Arthur was born in the late afternoon as the radio blared and the fathers paced, paced and listened, one ear to the ballgame, the other to the screams escaping the door to New York Public’s maternity ward. Arthur’s father always claimed the nurse came to get him exactly as Mel Allen called the Joe DiMaggio blast that won game two of the 1950 World Series. Arthur’s grandfather, on the other hand, swore that he got the call from his son-in-law two hours after the birth, and that it was the phone call that coincided with DiMaggio’s shot. Both agreed on the inning, tenth, and the pitcher, Robin Roberts.
The new father went along with his wife’s wish to name their son Arthur, after her brother who had died in the Philippines just as the second world war was ending. He went along but he still dreamed of “Joe DiMaggio Silverman” on a birth certificate, on a diploma, on a professional baseball contract. But he understood that even the DiMaggio home run couldn’t trump his wife’s memory of her brother, a brother he had never met.
While DiMaggio circled the Shibe Park bases in Philadelphia that October day, another war was thriving, this time in Korea,and Arthur’s father was the right age. Even with the baby’s birth it was clear he would be called soon. By January of ’52 he was in uniform in Texas. Four months later he was cooking in Korea — he had been a cook in the Bronx — and that is where he met DiMaggio. The Yankee Clipper was touring different bases now, rallying the troops in the truest sense of the expression, and Arthur’s father was on duty in his mess hall when, without warning, DiMaggio and six Hollywood starlets dropped in for lunch.
DiMaggio was shorter, up close, than he’d appeared in Yankee Stadium’s spacious center field. In the batter’s box, even seen from the distant bleachers, he’d stood tall, his god-like body poised to turn on a pitch. He was smoking, too, and exhausted, but took a moment with each G.I. Arthur’s father wished more deeply than ever his son was another Joe DiMaggio.
He approached him after the meal and told the story of his son’s birth. He told it his way, not his father-in-law’s way. The Clipper smiled, wished nothing but good luck for his son, hoped that “maybe he’d be a Yankee, too, one day.” Then DiMaggio and the starlets were gone, motoring under heavy escort to another base, another show. This camp had not had the luck of a drawing a show, but to Arthur’s father, they’d drawn the high card.
When Arthur turned nineteen, the war was in Vietnam. He was three thousand miles from home, one of a micro-culture of New Yorkers populating UCLA’s Rieber Hall dormitory. He lived on the seventh floor, “the highest floor on campus,” his fellow dopers bragged. It was, physically, the top floor of the tallest of the dormitories that stood west of the campus proper, so they had a point, but the marijuana intake — as well as the occasional hallucinogen — was no doubt matched by countless other living quarters.
On December 1st of 1969 the nation crowded into family rooms to watch the lottery. For the first time since World War II, and for the very first time on television, young men were receiving individual numbers from the Selective Service System. Arthur and the rest of the seventh-floor residents crowded into their recreation room to watch.
At home Arthur’s mother and father sat, not in their usual spots — she on the couch and he in his recliner — but together on the couch, the quilt made by her mother across their knees. They held hands. On the wall above the television were black and white photographs of her brother Arthur, one in uniform, and one at age fourteen, guiding her as she learned to ride a bicycle. There were photos of other family members, too, but many of those were in color, and all of those pictured were alive. The newest picture, not six months old, was Arthur in his blue cap and gown, holding his high school diploma.
“Should we call him?” For the first time she wondered if naming him after her brother had been a good idea.
“No, not now, not yet,” his father decided. He had been thinking about Korea and also about the story in the paper about a local kid who’d overdosed on some drug. And then there was the family around the corner whose kid had been killed last month in Vietnam. That kid, Tommy Something, had been three years ahead of Arthur in school.
“I’m so afraid,” she whispered. She found her voice: “When that man brought the telegram Mrs. Bianchi looked like she’d been hit with a brick. Honey, he’s just a baby. They’re all babies.”
Arthur’s father squeezed her hand and made her look right at him. “It’s going to be okay. He was born on a good day.”
On the television it was about to begin. Parents and sons across the nation edged a bit closer to their screens. Distances collapsed. Arthur’s father noticed how warm it was in the room and how the hall light climbed the stairway. The first number was drawn.
Tony Press tries to pay attention and sometimes he does. He’d love to see his words return to Halfway Down the Stairs, and he’d be thrilled if people purchased his recent story collection Crossing the Lines (published by Big Table).
© 2015, Tony Press