“Think he’ll be there?”
Puppo picked up his Louisville slugger and didn’t even bother looking at me. "Prob’ly.”
“Wanna walk home a different way?” I asked.
Puppo’s Louisville Slugger made a victorious swipe at a butterfly. “Nope.”
He missed the butterfly. That summer none of us ever hit what we aimed at.
“ Here come the veterans.” Punk McHugh (see photo) saw us coming across Third Street at Stevie Vahovich’s corner. Punk was like a lot of men in my town of indeterminate age, considerable girth and vague, if any, employment obligations. Punk was the guy who cooked the big pots of bean soup at the town picnics. Beyond that, we didn’t know what he did.
“Here come the veterans,” he’d bellow, pulling himself from the cushioned hollows of the front-porch swing.
What he’d do, once up, was wink at his sister, Lizzie Horrigan, slouch over to the railing, do a palms-planted, belly-anchored lean into the awning’s shade, and send a curl of chewing tobacco onto the sidewalk in front of us like it was his calling card, something he had to do to let us know he was there. As if we could possibly avoid him.
Heads down, we’d try to circle Punk’s chewing tobacco, and that’s when he’d say, “How bad was it today?”
Puppo was our spokesman. "Twenty-one nothin’.”
“Twenty-one nothin’,” Punk would howl. "Well, at least youse ain’t getting’ no worse.”
Another squirt of tobacco juice, aimed at the gutter, falling short.
“Who whipped youse today? Not the Clowns again, was it?”
“Yeah, the Clowns,” Puppo mumbled. "They got some big kids. They got a lot of kids that’re 13.”
We were 9, every no-hit, no-field one of us. And our team, the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post of Coaldale, was dead-solid, in-the-cellar last with zero wins and countless losses in the PVRC Junior Baseball League.
Our sponsor bought us white T-shirts with a blue club insignia and the initials VFW imprinted across our scrawny chests.
Punk, always quick to grasp the ironic at someone else’s expense, thought our game shirts were appropriate for our prowess.
“VFW, know what that stands for?” he’d cackle. "Very Few Wins, that’s what it stands for.”
Punk had astonishingly pale-blue eyes that if they were a woman’s eyes, you’d call them pretty. In Punk, set as they were in his permanently florid face, their effect was almost startling.
Year’s later Punk’s eyes would startle me again when, during the funeral at my father’s gravesite, I looked up into Punk’s face and saw him crying openly.
But that was years later. On this post-loss summer day I’d sneak a look into Punk’s eyes and see them widen into near circles as he doled out the abuse. Punk’s gaze had a way of fixing you to the spot, making you hold your breath, making you incapable of a snappy comeback.
Still, Puppo steered us away even while Punk continued cackling. "Very Few Wins.”
Punk’s voice haunted us all the way home. Once there, seemingly safe from further abuse, we’d still worry about Punk’s sitting around the bar at the VFW, trying to talk the commander into dropping his sponsorship of our lowly nine.
After every game, Puppo would wait for the phone to ring with the message that we had to turn in our T-shirts lest we bring further embarrassment to the VFW Post.
All summer long we steeled ourselves against Punk’s torture, which wasn’t exactly malicious, we knew. It was just the dish-it-out kind of chatter that passed for conversation in a small town.
Punk’s intent notwithstanding, my innings in right field were passed kicking at daisies and dreading our post-game confrontations with him.
In fact, I’d spend so much time kicking daisies and fretting about Punk’s harangues that I did more than my dismal share to contribute to those 21-zilch thumpings. I’d generally be snapped back to the task well out of hand by the flip-flap of a sharply hit ball slicing through the daisies. Even today, I find the smell of crushed daisies vaguely unpleasant.
The Clowns; the Buccaneers; the Emco Jets; Pat’s Pistons they all pummeled us.
Nature, however, is merciful. Summer ended; the daisies died; baseball season, like Punk, was behind me. Forever, I vowed. I was retiring at age 9, hanging up my Mickey Mantle model glove, putting myself permanently and blissfully on the shelf.
Next summer Puppo showed up at my house with the team’s new uniform a blue T-shirt with a gold insignia and gold letters that spelled out VFW. It looked pretty good. The blue hat with its gold V and still-unviolated sweatband looked pretty good.
I was back in right field.
A strange thing happened that summer, too. We were all a year older, a year bigger and stronger. The daisies, for example, didn’t always trip me when I ran.
We won. And we won. And won again. And we never lost.
That was the summer we leaned against the railing of Punk’s porch, and Puppo said to him, “Know what VFW stands for? Very Fine Wins, that’s what.”