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Story Excerpts

The Wandering Warriors

by Rick Wilber & Alan Smale

July 1946

It was a steamy July night. We were filling up the tank of our old Ford Transit bus at Ambler’s Texaco in Dwight, Illinois, when Quentin Williams, one of our two “Cubans” on the Warriors, had the great idea of getting off the dependable concrete of Route 66 and taking the back roads down to Decatur.

We were all standing around, some of the players smoking and a few spitting out tobacco juice from their chaw while a few of us—me included—drank cold pop from the station’s icebox. Sure, we were tired. The double-header on Sunday had gone extra-innings both games, and we’d finally had to call the second game a draw when it got too dark to play—ten hours of baseball on a hot Illinois summer day that had started at noon and ended with us driving off into the darkness. And all for a total of maybe two hundred bucks, split eleven ways. But that’s how it was for the Wandering Warriors.

I was stiff and my knees were sore after a full day catching, so I was a little disagreeable. As I opened up the side hood to tinker with the distributor cap, I said I wasn’t sure it was a great idea to get off the main road and drive through the night on narrow two-lane blacktop. I mentioned that a wrong turn or two and we might wind up in Indiana or Missouri or anywhere else, and then we’d have to spend all morning driving back to where we were supposed to be in time for the noon game in Decatur. And the Decatur Dukes were supposed to be pretty good this year, and so were we, so there’d be a nice crowd. We’d make three or four times as much money as we had in Kankakee. Let’s play it safe, I said, and stick to the main highway.

Then I slammed the hood down, climbed into the driver’s seat, and turned the key to start up the old Transit. It backfired once—the distributor cap still wasn’t quite right—and then settled into a nice rumble.

“Professor,” Quentin said from the front row behind me, laughing, “you got no sense of adventure. Plus,” he said, “this will get us to that hotel in Decatur an hour faster, so we can get some sleep before we do this all over again tomorrow.”

Quentin liked the Prairie Hotel in Decatur because our two “Cubans” and our two Jews—me being one of them—got rooms with no trouble there. It wasn’t like that in some of the towns we played in farther south. Sure, the Major Leagues broke the color line during the war when the Negro vets started coming home. But at the level we played and the towns we played in, it wasn’t so simple as that.

There were little mumblings of agreement in the back of the bus. Quentin loved maps and thought of himself as our navigator, and the guys trusted him. He was smart as a whip. Hell, like me he even read the newspaper every day, which really impressed the guys. Plus, a shorter drive and more sleep sounded good to the Wandering Warriors.

I sighed and rolled my eyes and said “Quentin, I’ll talk to the driver, but that map of yours better get us there in the dark.” He laughed. I was the driver. And the owner. And the catcher. Quentin was our ace and he’d won sixteen on the season. We had a good understanding. I laughed with him, and about five miles down Route 66, I took a left when Quentin said to, and that’s how it all began.

*   *   *

At first the road was fine, two-lane and not wide; but it was paved and there was no traffic, so we moved along at a pretty decent clip, fields of knee-high corn on both sides of this good farmland. Every now and then the road curved and the headlights would pick out a farmhouse or a barn in the distance, but mostly we saw telephone poles and corn. Lots of corn. And the land was flat as a pancake, the way Illinois can be.

The road wound its way south, and us with it, for nearly an hour before Quentin said to me, “Take a right up there, Professor,” and next road I saw, I did just that. It was narrower, but still paved. The old Ford occupied most of that concrete. We’d have had to pull over and squeeze by if there’d been anybody coming the other way; but there wasn’t, just fields of wheat now in the headlights, and some soybeans here and there, a mist rising from the fields as it started to sneak up on midnight.

I liked driving the bus, even at night on back roads in Illinois. Being on the road was necessary to the game I spent all summer playing, like a child; and driving the bus was part and parcel with catching and hitting and running the bases: a comfort, a happiness. I’d played the game for money when I was younger and I’d done all right, though in my naiveté I hadn’t realized what it all meant. Then the war had come, and I’d done what they asked of me—odd and mysterious though it often was—and when it was over so was my career as a spy and as a ballplayer. So now I played for the joy of it. I didn’t dare tell my players any of this. They’d have ribbed me unmercifully.

I’d always been a good backstop as a kid in St. Louis; soft hands, strong arm, good hitting. I played for University City High School, where I was head of the class in school as well as sports, and did well enough to be the starting catcher for the college nine at Washington U. there in St. Louis, where I took my degree in Literature and then sailed through the doctorate in Classical Languages. Then, at twenty-five, I showed up at a tryout in Springfield, Illinois, and they gave me a contract, catchers being hard to find. In three years I climbed through the minors and onto the big club, the competition tougher at every level so I went from star to starter to journeyman; but I made the team, a backup catcher for the White Sox. That’s where I stayed for six good years, playing in fifty or sixty games a season, hitting a respectable mid two-hundreds, handling a favorite pitcher or two. Good glove, not much of an arm, decent bat but not enough power. Solid. That was me, and I was happy to be there. The Professor, the guys called me when a local reporter caught on to my education, and the nickname stuck.

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Bubble and Squeak

by David Gerrold & Ctein

Hu Son ran.

He ran for the joy of it, for the exhilaration—for that moment of hitting the wall and breaking through into the zone, that personal nirvana of physical delight. What others called “runner’s high.” A sensation like flight—Hu’s feet didn’t pound the ground, they tapped it as he soared through the early morning air.

A bright blue cloudless sky foretold a beautiful day. A sky so clear and deep you could fall into it and never come back. Later, the day would heat up, glowing with a summery yellow haze, but right now—at this special moment—the beachfront basked in its own perfect promise.

Hu usually started early, when Venice Beach was mostly deserted, all sand and palm trees and stone benches, all the storefronts sleeping behind steel shutters. It was the best time to run. Hu liked the crisp air of dawn, the solitude of the moment, the feeling that the day was still clean, still waiting to be invented—before the owners could ruin it with their displays of tacky, tasteless, and vulgar kitsch.

Some of the cafés were open early though, and by the time Hu reached the Santa Monica pier, run its length, and then headed back toward home, the morning air was flavored with the smells of a dozen different kinds of breakfast, the spices of all the various cuisines that flourished here.

Heading home, Hu passed other morning joggers. This was a favorite track. Nods were exchanged, or not—some of the runners were lost in hidden music, others in their personal reveries. He recognized most; he’d been running this track for more than a year. He was probably regarded as a regular by now.

The final leg. He trotted past the last of the brash touristy areas. Later this strand would teem with summer crowds, exploring the souvenir stands, the ranks of T-shirts printed with single entendres, the displays of dreadful art, all the different fortune tellers and street performers, but right now, this community was still lazily awakening, coming back to life at its own pace. There were still the occasional shapeless lumps on the stone benches—the homeless, wrapped up against the chill of the night, waiting for the heat of the day to revive them. Even in July, the morning air had a bite, with a salty flavor from the grumbling sea.

Hu turned and jogged up the narrow way that pretended to be a street, a block and a half, slowing down only in the last few meters. He hated to stop, hated to drop back into that other pace of life—the faster more frenetic life, where you weren’t allowed to run, you had to walk, walk, walk everywhere.

He glanced at his wristband, looking to see where his numbers were today. Not bad. Not his personal best, but good enough. “Probably still stuck on the plateau,” he muttered. “Gonna have to push to get off. Just not today.”

Hu opened the back gate and started peeling off his T-shirt. He liked the feeling of the cold morning air cooling the sweat off his skin. He took a moment to slow down, to let himself ease down into this world, then finally stepped through the door and called affectionately, “Honey, I’m homo—” then headed straight for the shower.

Hu Son didn’t just appreciate hot water, he loved the luxury of it. In eighteen months, he’d have his master’s degree in cultural anthropology, and after that, he’d go for his doctorate, but already his studies had given him a clear sense of how lucky he was to be living in an age where clean water was taken for granted—and hot water available on demand.

California’s drought had officially ended some years before, but Hu rarely lingered in the shower. Even at this remove, he could still hear his mother banging on the door, shouting, “Leave some for the rest of us!” Old habits endured. Today, however—today was special. So he took his time, soaping up and rinsing, three times over. He closed his eyes, paced his breathing, and allowed himself to sink into his personal contract with himself.

“I am powerful,” he whispered. “I am vulnerable,” he continued. And smiling, he concluded, “And I am loving.” He repeated it a few times, a personal mantra, until it was no longer a declaration, only his renewed experience of himself. And then, one more phrase. “Especially today!” Opening his eyes, Hu nearly shouted that last. “Because today, I am getting married!”

An electric screech interrupted him—alarm sirens outside. It sounded like the whole city was howling. Like any other Angeleno, anyone who’d lived in the city more than six months, Hu ignored it. It was meaningless noise. Everything was noise, from the daily growl of motorcycles and Asian “rice-rockets” to the nightly screams of drunks and junkies.

Hu turned off the water and heard James calling from the kitchen. “Hu, you need to get in here!” Something was wrong, James only called him Hu when he was upset. He grabbed a fresh towel and wrapped it around himself. A second towel for his hair and he headed toward the kitchen where James was standing, leaning with his back against the counter, a mug of tea in his hand—but focusing intensely on a small television on the end of the kitchen table. Without looking up, James held out the usual mug of tea for Hu.

Hu took it and pecked his fiancé on the cheek. “What’s up, Bubble? What are all the sirens for? Some kind of test?” He didn’t wait for an answer, but took his first sip. Chai. . . . “Ahh.” He glanced toward the television. The president was talking.

“Now what? Are we at war?”

“It’s Hawaii,” said James.

“We’re at war with Hawaii?”

“There’s been a quake—”

Hu’s buoyant mood evaporated. “Oh no. How bad?”

“Both Honolulu and Hilo were hit by tsunamis. Really big—the biggest ever.” James turned to Hu. “When did your folks fly out?”

“They didn’t. Dad needed an extra day. So they’re flying out this evening, they’ll catch up with us tomorrow at the hotel.”

“No, they won’t. And we won’t be there either. Honolulu airport is gone.”

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