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The Wonder Years

   In 1955, after living next to the church building on La Loma Avenue and Rue De Yoe, we moved to the West side of town, to the semi-country. This was to be "the place" that I relate to most during my childhood, although we only lived there a little over 4 years. I transferred into the 3rd grade at Burbank Elementary School, located on Paradise Road. (Paradise Road was in "American Graffiti," the segment where the road race took place with Harrison Ford.) I was in 3rd grade and the big event for us was having our teacher Mrs. Powell, read us Winnie the Pooh stories. For real. We liked it and she was good. I still remember the chain on her glasses that kept them around her neck when she didn't need them. The way that chain hung off her shoulders in a "U" shape, as she read to us. She had little jewels in her glasses. Warm and friendly.

First Performance

   My first "performance" came in 3rd grade. We had a talent show, but I didn't play any instruments. At the time, I had a record by Bobby Freeman, (of "Do You Wanta Dance?" fame) called, "Betty Lou's Got a New Pair of Shoes." The record player would skip, so I had to stick a piece of clay and 2 nickels on the arm for weight. At the talent show, scared to death and shaking in my boots, I pantomimed the record in front of a small room of parents and students, giving it every bit of my 8 year old Elvis type movements. Terrified, but having great fun, I discovered that ... Hey, I liked this. A lot. But there were more pressing agendas to be adhered to, things having to do with more important lifelong ambitions, like ... BASEBALL!

   Third grade passed and I had made a friend who would have a profound effect on my life, in regards to sports. I doubt he knows it. His name was John Palombi (pronounced PUH_LAWM_BEE) and John was "THEE" baseball kid at school. I mean, he lived for it. Soon, we all did. Every kid should have a John Palombi in their childhood. I mean, this guy knew stats like ... unbelievable. His Dad must have really been into it. John was a San Francisco Giants maniac. Oh, we played other games at school, like marbles, with a circle drawn in the dirt and a marble game called "holes." We would all show up a little early for school, (this was grade school; we didn't know any better.) with our marbles in a sock from home, and go at it. But, baseball was the real fever. At lunch, after school, at P.E., and yes, on the weekends and summer vacation. We had a baseball team at Burbank (we were the 'B' team, which doesn't say much for us, but it made no difference. We had the fever and believed. Something magical about baseball and being a young boy with teammates). We had a different coach one year who was a fireman, and strange as it may sound, he worked at ... THE FIREHOUSE. Yes! Another place that is inherently cool. After school, we could walk to the firehouse and see the fire trucks and ask the coach to see the starting lineup for the coming game. I mean ... come on now! Are you feeling the intensity of all this? This was great sh_t!!

    Back in those days, Americans had not yet gone "collectable" crazy. There were only two things of any consequence back then, STAMPS and BASEBALL CARDS and not in that order. You could never admit to collecting stamps, anyway. Too wimpy. Part of my future was changed forever when I was hustled into trading my Willie Mays baseball card for a Duke Snider and PeeWee Reese by schoolmate, John Palombi. I was "the new guy" and fit to be plucked. Not that Snider and Reese weren't greats. They were, but come on, ... Willie Mays?!! John was WAY into it. His intense SF Giants fever served only to make it better for the rest of us. In the 4th and 5th grades, he even got the teachers to let us listen to the World Series during class, Unbelievable. Yankees and the Milwaukee Braves. Maybe John is a Senator by now; he should be. There's a lot of 'Belushi' in him. What a schmoozer. I became a lifelong Dodgers fan, due to that trade with John. Course, I'm still a fair-weather Giants, fan if you want to press me. Willie McCovey was not chump change in any sense of the word. Mays was the best player to ever play the game. I'm a definite believer in that widely shared opinion. Sheer magic and poetry in motion. All aspects of the game, hitting, running, catching, throwing and always aware of what was happening all over the field. There was none better than Willie Mays, at least that I ever saw... er, listened to on radio. About a 50/50 split on the radio or tv thing. Later in films, I watched more of Wille Mays and my appreciation was verified. I did see him a lot in those early years of television, though it was strictly in black and white. No color tv at our house. They were just becoming available and had really bad color. Still, just to see Walt Disney's, "Wonderful World of Color" on Sunday nights, without faking being sick would have been heaven. My heaven was preordained. I went to church Sunday nights, then got to hear the kids at school tell me how great "fantasy land" was the next day. (A low point in my tv viewing career.) In regards to baseball cards, I have bad teeth to this day due, in large part, to all the bubble gum I had to chew, just to get the cards from those baseball card packages. Really dry bubble gum, too. Flat and shaped like a rectangle, to fit in the pack. Make your jaw sore, but it was worth it. The Lotto ain't got nuttin' on the anticipation of opening one of those packages and hoping for a Willie Mays. Of course, it was too late for me. John Palombi vs the "rookie" in school. You know the story.

    Having a "catch," as they say in "Field of Dreams," happened pretty regularly with us. It was especially cool when you had a friend down the street who had a catcher's glove, and more importantly, wasn't afraid to be the catcher. I loved to pitch. My best friend was Verne Zorn. A great catcher and a fool for it. Verne and I would get really ignorant playing ball. He was a great hitter. Knock the ball a country mile and could hit a shoulder high fastball to the opposite field. Home run material. You know the kind. We would play ball every chance we got. Many times, it was just the two of us. Sometimes a 3rd guy, our buddy Johnny Wylie, would join us. Johnny got hit in the head by a baseball bat, while playing at school one day. He was on third base and coming home. The batter swung and the bat came out of his hand and went straight down the third base line, hitting Johnny in the head, while he was streaking towards home plate. A concussion, an ambulance and he went to the hospital. Lucky it didn't kill him. He was okay, though. Verne and I would bicycle down to an old baseball field at a raggedy ol' park by the river, and off we would go, pretending we were Willie Mays and Duke Snider, Warren Spawn and Mickey Mantle or Whitey Ford and Yogi Berra. Doing the play by play, as we swung at the ball. "Steee-rike one." Then when we hit it ... yelling it out as we rounded the bases. " It's a double. No, wait, he's gonna try for third!!! He's in there!" With just two guys playing, one would pitch and the other would have to hit it in the air between 2nd and 3rd base for it to be a good hit, if I remember correctly. On the ground was a single or an out. I forget. This is beginning to sound an awful lot like Billy Crystal, Bob Costas, or a Ken Burns documentary. I relate to those guys when they speak with almost religious reverence to baseball.  

    When James Earl Jones spoke those words in "thee" movie about baseball and being dipped in memories so deep you could cut it with a knife, or something like that, it rang hard and true to me. Baseball in the 1950's, on the radio with announcer Russ Hodges, for the "newly moved to San Francisco" Giants, was a staple to all us kids. When Willie Mays would belt one out, I can still hear Russ, saying "bye, bye baby!"

    Verne Zorn and I would superimpose one sport over another, too. Take boxing, for example. Remember the Floyd Patterson vs Ingemar Johanssen championship fights of the 50's? Verne and I would be wailing away at tether ball ... being who else? Patterson and Johanssen. It all worked. No logic to it, but it worked anyway. Great fun. When I wasn't watching Dick Clark and American Bandstand, I would watch Home Run Derby. I saw Mr. Cub, Ernie Banks and Mickey Mantle dual one night. I think Ernie won that one. Willie Mays, Duke Snider, Gil Hodges and more ... and I'd be one of them the next day, with Vern at the old "field o' dreams" ball diamond. The only thing missing was the cornfield. We saved those for our special forts when we needed one in a hurry. Just crawl out into the middle of the cornfield, stand up and stomp a few stalks of corn down flat and you had it, a secret fort clearing in the middle of the cornfield, that not even the farmer, whose land you had snuck onto, could see from his house. Excellent. I had a map that I kept hidden in our encyclopedias (That's what I used them for) for years, on just how to get to one of those forts. I remember labeling the location as "dumb farmers field," with directions on how to find the fort. Ha! Oh brother, kids! Wish I still had the map. I'd like to go back to that old fort, sometime. (yeah, right!) Here's some pictures showing some of what I've been rambling on about.


   Above: OUR TEAM. Posing in front of Room 6 of Burbank Elementary School, in Modesto, CA. It was the 6th grade and I remember all these guys, but some names have become vague over time. Our Team: Top row: third body from the left (including the coach) is the infamous John Palombi. There's another picture of him below, but this was the real John Palombi. Two guys over from John, the tallest guy in the top row is Mike Christensen,. Middle row left: me, then my best friend, Verne Zorn ... with Ernie Ortega to the right of him. Wearing the catcher's mitt is Lynwood Fitch. I loved his name; it had a great phonetic sound to it. Great player, too. On the right end of the middle row is Delbert Hill. The guy in the center front row is Eric (or Steve) Grenbeaux. The picture below was more of the 3rd or 4th grade Palombi, that I shot marbles with. In 4th, 5th, and 6th grades, he evolved into the "baseball monster kid," jewel of a guy that I remember so well. Funny, the things you remember. I can recall the 1st day of school in 6th grade when I said to classmate, Ernie Ortega, "Well, we're the BIG SHITS NOW!!," referring to the pecking order of being in the oldest grade of elementary school. Yeah, like we were going to terrorize all the younger kids. No way. No time. Had to play ... Baseball.



Mr. Baseball: JOHN PALOMBI


Every elementary school should have one. Some do. Maybe you remember "YOUR" John Palombi. Unfortunately, for the rest of you, WE HAD THE REAL KING. The one and only John. Nuff said.

Mr. "climb everything" Allsup, at 1640 Ohio Avenue. Probably 3rd grade, about 1955. My dad had driven little triangle shaped pieces of zinc into those walnut tree trunks. Supposed to make em healthier, but really bad on the climbing routine. Hurt like crazy if you slipped.

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