My mother sank to her knees, then pushed herself up into a catcher’s crouch. In fraying cut-offs, her tanned legs bore the dirt stains of a big league backstop. She punched her glove and splayed it open. Behind her flapped a tarp she’d laid over the clothesline to keep the baseball from marking the house when my ten-year-old throws sailed off-target. The hi-fi blared from the window ledge, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

‘Sit back and let the evening flow’

Indian summer stretched long into October in the backyard of our home on the south side of Spokane. That memorable summer, the Summer of Love, Detroit and Newark burned in race riots at the same time as hippies in San Francisco wore flowers in their hair and the Beatles sang All You Need is Love. Headlines flashed from an Israeli victory in a war numbered for the six days of Creation to another, dragging on in the Vietnamese jungle. With body-counts mounting on foreign battlefields, death played on Walter Cronkite’s newscasts every night. For me, God created baseball and the world champion St. Louis Cardinals.

“Let it fly Boone. Give it all you’ve got. Remember – eyes on the target.”

I tugged down my St. Louis Cardinals cap. The Cards were my team. The day before, my mother allowed me to stay home from school and, glued to the TV, I’d watched the Redbirds steal the final game of the World Series from Boston. Cards star pitcher Bob Gibson, leg snapped by a Roberto Clemente liner only three months earlier, bounced back to overpower the Sox and pound a homer of his own to rub it in. I dragged my sleeve across my face and tucked my slick black mop under the sun-bleached visor.

Standing on my own backyard pitcher’s mound, ten years old, the youngest player to ever break into the big leagues, I held the Cardinals in the game and faced down Boston’s greatest threats. Their last hope, Carl Yastremski, knocked clay off his cleats and screwed his left foot into the back of the batter’s box. The biggest game of my life depended on the strength of my right arm. Strike him out and I’d be champion of the world.

My mother nodded. I took my cue, rocked back into my best Bob Gibson wind-up and fired the ball smack into her mitt. She keeled over backwards and the crowd exploded. Strike three! Cardinals win! My teammates rushed the mound and lifted me onto their shoulders, my parents among them. From left field, Lou Brock raced in and launched himself into the surging mass. My father leapt toward me and grasped my arm, his face flushed with pride. The mob drifted toward the dugout where cameras flashed and reporters shoved microphones in my face.

“How does it feel to win the Series as a ten-year-old?” someone shouted over the clamor.

My mother’s laugh rose over the music. She stood and blew back a shock of dark curls.

“Good pitch, Boone,” she said. “I didn’t know you could throw that hard.”

A scrape and a pop later, the music stopped mid-beat. On the back porch in his charcoal gray suit, my father loosened his tie, rubbed his forehead and went back inside.

“Game over,” she said, “Let’s see what Chef Boyardee prepared for dinner.”

We slid the tarp off the line, folded it like a flag and stowed it under the back stairs next to the gardening tools. The last warm day of fall faded with a red fringe in the western sky and when we stepped into the kitchen, my father stood at the counter in a white apron with a knife in his hand, a pot already steaming on the stove.

“Look, Ann,” he said, “I work all day. I’d like to come home and find that you’d at least thought about dinner.”

His lips curled into a grim smile as he sliced fat off a pork chop on the wooden cutting board with the ancient butcher knife.

My mother’s face heated from the inside-out. “Boone, put the record-player back where it belongs – you can be his slave for now.”

She knew all his buttons and just how and when to push them.

“There are no slaves here! You’re as free as you want to be,” he said.

She whirled and marched down the hall as he peeled a carrot into the trash. Brilliant streaks of evening light filtered through the window.

“And can we put baseball season behind us now?” he shouted at the closed door. “And the Beatles too?”

We can’t all have fathers like Atticus Finch. I say this to myself every year at the same time as I say it to my incoming students. When Jem and Scout walked through the shadows, Atticus and Boo Radley had their backs. It took both men to see to those children’s survival.