by Mark Dvorak
It is raining again and the Cubs game has been delayed. It is quiet in the house and I am enjoying the sound of the rain, remembering things from the recent summer past. In many ways it has been a good summer. There has been plenty of work and I’ve crossed paths with many good people. Summer has meant road trips and outdoor concerts. It has meant shorts and bare feet and barbecue on the new Weber. Summer has meant practicing on the back porch with a fresh pot of coffee, watching the big maple tree move in a lovely balmy breeze.
And as with a lot of boys, this summer and all the other ones before it, have meant playing ball. This was my last summer of ball playing, though, and this time I really mean it. Even as my team contends for the league title, my season is finished; my ball playing days now concluded. The decision came easily enough this week due to not one, but two incidents, involving poor judgement and a specific finger on my left hand.
The first incident happened in June, the season still young and hope still eternal. An attempt to catch a sinking line drive left me trying to shake off a swollen ring finger. In Chicago, nurse Mary thought it was broken and said, “Go see a doctor.” When I later showed it to farmer Hugh of Bartonville, Illinois, he simply nodded and said, “yep,” the way a farmer might, without making the sound of the ‘p.’ Let the record show that I finished the game with two hits and five runs batted in.
The latest incident occurred about a week ago and was messier and sorrier than the one before. My finger was splinted and wrapped and for a time had come to resemble an armless little mummy with a nosebleed. So this time I am hanging them up for good. Autumn will bring healing and recovery; and the cleats and bats and balls will go up to the attic, along with the screens and the porch furniture. Come opening day next spring, I promise to not give them another look.
So the last few days I’ve mostly been laying around, watching it rain, taking Advil and waiting for summer to wind down. I’ve had plenty of time to think about playing ball and growing older. I’ve had time to think about my hands.
When my hands were tough and calloused, I was young and working a night job for a grocery company. I worked on a crew with other boys from eleven at night until seven-thirty in the morning. When I’d get home from work, I worked at learning guitar and later, five string banjo. As my hands became more sure on the strings, they also became chafed and coarse from nights unloading trucks, slinging stock and pushing around two hundred pound bales of cardboard.
At some point I started to land performing jobs on the local coffee house scene, though I still had to keep my night job. I’d tote my guitar and my five string banjo off to some little place, and played them as best I could with hands that had turned to dry, cracked shoe leather. I remember meeting lots of musicians around that time. Many were like me, learning, scrambling, trying to improve. Some were more advanced, and others still were already recording and working at music full time. And I remember the occasion of shaking hands with one of these fellows, a full-time polished professional. And for the first time I noticed what a musician’s hands felt like. And for the first time I felt strangeness that my own hands were those of a working stiff.
Soon enough though, I was able to let go of my career as a grunt in the grocery business. Soon enough I found myself scratching out a living, playing music and teaching. Soon enough the recording projects came along, and the tours, and soon enough my hands began to change. After years of coaxing sound from a guitar and a five string banjo, my fingers turned lean and muscular, the skin on my palms grew smooth and soft.
And I recall the time earlier this summer, coming down off the stage after performing at a music festival in Tennessee. A man wearing overalls waved and walked over. He was a tobacco farmer as it turned out. His name was Jim and I remember him as a very fine man. Jim had a wide-brimmed straw hat on his head and his jaw swelled with a plug of tobacco. He said he’d been farming in these parts for more than forty years. He smiled, almost toothless, and said how he liked to come down to hear the old songs each year at the festival. Jim thanked me for making the trip all the way from Chicago. He said some nice things about my playing, and I said some nice things about the people and the country in western Tennessee. It felt good having passed muster with an earthy old-timer like Jim. He’d been listening to music down here for a lot of years.
And then Jim began to talk about his brother and his father, and his mother who passed away when he was young. He began to talk about tobacco farming. Although he loved music and loved to be around it, Jim said that neither he, nor his brother, ever had the time to take up an instrument. There was always too much work to do.
We talked awhile longer and I thanked Jim for our visit. I held out my hand and he grasped it. His grip was steady, his palm was rough and calloused and felt like dry, cracked shoe leather. I felt a strangeness that my own hands were soft and those of a musician. “So long, said Jim, and he turned. I watched him disappear into the crowd,