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The 1965 Eagles

In Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Essays, Humanities on January 2, 2013 at 8:45 am

Mel Mendenhall was born and raised in Columbus, Georgia.  He lives in Atlanta and is the CEO CLVL Solutions, LLC

Mel Mendenhall

The following essay was composed in 2011, when Gary Levi announced that he had an inoperable brain tumor.  Gary Levi passed away in November 2012.

All of us have known someone who was a particularly good storyteller.  For me, that person was my Dad.  I guess growing up, as my dad did, in the country during the 1920s and early 1930s lent itself to that sort of entertainment: there was no TV, or even radio, back then.  It seemed all of his siblings inherited the storytelling trait, and as children my brothers, sisters, and I enjoyed listening to dad’s siblings’ stories about life on the farm, life in the military (eight brothers and one brother-in-law served in WWII), and life in general.

My Dad coached my first baseball team, the Eagles.  The Eagles I can easily recall are Sim Thomas, Rob Varner, Mac Turner, Johnny Jackson, Gary Levi, Jimmy Monfort, and Johnny Cooper.  In the history of eight-year-old baseball teams, our team, I’m certain, was the cream of the crop – the eight-year-old equivalent to the 1927 Yankees.  What follows is a quick biography of the players at age eight:

Sim Thomas – The star of the team; he did it all.  A true five star player: runs, throws, fields, hits, and hits for power.  He also was our most dominating pitcher, but susceptible to getting frustrated when the umpire’s vision was impaired and strikes were called balls, or so it seemed.  Pitched and played 1st base.

Rob Varner – a solid all around ball player who was reliable in all facets of eight-year-old baseball.  Rob and Sim were both upper classman, 3rd graders, whereas the rest of us were in the second grade.  Rob played third base and catcher.

Mac Turner – A solid second baseman and, like me, a coach’s son.  Mac was from a prominent family that, though wealthy, was very down-to-earth and inclusive.  Mac was always smiling and having a good time on the field and in the dugout.

Johnny Jackson – a really good athlete, muscular fireplug.  He could do it all.  He started out the season as a catcher, but moved to 3rd base after his mom felt – we all felt — that Johnny’s privates were getting a little too beat-up over the course of the season (Casey Stengel didn’t have these parental issues at the MLB level).

Gary Levi – Played left field and was easily our most outwardly enthusiastic player.  Gary woke up fired up and stoked those fires all day long until game time. He had a distinctive way of wearing his hat sideways on his head, with the bill facing left or right, but never straight.  He continuously pounded his glove with his fist while standing in his usual left field spot and giving himself a vehement pep-talk, or, depending on your perspective, “talking to.”

Jimmy Monfort – a very smooth shortstop for an eight-year-old.  He threw right-handed, but batted left-handed, a fact that I thought would look pretty cool on the back of a baseball card.  Jimmy was a sweet swinger who hadn’t yet mastered actual contact, but who looked very good swinging the bat.  There was no question but that he was a ballplayer in the making.

Johnny Cooper – “Cooper” is what we called him.  Did you ever know a kid who always smiled?  It didn’t matter what the circumstance, Cooper was smiling.  Unfortunately, Cooper’s five-year-old athleticism was captured inside an eight-year-old body that quite frankly had not caught up with his fellow 1927 Yankee eight-year-old teammates.  He stood in right field (one couldn’t claim he actually played right field).

The season began, and from the start it was apparent that the Eagles were a team of destiny.  Reporters from all around Columbus, and eventually the entire New York media, or so it seemed to us, followed the team as it plundered through the league beating the Foxes, the Bears, the Cubs, the Lions, and other collective critters.  Simply put, our pitching was dominant and our hitting and fielding were equally good.  Some among us, me included, had to learn to deal with periodic failures where insult was the occasional strike out, which was followed by immediate temper tantrums and tears.  One waiting to bat, or one sitting in the “open air” dugout, needed to stay alert because all of us, without fail, were prone to hurling our bat backwards, towards the dugout, whenever the ump ended our “at bat” with a strike three call.  All of us, of course, except “Cooper,” who always struck out with a smile on his face, and believe me, Cooper always struck out, were given to emotional instability when we ran out of strikes.

As the season went along, we continued to get better and better, and the kids playing on the other teams did as well.  Each team seemed to have a star player or two.  I recall being fascinated with each team’s colors: the Foxes wore red jerseys, the Bears green, the Cubs blue, the Lions a lighter shade of blue.  All teams’ jerseys and caps matched red for red, green for green, blue for blue – you get the picture.  The Eagles, on the other hand, wore the colors of a winner: navy blue with orange letters (like my beloved Auburn).  Would you believe me if I told you I can still smell in my mind’s nose what those jerseys smelled like—I can!—just as I can still smell the freshly mowed grass, or in the outfield, the stubble of weeds. Read the rest of this entry »

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Of Bees and Boys

In Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Essays, Writing on November 14, 2012 at 8:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

The following essay appeared here in Front Porch Republic.

My brother Brett and I were polite but rambunctious children who made a game of killing bees and dumping their carcasses into buckets of rainwater.  Having heard that bees, like bulls, stirred at the sight of red, we brandished red plastic shovels, sported red t-shirts, and scribbled our faces in red marker.  They were small, these shovels, not longer than arm’s length.  And light, too.  So light, in fact, that we wielded them with ease: as John Henry wielded a hammer or Paul Bunyan an axe.

The bees had a nest somewhere within the rotting wood of our swing set.  Monkey bars made of metal triangles, much like hand percussion instruments, dangled from the wooden frame above; when struck or rattled with a stick, these replied in sharp, loud tones, infuriating the bees, a feisty frontline of which launched from unseen dugouts.

These deployments, though annoying, were easily outmaneuvered: Brett and I swatted them to the ground with our shovelheads.  Mortally wounded, they twitched and convulsed, moving frantically but going nowhere; all except one bee, valiant as he was pathetic, wriggling toward his nearest companion, his maimed posterior dragging in the dirt.  Not much for voyeurism, I relieved him of his misery.  Then Brett and I whacked the littered lot into tiny bee pancakes.

Meanwhile, the defeated community, convening somewhere in the wood, commissioned its combat medics: fat, steady-flying drones that hovered airborne over the dead and then descended, slow and sinking, like flying saucers.  The medics would, when we let them, carry off their dead to an undisclosed location.  I couldn’t watch this disturbingly human ritual, so instead I annihilated the medics, too.  They were easy targets, defenseless.  And they kept coming in battalions of ten or eleven.  As soon as I’d destroy one battalion, another materialized to attend to the new dead.  Unlike the frontliners, the medics didn’t try to sting.  They just came to collect.  But I wouldn’t let them.  Neither would Brett.  Eventually, they quit coming.  That, or we killed them all.

Bees are funny creatures.  Unlike birds, they have two sets of wings.  Most female bees, unlike most female humans Iknow, grow their leg hairs long and their bellies plump—this in order to carry nectar or pollen.  Bee pollination accounts for one-third of the human food supply.  Without bees, then, we might not have our Big Macs or Whoppers—nor, for that matter, honey or flowers.

When I lived in Japan, I had a friend who fancied himself an entomologist.  When he and I tired of talking politics, books, or women, we spoke of insects: I told him weird insect stories, and he explained away the weirdness.  He informed me, for instance, that the bees living in my swing set were probably solitary bees: a gregarious species that stung only in self-defense.  This, you might imagine, was sobering news for an insect murderer.

I asked about the medics that carried away the dead.  Honey bees, he said, discarded their dead for hygienic reasons—to prevent the spread of infection—and they coated their dead in antibacterial waxes.  As for the behavior of my bees, however, he wasn’t sure: maybe they, like honey bees, discarded remains where germs wouldn’t spread.  Or maybe—and he said this facetiously—they conducted funerals.

It wasn’t long before Jared, the boy next door, got in on our bee brutality.  Pregnant with mischief—more so than me or Brett—he decided one day to show us something; shepherding us through the woods, lifting a disarming smile as if to say, “Trust me,” he paused at last, indicated a hole in the ground, and declared, “Thisis it!”

A steady stream of yellow jackets purred in and out of the hole.  He waved his hand to signify the totality of our surroundings and said, “Ours.  All ours.  None for the bees.”

Or something to that effect.

Brett and I nodded in agreement, awaiting instruction.  If we were confused by Jared’s deranged sense of prerogative, we didn’t show it.  Brett found a heavy rock, which I helped him to carry.  We dropped it at Jared’s feet.

Jared summoned forth a mouthful of mucus and hacked it into the hole.  Unfazed, the yellow jackets buzzed in acknowledgment but otherwise ignored the assault.  “These guys are in for hell,” Jared said of the bees, offended at the ineffectuality of his first strike.  He anchored his feet and bent over the rock, which he heaved to his chest and, leaning backwards, rested on his belly; then he staggered a few steps, stopped, and—his face registering another thought—dropped the rock to the ground.

“Spit on it!” he ordered.

Brett and I, obedient friends that we were, doctored the rock in spit.

Then Jared undertook to finish the job he’d begun:  he bent down, lifted the rock, waddled to the hole, straddled the hole, and dropped the rock.  The ground thumped.  A small swirl of dust spiraled into miniature tornadoes that eventually outgrew themselves and became one with the general order of things.

“That’ll do it,” Jared said, clapping his hands together to dry the spit.  The colony, its passage blocked, was trapped both inside and out.  Those un-entombed bees, rather than attack, simply disappeared.

We rejoiced in our victory.  Jared pantomimed conquest, pretending to hold an immense, invisible world Atlas-like over his shoulders.  Brett danced.  I was so busy watching Jared and Brett that I can’t remember what I did.

We didn’t know that yellow jackets engineered nests, tunneled hidden passages and backup exits; nor did we appreciate what the tiny zealots were capable of.

It started with trifling harassment: a slight, circling buzz—reconnaissance probably.  Then I felt the first sting; looking down, I saw a yellow jacket, curled like a question-mark, bearing into my leg.  I spanked it dead.  It looked angry—something in the way it moved.

I heard Brett scream.  Then Jared.  Then saw the ubiquitous cloud of yellow jackets rising in the air, moving as one unit, enveloping us with fatalistic purpose.  My ears filled with the steady drone of thrumming wings.

Then, as happens in moments like this, moments of panic, moments when one feels he’s lost control, feels some other faculty taking over, I submitted to a greater power, which stiffened the muscles of my neck and arms, sent contractions through my calves and thighs, like spasms moving me forward, making me to run, the house, my house, once far away, a small square, growing larger and larger until at last it became a complete, reachable form, the door, my safety, announcing its presence, telling me to hurry, hurry.  Ahead was a fence.  I’d have to jump it.  I measured my strides for the leap, which, miraculously, I achieved with the slight assistance of my palms upon the fence-top.  I found the doorknob, dove into the kitchen, flung off my clothes.  The drone wouldn’t go away.

But where was Brett?  Not here.  Where was he?  Just then came a voice—“Allen!  What in God’s name?!”—and then mom was beside me, horrified, her eyes growing three-times their normal size; and then she was gone again; somehow I was back at the door, looking outside, at the yard, at mom battling the fleet of yellow jackets, at Brett stuck on the fence top, screaming, his face flushed red—red!—his arms leaking blood.  Was that blood?  Or a sore?  I couldn’t tell.

Mom deposited Brett in the kitchen, stripped him naked, called the doctor.  Tweezers.  I remember tweezers.  Yellow jackets were in his ears and mouth.  They were everywhere.  Outside, they continued ramming their bodies into the window.  I looked out.  One hovered there.  It looked at me.  I looked at it.  Insect and Man.  Sizing each other up.

In light of these memories, I can’t help but sense that, no, on account of their characteristics and functions, bees are not the affirmative, happy creatures of some Wordsworthian lyric; that they are too much like us for armistice or reconciliation; that, in fact, we will never see the last of them, as they will never see the last of us.  They will live on, as will we.

Let the boys at them, and they at the boys.  That’s how it ought to be.  So alike are the two that it’s hard to tell who has the advantage of intelligence.  I learned, those many years ago, before the profundity of it all struck me,that wounds can teach the tragic lessons of ignored similarities.  There’s something to be said for that.

If nothing else, I have come to admire bees for their tenacity and courage in the face of insurmountable power.  Theirs is a world of flux,disorder, and death.  Their body is a weapon, one that, once used, terminates everything.

Boys war with bees.  Bees war with boys.  Just another kind of outdoor game, one on a side, except no one can say “Elves.”  Not in this game.

In this game, there is only one ending.  Even in victory, the bees lose.  It takes a man to understand; it might just take bees, or something like them, to make a man.

On Ugliness

In Arts & Letters, Creative Writing on July 21, 2010 at 9:49 am

My essay, “On Ugliness,” appears in issue 19 of The Legendary.  View the essay here.

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