To sum up the scenario at the end of Wiffle World, Part 2, the doorbell was ringing, but there was “nobody home.” Stan Janek had just whipped a tomato at a car on Sunrise Terrace, and the driver had followed him to Craig’s house. She was at the door, and she was getting impatient. But Craig refused to answer, pretending the house was empty, even though we had the game show Let’s Make a Deal cranking on the TV. We were silent as Monty Hall told the contestant she had to make a choice: Door Number One, Door Number Two, or Door Number 3.
But the only door drama that concerned us was the one unfolding at Door Number Four: the Stewarts' back door.
God, can she just go away? She just keeps ringing the doorbell! All Stan did was hit her car with a tomato. Get over it, bitch!
We were all upstairs, peeking out of various windows at the middle-aged woman and her pudgy son on the doorsteps, and we were swearing up a storm under our breath. How were we going to get out of this one? Oh, well, I reasoned, at least I’m not the one who threw the tomato. Still, given the way all our parents tended to get as busy as hell on the phone when this kind of shit happened, I knew I certainly had a stake in the outcome of this scene. And it wasn’t looking good.
God, don’t you have anything better to do? I guess that was a hypocritical question. Don’t we have anything better to do than whipping tomatoes at cars?
Wow. What is with her? Get on with your life! Leave, whore!
Stan, that moron. They followed him back here. How could he be so careless?
“She’s looking at her watch. Good,” Rick Riccardi whispered. “Maybe she’s gotta get going. Give it up, bitch. Scram.”
“Fuck!” grunted Rick a little too loudly.
“Will you shut the fucking hell up?” whispered Craig.
“Craig,” I said. “Just answer the door.”
“Fuck that,” he replied, peeking behind the shade.
“If you don’t, she’ll probably call the cops,” whispered Dan.
“Yeah, you’re right,” said Craig despairingly.
“Jesus Christ,” said Craig, getting off his knees and heading downstairs. “Fucking cunt.”
We continued watching the woman as Craig opened the door. She was yelling at him and jabbing her finger in his face. Good. Get it out of your system, I thought, and then you and your butterball son get the hell out of here.
But we weren’t so lucky. Craig walked up the stairs and he was on the verge of crying.
“Stan,” he pleaded. “She wants you. Just go talk to her. Pleeeaaase.”
“What the fuck?” spat Stan. “You fucking ratted? Why didn’t you just play dumb?”
“Can you just go talk to her? Okay?” asked Craig.
“You should’ve stayed in the woods until the coast was clear, you idiot,” blurted Craig. “Fucking asshole—cripes, you—oh, man. What the hell am I gonna…” Wow, he was stammering now. He closed his eyes and tried to calm himself, but it wasn’t working. When he opened his eyes I could see tears welling up. “So just deal—just tell her you’re sorry. Or she’s—she’s gonna tell my parents. She—shit!—just fucking—God, Stan, you fuck…”
Boy, was Craig losing it. And I didn’t blame him. Then he reached out to Stan's chest and grabbed his shirt.
“She said she’s gonna come back tonight and tell my parents unless you talk to her,” he said in a more composed manner, annunciating every word. “So. Just. Go. Do. It. Now.”
Stan went to the door, and the tomato-er and the tomato-ee had an animated conversation through the screen. It was a good thing he didn’t open the door, because the woman’s son looked like he wanted to kick some ass.
Then, all of a sudden, it was over. The conversation lasted no more than 30 seconds. The tomato-ees marched to their tomatoed car and drove away, and Stan walked upstairs.
“Ha ha ha,” laughed Stan. “She was going off on how dangerous it is to throw stuff at cars, and all that crap. I told them I was sorry, and they asked me who I am and where I live. So I made up a name. Quick. I told them my name is Ronald Orseck and I live at, uh, 55 or 75 Granger Street, or something like that.”
“Ronald Orseck?” I asked incredulously. “That sounds an awful lot like Arnold Horshack. You know, the Sweathog. Welcome Back Kotter.”
“I know,” said Stan. “And it kind of came out of my mouth like Ronald Horse Shit!”
All of us laughed—except Craig.
“And she bought it?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I guess so.”
“Well, they turned down Granger Street,” said Craig with disgust. “When they can’t find the Horse Shit residence, they’re comin’ back here!”
But they never returned, thank God.
Maybe it was the time she walked into the den and we were all digging into boxes of Ritz Crackers, Cheez-its, Wheat-Thins, Triscuits, Mister Salty Pretzels, Chips-Ahoy cookies, Goldfish, Cheez Doodles, Cheetoes, Munchos, and Graham Crackers.
Maybe it was the time she came home and we were frying up a pan full of bacon, making the whole house smell like a diner.
Whatever. But when Betty finally threatened to call “Mommy and Daddy” after she caught us playing her albums on the family’s stereo, I guess it was time to start playing Wiffleball after a hiatus of two weeks.
Yes, it was time to stop feeding our faces with junk food and head back to Herman Stadium.
Ah, Wiffleball. How could we ever have left the sport?
I had almost forgotten the indescribable joy of blasting a home run—hearing the sharp plastic crack as the ball sails over the fence. Ah, the rush you get from totally drilling the ball, getting EVERYTHING behind it: cranking a true Frank Howard shot. Thwack! Driving the ball right THROUGH a tree and into the other yard, leaves falling as the ball careens around the branches, but never losing its forward motion, as it POWERS its way out of the yard. ELVIS HAS LEFT THE BULDING, MOTHERFUCKER!
Oh yes, I forgot. Plenty of you Wiffle veterans know the feeling of drilling a mighty blast. So, how about pitching? How about the sweetness of striking out some hapless fool? On the “mound,” many of you also know full well the wonderful whir sound of the ball as you throw what appears to be a nice riser, only to have the ball dipsy doodle toward the batter’s shoelaces at the last possible second, making the guy look like a drunk trying to swat a butterfly.
Yep, whiffing some bozo isn’t as fun as hitting a home run, but it’s close.
But then the smell came: the stink of chicken shit and duck shit baking in the sun. And then came the flies. God, this was starting to look like the ten plagues in the Bible. What was next? Frogs?
“Jesus Christ,” I said as I swatted away the flies and a few other flying insects with my bat. I had two strikes on me—not to mention three flies. I was in danger of striking out and it was the bugs' fault, dammit!
“Are you ready already?” asked my brother Dan impatiently on the mound.
“Freakin’ zoo over here,” I said. “Frank, when are you guys gonna clean this chicken shit up? Aren’t YOU supposed to do it?”
“Fuck you, Bob” said Frank from left field.
Whoops, it was a sore point: his parents and older siblings dumped much of the family chores on him, but I couldn’t help it.
“Seriously, can you clean it up?” I persisted. “I'll buy you an Italian ice from the Ding Dong cart.”
Frank flipped me off. How could I possibly have said that? Cleaning up chicken shit for an Italian Ice. Oh well, I was annoyed—and in danger of striking out.
Dan fired a fastball by me. I didn’t swing.
“Right over!” he yelled.
True, it may have been a strike, but we had a gentlemen’s Wiffleball agreement on Maebeth Street not to throw the ball too hard. In fact, there were no called strikes or walks in our version of the sport. You had to swing and miss three times to strike out. We wanted to keep it a hitter’s game, and we didn’t want to get into arguments over balls or strikes—although peer pressure dictated that you had better swing if the pitch was in the strike zone, or face the wrath of everybody.
“Yeah, slow it down, Nolan Ryan,” I said.
He blazed another one, but I refused to swing at the white blur.
“Get that bat off your shoulder!” he barked.
“Slow it down!”
This continued for a few pitches, until I lost my patience and took a hack at one of the fastballs. And mighty Bob struck out. I flung the bat with all my might down the third base line, and it landed just short of the fence. Wow, I almost threw it into the Foleys’ yard. There were two outs—and we played two outs an inning—so the team of Dan, Frank, and Steve Hostetter, and Craig was now up, while I, Al Hostetter, Rick, and Stan took the field.
“I’m not getting that bat,” said Dan. “You get it.”
“Up yours,” I replied. “You get it.”
“Fuck that,” he said.
“Well, I guess you quit,” I stated. “We win.”
“We don’t quit. We’re just not fetching the fucking bat,” said Dan.
And so on. The Wiffleball arguments between Dan and me were legendary—and must have been quite ridiculous sounding to my friends. We were like a couple of bickering schoolgirls, and the gang told us so. But there was no stopping us once we got going. Sometimes we started pushing, which often escalated to wrestling, and worse. I don’t know what was at the root of this sibling rivalry. Christ, the Hostetter brothers never pulled this kind of garbage in front of everyone. But there we were, like so many of our screaming matches: a Mexican standoff on a hot summer day. The bat lay in the grass, 45 feet from home plate, and players started walking off the field to get a drink from the Hermans’ hose.
“You quit, we win,” I barked.
“No, you quit. We win.”
So it went. Time after time. Maybe that’s why the whole gang gravitated toward Craig’s house again. Were the games, punctuated by our arguments, actually getting boring? Maybe it was the stink of the chicken and duck feces and the flies that chased us away from the Hermans’ yard. Maybe it was the entertainment of making crank calls on Craig’s phone that steered us to the Stewarts’ house more often than Wiffleball beckoned us to Herman Stadium. We had begun starting our days with the cranks over Craig’s, and then we headed over to the Hermans’ yard to play Wiffleball in the afternoons. But then we really started getting addicted to making the crank calls, and the majority of those afternoons began to be spent in Craig’s house.
How could we abandon Wiffleball once again for something as idiotic as pestering some poor slob who, through no fault of his own, was named John Bator. I found him in the phone book: Bator, John. No shit.
“Hello? Mr. John Bator?”
“Bah-TOR,” he replied, stressing the last syllable. God, I wonder how many times he had to make THAT correction in life? “This is John Bah-TOR.”
“John, how many times a week do you ’bate?” I asked him.
“You are a obviously a chronic masturbator, Mr. Bator.”
I mean, how many calls could we make to doctors complaining about hard-ons that wouldn’t go away? How many pizza deliveries can you phone to people like our old bag neighbor, Patricia Hale? We craved crank calls even more after Craig’s discovery of his sister’s tape recorder, which enabled us to relive the hilarity of the cranks over and over. Maybe that was what lured us to Craig’s house repeatedly and turned us into true crank-aholics. The ability to crank at will was a powerful draw, having the ability to listen to our artwork on the recorder truly sealed the deal.
“Hello, could I speak to Dr. Kaufman?” asked Craig in a high-pitched, phony female voice.
“This is his secretary. Can I help you?”
“I was wondering if he performed the kind of operation I need.”
“And what surgery is that?”
“I am a man who is trapped in the body of a woman,” he said. He was starting to crack up. “I need a sex change operation. I need an add-a-dick-to-me.”
The secretary hung up. We roared with laugher.
Al Hostetter called an electrician and asked him if he could repair his dildo. Of course, it didn’t occur to a twelve-year-old that a vibrator is battery-powered and had nothing to do with electronics. Whatever. The call got a laugh.
“Hey, here’s Mr. O’Leary!” announced Steve Hostetter after combing through the phone book. Oh-oh. Mr. O’Leary was my friends’ former principal at Glickman Elementary School. He grabbed the phone, dialed his number and brought the receiver into the bathroom, stretching the long cord to its taut limit. We followed him as if he were the pied piper. What the hell was he up to?
“Hey, man, you a lousy princy-puhl,” said Steve ebonically into the receiver, “and we gonna get ridda you!”
Then he thrust the phone in the toiled bowl, almost into the water, and flushed it. I recorded the whole episode. Wow. That was a good one. We laughed continuously for five minutes. We listened to the recording again and again. “Hey, man, you a lousy princy-puhl. And we gonna get ridda you!” Flush. Rewind. Play. “Hey, man, you a lousy princy-puhl. And we gonna get ridda you!” Flush. Rewind. Play.
We couldn’t get enough—of doling out the cranks, and listening to the tape—until we had an unintended and quite unappreciative audience: Craig’s sister. How could we possibly have gotten busted? Well, it was Betty's tape recorder, and all it took was a little carelessness. Craig had made it a point to eject the tape out and hide it in his room after each one of our sessions, but after our last crankathon he had left the evidence for her on a silver platter. She was sick of us hanging around the house, and this was all the ammo she needed.
Dan and I tried to listen through the living room window, but everyone spoke in hushed tones. Then we heard it. The recording. “Hey, man, you a lousy princy-puhl. And we gonna get ridda you!” Flush.
No way. The tape. Dan’s jaw dropped. And I knew what was next on our parade-of-cranks. One of my worst calls.
“Hello, I’m taking a survey of people’s reactions to annoying phone calls.” God I sounded ridiculous on tape. Like a little kid. I winced. Here it comes. “Think about your answer carefully,” said my high-pitched voice. “How would you react if I said, ‘Fuuuuuuuck yooooouuuuu!!!!”
The hang-up click and dial tone on the recording was immediately drowned out by our laugher on the tape.
I was dead. We were dead. Dan and I didn’t need to hear any more. We reconvened in our bedroom. What were we going to do? What could we do? Nothing. Face the music.
Well, we had never seen our father so pissed. “I haven’t heard that kind of language since I was in the Navy,” he barked. Wow. He was in World War II. That was the worst profanity to hit his ears in 33 years? Come to think of it, where would he hear swearing like that? He didn’t see The Exorcist, so maybe he hadn’t been assaulted with such a dose of vulgarity for three decades, until he heard it from his own kids and their friends. “And the thing that really gets me,” he said, gritting his teeth, “is that you guys were stupid enough to record it all.”
It appeared that the repercussions of cranking such professionals as doctors—and a school principal—would be grave: he threatened to make us throw our ever-growing arsenal of fireworks into the pond. And the thing that really got me was that Mr. Stewart never told anyone else’s parents. Christ! I had spent half my paper route money on those fireworks, and they were going to end up in Putnam’s Puddle? Well, fuck that, we said. Instead of saving our explosives for the Fourth of July, for our own big neighborhood Bicentennial fireworks show among the Wiffleball gang, Dan and I started blowing off our fireworks every day in the woods. We might as well enjoy them now, we reasoned: we’ll leave a minority of them for our father to drown.
JULY 3, 1976
“Bob, Dan, come out here,” said Dad. Oh-oh. What could he possibly have to show us outside at 9:30 at night? I thought he was walking our dog, dammit. Did he find our secret stash of fireworks under the pile of two-by-fours in the garage? This was the emergency supply that we were saving in case he would make good on this threat to throw the rest of them into the pond.
“Come with me,” he said. “Down the pond.” Shit. It was the night before the fourth of July, and by then we were sure he had backed down from his grand idea of tossing our fireworks into Putnam’s Puddle. We thought we were in the clear. He had King on the leash, and he turned away and started walking, motioning for us to follow. But he didn’t tell us to bring our fireworks.
“Down the pond?” I asked.
“I have something to show you,” he said without turning around.
“Oh, I get it,” I thought. “He’s going to show us where in the pond he wants us to dump them. Of course! He would never take our word for it. Dan and I could easily keep the fireworks and tell him, ‘Yeah, yeah, we threw ’em in.’ No. He wants to see them floating in the water, and he was going to point to the exact spot!”
As we walked with him down Maebeth Street toward Sunrise Terrace, the more I thought about my theory, the less sense it made. No, he wouldn’t just point to the spot, give us our orders, and then check out the waterlogged fireworks out the next day. It didn’t make sense—unless he couldn’t bear to see us crying as we tossed them in the water. Maybe he didn’t want to be present for the dirty deed. That had to be it!
No, that was a bit farfetched. So what the hell were we doing? I still didn’t think he was going to go through with the whole fireworks destruction thing. He just didn’t have that kind of mean streak. However, he was still ripshit. He hadn’t said more than a few words to us in the two weeks since the crank scandal. Now he wanted to show us something down the pond? Show us what?
We crossed Sunrise Terrace, walked around the guard rail (pictured below), and, as the familiar stink of the pond wafted into my nostrils, the three of us started trudging down the hill into the woods—into the ink black darkness. And what we saw utterly floored us.
What was lurking beyond the guard rail in the woods at Putnam's Puddle? Sasquatch? Stay tuned for Wiffle World, Part 4.