It was terribly hot that summer in Fort Qu'Appelle, Saskatchewan. Dust lay in a fine powder across baked ruts where the road curved past the Mountie's house at the end of town, and at the far side of a field of dry grass the lake was a dismal soup of green algae slowly thickening under the unblinking eye of the prairie sun. My place of employment was a shadeless, brown meadow adjacent to the road. There I spent each day fashioning mink cages from a pile of lumber and wire mesh, pausing from time to time to feed some already caged animals a revolting pâté of sun-ripened horsemeat and fish.
For reasons that no longer seem very sound I had come 2,000 miles from suburban Philadelphia in an expiring, middle-aged Chevrolet to perform this labor. I had come with my friend Len, whose brother owned the mink ranch that employed us, and we had been lured from home by letters richly embroidered with descriptions of the exquisite fishing thereabouts. My plan had been to pass my off-hours bait-casting on the lake whose springholes, according to legend, were normally a froth of feeding pickerel, while in the shallows, marauding northern pike made life unsafe for anything less vulnerable than an armored truck.
The year I got to this anglers paradise, however, was the year the game fish decided to retire permanently to the lake bottom and so I was forced to seek other recreation. I found it in a crude form of semiprofessional baseball.
I was picked up in an informal draft by the pitcher of the town team (also the town drunk), who wobbled up one day smelling like a lemon lollipop while Len and I were playing catch on our lunch break. His odd fragrance was due to the fact that lemon extract was the one alcoholic beverage legally for sale in Fort Qu'Appelle. In any event we both agreed to play, Len at catcher and I at a position to be determined.
The team's manager-first baseman was a hardware dealer named Bud. Because his store also handled sporting goods—like balls, bats, bases and catchers' masks—he enjoyed an abnormal amount of leverage in team decisions, such as whether or not he should play, and where. His choice of first base may not have been the wisest one, for his ability to cope with an oncoming baseball was seriously limited by the fact that he was cross-eyed. Each time there was a play at first he was faced with a choice of two balls, one of them illusory. Out of self-preservation he tended to catch the one seemingly coming right at him, which was fine if that was indeed the baseball. Most of the time it was. Other times there would be great lamentation from the stands. Our lemon-flavored pitcher would assume the imploring, upward-gazing stance of Bellini's St. Francis. And after much scurrying about the real ball would be located, with the runners now at rest on various advanced bases.
By trade and limitation I was a first baseman myself, that being the safest place on a normal team to stash a slow-footed pull hitter until it is time for him to bat. However, Bud was not about to move off first simply because I was eager to play there, so he presented me to his players as a big college shortstop.
The first two innings went smoothly as the other team kept striking out and popping up. In the third their leadoff man walked. The next batter hit a grounder a yard and a half to my right, making a double play impossible. With an extraordinary effort I did manage to backhand the ball. But when I straightened for the long throw to first I could not locate Bud. By all the conventions of baseball he should have been standing as a target in front of the base. Instead he was low to the earth, one foot on the bag, the other planted far into the infield, glove extended palm up like a Hindu seeking alms. I let fly. Bud stayed frozen in his stretch, gamely lining up his glove with what unfortunately was the wrong ball. As the real ball shot past, his face took on a puzzled and somewhat betrayed expression. The umpire, having run halfway down the line from home to cover the play, signaled safe. Whereupon the pitcher went into his Franciscan posture, the spectators booed and the runner continued on to second. Meanwhile, the man who had walked to start the inning suddenly resurfaced at home plate, where he was quite alone. The umpire had not yet returned from first. The pitcher was still imploring the heavens for help. And Len, our catcher, had turned his back.
At this point the umpire called time, and a degree of reality was restored. Up to the final inning the score remained 1-0 despite two more atrocities at first base. Then the pitcher and I doubled back to back. Our next batter hit safely, driving in what proved to be the winning run. The small crowd cheered but melted rapidly away as Bud bore down in an attempt to pass the hat for the players.
If there was any take I never saw it. However, the opposing manager was gracious enough to invite all of us to be his guests at the pub for a couple of lukewarm beers. These became more and more lukewarm beers until, filled with fellowship, we agreed to make it a really big evening by all going to the movies at the town hall, where a cowboy picture was playing. In the opening scene of this particular film a wagon train was under siege by Indians, with redskins galloping around pouring arrows and gunfire into the circle of wagons. To my surprise every paleface casualty brought shouts of "Way to go!" from the left side of the darkened hall.
"Indians," said Bud, sitting next to me. "Sioux."