1963. The year JFK was assassinated. But this was earlier, April. Spring. Season of new life and vigorous growth. The Rizzutto kid, Mike, maybe 14 years old, was a pitcher for a little league baseball team. Hardball, not softball. He lived across the hall from my wife and me in an apartment building. I think his folks were between houses, having sold one, building another. We'd be in a house ourselves, before fall of that year.
Cool kid, cool family, they were a large family, noisy as hell and happy most of the time, though we did hear some squalls and arguments over there. I guess they heard ours, too. I remember thinking Mike's mother was very attractive, his father tall, nice-looking guy. Wore a suit.
It was a bad week for them though; Wednesday, Mike had fired a fastball and hit the batter in the head, unintentionally, and knocked him to the ground. The batter was a pinch-hitter, wearing a helmet, but the ball struck him below the helmet. The kid died on Thursday after a coma. We all felt terrible about it, and it colored everything. I know the Rizzuttos were sure quiet, no doubt devastated.
The previous week my father-in-law, who was a Shriner, had given us six tickets to the Shrine Circus for Friday night. I was going to give them away but had forgotten, so we still had them.
I wasn't much for circuses, never was, but when Fran, my wife, suggested we go, and take the Rizzutto kids, including Mike, especially Mike, I thought yeah, might be good, get his mind off the tragedy. His folks also thought it was a positive thing, and said sure, in a distracted, yet grateful way.
Good intentions are the materials of the super highway to hell. We should have stayed out of it. What did we know?
We all piled into our station wagon; I remember watching the kids in the rear view mirror, just observing. Frannie was pregnant and I was interested in the way kids acted, more than I'd been before. They were a normal bunch, Mike's sisters just snorting with laughter, pushing his little brother around but not in a mean way. Mike was looking out the window, quiet. No surprise there.
I remember very little about that circus. I'm sure we got popcorn, drinks, that kind of thing for the kids. Settled into a bleacher row fairly high up, I do remember that, the vantage point to the sawdust covered rings. Mike was polite as always, and not distant. He was watching everything, trying, I imagine, to get into it. And the acts were actually pretty good. I let down my resistance to events I care little about and relaxed into the spirit of the slapstick crap and the beautiful horses and tigers , the elephants doing tricks. Back then we thought performance animals were well taken care of, not all stressed like I'm now sure they are.
I remember when Yetta Wallenda came on. That interested me because there was no net and it looked pretty dangerous what she was doing; standing on a tall, tall fiberglass pole and making it go around in a widening arc. When they said her name, the Wallenda tragedies came to mind, but this was even more safe because of that, I was pretty sure. It looked hard, balancing way up there, the spotlights following her in her gymnastics.
She suddenly leaned down to do something and she fell. I thought it was a trick, because the lights followed her down. I knew it would soon be shown to be part of the act. I knew that, so I was smiling over a little gulp in my throat. She hit a guy wire on her back about twenty feet from the ground, spun around, and hit the sawdust face down. I'll never forget; the spotlight followed it all, lit her up in a large circle as she lay on the ground. Then it went out. Frannie said, "Turn the damn light out," through her gritted teeth. I sat there gaping.
I looked at the kids. They were all shocked, and watching the ring, as some workers ran to the performer. We gathered up our things and herded the kids out. I can't remember How Mike reacted; you'd think I would. I do remember thinking My God, he's witnessed two deaths in two days, he was the cause of one. Does he think he caused this one?
I'll never know. We moved. I don't even recall depositing the kids back with their parents. I'd like to think I told Mike something wise beyond my twenty some odd years, but more likely I poured a stiff bourbon when I got home, and got anesthetized. That was my way with events beyond my control. And most things were. Almost all.
He was probably 15 when JFK was killed and that orgy of mourning hit high gear; his family was Catholic, so it probably pushed even more buttons for them. I know it enraged me; that was my reaction. I wonder what he thought and felt when Jack Ruby killed Oswald on national TV two days after JFK was killed.
About the author:
G. Wise has been a creative director in advertising most of his working life.
G. won the H. Palmer Hall Award for his short story collection, Night Train, Cold Beer, and published the book in 2013 (Pecan Grove Press). A sculptor and writer, he blogs about both and sundry here. He lives with his wife on a farm in SE Kansas.