Wednesday, 10 June 2020

EDMONTON EXISTENTIAL

Radio and Rain

Rain.

I adore violent thunderstorms. It’s a pleasure to sit outside on the porch alee to wind and watch the sky split open. I gauge the delay of the crack! - a noise that frequently reminds me of a wooden baseball bat interrupting the path of a speeding leather ball – and hope it’ll be a big one, a bit too close for comfort. My heart’s palpitations always seem to synch up with the flickering of the interior lights.

Rain has fallen on Edmonton these past few days. It wasn’t the apocalyptic, Dylanesque “hard rain” but the sort Ann’s father would have called “a million-dollar rain.” Rain that soaks into the ground and doesn’t runoff; rain that irrigates and doesn’t drown. It makes a soothing sound. Outside one of our bedroom windows, the one by my side of our bed and over my night table and its stack of books is an upended wheelbarrow and a couple of overturned washtubs. I never close the blind completely because if I twist my head at a certain angle I can see a patch of sky through the foliage. When it rains and provided the temperature’s right, I like to leave the window open so I can listen to the water pattering through the leaves and tattooing the metal. I can hear the trickling free-flow through the downspout into the water barrel. There is peace in the wet darkness. All that’s missing is a baseball game on the radio.

My childhood home in Montreal was south-facing. Downtown was on the other side of Mount Royal. My bedroom was at the front of the brick semi-detached. The space was narrow. The door opened inward. The first thing you saw was the unheated clothes closet jutting from the outside wall and beside it, a recessed window over a nook which just allowed for an elementary desk and an inaccessible bookcase. An iron hot water radiator hung low on the common wall. There was only one place to situate a single bed in that compromised rectangle, the smallest room in the house for the youngest (and smallest) family member. The plaster walls were painted sky blue, soon to become the base colour of the Montreal Expos’ road uniforms. I’d wanted navy but my dad, the resident housepainter, didn’t share my claustrophobic vision. The ceiling was white and the bowl of the central light fixture was often black dotted with dead insects.

Our front porch was firmly anchored to our brick house but it was constructed entirely of wood. It was a fine place to sit on a folding aluminum lawn chair with fraying strapping on a warm and rainy evening with neighbours, when the mosquitoes were particularly active, watch the street life through a mesh of summer screen. We removed our boots in that unheated space in wintertime. The upward slant of the red shingled porch roof wasn’t quite flush with the ledge of my dormer bedroom window. The window was sash and its storm shutters opened outward. Their hinged plane was covered by a sheet of tin.

Periodically that miniature rooftop table was percussed by bursting raindrops. The relentless drumming was anthemic, magical. I would lie in bed at night and look out my window and listen to the rain. The after hours sky wasn’t static. Rain, snow or weather fine, there was always the needle of Montreal’s meter, as regular as an atomic clock: the searchlight beam emitting from atop Place Ville-Marie, the downtown cruciform skyscraper that is as elemental to the cityscape as Jacques Cartier’s cross on the peak of the mountain. I’d drift off counting photon rays shooting into space at a velocity of 186,000 miles per second. Once in a while the modest pleasures of the night would blossom into a bliss I’ve rarely experienced since, but conditions had to be perfect.

The big city light was a constant, always combing the navy blue sky. Mercury rain had to be beating an imprecise rhythm on the grayish tin sheet. The pixie dust was the Expos playing baseball on the radio. The ideal broadcast was a road game from the Pacific Time zone, first pitch around bedtime, long after darkness had fallen in Montreal. I knew that Dodger Stadium was situated in Chavez Ravine – wherever that was in relation to the sprawl of Greater Los Angeles – and Candlestick Park in San Francisco was often cold and windy. The San Diego Padres, expansion brethren of the Expos, sported disgusting plugged toilet uniforms, yellow and brown.

I’ve never particularly enjoyed televised baseball. It’s too one dimensional. The video director shows me what he believes I should watch, one facet of the diamond. Baseball is best viewed on the radio because my imagination pictures the entire ballpark. I can see the infield in or at double play depth; I can see the outfielders shifting for a dead pull hitter. I can see all of these things because I’m listening to a conversation about a game whose languid rhythms allow for casual chat and informed asides.

Dave Van Horne, the play-by-play announcer, had radio hair – that is to say a rug and plugs in case there were cameras. The colour man was Duke Snider, a laconic Californian and member of the Baseball Hall of Fame, a power hitter who had starred in centre field for the Brooklyn Dodgers during their literary glory years (Roger Kahn’s ‘The Boys of Summer’). He was old school and there was a subtle prickliness about him because his rank of royalty in New York’s baseball echelon was a mere dukedom. Willie Mays played centre field across the river up on Coogan’s Bluff and the Yankees had this phenom from Oklahoma named Mickey Mantle.

Duke’s wit was dry, parched. I remember one game when the Expos were being shelled and they’d run out of pitchers. Van Horne asked Duke what the team should do in a situation like this. He said, “Well, Dave, you can’t punt.” And Duke was a storyteller. When time allowed, and baseball allows for plenty of time because it’s not on the clock and nothing or very little happens inside the foul lines for what seems like a lifetime measured in innings, Duke would reminisce about the glory of his times. I got to know his friends and teammates Jackie (Robinson) and Pee Wee (Reese). Together we went to spring training in pre-revolutionary Cuba and barnstormed Japan; I never left my bed.

There’s some kind of grace in a million-dollar rain now and then, listening to it, watching the sky. All that’s missing these days are the Expos and my childhood. The rain remains a comforting constant.
                    
 meGeoff has been your most unreliable, unbalanced and inaccurate alternative source of memoir since 2013. Don’t sign up for e-mail alerts from the Crooked 9, stay safe.

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