toni mcnaron's garden

Walt Dropo

In Birmingham, Alabama, in my childhood years (the 1940s), there were two professional baseball teams–the Birmingham Barons (all white) and the Black Barons (all black).   These two teams alternated performing at Rickwood Field and I went to games fairly regularly.  Years after that, I’d learn that the Black Barons were one of the best teams in the Negro League, playing active baseball from 1920 until 1960 when the Major League integrated.   I begged to be taken to see the White Barons, as I called them without realizing what I was saying, because I played “pitch” with Kenny from across the street.  I also played with myself for extended periods of time, throwing the hard ball against a wall of our house and catching it on the rebound.  As a “lefty,” I felt an increasingly familiar sense of not belonging as I watched the grown-up guys throwing and catching right-handedly.  One season, however, this experience changed dramatically because the Barons signed on a tall, beefy fellow named Walter “Moose” Dropo.  Rather than his being called his listed nickname of Moose, however, he referred to himself as “Walt.”  So that’s what I called him as I gradually turned him into my first hero.

Dropo’s parents were immigrants from Yugoslavia (later called Bosnia-Herzegovina) who wound up in Moosup, CT, where Walter was born and reared.  He and his two brothers played sand-lot baseball until he went to the University of Connecticut where he starred in baseball, football and basketball (he was 6’5″).  Eventually he focused on baseball and wound up playing for many years for the Boston Red Sox.  But his career began and developed in Alabama with the Barons.  All this is important data, surely, but not what made him so central to my thinking.  What stood out for me was the simple but key fact that Walt Dropo was left-handed.  His position was as first baseman and anyone who follows the game knows that that gives a player a huge advantage over right-handed first basemen. You can pivot your foot to the base while you way lean out to catch fly balls that come down the right side of the field.  Many’s the game in which the Barons won because Dropo’s long, extended left arm allowed him to snag those line-drive foul balls and help retire the opposition for that particular inning.  Sports writers of the time often commented on this unique advantage caused by Walt’s not being the “norm” in handedness as being central to his elevation to the majors when the Red Sox called him up from the minors.   His most spectacular year with that team was in 1950 when he tied his teammate Vern Stephens for an RBI score of 144–phenomenal in any year or for any team.  That year, Walt also won the crown for total bases (326) while achieving a noteworthy batting average of .322.  He also managed to hit 34 home runs.  As I followed these stats as they accumulated, I also missed not being able to watch him play at Legion Field on a hot Saturday afternoon as I cracked open my shelled and salted peanuts and drank too many Coca-colas.

At Christmas in 1951, my parents made me supremely happy by giving me a first baseman’s mitt signed by Walt Dropo.  I hung on to that mitt long after I’d stopped playing pitch with Kenny or myself, even as I lamented and resented the fact that girls were forbidden to play active sports once we hit puberty.  Superstition had it that such activity would somehow endanger our chances to be successful mothers, so we had to be content with dodge ball, surely a stupid substitute.  During my teenage years, I’d take the mitt out and oil it–just in case–as I realized with an increasing resignation that the older I got as a female person in the South, the more confined became my “field” of activity.  But, to this day, I thank Walt Dropo for a major gift he gave without ever knowing it: his being a superb player in spite of being left-handed let me feel for the very first time in my life PROUD of one of my defining characteristics deemed “weird” by many around me.

“Coming to America”

Often I am very late in coming to know about people or events popular around me.  So it is with Eddie Murphy, though I am happy to learn that we share April 3rd as our birthday.  Of course, I know his name as a comedian of major significance, but comedy is not my go-to genre for movies or TV shows, so it is only now that I’ve actually seen him act.  But a friend recently recommended that I get his movie, “Coming to America” from Netflix; last evening I watched it with Patches, my faithful companion kitty, and was quite taken by his versatility and by his gift for establishing a character far different from himself and then letting that character expand to become a particular grand of “Everyman.”  Having been impressed by him and enjoyed the movie, I have spent some time learning about Murphy and his career.  I’m staggered by the very long list of awards for which he’s been nominated, and the list of awards he has won is impressive. In 2015, for instance, he was awarded the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, surely a prime accolade for any comedian to garner.  I’ve also learned that he has played multiple roles in more movies that this one I’ve just watched, most notably in the Nutty Professor series where he has been not only the title character but that person’s father, brother, mother, and grandmother.  He says he likes doing this as a way to pay tribute to the remarkable Peter Sellers, an idol.

“Coming to America” (1988) is a satire about all sorts of things:  monarchs of African countries who themselves are inflated satires of colonial powers, the ever-popular American film “Singing in the Rain,” the fairy tale of rich boy’s looking for a girl who will love him just for himself by pretending to be poor, black barber shop wisdom, Macdonald’s fast food chain, and I could keep going.  Murphy’s standing among the world of stand-up comedians and more serious actors means he is joined by two major figures from those worlds–Arsenio Hall who plays his royal attendant and no less than James Earl Jones who plays the inflated buffoonish king of the immensely rich African country.  Because I was ignorant about this film, I had no idea that Murphy and Hall were several people until I watched as the cast of characters rolled by on my flat screen.  Learning this prompts me to watch the film again so as to give them my informed attention to their special abilities.  I don’t need a second viewing, however, to register how versatile Jones is and how sure of himself as a large man since in “Coming to America” his costumes exaggerate his stature so that he seems like a modern-day Colossus as he struts around the scenes, making all of them appear too cramped to contain his energy or his even his person.

Though, as many fine satires I know, this movie is utterly predictable in terms of plot, plot is not the point.  The plot is just a container or platform–the real point is comic talent, so when Murphy’s one of the slap-stick quartet in the black barbershop, what I am invited to do is understand that the original representations of adult black men acting like clowns as they argue sports greats and fold in half as they literally slap their knees were early ways for blacks to fulfill white audiences’ stereotypes.  The real satire, however, is about those white racist stereotypes, blatantly evident to anyone watching who has even a rudimentary understanding of the genre.  Similarly, by having the overstated rich black king be bested not only by his son but his wife who is supposed to hang on his every syllable, Murphy’s movie mocks gender role expectations even as it pokes holes in the cultural balloon about colonized rulers who adopt the very worst aspects of their original masters.  

Along the way, Murphy’s character engages in moments where the audience is asked to adjust its own stereotypes.  One of these comes late in the movie when the Prince is trying to hang on to his ruse as a poor floor mopper at the fast food joint that itself mocks the MacDonalds phenomenon.  Walking late at night on a New York street with the girl of his dreams who will become his “queen,” he needs to ditch an envelope full of big bills.  They pass a homeless old man into whose filthy hands Murphy stuffs the envelope.  He and his date move on while the camera shows us the amazed expression on the homeless man’s face who then prods another homeless old man to whom he shows the magic envelope.  In a flash, we comprehend that they are a gay couple who once fared much better (one says to the other “We’re BACK!”) and then, a little later when Murphy and his girl friend are sitting in a restaurant window, the old gay men appear in that window to thank him for their ticket out of the streets and back into whatever more cushiony life they once inhabited.

So I’m very glad I followed my friend’s urgings and got the DVD disc.  It’s just one more example of what can happen for me when I am willing to step out of my comfortable parameters and let myself take in a fresh world.  I find wonderful examples of talent and wisdom about us human beings that I’d miss if I just stayed on familiar ground.  And I sometimes discover delightful connections with unlikely sources as I have by learning that Eddie Murphy and I were both born on the 3rd of April.  Next year, I’ll think of him on my birthday after I remember that my old lesbian-feminist friend Connie and no less a person than Jane Goodall also were born on that day of that month.

A Hungry Heart

Like millions of other Americans, I watched a lot of the two memorial services held recently to celebrate the life of Senator John McCain.  As I was witnessing the beautiful service at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., I asked myself why I was doing this.  After all, Senator McCain was a Republican and I’m a confirmed Democrat who didn’t always agree with or like his stance on national policy.  But just the day before I’d heard Larry Fitzgerald outline how it came to be that he and McCain could possibly have developed the friendship they had and his list of “differences” was long and powerful.  I needed to go deeper into my own self to find an explanation for how sad I kept feeling, for how the phrase “what a loss” kept rising to my consciousness as one speaker after the next reminded me of McCain’s history and style.

I think a lot of us have hungry political hearts.  If we are old enough to remember when Senators and Representatives at the national and state levels actually worked together to pass legislation, then we yearn for those days.  If we are young enough only to have seen gridlock and self-interest motivate a rapidly growing partisanship that supersedes all other considerations, then we hunger for a dream that our elders keep telling us once prevailed in this country.  I’m in the former category, so I understand what made such political behavior possible–it was a recognition that compromise must lie at the center of functional political policy-making.  And compromise, contrary to how it is currently being pitched by too many of our political leaders, means no one gets all of what s/he wants.  Compromise does not mean the party holding a numerical majority gets to force the minority to keep giving way in order to get crumbs of what it started out wanting.  That’s political strong-arming.  And compromise does not mean a tacit lowering of expectations on the part of an electorate that feels increasingly impotent to work genuine change.  So what I want most right now is for all us millions who watched and wept at the memorial in Arizona and then the formal religious service in D.C. and then the cortege delivering Mr. McCain’s body to its resting place at the Naval Academy Cemetery to act in November.  The highest honor any of us can pay this man who stood on principle and who seemed to value in tangible ways a country that embraced diversity and plurality is to vote for candidates who mirror his ethic.  It’s not enough to sit passively and feel nostalgia over what is being lost; what is required is active energy in the service of moving us toward people and programs that affirm allegiance to the common good and reject a mentality of “us vs. them.”  That persistent and insistent stance is how to honor Senator John McCain in a resonant way that would, I believe, bring that signature impish grin to his face.


A Poem for These Times

In a volume of his poetry published in 1921, the Irish poet William Butler Yates included a poem entitled “The Second Coming.”  John McCain’s death has moved me more than I might have expected, and it has brought several lines from Yeats’ poem into my mind.  So I want to copy it out here and then speak to why I think the association is taking place in my memory.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming!  Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight:  somewhere in the sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?

Some associations are obvious–so much of what I’ve held to be a base line about how individuals and institutions and governments behave is falling apart under the current president and his minions.  Surely anyone still hanging on to some innocent idea of “things getting better” feels “drowned” by the literal and psychological violence he is causing by his own actions and by giving permission to millions of citizens to throw off any semblance of civility.  I must hold on to believing that some of the “best” of us will not lose “conviction.”  Rather we will persist and resist.  The image of the “worst” being “full of passionate intensity” is plastered on our various screens every day.  The part of Yeats’ poem that is more subtle comes in the second stanza, though the “shape with lion body and the head of a man,/A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun” is unmistakable to me and so many others.  Near the end of this poem, Yeats is, of course, using images recalling the birth in Bethelem of Jesus of Nazareth as a way to shock readers into understanding just how horrific this present day appearance should be to those of us watching it happen.  For him the “rough beast” was the awful shadow caused by World War I where people like him saw basic definitions of human behavior blown literally to pieces in France and elsewhere.  For many of us the “rough beast” is a hydra head of nationalism, fundamentalism, and blatant hatred of the “other,” whatever guise we happen to wear.

Working with this poem written almost a century ago has clarified why parts of it have come rushing into my mind as I take in what we’ve lost with the death of Senator John McCain.  I haven’t always agreed with his stances of political matters, but I’ve long understood that he is a man of morals and decency.  He’s also an institutionalist, i.e., he has deep trust in the institutions of American government.  He’s never been so naïve as to think they insure justice or kindness or equality.  But, compared to a society without such lofty ideals written into its foundational history, he and I know how much worse things can become and remain.  His argument with the current administration is based on this belief.  After all, he told us that he voted to retain the Affordable Care Act because the process that produced the bill to scrap it so deeply offended his sense of how to govern and arrive at policies of such magnitude.  And that’s what we’ve lost with his death.  There are not many people in our houses of Congress today who are willing to put the common good (“country,” if you like) above partisanship and/or personal gain. Surely they “lack all conviction.”  Just as surely the president isn’t willing to consider anything that doesn’t pertain to him.  And, without that process, we run the frightening risk of loosing “mere anarchy” on our land.  And if we do not find ways to persist and resist current behaviors and words coming from the White House, we may well find ourselves watching our very own “rough beast” slouch his way from month to month, year to year.


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