This part of the story is hazy.
Back in the summer of 1984 (it could have been ’83 or ’86 or ’87) I sat on the living room floor of my grandparents’ house in Mission, KS being quizzed by my grandfather. The subject was baseball and the questions were endless.
It was then I learned about Williams, Ruth, and Gehrig. Heard stories about the Royals and before them, the Athletics. Heard about the time my grandfather and my father saw Satchel Paige pitch.
I was maybe eight years old at the time, a kid myself, imagining in black and white what it would have been like to see Dimaggio in his prime, circling the bases or Williams in the splendor of youth sending a ground ball screaming past the infield.
And I knew there was something to baseball larger than what could be understood at face value. It was a bonding agent between generations. It made me interested in the stories my grandfather could tell.
So much of who I am as a human being—and all of the offshoot compartments of that personality—is rooted in the choices of my grandfather.
He was born into the mining world of post-WWI southeastern Kansas. A series of unglamorous dots on the map with names like Arma and Scammon, where men broke their bodies and often their spirits digging coal from the earth. He was the son of a coal miner—a fact that continues to fascinate me and inform my world view to this day.
Back in the early spring of 2009 after having driven more than 3,000 miles from Wisconsin to the southern tip of Florida and then back up, I headed over to Texas with big dreams of driving I-10 into the dried up oil towns of west Texas. But somewhere east of Houston I realized that I didn’t have it in me, so I took a right turn and headed up north into Oklahoma along highway 69.
I didn’t know it at the time, but the same highway led into those old mining towns of Arma and Scammon, and even took me through the lead mining ghost town of Picher, Oklahoma (an event that would have larger repercussions on my life in later days). I took a lot of time in those small towns shooting video and still pictures trying to capture the essence of those towns wondering what it would have been like to grow up there during the Depression. My family had moved out and onto other things, but what of the old neighbors? Where were the boys who attended the same high school as my grandfather? Were the roots of their family trees planted deep in the hardscrabble Kansas dirt? What would happen if I knocked on doors that had once been familiar to my own family line?
I continued north on Highway 69, stopping at my grandparents’ house in suburban Kansas City, Kansas and, because I was so curious about what I had seen and the questions it had brought up, I ended up interviewing my grandfather for nearly 45 minutes on camera, hearing some stories for the first time—stories only he could tell, names only he knew. It not only gave me a better sense of where I’d come from, but also generated an endless supply of new questions.
My grandfather died two weeks ago. I drove down to Kansas for the funeral service, and then a day later headed back down to Arma and Scammon with some vague notion of letting the towns, the landmarks, and those people interred in the family cemetery know that he was gone.
Who, on this side, can really know?
I feel so blessed to have taken the random turn right in Texas that I did, and that I had my video camera with me when I went. The stories of these men—coal miners, baseball players, long lost uncles and cousins— have afforded their heroes a mythology not granted to them in life. They have worked their way into the marrow of who I am, including what fascinates me as a publisher and writer.
I hope you have a chance to take a camera or a tape recorder with you, too.