New Song: “Heckscher Park” (Click Title to Read Post)
I hit my first and last home run on opening day of my final season of my little league career, with one month left in my 13th year. I was stretching the boundaries of eligibility. I was in junior high already. Some of my friends were playing ball for the school. I was not a good ball player. Until the homer, my best stat was my on base percentage, which in those days well before Moneyball, was greatly under-appreciated. I had achieved solid OBP by being a small kid (one of the smallest in my class) with a miniscule strike zone, but also by being the most decked (hit by pitch) batter the prior season. In other words, one of those kids who opposing players and their dads roll their eyes at as he trots down to first base. I, however, saw my talent as tremendous courage and selflessness: take it for the team. On May 4, 1980, though, I lofted one of those 20 MPH fastballs over the outfielders’ heads. While I was no power hitter, I was a regular Davy Lopes and the distance I hit it was enough for me to sprint home. My father was so proud (baseball was his thing) that he inscribed the game ball. The stats on the ball tell me that I also had a double and two runs batted in.
Of course I remember details from that day crystal clearly. It was on a diamond that I knew like the back of my hand, at a corner of Heckscher Park, where I had spent my entire childhood, in the center of Huntington, New York. This corner still comes seeping up from my subconscious when I hear certain songs that I must have heard on the radio sitting at the stop sign in my parents’ car. “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” for example, brings me right back to the spot. In two more years I would move to Massachusetts. But in the summer of 2010, I returned for a charity event and reunion with a lot of my old friends from those early days. I took a driving tour and this corner and baseball diamond was one of the first spots. At the risk of cliche, it was precisely how I remembered it. It is not just a geographic corner; but a corner of time for me.
I love movies that feature 1970s little league baseball, like The Bad News Bears and Dazed and Confused. Those two in particular captured so much of what makes little league baseball such a huge part of growing up as a kid in suburban America. The Bad News Bears, of course, took place in the present, i.e. the 1970s, when it was released. With teenage baseball as a backdrop, Dazed and Confused captures the essence of burgeoning adolescent self-awareness, specifically of that era. The juxtaposition of rock & roll and baseball, of “grown up” interests like sex and drugs with boyhood pursuits like baseball serves as a poignant reminder of that concentrated time of our lives when so much seems to be about making choices: You still gonna play baseball? You any good? You want to smoke? Drink? You like disco or rock? Can you play guitar better than that guy? I don’t know why, at age 45, this phase of life continues to fascinate me. I have written about it in the Exile on Main St. book and in songs like “Summer,” and “Sodajerk.” At some point, I just have to move on.
Just, not yet. I guess that’s part of what this project is. I have to get these obsessions with the past off of my books, out of my brain. I don’t think it is possible, though. We are continuums. Some, more continuums than others.
Here is a song that takes its title from Heckscher Park, which contained that baseball field and — to paraphrase Huntingtonian, Walt Whitman — contains multitudes. (There will be more on old Walt as these songs roll on deeper into the album). It really is the place that I spent an enormous amount of time from feeding the ducks in preschool to drinking beer in the gazebo (see below) as a teenager, and all that time in between, baseball games, concerts at the pavilion, looking at Surrealist paintings at the museum, riding mopeds around the pond, and so on.
Hecksher Pond. Original photo by Naomi.
As you can see, it is a lovely, sort of magical place. This is not merely nostalgia. I think most of the people I grew up with would agree. It’s the kind of asset you want in your city. Our parents would leave us there or we would walk down and lose ourselves for the whole day. My friend, Chris Campion, wrote in his memoir, Escape from Bellevue, about how huge a moment it was for his college-aged band to play at the park’s Chapin Rainbow Stage, which had been renamed after Huntingtonian, Harry Chapin, who died in a car crash on Long Island. My father, born on the same day as Harry, had played pick-up basketball with him and Harry’s son (yes, he of “Cat’s in the Cradle”) played baseball with us. It all comes full circle, you see?
Previous songs collected here. All songs ©Bill Janovitz
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