That's my great-uncle Otto. I'm his guardian. It's not like I got the appointment because I'm his favorite family member. More like I'm his only family member. He never married, and he's outlived every other relative. Believe me, if I could, I'd give the job to someone else, but it is what it is, and I do what I can.
Otto is a bit of a pain in the ass. Scratch that. He's a royal pain in the ass. And it's not just because he thinks that hitchhiking is still the best form of public transportation. He's alienated everybody in the nursing home since the day he landed with the same, never changing story.
He says he played for the Brooklyn Dodgers with Jackie Robinson.
Mind you, it's not like I haven't searched Google, Wikipedia, and every New York newspaper from 1947 to 1958 when the Dodgers left Brooklyn for Los Angeles if for no other reason than to shut him up. There's no proof he ever came closer to Robinson than buying a ticket and watching a game from the right field bleachers.
So, I've come to the same conclusion as every other person who has ever known him. Great-Uncle Otto is a blowhard.
Which is why I wasn't surprised when I saw on my cell phone that I had a call from the nursing home. He was always getting into it with someone there and I was the one who had to come straighten things out.
When I returned the call, I was expecting to get maybe the head nurse. The fact that it was the Director of the whole place was my first tipoff that this was something serious.
"You need to come here and deal with your uncle. We found him a quarter mile from here wheeling his walker toward the Interstate. He was hitchhiking."
I was too dumbfounded to say anything meaningful. "Hitchhiking," I repeated.
"In his pajamas," the Director said.
"Christ. Where was he going?"
"He wouldn't say. In fact, all he would say is that he'll only talk to you."
I thought maybe a light touch would help. "Maybe he just couldn't get an Uber."
I could almost hear the clucking of a tongue though the telephone. "This is not funny, Mr. Christenson. It's not the first incident. He's constantly arguing with the staff and clients. It's getting to the point where we don't think we can keep him here. He's too much of a risk and demands too much time of the staff. If we can't get his behavior under control I'm afraid you are going to have to find another place for him."
It was an hour's drive to the nursing facility and mid-March which, in Minnesota, means a foot of snow, so it took me forever. When I got there, Otto was in bed cussing away a storm. He looked even paler than normal, waxen and wiped-out from his earlier exertion.
Then I saw that they had him strapped to the bed, so he wouldn't make any more unexpected forays into the road.
I didn't know exactly how to start. Somedays my uncle was lucid and had a handle on reality. Other times he was purely off the dock--especially where the Brooklyn Dodgers were concerned.
"Hi, Otto. Looks like you've had an interesting day."
"Christ," he spit. "Took you long enough to get here."
Great. It was going to be an anger festival. "That's because, I wasn't planning on being here today. Did you ever think I might have had other plans than hauling here to deal with your latest adventure?"
That didn't help. "Yeah, like you have a full schedule to take up your life. Like a wife or a job."
He might be ninety and off his nut, but he still knew how to hit you where it hurt. My wife had left two years ago and I had been drifting from job to crappy job for the last five. It was hard to figure out which had been the chicken or egg: the drinking and losing every job that came my way or her throwing me out to live in a mobile home with used furniture and a half-working black & white TV from Goodwill.
"Touche. Maybe I don't have a full dance card, but I still had to drive out here in the snow to break up your latest spat with these folks. Where were you going?"
"Brooklyn? Like in New York City? Do you even know anyone in Brooklyn?"
"Did once but they're probably all dead now."
"Ok," I said. "So, why were you hitchhiking in your pajamas in the snow to Brooklyn?"
"I'm going to prove to you all that I played for the Dodgers. I might be old but I'm not a liar and I'm not senile. If it takes me walking to New York City to do it, then that's the way it's got to be."
"Uncle Otto, you just can't keep doing this stuff. The people here can't put up with the trouble. They're threatening to kick you out."
"Who gives a damn," he hissed. "Kick me out, put me someplace else, it's all the same. The best thing they could do would be to stick me on a bus to New York. The trip might kill me but at least I'd die happy."
I looked at the old man strapped to the bed. Even at ninety, thin and wasted by years of smoking, I could see the barrel-chest and strong shoulders from his years of farming, the strong forearms and sinewy hands gripping the sides of the bed. I closed my eyes and let my imagination go. I could see him in a baseball uniform as a kid, taking pure, level swings, the ball jumping off his bad to the left field wall.
I opened my eyes. "Look, what if we both went to New York City? If I took you there, will you let all of this go once and for all?"
As soon as I said it, my brain exploded. What did you just offer to do?
Otto stared. It had to be only a few seconds, but I swear, it seemed like light years. "You'd do that?"
Damn, I thought. Well, in for a penny, as the saying goes.
"Yeah," I said. "But one way or the other, whatever we find, even if it's that you're the world's biggest liar, you'll drop all this forever, stop being a pain in the ass to everybody and do whatever the staff and doctors tell you, no questions, no backtalk. Agreed?"
"Deal," he said.
But then, as if he got a second thought, he added: "But you have to give me a fair shot to prove my story. No half-hearted bullshit for a day and then we head home. We stay at it one way or the other until we find out the truth."
Now it was my turn. "Agreed."
"So, how are you going to spring me out of here?"
I rubbed my chin and felt a two-day growth of beard. "I'm your legal guardian with power of attorney. If I want to take you for a few days, they may bitch about it, but I don't know if they have much choice."
"Just give me a little time to set things up. Okay?"
"And while I'm looking into things, you have to behave. No temper tantrums, no fights. You eat your food, take your meds. No talking about the Brooklyn Dodgers. Got it?"
Otto nodded. I got up to leave.
"Just one more thing," he said.
Christ, here it comes. "Ok, what is it? I have to meet with the Director."
Can you go into the drawer next to the bed and get my teeth? They're going to be bringing the dinner cart soon. I hate their damn food, but I need to keep my strength up if we're traveling cross-country."
But it wasn't as easy getting Uncle Otto released as I thought it would be. The Director said that Otto was too unstable, both mentally and physically, to travel. "Clearly," he said, "his constant rambling about playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers proves he is unreliable to the point of being delusional. What if he gets up in the middle of the night and wanders off? What if he gets short of breath and needs oxygen and he's on empty? Are you going to be able to get him to the nearest hospital?"
The Director also warned me that there wasn't an airline in the country that would allow an old man in his condition to fly. I was going to have to drive him halfway across the continent, but he'd tire easily and need rest. It would take forever to get to New York and even longer to get back to Minnesota.
But I calmly answered each one of the Director's concerns. Plus, I held the aces: I was his legal guardian and could remove him if I wished. More importantly, Otto had promised upon return that he'd be the model patient. Finally, they agreed to let him out if I signed a waiver releasing them of all liability.
A week later we were ready to go. I'd stopped the newspaper, had my minivan checked out, and talked my ex-wife into feeding my cat. I told her I was going to a job interview but was sketchy on the details. With all the back alimony I owed her, it was the only way I could get her off my back and willing to take care of things. I'd deal with the fallout when I returned.
We left on a Thursday morning, right after breakfast. I was hoping that rested, and with a full stomach and an empty bladder, we'd be able to cover the first 400 miles into Indiana. But already the morning sky was dark and angry with snow clouds and there was ice in the air. I hoped this wasn't an omen for the entire trip.
It didn't take me long to realize that making 400 miles was wildly optimistic. First was the traffic jam getting out of Minneapolis, then the slick roads once we hit the Wisconsin border.
Not to mention Uncle Otto's constant need to go to the bathroom. The guy possessed a prostate the size of a pumpkin which is great if you want to enter it in the Minnesota State Fair but not so hot if you are trying to make time on the Interstate. But it was that or have the guy pee into his Depends and, with the temperature below freezing and the car windows rolled up, I'd be damned if I was going to put up with the smell for the thousand miles it was going to take us to get to New York. So, we stopped whenever he felt the urge to tinkle.
It was on one of these pit-stops that the shit--metaphorically, not literally--hit the fan. We were outside Madison when Otto had to use the head again and I thought we'd kill two birds with one stone and get some lunch. We stopped at a local restaurant that offered double-decker sandwiches and homemade apple pie, two of my favorite Weight-Watchers items.
We got seated in a booth not far from a television suspended from the ceiling, the type that is perpetually showing ESPN. It was playing highlights of the previously night's baseball games--I wasn't sure of the teams and kind of mentally tuned out the noise--but Uncle Otto seemed mesmerized by what was taking place on the screen. That's when the problems started.
Evidently, some guy hit a ground ball to short and didn't run it out. That made Otto apoplectic. And the fact that the guy was Latin-American didn't help.
"Goddamn Mexicans," he screamed up at the TV monitor. "That's why they didn't let them play when I was with the Dodgers. Why, when I played, Jackie Robinson would have met that guy before he got back to the dugout and strangled him with his bare hands."
Now, the fact that half the people in the restaurant were Latino pretty much insured that Otto and I were going to die before our sandwiches came out.
"Jesus, Otto," I whispered a little too loudly. "Keep it down, ok? I'd like to make it to New York in one piece."
"Just calling them like I see them," he said, still using his "outside" voice. "Those guys always did play for themselves. That's why Durocher never wanted to manage any of them. Hodges and Campanella would die for the team, but these Mexican guys couldn't be bothered."
I knew we were headed for trouble. "Hey, old fool," one of the Latino guys the next table over shouted. "Put a sock in it. You don't know shit about nothing. Can't be bad mouthing brothers like that."
Otto struggled to get up out of his booth seat. "Sonny, I'm just speaking plain truth. When I played with the Dodgers, we didn't want those kind of guys. They didn't even know English. Couldn't teach them the signs for steal, bunt, anything else."
"Shit," another Latino guy shouted. "You say you played for the Dodgers? You must have helium in that canister instead of oxygen. I'd come over there and kick your ass, but my Daddy taught me never to hit farts older than dirt itself."
Otto grabbed his oxygen tank like he was fixing to throw it at the guy. The fact that he was still connected to it, I guess, didn't enter his thought process.
I was struggling to get him, and me, out alive. When he picked up the butter knife to defend his honor I decided that it was a good time to make our exit.
"That's it, Otto," I ordered. "In the car now!" I slapped down forty-dollars to cover two sandwiches and coffee plus about a 900% tip for the waitress and almost picked up Otto as we made our way out of the entrance back into my car.
"Christ, Sonny, you should have let me at the guy. I could take care of myself back in the day and I can still do it now."
I floored the engine and got out of there, leaving about two plies of my tires on the pavement, before any of the other diners might have ideas about following us.
When we were five miles out of town and I was sure that nobody from the restaurant was following us, I pulled off at an interchange and cut the motor.
"All right," I said, "some ground rules."
"Who says you get to make the rules?" he snapped.
I turned toward him. "My car, my rules. Unless you want to walk to New York. Now listen closely. One. You keep your mouth shut in public. Only person you talk to is me."
"Shit," he hissed. I don't like these already."
I ignored him. "Two. No more talk about you and the Dodgers. Anybody asks, we're going to New York to see the Statue of Liberty."
"Anything else?" he asked.
"Yeah. For the rest of the trip, could you try to be nice? If nice doesn't work, could you at least be civil? It's going to be a long ride. Being upbeat wouldn't exactly kill you."
I looked at him hard. "You got all that?"
"Guess I don't have any choice."
"No," I said. "I guess you don't."
"Ok," he said. "But I ain't happy."
Things pretty much settled down after that, the miles unrolling mile after dreary, rain-soaked mile in an unending series of interstates that differed only in their numerical names. Otto settled down too: no more outbursts, although I carefully timed rest stops and meals to off-hours and places without televisions.
We also found budget motels with rooms designated for people with disabilities, so Otto was able to shower, pee and get around. But even with all of this, the trip seemed endless.
Somewhere east of Erie, Pennsylvania in a Wendy's, I lost my mind to boredom. I put it down to a need for human contact, even if it was just with Uncle Otto.
"So, tell me the truth," I began as he noisily sucked his Junior Frosty through a straw. "Did you really play for the Brooklyn Dodgers?"
Otto looked at me like I had just landed from Mars. "You're kidding, right? What's this trip all about? Of course, I played for them."
"And Jackie Robinson. That true too?"
"Especially Robinson," he said, trying to fish out the remains of the Frosty with a plastic spoon.
I don't know why I blurted out what came next.
"Ok, prove it. Right now, give me a story about you and Robinson that no one's ever heard before."
If I thought that would stump the old guy, I was wrong.
"No problem," he said. "Ebbett's Field, 1948. I don't remember the exact date. I'm at bat, Robinson's dancing off third, making the pitcher crazy. Did you know Jackie stole home twenty-times in his career, one during the World Series?"
"Stop stalling," I said. "Finish the story."
"I'm not stalling, just adding color.
"I'm a right-handed hitter so I can't see what Robinson is up to and I'll be damned if the third base coach doesn't signal for a suicide squeeze. You know what that is?"
"Not exactly," I confessed.
"It means I have to bunt the ball and Robinson is coming home whether I hit it or miss. So, now not only do I have to bunt the ball fair, I have to get the hell out of the batter's box or Robinson will wipe me out sliding into home plate."
"So, what did you do?"
Otto paused dramatically and wiped his face of chocolate. "Got the bunt down. Robinson scored easy. Guys mobbed me when I got back to the dugout."
I wanted to say "which guys" but I knew better and let things pass. But damn it all, I almost believed him. Either my great-uncle was telling the truth, or he was the greatest and most spontaneous bullshitter of all time.
After four long days that felt like an eternity, we finally passed through the Lincoln Tunnel and over the Brooklyn Bridge. I pulled off onto a side street, parked the car and looked over at Otto.
"Now what?" I asked. "How do we go about proving your story?"
The old man shrugged. "Damned if I know. I thought you had a plan."
I looked to see if he was pulling my leg. "Wait, you don't have any idea? What were you thinking when you broke out of the nursing home and started hitchhiking across the country?"
Otto shrugged again. "Just getting away and maybe making it across the Minnesota state line. Kind of figured the rest would take care of itself."
I swear, if my uncle wasn't attached to his oxygen tank I'd have thrown him out the passenger door and head for home. "Well, we're here now, so come up with something."
"Maybe we could head over to Ebbet's Field and see if they have any records of me there."
I knew my uncle was out of it, I just never knew how much. "Otto, they tore down Ebbet's Field in 1960. Have you been in a coma all that time?"
"Guess I should read the papers more," he said in a quiet voice. The only sound for a long while was the hissing of the heater in my van.
"When I was in high school we played our home games at the Brooklyn Parade Ground. Maybe there's something there."
I took out my cell phone and checked Google. The Parade Ground had long changed its name to Prospect Park and there was no record of a baseball stadium being there anymore.
Then, I got an idea. "You mentioned high school. Which one did you attend?"
"Boys' High. In Bedford-Stuyvesant. Why?"
I punched the name into my phone. It was still there--merged into Boys and Girls High and at a different site, but still open. "Because," I said, "they may have old records for students."
"You think?' he said.
I doubted it but didn't want to say. "It's a long shot, but who knows? Right now, it's all we got. It's that or go home empty-handed."
I typed the address into my GPS and began weaving my way through oneway streets choked with double-parked trucks.
I don't know what Bedford-Stuyvesant was like when Otto was a kid, but it was tough now. Buildings were mostly run down, storefronts with signs in languages I didn't recognize. Graffiti everywhere. I was used to Minnesota with open land and green space. Not here. Plus, if there was a baseball stadium around, I didn't see it.
The high school, though, was beautiful. Gothic. Something out of the Middle Ages. And tall. Five stories, to be exact. My high school had exactly one floor. I wondered if there was an elevator to take the kids from class to class.
There was a security guard and metal detector at the front door, but the officer gave us a cursory inspection and waved us through. I guess he figured a ninety-year-old guy in a walker with an oxygen tank didn't constitute much of a terrorist threat.
We got passed from employee to employee as they probably wanted to get rid of us as soon as possible. Finally, we ended up with an old lady, not all that much younger, it seemed, than Otto. Mrs. Leary. She was some sort of guidance counselor and, we were told, the unofficial historian of the school.
She quietly listened to Otto's story but with her thick glasses, I couldn't tell if she believed him or thought he was some demented guy with a not-too-smart great-nephew who was along for the ride. But I had to hand it to her, at least she didn't throw us out on our ear.
She sat quietly when Otto was finished, evidently lost in thought. "That's quite a story, Mr. Svenson. But I'm not sure how to help you."
She thought some more. "Well, there is one possibility but it's a long shot. Down in the basement we have a room with all the old yearbooks and editions of the school newspaper. Not complete, mind you, but if we're lucky we might find something."
She looked at Otto. "Do you remember what year you graduated?"
Otto didn't hesitate. "Forty-eight."
"Eighteen or nineteen forty-eight," I joked, and was rewarded with dirty looks from both seniors.
"Don't mind him," Otto said. "He's a moron but he's not a bad kid when you get to know him. Nineteen-forty-eight. I remember it as if it were yesterday."
"All right, I'll look around downstairs. But I can't promise anything. Wait here. I'd offer you some coffee but like everything else in this place, the machine is out of order." She got up and left the room.
She returned in ten minutes--not a good omen, I thought, when looking for records that were seventy years old. But she was holding two hardcover, oversized books labeled 1948 and I became more hopeful.
"I found these volumes," she said, sitting back down with difficulty. "One's the school yearbook, the second, clipped new stories from the Boys' High Spartan. That was the school nickname then. Not sure if they'll show us anything but it's worth a look."
She handed the yearbook to me and started thumbing through the press clippings from the newspapers. The graduation photos were in alphabetical order, so I flipped through until I found Svenson. There was Otto, in a shirt and tie, smiling for the camera. I looked up at the aged man sitting in front of me with a walker and attached to his container of oxygen and gasped involuntarily.
In the photo, he looked so young, so strong, so full of himself. I cursed the concepts of time and age.
"What is it?" Otto said. "You find something?"
I turned the book and held it up for my uncle to see. "You," I whispered.
He peered at the photo like he was examining a relic from the past. "Yeah, that's me." He smiled. "Handsome devil, wasn't I? The ladies couldn't keep their hands off me."
He studied the picture some more. "Well, I told you I went to school here. That proves my story is true, doesn't it?"
I took the book back. "Not at all," I said. "All it shows is that you went to school here and graduated. It doesn't prove a thing about you and the Brooklyn Dodgers."
"Keep looking," he ordered. He looked at Mrs. Leahy. "And you too ... please."
I remembered from my own high school yearbook that photos of clubs and teams were at the back and wondered if the same had held true in 1948. I started from the back and found the photo of the varsity baseball team. The picture was taken from a distance to get everyone into the frame and between the fuzziness of the camera and the aging of the book, it was difficult to make any individual out.
But at the bottom of the photo was a listing of every team member and where he was in the four-tiered photo. There in row two, third from the left, was Otto Svenson.
"I showed the photo to my uncle. "Yeah, that was us--league champions, damn near undefeated if my memory serves me."
He paused for effect. "And it usually does. You believe me yet?"
"Well, you passed step two," I said. "But all that photo shows is that you played on the varsity with twenty-five other guys. Good circumstantial evidence, but it still doesn't prove anything about you and Robinson."
"Maybe this will," said Mrs. Leahy. She had the newspaper volume open to a page. From far away and upside down, all I could see that it was from the sports section and had something to do with baseball.
She handed the volume to me and I put it between myself and Uncle Otto. There was a posed picture of two baseball players with Spartans written across the chest of their uniforms. Next to one was a muscular black man maybe in his late twenties. Next to the other, a white ballplayer about the same age as the black guy but smaller. Both men had Dodgers written in script across the chest of their blue uniforms. Their caps contained a bold capital B. Both seemed to be studying the lineup card held by each of the Spartans.
Under the photo there was a caption. I read it out loud.
Dodger greats Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese choose up sides with Boys' High borough all-stars Otto Svenson and Jack Donnelly for the all-Brooklyn all-star exhibition game played at Ebbett's Field on May 12th before the Dodgers game with the Cincinnati Reds.
Otto smiled and nodded his head. "Yeah, I remember that game now. Robinson picked me as co-captain of his team."
I took the volume back. "There's a story that goes with the picture."
"Read it," Otto said softly.
The Brooklyn Eagle, all-borough high school all-stars played their annual exhibition game on May 12th at Ebbett's Field before the Dodgers' regular season game against the Cincinnati Reds. The Borough all-stars were split into two squads and played under honorary Dodger captains Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese. The all-stars played alongside various Dodgers in the field and at bat including Gil Hodges, Gene Hermanski, George "Shotgun" Shuba, Billy Cox, and Arky Vaughn. Boys' High standout Otto Svenson played shortstop with Robinson at second base and the duo turned in a sparking double play. Svenson, who was named the game's Most Valuable Player, also scored Robinson on a daring suicide squeeze as well as contributing a two RBI double. Robinson's team won the three-inning affair 5-2.
I passed the book back to Mrs. Leary and looked at my Uncle. His eyes were closed, and a slight smile was on his face as if he was reliving the game.
"See, I told you all that I played for the Dodgers, but nobody would believe me."
"No, Otto," I said as kindly as I could. "You played with the Dodgers. You didn't play for them. There's a difference."
Uncle Otto pointed to the picture. "For, with, who the hell cares? I played."
For once I kept my mouth shut and let my uncle have his way. He had his dream--all right, his fantasy--to hold on to, even if it wasn't completely true. I silently wished I could say the same thing for myself.
Otto opened his eyes again and looked at the photo. "Jack Donnelly, damn. I remember him. Great outfielder, good speed and a helluva arm. We were close, but after graduation we lost touch. I went into the service and then to Minnesota. Wonder whatever happened to him."
That part was easy. I was getting pretty good at finding out about things and people on the Internet--or as Uncle Otto called it, The Intercom.
Turns out that Jack Donnelly was still alive and in Brooklyn. He was at a nursing home in Far Rockaway. Uncle Otto insisted on visiting him and it seemed a harmless enough thing to do before heading back to Minnesota.
We found the nursing home with little trouble. I'm sorry to report that they're all dreary places: the same smell of disinfectant, old people rolling their walkers or clacking up and down the hallways in parade fashion, dressed in their pajamas and bathrobes. If anything, this place was a step down from Otto's place back home.
We were directed to Jack Donnelly's room. Well, it wasn't exactly his but one he shared with two other clients. His bed was at the rear of the room, closest to the window, and Otto and I made it past the two other beds with a guy asleep in each. Donnelly, though, was awake and watching some tv game show with the sound off.
"Hey, Jack, how's it going?" Otto called out.
Donnelly broke his view away from the small tv screen. "Otto Svenson, how the hell are you?" He didn't seem surprised.
I wondered how these two men could recognize each other with such certainty after seventy years. Maybe being teammates and playing next to a guy for four years did that. Sadly, I realized it was a bond I would never know.
The two shook hands warmly. "Jesus," Donnelly said. "It took you long enough to get here."
"How's that?" Otto asked. But Donnelly ignored the question and pointed to the man in the bed next to him. "See that guy? Marv Sheppard's his name. He's been my bunky for what seems to be forever. A real pain in the ass.
"Marvin!" Donnelly yelled. "Wake up, dammit. Somebody here I want you to meet."
Donnelly screamed the man's name two more times before the groggy body in the bed sat up. "Jesus, can't a guy get any sleep around here? What the hell is it?"
"Somebody I want you to meet. Marvin, Otto Svenson, high school class of 1948. Otto, this is Marvin."
"Glad to meet you," Otto said.
"All right, "Donnelly ordered. "Enough with the small talk. Otto, tell this roommate of mine how I played for the Brooklyn Dodgers with Pee Wee Reese.
"The dumb son-of-a-bitch doesn't believe a thing I say."
Please Note: Illustration(s) are not available due to copyright restrictions.