Uncle Dale was the first grownup to come home in the afternoon. He wasn’t our real Uncle. We just called him that. Back then it was considered rude for a child to call an adult only by their first name, so we had lots of aunts and uncles. Uncle Dale got up when it was still dark and walked a mile to work where he put in hard days at the local Halliburton yard. At 3:30 in the afternoon, he would, as the poet Appleman put it, “follow his shadow home to grass.”
And there he would sit in his lawn chair, under the gauzy shade of a mesquite tree and watch over us as we played baseball in the road.
It was a caliche road; hard and dusty in the dry times and it turned to cake like mud when it rained. Home plate and second base were in the middle of the street, first base was in the Garcia’s yard and third base was in Uncle Dale’s yard.
Uncle Dale was our umpire. He would sit there drinking coffee from his big white mug smoking one cigar after another. We could smell that sweet tobacco drifting through the infield. Even now I can smell it as it drifts across the years to where I sit.
Uncle Dale ruled on close calls from the comfort of his place in the shade. That was a foul he’d say. Or he would coach: “Two hands while learning R.J.” He also served as traffic cop: “you boys get out of the road ‘fore that truck runs over you.”
I can only remember his getting out of his chair once. We were having our own little baseball draft, the way we always did. Hand over hand up the bat – you remember.
Well, Mrs. Anderson came over and suggested we draw numbers out of hat – making one team out of the even numbers and the other of the odd numbers – to spare the feelings of those often chosen last.
Uncle Dale would not stand for these progressive ideas. He was a purist. He got up and waved her off. He said, “If a boy is struggling, he needs to know it early so he can do something about it.” We continued in our way.
One day we came home from school and saw Uncle Dale on a huge Halliburton bulldozer in the brush down the road. We went down there to watch him because, like all boys, we were fascinated with anything that could topple trees and reform the earth. After about thirty minutes, he shut down the dozer, hopped off and said, “There’s your new baseball field boys. You’re off the streets.” “Well don’t just stand there,” he said, “get your gloves, let’s break her in!”
Never again was the crack of a bat muffled by a car horn wanting to drive through our infield.
Uncle Dale’s baseball field cost him a few phone calls and three hours of his expert labor, but it gave us, and the boys that followed us, years of immeasurable joy. It was the greatest gift we ever got, really – the gift of a beautiful boyhood, and the lifelong memory of it.