Child enthusiasm expressed itself in verbosity, and that particular numerical superseding that often follows the comparisons of boyhood “one-upmanship”—echoing the braggartly ways of manhood. And why not—this was the first time any of us had seen a major league baseball game live. Heck, even I felt the butterflies of anticipation, expressed in the more mature feelings of responsibility.
“Has anyone ever swum across the ocean?” one asked.
“No,” I said, adding, “But people have swum across the English Channel.” It was enough.
“I bet I could swim five miles an hour,” said the youngest—not concerned with the location as much as with his potential for speed.
“I bet I could swim five miles,” said another—distance, not speed, his only concern.
“Maybe a hundred,” said the third.
“Or a thousand,” and I tensed in expectation of the certain reply: a ga-billion-trillion-ta-infinity. Their heightened comparisons faded into the background of the rhythmic sound of tires on highway joints—the metronome of our advance.
We parked beneath the Arch—the Gateway to The West. That structure—utterly impractical—is nevertheless impressive. But bigger than the Arch were the eyes that beheld it: wide and forward, amazed. Delighted. That monument—the gate that never closes—is a regional marker for the beginning of every westward trip and eastward return, or vice versa. But the scope and scale of the massive structure is missed by the casual passerby, underwhelmed, in a way one small child never could be while standing beneath the legs stretched north and south.
For those unfamiliar with the place—long sloping ramps descend beneath the ground in that space between the Archway legs, emptying out into a grand, high-walled space, off of which doors lead to a museum, gift shop, café, and small theater. In this last, films of the Arch’s construction play in continuous cycle, broken by the brief intervals of people ushered in and out.
The museum-seeker is greeted by the statue of Thomas Jefferson, who stands overlooking the contents: everything from a wigwam to time-piece guns, outfits, icons, a stuffed longhorn, bison, and several bears. This is America’s history, captured and preserved, dehydrated and homogenized; shells absent the lives lived in the negative space: gloves without hands, boots without feet, glasses without eyes, and hats without heads. That macabre image of the bygone Midwest solicits a fleeting reference to the Tin Man and his song: If I only had a brain.
Back in the main hallway, people line up for their journey to the top—a line that will lead to another and that to another, until finally all will board small round chambers whose small chairs were designed for a nation of people smaller (or certainly lighter) than those who file in today. I’m certain the ascending, jerky motion—that somehow keeps one always aright to the ground and gravity—was quite the invention of the 1960s: an era of fast cars and travel to the moon.
From the top of the Arch, a series of thick windows unfold images of the landscape—mostly urban. The occasional farm can still be found—eastward—but the rest of Greenland has given over to gray concrete, black-top, and the rainbowed reflections of glass.
Today, the rainbow is predominantly red, with the convergence of Cardinal fans. Whether it’s the communal aspect of commonality, a result of mere proximity, or whether a facet of the Midwest—strangers talk like old friends, comparing stories of games past. Some focus on the sheer quantity attended, while others intimate a particular moment. Some boast of their seats, others of their near misses with greatness. Scalpers beg tickets, or promise them at ten times their value. Vendors sell water, shirts, hats, pennants, hot dogs, peanuts and cracker-jacks. Everything but the national anthem brings a dollar.
“This is our third game in a month,” the self-declared Chicagoan says to me, upon learning this was our first game. “Of course, the best game I ever saw was…” His voice gets lost in the sound of the crowed and the exclamations of my boys—but I find myself nodding as if to appease his desire to be heard. People want to be heard—want to be the one who nearly misses greatness.
“I bet I could jump over that wall,” says one of my boys—and I anticipate references to future jumps in the ga-billion-trillion-ta-infinity.
Inside the great underbelly of the coliseum, the senses are assaulted—pictures of old players, current year stats for the league, more vendors, and young college girls begging to take a photograph (to be made available online for some ungodly amount). The proximity of the interstate outside the south wall lends to the sense of urgency, hurry, and haste—as fans reject the lock-step formations of the outside lines, in a frenetic rush to line up again: for signatures. It’s autograph night at Busch Stadium. Forget that I’ve never heard of the two guys who’ll be signing balls and hats and the occasional body part—no more than the different-but-still-talking man behind me has heard of them. It’s an autograph—the potential not to miss greatness this time.
But greatness is not to be found in the autograph of an up-and-coming, or in the choicest of seats, the clarity of recollection, the highest jump, the furthest swim. These are but fleeting glimpses of significance, flailing hearts and fumbling hands worn by the tides of life’s darker side—unemployment, death, war and rumors of war. These people are here in the hopes that a moment, a breath, may exalt them from the longing for more, and exude them into a sigh of contentment.
I would come for that. But not this time. This time, I came for a different glance: the backwards look of excitement reflected in firsts. At the beginning, my children wear guarded masks of uncertain confliction—eyes searching to take in the magnitude of some thirty-five thousand people and the immense arena. The first innings come and go, with only brief moments of echoing excitement. But they wait and settle back into postures poised for…what? They do not know.
Until it happens—Albert Pujols, the St. Louis wonder, swings hard on the fourth pitch. From our seats nearly parallel with the left-field line, the ball seems to hover a moment in air. Motionless. Then, as if propelled by the sudden release of pent-up longing—the ball vanishes over the fence. Homerun!
The eruption momentarily startles the boys, but almost as suddenly they are swept up in applause and cheers, and a round of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” Hopes are satisfied, longings fulfilled. For a moment, all present have come near to greatness.
The walk back to the car is full of words and retellings. No longer is the excitement the expectation of the unknown, the untouched, un-tasted. These are the boasts of drunkards—filled with an uncommon energy.
No longer at awe—once beneath the yawning gait of the Arch—they run about and fill up the gateway: their souls the size of that great maw, pushing upwards against the farthest reaches of light dying skyward in the evening air. The rhythmic metronome of highway joints follows us home, while backseat voices fall to whispers, then mumbles, and then silence. And in the half-glow of dome lights—caught in the backwards glance—the faces of children reveal contentment. Veni. Vidi. Volupti. I came. I saw.