We are small and untamed, a motley gang of kids in a pasture overgrown with bedstraw. The baseball field is our own creation, an ad hoc diamond wedged between the Lewis's barn and the paddock of sheep corralled with Electronet fence. First and second bases are marked by hay bales, third is a maple tree, and home plate is a cardboard pizza box, lifted from the garbage and weighted down with rocks. Sean Lewis is pitching, his eyes shaded by the felt fedora he wears in all weather. Holly Lewis, his sister, is up to bat. She's tucked the hem of her skirt into the waist of the nylon athletic shorts she wears underneath. The barn has a loft window that serves as the dugout, and those of us waiting to bat sit on the sill with our legs dangling over the edge. We chew straw and shout Hey, batter batter, our voices more melodic than taunting. It's late April, 1994, and the first light of spring is spreading over the Vermont countryside. Violets stud the pasture and the last patches of snow lie low in the shadow of the barn, ice-hardened and spackled with dirt. In manicured schoolyards across the county, kids in polos and ironed jeans play ball with standard-issue bats under the gaze of PE teachers. In an hour, the bell will ring, signaling their return to Geometry and Social Studies and Civics, and we will continue playing until the sun sets, and a hush settles over the foothills of the Green Mountains. We are a band of barefoot homeschoolers with nowhere to be until supper. Our world is free from bells and buzzers, and this is a game without a clock.
In a sense, homeschool sports are a contradiction in terms. Organized sports are designed to teach kids conformity, teamwork and discipline—precisely the kind of forced socialization our moms and dads had hoped to spare us by educating us at home. Our parents ranged from the Mennonite to the ex-hippy, and were united by a desire to raise their children outside the clutches of state education. They distrusted institutions, bureaucracies, the government. Most of them were deeply religious. Each week, they gathered us together at a different family's house to write poems, or dip beeswax candles, or snowshoe along the logging trails—activities that were meant to develop creativity and instill in us a kind of Emersonian self-reliance.
Baseball was our own, something we took up unexpectedly that spring, as the oldest among us were finishing up what would have been eighth grade. Maybe it was nothing more than a whim. Maybe we had recently seen The Sandlot, or Angels in the Outfield. We went to the movies infrequently, and when we did we were reminded of that savvier realm dominated by School Kids. We became aware of our hand-me-downs, our cloth handkerchiefs, our ignorance of rap music and sports. Baseball was our first adolescent revolt against our freespirited parents. We loved the sharp physicality of a ball cracking against a bat, loved delivering a low whistle in awe of a pop fly. We'd been raised on the religion of constructive criticism, but we found that, when necessary, we could throw our hats to the ground in exasperation, to shake our heads and shout, "Seen better swings on a porch."
It was baseball in the loosest sense of the word. Care was taken to indulge each person's quirks, to make allowances for the sake of fairness. The littlest kids were allowed five strikes instead of three. And if the first or second baseman decided to plop down on the hay bale he was supposed to be guarding—effectively sitting on the base—nobody called him out for it. We floundered with terminology. We called a line drive a bunt, and didn't know the difference between a fielder's glove and a pitcher's mitt. But it was a chance for us to chew gum and spit into the grass and give each other nicknames: Spade, Hometown Star, Boomer, All-American. And during the hours we high-fived our teammates, and rushed the field after a victory, and raised our caps to wipe the sweat off our brow, we almost felt like normal kids.
Our schedules allowed for obsessions. Our parents didn't give us summer vacations, but so long as we finished our assignments, we were free to do whatever we chose with the rest of the day. We took to waking up when the sky was just spilling over with light, so that we could do our reading and our math worksheets in the wee hours of morning and be at the plate by nine, before the sun got too high. We played all morning, and all afternoon. When the game ended, we started a new one immediately, as though a lemonade run or a lunch break would break the spell. We went home each night with straw in our cuffs, our knees glowing with the yellow stains of clover grass. We recounted the games in epic detail over supper, as our parents suppressed yawns and reminded us to eat our asparagus. Maybe they were disappointed that we'd chosen such a conventional pastime, or perhaps they were secretly relieved. Maybe they knew that, despite their best hopes, many of us would end up in the kinds of jobs that rewarded collaboration, conformity, and softball league membership.
August opened with a week-long heat wave. We wore bathing suits on the field, and took inter-inning breaks to douse each other with the garden hose. The bedstraw dried to hay and the horizon was so oiled with heat that from the vantage of home plate, the outfielders resembled the blurred figures in an impressionist painting. On one of those sweltering afternoons, as our game stretched into the eleventh inning, Sean Lewis hit a fly ball like nothing we had ever seen. He had teammates on first and second, but the rest of us stood slack-jawed in our tracks, watched the ball sail over the outfield and arc toward the treetops at the edge of the pasture. Nobody saw Sean, just short of first base, yelp and fall and grab his foot. Instead, we watched the ball disappear into the deciduous forest, and by the time we turned back to the field, Sean was rounding third, sweating profusely and wincing with what we interpreted as determination. When he passed home plate, he fell to the dust and grabbed his foot, and we all saw the blood smeared on his sole, like a gaping red mouth. His parents came and carried him inside. We spread out and pored over the infield, running our hands through the tall grass, until we found the rusted nail: four inches long, sticking out of a plank of barn wood.
Like most of us, Sean had never had a Tetanus shot. He'd never filled out an immunization compliance form, or sat beneath the buzzing fluorescent lights of a school nurse's office. After a trip to the hospital, he was laid up in his attic bedroom with a heavy dose of antibiotics. We brought him molasses bars and homemade get-well cards, and for several weeks, our games were on hold. We spent more time with our families, went on solitary walks in the woods, and wrote in our journals. We tried to get back into latch-hook. And as our parents caved to fear or social pressure, we were taken one by one to the local clinic for vaccinations. We sat in the stillness of blue-gray waiting rooms, leafing through issues of Highlights and waiting for the nurse to call our names. School had started up again, and the clinic was crowded with kids our age. They wore soccer uniforms and carried backpacks that were orange and green and pink, sleek neon bags stocked with clean notebooks and freshly-sharpened pencils. We studied them closely. We envied their school supplies.
By the time Sean recovered, the heat had stretched thin and the air at sundown was thick with crickets. The Lewis's had installed a new flood light just above the loft window—an implement we had begged for all summer, to facilitate night games. But on this evening, during what would turn out to be our final game, our makeshift diamond seemed flat and garish in the sodium light. Sean's arm had gone soft during his recovery, and the rest of us were rusty too. All of us wore shoes and some of us donned wool sweaters, to stave off the autumnal chill. We knew it was the beginning of the end. By the following year, many of us would enter Brookfield High School. Some would enroll in organized sports, others would start to follow the Red Sox and the Patriots, and many of us would lose interest in sports altogether. We'd make new friends, get girlfriends and boyfriends and driving permits. If we passed the Lewis's house, we'd often stop to gaze at the old sheep pasture, which was perpetually overgrown, untouched by our games. Sometimes, the wind would ripple through the edge of the woods, and all the trees would inflate and deflate in sync, like a single organism breathing.