Frieda Metzger at the Wall
By Larry N. Mayer
It’s not like anyone else in the family approved of this. But on September 22, 1957, two days before the very last out of the final Dodgers game at Ebbets Field, long before the hard surface of Astroturf was even the seed of a dream, my older brother, Jackie Robinson Metzger, was born, near Pitkin Avenue in Brooklyn, underneath the “Hit Sign, Win Suit” advertisement of Abe Stark’s retail clothing store. And more important, it was the day of the last home run ever hit by a Brooklyn Dodger—over the right centerfield wall. And with their heads poking like prisoners from building windows across the street, waving felt pennants, kids and adults punching the pockets of their baseball gloves, standing on roofs, picnicking on fire escapes, the entire population of Flatbush—Jewish and not, white and black—because of the Dodgers, was in a state of electrified and melancholic alert. And of all these loyal fans, who do you think got a big zets right on top of her head? The ball, barely clearing the 352 foot mark, took a bad hop off the top of the right field wall. And then, shoyn! Nine-months pregnant! In labor! In the heat! Frieda Metzger: a delay of the entire game, and then the crazy screaming fans.
The New York Post from the very next day: “HEADY WOMAN FAN-ATIC: DROPS BABY AND BALL.” Some of you—maybe your grandparents—remember. I’m sure. But do you know this? My dear mother, Frieda Metzger—at the wall, like Carl Furillo or Sandy Amoros, and only because my hard-working, pragmatic, night-school attending father, Moishe “Max” Metzger, trying to save a few cents—was on the wrong side of the fence. “Even at the goddamned Met they let you stand,” was his mantra.
And of all times for her water to break! Like a fire hydrant in the dog days of summer. Immediately after the seventh-inning-stretch her insides broke open like floodgates. And believe you me, it was a day hot like hell! Even from the non-paying side of the wall, Frieda managed to delay somehow the game, and refuse anyone’s help. And, how, in the midst of this, she was with contractions and pains, and still boxing for position with a gang of shirtless, freckled, prepubescent, Irish Catholic schoolboys—nothing more serious than a few loose elbows. But still. She watched with her special-occasion-only, leather-trim opera glasses through a tear in the right centerfield metal gate, which permitted her to observe the game without legal claim to even the cheapest of seats.
At this moment, an usher, or perhaps security guard, in an employee suit—from the grainy picture on my desk, who can tell? — trying to keep all hell from breaking loose, is mopping the pavement below Frieda’s legs, scrambling like a rooster with its head cut off. Frieda, meanwhile, is screaming. Looking as if a crocodile from inside the bowels of the city sewer system is clamping down on her privacy, while this employee of Ebbets Field is calling an ambulance from the emergency only telephone. But my mother, only twenty-six, cannot be bothered with such distractions. It’s obvious she hasn’t conceived what she’s created. “‘Of course not; she’s with child, and full of dem crazy female hormones.’” This quote comes from the article. Yet she was a stubborn gal. In a Dodgers road jersey, emblazoned by the blue number 39, she is squatting now like Campanella—like the Hall-of-Fame catcher, Roy Campanella, at one time, might have, behind home plate—her red, pleated, woolen skirt flaming below.
And the ball is whacked. Snider, the man they call “The Duke,” gives it such a belting like God knows what, and it’s carrying and carrying, toward the warning track. The fans look up into the bright white sky. The ball is hard to follow. Is it another infield pop up? Even if it’s out of the ballpark—not such a big deal, really. There is one game left to the season. At stake here is no more than what? Third place? Not even. A memory? A history? A moment of nostalgia? But who knew? Even then, with the Dodgers mathematically eliminated, my mother, Frieda Metzger at the wall, was having an unrealistic hope and counting down magic numbers. To her it didn’t matter that already it was determined that the Milwaukee Braves would play the Yankees in the 1957 World Series. Yankees, Yankees, Yankees. Every year since she’d arrived to this wonderful America, it was demn Yenkees versus someone. And almost always the Yankees were coming in front.
Except for my mother, everyone inside and outside the stadium knew that the game in Brooklyn was meaningless. “A moot point—too much too late, like Americans firebombing inside of Dresden,” my father told her. The television crew, even, was bored and smoking one cigarette after another. Cameras on pallets rolled like garment racks from the back of home plate, a veil of smoke swirled, trying to capture the image of this crazy pregnant woman—or was it just the home run that landed on the open pavement of Pitkin Avenue?
“This may be the last one, folks—a round tripper for the ages . . .” the stadium announcer piped breathlessly. And Frieda was pushing and pushing. Letting out a quiet but determined series of krechtses. “Oy.” “Gevalt.” “Oy Gott.” “Cholera.” So no one should hear her. Quietly. And once more at the warning track the camera followed the ball.
For others, the question was more pressing: “Would the ball hit the famous scoreboard sign?”
The strapping right fielder from the Philadelphia Phillies, a Rip Repulski, who himself later helped deliver the baby, was adjusting his cap and pedaling backwards, more and more. His back and glove pinned against the wall, the ball just maybe a half-inch above his outstretched arm, onto the top ledge and then dropping. And then, sure enough, the red-stitched “what felt like a strong rock” thumped Frieda Metzger on the top of her head. Truthfully, it was her shoulder, but over the years, as was reported in the newspapers, people would say, on the top of the head. The radio sportscaster, none other than the legendary Vin Scully, lamented the play and said she was tattooed like a sailor. Ouch! Of all the bad luck in the world, this by far was not the worst. But still. And she didn’t even catch it.
It rolled onto the cobblestone street, down the hill of the wide open avenue, where one, maybe two, hundred loyal fans made a mad dash for the ball, which eventually—they say—reeled wistfully into the open back slot of a sewer grating. And for Frieda, it was initially only disappointment. Not a lousy keepsake. The baby still unborn. The pain unremitting.
Fifty years later, she tries not to think about it. Only a bump on the shoulder the size of a big softball is evidence. Fatty tissue would congeal on this very spot—and like a stitched up, painful memory, for the rest of her life—this (and that lousy photograph) would be the only evidence that Frieda Flugel Metzger had ever been there, that day in Flatbush, Brooklyn.
Ah, but, such is the nature of historic memory.
And the baby too, was right there, three-quarters of an hour later—because this Rip Repulski, with the help of this anonymous stadium employee, would sneak her into the visitors’ bullpen, and my short-lived older brother, Jackie Robinson, would be born. Onto the nurturing dirt of the natural grass. The first Metzger child born on American soil. A new generation of hope.
And now, so many years later? Of him even—Jackie Robinson Metzger—not a single sign from God has remained. Yes, like a small speck of blood on the back page of someone’s scorecard, or pine tar on a bat or ball, he became a footnote in Metzger history. Some terrible, washed-out photographs from my Grandma Babcia’s camera remain, and a lousy granite headstone in some Jewish cemetery on a hill behind an A&P strip mall in Fairview, New Jersey. If you go on 95S from the George Washington Bridge toward the Giants Stadium in the Meadowlands—or has it become Izod Stadium?—you can still see from maybe five miles away the sign for the A&P Supermarket. And you can only imagine who he was, this older brother of mine: poor little Jackie Robinson Metzger—1957-1963—R.I.P.
But sure enough for whatever bad luck the Metzgers were having, also there were good things once in a while. Eldon “Rip” Repulski, from the “enemy team,” was right there to help the displaced young woman with the foreign-sounding accent. One of the finest defensive outfielders of his era, the rangy Repulski was spending time during the commercial break spitting tobacco juice, talking to himself and replaying the ill-fated moment while shaking his head forth and back: “If only, if only, if only . . . ”—berating himself over and over for not catching the magnificent home run ball. “Just one more inch. What if? . . .What if? . . .” All the while practicing timed-jumps, as if leaping upon mountains, and stretching his glove over the wall: “If only, if only, if only. . . .” He noted the commotion around Frieda Metzger, who was now being dragged begrudgingly onto the field by two security men. The baby’s head was showing and peeking slightly from below. Little blonde curling locks were peeking from the downstairs area between her legs. Yet to help her further deliver the child, the ushers wanted from her a tip, a couple quarters extra, maybe. Repulski heard this and pushed the two astonished men aside. The strong-jawed Polish-American of the Catholic faith took my mother into his arms. “It’s OK, it’s OK,” he told her. He wiped beads of sweat from her brow. “I shoulda had it,” he said. “Christ, I. . . .” She looked at his handsome face. Her lips quivered.
“It’s all right,” he said, “It’s OK, lady.”
Then, as if freed from something, she squatted like a catcher, and punched her own palm, like the soothing leather pocket of a brand new baseball glove. In broad daylight! Like Campanella—Roy Campanella, of course. She pushed. Cholera! Anyone in the neighborhood could see if they wanted. So much light. And no protection. People from their windows looking outside. Would anyone please help her? She screamed, but not too loudly, because this is what the lowlife immigrant women did when their babies were born, the poor Negroes too. Many were unmarried. Children having children. They screamed and screamed and screamed. The tenements were filled with them. For them giving to the world a baby was like catching the Holy Spirit of Jesus or having an internal sexual revolution. Without finishing even college. Without a high school diploma! But not Frieda Metzger, who already had made for herself from Hunter College a master’s degree in biochemistry. Very quietly she pushed.
“Push,” he told her. “It’s OK. Push, lady, push.” While Frieda was biting down on her lower lip, Repulski cradled the head of the baby. But as Frieda bore down for the final heave, she unwittingly screamed a very bad word—a profanity if you will—which in Polish means, “motherfucker.” It’s not everything in the world you can control. Upon hearing the familiar Polish curse, Repulski flinched, and the baby’s head bumped suddenly on the ground. “Motherfucker!” he screamed. “Motherfucker!” The infant, hearing its first words, squirmed out. Then the smell of birth. Followed by a little turd from the mother. You know, not number one, but number two.
There was blood of course. And afterbirth. And electric confusion. The luminous infant looking dazed. Repulski had had a second chance and had once again failed. Two chances: both just out of reach. “Motherfucker!” He’d missed! Twice in one day. Even the 1955 Dodgers—given enough opportunities—had finally come out ahead of the Yankees. And that awful smell. What was it? He wrapped the child in an American flag, which the grounds crew kept stored near the field, waved down a cab, and rushed them both (mother and child) to Manhattan Polyclinic—all the while, and in the middle of the game still—holding and patting Frieda’s hand in the car. They’ll have to drain the baby’s head from fluids, they told him, while they jabbed an IV needle into Frieda’s vein. God forgive, but the hospital administrators mistook him for the husband and father. So he told the sedated Frieda Metzger about the procedure. But for a young mother, any mother, what could be more devastating? “Drain fluids? Already? Not even one hour old. Oy, oy, yoy!” She was screaming now like one of her immigrant girls, one of those she’d never dreamed to become. “Oy! Call my parents! Cholera! Call to Max!” And into her arm, the doctors infused a shot of sedation. Frieda Metzger, at once young and innocent, passed out in an unfamiliar ward for new American mothers.
In a kind of hallucinatory daze, her mind began to dance, but slowly. And maybe an hour or so later, with Repulski next to her, reading the late edition sports pages, her mind was beginning to twitch: “Duke Snider, Duke Snider—of all the players, Duke Snider’s home run and I missed! If only . . . if only . . . if only I were owning, like everyone else in this wonderful America, a baseball glove. But who knew? Who knew I’d be anywhere near it? What were the chances? Of getting like this a zets? And could surviving this—in any way—be seen as something good? Was this perhaps, as the Americans’ expression said it, ‘a blessing in the skies’? And still, not even a lousy keepsake! Perhaps the last home run in Ebbets Field. If beforehand, only I would have known. Gloves you can buy everywhere! But who knew?”
Ah, but such are the ways, the hindsight, of history.
She heard the ruffling of the newspaper and an unfamiliar gruff voice. Momentarily she recalled the birth. The child. The wet grass. The loud fans. The troubling situation folding and unfolding like a waving flag. An unsure panic crawled up inside her. What in heaven’s name had become of her infant? Was it only inside her imagination? The child, the child!
A leathery hand touched her wrist: “He will be all right, the baby. They say, a few more tests.”
Again she was dozing and trying to make some kind of a sense. No one ever expects realistically such luck. Nowhere: not in dreams, not in so-called reality. Yet, in fact, on this day, she somehow knew that Snider, her Duke Snider, had hit two balls out from the famous Brooklyn stadium. The paper said it: another one, after she’d already been carted away!
Snider, she thought: It means tailor in Yiddish. A good name. But Duke? Better she should think of the child. Perhaps it was the sedative playing games. But even the Brooklyn Jewish Daily newspaper—as if having a lifeline to her brain—was in less than half a day also printing that Snider is a Jew. Nu? Maybe she was only dreaming that Snider was a Jew. And dreaming that the papers said so. And dreaming that she was catching both his famous balls. You tell me. Historic Jewish balls? When in fact, like Repulski, she too had missed them both. What could be finally something of a cultural value and inheritance for her future children of America.
Ah, how silly: if she knew only then what she knows now! Snider, as all Brooklynites will tell you—was an equal to Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays. Perhaps. A perfectionist too. But with no disrespect intended, the moody centerfielder was no Jew—no Hank Greenberg, not even remotely! See the photos. Meanwhile, the inscrutable Repulski, handsome and humble as ever, left a dozen pink carnations in the vase by Frieda’s bed, genuflected, crossed himself, and snuck quietly from the hospital.
Frieda’s mother, whom we called Grandma Babcia, a no-nonsense, non-matronly woman in blue-green housedress and heels, was the first to arrive. She guarded the door, where she greeted my father, Max: no tie, wide open collar, bushy perspiring eyebrows. Without blinking, she wiped the back of his hairy neck, and kissed the receding horizon of his damp forehead. Max Metzger, the proud new father, who’d arrived straight from work, missing even for this a night school exam. He’d parked his new Dodge sedan at a meter that was gobbling nickels from him every ten minutes. But worse for him: For heaven’s sake, where was his newborn son? Because as hard as he tried, from his head he couldn’t remove the question, “My son, my son, where are you? My son, my son…?” His brand-new American boy? As always, Max was a pessimist, a fearful believer in God’s willy-nilly ways, and in a big hurry. Jingling his pockets. Running back and forth to put the coins in the machine. Thinking of the past as much as the future. And yet what, Grandma Babcia wondered, could be so important that her son-in-law was all the time running around? Especially in this heat! Working on some big-deal, top-secret, space satellite for the American government? Sputnik, shmutnik—it was the Russians after all who’d liberated them. Max was not even thirty, but to his credit almost a big shot. And this she let others know. But it was also not an excuse.
As Babcia led him to his young, sleeping wife’s bedside, Max felt unencumbered by the family dream, yet recognized his own increasing responsibility. To sanctify life. Yes, Moishe Metzger had been transformed. Four years of marriage had altered him more than the endless war of survival had. More than the ambitious space project that was now a full-tilt race of nations. A Jewish massacre was not so hard to believe: the locked walls of the ghetto; the refugee camp betrayals; the endless death marches during which he played mental chess matches with a man “what eventually got shot to the brain”; the concentration camps; the stinking transit camp; a dead mother, even, who refused food, thinking her own self-sacrifice (“that I might die in their stead”) might save the children. Even after the war, there was a camp for the “displaced”—in Germany if you can believe. A Jewish state had come into existence. And since the Dodgers beat the Yankees in the 1955 World Series, miracles were no longer completely impossible to fathom. After the war, he’d searched for his father, dead or alive—and found him alive. By some miracle a POW. But married life. Gevalt! And a first-born child. A boy! What young man could imagine such restrictions! Really, even for a child of annihilation, this task was wrought with new meaning. Like devotion to holy ritual.
Like the freedom of Saturday afternoons in Times Square had once been. The automats. The magnificent, blinking marquees, which advertised double-feature films for the price of one. With Donald O’Connor and Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly and Ginger Rogers. The legs of Cyd Charisse. The glassy sands of Rockaway Beach. From schoolboy to worthless vermin, to displaced person, to refugee, to greenhorn, to shipping clerk, to night-school student, to space-age engineer, to Frieda’s dutiful husband, and now father. It extended like a world without boundaries. And Max Metzger stood atop of his 28-year-old world. An American hero. Yet through it all he carried the unbearable ache of ambivalence. The imbued pain and guilt of survival that doctors and clergymen, social workers and philosophers suggested he felt. What pain and guilt? He wondered. I should feel guilty to live? He jingled dimes, and pennies, and . . . nickels. While he ran downstairs again to pay the meter, he carried that question too . . . but strictly as an assertion of his own existence.
And as hard as he tried, from his head he couldn’t remove the other question either, “My son, my son, where are you, my son?”
After all, for Max Metzger, Frieda Flugel had been a found blessing, an endlessly playful girl with catlike eyes and a pounding heart. The annihilation had touched her in strange ways too. Her first drop of womanhood stained the wooden boards of some dark hiding place. On the same day that the Germans would come for them, almost. But she remained still—hidden from light for nearly two years of splintered life, undetectable. An abridged version of childhood that gave her the power to muffle screams. This was her context from which to comprehend a future life. Yet was this innocence, or its perverse opposite? They will never catch us alive. Did this create in her an empty pocket of experience? A void that permanently needed to be filled? From less than nothing, a call from Little Frieda for recreation?
“Alle Juden raus!” She can hear the Germans from inside her hiding place, from behind the false wall, which her mother has made from pine boards, stained to look old by boiling the skins of onions, straining the water, and with a spongy rag tamping it against the grain. And then their diffuse commands assault her senses, large and vivid, without shape: “Raus! Raus!” Her father, a professor of medicine, uncorks the vial of cyanide. “Raus, Jude!” The smell is what she remembers: a faint, damp, whistling smell of tapioca rising, cassava root she would discover in America, apple seeds too. How she nearly gagged on this scent. This kind of innocence that dreamed of sunlight and wildflowers; a red and white poppy, like the colors of the Polish flag; and one day to plant on this very ground her own garden; to see again her lucky black cat Maciek. And besides her catlike eyes and ample breast, this is what—in a noisy, crowded, subway car in Brooklyn—attracted the young Moishe Metzger to her at first. She had not seen anything too much as she lay in wait. Her anger still compressed behind a small attic wall, where it could only project itself as a lightless, shapeless, undancing fear. An unflickering shadow of humanity’s failed imagination.
To calm herself, Frieda recites lines from a Polish children’s poem, “The Locomotive,”i written by a Jewish Pole named Julian Tuwim:
The third car with corpulent people is filled,
Eating fat frankfurters all freshly grilled.
The German shouts stab and tear repeatedly, perforating faith and nerve. They fall and rise and fall like the frantic pulse of candle-lit spires, trembling arpeggios, specters against the wall. A burning flame. A shadow. A ceaseless order to stop breathing. Her father’s hand is shaking. A faint smell of almond marzipan. Blow it out, blow it out. The candle. The candle of course. He holds three mysterious white capsules in his upturned palm like some offering of deadly communion. “The body,” he says, “of Western Civilization. Which will never catch us alive.” But for sure they haven’t been discovered?
“Alle Juden Raus!” Her mother points downward toward the corner with her chin. Little Frieda sees for the first time a small chink in the wall, which—is it really possible?—her parents have until now—after so many months—not detected? Could such petty human carelessness betray them? The poem soothes her:
The fourth car is packed to the hilt with bananas,
The fifth has a cargo of six grand pi-an-as.
Had this small perforation in their world of darkness given them away? Or had Frieda Metzger’s mother purposely created this open swelling for air, something to allow, if only, their candle to breathe—and their own smoke and prayers to rise.
Ingested, cyanide works quickly and painlessly. It has been proven effective on a host of vermin. In a matter of seconds the three bodies will refuse to allow their hearts and brains to utilize oxygen. Life will be extinguished. Abandoned souls will be left to nurture themselves.
But inside of a mother there is always something alive that hears the entire world as if it were the sobbing of a single child.
“We will wait,” is what my Grandma Babcia insists. “Just in case.”
“In case what, Mama?” asks Frieda.
“In case something. In case a mistake. When they take us by the hand, then we will have time enough.” From the fingers of the girl’s father, Frieda’s mother seizes the poison.
“Time enough for what?” she asks.
And they wait.
In the growing twilight, huddled against the wall, the last things she sees are her mother’s trembling knuckles, the three white pills blanketed in her mother’s clenched fist. Her father pinches out the flame. It is smoky and nearly dark. Her mother tosses a crumpled rag to her to block the hole, to keep the shadows from escaping.
Later, when the sun has set, the elderly Christian couple who are helping to hide them in their home will explain how close they were. The tired German soldiers in fact were not Gestapo, not manhunters, and were only looking for living quarters, and something what to eat and drink in the middle of their own brutal war. Their shouts were a kind of sick joke. And when it was clear the Polish peasants—man and wife—could not converse with them, and that the farmhouse was too small to accommodate, the German men slaughtered instead a newly born kid goat, made for themselves a crackling fire, ate, and left. How quickly—one must only think— the joke might have been transformed. How quickly songs of praise become lamentations:
The ninth contains nothing but well-fattened swine,
In the tenth: bags and boxes, now isn’t that fine?
For Frieda, the next few months were a suffocating boredom. But her mother fixed her hair each day into a different style: for whom? Not even a mirror. Or for example a game to play? From paper, her father cut chessmen, but even chess you’re playing with a clock, a time limit. And this hiding, when would it end? How many more days? When the Russians finally arrived, and the air of freedom imbued her spirit, she let go with a passion, unrestrained, unwitting, and unreflective. At the same time inexperienced with the laws of the universe before meeting this handsome boy, this Moishe Metzger, who offered her his subway seat, and whom she insisted on calling Max.
Moishe nurtured himself off her desires and needs, the ingenuousness of her dreams and language. Her misplaced poems. Their shared but missing articles of speech. He was astounded. Her colt energy was unsteady but wild, with the same innocence of one who has never run or galloped, or seen the edge of a red horizon. Her hair slung back in a long chestnut braid. Max was suddenly bound, a role he had never imagined. For the first eighteen years of his life, he had perhaps not a moment to think. For survival created focus, focus an infernal necessity to act without bounds. But now he wished to surrender to the simplest laws.
At Hunter College, on her first organic chemistry exam, Frieda created a triple bond from carbon and oxygen. She defied the logic with which Max presented her. He couldn’t believe. No bonds could possibly be this strong. She tried bonding five oxygen atoms to one carbon, another physical impossibility. And when he explained to her the theory behind atomic fission, she asked, “Why can’t we instead put our energy together and create a love bomb?” She screamed in ecstasy. And the next morning passed the exam.
Organic chemistry. Quantitative physics. Under the flickering lights of the Hunter College library, in the great hall, between the stacks, he studied with her late nights. The other girls wondered what this handsome boy was doing—was this permitted?— in these halls of study. In biology she searched for metaphors. She took out a book of wildflowers and instead of saying xylem, up; phloem, down; stamen, pistil, sepal, petal, she said to Max, “Poppy phacelia.” Or, “Stellaria holostea” and “Myosotis arvensis.” She loved the music of Latin. To her, botany became a libretto, a tumultuous song of free will. An escape from the ghetto and an expression of her mother tongue—Polish with its rolling lilt. She shouted: I want flowers. I want gardens. Quercus muehlenbergii. Ulmus cossifolia. Pinus Densiflora.
And as they tumbled into the aisles of the fourth floor reference section, she said, “I want you, Max Metzger. We are free. Please, no more of this silly Moishe business. And no more waiting.”
How was it, he wondered, that this girl still believed in the potential goodness of all men? Only God had the power to save. This perhaps was the one big difference between them. At their wedding, after Max’s widowed father toasted his own son’s boundless integrity and lovingkindness, Max Metzger whispered in Frieda’s delicate ear, “Show me a good man and I’ll show you my grandmother’s testicles.”
But Frieda, helpless in her verve for life, was carried above any fences or walls or boundaries. On their first vacation they took a Greyhound bus to Falmouth, Massachusetts, where she made him sneak into the Wood’s Hole National Laboratories’ holding pond, and together they hunted for and freed starfish by throwing them like pronged discuses over the fence, before making love on the sandy shoals. Hitchhiking to the Catskills, she pointed out the various species of purple sumac, milkweed, and ivy, deciding which would be safe to lie in. Seeking constellations in ponds and rivers, dragonflies became fairies, frogs became children in hiding, Japanese beetles became ministers of peace, and the larva of the red-spotted newt, a child’s finger. But she was stubborn. And she insisted on studying biochemistry with a kind of reckless wonder. She continued to assemble the plastic molecular models in all the wrong ways, creating colorful ball sculptures of impossible dimensions. To her the shapes of the physical universe seemed capricious, unpredictable. In the end, breakable. And yet when she looked at the origami of the sky, together with Max, every constellation, every fold of light, made perfect sense.
Her American chemistry professor told her, “With a mind like yours, I can’t imagine you want to study this biochemistry.”
She responded, “There are a lot of things, if I told to you, sir professor, you wouldn’t imagine.”
A smell of formaldehyde in the lab for her was the final insult. “You think I am turned on by the smell of the preservation of the dead,” she said to Max who was simply trying to help her pass another exam. “Make love to me, anyway,” she said. “Right here, we will lie together, and bond against the oppressive formaldehyde. What kind of a sick science is this biology, everything is about dead animals, cutting them open, to study. The dead! The dead! The dead! I will never be a doctor, not if this is what it is about. I want life, I want constellations.” For now, at least, she could continue with her studies in biochemistry. That is, until she herself would become a mother.
And as if on the banks of a bursting dam, once again, he felt the gush of her spirit flowing forth like a loud cry of affirmation.
But, as I promised my mother, this wouldn’t be a gossipy tale of romance or survival, nor some voyeuristic yarn of war or premature death or destruction. Neither would it be about my father, my brother, nor myself. No more sad stories, she made me swear. Then what? This story would be about one young woman and her overarching love of baseball and the Dodgers. But is something like that even possible? I wondered. Was there any sense to this? “A baseball game can last forever,” she pointed out, “flickering into the nighttime shadows, peeking lazily into the morning light, until there is—or perhaps there never is—a third out.” There was no clock. And regarding the rules of the game she was, in this case, absolutely correct.
By early evening in the baby clinic was a complete craziness. What between the family and the newspeople, the light and the heat. Television cameras rolled on gurneys. Microphone cords tripped their feet. Cigarette smoke pressed against their breathless breaths. And perspiration like you wouldn’t believe. Some badly dressed, big-mouth reporter and his nasty assistant were rearranging anonymous flower bouquets on tray tables. Oy, and the unnecessary and incessant hollering, and blood tests. The audio feedback reached to the soul, as well as strategically timed promises to bring in baby. An overall 1950s stench of doctors and nurses. More shouting and laughing. But still no baby. When finally Max returned from the parking meter there were assurances from a nurse that the Metzger baby was doing fine, and she was going to bring the healthy, crying child for all to see.
In the meantime, the small family moved around Frieda’s bed: her father-in-law, Lieutenant Jacob Metzger, nearly at attention, hands clasped respectably above the beltline; her mother Grandma Babcia, putting on red lipstick as Frieda dabbed smudges; her father, Dr. Oscar Flugel, hiding beneath his tilted fedora; and beloved Auntie Bella—smoking a cigar—and wiping Frieda’s face with a damp washcloth.
“I have five shekels left,” Max, the father of the alleged son, reported proudly—holding in his palm several coins. “Maybe I can have my boy now, and we all go home happy, and no more goddamn parking meter.” For according to the Jewish law, five shekels is the remuneration a family must pay the priesthood to redeem their first-born son and gain possession. “Bring me my son—I want to see little Mr. America and whether or not this child for me is worth the money.” It was a joke, fearfully respectful—about as far as Max might go. Because in contrast to Frieda and her parents, he was the pious one, the one who believed that God’s will—no matter how incomprehensible and sadistic—was what most mattered. You paid the parking meter, and you still risked getting a ticket. The Flugels, on the other hand, supposed that the Lord, if he existed, could be teased, even occasionally mocked and made fun of, as long as it was done with a pure heart and good intention. But because nobody had seen evidence of a healthy, crying Metzger child since arriving at the hospital, no one was laughing.
Max heard the shriek first, a nearly human-sounding caterwaul echoing from the corridor.
His fears allayed, he shouted: "My Jewish wife has borne to me this first-born son!"
His own father, Lieutenant Jacob Metzger, who had been standing at attention for all this time, as if waiting for orders, coddled the baby in his arms, taking the boy gently from the nurse, remembering a familiar time when he doubted his own son’s existence. “And thus,” the grandfather whispered into his new grandson’s ear, “I shall give thee a name in Israel. . . ”
Max Metzger watched, without words, as his own father passed the newborn to the hands of the overwhelmed mother, who in her excitement nearly let the child drop again. Max intervened, and kneeling on one leg, helped Frieda support the child’s overtaxed head.
“We shall name the boy . . . ” reverberated like a question as Max became distracted by Frieda’s tiny gesture—the nervous flickering lips. Because he knew that sometimes her whims, like those of God’s universe, were without foresight or reason. In time she would settle down. But for now, as he grasped and steadied her wrist, Max felt the sweat rolling down his forehead. While gazing at the son, he wondered what his dear wife was thinking now—crazy enough to give birth on the grounds of a baseball stadium in Brooklyn, in front of 50,000 screaming fans. He kissed her hand, excused himself for a moment or two to reload the meter, and returned momentarily, puffing and panting with two dozen red roses.
But in a split second the world can change.
In front of the television cameras, no less, the big debate had already begun. The newscaster ranted.
“My friends, this is the woman who gave birth in the right field bullpen of Ebbets Field . . . this beautiful woman . . . this Frieda Flugel Metzger . . . hit on this head, earlier this afternoon . . . while giving birth to a first-born child . . . perhaps the last ball we will ever see hit . . . imagine the luck . . . and speaking of last and luck, she has another story too . . . isn’t that right, Frieda?”
Grandma Babcia cranked up the bed so that her beloved could now speak. Looking away from the camera, Frieda scanned the room, and noticed a black-haired doctor cradling the child, whose delicate skull was carefully wrapped in a turban of white gauze. He handed the nearly flawless child back to the mother. The child had pale skin and shocked blue eyes that were slightly scrunched by the headdress; beneath, the child had a beautiful, thick head of curly blonde hair. Max lowered his head slightly, and embraced both his in-laws. It was a photo moment for the generations. If only his mother were alive to see. A camera shutter clicked, a smooth, soothing sound. And then again and again and again.
And Auntie Bella, putting out her fancy cigar, yelled: “Mazel tov, Moishe Metzger! God bless. You have a son!”
“Not until I pay the five shekels,” he joked again.
“Isn’t that right, Frieda?” the newscaster repeated. “Another story. . . .”
“Well, yes, I suppose . . . ,” Frieda said. She looked into her baby’s eyes for that very first moment of approval. But the bandages, which had slid over the baby’s forehead, pressed lightly on his brow and made him look resentful, and from another angle Oriental. She wanted to apologize for all the “motherfuckers” and Bronx cheers the child had already heard. Could an accident like yesterday create from him a mongoloid?, she wondered. Had she damaged the child in some irrevocable way? Perhaps he wouldn’t be so smart. Maybe a misshapen head. A little Quasimodo. What she didn’t consider is that she had very little control in the matter. The kid, as the autopsy six years later would suggest, had been born with a congenital form of encephalitis—a condition most likely passed on by Max’s side of the family, and contributed to by Frieda’s one unexpressed gene. Yet for always would be an uncertainty, and she would feel a rising and a falling and a rising guilt.
You could see the newscaster checking the clock.
“Do you mean the baby’s name?” Frieda asked. Again, as before, her lip twitched. “It’s a longer story than this. . . .”
“Survival . . . ,” Grandpa Jacob added, without shifting position.
Both sides of the family nodded their heads.
Max crouched next to Frieda and the baby. Frieda noted a tear in Max’s eye. “Tell them, Max,” she said.
Max cleared his throat and brushed back his own thick hair. “Well, sure, we are all survivors. . . . ”
“Look into the light, Max. Tell them. . . .”
“Well, I was born in southeastern Poland, on 8th of February, 1931 . . . in my own home . . . of sixty children in my third grade class . . . I am only and last. . . .”
And just like that, the cameras shut down. The newscaster was gone. The Metzgers out of time. Grandma Babcia found a note of apology on the floor and read it aloud. Sorry, good people, got to go. Information from Mrs. FRIEDA METZGER, the mother, seems correct. The name and spelling of the Ebbets Field miracle infant I have: J-A-C-K-I-E R-O-B-I-N-S-O-N M-E-T-Z-G-E-R. Thanks so much. SID B. CBS News.
My father’s father was the first to respond.
“What for a Jewish name is Jackie Robinson?” As if she were deaf, he shouted at his daughter-in-law, and nearly spilled the glass of water he had just laid on the side table.
In harmonious counterpoint, Max joined his father.
“Jackie Robinson? My son, Jackie Robinson? Says who? Goddamn it! Says who?” He walked to the window, unlatched it, and tossed Repulski’s bouquet to the street, five stories below.
But Frieda, who knew what she wanted, was no dummy. “It comes from the Hebrew: Yaacov ben Reuven . . . Jacob the son of Reuben, the eldest of Jacob’s sons, who are the twelve tribes of Israel . . . we can call him JR for short, Max. There’s something incredibly symmetrical and Jewish about Jackie Robinson, no?”
“Would calling him Duke Snider be any better?” asked Frieda with apparent sincerity. “Or how’d you like Rip?”
Feeling like an afterthought in the entire matter, Max held onto the safety bars of the hospital window and cried out, “If you are not going to consult me, if you are not going to respect some kind of a Jewish tradition around here, you might as well call my son Mickey goddamn Mantle! Do you hear? Do you hear me?”
But Frieda was determined not to hear, and while cradling the baby against her heavy chest, she recited in his ear,
“The third car with corpulent people is filled
Eating fat frankfurters all freshly grilled.”
“Mickey! Goddamn! Mantle! Everyone, do you hear?” They say he looked like a wild ape trying to escape from its cage. “I, Moishe Max Metzger, son of Lieutenant Jacob, and the late Miriam, AM A FATHER. I, who survived six different camps, lost my own mother, and then four times in last eight years lost to Yankees in World Series, AM FATHER OF A BEAUTIFUL BABY, a beautiful baby boy! AMERICA, do you hear me? My son, nine pounds and thirteen ounces . . . I introduce you all to my son . . . MICKEY MANTLE Metzger!”
Frieda’s parents were confused. After all the horrors, had their son-in-law finally crumbled? Had religion finally made a monkey from him? Jackie? Mickey? Same thing . . . Why make a big deal from it?
But my father’s father—the most Orthodox of the bunch—was not pleased. He sat himself down on a low stool, looked toward the twilit window and sky, and wept. “What could be worse,” he cried. “Jackie Robinson! What could be worse?” It appeared he was trying to tear the curtain.
Max dropped to his knees and grasped his father’s wrist. “Father, what I just was hollering from the window, I didn’t mean of course. Of course, not Mickey Mantle. But Frieda, maybe she’s right. Jackie Robinson has a nice ring, no?”
Grandma Babcia bit the inside of her lip and smirked. “My dear Lieutenant Jacob, my daughter could name him Adolf, already, or Hermann. For what you are complaining so much?”
“Or Mickey Mantle,” Frieda added.
Max looked at Dr. Flugel, his father-in-law, the most rational of the bunch, who had yet to speak. Max was furious, but desperately trying to hold the family together. “It’s true. It’s a good, a normal name. At the circumcision of course the boy will receive a Hebrew name, but in America, he should have a normal name like every other child.”
“Yes, yes, a normal one.” This is all Frieda wanted. A normal life and a normal child. And perhaps to be given another chance.
Ebbets Field would soon be a memory, a possible carousel park, an eventual apartment complex. Jackie Robinson was out from intensive care. And as things generally go, his fall onto this harsh earth wasn’t so bad. The bruise would heal quickly. In a week the child would be home with a normal name (and a backup Jewish one), and three-and-half years later, exactly one year before the New York Mets would make their National League debut, Frieda Metzger would give birth to a second son, Campanella Metzger. That’s me. A whole other story.
But Frieda, when she wants something, is persistent. She insisted again, only two days later!, from her hospital bed. There was one game left in this final season.
“I want Dodgers,” she said. “I want Dodgers.”
Frieda Metzger herself was an only child, and because her parents agreed to spend the entire week at the hospital with Jackie Robinson, the team of doctors agreed to let her attend. My father, Max, devoted to the space race, was too busy to argue, but nonetheless bought for her a “genuine leather” Pee Wee Reese split-finger baseball glove.
“Go,” her mother insisted. “If it’s making you happy.”
Later, as he listened to the game on a small transistor radio from work, my father would become furious again. But as Pittsburgh Pirate second-baseman Bill Mazeroski popped up for the final out in Ebbets Field, my mother was sprawled under a gap in the metal gate in right center field, once again watching the game without a ticket—without her child—but this time with a glove. It was the last home game the Dodgers ever played in New York. There were no home runs. Yet out of sheer stubbornness and desire, on September 24, 1957, while little Jackie Robinson—in his blue blanket and white turban—and the surviving grandparents were huddled around the black-and-white television screen in Manhattan’s Polyclinic Hospital, Frieda Flugel Metzger, with a cold bottle of Schaefer beer in her hand, though no home runs were hit this time, was once again at the wall.
And the Yankees, of course, for the eighth time in nine years, were in the World Series.
Copyright © Larry N. Mayer 2013
Larry N. Mayer, the son of Polish Holocaust survivors, grew up in the Bronx, NY. His first book, Who Will Say Kaddish?: A Search for Jewish Identity in Contemporary Poland, was published by Syracuse University Press in 2002. A graduate of Columbia University’s Teachers College, he has worked with at-risk high school students for over fifteen years, and wrote about his experiences for the Boston Phoenix in 2000, “Consider Yourself Educated.” His short story, “Love for Miss Dottie,” was selected for publication, by Mary Gaitskill, in the Best New American Voices 2009 anthology. His latest nonfiction work, “The Love Option,” (as yet unpublished) describes his most recent experience as a teacher in a Boston area Yeshiva. Mr. Mayer, who writes both fiction and nonfiction, has an MFA in Creative Writing (Fiction) from the University of Idaho, a degree he earned in 2009. His latest nonfiction work, “From Sir With Compassion: The Misadventures of a Secular Teacher in an Orthodox School,” appeared in the Jewish Daily Forward this October. This story is dedicated to the author’s father, Edmund M. Mayer.