Frankie Azzolino adjusted his Yankee cap as he sat on his front steps waiting for the early morning clouds to tell him whether they would let him and his friends play baseball on the field behind the elementary school. It was his first week of summer vacation having just finished 5thgrade and he and his friends had vowed to play baseball every day over the summer. The mid-June mornings in Syracuse had a hard time letting go of the nighttime chill and even if it didn’t rain, the outfield wouldn’t shake off the morning dew until they were a few innings into their first game, but only rain would keep them from playing.

His neighbor emerged onto his front steps, but he was looking up and down the street between looking down to check his watch. The clouds didn’t seem to interest him at all.

“Good morning, Mister Thomas,” Frankie said as he waved.

“Morning, Frankie,” Mr. Thomas said with his ever-present smile.

The Thomas’s had moved in the year before and were the first black family on the block. Before they moved in Frankie’s mother had told him they were a “little different”. He watched them move in for an hour trying to figure out what was different about them. After spending all that time watching, the only difference he could conclude was that Mr. Thomas drove a brand new 1966 Buick Electra. There weren’t many new cars in their working class neighborhood.

Mr. Thomas saw what he was looking for because he left the steps and walked to the end of the driveway and started waving. A beat-up station wagon with Mississippi plates pulled into the driveway and coughed its last breath of combustion in a cloud of tired gray smoke.

Frankie walked over to see what was going on but instead of looking to see who was in the car, the license plate on the front of the station wagon caught his eye.  It was white with blue lettering and was plastered with bugs like tourist stamps it had acquired on its cross country journey. On the bottom of the plate was a word that had him puzzled, “ITAWAMBA”. Now Mississippi was exotic enough to an upstate New York kid, but the word Itawamba was from another planet. Since he was occupied by the license plate, it took him a second to notice all of the people that had piled out of the car.

Mr. Thomas interrupted his hugs and handshakes to introduce him to the group, “Frankie, c’mon over and meet my family from Mississippi. This is my brother and his wife and kids. They are going to be staying with us. Family, this is Frankie Azzolino, he’s our neighbor.”

Mr. Thomas’s brother stuck out his hand and Frankie shook it exactly as his father taught him, “firm and look him in the eye.”

In addition to the parents there were six kids: four boys and two girls. The boys were older than the girls; Frankie figured the boys were mostly around his age. He was happy to see kids his age because the Thomas family had three daughters that were much older than him. They would tolerate Frankie hanging out with them but they didn’t like baseball at all.

They huddled behind their parents looking bleary eyed and scared. The kids all had on brand new clothes that had withstood the trip better than the kids wearing them. Frankie found out later that they had driven straight through from the small town of Cadamy, about two miles from the Alabama border.

“Pleased to meet you. Welcome to Syracuse.”

He turned to Mr. Thomas, “I’m about to go play baseball at Charles Andrews, would any of the boys like to come with me?”

“They’ve had a long trip and they need to get settled in, but thank you for the invitation.”

He stayed to watch the family reunion for a few minutes and was amazed to hear Mr. Thomas talking to his family in another language. It sounded very close to English but he couldn’t make out all the words. He thought it probably had been a while since Mr. Thomas had spoken this language because he could understand him more than his relatives. He knew he had seen Mississippi on the map at school but he didn’t remember any of the social studies teachers saying that they spoke a different language down there.

The clouds had parted in the meantime so Frankie left to go to his game, waving goodbye to the visitors as he walked up the street.

When he came home for lunch the smell hit him as he rounded the corner onto his street. It was faint at first but he knew what it was right away. Mr. Thomas was in his side yard attending to the smoker that he had fashioned out of an old metal drum and he was barbequing. Mr. Thomas had taught Frankie all about the difference between grilling and barbequing.

The nephews stood in a line by the smoker watching Mr. Thomas slather the sauce on the chickens that had the backbones cut out and were flattened on the grates. Mr. Thomas had shown Frankie how to make the cut last year and even let him use the knife.

He walked up next to where they were standing and joined them in admiring Mr. Thomas’s culinary skills. He could see the boys looking at him from the corners of their eyes but no one turned their heads.

Frankie had one burning question and thought that would be as good an icebreaker as any to see if they would talk.

“So what is Itawamba? All I can guess is that it might be Latin, like here in New York, the state motto is ‘Excelsior’ which means forever upward.”

They didn’t move an inch or look at him.

Frankie walked up to the smoker and whispered, “Mr. Thomas, are they okay? Do they speak English?”

Mr. Thomas looked at his nephews and laughed, “Boys it’s okay to talk to Frankie. I told you, he’s our neighbor.”

Mr. Thomas walked Frankie over to the first boy in line, “Frankie this is Junior.”

Frankie stuck out my hand to shake but Junior just looked at Mr. Thomas.

“Go on now, Junior,” Mr. Thomas reassured him.

“Hello,” Junior said, sticking out his hand.

The same thing next with John, Willie and then Harold.

“Do you guys like baseball? We play every day at the field behind the school.”

They nodded, again after looking at Mr. Thomas for approval.

“If you guys didn’t bring your gloves, we always share, it won’t be any problem.”

“That’s very nice of you, Frankie, just knock on the door tomorrow when you are leaving and I’ll make sure they’re ready,” Mr. Thomas said.

“Great, now what is Itawamba?”

“We live in Itawamba County, in Mississippi,” Junior said, glancing at his uncle.

Frankie had to let what he said play over in his head; it was as if the words were twice as long as regular English and as if Junior was in no hurry to say them.

“Itawamba is a county? Okay, that makes sense,” Frankie said satisfied with the answer and ready to move on to a new topic. “How long are you guys staying?”

The boys stood silent.

“Well Frankie, you see there’s a lot going on back in Mississippi so we thought it would be good for all the kids to stay here in New York for the summer,” Mr. Thomas answered.

“All summer!” Frankie said, excited at the addition of all the kids to the street and the possibility of numerous cook-outs during the summer. “Holy cow, that’s great. I have to go eat lunch now. I’ll see you guys later. Bye Mr. Thomas.”

“Goodbye Frankie,” Mr. Thomas said as he shut the top of the smoker.

The next morning the four boys were waiting on their front steps when Frankie opened the door to look at the clouds.

“You guys ready?” Frankie asked.

Four heads nodded.

As the boys walked up the street to the school Frankie acted as a tour guide introducing his guests to the neighborhood, showing them important things like the part of the sidewalk that a tree root had elevated into a ramp to ride your bike over and the houses where the people would yell at you if you went on the lawn or cut through their back yard.

Junior was the first of the brothers to speak when he stopped their group as they turned into the parking lot of the school.

“Is this a white school or a colored school?” he asked.

“I don’t know what you mean, it’s a school. It’s a public school. I go to the Catholic School down the street.”

“So all the kids go to this school?”

“Yeah, you either go to this school or my school if you’re Catholic.”

Junior stood and looked at the school without saying anything.

“C’mon, the guys are waiting,” Frankie said, motioning toward the field.

A dozen boys were throwing baseballs, warming up like their heroes in the major leagues. Frankie saw Willie point to James and Lloyd and whisper something in Junior’s ear.

Junior concurred and smiled at his brother, “I tol’ you it’d be okay. Uncle John said they’d be other kids like us.”

Frankie introduced his summer neighbors to the guys.

“Hey y’all, I have cousins in South Carolina,” James chimed in as he walked up and shook hands with all four brothers.

“Alabama for me,” Lloyd added as he followed James in the handshake line.

“You guys played baseball before?” Eric asked.

“Are we going to play baseball or what? Captain!” Frankie shouted.

“Captain,” Eric yelled before anyone else could jump in.

Frankie wanted to be a captain to make sure Junior and his brothers didn’t suffer the embarrassment of being picked last. He took them on his team even though he had no idea if they were any good or not but he knew he was responsible for making sure they fit in with the guys.

They were batting in the top of the inning so Frankie set the line up with the brothers first, from youngest to oldest.

Harold went up to the plate with a bat that seemed as big as him. He watched two perfect pitches go by. Frankie couldn’t look as the next pitch was thrown. When he heard the sound of the ball solidly connecting with the bat he looked up in time to see Harold easily reaching first. Willie singled next, and then John hit a deep infield grounder that loaded the bases. As Junior went up to the plate, Frankie’s team was cheering for him. His brothers perked up from their spots on the bases yelling, “C’mon June-eeee-June, big hit, big hit.”

Junior stood at the plate taking his warm up swings.

Eric shouted from the pitcher’s mound, “Azzolino, you sand bagged us with a bunch of ringers.”

Frankie just laughed and joined the brothers with their chant for Junior.

Eric turned to the plate and dug in his heel on the mound, “Okay, I was easy on your brothers cause you’re new, this time I’m gonna be Tom Seaver of the New York Mets.”

Junior nodded to him and dug in, getting ready for the first pitch. Eric threw the pitch with his entire body, causing his hat to fall over his eyes that saved him from the disgrace of having to watch his pitch go over the left field fence.

“That was Hank Aaron, he ain’t a New Yorker, he’s a Atlanta Brave,” Junior told the opposing team as he rounded the bases, meeting his team at home plate where they waited for their new hero.

Two innings into the game the score was so lopsided that Eric’s team was calling for picking over and starting a new game. Frankie didn’t object because he knew his neighbors could handle themselves on the field.

After the game the boys walked home for lunch, furiously telling stories about their exploits on the field. The brothers saw Mr. Thomas and their father in the driveway waiting for them and ran ahead. Frankie could see them acting out their great plays to the delight of their father and uncle.

When he joined them, Mr. Thomas walked over and shook his hand.

“Thanks, Frankie, you don’t know how much this means to me.”

Frankie was little puzzled by Mr. Thomas’s reaction. He looked like he was going to cry.

“Any time, Mr. Thomas; they’re really good ball players.”

THE END

*****

Photo by Jason512