Rock of Ages

 

 


Photo: Oz Schechter

Rock of Ages

By Julie Zuckerman

 

Two full days in Cooperstown? Sounded a bit long to Jeremiah, but the trip was his son-in-law’s idea, and Jeremiah was touched to be included, so he kept his trap shut. Tom insisted on taking his car, though Jeremiah’s had three inches more leg room and was better equipped to handle the potentially icy-snowy roads of upstate New York in late December. In the backseat, Jeremiah’s ten-year-old grandson, Ben, studied his baseball magazines and The Subway Series: The 2000 World Series, a Chanukah gift from his grandparents.
 
“You’ve never been?” Ben was giddy. They’d sprung the surprise trip on him last night at Jeremiah and Molly’s house after lighting the menorah and singing “I Have a Little Dreidel,” the only Chanukah song Ben and his sister knew.
 
Now, forty-five minutes into their two-hour drive westward, Jeremiah struggled to answer why he’d never visited the Baseball Hall of Fame. “It’s funny,” he said. “It’s not far, but it’s a place I’d only visit with someone who really loves baseball.”
 
“Don’t you love baseball?” Ben’s voice carried a note of panic.
 
“Of course!” Jeremiah gestured towards his son-in-law in the driver’s seat. “So does your dad. I meant someone like you. And my brother, who would have been your Great-Uncle Lenny. He was a real baseball nut, but he never made it to Cooperstown.” Lenny never made it to many places.
 
“He died in the war.”
 
In the beat after Ben’s statement, Jeremiah felt Tom’s eyes dart towards him. “That’s right, Ben,” he heard Tom say. “I never knew him, neither did Mommy.” 
 
“That’s so sad.”
 
The simple truth of Ben’s comment caused a swell of sorrow in Jeremiah. In a minute, they’d cross the Castleton-on-Hudson Bridge, and he focused his gaze on the steel truss and the elaborate structure of box beams. His voice would catch if he tried to speak, even now, fifty-five years later.
 
“Very sad,” Tom agreed.
 
“What country was it?”
 
Geography was another one of Ben’s obsessions. The kid could fill in blank maps of the continents with ninety-five percent accuracy, better than his political scientist grandfather.
 
“Belgium. Battle of the Bulge.” To Jeremiah’s left, three sailboats with double masts cruised the Hudson. A cargo tanker headed south from the direction of Albany. Someday, he’d tell Ben more about Lenny. He cleared his throat and pointed out the window. “See the boats, Ben?”
 
Jeremiah turned in his seat; his grandson was bent over, pen in hand, making lists in his notebook. A regular statistician. It was as if Lenny’s spirit had traveled through time and space, passing out of eternal oblivion into the form of his great-nephew. Never mind Jeremiah’s cramped legs; a contented, warm feeling flooded him.
 
“Benny-boy,” Jeremiah murmured and chuckled, the ring pleasurable to his ear.
 
“Don’t call me that!”
 
“Okay. Calm down!” Was Ben turning into a surly teenager? “You used to like it.” 
 
In a low voice, Tom said, “Didn’t Hannah mention anything?”
 
Jeremiah frowned; if his daughter had said something, he didn’t recall. “Don’t think so.”
 
“Tell you later.”
 
“Is plain old ‘Benny’ still okay? How’s the Subway Series book? There’s that Benny fellow on the Mets everyone in New York seems to like.”
 
Without flipping through his notes to look, Ben recited the outfielder’s stats: .289 batting average for the season, hit the game-winning home run in Game 3.
 
Jeremiah whistled. “Promise me you’ve got room in your brain for schoolwork, too, okay?”
 
“It’s vacation! I don’t want to think about school!” Ben wailed.
 
“I’m just saying—"
 
“I hate school!” The wail turned to a screech.
 
“Good grief! What’s wrong with school?”
 
“Jeremiah,” Tom said. “Let it go.”
 
“What did I say?”
 
“Let it go!” Tom repeated, sounding cross.
 
And people said Jeremiah was touchy! Fine, he’d be the unrattled, calming influence. Molly would be proud. “Okay, boys. Let’s enjoy the trip, shall we?”
 
 
As they drove into Cooperstown, a billboard of a baseball wearing a Santa hat wished them a Merry Christmas. The plan was to head straight to the Hall of Fame, followed by dinner, and then head back to the museum for Extra Innings, a special evening program for kids and their chaperones that included sleeping in the Hall of Greats. Tom had booked a room for Jeremiah in a nearby inn, assuming correctly that his father-in-law wouldn’t want to sleep on an air mattress surrounded by rambunctious boys.
 
The museum was two stories, a winding path of baseball history and memorabilia. An entire room dedicated to Babe Ruth, and another to Hank Aaron. In a special Peanuts exhibit in the library atrium – “You’re in the Hall of Fame, Charlie Brown!” – they learned that ten percent of Charles Schultz’s long-running comic strip had been devoted to baseball. Ben read every sign in every room.
 
In the Hall of Greats, Jeremiah and Tom posed for pictures next to the life-sized statues of Babe Ruth and Ted Williams, heroes of their respective teams. Bronze plaques detailed each of the two hundred and forty-nine Hall of Famers’ greatest achievements, and at one end stood a tall Christmas tree, decked with baseball ornaments and red tinsel. Lately these public displays of Christmas without equal representation of Chanukah niggled Jeremiah, especially when he was with his grandkids. He loved Tom like a son, but his grandchildren shouldn’t feel that their Jewish side belonged any less in America than their Christian side.  
 
“Sandy Koufax. He was a real hero for the Jews,” Jeremiah said as they stood in front of the plaque.
 
“Wouldn’t play in the World Series on Yom Kippur. We loved him even though he was a Dodger.”
 
“Would you have loved him if he’d been on the Red Sox?”
 
“Hah!” Jeremiah waved his hand to dismiss the dilemma. “Don’t ask me tough questions.”
 
They moved from plaque to plaque. It had been three hours now, and Jeremiah had museum legs. “Good grief, Charlie Brown. Can we get out of here before New Year’s?”
 
Ben held a list of all two hundred and forty-nine Hall of Famers, crossing them off one by one. He made a quick calculation. “I still have one hundred and eight to go!”
 
“I’ll be over there with your dad.” Jeremiah gestured to where Tom sat on one of the benches lining the center of the hall. Whoever designed the room must have foreseen tired parents and grandparents.
 
“Kid’s got stamina,” Jeremiah said. His stomach emitted a squeaky sound; he hadn’t eaten since the rest stop in Schenectady.
 
“He’s had a rough couple of months. That’s what I was referring to in the car. Kids have been bullying him.”
 
Now the pang in Jeremiah’s stomach flipped to dismay. Amazement that he hadn’t known, and sadness for his grandson. “What are they doing to him?” He felt sick asking.
 
“Not physical, but name-calling. Benny Baseball. Benny the Bore. The Brain. Excluding him.”
 
Jeremiah pressed his lips together. A bunch of pigs, boys could be. “Do I want to kill those kids, or what?”
 
“Tell me about it.” Tom’s jaw tightened; for him to get angry was something. He described the meetings with the guidance counselor, the teacher’s attempts to include Ben in small group activities, and the coaching Tom and Hannah were giving him on reading social cues.
 
“Christ, Tom! It’s 2000! There’s got to be something more you can be doing!”
 
Tom scowled at him like he was an idiot. “Don’t you dare say anything to him, okay?” he said through gritted teeth. “We’re dealing with it.” Tom crossed his arms, indicating the conversation was closed.
 
“Can’t you teach him to sock any kid who bothers him? That’ll teach them.”
 
“That’s not how it works.”
 
“That’s exactly how it works! You know I’m right!” Jeremiah rose and headed towards Ben, who’d reached the 1980s honorees. He pretended to read the plaques, fuming in silence. 
 
 
Before dinner and the evening program, Jeremiah checked in to the hotel while Tom and Ben waited in the lobby. Tom had described it as a cozy, Federalist-style inn, and that looked about right. Like maybe it hadn’t been refurbished since the days of Hamilton and Madison. Dark paneling in the hallways, no elevator, a small room on the second floor. The walls were deep brown, matching the comforter, giving the space a dismal quality. Outside, the evening sky turned from blue to shadowy gray. He switched on every light to improve the brightness.
 
Opening his suitcase to unpack, Jeremiah found a gift, wrapped and labeled with a sticky note in Molly’s handwriting that said “Ben” as if there was anyone else for whom the gift could be intended. Had they spoiled their own kids this way, eight separate gifts, one for each night of Chanukah? As a child, he’d never gotten more than a few coins, Chanukah gelt his parents called it, and he and his siblings were expected to put a portion into one of the little cans on the kitchen ledge that went towards helping the poor or planting trees near Jerusalem. Molly ignored Hannah’s objections that Ben and his sister got more than enough Christmas presents from Tom’s side of the family. Let them have them, was  Jeremiah’s thinking.
 
Tonight was the last night of the holiday, and Molly had also packed a menorah and candles, along with a note explaining that she’d called ahead, and the manager would allow Jeremiah to light it in the lobby.
 
Back downstairs, Jeremiah found a window ledge and began setting up the menorah. He melted the bottom of the eight skinny candles and secured them in their holders, beckoning Ben over. Handing the ninth candle to Ben, he reminded him that the shamash was the helper used to light the others. “Now, repeat after me. Boruch asa…” He recited the blessings in his father’s heavy Ashkenazic accent, which Ben now repeated, as if they’d both been born in the old country.
 
“You know why we have eight days, right?”
 
His grandson was a sponge. Surely, he’d absorbed the meaning of the holiday at some point from one of the annual Chanukah gatherings at Jeremiah’s and Molly’s. “You remember the story of Chanukah?”
 
“Something to do with Egypt?”
 
“Woo-wee! No! That’s Passover, for Chrissake!” Jeremiah was more astounded than angry, but the “No!” came out harsh and loud. The boy had been to Passover seders his entire life – more abridged than the seders of Jeremiah’s boyhood – but Jeremiah had tried to make them interesting for his grandkids. Finger puppets for the plagues. Readings about the Holocaust and American slavery. But Chanukah – Ben ought to be familiar with the story of Judah Maccabee and his brothers who’d stood up to Antiochus, and the oil that had lasted a miraculous eight days.
 
Jeremiah eased himself onto a stark-looking sofa and motioned for Ben to sit next to him. “You. Listen up.”
 
He took a deep breath and outlined the basics of the story for Ben. When Hannah had brought her non-Jewish boyfriend, then fiancé, home, what had mattered to Jeremiah was that Tom was a good person and would make a fine husband and father. He hadn’t worried about his not being Jewish. But now – that Ben should know so little! He felt bereft.
 
Jeremiah tailored age-appropriate answers on everything from persecution and heroism to ancient Greece, jelly donuts, and Maoz Tzur, the traditional song about God as a “Rock of Ages” helping the Jewish people overcome their challenges. The weak triumphing over the mighty, that constant thread that ran through their history, from David and Goliath to the founding of modern Israel amidst a sea of enemies.
 
And yet, he thought, the Holocaust. War. Kids of every faith suffering from bullies. Countless miseries inflicted by mankind on their fellow human beings.
 
The candles glowed and shimmered in the window, a small display of light, beauty and hope. Jeremiah gestured toward the menorah. “When you see these flames, remember the Maccabees, yeah? Stand up for yourself, even if you feel weak.”
 
Ben’s eyes, which a moment before had seemed little sparks of delight, slid into distress. Crap. Jeremiah wasn’t supposed to let on that he knew.
 
“It doesn’t always work that way,” Ben said in a low voice.
 
“Want to tell me about it?” Jeremiah said in his most gentle, patient voice.
 
Ben shook his head.
 
“Listen, you shouldn’t take crap from anyone.” He chose his words carefully. “Let’s say, hypothetically, someone bothers you.”
 
“Okay.”
 
“This is going to be hard, but it’s worth it. It means getting strong. Practice. If someone bothers you – pow!” He made a fist and jabbed at the air. “That’ll teach him.”
 
“I can’t.”
 
“Why not?”
 
“They’ll hurt me worse.”
 
“One black eye and they’ll stop messing with you.”
 
“Jeremiah!” Tom caught wind of the conversation and scowled. “Don’t listen to him, Ben. You’ll get hurt. And in trouble.” He turned to Jeremiah. “What’s the matter with you? Ben knows that if someone bothers him, he’s got to speak to an adult.”
 
Jeremiah dismissed the scolding. “Pshaw. That’s not going to help.” He addressed his grandson. “You’ve got to learn how to be scrappy.”
 
“Enough.” Tom cut him off. The candles had burned out. “We’d better get dinner if we want to have time before that program.”
 
“Back to my point. Someone messes with you.” Jeremiah mimicked a punch, jabbing in the air. “Trust me on this.” A sudden memory from childhood. He’d come across his older brother on the path in the woods near their house. Lenny sat off to the side, near the creek, chucking rocks into the stream. His books and school papers were a mess, and he wouldn’t look Jeremiah in the eye. A kid named Willie had shoved Lenny and thrown his books on the ground.
 
“Scram,” Lenny said. “Go home.”
 
He’d been hurt, thinking Lenny was mad at him. Much later Jeremiah understood his brother’s humiliation. Lenny became single-minded about getting stronger. Saved up for a punching bag in the basement. Their mother fretted, but Lenny convinced her it was necessary, and eventually he learned how to throw a good punch. Willie kept his distance after that.
 
“Poppy, let’s go!” Ben jolted him back to the present, holding his hand as they walked to a diner down the block.
 
 
Something was wrong with Tom. The Extra Innings evening program kicked off with a twenty-minute film; Tom excused himself to the bathroom twice. When the film was over, Jeremiah took one look at his son-in-law’s sweaty, sickly pallor – a stomach bug, apparently – and offered his room, so Tom wouldn’t have to spend the night on an air mattress. Tom gratefully accepted; they’d check in with each other in the morning.
 
“Only for you, Ben,” Jeremiah said. He hoped his back would forgive him. “Your old Poppy on an air mattress and sleeping bag. Well, I’ve slept on worse.”
 
There were thirty kids and their chaperones, Jeremiah the oldest by far. They lined up for special activity stations: “Hands-on History” interactive charts and “Science on the Sandlot,” where kids learned how to find the sweet spot on the bat. They wandered around the “Scribes and Mikemen” exhibit on the sport’s legendary broadcasters. A guide split the kids into groups to recreate their own broadcasts. Each group received original telegrapher codes, instructions on adding sound effects, and transcripts of memorable World Series broadcasts, including Babe Ruth’s famous called shot in Game 3 of the ’32 Series.
 
“What a series that was,” Jeremiah said, unable to withhold his need to share with the group. “I missed that one, but I listened to Game 4 with my brother!” People nodded politely. “We weren’t allowed to listen on my father’s Philco Model 20, so we snuck out of the house. He didn’t feel like explaining that the ’32 Series coincided with Rosh Hashana and his parents wouldn’t have used their radio. “The Yanks came from behind in 4 to sweep the Series. Funny thing is, I was too young to appreciate it.”
 
Jeremiah shifted from leg to leg, suddenly uncomfortable. As a kid, he’d sought a separation from the Orthodox traditions of his immigrant parents. But now? If not for the Supreme Court and that Attorney General in Florida, the country might be preparing for the inauguration of a Jewish vice-president. A few hours ago, he’d talked of religious freedom, yet the unease of sharing the full anecdote with presumably non-Jewish strangers remained.
 
The boys in Ben’s group looked a year or two older. Little League types, something in the way they walked: chests puffed out, full of confidence, as if they’d just hit homers. Ben seemed puny in comparison, and one of the fathers had to step in to calm a squabble between two boys Ben didn’t know. Ben read his broadcast with a flourish that would have made any famous sports announcer proud.
 
“Atta boy, Benny.” Jeremiah beamed. He was sorry Tom was missing this, but they’d get a copy of the broadcast to take home.
 
Finally, it was time for lights out. Everyone took turns in the bathroom, and Jeremiah was pumping up the air mattresses when he heard a commotion down the hall. Boys tumbled out of the bathroom, some yelling, one crying. A short kid in a Detroit Tigers t-shirt held his right arm and howled in pain, as another boy raced to find the kid’s father.
 
“Poppy!” Ben yelled, searching the concerned adult faces.
 
“I’m right here, Ben.” Jeremiah stepped forward and put his arm around Ben in a protective clasp.
 
The Tigers fan was bawling, so another witness spoke for him. “That kid just went crazy on him. For no reason!” Accusing fingers pointed to Ben, whose eyes were wide with terror.
 
“What’s wrong with you?” the boy’s father sneered. “You don’t punch someone!”
 
The kid was younger and a few inches shorter than Ben. “What happened?” Jeremiah asked, and to the boy’s father: “I’m sure it was a misunderstanding.”
 
“I don’t think there’s any misunderstanding. Your son —”
 
“Grandson –”
 
“Your grandson punched Alex in the arm!”
 
Alex had no visible injuries, no bloody lip or nose. “He’ll be okay in a little while.” Jeremiah hated himself for saying it; if Ben had been the victim, he’d be fuming. “I’m sure there are two sides –”  
 
“What’s the matter with you?” the father said. “Violence is never the answer! And especially punching someone smaller than you? Maybe you should get him help for anger management.” 
 
“Maybe you should mind your own business!” Good grief. Anger management? They guy had no idea what he was talking about.
 
Alex’s father stomped off, his son in tow.  “What happened?” He tried to be gentle with Ben.
 
Ben whimpered, “You said that if someone bothered me, I should just –”
 
“And this boy was bothering you?” Sure, Alex was smaller, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t be a verbal bully. Jeremiah’s mind went to all the dark things a kid could say.
 
Ben hesitated. He motioned for his grandfather to lean down so he could whisper in his ear. “He said my poop smelled up the whole bathroom.”
 
Jeremiah frowned. “That’s it?”
 
Ben nodded.
 
“Oh, geez. That is not what I meant!” He glanced around for the boy and his father, but they were down the hall, speaking with a museum guide.
 
“Let’s go. You’re going to apologize.”
 
“But Poppy –”
 
“No ‘but Poppys’! There’s a difference between someone bullying you and someone who’s just annoying. Even if he embarrassed you. So what, your poop smelled? Everybody’s poop smells!”
 
Ben turned scarlet. “Now you’re embarrassing me more!” His sniffles turned to full-blown wails.
 
“Benjamin!” His voice took on an urgent tone. “Get ahold of yourself!”
 
The museum guide approached, Alex and his father a step behind.
 
“Are you okay?” Jeremiah addressed Alex for the first time. “My grandson has something to say.”
 
“Sir, we have a no tolerance –” the guide started.
 
Jeremiah cut him off. “Ben, go ahead.”
 
“We have a no tolerance policy for violence, and –”
 
“Ben!” Jeremiah put his hand on his grandson’s back, prodding. “What do you have to say?”
 
Ben wiped his face with the back of his hand. “Sorry,” he said, in a voice barely audible.
 
“And?” Jeremiah demanded.
 
“I shouldn’t have done that. Sorry,” he repeated.
 
Alex nodded. “That hurt.” His father gave them a disapproving, disgusted look and they walked away.
 
The museum guide again. “Sir, I’m afraid you’ll have to leave. We have a no tolerance policy for violence.”
 
“That was a little scuffle. And he apologized.”
 
“Zero tolerance is zero tolerance.”
 
“You’re kidding, right? This is the craziest thing I’ve ever heard. Where are we supposed to go at 10:30 at night?”
 
“Plenty of hotels in Cooperstown. I’m sure some have vacancies.”
 
“You’re kicking us out? Where’s the manager?”
 
“I am the manager.”
 
“What happened to three strikes you’re out? He’s learned his lesson, haven’t you, Ben? That was barely a strike. A foul. A misunderstanding.”
 
Ben’s head was bent, new tears streaking his cheeks.
 
“We’re very strict on this.”
 
“But my grandson – a bigger baseball fan, you couldn’t get!”
 
“Sir, please.” The guide was trying to keep his cool. “I’ll see you out.”
 
“This is utter bull-crap! Kicked out of the Baseball Hall of Fame! Jesus H. Christ.” Ben tugged at his sleeve. “Poppy, let’s go.”
 
He turned to Ben, ready to assure him that he’d get this manager to understand that Ben was no bully, just a mixed up, insecure kid. But something in his grandson’s eyes – an acknowledgement that he’d take his punishment maturely – halted Jeremiah.
 
He knelt to Ben’s eye level. “You sure?” he asked. “Because I can keep arguing.”
 
“I don’t want to stay here anyway. Not after this.”
 
“Okay. Come here.” He opened his arms for Ben to step into his embrace. “Love you, buddy,” he whispered into Ben’s ear. “You’re a good boy.”
 
Without speaking, they went to pack. Ben carried the two sleeping bags, and Jeremiah held the air mattress, overnight bag, and pillows. He was pretty sure the inn had vacancies.
 
“Don’t tell Daddy, okay?”
 
“I’m not going to wake him up, if that’s what you’re asking. He’s sick. We’ll tell him in the morning. And don’t worry. Your dad is an understanding guy.”
 
The clerk behind the front desk raised his eyebrows at Jeremiah when he asked for a room but handed over a key. They settled into a room with twin beds, and this time the darkness of the walls and dim light didn’t bother Jeremiah. Within minutes of Ben getting under the covers, his breathing took on the rhythmic tempo of sleep. 
 
What a day, what a trip. Jeremiah switched off his bedside lamp but his mind raced. Poor kid. Tom wouldn’t be pleased in the morning, and he’d blame Jeremiah. It would blow over, as these things did, and at some point, they’d look back and chuckle. But sheesh. What would Lenny make of the world in 2000? It was hard to fathom.
 
Another memory jerked into his consciousness; one he’d suppressed for sixty-odd years. Something he wouldn’t share with Ben or Molly or anyone. Annoyed over something meaningless, he’d mentioned to the neighborhood kids – in Lenny’s presence – that his sixteen-year-old brother spent full afternoons playing with their younger sister’s stuffed animals and dolls, pitting them against each other in mock baseball games. He’d been thirteen, not exactly the height of maturity, but as the words left Jeremiah’s mouth something closed between him and his brother. Lenny’s cheeks flushed from the betrayal and Jeremiah was assailed by shame. From then on, Lenny regarded him with distrust and disappointment. Which he deserved, because when the story got back to Willie, the bastard embellished Jeremiah’s tale and spun it into something more embarrassing. The punching bag showed up some time after that. Watching Lenny practice, Jeremiah was never sure if his brother pictured Willie’s face during his practice, or his own.   
 
Did Lenny know how much he’d loved him? His regrets? Much of Jeremiah’s acting out as a kid was simple puerility. Once Lenny left college in ’42 to join the 114th Medical Battalion, they corresponded by letters and thankfully the frost began to thaw.
 
Jeremiah ought to focus on a different occasion. The time their units crossed paths, early December 1944, when they spent a few hours together in a tiny French town. Around Chanukah time, he supposed, a few months after Jeremiah had arrived on the Continent. He’d thrown himself into Lenny’s arms and cried like a baby, a torrent of pent-up stress and terror from the months in proximity to death and deprivation. Lenny held him in a protective embrace, whispering “You’re okay. We’re fine,” until his shudders subsided. They talked of home and baseball and the war. The squabbles of their youth didn’t arise, and they spoke of meeting in Paris when the war was over. Jeremiah returned to his unit bolstered, cherishing the unexpected meeting. Lenny was killed in action a month later. Did they say “I love you” to each other when parting? He couldn’t recall. But he hoped Lenny felt it in his spirit.

 

Copyright © Julie Zuckerman 2021

Julie Zuckerman‘s debut novel-in-stories, The Book of Jeremiah, was published by Press 53 in May 2019. Her writing has appeared in Jewish Women’s Archive, CRAFT, Tikkun, Crab Orchard Review, and Sixfold, among other literary magazines. A native of Connecticut, she now lives in Israel with her husband and four children. She works full-time as a senior marketing executive at an educational technology company. She is the founder of the Literary Modiin author series, connecting readers and writers of Jewish books. When she’s not writing, she can be found reading, running, biking, and trying to grow things in her garden.



 

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