I’ve just learned that Squeak Van der Linden has died. This is old news to most. He passed on some time ago. But being distant from my home town, I receive the news as if it has just occcured. You can’t believe the feelings and pictures swelling up inside me.
I can smell the dirt and leather, the sweaty clothes, and a warm summer evening. I can even smell the dugout.
I see my very first real practice diamond. I see the nervous introductions, my dad handing me off, the brand new gloves on all the kids. I see Squeak animated and apparently excited to see us. I see the awkward moments of uncertainty; children holding back, tentative, the focused silence of those who feared but also hoped.
I feel the loss. Of a man who made me feel talented and important. I feel the sternness; of lessons that needed to be seared into the brain. I feel the laughter of missed plays, close calls, bad hops and forgetting to cover. I feel the contribution that Squeak made to the lives of little boys who only wanted to play.
Squeak was my little league baseball coach. We didn’t have formal preschool ball in those Cro Magnon days. When it was time to play; it was time to play. You signed up, you took your chances, as did Squeak, and you showed up for the randomly assigned team.
I showed up with an aged baseball glove that my Dad had somehow glommed onto over the years. I thought I was in heaven. I saw the newer gloves on most of the boys but thought nothing of it. That is, until I bobbled a few plays and Squeak mentioned that I might need a better glove.
Some experiences you always remember from your childhood. One night we were playing our staunch rival, an adjoining town. I was a seasoned starter at second base. And then an infield hit drew me close to first to field the ball. You don’t fire a hardball in those close conditions so I lobbed the ball underhand. Yep, it dribbled out of my hand, and rolled in slow motion toward first. I remember being frozen in time watching that ball roll while the runner safely crossed the base. Squeak took me out of the game. I would never make that mistake again.
I told my Dad about the glove without realizing that buying a new one would be hard on the budget. Little kid; little perspective. He suggested we go window shopping to see what the new gloves were liike. Beautiful. I dreamed. When we bought the glove I had no idea that it was a drain on our budget. I only knew I would be like all the other kids.
The day I showed up for practice with my new glove, Squeak noticed right away. He called all the other kids over and said, “Hey, looks like Les has a new mitt.” Everybody gathered around, and you know kids, I felt like I had just arrived in a limo. There was some passing around, jokes and comments, and I started to feel awkward. But Squeak, he always knew what to do. “So, we’ve all had a chance to spit on the new glove,” he said, ” lets get on with practice.” We all laughed as if we had never heard a joke before. I felt relief like you can’t believe. And when Squeak spoke, I learned.
The slow rolling toss and the new glove cross my mind from time to time. I don’t know why. But I remember. Thanks Squeak. And thanks out there to all of you women and men who have made an investment in a young persons life. Don’t take your contribution lightly.
Squeak VanderLinden has died; but he lives someway in everything I do.