7/20/20 – Memory Lane – Kingsport, TN
Today I find myself in Kingsport, Tennessee, where I was born, grew up, graduated from high school, and bolted. I’ve been back a dozen or more times over the years, most recently for my 50thhigh school reunion. I still have a fragment of family here, my favorite aunt Mary Ellen, and a few great friends like Steve Bingham. I drove by the ballfield where our minor league baseball team played. I, with a number of other poor kids from the neighborhood, would gather outside hoping for foul balls to chase down and claim. I got one once, only to have it taken away by a bigger boy.
I remember once being inside the park for a double-header game. Between games I saw my favorite player in the hallway under the seating area. He was on the team from Bluefield, West Virginia, the opposing team. Maybe I thought of him because I rode Sunride in Bluefield a couple of days ago. I don’t remember his name. I do remember he was Black; but mostly I remember how good a player he was, like Willie Mays chasing down any ball that came anywhere near center field and always getting a good piece of the ball when at the plate. Seeing him in person was a thrill for me. We made eye contact and he motioned with a slight nod of his head for me to come over. I stood in front of him and he held out his baseball glove, face down on his left hand. I held my glove face up under his. He took his glove away and there in mine was a brand-new baseball. He had dropped it there as nonchalantly as Joe DiMaggio gliding into second base for a standup double. He didn’t say a word. Half-dazed I just kept looking down at the unexpected gift in my glove. When I looked up again, he was gone. This marvelous man had such class. I don’t know why he did a good deed for me. Maybe he picked out the scrawniest kid in the stadium. No one would take this baseball away from me. I treasured that ball for a long time until I lost it. That’s what 11-year-old kids do.
That year, 1960, my Dad, a union electrician, was working in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. He went to a lot of games at Forbes Field, and even flew me up to one where I got to see Warren Spahn, Eddie Matthews, and Hank Aaron of the visiting Milwaukie Braves. He brought me a baseball signed by all the Pittsburg Pirate players: Roberto Clemente, Elroy Face, Bill Virdon, Bob Skinner, Bill Mazeroski, Dick Groat, Don Hoak, Harvey Haddix, Smokey Burgess – they were all there. I lost that ball too. To a collector that baseball would be worth six figures today because later that year the Pirates would defeat the New York Yankees (Micky Mantle, Roger Maris) in what many sports fans regard as the greatest World Series of all time. We got to watch the seventh and deciding game from our classrooms at St. Dominic’s grade school. When Bill Mazeroski hit the winning home run we were outside on a fire drill. Only when I Googled “1960 World Series game seven” was I finally able to see the conclusion to that immortal game.
In a few weeks Sunride will take me to Pittsburg where I plan to visit the Roberto Clemente Museum. A must on my bucket list because Roberto was my favorite player, a great humanitarian, and a great man. Maybe my signed baseball will be there.
Today I rode Sunride 46 miles in and around Kingsport. From our campground at Warrior’s Path State Park I went to East Lawn Cemetery where my little sister rests. She died from tragic burns when she was just five years old. I so look forward to seeing her in heaven. She has to be there because she was a little angel on earth. I had no flowers to give her so I placed a Sunride card on her gravestone to connect my soul to her soul. I knew the card would blow away so I picked it up with a parting prayer.
Mid-day while Sunride soaked up some rays, I sat in the shade having lunch against the brick wall of Ross N. Robinson Jr. High. Two memories came to mind: One was pole-vaulting 8’3” in the eighth grade and the other walking to school without a coat in winter. Just before leaving home I would wet my hair and comb it up in the front. It was the style popularized by Elvis and Ricky Nelson. On the coldest days when I arrived at school there would be ice in my hair. I wouldn’t even know it until a classmate pointed it out. It was always embarrassing when that happened. I was vindicated one Valentine’s Day when the school paper wrote “the perfect male Valentine would have the hair of John Patterson.” I also remember dancing at the school sock hops. LW was my favorite girl to dance with. Her smile gleamed right out from her braces.
From there I went to all three homes I lived in growing up. I’m always drawn to these places, especially the one on Barnes Street. As a kid I would run into the house from school, the screen door would slam once, I’d drop my school books and be back out again before it slammed a second time. Every house had kids my age. We were the baby boomers. We played softball in the street. The manhole on Linville was home plate. Left-handed Johnny Campbell who would someday become Mayor of Johnson City sometimes hit fly balls off the roof of his own house in right field. A ball hit to dead center field would bounce all the way to Harris Avenue.
Sitting in left field was Paul Gallagher’s house. Poppi, as we kids called him, was an engineer at Eastman and was a model of fitness. He built a chin up bar in his back yard and on summer evenings we neighborhood kids would gather there and have chin up contests. Poppi could always do more chin ups than any of the rest of us. Even the strongest of us young bucks couldn’t out chin Poppi. He was truly remarkable. He had three grown children, and judging from his grey hair we guessed he had to be in his fifties when we were in our teens. On one occasion I did 17 chin ups. Poppi did 18. On another occasion I did 19. Poppi did 20. 19 was the youth record for all the rest of us, but it was only the silver medal. Poppi owned the gold, year after year, summer after summer. Not only did he do the most chin ups, his were the most beautiful. While the rest of us stretched our necks, kicked and did whatever we could to get our chin over the bar, Poppi would snap his chest to the bar crashing into it just below the collar bones.
I went off to college when I turned 18 and never returned except at Christmas or other winter holidays when the chin up bar stood idle in Poppi’s back yard. I would walk past and fondly remember those summer contests. When I turned 40, I was feeling fat and out of shape. I found a chin up bar and did a pitiful 6 chin ups. Then, out of the blue, I tracked down a Paul Gallagher in Florida. A man answered who sounded so young and robust I was sure I had the wrong number. Gingerly I began speaking, “I’m not sure if this is the Paul Gallagher that used to live on Linville Street in…” I was interrupted with a burst of gleeful laughter by the man on the other end who said, “Is this Johnny Patterson?” Happily, I answered yes. He laughed through his next sentence. which was, “Why in the world would you be calling?” I said, “Poppi, I just have one question for you: How many chin ups can you do right now?”
His answer, without hesitation was, “More than you!” followed by more peals of laughter. It was the same laugh I heard on those summer nights when we kids gave it all we had to eek out another chin up. I fumbled a bit to respond, formulating a lie which was, “Well, if I had a week or so to work up to it I think I could do ten or twelve.” His immediate reply, “Well, I can do more than that.”
I was stunned. This man by now had to be 80 years old. As a kid I couldn’t help but to admire him. I told myself then when I get old I want to be just like Poppi Gallagher.
Every year on my birthday I see how many chin ups I can do. When I turned seventy, I did seven. By now Poppi would have to be close to 100. If he’s still alive I wouldn’t be surprised if he could do 10.
From my old neighborhood I biked a few blocks into Fair Acres, the start of my old paper route. I remember the nice houses, most of which still looked the same. A cluster of kids on their skateboards and bikes watched me go by. One of them caught up to me and asked about Sunride. I told him it’s my solar powered electric bike. “That is so awesome!” he repeated twice.
A lady in her yard took notice and flagged me down for a photo. I told her I used to deliver papers to her house. Of course, she wasn’t yet born and certainly wasn’t living in that house 55 years ago. I practically lived on my bicycle back then, carrying my papers every day, sometimes carrying my sister on the handlebars.
The Legion Pool, where I spent nearly every day of the summer, is gone. Instead, Kingsport now has a world class Aquatic Center with three pools. I swam a mile in the 50-meter indoor pool. The swim team worked out in the far lanes churning the water like piranhas. I was on the swim team 60 years ago. I still have some of my medals.
Kingsport now has a Greenway bike trail that runs along Reedy Creek. We did the whole 12-mile run. I passed by Holston Valley Hospital where I was born, and where little Joannie died. Kingsport is different now, its population has doubled, there are lots of new houses and new roads, yet many places are still the same. I will always cherish my home town. I left to see the world, but I always come back to see home.
Returning to Warriors Park I crossed the bridge where I jumped off and famously did a gainer as a teen. Standing balanced on the rail, it’s rather daunting to jump forward and flip backwards from thirty feet in the air hoping like hell you don’t over-rotate, or worse yet, under rotate. They say I was the first to do it, but not the only one. Gary, the kid who dared me, did one right after I did.
I like being the first. In the race that broke the four-minute mile, two runners achieved the feat; but most people only remember Roger Bannister. Now, any world class runner does the mile in under four minutes. Someday, thousands and maybe millions of people will cross the country on electric bikes and cars; and of course, they’ll all be powered by sunshine because that will be the best way to do it and the only way that makes sense.