The Wiffle Ball Incident

Kindness Sometimes Triumphs Over Bitterness

Matthew B. Crawford, on his wonderful Substack Archedelia, recently shared some enjoyable stories about his childhood, making some subtle points along the way about the importance of fathers. He inspired me to share a story from my own childhood that perhaps hits on similar themes, but also highlights the game-changing potential of a mother.

My family moved to the Pike Creek Valley in the late 1960’s, a semi-rural expanse that lay between Newark and Wilmington Delaware. My parents bought a house in a new housing development being constructed on old farmland. The smallish cluster of houses was surrounded by dairy farms and corn fields and at the back of the housing development lay a beautiful wood that stretched for a mile or two down into the valley where the Pike Creek flowed. In the fall, the color of those woods was fire.

As kids in the new neighborhood, we freely wandered the fields and woods that bordered our little cluster of houses. In the summer we fished the ponds and in the winter we skated on them. We ran through the cornfields, swang from the rafters in the abandoned barn, and dammed up the creek with rocks just because we could.

The farmers would sometimes hire one or another of the older boys in the neighborhood to work on the farm. Our neighbor Eddie worked on one of the diary farms nearby. He would come home from work of an early summer evening, while all of us younger kids might be sitting on the grass in the front yard, dreaming up our next adventure. Eddie would sometimes sit down in the grass with us to talk. What struck me about Eddie was the distinct aroma he carried from working with the cows all day. The rest of us could sit there unmolested, but Eddie would be covered in flies.

The standing corn fields around us attracted endless flocks of geese on their way south for the winter. The flocks were so huge and dense they would actually dim the light of the sun when flying over. It was incumbent on the first kid who spied a migrating flock headed our way to cry “AIR RAID!” in time for the rest of us to dive under cover of trees and parked cars. Large flocks of geese overhead will cover the landscape with a layer poop which is impressive in both size and velocity.

As the houses went up, no fences were put in by the builder and so the adjoining back yards made for a grassy expanse that was ideal for various “sandlot” sporting pursuits. Somehow, our yard became the neighborhood wiffle ball field and was thus the site of endless - and ruthless - summer games.

The safety-ism that (perhaps unwisely) dominates much of the contemporary concern for childhood play was a non-existent calculus where our wiffle ball games were concerned. You could get someone else out in the normal baseball-like way (e.g. catching their hit, or throwing them out by getting the ball to one of the players manning the bases). But you could also get them out by beaning them with the wiffle ball. There was sort of an unwritten rule that you would make some reasonable effort to hit them below the neck. But this rule, being unwritten and strictly informal, was frequently violated and you were just as out if you were beaned in the head. On those relatively infrequent occasions when someone was actually beaned in the face, though he may be the recipient of a mild expressions of sympathy, he was nonetheless still out. No one ever really complained.

There eventually came a momentous day when a young couple bought the house immediately behind ours and proceeded to do the unthinkable: they put up a fence. It was a four foot chain link monstrosity that forever altered our unbroken field of play. But being kids, we inevitably adjusted, turning the new fence line into the third base foul line, and then we just continued to play. If the ball happened to go over the fence, we would just hop the chain link, retrieve the ball, and continue our game.

A few weeks into the chain link fence era, we were sitting at home one early evening when the doorbell rang. My parents answered the door and standing there was the woman who lived in the house behind us. She proceeded to spill out the most absurd, accusatory tale I had ever heard up to that point in my young eight-year-old life. She told my parents that she had seen us kids jump her fence and maliciously stomp on all of the plants in her garden. Henceforth, she declared, we were banned from her yard.

I was thunderstruck by this accusation. At eight years old, it had never occurred to me that an actual grown adult would concoct the most bald faced lie about a child. Most eight year old boys are knuckleheads, including myself at that age. But the stupidity of her accusation was obvious even to me. And it was compounded by the fact that anyone could plainly see that the plants in her garden were all still there and thriving, safely un-stomped.

Well, the next time we had a neighborhood wiffle ball game things got stranger still. When the first ball went over the fence, the back door of our neighbors’ house immediately flew open and the young woman darted into the yard, snatched up our foul ball, and spirited it into the house. We realized then that she must actually be spying on our game from inside her house, apparently for the expressed purpose of confiscating any balls that happened to land in her yard. Eventually we were even able to detect her peeping through cracks in the drapery in order to observe our play. Any time the ball went over the fence, she would rush into the yard to retrieve it.

When this escalation of creepiness first began, we would quickly run out of balls and play would sadly have to be suspended until someone had time (and money) to go to the store to buy a new ball.

But my dad was sorely miffed at this general turn of events, and he wasn’t one to take things lying down. He somehow found (there was no Google) a wholesale toy warehouse and managed to purchase an entire commercial crate of individually boxed wiffle balls. There were dozens if not hundreds of balls in that crate. The crate was ensconced in the closet nearest the back door. And after that, whenever our neighbor would dash into the yard to confiscate an errant ball, we would just go inside, unwrap a new ball, and continue playing as if nothing had happened.

Things were strange enough with our game-stalking neighbors during those months that all of the kids in the neighborhood started avoiding their house on Halloween. This being the 1960’s, we briefly even considered making signs and picketing their house. But when my dad bought us that lifetime supply of wiffle balls, it sapped a lot of the energy out of the momentum for picketing.

Things went along this way for a couple of years, and one day it became apparent that our child-averse neighbor was, mirabile dictu, pregnant. When the baby was born my mother took it upon herself to do something totally unexpected — unexpected by me at least. And the result of her action, as you will see, was equally unexpected by all.

My mom held the view that the right thing to do whenever a new baby was born was to give the “happy” couple a gift, notwithstanding their creepy and on-going habit of stalking our wiffle ball games. So my mom bought a little baby outfit for the new arrival, baked a cake, and walked around the block to knock on their front door and give them their gifts. After a little while she came back, and I recall her saying how strange the inside of their house was, not least because they had adorned each room with a life-size cardboard cutout of Elvis Presley. 😳

Their response to this unselfish gesture by my mom surprised us all. We went to bed that night and awoke the next morning to discover an enormous mound of old wiffle balls lying in our yard, piled up near the infamous fence line of our neighbors. All those many months they had not only confiscated our wiffle balls, but had apparently stored them up for nefarious reasons known only to themselves. My mother’s kind and unselfish gesture had evidently pricked their consciences to such an extent that they decided, under cover of darkness, to return our lost wiffle balls by dumping them anonymously over the fence. They never said a word about it.

L.M. Montgomery, in her much loved story, Anne of Avonlea, wrote, “You’re never safe from being surprised until you’re dead.”

Truer words were never spoken.

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