolled to the elbow. The lemons fill their thick hands, a burst of yellow between fingers like sausage. We are in Van Nuys, my buddy Skippy Skipsted and me, and three Armenian guys walk past us on the sidewalk. We're not moving too fast anymore, Skippy and myself, and these three older guys stride past us. They're talking Armenian. Then they stop walking. They stop because there on the sidewalk in front of them is a young woman, sitting in the rain, crying. She holds her ankle. She holds her ankle and her sarong—she's wearing one of those wrap-around Dorothy Lamour things—that sarong sits on her hip, showing a beautiful leg.

It glistens, wet from the rain. The three Armenian guys stop and walk up to her. She looks up at them, sweeping her long black hair from her face and, God, she's beautiful. Maybe she's twenty-five. Maybe thirty, but her lips are full and her lashes long. It's raining. Her bosom is rising and falling; her blouse is soaked. It's rained the whole trip, but that doesn't surprise me because Skippy's a human El Niño.

He's seventy-four now, just moved here from Hawaii in a final attempt to escape humidity. It hasn't worked. It's rained fourteen inches in Van Nuys this February—eight more than Seattle. Skippy lived in Seattle back when it was wet there. He lived in Hawaii—more about that later—he lived in the swamps of Louisiana and he lived in the Mekong Delta. Rained everywhere. Now it's raining on Victory Boulevard in Van Nuys, raining on three Armenian guys with lemons and a Philippine girl holding her ankle, and on me and Skippy. But his adopted family always called him Earl, so I do, too.

Earl was a feral child, being raised by a pack of howler monkeys near the Cambodian border when Jim Thorpe stumbled across him in 1930. There's a lot in that sentence that might raise an eyebrow, but have I ever lied to you? Thorpe embarked on a world tour in 1929, aiming to bring baseball to the indigenous people of the world. His purpose was to show that nurture trumped nature. Thorpe played every sport brilliantly. He thought baseball was the toughest of them all to master and the activity most alien to primitive societies. So he traveled the world in 1929, teaching baseball to pygmies and Eskimos, demonstrating that their native intelligence and skills were equal to the white man's.

Thorpe was headed out of Siam. He took the jungle road through Aranyaprathet, chopping his way into Angkor. He traveled with ten Cherokee ballplayers, a Sioux trainer, and a Narragansett business manager. They were camped out on a high plateau. It was raining, a monsoon, and the Native Americans huddled in their, well, in their teepees. They heard a sudden cacophony: a screeching of monkeys. Then they heard a shotgun. Next thing they knew, a pack of howler monkeys raced in, around, over and through their wigwam. Silence for a moment, then a plaintive cry. Thorpe, afraid of nothing, plunged out into the darkness. He brought back a five-year-old boy. He named him Skippy.

A French hunter had shot the chimp that Skippy called Mom. Where Skippy came from, how he ended up in a pack of howler monkeys, remains a mystery. As best as Thorpe could figure, a Dutchman had moved his family into the jungle, intent on starting a rubber plantation. Malaria swept through the family, killing all but an infant child. That child was found crying by Mama Monkey, who raised him as her own. Until this tragedy.

Thorpe took little Skippy in (the little tyke skipped everywhere he went). He thought this little boy could be Exhibit A: if this feral child could learn baseball, then surely we're all born alike with the same inherent possibilities. For the next two years, Skippy received the fine tutelage of the great Olympian. Eventually, though, Thorpe realized that little Skippy needed a settled home. He found a kindly farm family in North Dakota, the Erlichsons. They agreed to adopt Skippy and renamed him, for some reason, Earl.

So Earl grew up in North Dakota, amidst the rain and overcast. The one thing he retained from the two years of life with Jim Thorpe was a superb throwing arm. He'd spend hours throwing rocks. Unlike Bob Feller, he didn't even have his own barn to throw them against. The Erlichsons were itinerant blacksmiths, crisscrossing the state shoeing horses. While they practiced their craft, Earl would toss rocks against the client's barn, until (inevitably) the farmer would run out and tell him to stop. So he got real good at firing a few rocks as fast as he could with very little warm-up, which is how Earl became a great relief pitcher.

But with his greatness came a curse—rain followed him wherever he went. He called it the Curse of the Deceased Howler Monkey Mother. Her tears of sorrow followed her son everywhere. Earl would step on a pitcher's mound, and the sky would quickly cloud up, drops would start falling, and within minutes rain would pour down. Earl learned to work quickly—very quickly. But it wasn't good enough. Teams could take only so many rainouts. Because Earl was a relief pitcher, when he entered the game it was usually exciting. However, that excitement would, literally, dampen with the rain. It was a killer on minor league owners, who hated to see fans turned off by the rain. Besides, they couldn't afford to reschedule. So Earl gained a new nickname: "Monsoon" Skipsted. His reputation started to proceed him. Minor league owners shied away from his great talent, afraid of flooding.

Until Pud Inoye, a Hawaiian lawyer, seized upon Earl as the centerpiece of his lifelong dream: a baseball team consisting of Sandwich Island natives. Now Earl wasn't exactly a native, but he had the pedigree: Southeast Asia, howler monkeys, Jim Thorpe. And the rain was part of the Hawaiian landscape. So Earl moved to Honolulu and starred for many seasons as the bullpen ace of the Hawaiian Shirts. (What we call the Hawaiian shirt is actually just a copy of the colorful jerseys Pud provided for his team. He wanted a tropical atmosphere at the games; so the hula dancers along the third baseline were a natural, as well as the suckling pig roasted atop the center field bleachers. Pud's legal firm sponsored the pig roast and posted a sign: "Hit a baseball in the pig's mouth and win a lawsuit.")

It was a good life for Earl. The fans knew that, when he entered the game, they had to be prepared for moisture. Pud had the vendors spread out in the ninth inning, selling immense tropical drinks, garnished with an umbrella large enough to shield a fan when Earl started throwing. He played in Hawaii for many years, and then he got old. Why does that have to happen? Eventually he got tired of the rain, and this past winter moved to L.A. Of course, the precipitation followed him to Van Nuys. And now he found himself behind three Armenian guys and a fallen Philippine beauty when her accomplice rushed the group with a .45 and demanded their wallets.

The Armenians had fallen for a bait and switch. They dropped the lemons and reached for their wallets. That's when Earl jumped into action. He scooped up a couple of lemons and—with no warm-up—fired a blazing fastball at the gunman's hand. Bingo! Got him right on the knuckles. He recoiled in pain and then another lemon got him in the eye. Now he dropped the gun and Earl fired one more lemon into the guy's lower abdomen. He crumpled over in pain; his beautiful Philippine accomplice suddenly felt a lot better and raced off, and the Armenians sat on him until the cops came.

While we were all there waiting for the cops, the Armenians expressed their gratitude to Earl. "You throw very fast. How you learn to throw so fast?" "It's easy," replied Earl. "Anyone can learn to play baseball. Believe me. Nurture trumps nature every time." He looked over at the pudgy Armenians. "You want to learn baseball?"

The Armenians looked at each other. They shrugged. "Sure. We learn. Why not? Soccer . . . it's really a boring game." And now, if you go to the Van Nuys Sherman Oaks Park, you'll see a bunch of overweight elderly Armenians, dressed in polyester slacks and shirts, smoking cigarettes as they try to turn a double play. The funny thing is, they don't mind the rain.

"Armenians are tough. What's some water?" Earl nods his head in agreement. He looks up at the clouds. "It's nice to know you're there, Mom." He's at peace with the world at last.

And me? I'm just sharing with you the insights of a lifetime in baseball and more than forty years in the upholstery business.

–EFQ

Sometimes when it rains, STAFF WRITER's joints ache so bad he feels like he's a hundred years old. Other times he feels just like a kid again, and drags himself outside to splash around in the puddles.

© 2001 Elysian Fields Quarterly

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