The Night of the Louisville Slugger

 

By Jim DeBrosse

Christmas Eve 1958 is what we Peltier boys always call the Night of the Louisville Slugger, a most comical remembrance that never fails to make me chuckle when I think back on it, and I often do at the sight of the season's first Christmas decorations, nowadays about two minutes after the end of Trick or Treat.

Of course, things would have turned out quite differently that night, and not very comical at all, if Mom hadn't put her foot down about Dad buying a gun, something he swore he'd do after an intruder of sorts broke into our house two weeks before that same Christmas Eve.

In that earlier and less celebrated skirmish, Dad woke in the middle of the night and found the side door to the house wide open and a strange man curled up at the bottom of the basement steps and snoring so loudly Dad had suspected in his sleep one of us boys had left the downstairs emergency toitty running again.

Not one to namby-pamby around with warnings, Dad chucked one of my brother Harold's size 13 gym shoes down the stairs, missing the intruder's head by a whisker but landing the shoe, quite effectively, within sniffing range of his nostrils, so that the intruder suddenly came to in a tizzy fit, screaming something about the foul stench of Satan, and high-tailed it up the stairs for the side door.

Which is all true, of course, but then I guess you had to be there.

"Really, Cletus," Mom told Dad as the man ran off gagging in the direction of Xenia Avenue, "the poor bum was probably just trying to get warm."

"Well, he can for sam-hill sure do that down at the Salvation Army," Dad said, "not in my house."

Mom was no lawyer or such, but she had her own peculiar ways of persuasion, and she informed Dad straight out that the day he brought a gun into our house was the day she was walking out the door and he could raise us six boys all by his lonesome. Well, then, Dad opined that maybe he didn't need a gun after all and walked on down to Tuffy Brooks and bought himself a brand-new Louisville slugger, a whopping size 37, just like the one Frank Robinson swung for the Cincinnati Redlegs, which is what they used to call the Reds back then on account of the Cold War and no one wanting to give a perfectly good American baseball team a commie name.

For extra protection, Dad had a skeleton key made up that very same day and started locking all our doors at night, something he'd never done before, except when we went away summers on vacation up to Indian Lake, and when we got back there was always an hour of Dad's key jimmying and door pounding and swearing by all the martyred saints of heaven before we could finally get back into the house.

Mom never worried her head much about home security matters, having always said only the most misguided and unfortunate of souls would want to break into a madhouse like ours anyway, and certainly it was true on most warm days when the windows were wide open, you could hear us boys fighting and screaming and carrying on two blocks in either direction along Xenia Avenue, especially on those occasions when Mom, pushed beyond the limits of her good and kindly nature, grabbed her two-by-four from the hallway closet and threatened to beat each of us boys individually to a pulp - that is, if she could ever catch one of us.

"One of these days, as God is my witness!" she'd declare, pious woman that she was, "you boys are going to get one right in it."

"Right in what?" we'd sass back, but by then, we'd usually be hiding in the next room or standing outside on the front porch where the neighbors could see us and Mom wasn't so likely to come at us with her two-by-four.

Which is all true, of course, but then I guess you had to be there.

Now if you're truly going to comprehend the story of that Christmas Eve you not only have to keep in mind Dad's Louisville Slugger, which he kept handy beneath his bed at night, but also that 1958 was the year our Uncle Will came to live with us after he was kicked out of his boarding home up on Clover Street, all on account of having relieved himself one night down the cold-air register of the boarding home parlor. (Uncle Will held forth to his dying day he never meant any harm to anybody's ductwork, he only did it because the bathroom was quite occupied at that time by a very large lady tenant of the house who spent most of an evening in the bathtub attending to her considerable hygiene needs.)

Uncle Will was out-and-out our favorite uncle - he'd squeeze quarters out of our ears and tell us to run on down to Rusty's drugstore for an ice cream or a vanilla Coke. Indeed, he was a most gentle and peaceful man until he got a "snoot full" of liquor in him, as Mom would always say, and then saints run for cover, especially when he climbed behind the wheel of his 1947 Hudson Hornet. Mom made all of us boys swear on the family Bible we'd never get into a moving vehicle of any kind with our Uncle Will, but then a time or two we sneaked off with him anyway and it was fun to watch the googly-eyed looks on the faces of the other drivers as they slammed on their brakes and saw Uncle Will whip by, running stop signs like they were just so many garden ornaments.

Uncle Will prided himself on knowing the back streets to every corner tavern in the East Side of Dayton, and therefore hardly ever engaging enough traffic to cause a serious accident, except that one time he hit the Simon's 1954 Cadillac sedan and spun it around so fast their Boston terrier, Stinky, flew out the open passenger window - still yapping, as he was wont to do whenever riding in the family car - and sailed clean through Old Man Weiskopf's brand-new picture window, although not one of the 11 Simon kids inside the Caddie suffered so much as a scratch, and Stinky himself just shaved his itty-bitty tail a bit shorter and nobody knew the difference.

Which is all true, of course, but then I guess you had to be there.

Mom laid Uncle Will's unusual good luck to her habit of laying a blessing on him and signing the cross on each of his palms before most every time he drove off in his Hudson. Mom always said she knew she wasn't a priest and was likely committing a first-degree mortal sin against the laws of the Holy Mother Church, but then she distinctly recalled a nun in grade school who told her the Lord helped those who helped themselves and she thought that ought to apply to blessings as well.

Well, now, the events of that evening got off to a quiet start after our traditional Christmas Eve dinner of meatloaf, canned succotash, mashed potatoes and Mom's special Christmas dessert - canned Bartlett pears and maraschino cherries, made up to look like Santa's jolly old face, buried under a layer of lime green jello. Mmm-mmm. Yummers for sure.

Uncle Will excused himself - just about the time for the jello, I recall - and said he was going to retire early, seeing as how he needed all his energy in the morning to survive the entire length of Monsignor Beckmeyer's Christmas High Mass at St. Mary's, and so he headed downstairs to the little bed and rocker Mom had set up around the corner from the emergency toitty. Uncle Will didn't have a bath down there, just a sink, but then he never took baths anyway because he always said all that hot water just opened up your pores and left you wide open to nasty germs and malicious vapors of every kind. "The scourge of modern mankind," Uncle Will always said about baths. "And that's a scientific fact."

We boys usually waited to open our Christmas presents first thing in the morning, sometimes at 3 a.m. if one of the older boys couldn't sleep and had a mind to, and so we went off to bed early, too, all six of us in the three bunk beds in the back bedroom at the top of the stairs. I was the youngest of the boys and always in need of a night light on account of the dark gave me the jeebers, but that didn't keep Harold, my oldest brother, from hiding in the closet most nights and waiting until just the right moment when I would tucker out and give up my nightly vigilance and then he'd swoosh out the closet door and flop himself on my bed, screaming in my ear like a lunatic, "Bluh, bluh, I want to suck your blood, you little four-eyed twerp!"

Which is all true, of course, but then I guess you had to be there.

We boys were all cozy in our bunks with visions of sugarplums and brand-new hula hoops spinning in our heads when I was awakened by the sound of something splattering against our front bedroom window. Kersploosh! A minute later, I heard it again - Kersploosh! - a sound I distinctly recognized as a wet slushball against glass, seeing as how that's what my brothers and I had used the week before, fortified with various rocks, to break out most of the windows in the garage behind our house during a most vigorous and satisfying game of Nuke the Commies Back to the Stone Age.

I crawled out of my lower bunk and over to the window and let up the blind. I couldn't see anything out there in the dark, just a lot of snow swirling in the night wind and then - Kersploosh! - another big slushball hit the window. I threw open the sash, just like the guy in that Christmas poem, only I didn't see Santa and eight tiny reindeer, just Uncle Will standing down there in the slush, wobbling on his spindly legs by the side door to the basement.

"What's the matter, Uncle Will?" I shouted into the wind and snow.

He put his finger to his mouth. "Shhhhhhush, boy. For crying out loud, you'll wake your Daddy up. Now go and get the key and let me in."

"OK, Uncle Will."

Dad always hung the skeleton key on a hook at the top of the stairs in case of fire, but when I went to look, there was no key, just an empty hook.

I went back and gave Uncle Will the bad news.

"God a-mercy!" he screamed. "I'm going to catch my death out here."

"Bust out the window," I told him. The side door down to the basement was about half window and was quite easily, on numerous occasions, broken by one of us boys anyway.

"With what?" he shouted. His teeth were chattering like popcorn in a hot skillet. He wasn't even wearing an overcoat, just his old beat-up corduroy jacket.

"Lookie here." I went and got one of my hard-soled Buster Brown shoes I wore special for Sunday Mass and lobbed it down. Uncle Will let it drop in the snow, then picked it up and looked at it forlornly like it was some small animal that just died in his hands. He held it out by the toe and was going to give the window a good whack when I yelled down, "No, Uncle Will! You gotta throw it or you'll cut your hand all up."

"Oh," he said, then he hiccupped real loud. I strongly suspected this was one of those occasions when Uncle Will had gotten a proper "snoot full." Well, he stepped back a step or two, went into a loosey, goosey wind-up, just like old Bob Purky on the Redlegs, and sidearmed that sucker right at the window.

KABLOOM!

The sound was not unlike a cannon shot through a church window - I had never heard anything so loud and frightening in my life. Neither had my Dad, I guess, because when I looked around I saw him streaking through the hallway in his open bathrobe, clutching his Louisville Slugger in one hand, the big skeleton key in the other.

"Dad, wait!" I called out. Too late. He was already down the stairs.

"Uncle Will!" I shouted below. "Dad's coming with the Louisville Slugger! You better run for it!"

Uncle Will's feet spun like wheels beneath his legs, just like Jerry running from Tom in the movie cartoons, as he scrammed for the back yard. That turned out to be a grievous mistake, however, on account of my Dad had run out the back door and was circling his way toward the front. I didn't see what happened next, just heard it - a real loud, sort of hollow cracking sound, like a croquet mallet makes when somebody truly evil sends your ball flying into the next county. That awful sound echoed like a gunshot in the tiny space between our house and the Neeleys'.

I raced downstairs, jammed my feet into my snow boots and tossed on my winter coat. Out the back door I ran and around to the side of the house, just in time to find Dad coming toward the back again clutching the Louisville Slugger in one hand and dragging Uncle Will by the arm with the other.

"I got him this time, by Lucifer. Oh boy, did I get him good," Dad growled, the blood thick in his throat with the excitement and scariness of it all. "Nobody comes busting into Cletus Peltier's house and gets away with it. No-bo-dy, no way, no how!"

"But, Dad," I said, "that's no bum. That's Uncle Will."

"What? Are you crazy, boy?"

"No, Dad, look."

I got him to drop Uncle Will in the snow and crouch down to his face.

"Holy tarnation! Come on, son. Let's get him in the house."

By the time we dragged Uncle Will through the back door, with big clumps of snow falling off his clothes and melting all over the kitchen linoleum, Mom had come downstairs in her housecoat and slippers to personally inspect the commotion. She snatched hard at her breath when she saw Uncle Will's bloodied head flopping like a loose bowling ball in Dad's arms, and as fast as she could, crossed herself about a dozen times.

"Lord help us, Cletus, is he still alive?"

"I don't know, Gert. I guess I beaned him pretty hard."

"Oh, Blessed Virgin Mary and all the saints." She waved us into the living room. "Go and put him on the sofa while I call an ambulance."

We dumped Uncle Will on the sofa, wet clothes and all, and Dad put his fingers down alongside his neck, feeling for a pulse. He closed his eyes and shook his head and that's exactly when Mom popped in from the kitchen.

"Oh, no! It can't be! It can't be!" she screamed, holding her hands to the sides of her head like she was going to explode any second or something.

"Quick, Timmy," she pointed me to the front door. "Go fetch Father Diller. We've got to get Will the Extreme Unction or his soul will go straight to hell just as sure as I'm standing here."

"The Ex-treme what?" I asked.

"Just go!" Dad shouted, and I shot out the front door and into the snowy night as fast as my two boots would carry me.

The Parish House was just two blocks up Xenia Avenue, which was a good thing seeing as how we often had to fetch Father Diller in the dead of night, like the time my older brother Mickey fell out of his top bunk and smack onto the hardwood floor and we thought he was paralyzed for good, until Father Diller gave him a good hard pinch on his heel and he shot up straighter than a telephone pole, and later confessed he was just faking it on account he hadn't studied hard enough for his first-period geometry test.

When I knocked on the Parish House door that Christmas Eve, the lights were on and I could hear the choir next door at the church, warming up for Midnight Mass and singing Silent Night so sweetly it sent the chills down my spine. In a little while Mrs. Hawkins, the housemaid, came to the door, and rolled her eyes when she saw me in my boots, jammies and winter coat.

"Now what? Did the house burn down?"

"You gotta believe me, Mrs. Hawkins. Dad killed Uncle Will with his baseball bat and now he needs that Ex-treme Suction stuff."

"Needs what?"

"The Ex-treme Suction! Now please go get Father Diller, or Mom says Uncle Will's going straight to hell for sure."

"What's the problem here, Mabel?" It was Father Diller, in his long black robe and shiny black shoes.

"It's one of the Peltier boys, Father. Seems there's been a bit of trouble again over at the homestead."

"You've got to come, Father - now!" I yelled. "Uncle Will's been killed and his soul's about to go straight to hell unless he gets that suction stuff."

Father Diller opened the door wider. "Killed? Are you certain?"

I nodded. "Dad thought he was a bum trying to break into the basement and he whacked him good with his Louisville Slugger and now he's out deader than a flattened skunk."

Father Diller raised his eyebrows a bit and calmly said, "All right, child. Let me get my things."

Father and I made the two blocks to our house in no time, the sound of the ambulance siren wailing in the cold distance and getting closer all the time. Inside the living room, all the Peltier boys were crowded around Uncle Will on the sofa, none of us, of course, having seen a real-live dead body in the flesh before, while Mom sat off by herself in a corner chair clutching her best rosary beads and sobbing away. Dad was real quiet, it seemed, and kind of remorseful, his eyes never leaving Uncle Will's body, as though he could hardly believe what he'd done.

"Make way, make way," Dad said as he scootched all the boys off to the sides so Father Diller could get in close with his black leather satchel. Uncle Will was lying there on his back, his face just as white as a ghost's and his hands folded peacefully over his chest, like Dracula in his coffin, the way we'd always see in those triple vampire features Saturday afternoons down at the Federation Theater.

Father Diller took off his winter coat and handed it to Harold, then pulled a long purple scarf from his satchel and put it around his neck. Then he got out all the rest of his paraphernalia - cotton swabs and beeswax candles and little bottles I suppose were filled with holy water. It took him just a second to get everything set up. Then he made a sign of the cross over Uncle Will's body and bowed his head and started praying real fast in Latin, trying to head off Uncle Will's soul, I imagine, before it got too far deep into hell.

He opened one of those tiny bottles and poured a few drops on Uncle Will's forehead - drip... drip... drip. Well, on that third drip, something truly miraculous occurred, seeing as how that's when Uncle Will's two eyes popped wide open. He got one look at Father Diller all dressed up in his robe and vestments, hovering over him like the Angel of Mercy, and his mouth dropped open and he started gurgling real loud, like maybe some of Mom's Christmas jello was stuck at the back of his throat and then, a second later, having at last sucked in a goodly amount of air, let out with an ear-shattering roar, " IT'S THE BOGEY MAN!!! "

Uncle Will shot straight up from that sofa, hit the linoleum floor both feet running and zoomed out the back door so fast all of us were still standing there stunned by what we'd just seen.

Mom kissed her rosary - one more certifiable miracle to its credit - then said quietly from her corner chair, "Cletus, he'll catch his death of pneumonia."

Before you knew it, Dad was out the door, followed by all six of us boys, some not even in slippers, just bare feet, hooting and hollering like it was a summer foot race through the back yard grass.

We saw Uncle Will fly through the open garage door and slam it shut behind him, persuaded, I am sure, that all the furies of hell were upon him. Dad flung open the door and followed him into the inky blackness inside, fearing, of course, that Uncle Will would slip out the back door and into the alleyway and we'd never find him until morning for sure. Such a hideous commotion of screaming and trashcan clanging and cursing ensued that Harold ordered all of us boys to stay back until the dust settled. We waited and waited until, sure enough, Uncle Will came running out of the garage shrieking in holy terror.

"Get him!" Harold shouted, and we boys gang-tackled him in the wet snow, not hurting him, really, unless you count the considerable quantity of snow that got packed up his nostrils as his face smooshed into the ground.

We turned him over and what do you think we saw? Why, it wasn't Uncle Will at all, but that bum Dad rousted from the basement the week before.

"Help! Help! They're killin' me! They're killin' me!" the bum screamed, a bit too dramatically I thought, seeing as how we were only trying to get him up off the wet ground and brush the snow off his pants and tattered coat.

Then Dad and Uncle Will came strolling together out of the garage, arms around each other's shoulders, laughing and laughing like they both just walked out of Spatz's Tavern. It was then, all of a sudden, I detected the snow clouds were gone and the stars were twinkling above our heads, singing, it seemed, like a bright choir of angels. Despite all the craziness of that night, it was Christmas Eve and you could truly feel it in the air.

"Come on, boys. Bring him on into the house," Dad said. "We've got some celebrating to do."

Well, the bum looked at Dad and then at us boys like we were all demented and he'd just as soon walk into a refrigerator box full of riled weasels, until I said, "We've got hot chocolate inside, mister. Would you like some?"

"Hot chocolate?" he said, as though this might be some alien invention from another planet. Then he said, "You got any of those tiny white marshmallers?"

"You bet," I said. And he perked right up and started in with us for the back door of the house, where the kitchen light was shining like a beacon that said this is where the Peltiers live and they may all be crazy and fighting and screaming all the time but they truly love each other just the same.

Inside, the ambulance crew was waiting and they took a look at the big knot on Uncle Will's head and shone a light in his eyes and declared that he'd live after all and went on their way.

After that, Dad had the Christmas spirit in him like I'd never seen before. He broke out the jug of beer from the refrigerator and Mom got out the dill pickles, Velveeta cheese and saltines and I started making the hot chocolate on the stove while everybody else sat down around our big kitchen table, including the old bum, who turned out not to be old at all, just some scared teen-age kid who said he'd just come up from the hills of Kentucky looking for a job and didn't have any place to stay. Right that instant, Dad said he could sleep down in the basement with Uncle Will, seeing as how we had an emergency toitty and a utility sink down there and all we had to do was drag down the living room sofa.

Father Diller was standing at the kitchen entrance, leaning against the door frame and just taking in the whole scene with that calm, gentle smile of his.

"Father," Dad said, "can I offer you a beer?"

"Well, I'd better get something after being dragged out on a night like this."

It turned out to be the best Christmas party on Xenia Avenue anyone could ever remember, and the latest I ever stayed up, with the exception of that one New Year's Eve when Uncle Will drove his Hudson into our front yard and knocked down our silver maple tree and toppled the chimney to the ground, so, of course, Old Man Weiskopf thought the commies had invaded for sure and came running outside in his World War I gas mask, firing off his bolt-action Springfield....

Which is another story entirely - and all true, of course, but then I guess you had to be there.

Copyright, 1998, Cox Ohio Publishing. All rights reserved.

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