SIOUX CITY -- This isn’t about telling anyone how much better childhood or life in general used to be.
As our nation celebrates its ceremonial 241st birthday today, this is simply about America and how it was back when I was a kid in Cedar Rapids.
This is a reflection on spending most of your time doing one of two things -- either riding a bike or playing baseball. No video games, not much TV and very little that required adults to spoil the fun with too much structure.
Long before I came to know an exceptional human being named Frank LaMere and long before I learned more about the Native American people, I was taught a game we called “Indian Ball.”
If the name came from anything but respect for a culture and its resourcefulness in recreational ways, it was never presented as such to me. I simply assumed this baseball hybrid was actually passed down from one or more tribes, already aware how the indigenous people of our country could always make more from less.
Indian Ball was just one of those simple diversions someone dreamed up to make fun with a ball and bat require only four people instead of 18. And, believe me, finding four kids to play baseball in our neighborhood was easy as pie.
Two people on a side, our game put one team on defense while the other team batted. With the hitting team’s gloves dropped maybe 30 feet apart -- that’s close enough -- the imaginary line between them represented the infield boundary.
You lob the ball to your teammate in whatever fashion he prefers, overhand or underhand. Hopefully, he hits it and anything that gets past the opponent guarding that infield is a single. A ball past the outfield defender is a double and a fly ball over his head a triple. Then, when the neighborhood tennis courts aren’t occupied, we move the whole operation close enough you could sometimes hit one over the fence and into those courts for a home run.
One swing and miss was a strikeout while one ground ball stopped before breaching the infield or anything caught on the fly were also one of each half-innings allotted three outs.
I can still rattle off the names of seven other playmates who helped me organize a four-team league that set out one summer to play a 154-game schedule, just like the major leagues of old.
We went so far as to keep track of statistics, so we’d know Jerry Pettit, a strong kid, had 60-some home runs, almost single-handedly killing the sport of tennis in our part of town. That didn’t stop another member of our gang, Lee Wright, from becoming a state singles runner-up in tennis as a junior at Washington High. In fact, Lee went on to become a longtime tennis professional, teaching the game.
Where Jerry lived, Coe College was a block to the west and his teammate, Danny Kaplan, lived a half-block the other way. Dennis Perrin was a few doors down from Danny and Greg White was on the same block.
I lived four or five blocks from there, not far from my friend, Mark Wazac. Somewhere in the middle were Lee and a kid, Bob Nelson, who later ushered at my wedding.
Baseballs, tennis balls or wiffle balls, we’d have endless hours of fun. Somewhere along the way, a family named Hibbs moved in about four houses away from mine. Bob, the oldest of three boys, was six or seven years older than most of us, but he’d wander in, as I recall, for a few of our more conventional pick-up games.
Closer to our age, meanwhile, were Bob’s two younger brothers, Dale and Bill, who helped getting us to 10 or 12 players. Sorry, lefties, but anything right of second base was foul.
Before we knew it, of course, childhood was over. Danny Kaplan finished high school and enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps. So did Jerry Pettit, whose name became Gardner because, well, kids don’t understand everything, right?
If you’ve seen the wonderful film “Boys Town,’’ you’ll remember Mickey Rooney’s character, Whitey Marsh. To me, that was Danny Kaplan. I can still hear the raspy voice and see this skinny kid who could run like a deer.
Jerry (Pettit) Gardner was the quiet sort. I always thought there were issues at home, which could certainly make a young guy volunteer for Vietnam. It was time again for the U.S.A. to push back against evil. For this, there’s always a terrible price.
On Feb. 7, 1968, Lance Corporal Daniel James Kaplan, who had an unforgettable smile, was patrolling in Quang Tri Province when small arms fire ended his life at age 19.
Nearly two years to the day later, on Feb. 2, 1970, PFC Gerald Lee Gardner, strong as an ox, stepped on a land mine in Quang Nam Province, near Danang. That made him another of 31 Cedar Rapids natives to perish more than 8,000 miles from our playgrounds.
Years ago, when a replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial came here to Hubbard Park, it became easier to grasp the magnitude of 58,220 U.S. military casualties this “conflict” produced. I couldn’t just stroll around and find my friends’ names. There was the book and the scratch pad. That was the only expedient way to locate Danny’s name on Panel 38E, Row 4. Jerry’s was on Row 93 of Panel 14W.
If only I’d known the eldest of the Hibbs boys better, I wouldn’t have been oblivious for a time after news arrived that Robert John Hibbs, a 22-year-old second lieutenant in the U.S. Army, had died from Viet Cong machine gunfire on March 5, 1966.
Even though the Hibbs family had relocated to Cedar Falls, I’d have known this before the prominent story several months later. President Johnson had approved a Congressional Medal of Honor for Bob on Nov. 16 of that same year. It was one of 258 awarded for service in Vietnam, 162 of them posthumously.
Bob had been born in Omaha, then lived in Sioux City and Des Moines as his father changed jobs in the dairy business. The move to Cedar Rapids was followed by that final move to Cedar Falls, where Bob is memorialized at my alma mater, UNI.
Needless to say, we all have our stories of friends and relatives who gave up their lives in the service of our country. I’m sure my pals would have had as much fun today as any of the other folks who’ve been lighting some of Iowa’s newly legal fireworks for a month, or so it seems.
Be safe, my friends. That stuff can hurt you.
More importantly, please enjoy the celebration of living in a country that has been great ever since 1776. What better way to honor all who’ve sacrificed so many decades of mortal life’s joys?