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THE PORTSIDER

The Jungle Game
By Staff Writer

I believe profoundly in these words: "Get one. Get two. Bring it home." A sacred text. My code of life.

"Get one." Keep it simple. Do one thing at a time. Grab a ball, throw it to first, get the out. Handle a problem. Deal with it. Move on. "Get two." Follow through. Break a big problem into two pieces. Attack them one at a time. Field the ball. Go to second. Go to first. "Bring it home." You're done. These words have magic. I know. The very sound of them coaxed nine Japanese soldiers from the caves on Borneo where they'd been hiding for eleven years. I was there. I was there when they emerged, shrunken, pale, wrinkled with mildew, fungus blossoming on their feet like moss declining a riverbank. They'd been spelunkers for more than a decade, but once they heard, "Get one," out they came, ready to play ball.

It happened a long time ago. But everything in my life happened a long time ago. Even yesterday seems like a long time ago. At my age, the hours pass so slowly that I look back on the morning with nostalgia. It's like living in a cave—time stretches into the darkness and you lose track of where it begins or ends.

This long time ago was 1956. I was touring the South Pacific for the USO, building troop morale by playing baseball against Marine camp teams. We were under strict orders to lose every game. A little second lieutenant named Fred Sargent—you had to call him Lieutenant Sargent—ran our outfit with an iron hand. He was adamant: "These boys are thousands of miles from home, bored out of their minds, and feeling pretty lousy about every aspect of their lives. The last thing they want is for a bunch of minor league players they've never heard of to show up and kick their ass. Lose. But make it look good."

So, off we went, a kind of Harlem Globetrotters in reverse. We were globetrotting, but our real job was being the Washington Generals. That's what we started calling ourselves. We'd show up on base, with county fair medals on our uniforms, wearing jaunty Doug MacArthur hats and smoking corncob pipes, and let the Marines trounce us.

I didn't mind it. I'd lost enough games in my career that a few more didn't bother me. But it got to some of the younger fellows. Poor Eddie Krepinski. He was a big Polish guy out of Chicago. Drafted by the Cubs. Strong, big boned, right hand like an adze, left hand perfectly normal. I'm afraid it's true—he had a strangely deformed glove hand. He was a lefty, so most of the time you didn't even see it. But when he got up to the plate, the catcher would do a big double take. Eddie had to lock his right paw onto the bat like a crescent wrench. He'd sort of ratchet it down with his left hand. It took him a few seconds and the catcher would watch this, stupefied, or occasionally distressed. More than one receiver upchucked into his mask and that slows down a ball game more than you can imagine.

Once he was clamped down, Eddie could hit the ball. It's as if that fellow said, give me a crescent wrench big enough, and I can move the world. Something about the torque on this right hand could really pack a wallop. The downside was getting the bat out of his hand. Just as it took him a few seconds to clamp on, it took him a few seconds to unclamp. You can get away with standing in the box for two and a half seconds in the bush leagues, but no major league club wanted a guy who ran down the line unscrewing himself from his bat.

Eddie always thought he deserved a shot at the big time, but it never came. So he turned his frustrations into a competitive edge. He became obsessed with winning everything. Every at bat was a war for Eddie and he won them .389 of the time. Now, that's a mighty fine average, but it still means more than half the time you're getting out, like everyone else, and for Eddie that was hard to begin with. Add to that your team is supposed to lose, and he was walking a tightrope of sanity—without a balance pole.

Losing all these ball games tortured Eddie. It ate at his soul. Lieutenant Sargent would talk to him for hours about his patriotic duty, about the nature of sacrifice, about how essential it was to stop the Red Threat in Guam, and about how most Americans never got the chance to experience a Balinese call girl. Didn't work. Eddie took to drinking. He developed a taste for saki. Maybe he thought it would calm him. It didn't. It only circled his frustration tighter inside until he snapped one day and started speaking Japanese. We didn't realize he knew the language. Guess he picked it up from the Japanese bartenders and liquor store owners he encountered. Anyway, it presented a bit of a problem for us, because no one else on the squad could understand him.

He started eating sushi. He'd get up in the early hours of the morning, before dawn, and disappear. Mid-morning, he'd come back, hauling a little net of fish and seaweed. Then he'd take out his fillet knife and slice and dice and whatever it is they do, and before you know it there was a platter of sushi. He'd sit cross-legged on the dirt of the camp and scarf it down. Then he'd drink some tea and write letters home. His mother wired Lieutenant Sargent, asking for help—Eddie's notes were written on long scrolls and instead of left to right, the words ran up and down. She was worried. We were all worried. But Eddie's baseball skills didn't change. If anything, they improved. He developed a Japanese attitude toward the game. He'd practice on his batting form for hours; work out before a game and then work out again after a game. Late into the night he'd stand in front of the mirror, studying his swing. Unfortunately, we never had a full-length mirror. He'd hang a tiny shaving mirror from the side of a tent and study a three-inch area of his upper body as he swung. He really broke things down. If he struck out, he'd come back to the bench muttering something about how two inches of his left triceps were out of sync.

Then we traveled to an obscure outpost in Borneo. It seemed as if we were on the edge of the world. Thousands of acres of forest surrounding this one little airstrip. The GIs were there to protect Borneo from the commies, I suppose, though I also suspected they were there to protect the logging companies from having their business interrupted. The big timber companies had brought in Madurese settlers to help clear the forest. This pissed off the native Dayak tribesmen. Bad move, because they were headhunters from way back. So maybe we were giving a little support to the Madurese. Or a little support to Weyerhauser Lumber. Anyway, the Marines were there and the Washington Generals landed to play baseball. They had cleared out a field for us, setting out shiny black rubber strips for the bases. We took some infield, then broke for lunch before the game.

We looked around at lunchtime and realized that Eddie had disappeared. We figured he'd gone to do his sushi thing, and we never thought he'd be late returning—the Japanese are very punctual. But game time rolls around and there's no Eddie. Fine. We can lose without him, and we did. But then nighttime came and there was no Eddie. The Marines started whispering to me about headhunters and how the Dayak could smell a white man from a hundred yards and I got worried. I decided to take a little stroll and find him.

The Marines thought I was crazy. If the Dayak don't jump me, there's orangutans who aren't crazy about white men, either, not to mention some of the world's most venomous snakes, but I didn't care. See, I had adopted a philosophy a long time ago: There's a Book of Life, and your name is written in it with a start and a finish. It's up to you to fill in the middle, but when you begin isn't your choice and when you end isn't your choice. So don't worry. Get one. Get two. Bring it home.

It was about 10 P.M. when I walked out along the dirt road that led from Ketapang to Pangkalanbuun. I'd brought a bat for protection. Hey, just because there's a Book of Life, you don't have to be stupid. I strolled along, listening to the high-pitched screech of the monkeys and the rustle of snakes alongside my feet. Then I heard something else. A steady chopping sound. It ran along—chop chop chop—for a moment, then stopped. I paused, and there it was again—chop chop chop. It came from off the road. I turned toward it, raising my bat.

The forest opened out a bit. The canopy was way above me and a bright moon beamed down on a little clearing, surrounded by hills. I heard a scurrying sound, then silence. Then suddenly something hairy brushed my shoulder and dropped next to me. I swung wildly, my chest heaving. Silence. I poked with my bat and realized the hairy object was a coconut. There was a bunch of them scattered on the jungle floor. I could breathe again. I could even laugh again. I picked up a coconut, chuckling.

"Get one." I hit the coconut and it rolled into the clearing. Then a funny thing happened. A hunched-up figure appeared in the moonlight. It was like he'd materialized from the side of the hill. "Eddie?" There was a crack in my voice. Then came a reply—something guttural, something in a foreign tongue. Japanese. "Eddie. Come on out." An idea struck me. "Come on, Eddie. Get one."

I hit another coconut, more or less to the left side of what would have been the infield. I blinked. From the hillsides, another crouching figure was silhouetted in the moonlight. And then another. It was as if wizened men had stepped from the rocks of the hillsides. Out of self-defense, without thinking, I hit another coconut, trying to smash it at one of the figures. To my surprise, he fielded it cleanly and threw it across the diamond to one of the other figures. That figure caught it and then tossed the coconut back to me.

I didn't know what to think. But if these were Dayak headhunters, whatever ritual we were playing out was better than finding my head being tossed between them. "Get two." In the bright moonlight I could see a hunched-up man—like a third baseman bent over ready to field. I hit the nut his direction. He picked it up, chucked it to one of the bent figures in the middle of the field, who pivoted and threw on to first. This time the first baseman said, "Got 'em." It was Eddie. And the other figures, who'd emerged as if sucked from the rocky slopes, were nine Japanese soldiers who'd been hiding in those caves since the end of World War II. They didn't realize the war was over. Eddie had stumbled upon them and was making sushi for the group when I came along. They were just so hungry for baseball, so eager to get one, get two, that they were finally drawn out of their hiding places.

You can guess the rest of the story: the nine Japanese took over our role as the officially designated losing baseball team. They tried hard, but they were old, and they'd lost a step living in caves for more than a decade. Eddie managed them as they toured the South Pacific. He grew to love his life, taking on the psychology of the noble loser, the ying to a winner's yang. He eventually decided he was more comfortable exploring his feminine, Oriental nature, had a sex-change operation, and settled in Tokyo, where he worked as a geisha girl who specialized in analyzing wealthy businessmen's batting swings. But, as I said, you probably guessed that.

Lieutenant Sargent and the rest of the team took advantage of the emergence of the Japanese and did some barnstorming in Java. Sargent opened up a rubber plantation there and specialized in the growth of a super bouncy material that, although he'll never admit it, is now providing Major League Baseball with the core of its balls. But you'll only hear that from me, because I believe in bringing it home.

–EFQ

STAFF WRITER has been bringing these tales to readers of this journal (and its predecessor) for seventy consecutive issues now, and each one seems as smooth and as timeless as an around-the-horn double play.

© 2001 Elysian Fields Quarterly

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