I didn’t know him well, but he was one of those guys in your neighborhood who seems elderly when you’re a kid, but then he lives another 30 or 40 years and you realize he couldn’t have been as old as you thought. A quick search for his obituary revealed that he was 97 when he died, so he would have been in his 60s when I was a kid, which doesn’t seem so old anymore.
He had a grandson named Mike who used to visit him often. We would sneak away to the sandlot to play baseball – just him and me. We took turns hitting a tattered tennis ball while the other would pitch. And we kept stats.
Anything out of the gravel infield was a hit. Right field had a tall fence that was maybe 125 feet from home plate. Anything over that fence was a home run. Since no fence existed in left field, the utility wire that stretched across the field served as the home run marker, but it was much farther away. We often disputed one another’s home runs to left field because it was difficult to tell whether the ball cleared the wire or not. Instant replay would have come in handy.
Whenever I knocked on Barney's door to see if Mike was there, Barney was always pleasant, but I’ll always remember one interaction in particular.
When I was 16 or 17, I climbed into the driver’s side seat of my mom’s car one day that was parked on the street. I don’t remember where I was headed, but a car was parked in front of me and Barney’s truck was parked in back. As an inexperienced driver, it seemed like I had about two inches to spare on both sides.
I eased the car into drive and inched forward. Then I shifted into reverse, and before I knew it, I heard a sickening crunch.
My heart raced. Not only was I going to have to tell my mom I hit Barney’s truck with her car, but I was going to have to tell Barney. After pulling the car forward a bit, I climbed out and inspected the damage. Mom’s car, an old Pontiac, was part tank and it didn't have a scratch on it. But I left a dent the size of a small fist in Barney’s front bumper.
I made the dreaded walk to Barney’s door, staring at the ground when he answered. “Barney, I … I backed into your truck and dented your front fender. I’m so sorry.”
“Let me come and take a look.” He went inside to get something and then met me at the scene of the crime. He surveyed the damage while I held my breath. “You know, this old truck already has a few dents in it. Another one isn’t going to hurt it one bit.” He smiled.
He had me dead to rights and probably should have collected from my insurance company, but surely he knew that a claim on my insurance policy, as a male teenage driver, would raise my rates. And since he didn’t care that his truck had one more dent in it, he let me off the hook.
I never forgot that.
He owned that truck for several more years, often parking it in front of his house. Every time I saw the dent, it was reminder of his mercy.