As long as I live I’ll never forget the unbelievable and blessed times we all played out on or near a Kingston, Georgia ballfield. It was there in the North Georgia mountains me and my friends acted out some amazing smalltown dramas. Writing this story today, I can still smell the honesty and cheer, the brotherhood and unforgettable moments the life held in store for us back when. For like most melancholy stories I remember how we were young, exuberant, and far too strong for our own good. Saturdays and Sundays back then, for many of us at least, were spent capturing and recapturing indefinable self. We played ball, rode jeeps, shot our guns, swam the river rapids, slugged moonshine and created our own antecedent legends reflected in the shining eyes of our kids.
Softball was a magnet that pulled hundreds of us over the hill athletes to compete again. And while some would call our folly a selfish or even pitiful endeavor to cling to fleeting glory, the reality of those summer days and nights is something altogether different. Maybe I can explain to you how we act out God’s earthly play on innumerable stages, not of our own choosing, and how he sets angels among us to spur our playing out our roles.
Unforgettable Smalltown Heroes
“Nice to meet ya Bill,“ he said. Extending a bear-like paw, John David Hatfield made an immediate impression that was funny, serious, and confrontational without an ounce of meanness in it. That’s the way, you see, good men stand before you. No, it didn’t matter that he’d screwed up my name. Phil – Bill, what’s the difference, after all, we both knew who the other was immediately. Besides, Doc (David’s colloquial nickname) is still that ironical country intellectual. I remember it was my pal Dale Penson who introduced us. Dale is another friend from those days, who’s due his own story. His role on this day was understanding how Doc and I were mirror features in a small world where the right values mattered. Good people seem to want to make things complete, I guess. Only Dale and Doc will know what I mean here. But let’s get on with today’s story.
I batted third, Doc batted cleanup. This is the way it was on our marvelous Kingston A’s softball team. Fate knows its own way, you know. My place in our batting order was to be that first “shot” at creating that tiny but fluorescent miracle of making a small-white-ball disappear into the distance. A “homer” works wonders on human beings, don’t you know? Somebody stands in the box, somebody else throws a little sphere at him, there’s a swift all-encompassing effort, then an object heads “out yonder.” Players and people go to ball diamonds to see homers, the rest of the games of baseball or softball is just the melody that leads to this moment of truth. And if I was the king of Polaroid all-out swings, Doc Hatfield was the methodic conductor of our weekly “smack” symphony. Losing the metaphors, if anyone could bring previous batters home it was Doc. “Whack!” and faces would lift in unveiled astonishment at how modern cavemen can still club rocks into the stratosphere. We were a powerful 1-2 feature, Doc and I were.
Angels On Our Shoulders
Eric Hatfield was Doc’s little boy. I will never forget the shine in his eyes when he’d ride or shoot with us when he’d tag along or become our biggest fan at ballgames. One time me and his dad performed the old “1-2” with rocket-shot homers out past 400 feet (520.6 ft as I calculate with Google today) in left field. Straight as Robin Hood’s arrows the white dots flew – and when I congratulated Doc at home plate, there was Eric looking up gleamy eyed – sharing one of the hundreds of brilliant moments. Eric’s joy and his spirit far outshined two brutes turning softballs to dust, trust me. “Butler, you and Daddy are the warlords of softball,” Eric said that evening. I’m being honest when I say that me, Doc, Moon, Freddie, Tony, Tim, the Cooper boys, and Frank could be phenomenal at times. But if truth must ever be revealed, was Eric and the band of kids surrounding him who were amazing every-single-time we played at anything. “Unfailing” is a hard row to hoe, but Eric Hatfield brought enthusiasm and heart whenever it was either appropriate or needed. I only realize at the moment of writing this, just how much I miss that wonderful boy. He so wanted to be like us, and especially his dad.
Finally, at long last, I am able somehow to talk about Eric. If he’d only known that he was the real feature of all those games, hunting trips, fishing outings, jeep racing craziness, mudding, and of the laugh-a-thons me, his dad, and our fellows had. As I type this I cannot hold back the tears welling up since I learned of his tragic death in an accident back in July of 1999. That wonderful boy who enjoyed life so much, who had such an infallible and kind spirit, he didn’t make it to his 25th birthday. Unbelievable, inconsolable, it’s just awful to conceive of even to this day. But for Doc, Eric’s mom Charlotte, his sister Aimee, this short story has to reflect how Eric influenced this unworthy role model. I guess he knows now how much better he was.
I don’t know why, maybe Eric is speaking to me now, but I cannot get out of my head another Eric-Doc-Phil moment. Maybe I should tell you. It was one of a thousand days we were holed up in Doc’s gun shop, where our enviable arsenal stood, and where our Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone traditions hovered thick. Doc and I were sitting on stools in the gunsmithing area in the back of the rustic building when Eric strode in with that cheerful and gleaming, somewhat proud smile on his face. Doc quizzed Eric on the events of his schoolday, as per usual. “Well son, what did you learn in school today?” he asked smiling up at Eric standing over us. Eric smile back, dully pleased he had something “educational” to share with us, “Well Daddy, we learned all about the eruption of Mount Saint Everest,” Eric asserted. And with that Doc and I exchanged smiling glances, “That’s my boy,” Doc said – in the manner of Sylvester the cat of Cartoon fame. Recollecting here I can only reassert, “That’s for sure Doc, that’s for sure.” Eric was Doc and Charlotte made over. And something more.
There’s a debt to Eric to be paid in this story of mine, and one to my old friends Doc and Charlotte. In 1999 I was embroiled in yet another Phil Butler – crazy wife – and – life fiasco, truth be told. But my real excuse for not going to say goodbye to Eric is more pitiful but honest. You see, batting third is one hell of a lot easier than batting cleanup. The third guy in the lineup is the sensationalist, the one who snatches the bigger, easier glory. Without a cleanup artist standing behind, such people have little chance to shine. So, bitter agony and unimaginable sorry are just too hard my friends. Facing Eric’s death at the time was just too damn hard – impossible for somebody like me, in a way. I can admit this now, now that enough time has passed and since we are all a lot closer to rejoining with Eric, his grandad and grandma, and his aunt, not to mention my own family. But God wants you and me to know one thing about Eric, and this is not me typing now.
Eric Duane Hatfield was the ultimate kindred spirit. Made of pure joy and enthusiasm, all he wanted in his life was to live up to his dad and his other heroes for living. As I said, Eric wanted to be like and with us more than anybody I ever knew. The fact is though, Eric was eons and eons of goodness better than either of us Doc. You and I always knew this, of course. Who am I to second guess God, but I think Eric was taken back because he’d accomplished his life’s mission the day he was born. I think Eric saw God in everything, and again this is not me speaking. I am sorry I was not there for you my old friend. I’ll never forgive myself.
God bless you.