The Vacant Lot
By Wayne Brown
To us preteens of the early sixties small-town-Mississippi, it was just a vacant lot. Kids are that way; they ultimately relegate things to their simpliest form. But the lot had an owner as vacant lots generally do. The owner was one of the oldest residents of our modest neighborhood, W.D. “Dewey” Logan. And from our perspective as kids, his track record with us was one of gruffness and very little patience with a crowd of kids. We attempted to put as much distance between him and us at all times unless necessity dictated otherwise. Sometimes, it did.
In those young years, we searched for heroes both in the many westerns served up at the local theater and in the various professional sports. Professional football delivered a few idols in the form of Bart Starr, Raymond Berry, Jim Brown and several others. Of course, baseball trading cards were very hot at the time and all of our baseball heroes were there in our shoe boxes, ready for trading. We had chewed a lot of bad bubble gum to get those cards…they had value! Names like Whitey Ford, Warren Spahn, Nellie Fox, Bobby Richardson, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, and Yogi Berra dominated our talk like the game dominated our summer days. In the winter we played football and lived out our fantasies as our favorite pro-players. That was fun, but in the summers, we got down to the real business of emulating the great stars of the great game of baseball. Hence, our keen interest in vacant lots.
In our young minds, Dewey Logan must have been a rich man for he owned more land than any one of our parents. He took care of it too. Every week of the summer, he walked behind a push mower and cut every blade of grass neatly. No doubt, his was one of the best manicured vacant lots in town. The vacant portion of the lot measured probably an acre or so. That’s a lot of mowing! Even at a distance, we could easily see that old Dewey did not have a dry thread in his shirt or shorts as he made lap after lap on his weekly clips with his 20’’ lawnmower. Actually, he never really finished mowing, he just started over.
The sheer beauty of the vacant lot caused us to close our distance with Mr. Logan. At first, we would sneak into the lot to play out our football games during the hours that he was out on his mail carrier duties. At times, as many as a dozen of us demonstrated our athletic prowess on the manicured grasses of this vacant lot. Gosh, we were good but too far from the pro-scouting circuit to gain any notice of our talents. But we could dream and dream we did.
The date was never recorded in history or in my mental lists of important dates, but at some point and time during those youthful days, a decision was made by the core members of the neighborhood association of fine athletes to build a baseball field. Not just any field mind you, but one like the pros of that time played on; one with a grass infield. It would be a field on which we would proudly engage competing teams from other neighborhoods. Of course, no such teams existed that we knew of but we dreamed that they would especially if we built the field for such competition. So, the project was launched, tools and materials were gathered. Now, the final decision, find a location. Actually, there was no decision to be made; there was only one location…the vacant lot.
A handful of little boys set to work one summer morning laying out a baseball field vision and more than ready to make it a reality. We wanted a grass infield so we carefully laid out all the base lanes and the infield area. On the base lanes, we would remove the grass to expose the dirt surface below. Although this represented a large amount of work for some little boys equipped only with hoes and rakes, the task was diminished by the enormity of our vision. The faster we worked, the sooner we played. It was that simple. We were a natural team with a common vision.
By the late afternoon, our progress was quite measurable. I was working steadily to expose the infield base paths near what was to be second base. My hoe was taking a toll on the grass covering the area. The ground was almost fully exposed between first and second base. The progress was measurable and motivated us that much more toward our goal. Soon our vision of a baseball field would be a reality.
I felt his presence long before his long shadow cast itself across the path of my hoe. Without turning, I knew that I was about to have a close encounter with gruff, old, Mr. Logan. My first impulse was to drop the hoe and run but fear seemed to weld my feet in place. I could never remember being this close to this man who currently seemed like a giant looming over me. I slowly turned to face him feeling very alone in that vacant lot. As my eyes met his, the definitions of the words “ownership” and “trespassing” were becoming quite clear in my mind. His hands rested on his hips and he glared at me from under his long-billed, sweat stained cap. “What’s going on here?” he snapped as his eyes surveyed my handy work with the hoe. “We’re building a baseball field?” I answered sheepishly. Actually, it came out more like a question than an answer. He stood there looking at our handy work, glaring at the torn grass, the exposed dirt that made up the early stages of our vision. Then slowly, he dropped his hands from his hips, lowered his head, turned and walked away. As he did, I could hear low utterances that were undecipherable. He was headed back toward his house. Probably, he was going for a shotgun, I imagined. Maybe, he would call our parents. Whatever it was, the outcome could not be good for us. Then, just as he neared the edge of the lot, he stopped beside the lawnmower that he had left at that spot. He reached down, gave the rope a pull to start the engine, and headed off on his weekly grass clipping chore.
My friends had been frozen in fear as well. We slowly regained our senses and went back to work knowing that at any moment our destiny would become apparent. The old man was only taking a bit of time to design a fate for us that would fit our crime. The clock ticked off the afternoon. He mowed. We dug. As the sun began to set, we realized that he was ignoring us and was fully focused on what seemed his favorite pastime…manicuring his grass. Confused but feeling more at ease, we hoed and raked a bit faster with our focus now more on the goal than on the old man and his corporal punishment.
Within a few days, we had realized our goal. We were actually playing baseball on what we considered to be one of the more professional-looking baseball fields in the area. That said, we did not dwell on the beauty but quickly tested the functionality of the new field by playing hours of baseball. We played with the satisfaction of knowing that we had created this marvelous field. Now, our full attention could be focused on playing the game, and play we did.
I learned a lot in that vacant lot many, many years ago. For a long time, I thought that the importance of it was my knowledge of the game of baseball. I had learned the rules and honed my skills of the game in that spot. In later years, I would come to know that far more had transpired in that lot than the game itself. As I look back on it, I realize that the gruff old man who owned that vacant lot had made it possible for that small group of neighborhood boys to experience the game. He could have stopped us; ran us off; turned us in; any number of things. But he did not. By turning his head and letting us torture his beloved grass, he facilitated our vision. Seeing his beautiful grass attacked with hoe and rake must have been very painful for him, yet, he let us build our dream. Perhaps, he loved the game as much as we did. I like to think so. Thanks, Mr. Logan. WB
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