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Tom Girl

I was a girly girl. I loved pink frills and princesses. I twirled through the house in gypsy costumes created with scarves draped over my mother’s slips and nightgowns, and sprinkled the house with sequins from ballet costumes worn until the tulle was in shreds. I played fairies in my friend Lynn’s backyard with the gauzy yellow curtains her mother had replaced from their bay window. We were among only a few girls in our rural Raleigh subdivision.

My alter-ego was a tomboy. I climbed trees and built forts with the neighborhood boys. We played football in the Kenney’s sloped backyard, and “Red Rover” on the grass in front of my house, spilling out into the cul-de-sac. Paul Kenney once stole one of my Barbies and lit her on fire from his perch in the top of the sweet gum tree, tossing her melting body and flaming hair into a pile of leaves that his brother rushed to put out with a garden hose. I wanted to retaliate by destroying his Steve Scout action hero, so I stole it. But instead of warping Steve with lighter fluid, I arranged a marriage between him and my Skipper doll. My brother’s Geronimo served as the minister, and the happy couple rode off on Thunderbolt, the plastic horse. Paul would surely have hated that more than a fiery death.

So as much as I desired to fit in with the guys, my more feminine approach to play usually won out and was sometimes dictated by the boys my mom called the “neighborhoodlums.” Army was a favorite game, and the Kenney’s yard was the battlefield. Cap-guns, squirt guns and bb guns were collected from garages and sheds for the epic battles. Since my philosophy of war was “lie down and play dead until the danger passes,” I was relegated to the M.A.S.H. tent, a lean-to of plywood and branches propped up against the ivy-covered chain-link fence that marked the boundary of my yard.

In the relative safety of my tent, I awaited the arrival of soldiers seeking medical attention and dodged the occasional dirtball hand-grenade. I was armed with Kleenex and masking tape to bandage up wounds and my gypsy scarves became slings and tourniquets. Injured troops had a bed of leaves covered in a beach towel to rest upon, and could count on icy water served in a Dixie cup from mom’s Tupperware pitcher. Upon their departure, I offered mended soldiers a stick of Beechnut Fruit Stripe gum and wished them luck as they went back to face the horrors of battle, taking cover in the thickets of honeysuckle and suffering the sharp stings in blackberry bush trenches.

I had a crush on a boy who lived a block away, which meant it was a rare treat when he joined in on the Army games, as the call to battle was only sounded off within the cluster of kid-filled houses along Old Farm Road. Michael and I were exactly the same age, as a matter of fact, we shared a birthday, which in my blossoming romantic mind, meant we were destined to be together.

When I heard the approach of an injured serviceman, moaning in mock pain, I hoped the face coming through my pillow case-covered door would be Michael’s. When it was, I was particularly attentive, encouraging extra rest and multiple cups of water. I wiped his brow with a moistened tissue, trying not to get my pinky caught in one of the damp brown curls framing his angelic face. I was smitten, but my reveries were always interrupted by the arrival of another thirsty soldier, often my brother who I’m quite sure was on to my intentions and aimed to destroy my hopes of young love whenever possible.

But my first love was, of course, my dad, and, like Michael, I was pretty sure he didn’t notice me. Dad was all about work, up before I rose in the morning and home just in time for dinner, after which he would retire to his recliner with a beer and turn the television on to sports or his favorite shows: The Rockford Files and The Six Million Dollar Man. When Dad was in his recliner, we knew he was not to be disturbed. Even if he was asleep and we’d sneak to the television set to turn the dial to Little House on the Prairie, dad would jolt awake declaring “I was just resting my eyes!” and we’d be forced to turn back to his show, even though his eyes would be closed and he’d be snoring again within five minutes.

Tuesday was our night, though. Because on Tuesdays, Daddy had his West Raleigh Exchange Club meetings and mom would relax, sometimes even letting us eat TV dinners or Spaghetti O’s from the can, and we could watch Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley without interruption.

The West Raleigh Exchange Club gave scholarships and created halls of American history at local schools, but their main project was running the Little League Baseball program, in which almost all the boys in my neighborhood played. I’d been watching them throw balls with their dads in the street for years. I saw my father smiling at my brother as he tossed up pop flies and my brother grinning back when they landed square in his mitt. I wanted my dad to look at me that way.

So I announced my intention at dinner one night when I was ten. Casual. Like asking someone to “Please pass the butter.” I said, “So I think I’d like to play baseball this summer,” and I scooped up a spoonful of peas.

Girls don’t play baseball,” said my brother with his mouthful of mashed potatoes.

Well of course they can,” said my mother, “And don’t talk with food in your mouth.”

Just because they can doesn’t mean they should and really they can’t,” said my brother.

Girls play sports. Chris Evert is one of the best athletes in the world,” said my mother.

But I bet she can’t hit a baseball,” retorted my brother.

My father hadn’t said a thing. I looked at him, hopeful, but he was focused on his plate.

Girls can’t run as fast as boys. It’s a proven fact,” my brother smirked, taking my father’s silence as solidarity, “And those pitches are fast. Girls would cry if they got hit by a ball,”

You’d cry if you got hit too,” I countered, kicking him under the table, “I’ve seen you cry you sissie!”

Mom glared, her lips pursed in the universal mom look meaning someone is about to get sent to their room without dessert. “Bill, don’t you think Suzanne could join the team this year?”

I guess I could ask,” dad responded and my brother shot daggers my way with his eyes, and I melted them with my smile before they got anywhere near my force field.

And so, I became the first girl in the West Raleigh baseball program. But there was a problem. My brother was right. I couldn’t play. In practice I rarely caught a ball and when I threw them back, they always landed yards in front of my target.

Our minor league team was the Mitchell’s Hair Styling Dodgers and our sponsors paid for twelve sets of navy blue polyester shirts with blue and white pin-striped pants. Problem was, we had fourteen players. When the coach passed out the uniforms, he handed me and another new kid, who was only eight, the plain white cotton and wool blend button down jerseys and pants from the 1960s. I was devastated as I watched all the boys putting on their crisp new sponsor shirts. I was one of the oldest players on the team and I was new and I was a girl. I already stood out and now I had to wear that stupid uniform.

I sobbed all the way home, but a couple days later, my dad showed up before practice with pants that matched my brother’s and a jersey that was similar to the rest of the team’s with my name screened onto the back. It was one of the nicest things anyone had ever done for me.

When the season began, I tucked my hair up into my hat and took my position in right field, but it was rare that anything was ever hit out there. I was bored. So I made clover necklaces and encircled my blue Dodgers hat with a crown of dandelions. True to my brother’s prediction, I couldn’t hit any better than I could throw. Every time I got up to bat, the coach would say, “Let it hit you!” so I could get on base before I struck out. And I did let it hit me. And it hurt. But I didn’t cry.

Mostly, though, I spent my time sitting on the bench, trying to catch the eye of my Army conquest, Michael, who was an ace at third base. I chewed green apple bubblegum and breathed in the scent of hotdogs from the snack bar where my dad sold Babe Ruth chocolate bars for 15¢ and three Bazooka bubble gums for a nickel.

Every night I dreamed of hitting a home run over the Tastee Freez sign just below the scoreboard on the center field fence, partly to gain credibility for my sex, partly to see the look on my brother’s face and maybe to earn Michael’s undying affection, partly to make my father proud, but mostly for the free sundae the sign promised the person who hit a ball over the blue and white plywood placard. “HOME RUN!” I could hear in my dreams the announcer call out my name from the booth and the roar of the crowd in their lawn chairs. But that was not meant to be.

And sadly, though it had not been my goal, I was not a good example for the growing women’s lib movement as my participation drew ire from at least one concerned citizen who wrote to the Raleigh Times demanding that girls not be allowed on boy’s teams. But the 1974 National Organization for Women lawsuit had forced National Little League to revise their rules and allow girls into the sport. Maybe I cracked the dugout ceiling so that the girls who came after me, the ones who were playing with a true passion for baseball, could earn that Tastee Freez sundae and much more. While my baseball career ended that season and my crowning achievement was a ring of clover around my cap, my father clearly appreciated my chutzpah and for me, that was a home run.

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As shared at Story Salon January 25, 2018 and in Once Upon Another Time February 27, 2020.

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