When Thomas Wolfe wrote You Can’t Go Home Again in 1940, the classic novel proposed that nostalgia causes one to view the past in an overly positive light. Going home is never as good as one remembers.
The Writers Guild strike in Los Angeles inadvertently gave me the opportunity to test Wolfe’s theory.
l flew in from California to attend a loosely organized reunion of my childhood friends. We grew up playing baseball on the sandlots and concrete playgrounds of New York from dawn to dark. We played without uniforms, participation trophies, or adult supervision. Those pavements were where we learned life’s lessons. We picked our teams and enforced our own rules, many of which were eventually settled by fisticuffs. Along the way, we laughed a lot and forged lifelong friendships. From the concrete jungle, we moved on to the Kensico Little League, then on to High School and then college baseball playing with and against each other from 1959 to 1973, yet we never forgot those intractable ties that bound us.
Before I get to the reunion, let me write a little about our town.
North White Plains is a small town about 20 miles outside New York City, but whenever asked, I would never claim it as my hometown. The village of Valhalla was only half a mile away. The name had historical implications, and it sounded so much more dramatic. My mom always got upset whenever she would read Frank Pace -Hometown- Valhalla, NY, so after college, I corrected it. I did graduate however from the “home of the Vikings,” Valhalla High School, which may only be noteworthy because each graduate was handed their diplomas by our commencement speaker, Baseball Hall of Famer and Civil Rights Icon Jackie Robinson.
But before I left Valhalla, there was the hamlet of Kensico.
They named Kensico in 1849 for a Siwanoy Indian chief, Cokenseko, who had sold most of the land surrounding White Plains to English settlers in the 1600s. In 1885, they built the old Kensico Dam south of the village as an additional water source for New York City, but by the turn of the century, NYC had grown. The reservoir was too small. A new Kensico Dam had to be built.
Removal of the old Kensico Dam began in 1911. The construction of the new dam began in 1913 and was completed in 1917, three years early and at a cost of more than $15 million.
Imagine the residents’ horror when they learned the planners would destroy their homes to make way for the before much-needed but now essential barrier.
The dam brought with it a tremendous influx of workers, mostly Italian, Irish, and German immigrants, and provided a tremendous period of prosperity for the surrounding area, spurring many new stores, rooming houses, hotels, restaurants, and saloons.
When the dam was completed and the village flooded, many construction families remained, contributing to the growth and character of Valhalla, North White Plains, and Thornwood. Legend has it that when the reservoir waters are at a low ebb, you can still see the Kensico Church steeple peeking out from below.
But enough history.
Back to the reunion.
About 14 years ago, Ed Mentz and Vinnie Porco (Class of ‘68) started a wiffle ball tournament at the old Columbus Ave. elementary school playground. Only eight to ten guys showed up. Gradually, as years passed, interest in the event grew incrementally. When Vinnie passed away and others followed him to that great playground in the sky, nostalgia took over. This year, the wiffle ball tournament would be preceded by a pay-your-own tab get-together at The Crossings, a repurposed Train Station in Valhalla built in the ’20s.
The Friday night turnout was remarkable. Forty to fifty alumni showed up from VHS classes from 1966 to 1972. The names were a tribute to their ancestors who had come more than 110 years earlier to build the dam. Names such as Sampogna, Gazzini, Candria, Buonosissi, Lomei, Porco, Buschini, Barlotta, Fusaro, Caruso, Buelta, Maluski, Liberotti, Schuster, Rothman, Carl, McGuinn & Jones. My oldest friend since kindergarten, Walter Schrank, was there with his wife of 53-years, Maria (nee’ Fucale of course) My best friend Dr Jerry Marx took time off from his duties as a Pediatric Cardiologist at Harvard to make the trip down from Boston. Perhaps the greatest athlete in Valhalla history, Bobby James, a three-sport all-county star, even drove all the way up from his home in DC.
I was also delighted to see Steve Broege, whom I first met in 1959 but hadn’t seen since he and future three-time major league 20-game winner, Dennis Leonard, combined to one-hit us in a doubleheader in 1971. Steve was the greatest pitcher to ever play in the Kensico Little League. He played four years of Triple-A baseball for the St. Louis Cardinals before a ruptured disk forced him to retire. Well on his way to the big leagues at the time of his injury, Broege led the Texas League in wins, earned run average, and strikeouts for St. Louis’s team in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Remember when I told you the village of Valhalla was small? That night the Crossings ran out of beer.
Saturday, thirty hale and hearty players returned for the Wiffle ball tournament bringing with them over 2100 years of life experience. Despite all that wisdom, few knew how to work the camera on their iPhones. We all have endured the many challenges life presents us and look forward to many more years. A prayer honoring those members of our baseball community who have passed preceded the game.
The results of the game are irrelevant. The good news is no one got hurt. For 90-minutes or so, we were young again, busting each other’s balls and having fun, just like in the old days.
As for the long-deceased Thomas Wolfe? I am glad to say, for once at least, he was dead wrong.