The sweetest of the senses

autumnburningleaves

Sometimes in the fall or winter when I’m driving along country roads or through little towns an old, sweet aroma works its way through the air vents in my car and makes me smile.

Some of you who think you’ve got my number are assuming it’s a food smell – barbeque or some such – but you’re wrong.

It’s a pile of leaves being burned.

Up in Oakwood on cold, windless days in my boyhood smoke from such bonfires would wander through that town like friendly ghosts.  It was pleasant, that smoke, and in its own way reassuring.  It meant the seasons were marching forward right on schedule, and that all was well.

It was the nature writer Henry Beston –his “The  Outermost House” and “The Farm” are reads worth spending time with – who summed autumn’s transition up nicely.  “The leaves fall,” he says, “the wind blows, and the farm slowly changes from summer cotton to its winter wools.”

There was a time when families raked up leaves together on pretty autumn days. The kids wouldn’t usually be all that helpful, kicking around in the stack and throwing handfuls of leaves, but finally somebody would be given the honor of striking a match and igniting the pyre. Of course that was when families actually ventured out into the yard together, before more important things like computer games and texting and reality television came along.

This time of year my backyard is often covered over with a thick blanket of reddish brown leaves, crispy and brittle on sunny days and soggy on rainy ones.   If I could pile them up and burn them – which would violate a bevy of municipal codes and have the law down on me like G-men on Al Capone – I’d have already happily raked them up and set them ablaze.  There are a few well-seasoned folks in my neighborhood who grew up in the country who’d probably appreciate the fragrance of burning leaves.  It might even awaken a memory or two, and bring some special people in their pasts back to life for a few minutes in their minds.

Psychologists maintain that smell is the quickest of the five senses to trigger things locked away in memory.  And it doesn’t have to be a pleasing smell.  I once wrote in a newspaper column about how the odor of strong diesel fumes takes me back more than forty years to the army motor pool where I was a job-order clerk in Germany as swiftly as the smell of boiling butter beans transports me to my grandmother’s kitchen even longer ago than that.

After that column ran I heard from several readers about unique smells that serve as time machines for them, everything from burning rubber to cow manure.  Personally, I wouldn’t associate either of those smells – or some others I was told about – with anything nostalgic, but to each his own.  One person’s stench is another’s bouquet.

For yours truly, one whiff of burning leaves is enough to carry me back to a little town that is much changed and to a white frame house that is long gone.

Well, back to the present.  Since I can’t burn them, I suppose I’ll finally get around to mowing my leaves up, telling myself all the while that they’ll provide beneficial mulch for the lawn that has suffered mightily in the recent drought.  I might even get industrious and rake them up, bag them, and put them out by the curb.  But not just yet.

I’m not opposed, you see, to a yard covered with leaves.  I think it looks like a Norman Rockwell painting, and I enjoy the sight and sound of wind rustling through them while I sit on the patio. Who knows?  The scent of a dewberry cobbler being baked or chickens being grilled might drift by while I’m out there, either of which would wake up a plethora of good memories for me.

If you love to read, you’ve probably noticed when a good writer uses the sense of smell to describe a scene.  And if you intend to write something that someone else will love to read, you’d better employ this unique writer’s tool pretty often.

Let’s hear from you.  What specific smell triggers a memory and quickly takes you back to another time and place?

 

At Thanksgiving

norman-rockwell-thanksgivig

When you gather with your family today, I’ll wager that more than a few of you will be thinking, much of the time, of other Thursdays.

This will depend on your age, of course, and on the number of Thanksgivings that you have enjoyed.  Or survived.

I’ve logged a good many Turkey Days, myself.  And, though I can’t attest to the nature of the first few, I can happily report that this particular holiday accounts for some of my fondest memories.

Thanksgivings in Oakwood, my East Texas hometown, were outstanding when I was a boy.  Especially if a big blustery norther had blown in, scattering oak and sycamore leaves, some as big as saucers, all over the place.  When everything was brown and yellow and the sky was slate-gray, when one of my father’s carefully laid fires roared and popped in the fireplace, and the aroma of my mother’s roasted turkey and fresh baked pecan and sweet potato pies drifted through the whole house. When family members would come in and chatter and hug everybody and we’d all try to imagine what the floats in the Macy’s parade on our big black and white Zenith would look like in color.

That’s how I remember all of those early Thanksgivings.  But of course some of them were surely sad or rainy or downright hot. But I’ve erased those, and what I have left were all Norman Rockwell affairs.

I do recall that the 1963 meeting was a little somber.  My sister’s husband had died in a car accident in May. Then President Kennedy was assassinated a few days before Thanksgiving. But Walter Cronkite said on the television that we should, as Americans, make the best of the situation and count our blessings.  So we did.  We generally paid attention to Walter Cronkite.

A decade later found me in the army, stationed in a small town in Bavaria.  Thanksgiving is not a German holiday, of course, so the cooks at our mess hall went all out to provide a festive occasion. There were fat turkeys and all the trimmings, pies – mincemeat and pumpkin and fruit – and sweet German wine on every table.  We were all turned out in our class A dress uniforms and were on our best behavior. The soldiers’ wives and children came on base for that repast and even some of the Germans from that little village called Illesheim. The base commander, a colonel who always wore a big pistol on his side, didn’t wear it that day.  He made a toast; one of the chaplains said a prayer.  Then we all tucked into one of the finest meals I’ve ever had, even though the dressing was made with white bread rather than cornbread (the cooks were obviously Yankees).  I still have the little printed menu somewhere.

The following year I had mustered out and gotten myself back into college, and an army buddy from northern Arkansas, who had been in my platoon in Germany, drove down to Oakwood to share Thanksgiving with my dad, my sisters, and me.  My mother had died in January, so it was something of a sad occasion. But my friend being there was a blessing.  As was the Cowboys-Redskins game that afternoon.  When an untested backup quarterback named Clint Longley came in for the injured Roger Staubach and sailed a fifty yard pass to Drew Pearson to win the game in the final minutes.

As time went by, and the years stacked up, Thanksgivings became as much cradles of memories as current events.

Nowadays, when I sit down for that big dinner, I always sense the presence of more people than are actually there.  Like my parents, grandparents, all my uncles and aunts, and good friends who have passed away.

And I’ll bet that’s the way it is with your gathering, too.

So today, when you sit down to eat more than you should, take a good, long look around the table and be thankful – to whoever or whatever you choose to be thankful to – for all the people there.  Even the ones that exist only in the sweet country of your memory.

Because memory, I’ve come to realize, is one of the richest blessings of all. Even if it lies occasionally.

You have a wonderful Thanksgiving. And eat a second piece of pie.

 

 

This was first a newspaper column a decade ago then was a chapter in a book titled Sundays with Ron Rozelle published by Texas Christian University Press.

 

A day like no other

 

kennedy

If you are of a certain age I’ll bet you know exactly where you were 53 years ago this morning.

I was in Miss Lillie Belle’s  classroom when the big PA speaker on the wall crackled to life and my father, the superintendent, told us that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas.  Somebody in town who’d heard it on the radio had called the school to tell him and, though I had never heard anything come over that speaker before, I guess my father thought it was time to use it.  He could have just yelled it down the hall, or paid a visit to each of the dozen or so classrooms.  The Oakwood school was laid out like an assembly line: first grade through eighth on one side of his office, high school classes on the other.

A few minutes later he came back on and told us the president had died. The same man had called in and told him that Walter Cronkite had confirmed it on Channel 4 out of Dallas.  In 1963, in Oakwood, if Walter Cronkite said it, it was a fact.

That afternoon I had a dentist appointment over in Palestine which my mother drove me to in our Chevrolet Impala, the window beside her rolled down a bit so the smoke from her Pall Malls could find its way out into the November afternoon.

The dashboard radio spilled out updates and reactions from around the world.  We learned that the airplane that had brought the president to Dallas was taking his body back to Washington, along with President Johnson, who’d been given the oath of office in the plane before it took off. Mrs. Kennedy, the reporter told us, was still in the blood-smeared dress she’d been in when she’d cradled her husband’s head in her lap in the motorcade.

My  mother was unusually quiet during the drive.  Then, when we were just a few miles from Palestine, she pulled the car over on the shoulder of Highway 79, put it in park, and sat staring through the windshield.  In a moment she started to cry.  Finally, as I sat wide-eyed not knowing what to do or say, she wiped her eyes with a tissue, adjusted the rearview mirror so she could make sure her lipstick was right, lit up a Pall Mall and we were on our way.

Scores of books have been written about that day and the events that led up to it and followed it.  The most detailed nonfiction account was William Manchester’s The Death of a President, which was commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy and was published in 1967.  It was followed by many, far too many, conspiracy theorists who have chimed in for decades with volume after volume.

Novelists, of course, haven’t been able to resist the sirens’ call of a story as compelling as the Kennedy assassination.  My favorite, so far, has been Stephen King’s time travel tome titled 11/22/63. Don Dilullo’s Libra, which focuses on Kennedy’s assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, got good reviews when it came out in the late eighties.  I haven’t read it, but a copy I picked up at a used book store is waiting for me in my stack of someday reads.

November 22nd, 1963, is a date engrained in our both our memory and our national psyche, like December 7th, 1941 and September 11th, 2001.  Wordsmiths have tried to capture the sadness, disbelief, disgust and fear of that day in Dallas for over half a century.  Some have come close.

Personally, my strongest image, a haunting one, is of my mother leaning against the huge steering wheel of a Chevrolet Impala on the side of a highway, crying for a man she might not have even voted for.  Crying for his young widow who she would never meet.  Crying, that sad afternoon, for all of us.

Perspective

 

perspective

Back when my first name was Coach instead of Mister at the school where I am still soldiering on toward retirement, I took my varsity tennis players on a field trip to Houston.

This was in the early 1980’s and John McEnroe was playing in an exhibition match.  I figured that watching that young fellow in action, in person, might benefit my kids in at least a couple of ways.  First, in those days he was the best player in the world.  So maybe some of his skills and strategies would rub off.  And second, his infamous behavior – temper tantrums and racquet throwing and screaming – would provide a good object lesson for me to refer to when reminding my players how not to behave.

The match was in the old Sam Houston Coliseum, which stood about where the Hobby Center is now in the downtown theatre district.

On the way up the kids wanted to know about the coliseum.  It and its adjoining Music Hall were old by then and other, newer venues were much more popular.

I told them I’d attended the Houston Fat Stock Show and Rodeo there when I was a child, before the Astrodome had been built. Then I told them how enormous the coliseum was, and how far away my family’s seats had been from the roping and riding and bucking.

When we arrived, I had to eat those words.

The arena that I recalled as gigantic looked, all those years later, like a high school gymnasium.  There were, in fact, exactly two sets of restrooms in the whole place.

This has happened to you, I’ll bet.

You’ve remembered something as colossal from your childhood, only to find when seeing it as an adult that it has shrunk significantly.

Memory is an amazing thing, and as a writer it is a bank account that I draw on constantly.  But memory can also be a liar.  My grandparents’ house up in Livingston was not, I realize on the rare occasions when I see it again, the palatial behemoth that I thought it was when I was a little boy.  It’s just a house, it turns out, and hardly one of the wonders of the universe.

Oddly, this fallible concept of size works exactly opposite when it comes to the actual universe.  As I get older, I am more and more amazed at the size and depth of space.  Especially on clear nights when a multitude of countless stars are spread out against the heavens. It’s easy to get lost in all of that, and to feel awfully small and insignificant.

I’m no Einstein (you really don’t need to email your agreement on this point; I’m not taking a vote).   But I have tried on occasion to grasp the enormity of the cosmic fishbowl we’re trapped in, and always came up short.  Until recently, that is.

One day a little book that my wife Karen used to use with her third grade class caught my eye, so I opened up “The Book of Planets” by one Clint Twist.  And it wasn’t until I read that children’s book – a process that took all of about ten minutes – that the sheer vastness of the universe finally clicked. It was sort of a “out of the mouths of babes” experience.  Or, more correctly, “out of a book intended for babes.”

In that handsome volume this fine analogy was put forth:  If the sun were the size of a basketball, the earth would be a pea about 250 feet away.  And Pluto – which has been unceremoniously downgraded from planet to dwarf planet to large ice cube – would be a tiny seed about twenty miles – that’s right, twenty MILES – beyond the pea.

That little lesson in size and distance and perspective really hit home. It also, of course, made me feel even smaller when stargazing.

The perception of size has been elusive for me. When I was a child I saw some things as bigger and more impressive than they actually were, or at least bigger and more impressive than they would later be.  Like my grandmother’s house.  But with time, and lots of it, I’ve come to realize that the universe is infinitely larger and more complex than I ever imagined it could be.

So, why the big switch in thinking regarding size?  And what does all this mean?

I have no idea.  I thought we were in agreement that I’m no Einstein.

 

A rare, gifted bird of a completely different feather

flannery

Miss Flannery O’Connor was a petite little lady in horn rimmed glasses who never married and lived almost all of her much too brief life – she died at the age of 39 of complications from lupus disease in 1964 – in a modest house in Milledgeville, Georgia. She raised peacocks, birds that are resolutely opinionated, not unlike herself.

She was also arguably the most gifted writer of short stories that America has produced.

If you’re after a finely crafted tale to wander into get yourself a copy of her collected stories and just pick any one. If you want a perfect example, a true epitome, of the short story genre, try “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and “Good Country People.”

And if you aspire to be a writer of fiction, long or short, order a copy of her collection of essays titled Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. I know of no single book that contains more or better commentary on what good writing should be and what it shouldn’t be.  It also lets us into the thinking of the little woman who lived in the company of birds and wrote with an almost unbelievably powerful narrative voice.

She could be blunt.  And she didn’t hold with the notion that everybody can or should be a writer (it’s not hard to image what her opinion of the current deluge of self-published works would be). “Everywhere I go,” she said, “I’m asked if the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them.”  When asked  why she had taken up writing, she always gave a straightforward answer: “Because I’m good at it.”

“There is no excuse,” she believed, “for anyone to write fiction for public consumption unless he has been called to do so by the presence of a gift. It is the nature of fiction not to be good for much unless it is good in itself.”

A devout Catholic and a devout southerner, Miss Flannery managed to weave both her faith and what she called her “country” into her stories.  She once said that the South is haunted by two things: Jesus and William Faulkner.  “The presence alone of Faulkner in our midst makes a great difference in what the writer can and cannot permit himself to do. Nobody wants his mule and wagon stalled on the same track the Dixie Limited is roaring down.”

When it came to faith, she came under considerable fire from critics, specifically in her church, for writing so many dark, less than admirable characters, a practice she defended by pointing out that sometimes the best way to show God’s grace is by showing the complete absence of it. When pressed to defend what had come to be called the Southern Grotesque school of fiction – Faulkner’s story “A Rose for Emily” is a perfect example – she bristled like one of her peacocks.  “Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one.”

She believed that good fiction should be always reflective of real life, and that “the writer should never be ashamed of staring. There is nothing that doesn’t require his attention.”

Flannery O’Connor’s place in American literature is secure and her influence on other writers is very nearly unrivaled. Her collection of stories and her three short novels have not been out of print since their publication and several of her tales are taught regularly in high schools and colleges. More importantly, her stories are still read; her precisely drawn characters and their situations still linger in reader’s thinking long after they’ve closed the pages.

And that, I suspect, will long be the case.

Because Miss Flannery knew a simple truth.

“In the long run,” she believed, “a people is known, not by its statements or its statistics, but by the stories it tells.”

We’re just eight years away from the one hundredth anniversary of her birth.  I suggest we start celebrating now.  Find a paperback copy of her collected stories (there’s a peacock on the cover) and be led into a fascinating world by an amazing storyteller.

 

A life well lived is a story worth telling

lester

My father, Lester Rozelle, died 24 years ago today.
Though this blog purports to be about reading, writing, and literacy, I have to admit up front that though my dad read three newspapers – the Dallas Morning News, the Houston Post, and the Palestine Herald Press – religiously every day, I think he read only one novel in his lifetime. It was Bonny’s Place. And the only reason he read that one was that Leon Hale, the legendary columnist for Post, wrote it. I once told Leon that my father would have read a new translation of the Illiad if he had written it.
My father’s life was enough of a story for me to make it the central focus of my first book, Into that Good Night, which was published a few years after his death.
Then, in 2011 when I was a weekly columnist, I wrote about him in the Sunday paper.
Here it is:

I saw my dad last Saturday.
Not in person, since he’s been gone since 1992. And I didn’t visit the pretty little hilltop cemetery where he’s buried in the East Texas piney woods.
I saw him in a place that was very nearly holy ground to him.
Last weekend my wife Karen and I joined my two sisters and my brother-in-law up in Oakwood, the Leon County town where my father was a teacher, coach, and superintendent for nearly four decades. The occasion was Homecoming, but what made it even more meaningful was the dedication of the new elementary school to him.
He came to Oakwood in 1930 from Alto, his hometown, where he had been the football coach and math teacher. He arrived in a used Model T or Model A Ford; opinions vary and anyone who might know for sure is long gone. But one thing upon which everybody was in complete agreement was that he had his two best football players from Alto in the back seat. The UIL surely had residency rules back then, but they probably were stretched wide and conveniently in rural towns. Those two boys played on my father’s first Oakwood team and, I’m guessing here, lived with the families of some teammates.
Five or six years later a member of the school board walked across the football field during a practice session and informed my father that he’d just been elected superintendent, a position he held for the next three decades except for four years in the army in the South Pacific during World War II. He was in some tough spots in that war, and he always maintained that it was the prayers of the Oakwood students that brought him safely home. The school board, you see, hired a retired old fellow to run things during his absence and the kids were afraid that if my dad got killed they’d be stuck with him.
A few years before he went to war, in March of 1937, my father and three other school men from surrounding towns drove the sixty or so miles to New London when the school there blew up, killing almost three hundred people, mostly children. Whatever my dad saw and did there, probably helping with the evacuation of the injured and the dead, he kept to himself for the rest of his life. I have to assume that his experience there was so horrible that he couldn’t bring himself to talk about it.
That was a big part of the reason that I took on the project of writing My Boys and Girls are in There, a book about that explosion which still the worst school disaster in the history of the nation.
Administrators of small schools wore a good many hats in my father’s time. In addition to being superintendent, he taught typing and math and was the business manager, director of personnel and public relations, and the transportation chief. Some of my finest memories of him are of when I, as a very young boy, would ride along as he drove the “school car”, an army surplus staff car, out country roads on many winter mornings to see if the bridges were ice free so the busses could make their runs.
On one of those trips as we watched lights come on in the houses we passed he broke a long silence and told me something I’d never forget. He said he hoped I’d find something to do with my life that would be important, and wouldn’t be a chore at all because I’d like doing it. He was, of course, defining his own career. And this from a man bumping along on a dirt road on a frigid morning long before daylight in a car with a heater that barely worked at all.
Years later, when he had Alzheimer’s and lived in a nursing home he thought he was still the superintendent of the Oakwood School. While many people with that disease find themselves in confusing, maybe unhappy places in their past, my father went to a bright place, where he was doing something important that wasn’t a chore.
He went home.
So, I saw my dad last Saturday.
I saw him in the faces of lots of people who went to school to him and loved him. I saw him in the stories they told about him. And I saw him in that handsome new building that was dedicated to his memory and the kids that would go to school there.
He would have liked that.

Conversations

candles

Some of the finest wordsmithing down the ages has come in prayers.

Homer began each of his epics with an invocation to a Muse, one of the daughters of Zeus, asking for guidance and the talent needed to tell his tales.

And the Old Testament Psalms have been the go-to source of comfort and inspiration for countless millions who have identified with the sweeping range of needs and emotions given voice therein, from complete awe to “A little help please” to “Where are you?”

Adherents of any creed – or, in fact, of no creed whatsoever – can find beauty in the flowing cadence of the Psalms.   Any translation will deliver that beauty, but when I need a Psalm (some days it’s akin to reaching for an aspirin tablet) I opt for the majestic language of the King James Version.  Hemingway read the King James Old Testament regularly, not with any religious intent but hoping that distinct narrative voice would find its way into his own writing.

What I find so fascinating about prayers is that they can be carefully crafted works of precisely metered phrasing, like John Henry Newman’s famous supplication that begins with “O Lord, support us all the day long…” and ends with “in Your mercy grant us a safe lodging and a holy rest, and peace at the last.” Or they can be as simple as a couple of words, requiring not much more than a breath. 13th century German theologian Meister Eckhart proved that when he provided perhaps my favorite quote: “If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.”

So, prayers can be great literature.  But for legions of us they are considerably more than that.  To those of us who are confident they are received, the offering of prayers is just about the most important business we can be about.

And, being unquestionably imperfect (none of you need to weigh in on this) – some days more so than others – I go about it in any number of moods and for any number of reasons.  Depending on circumstances, my disposition ranges regularly from elation all the way to anger and doubt.  Sometimes I just feel the need to check in.  To make sure the line is still open.

A few years ago I started working some of my personal invocations into what I prefer to call conversations; few theologians would call them prayers and certainly no poet would call them poems.   When I sent a bunch of them to Jonathan Galassi, the head honcho at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, the esteemed New York outfit that published my first book, he wrote back that he found them beautiful, but didn’t quite know what FSG could do with them.  Then I sent them to several publishers of religious books, all of whom professed to like them but were fearful that one faith or denomination or another would find them outside the precise boundaries of their particular theology.

Finally, at the tenacious insistence of my wife Karen, I’ve decided to post some of these pieces on a separate page in this blog.  If you have no interest in such doings please don’t feel obligated to even take a peek.

The page is titled Conversations and can be reached in the menu bar very soon.  You should know that I’ll be posting most of the ones I did years ago, and once that bin is empty the postings will, since I write them sporadically, slow down considerably.

No attempt will be made to provide any sort of a framework, or to herd these things into categories, like song titles in hymnals.  I don’t know about you, but I don’t wake up each morning, look at the calendar, and decide to be joyful or thankful or sacrificial.  I take each morning as it presents itself, and fashion my conversation accordingly.

I attempted to wordsmith each of these nicely, to have tinkered and polished sufficiently to make them understandable and pleasant.  But please don’t read too much into that.  One editor (in his rejection letter) even suggested that I title the collection Invocations to Amuse.

He missed the point.

I want these pieces to be exactly what they are: heartfelt communications with the one who creates, saves, and sustains me day by day, minute by minute.   So I don’t offer these as light, witty reading.

Neither do I offer them as templates for whatever conversations you currently have going or intend to strike up.  But if these prove to be at all helpful on your journey, I am glad.

I’ll share the first, and the shortest, one here.  I actually send this one up every morning, as not only a request but as sort of a mantra to keep me in line.

 

In a world full of people who misbehave,

Please help me, this day, to

Behave.

On baseball, baseball books, and baseball misery

baseball

The Houston Astros Baseball Club is a cruel mistress.

Every summer, for over fifty summers now, I’ve been teased, baited with promises, and had my expectations lifted.  And every autumn my heart’s been broken.

Yet I let it happen again year after year.

Now that the World Series, a particularly exciting and definitely historic one, is over and another season of the national pastime is in the books I’m already missing checking the box scores every morning in the paper, clicking over to check in on a game on television or listening to one on the car radio, and even driving up to Houston occasionally to shell out copious cash to park and eat a hotdog at Minute Maid Park.

One reason that baseball, as American as any undertaking I can think of, is so mesmerizing to so many is that it’s full of Moments – pure, sweet individual pieces of time – that are etched into the minds and hearts of its devotees.  Babe Ruth pointing to the nosebleed section to plot the path for his next homer. Hank Aarron breaking the Babe’s homerun record.  Critically ill Lou Gehrig’s immortal “I’m the luckiest man on the face of the earth” farewell speech.  And perhaps the finest Moment of all, transpiring in a dozen and more stadiums on any given day during the long season, when thousands upon thousands of fans come to their feet during the seventh inning stretch and belt out “Take Me Out to the Ball Game”, the hearty delivery becoming the strong heartbeat of an institution that has marched admirably on for an awfully long time.

It’s even bled nicely over into our literature.

Being an avid reader, my natural attraction to things written about baseball goes back to my introduction to “Casey at the Bat” in elementary school. Since then I’ve enjoyed Roger Kahn’s The Boys of Summer, Frank Deford’s The Old Ball Game, legendary sportswriter Red Smith’s To Absent Friends, my friend Talmage Boston’s 1939: Baseball’s Tipping Point, columnist and baseball fanatic Roger Angell’s The Summer Game and Season Ticket, and political journalist George Will’s Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball. In the fiction department I recommend The Natural by Bernard Malamud, Michael Sharra’s For the Love of the Game, and my favorite, If I Never Get Back by Darryl Brock, a time travel yarn in which a modern day fellow suddenly finds himself in 1869 traveling with the Cincinnati Red Stockings, the first professional baseball team.

Suffice it to say, I’m a longstanding fan of baseball, in spite of the fact that my team of choice has consistently come up short of the big prize. And I count it a blessing that so many gifted wordsmiths have written books that amplify my passion.  The origin of which I can easily pinpoint.

In early October of 1999 I wrote a piece for “Texas”, the Houston Chronicle’s Sunday magazine back then, to commemorate the Astros’ last game in the Astrodome.  It was titled “More than Score and Dome Dogs” and it recounted some of my memories of attending hundreds of ball games there.

At the end of that article I wrote about my first visit to the Dome over three decades before that ignited my love of the game.

That night I saw my first home run hit there. A Houston player named Chuck Harrison slammed one out and my friends and our fathers came to our feet.  I almost dropped my hot dog.

The entire curved side of the building erupted into dazzling lights and smoke.  What had been dark dots on a dark wall became a cowboy on horseback roping a calf. Whistles blew. Horns honked. Things popped. Even the two giant Gulf signs on either end of the scoreboard seemed brighter than they could possibly be.  I wondered if they too would explode.

And in the middle of all of it, during all the hoopla and the noise and the cheering, my father looked down at me and squeezed my neck with his fingers. This man who had been born just a few years after the Wright Brothers took to the air, who had survived the Depression and had been to war whispered something into my ear. A secret.

“You may never see anything like this again,” he told me.

He’s long gone now.  And as so often has proved to be the case, he was right.

The Astros will report to spring training in Florida next February.  And my tender heart will give itself over to another season of hope springing eternal.