Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

There's the price of things... and their value

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WASHINGTON -- On July 24, 1962, a father and his only son boarded a Trailways bus in New York City and travelled south to Washington, D.C. The boy was 12, mad about baseball and hockey, and indifferent to girls, as were they to him. He had just come off a pretty good report card in Grade 7, passing everything with stellar marks except for "fingernails" and "sewing." This voyage was his reward. The price for each ticket was $15.57.

Not counting a train trip to visit relatives in Tennessee when he was still in cotton diapers, it was the first time the son ever had journeyed to another city. The father, only slightly more worldly after a lifetime behind a luncheonette counter, had been to Europe and back on a troop ship. Later, he went around the United States by rail to personally commiserate with the kin of the messmates who never made it home.

A few weeks ago, I realized that half a century has passed since I and Dad, who died in 2002 at the age of 90, climbed aboard that bus. Half a century.

Yet somehow, after 50 years of packing and unpacking, I have managed to preserve a hotel bill, a baseball scorecard, a restaurant placemat, and a postcard from Washington, D.C., from late July of 1962.

(What do you retain -- in your hands and in your heart -- from the first time that you ever went away?)

Here is our invoice for three nights at the Hotel Houston on E Street, for a total of $28.08, paid in cash.

Here is a souvenir map from the Hickory House Restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue, just across from the National Archives.

Here is my official Washington Senators program from the evening of July 26, 1962, at D.C. Stadium, a game won by the Chicago White Sox, 7-1, with each batter's performance, inning by inning, scrawled in my childish hand.

And here is a postcard addressed to my mother at a bungalow colony in the Catskill Mountains, to which she must have hied with my little sister. On the front is an etching entitled Eagle Wharf by James McNeill Whistler, and on the back is this profound message:

Dear Mom,

Today we went to the museums.


Allen Abel

What else did my father and I do in the city that, decades later, would become my home?

We went to watch the Senate and the House of Representatives in action. We visited the White House -- you could walk right in the side door in those days -- but President Kennedy was away in Massachusetts, enjoying touch football with his brothers and indoor sports with his mistresses, with the Cuban Missile Crisis three months in the future.

I am certain that we did not cross the Potomac River to Arlington National Cemetery because, as my mother reminded me at least a thousand times in the subsequent decades, that would have forced Ben Abel to shell out two bucks for a cab.

Last week, I trekked in search of the city my father and I visited half a century before.

The Hotel Houston was gone, replaced by the J. Edgar Hoover FBI Building, a hideous fortress surrounded by unattended guard towers, dozens of surveillance cameras, and a deep moat filled with gravel and weeds.

The Hickory House also was extinct; in fact, the entire block had been razed for office towers and the United States Navy Memorial, which features a haunting statue of a young sailor, duffle at his side, gazing out at the city's concrete sea.

But D.C. Stadium -- renamed after 1968 for President Kennedy's martyred brother Robert -- still stood on the riverbank, unused except for a few professional soccer matches, abandoned by our baseball Nationals when the city built them a newer home a few blocks away. I hadn't been inside in 50 years.

When I got to RFK, a gate was open. One gate always is.

Almost nothing had changed: the grass (unlined, the basepaths gone), the dugouts, the center-field wall, the orange wooden chairs for which Dad and I had paid $1.50 (for him) and 75 cents (for me).

There was an older man named Robert Medley driving a golf cart through the lower deck, bringing some supplies to the groundskeepers who were tending to the soccer field.

I showed him my scorecard and we reviewed the home team's batting order: Piersall, Cottier, Johnson, Bright, Hinton, Retzer, Lock, Brinkman, Daniels. Not exactly a Hall of Fame nine.

"Those were my boys," Robert Medley said. He pointed out a smattering of seats in the upper deck of the yellow outfield stands that had been painted white after big Frank Howard of the Senators blasted a home run up there. And he said it was likely that the old ballpark would be demolished in the next year or two.

There were swallows fluttering over our heads as we spoke, and nesting in the doomed iron beams.

"I watched them build this place up," Medley said. "I want to watch them take it down, if I'm still living."

He looked at my 15-cent Senators program.

"That must be worth a fortune," he sighed.

"It is to me," I said.


Allen Abel is Brooklyn-born Canadian journalist based in Washington, D.C.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 28, 2012 A17

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