I was as dug in at home plate as I could be, especially on asphalt, but remained relaxed — “in the zone” before there was such a thing, waiting on a moment I’d been visualizing in my adolescent brain for the last 15 minutes. As the pitcher released the ball, I picked up the rotation almost instantly and held firm. It was headed high and inside, toward my left shoulder, maybe even my ear, but with the same certainty that the sun would rise tomorrow, I knew the pitch would break sharply, over the plate, so I twitched slightly and waited, totally confident in my anticipation.
My swing was almost anticlimactic and as envisioned, I crushed it. The ball rocketed into the hazy sunshine of a long lost Jersey summer, almost out of sight, so beyond the end of our block that the furthest outfielder hadn’t even budged when the ball clattered into the open door of a speeding mail truck and was lost forever. The longest home run in history, perhaps going miles, and considering it was our only ball, a walk-off before there were walk-offs.
That indelible memory vividly returns as I stand in approximately the same spot almost six decades later, staring down the same street, marveling at how far from here I’ve traveled, how strange it feels to be back and wondering about the other boys from that late afternoon stickball game and how their lives have gone. The block seems much shorter than I remember, my long-ago achievement diminished somewhat, reminding me again that — in the age of Google — some things are best dimly recollected rather than clearly verified.
Although I never kept in touch with my elementary school friends, having moved to a different section of town before beginning high school, I’m on a walking tour of my childhood with a friend who grew up a couple of short blocks away. We met ironically as adults, selling advertising for our (former) hometown newspaper. I was post-military, pre-college while he remained an ad man until the emerging world of tech beckoned a couple of years later. And now we’re retired, finding ourselves at the intersection of our old neighborhoods, reliving separate memories, just blocks from the parochial school we both attended for eight years without ever crossing paths, wondering if we’d ever bumped shoulders in the hall.
We’ve been good friends for going on 50 years and had joked about this nostalgia tour for a while, never quite taking it seriously enough to make it happen until now. That it’s Good Friday only makes it stranger, given our Roman Catholic upbringing coupled with the guilt and fear instilled and maintained by mid-century nuns, whose particular brand of terror was still veiled in secrecy. By the time we realized the problem was them, not us, we were long gone, both from them and the icy grip of religion.
On this day, however, looking into the distant past was the mission, and in that past, our Catholicism was never far from center stage, so at 3 p.m. we find ourselves in the vestibule of Saint Andrews Church, just as the priest is offering a welcome to the 75 or so parishioners in attendance. I’m scanning the stained glass windows as he begins reciting the stations of the cross — ”Jesus is condemned to death” — when the memories come flooding back — most of my Fridays were anything but good.
During the 40 days of lent, which felt more like 40 years, the “Stations” were conducted weekly on Friday afternoons, after school, engendering a resentment that, considering how I feel hearing the first one recited, has not quite dissipated. Just as my fight-or-flight response begins to engage, the priest hefts a life-sized cross and begins dragging it up the center aisle, out the front door down the street, followed by the worshipers who evidently are not here on a nostalgia tour.
Circling the now-empty church, my attention returns to the colorful windows, each of which brings back the fragment of a different memory, a shocking realization of just how much time we were expected to spend hanging out in the Lord’s house in those days. Strolling the perimeter, we pass random statuary, the traditional purple shrouds of Holy Week obscuring their identity. Like so many other eerie aspects of this monolithic religion, I remember that it was done, but it remains a mystery why.
As we step out onto the cloudy streets, the cross-bearing priest and his congregation are fading in the distance, their procession exacerbating the already sketchy traffic pattern as people complete their last- minute, Easter weekend errands. The wind picks up, the salt air reminding us of our hometown’s proximity to New York Bay, the Verrazano Bridge and the cold, grey Atlantic Ocean beyond.
Later, over Sichuan dumplings and fiery sauces in a Jersey City fusion restaurant, we reminisce with college friends about the ways our lives have changed, as well as all the ways we’ve stubbornly remained the same. We discuss in retrospect the small triumphs and bitter defeats we’ve experienced, but generally keep it light, laughing loudly and frequently, amazed at how it doesn’t really seem all that long ago.
But we’re also acutely aware the calendar doesn’t lie, without ever acknowledging it, as we scarf the last of the food and hit our individual roads for home. Only separated by some inconvenient miles, we’ll meet up again soon ... unlike the old neighborhood, which I now contentedly leave to its current residents, writing different scripts, creating new memories and playing in stickball games of their own.
Walt Amses lives in North Calais.