An old oak tree, offset from the driveway, dominates the front lawn. Tall bushes line the right side of the yard, thigh-high shrubs the left. We aren’t fooled by the pristine green grass. It’s never lasted long before.
As usual, we spend our first few days in a hotel waiting for our belongings to arrive. It’s Easter Sunday, my fourteenth birthday, and I’m at the peak of my awkward adolescence. Maybe that’s why this one has been so tough for me. Maybe it’s because this day has been circled on the calendar for so long, looming overhead like a black thunderhead on a humid July day. Maybe it’s because I finally felt established in that old new middle school. I’d been surrounded by friends, teammates, teachers. But my vote carries as much weight as a pea bobbing on the ocean surface. I go wherever the tides decree. And this time, the Navy decreed Charleston, South Carolina.
South Carolina: the land of fishin’, football, and Jesus. I’m allergic to fish, scrawny on my heaviest day, and as close to Jesus as Peyton Manning is to Oprah Winfrey. I certainly don’t blend right in to the new surroundings. However, I’m not alone. When my parents packed me into the car, they made sure my younger brothers Will and Jay were there beside me, resulting in nonstop squabble on our way to the next post. Unconditionally we love each other, but liking each other? That varies from day to day. However, sheer boredom and isolation in this alien neighborhood outweigh any ill will between us. Before long, that old oak trunk becomes a strike zone, those thigh-high shrubs an outfield fence, and the crack in the driveway a pitcher’s mound. With everything else taped up in cardboard boxes inside the new house, we stay outside, playing with dead sticks and a wiffle ball.
A wiffle ball is perhaps the strangest ball in any sport. It’s nothing more than a baseball-sized plastic spherical shell with holes throughout—think of it as a hollow ball of Swiss cheese. The holes create unpredictable flight patterns; wiffle balls curve, rise, and float, seemingly defying physics, driven by the pressures surrounding them. The key to strong wiffle ballers is their ability to control the ball, since it’s nigh impossible to overpower your opponent with such a light ball. I feel more like a good wiffle ball, in unpredictable motion, than a good wiffle baller as what’s left of the school year dwindles away and summer approaches.
Eighth grade finishes, and Will, Jay, and I are among the horde of kids who rush to spend summer outdoors, repulsed from bedrooms like powerful misaligned magnets. The neighborhood pool transforms into a beehive of social activity, the creek into a minefield of lures, and the streets a war zone, footballs arcing through the air like grenades. We stop by the pool on sweltering afternoons, and we play the occasional pickup game of football, slowly meeting people in our new community. But when Dad returns from work and asks about the day, stories from the daily wiffle ball escapades, from bad calls and weird bounces to dramatic home runs and tragic strikeouts, reverberate off the walls. We spin our tales as we pass the grits and gravy, and this new house begins to feel like a home.
As the neighborhood transitions from foreign to familiar, we begin to share our game with other kids. We play in the morning, afternoon, and evening. We play on sunny, cloudy, and rainy days. We play on grass, on concrete, on combinations of both. When strangers pass the driveway, they see a green lawn speckled brown with dead patches. Most would think we’re experiencing some serious irrigation trouble. Anyone who knows us knows that the biggest dead patch is the batter’s box. The one near the driveway? That’s the pitcher’s mound, and the others are the bases, blatantly obvious to those who know what to look for.
The summer draws to a close, and without meaning to, my brothers and I have made friends. More importantly, the three of us have formed a team. All of that energy spent bickering among each other is united when we play against other kids in the neighborhood. It’s brothers versus others, and we make a fearsome opponent, however talented our competition may be. I find myself realizing this place isn’t so bad; with all that practice, I’m no longer a wiffle ball being thrashed about in a new environment. I’m a wiffle baller, in control of my life here in Charleston. I have new friends and teachers. I’ve found in my brothers teammates that were there all along, in the last place I would have thought to look. I haven’t caught a fish, put on any weight, or experienced a religious revival. Yet I feel comfortable in my new environment, like a fish adjusted to a new tank.
* * *
Two years later, it’s time to say goodbye. We pack everything up and drive north, this time to Washington, DC. We park in the new driveway and take in our new abode.
A towering pine tree protrudes from one corner of the yard. A steadfast brick house lines one side of the yard, a waist-high fence the other. The grass is a deep, lush green—for now. Most would call it a standard lawn.
Welcome to our stadium.