My Uncle Irv was the wacky uncle in the family. The fun uncle. He had a master’s degree in Library Science so he knew stuff. Tons of stuff, cool stuff, as befits an uncle who knew Miles and Coltrane before they were cool. He took karate before martial arts were mainstream. He was into Zen Buddhism before it was co-opted into a business strategy.
It must have been 1974. For my 16th birthday, my Uncle Irv gave me a book. The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading, and Bubble Gum Book by Fred Harris and Brendan Boyd. Here’s his inscription:
Ostensibly, the book is a brief history of the baseball card. Lovingly illustrated by cards of the authors’ favorite players, each card is accompanied by a few paragraphs – a tribute, a few snarky paragraphs, a youthful reminiscence germinated by the card. In reality, TGABCFT&BGB is Boyd and Harris’s attempt to recapture their shared big city youth of the 1950s and 60s.
Not long ago, I stumbled onto this book in my basement. Instantly, TGABCFT&BGB took me back to my youth in the 1970s. No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin…wrote Proust of the madeleine. For (mostly) men of a certain age, the sickly sweet powdery smell of bubble gum which clings to baseball cards for all eternity takes us back to a youth when it was PEZ, not PEDs on our mind, and the coming of spring meant baseball, and games of pickle and 500 and hotbox. Spring meant a transistor radio smuggled into the classroom with a wire up a sleeve to a small ear plug so we could listen to Harwell or Scully or Barber on Opening Day.
I flipped through the pages inhabited by immortals: Ted Williams and Jackie Robinson and Ernie Banks, and forgettables: Jim Gosger and Whammy Douglas and Gino Cimoli. As a madeleine yanked Proust through time and space, I became 45 years younger, a kid with hopes for an Al Kaline inside a ten cent foil package. What a gift, the gift of youth and memory.
What will happen in 45 years to a child who grows up with a tablet and apps and video games? Will the sight of an animated ticked-off little red bird send him back to an age of innocence? Perhaps the sight of an Italian guy driving a race car will do so. I’m certain that stepping barefoot on a couple of LEGO blocks in the middle of the night on the way to the bathroom would help future me recall his youth. But with the march of virtual reality, perhaps we won’t even have hands-on toys in 2060.
Nostalgia for toys and youth are a gift from beyond. I hope my still unconceived grandchildren will have the same chance that I had; to shuck away the years and to grab onto a long faded youth for a few moments. I suppose this is my Father’s Day wish; that 45 years from now, some kid will have a reason to write a piece just like this.