Sunday, February 16, 2014

"Striking Out" by Bea Epstein - 2013 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Entry

2013 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Entry by Bea Epstein


          All through the summer when I was ten, the Dodgers won game after game. Everyone in Brooklyn hoped their beloved “team with a heart” would win the pennant and go on to play the Yankees in the World Series. Wherever I went, people argued about how the home team would do in the next game.

            On Dodgers’ game days, the entire borough of Brooklyn held its collective breath in mounting excitement. Radios in neighborhood stores blasted the boos and cheers from the ballpark bleachers. The air crackled with announcer Red Barber’s smooth southern drawl as he described in vivid detail, every pitch, every strike, every hit. That summer, Ebbetts Field, the home of the Dodgers, playing field of Duke Snyder and Jackie Robinson, was the center of the universe.

            Momma and Dad were born in tiny impoverished villages in the Russian and Polish countryside where Jewish children were denied access to public schools, and as young adolescents in America, they left school and went to work to help support their families. Driven by fear of economic disaster, their lives were shaped by hard work, the safest path to a secure future.

           To them, the frenzy over the Brooklyn Dodgers was incomprehensible, a colossal waste of time.
“Can you believe this excitement?” Momma said. “Such foolishness. Grown men yelling about hitting a ball and running around. Don’t they have anything better to do?”       
Momma and Dad shared a fierce commitment to raise Paul and me with access to the opportunities America had to offer, to give us a future, very different from their own. They understood that the one sure way to attain this goal was to take advantage of the free public education this country offers.

             We grew up hearing Momma repeat the same admonitions: “Read a book.”  “Do your homework.” “Did anyone get a higher mark on the test?”

            In response to her enormous pressure to take school seriously, Paul knew just how to push back. He didn’t read books. He didn’t study. He joked with friends in school, played pranks and acted as if he didn’t care. When he saw a “D” in “Conduct” at the bottom of his sixth-grade report card, he tore that part off and threw it away. Momma was called to school. She was furious.

            Many times, I watched Paul and Momma shout at each other about his grades, his choice of friends, and his unwillingness to live up to the vision Momma had for him. One day at Hebrew School, he and his friends were so disruptive, the rabbi threw him out. “And don’t come back until you bring your mother!”

Paul returned the next afternoon and presented Momma’s photograph, enraging the rabbi as well as Momma.

            Although I admired my brother’s courage, I chose a different path.  I loved to read. I loved school. “A”s were required; I got “A pluses.” Every report card was perfect. I won the medals. School and books were my escape from the strains and melodrama of our family life.

In the late fall of 1947, I was one of six sixth graders chosen to participate in a radio quiz program. My teachers told me that we would be taken to WNYC, a real radio station, where John Cashmore, the Borough President, would ask us questions about Brooklyn. Thrilled with this honor, I rode the subway to the Grand Army Plaza Regional Library and read every book on the shelves about Brooklyn. I learned about the old churches and when they were built, the historic houses and the Dutch settlers who lived in them, Prospect Park and its history. I memorized facts about Coney Island and Steeplechase Amusement Park.

            The day of the radio program finally came. The six of us rode the subway to the radio station with our teacher. When we arrived, my stomach was in a terrible knot. What if I forgot everything I knew? What if I was too nervous to speak? The neon sign lit up in flashing red lights. We were “On the Air.”
            After a few welcoming words, Mr. Cashmore was ready to ask the questions. “How many games did it take for the Brooklyn Dodgers to win the National League pennant?” “How many bases did Jackie Robinson steal in his first season with the Dodgers?” “What was Cookie Lavagetto’s amazing feat in game four of the World Series?”

            Every kid in Brooklyn could answer those questions. Every kid that is, except me.

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