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For years the springtime ritual of rubbing down my Brooks Robinson-signature glove with neat's-foot oil marked the beginning of my personal baseball season. On some snowy evening in late February or early March, my dad would turn away from his newspaper and say: "Isn't it time to dig out your mitt? We probably should get the leather softened up."
I was always eager to do something with my dad, but finding my glove after six months of football season and wrestling practices wasn't as simple as he made it sound. I wasn't one of those kids who kept his glove dangling from the post of his bed while he assembled his collection of baseball cards. In those days I considered myself the junior Jim Thorpe of New Jersey, and my baseball gear had to take its turn in rotation. It had to survive the great democracy at the back of my closet, a place where my navy blue first communion suit received no more respect than did my two-man pup tent.
When I finally found the glove, my dad would go to the kitchen, reach up beside the saltines and Campbell's tomato soup, and pull down a small tin of neat's-foot oil. The tin resembled a hip flask. We would spread newspapers over the kitchen table, find an old rag in the broom closet and begin the task of rubbing oil into leather.
It was a magical thing to do. My glove usually turned as dry and hard as a turtle's shell during its six months in the closet. The leather would crack and tighten. It remained clamped shut, almost as if preserving my last catch of the season. After the application of the oil, it became as soft as a dog's tongue.
I had forgotten about the ritual until a few months ago. After a move to a different state, I came across my old glove in the bottom of a cardboard box. Though I'm 36 now and mark the opening of trout season more carefully than the beginning of spring training, when I saw what pitiful condition the glove was in, I couldn't stick it back in the box. I pulled it out, hung it on a coat rack near the back door of our apartment in Concord, N.H., and went into town to find some neat's-foot oil.
What I learned in the course of the afternoon is that by asking for products you haven't used in 20 years, you can suffer cruelly at the hands of young salespeople. In the first sporting-goods store I visited, I found myself face-to-face with a young woman who was obviously a fitness buff. When I asked her for the oil, she began shaking her head before I finished.
"What is that stuff...nees foots?" she asked.
"Helen?" she called to another young woman. "You know anything about nees foots oil?"
"Neat's-foot," I corrected.