Glove Day, Oscar’s gift, and the Si Johnson Special

The Si Johnson Special

I paced the driveway outside the house on Eighth Street, not knowing whether to start off without Dad, or to continue to wait for him.  It was like Christmas morning in May.  I couldn’t stop pacing, as if doing so would somehow speed things up.  I looked at the front door for any sign of movement in between glances down the street to try to estimate the time it would take for a grown man and an adrenaline-fueled ten year old to walk the six or seven blocks down to the hardware store.

This day was special.  This day was baseball glove day.  Glove day is generational and ceremonial.  It is celebration and reckoning.  Generational, in that often a father’s father had also once participated in glove day, and someday the son will get to share glove day with his own son.  Ceremonial, as when the first ball hits the glove for the first time, and celebration comes with that first opportunity to play catch with Dad using the new glove. The reckoning portion would come soon enough.

After standing out in the driveway for what was a childhood eternity, I heard the familiar sound of the screech of the old screen door. I abandoned my time estimation experiment and turned around to see Dad standing at the top of the steps, smiling. 

“Ready?”  Darn right.

Dad quickly and flawlessly covered the reckoning portion of glove day as we walked down the main street in town. 

A new glove was an investment, and for our family at the time, it was quite an investment.  It was something to take care of and look out for, and if I did those two things, I would have that glove for a long time.  I should be careful not to leave it anywhere, and to always double check before leaving a game or practice.

Dad’s talk turned out to be necessary.  A few years prior to glove day I was playing out in the yard with Dad’s circa 1954 baseball glove, and I left it out in the rain.  It rained and rained for two whole days, and the glove wasn’t discovered until several days after that, lying in a corner of the back yard.

The glove Dad had used for decades in all kinds of baseball and softball games had been destroyed by carelessness.  I don’t remember him being mad about it.  Disappointed?  Sure, but not mad.  There was a lesson to be learned in it all I guess, and apparently that glove was the price of the lesson. 

Although it had long ago left for old sports equipment heaven, I remember that glove fondly. For me was like trying to catch a ball with a garbage can lid, but Dad worked that old thing like a magician.  It was an old “two-hander,” where there was no real fold or crease in the glove for easy open and closing. No, with that glove, there was a timing and finesse that involved a three step process:  Aim glove at ball, ball hits glove, cover ball with throwing hand.  Funny thing is, I had thought quite a bit about using that glove for baseball, until it succumbed to the devastating combination of Mother Nature and an absent-minded ten year old. Rest easy, leather trash can lid…

I took three steps for every one step Dad took on our walk to the hardware store that day.

I was trying to set a pace, my impatience and excitement clearly getting the best of me.  It was always fascinating to me that Dad could cover so much ground with each effortless step, and on that day I was glad he could.  I always wondered if his unearthly ability to cover ground like that was one of the many reasons for his nickname, Moose.

When we finally arrived at Si Johnson’s hardware store on the end of main street,  I could hardly wait to get inside.  That little store had everything, or it seemed to, anyway.  The glass store front gave a glimpse of the wide array of items one could get with just one stop.  Kitchen knives and toasters, nuts and bolts, toys and candy bars, masking tape and paint were some of the things that would sometimes be in the window. 

“Ready?” Darn right.

When Dad opened the door, the bell above it  jingled to signal our arrival.  As we stepped inside the store, the first thing I saw was our neighbor, Oscar Torpen.  Oscar and his wife, Miriam, lived two houses down from our house.  Back then, everybody knew everybody in our little town, that’s just the way it was. Oscar had worked at Si Johnson’s for as long as I could remember.  It seems like we were always running down there, or to one of the other hardware/everything else stores in town.  Oscar was always one to meet you with a smile, and always seemed to take a genuine interest in people, whether down at the store or in the neighborhood.

We walked down the main aisle to meet Oscar at the register as he and my Dad exchanged greetings and the object of our mission that day.  I don’t remember exactly what was said during that conversation some forty years ago, but I remember Oscar showing the way through the aisles of the store while I followed him, and while Dad followed me.  Navigating what was to be the last corner on our journey through the store, we passed an end cap full of canning supplies when Oscar stepped to the side and raised his arm to what was the sporting goods portion of the of that particular aisle.  And there it was.  In the midst of a few softballs and baseballs, a frisbee or two, pairs of long, white tube socks with bright stripes in a variety of colors, and cans of tennis balls, sat the glove.

I could hear angels. Heaven’s light shined on that glove from the moment I saw it.  That was the one, never mind that it was the only one in the entire store.  That one glove was the perfect glove.

I stood there not knowing exactly what to do, while Dad and Oscar continued to talk about whatever they were talking about.  Oscar asked me if I saw anything I liked, in the way that a kindly, gentle older man would point out the obvious by using humor. 

“Well, try it out,” he said.

I’ll never forget the moment I reached onto the shelf and carefully lifted the glove off of its perch on the display.  Finger hole, soft leather, cross stitch weave. The scent of the leather. It wasn’t too big, and it wasn’t too small.  Out of all the gloves made on a given day and shipped around the world, different sizes and shapes, different colors and stitches, somehow the perfect glove had made it to the store on the end of main street in my hometown.

I remember looking up to Dad and showing him the glove.  He smiled and did whatever it is that us dads do to make sure a child’s glove fits half way decent.  I have found that I also have learned to do whatever that is over the years, first with my son, and now with the grandkids.  You know, turn it over, pinch and push it, bend it, punch it a few times, flip it back over again, ask them to try to squeeze it closed, turn it over again, and so on.  During that day’s exercise, it seems that Dad and Oscar had reached the same conclusion: the glove passed the test.

“Sure this is the one?” Dad asked, following up Oscar’s humorous take on that particular glove being the only one in stock.  

As we followed Oscar back to the register, he grabbed something off one of the shelves along the way.  When we arrived at the register, he said, “What you have there is the Si Johnson special, and with the Si Johnson special, you need something to take care of it, to keep it new.”

“Saddle soap,” he said, reaching up to give Dad the round metal container.  “Your dad will have to show you how to use that stuff.”

Dad and Oscar continued to talk as I stared in wonder at the new piece of leather artistry covering my left hand.  Dad then opened his wallet and took out what seemed to be an awful lot of money and handed it to Oscar.  With a few clicks and the opening and closing of a cash drawer, it was done.

“One more thing,” Oscar said, reaching to the back table again.  He turned back with his hand closed. 

“Open your glove,” lowering his hand to the glove.  He placed whatever was in his hand in the glove and carefully shut it.

“Now, that’s from me.  Don’t open your glove until you get home, can you do that?  Then you and your dad share it while you break in that glove.”

“Thanks, Oscar!” I remember saying, and we left the little store on the end of main street.

I held that glove closed, with the help of Dad’s watchful eye, until we got home. I ran the last few blocks as fast as I could, then I turned and waited for Dad.  Breathing heavy, and bent down with my arm outstretched as to show Dad the glove was still closed, he finally reached the yard and stood in front of me.

Opening the glove, we found that Oscar had placed one pack of spearmint gum safely in the webbing. 

Dad smiled as he picked up the pack from my new glove.  He carefully unwrapped it and pulled out two sticks, one for each of us.

“Ready?”  Darn right.

As with many days from my childhood, I had no idea at the time the impact this would have on my life, even decades later. Memories of grass and dirt, dugouts and bleachers, bats and gloves. A brand new ball. Rivalries. Teammates. People and places, snapshots in time.

For whatever it’s worth, I still have the old glove and the memories that radiate from it. It has spent a lot of its most recent years in an old duffle bag, until recently. It’s worn and it could use a few new laces and a good oiling. I think I’ll take the time to do that this weekend, after a trip to the hardware store for some saddle soap and a pack of spearmint gum.

Darn right.