Read A Stranger in the Kingdom Online

Authors: Howard Frank Mosher

A Stranger in the Kingdom

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Table of Contents

Title Page

Table of Contents

Copyright

Dedication

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

10

11

12

13

14

15

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17

18

19

20

21

About the Author

First Mariner Books Edition 2002

 

Copyright © 1989 by Howard Frank Mosher

 

All rights reserved

 

For information about permission to reproduce selections from this book, write to Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 215 Park Avenue South, New York, New York 10003.

 

www.hmhco.com

 

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available.

 

ISBN
0-618-24010-1

 

e
ISBN
978-0-547-52451-1
v1.0614

 

 

 

 

For my mother and my father

1

When I was a boy growing up on the Kingdom gool, my father and my older brother Charlie couldn't say two words to each other without getting into an argument. In and of itself, I don't suppose that their quarreling was so very unusual. Fathers and sons, elder sons especially, often have problems seeing eye to eye. What distinguished Kinneson family arguments from most others is that once they got up a head of steam, Dad and Charlie refused to speak to each other directly. Instead, they conducted their running verbal battles through the nearest available third person, who, more frequently than not, turned out to be me. Their disagreements constitute some of my earliest memories, and they disagreed continually, over everything from the editorial policy of our family-owned weekly newspaper to the individual and team batting averages of the 1918 World Champion Boston Red Sox.

It's a well-known fact, at least in northern New England, that the enthusiasm of Red Sox fans tends to increase in direct proportion to their distance from Fenway Park. Certainly this axiom held true for our family. We lived as far away from Boston as it's possible to live and still be in Vermont and not Canada, yet to this day I've never met more ardent baseball fans than the Kinnesons. Even my mother, who was otherwise not much interested in sports, avidly followed the ups and downs of our beloved Sox. Once a season we all made the long trip south on the Boston and Montreal Flyer (a misnomer if there ever was one) to see a game in person. And since there was no local radio station within seventy miles of Kingdom County, Dad and Charlie and I often drove up the logging road above our place into the high wild country known as the Kingdom gore to hear a game over the car radio from a downcountry station in Burlington or Montpelier. Or, depending on the weather conditions and the team Boston happened to be playing, we might pick up the Sox over enemy stations from far-flung cities that I connected more closely with their clubs' current positions in the American League pennant standings than with any particular geographical locations—cities like Detroit and Cleveland, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Washington, and Chicago.

And, of course, New York—which for a number of years in my early boyhood I assumed must be situated somewhere to the
north
of Boston because of the Yankees' perennial ranking at the top of the league.

Those long ago summer evenings usually started out as good ones. We would park in the clearing on the height of land near the tall cyclone fence enclosing the white-domed army radar station we called Russia (soon to be rendered obsolete by the DEW line far to the north). I can still see us clearly: my father sitting with the driver's door ajar and one long leg propped on the sagging running board of his old De Soto, fiddling with the radio dial while Charlie and I played catch nearby. Using the steel cyclone fence as a backstop, I'd crouch down with my hand plunged deep into the vast recesses of my brother's catcher's mitt while Charlie, who'd been a standout catcher at Dartmouth and was widely considered to be the best catcher in Vermont's Northern Border Town League, stood about sixty feet away and lobbed me an old waterlogged baseball wrapped in several layers of scruffy black electrical tape.

“Put some mustard on it, Charles,” my father would call from the car. “Uncork one. Smoke her right in there.”

Charlie would grin at me wickedly, double pump, heave his leg high, and pretend to uncork one. I don't suppose he ever threw anywhere close to all his might, but that rocklike black ball seemed to come hurtling out from behind his leg like one of Bob Feller's hundred-mile-an-hour express deliveries. I'd throw up the thinly padded glove in self-defense, and the ball would either dribble out of it onto the ground or, on those frequent occasions when I shied away and missed it altogether, smack into the fence behind me with a terrifying clang and bounce halfway back to my laughing brother.

By the time I was twelve, I could hang on to some of Charlie's pitches—but not without wincing and turning my head, whereupon my father would bark, “Don't quail away from the ball, James. You've got to learn to get behind it and stay behind it if you're ever going to amount to anything in back of the plate.”

By then my eyes were usually watering, and only partly from my stinging red catching hand. As small and light for my age as Charlie had always been big for his, and when it came to catching, something of a natural-born quailer in the bargain, I was quite certain that I was destined never to amount to anything in back of the plate or anywhere else on a baseball diamond. If I was this scared of Charlie's half-lobs, how under the sun would I ever handle big Justin LaBounty's blazing fastballs when I got to high school? Invariably, I was relieved when my father rapped the horn once or twice to signify that he'd located the game.

Then Charlie would sit in front with Dad and I'd jump in back and from that moment on all three of us would follow every word of the play-by-play with as much interest as if we were ensconced in the best box seats in Fenway Park. Sooner or later, though, static would begin to interfere with the broadcast, and Dad would have to hunt for another station.

That was when the trouble generally started.

“Jim,” my brother might say, winking back at me over his shoulder, “that Mel Parnell has one of the best curve balls in the history of the game.” (Charlie and my father always referred to baseball as “the” game, as if it were the only one.)

Charlie would then launch into an elaborate and lengthy explanation of how a pitched baseball's rotation causes it to break down and away from, or toward, a batter—a phenomenon I have never really doubted and to this day have never entirely understood.

If there was still enough light left, and the light lasted half an hour longer up in the gore than down on the gool, Dad's expression as he leaned forward twisting the dial bore a remarkable resemblance to that of Ted Williams in a photograph on my bedroom wall. The picture, which I'd clipped out of the northern New England edition of a Sunday Boston
Globe
, showed Terrible Ted in profile, leaning on a monstrous bat in the on-deck circle at Fenway and staring out toward the mound at a hapless rookie pitcher just up from the St. Louis Browns' farm system and brought on in relief with the bases loaded.

“James,” my father informed me sternly when Charlie finally ran out of gas, “Mel Parnell certainly does not have one of the best curve balls in the history of the game. The fact of the matter is that a baseball does not, never has, and never will truly curve. I grant you that a baseball may drop. I grant you that it spins. I even grant you that it gives the
appearance
of curving. The sun gives the appearance of orbiting the earth, for that matter. But the truth is that the sun does not orbit the earth any more than a baseball curves. In both instances that would be a total impossibility, in direct contradiction of the incontrovertible laws of Sir Isaac Newton.”

Undaunted, Charlie hooked his arm over the seat and grinned back at me. “Isaac Newton never had to go up to the plate against Mel Parnell, Jimmy. If he had, he'd have been the first to agree that a baseball curves. Then no doubt he'd have demonstrated how.”

“Mister,” said my father, swinging around and glaring at me as though I, not Charlie, were arguing with him, “if it were demonstrable, Sir Isaac would have demonstrated it with an apple. It would be a violation of the fixed regulations of the universe for a perfect sphere hurled in a straight path to veer suddenly out of that path like a brown bat.”

“That's just the point, Jimmy. A baseball has seams. It isn't a perfect sphere.”

“It isn't a brown bat, either,” my father told me angrily. “And that, mister man, is the beginning and the end of it.”

That last remark was my father's personal trademark. For years he had concluded his strongest editorials in
The Kingdom County Monitor
with this unequivocal pronouncement, which rarely failed to delight the scant handful of subscribers who happened to agree with him on any given issue as much as it infuriated the overwhelming majority who didn't. Yet it seemed to me as a boy that Dad's arguments with Charlie had neither a beginning nor an end, but went on and on interminably, like their baseball debates in the gore. And once they started those, refuting and counterrefuting each other, calling me “mister” and “mister man” and getting angrier with each other (and with me) with each passing minute, they continued until the game ended.

Or, at some critical moment (and to all three of us every moment in every baseball game was critical), reception faded out altogether and left us with nothing but mountain static.

“Your father and brother agree to disagree, that's all,” my mother told me a hundred times. “Every family has its little peculiarities, Jimmy. Arguing is just the Kinnesons' special way of visiting with each other, I suppose.”

Whether Mom actually supposed such a thing, I have no idea. Maybe she really did. But despite her many reassurances to the contrary, I was certain that the differences between Dad and Charlie were very real indeed, and their marathon arguments never failed to make me uneasy—in part because I served as an involuntary conduit for so many of them, but mainly because Charles Kinneson, Sr., and Charles Kinneson, Jr., were the two men I thought the most of in all the world and I wanted to be able to agree with everything each of them said.

Which, as my father himself might have asserted, was a total impossibility.

 

As summer crept north toward the Kingdom, always slowly and nearly always preceded by a month or more of immobilizing mudtime in lieu of spring, my father and brother heatedly debated whether a man could catch more trout during the course of a fishing season on wet flies or dry flies. In the fall, which up in our remote mountains along the border is usually as short and lovely as spring is long and miserable, they wrangled over whether you could shoot more grouse with a bird dog or without one. When January gales came howling down through the gore out of Canada, rattling our dilapidated old farmhouse with its numerous attached sheds and barns like a vast wooden ark in a heavy sea, they edged their chairs aggressively up to the roaring kitchen stove, while I perched nearby on the lid of the woodbox, and went at it hammer and tongs over history and literature, politics and religion, current events and what they were pleased to call “the King's English,” including such momentous issues as whether it was ever under any circumstances grammatically correct to split an infinitive, whether “uniqueness” could have degrees, as in “more unique” and “most unique”, and how obscure regional terms like “gore” and “gool” had evolved.

Especially gool. Ever since I could remember, my father and Charlie had haggled fiercely over the derivation of this curious old Scottish word that had come down through the Kinneson family over the generations and designated the half-mile loop of washboard dirt road roughly paralleling the north bank of the Lower Kingdom River from the one-lane red iron bridge by Charlie's hunchbacked green trailer just east of the village, past our house and the logging trace leading up the ridge by our bachelor cousins' place into the gore and Russia, and so back on into town from the west by way of the long covered bridge.

As a boy, I was at a loss to understand why Dad and Charlie made such a big fuss over a word that wasn't even in the dictionary. Only years later did I realize that this chronic point of contention between them contained the two quintessential elements of nearly all their best-loved disputes. That is to say, it had absolutely no practical bearing on any matter of real consequence to either one of them. And it seemed to be totally irresolvable.

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