There’s been a lot of talk this spring about turning points. How this season may become a watershed campaign, kind of like the Mets of the early 80’s when it became obvious the team was on the ups. Baseball itself is a game of turning points. Who knows, the season may feature it’s own change in fortune if things break right when d’Arnaud and Wheeler get the call. It got me reminiscing 27 years back to what was probably the biggest turning point in the life of a kid from Queens who had no idea what the hell he was doing with himself.
August 28, 1986
My father was not the sort to write letters. He was a practical man of few words, and he didn’t show affection through greeting cards or other such soppy drivel as he’d say, that was Mom’s domain. That was why I was surprised one Thursday evening as I sat polishing my boots at about the conclusion of my third week in boot-camp when I was called up to receive a letter from my Dad. It was a neatly penned response to a letter I’d mailed home the previous week where I’d mentioned that there were times when I felt discouraged, times when I wanted to quit, times when I couldn’t believe how I’d gotten myself into the messes that led me to up and enlist.
He was strangely eloquent. He said he missed me in the evenings when we sometimes went over the standings. Mentioned how he had a habit of not eating things in the fridge he knew I enjoyed even though I wasn’t around, how he felt sad every time he walked past my bike. He shared that he and my mom weren’t doing a lot of cooking these days, and he told me not to quit and not to get down on myself. He said things would get better and easier, and he closed with “by the way the Mets are in the midst of laying the rest of the National League to waste.”
I was stunned. My dad had always peppered me with “you’ll never amount to anything if you keep on … ” (completed with whatever activity of mine he’d taken exception with), but In this letter his tone was supportive, kind, fatherly. He had a sense that this was important, he knew this could fix a lot of things for me. But even more stunning was the last line, not because of the content — I knew the Mets were awfully good — but because it was so unlike my Dad, who was the ultimate cynic when it came to the Mets. He was the guy who’d slap me back to earth with cold hard facts whenever I’d walk around thinking the Mets were World Series bound. He had a knack for articulating how and why they sucked, and not always in gentle terms … probably because he was as upset as anyone. No, what was shocking was the language, that they were “laying the rest of the league to waste.” Beyond giving me a huge morale boost, it was unusual because as long as I’d known him I don’t think I’d ever heard him brag about anything. How good must they be, I thought, that he’d tack that line to the end of the only letter he’d ever written me? Suddenly I realized I couldn’t quit — I didn’t want to do anything that might jinx the Mets season.
We spent many sweltering hours on the parade deck marching back and forth, up and down. The place used to be an airfield and so the wide stretches heated up in the afternoon sun and made the soles of our boots stick to the gummy asphalt. Clouds of sand fleas periodically descended on our ranks, feeding on our blood and we could not so much as swat them without breaking formation and risking all manner of physical torment.
After a while the chants and cadence from our DI’s would ring in our ears even when we weren’t marching. Still, my mind would often wander to the Mets, wondering who was starting that evening, who they were playing, who might hit one out. The goal of drill was to mold us into a unit that moved and responded as a single body. Each step a single massive footfall. Each slap of our rifle’s charging handle would ring out not as 57 pitter-pattering pops, but as a single thunderous clap. At first I thought it was kind of silly but as we got better I started thinking it was pretty darned cool.
Many other hours were spent in classes, learning about the magnificent history of our beloved Corps, about first aid, squad tactics, self defense, how to fold our underwear properly, how to tie a tie or iron our covers (hats) with a roll of toilet paper, how to brush our teeth, walk, talk, breath. They were re-inventing us. I kept my dad’s letter in my Guidebook and read it from time to time when I needed a boost. The summer wore on and we progressed to the rifle range where they took us from novices to expert marksmen in the space of two weeks. Back at home the Mets were closing in fast on their first pennant in 13 years.
The rifle range was a turning point. My lackadaisical demeanor grated on my DI’s and as promised, if I wasn’t motivated they’d make sure I’d at least be strong. It didn’t help that I was from NY, lots of “you think your tough? You think your bad?” Those comments often emphasized with a finger pointed a half inch from my eyeball. They thought that for a guy with my test scores I was showing little in terms of leadership, and boy did they let me know it. The rifle range was the last big test. They knew that if my focus failed me there I’d be recycled and they’d never have to see my “NY face” again, but I ended up shooting high expert on my first qualifying round. I was in, there was no doubt. Even my hard to impress Drill Instructors liked the competition points I racked up hitting 9 out of 10 man-size targets dead center from 500 meters. I loved the smell of the gunpowder and the jolt of the m-16’s recoil. I was a damned good shot.
After the rifle range I skated through the next few weeks even serving as squad leader on occasion. Then, during mail-call one evening as I was polishing something or other I heard my name and it didn’t sound good.
I was called into the Lead Drill Instructor’s office. The only times a recruit was allowed into the Drill Instructor’s office was if they were being recycled to a platoon at an earlier phase in training or if something dreadful had happened back home.
So I was locked up at attention in front of his desk as all this was running through my mind. He let me sweat for a while looking thoroughly irritated. Finally, he pulled out a piece of paper. “I’m only doing this because I have to” he said as he looked down at the paper. “I have a telegram here for you” … more panic, what happened? I thought. “It is from someone named Markella … is that your sister”? “Yes Sir.” I croaked nervously. “The note is signed ‘Dad’ so I guess she sent it for your father?” Again, louder this time “Yes Sir.”
METS WIN WORLD SERIES IN SEVEN – stop
WHAT A GAME – stop
Dad – stop
I had to do ten push-ups for every word in that telegram but they were the sweetest one-hundred push-ups I’d ever knocked out. Had to do a boatload of mountain climbers too because of the indelible smirk on my face.
In a letter received later that week it was explained to me that my sister sent the telegram on behalf of my dad and that the “what a game” comment was really meant for game 6 where the Mets were 1 out from elimination and mounted an amazing comeback culminating with Mookie Wilson‘s easy grounder that skirted between Bill Buckner‘s wobbly knees, but they didn’t want to make the message too long, and I was certainly grateful. It had been one of the most exciting fall classics in recent history as the Mets came back and pounded the Red Sox in Game 7 at Shea.
Even hundreds of miles away in an otherworldly land of tarmac and swamps in South Carolina I felt an effusive swell of pride. We were champions, winners, we’d taken it all, and somehow I didn’t feel particularly sad at missing it. While I would have loved to have been there for it all, I knew that this was how it had to happen.
I somehow knew that my coming to Parris Island, my taking control of my life and turning things around had to coincide with the Mets taking the baseball world by storm, flattening everything in their path. I knew I needed to learn not to take certain things in this life for granted. I knew it had to happen this way.