A little help from our friends

Thursday, April 20, 2006

April 20, 2006

Dear Patty,

A gentle man who was mayor of Cape Girardeau for 13 years, some of them during the civil rights turbulence of the early 1970s, has died.

The lumber company he ran was burned down right after Howard Tooke became mayor. He'd thought he was helping mend relations between the races, and recalling the event many years later still shook his head in hurt and disbelief.

My primary memory of him, though, is as an umpire. Even in hot weather, Mr. Tooke always dressed in the dark blue coat major league umpires wore back then. He quietly commanded respect. Perhaps nobody disagreed with him because he seemed to be such a kind man.

He happened to umpire the only game I ever pitched in the Connie Mack League. Every kid who has ever played baseball wants to pitch. My fastball looked like a change-up, and my curveball was shaped like a rainbow. The manager brought me in anyway. The situation must have been hopeless. The real relief pitchers must have been on vacation.

I was probably too excited. Almost immediately the bases were loaded and the count on the batter was three balls and no strikes. I sweated and looked into our dugout for help. The players in the opposing dugout were screaming. The pitcher's mound suddenly was the last place I wanted to be.

My next pitch was a foot outside. The batter didn't flinch. The runner on third base started trotting toward home to start the merry-go-round.

When Mr. Tooke raised his right hand and said "Strike," I was more shocked than anyone.

He was a good umpire. Maybe he just missed that one. But these many years later I suspect it was a mercy strike. That term can't be looked up in the Encyclopedia of Baseball. It only exists in my personal mythology.

The incredulous runner was thrown out trying to retreat to third base. Here was the proverbial glimmer of hope.

Suddenly I started throwing real strikes. Or maybe the other team figured they'd better start swinging. Soon teammates were clapping me on the back.

The other team surely knocked me around if there were a next inning. That part I don't remember. I remember the gift of a second chance.

Unbidden gifts are sweeter than a mountain of chocolate.

DC has been talking about building a patio in the backyard since we moved into our house. That was 10 years ago. The sandstone rocks she acquired for the project have been lying in the backyard for years like the vandalized tombstones of our unfinished projects.

Saturday morning, four friends arrived at our house to give DC the patio for her birthday. DC and I did whatever we could to help.

They let her roto-till the plot because DC loves operating machinery. Then they shoveled out the loose dirt, tamped down the surface, put down a layer of gravel, arranged the sandstone rocks on top and finally filled in the crevices with more gravel.

Our friends' gift was not the patio but themselves, of course. Margaritas never tasted better.



Sam Blackwell is managing editor of the Southeast Missourian.

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