4. Schooling

First grade was a horror. Growing up, except for occasional visits by my two cousins, my only playmate was my older sister. We had no kindergarten or pre-school, so my social skills were underdeveloped. My school, Landmark, included all twelve grades and I was not prepared to encounter unruly, often violent, teenagers, who scared the hell out of me. During recess, I felt as if I’d been thrown into a jungle with very large animals that might attack at any moment.

When we moved to Dallas, other kids made fun of me because of my Arkansas accent. That made me feel even more out of place. Eventually I learned to talk like a Texan.

I continued to wet the bed often, which embarrassed me, especially when my cousins visited. And I had a low threshold for pain. Throughout my childhood, I would often faint when I bumped my elbow or knee against something hard. As I later learned, that was probably because, to minimize intense emotions, neck muscles around the hypothalamus tighten, which cuts off blood flow to the brain – as with the stereotype of a woman fainting upon seeing a mouse.

School was a snap for me. I was always a “teacher’s pet,” well-behaved and a quick learner. Mother later related a comment by one of my teachers that her students were harder to control when I was absent because I set a good example. My second-grade teacher, who read a Psalm at the beginning of each class, gave me a copy of a book of her poetry, which I treasured.

I did make one mistake, however. Someone stepped into our classroom and asked if anyone wanted to do something (I don’t remember the specifics). Since I always tried to answer first, I blurted out, “No.” The visitor confronted me, “How do you know that?” I knew instantly what he meant (some other student might have answered Yes) and felt embarrassed.

One of my classes helped us buy paperback books. I got Call of the Wild by Jack London and The Last of the Mohicans by James Fennimore Cooper and loved them both. My working-class schools were not very demanding, and I got very good grades without spending much time on homework.

One day, though, a teacher asked me to repeat what she had just said and I was unable to do it. I was shocked, because I thought I had been listening. I quickly stopped daydreaming so much.

I can’t remember ever enjoying art class. In drawing, my subjects were very limited. They included stick-figure cowboys having shoot-outs in town; battleships being attacked by airplanes; and a scene depicting two facing waterfalls, each with cascades of blue water flowing down and filling up one nook after another. It seemed I was the only student with so little artistic talent.

Once the teacher asked several boys to stand in front of the class. Some of us held our hands clasped in front of us, over our genitals. The teacher ridiculed us. “Why are you holding your hands there?” she asked, and told us to stand up straight with our hands to the side. It’s possible she was merely teaching us good posture, but the sexual reference seemed obvious and I was embarrassed.

Boude Storey Junior High School was worse than grade school. I enjoyed singing in the choir and got good grades. But, being very self-conscious, I was painfully uncomfortable during gym class. I’d never seen naked bodies before, and no one outside my family had ever seen me without my clothes on.

At home at night, we watched I Love Lucy, The $64,000 Question, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and my favorite, Gunsmoke. But getting my family to stop talking and watch dramas was difficult. I’d say, “Why are we watching if you don’t want to watch?” They’d be quiet for a while and then start up again.

In 1957, the Soviet Union jumped ahead in the “space race” by launching Sputnik, the first satellite to orbit Earth. That scared the nation and led to more talk about the risk of nuclear war. In school, we took our “duck and cover” air-raid drills more seriously. Without notice, the fire alarm would go off and everyone had to get under their desk, holding their hands over their heads for protection from the nuclear blast!

At home, I discovered something interesting. I learned that, with practice, I could influence the result when I would hold a coin vertical on a table and flick it with a finger, causing it to spin until it falls down with either heads or tails on top. My secret discovery was that if you tilt the coin either forward or back before you flick it, the uppermost side is more likely to end up on top. At school, I’d compete with others to predict the outcome. We didn’t play for money, but I liked winning.

Football was of course the most popular sport at school. After all, it was Texas. I enjoyed playing touch football and flag football during gym class and after school, and performed fairly well. But I had no interest in playing on the school team. To my taste, the game was too violent. Besides, Mother would’ve been afraid that I might get hurt and would never have allowed it.

When I was fourteen or so, my best friend, David Skoog, bought some boxing gloves. We went into his garage, took off our shirts, put on the gloves, and started to box. After less than a minute, he hit me in the solar plexus and I doubled over in pain, out of breath. That was the end of boxing for me. Then David taught me how to play chess. We played a lot and I quickly got the best of him.

At about that time, the movie “Blackboard Jungle” blew my mind with its great sound track, passion, and realism. To someone attending an all-white suburban school, it revealed a whole other world.

In gym class in the school I attended, we sometimes danced the two-step with the girls. I didn’t care for it.

Another school friend was Tommy Gramly. His father, who delivered mail, used to play semi-pro ball and was a very good Little League coach. His older brother, Jerry, made it to the minors. Tommy and I played golf at the public course and joined a bowling league. I was fairly good at those sports, and at basketball, too, but I didn’t stand out.

In 1958 “The Naked City” was my favorite TV show. It seemed so real, and it was intense. “There are a million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.” I also liked “Peter Gunn” and its cool jazz. Like most people, we watched lots of Westerns, like “Have Gun, Will Travel,” “The Rifleman,” “Maverick,” and “Wyatt Earp.”

Mother bought us a small organ. She played it a bit, as did Sally. I played some, but never got into it.

Toward the end of the ninth grade, during lunch, I heard another student, George Littell, arguing that God does not exist, an idea that was completely foreign to me. But the argument intrigued me, so I asked my friend Larry Macon, “Who is that guy?” Larry said, “Oh, he’s my next-door neighbor. He’s a nice guy. I’ll introduce you to him.”

George and I quickly became good friends. I taught him how to play chess and he took me for my first visit to the public library. He introduced me to H.L. Mencken, his favorite author, and turned me loose in the section with books on philosophy and politics. I felt like a kid set free in an enormous candy store. The first books I checked out were essays by Bertrand Russell, including “Why I’m Not a Christian.” My life was forever altered.

South Oak Cliff High School was even worse than junior high. Dallas was dominated by the precursor to the Tea Party, the John Birch Society (which was also funded by the Koch family). The whole city was filled with John Birch Society billboards, and tons of cars sported John Birch bumper stickers. I hated this oppressive, radical orthodoxy and my teachers knew it.

In high school, George and I met three other students who shared our interest in “free thinking” – Ronnie, Mike, and Terry. On weekends, we’d stay up late smoking pipes and cigars, playing poker, and discussing life and philosophy (though we never drank and knew nothing about drugs). We commiserated with one other, reassured ourselves concerning our wisdom, and looked down on most everyone else (I did anyway). Two girls, Charla and Pam, seemed comfortable with our unconventional ways and were affiliated with our circle. (Later they married Mike and Ronnie.)

I started a Chess Club and set up a “ladder” on which each winner would move up a rung to determine his next opponent. My first organizing. George and I played after school almost every day. Soon he got to be a bit better than I was. But he and I both were usually at or near the top of the ladder.

Most of my teachers weren’t interested in the alternative worldview that George and I shared with our friends. I agreed with Mencken’s assessment that most people are “boobs,” members of the “booboisie.” For me, that characterization also applied to my teachers. As far as I was concerned, I was smarter than most of them.

During the first class of the day, “homeroom,” we were often forced to go to pep rallies. As I mentioned earlier, I protested by sitting down during “fight song” and got away with it. But my friend Gary Bishop didn’t fare so well. Gary belonged to another small group of quiet rebels, who raced sports cars in the parking lot of a local shopping mall and listened to jazz. I became friends with Gary, who’s now an accomplished photographer. (After graduating from high school he finished second among Texas amateur racecar drivers and once drove at Daytona.) I’d go over to his house and help him with his homework. Gary would also sit down during the fight song. But being close to the stage he was visible to the principal, who one day admonished him in front of the entire student body.

Gary lived on the “other side of the tracks,” in what was probably only a middle-class house, but it seemed like a mansion to me. I lived in a tiny house, the first house my parents ever owned, without my own bedroom and with six other people, including my two sisters and my mother’s parents. (After I graduated, the student body at my high school became almost totally African-American and Hispanic, and my neighborhood turned into an African-American ghetto with a house church on almost every block.) Gary also had the advantage of living with a family that, unlike mine, seemed to actually like one another. I enjoyed going to his house.

Gary turned me on to jazz and Joan Baez. That opened up a whole new world for me, which I loved. At home we only listened to Frankie Lane, Johnny Cash, Johnny Mathis and the like.

Gary and his friends were influenced by the Beats. My friends and I were, too, though perhaps in a less meaningful way. Pretty much everything I knew about the Beats came from watching “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis” on TV, listening to the comedian Dave Gardner, and reading Hugh Hefner’s “Playboy Philosophy.” But I felt an affinity for their lifestyle, and, in one display of solidarity, wore my bathroom slippers, Native American-style moccasins, to school instead of regular shoes. I’d already concluded that there must surely be more to life than the drab conformity captured in the 1956 movie, Man in the Grey Flannel Suit.

I challenged school rules that seemed arbitrary, like having to leave the cafeteria during lunch hour and not being able to cross an invisible line when we went outside. Once I tried to organize an insurrection, but found little interest among my fellow students.

My sophomore year in Speech class I gave two speeches. The first was on “Why I Believe in Flying Saucers” (my mother’s influence). The second, inspired by a C. Wright Mills book that I had read before the United States drove Cuba into the arms of the Soviet Union, was on “Why I Like Fidel Castro.” I’m sure word of that strange affinity circulated among the teachers.

On the first day of my junior-year English Literature class, the teacher told us to read the introduction to our textbook and write a composition of at least three-fourths of a page, right then in class, about what we would have liked to do if we had lived in Medieval England. I read the introduction and quickly wrote the required minimum, which amounted essentially to a declaration that there was absolutely nothing I could imagine doing in Medieval England. With that, I put down my pen, probably with a smirk on my face. The teacher said, “Are you already finished, Mr. Hudson?” I said, “Yes.” She replied, “Well, I can see what kind of a grade you’re going to get.”

Later that year, she gave me a poor grade for spelling “there” incorrectly. When I complained about it with tears in my eyes, she said, “Well, in college if you do that, they’ll fail you.” I did in fact get my worst grade ever in her class, a “C.”

In 1960 I saw Elmer Gantry and was amused and intrigued by its lampooning of Christian evangelism. One day, curious, I went by myself to a tent revival. But at the door, the passion inside frightened me and I left.

I missed the early Marlon Brando and James Dean movies, since my father didn’t show them at his theater in the mid-1950s. But once I could drive, I started going to movies by myself. I was captivated by The Hustler and turned on immensely by La Dolce Vita, especially the living-room strip-tease scene.

Normally, I’d do my homework at my desk while waiting for class to start. The instructor of the anti-Communism course clearly hated it when I scored 100 on his history tests. Math was particularly easy for me, and on the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test (PSAT), I answered every question correctly and scored in the top 1%.

Still, my high school never assigned me to any honors courses, not even math, probably because they didn’t like my demeanor. I assume my parents or I could have requested that I be placed in an honors class. But I knew nothing about them, including any advantages they might provide. Anyway, I hated the whole high school scene and was content to just go through the motions. I even rushed through my SAT tests, not knowing their importance.

My cavalier attitude toward my education quickly brought some chickens home to roost. When I went to Cal planning to major in Physics, I was surprised to learn that I couldn’t take the normal introductory Physics course, because I hadn’t studied calculus in high school. That setback disappointed me at the time, though on reflection, I now see it may have been a stroke of good luck.

Throughout high school I was only assigned to write one essay – yes, only one. I wrote mine on Voltaire, the French satirist.

The few teachers who supported my independent thinking had to be secretive about it, like the young female math teacher who quietly confided in me that she was reading Anna Karenina. The chemistry teacher would play chess with me in his lab when I skipped mandatory pep rallies. And the civics teacher was not shocked when a fellow student told the whole class that I had sat down during the Pledge of Allegiance at a public event. That had occurred at the city auditorium, where Ronald Reagan was making another stop in the General Electric-sponsored speaking tour that catapulted him to national political prominence. (I did not reject the Pledge of Allegiance per se, but only the oppressive way it was being used.) Besides my math, chemistry, and civics teachers, however, I found all of my teachers oppressive.

I’ve also surmised that the civics teacher may have been sympathetic to nonconformists because he was gay. He took some of us male students to Austin for the state basketball playoffs and carried on noisily with some of the students behind closed doors in ways that puzzled me.

After I had begun my habit of taking long walks during the evening, I read a Ray Bradbury science-fiction short story in a school textbook. It was set in the future and featured a man who would walk alone at night and look through the windows of homes he passed. In house after house, he noted the glaring light from the televisions inside, where people sat passive and transfixed. An automated, driver-less police car then drove up to the man, interrogated him, and arrested him for improper conduct. As I walked the streets alone at night, I felt like the character in the story must have felt, scandalous and something of a freak.

The only other piece I liked in that textbook was “The Wasteland,” by T.S. Eliot. It sounded like Dallas to me!

George once suggested that we run away from home. I was tempted, but decided against it. He did it anyway, but on the first night he called his mother from the edge of town and asked her to come get him.

Later, George was selected as Boy of the Month by the Dallas Optimist Club (his mother had nominated him). It seemed to me that he went downhill from there, perhaps as a result of glimpsing “success.” He even joined the JROTC (Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps), which struck me as strange.

After graduation, George and I corresponded some. (In one letter, he told me I should become an op-ed columnist.) Then one night at Ronnie’s house during Christmas break, we had a heated disagreement about the Vietnam war (George approved of it) and we never communicated again. Later, I heard he was working for Mobil Oil in Houston and that he had his sights set on eventually becoming CEO of one of the nation’s ten largest corporations. For all I know, he may have succeeded. He was a bit smarter than I was in terms of analytical intelligence – though I did beat him once in a citywide “numbers’ sense” contest, after I secretly prepped for it.

When it came time to apply to college, all of us had to go to the school counselor to get her recommendation. Terry said that when he went in, she asked him, “Is it true that George is an atheist?” Terry lied through his teeth and said no.

When I went in to see the counselor, my preference was to go to Rice University in Houston to study physics. She started to check the “highest recommendation” box, but then noticed that the faculty had not selected me for the National Junior Honor Society. She asked my why, and I told her I didn’t know, whereupon she left the office. After several minutes, she came back and checked the box for second-highest recommendation. I assume she had found out that I had some “character” issues. Rice rejected my application.

I didn’t go to the high school graduation ceremony, or to the prom. To my mind, the sooner I had nothing more to do with South Oak Cliff High School, the better (though for many years afterward I did think about going back and showing them how a good teacher operates).

That summer, in addition to going to some coffee houses to listen to folk music and to the Unitarian Church to check it out, I participated in a marvelous study group conducted by two students from the Perkins School of Theology. Our class valedictorian went to the same church as the seminarians who suggested the study group and she invited our little clique to participate.

We read stuff like Plato, Freud, Marx, and, most memorably, “Coney Island of the Mind” by the Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti. I had never encountered any of that kind of material in high school, so it was a stimulating summer. After the last gathering, the hosts served us mint juleps, the first alcohol I had ever drunk. What a fitting sendoff to college!

That adventure with alcohol prompted some of us to get some six-packs and find a dark field where we could drink. Unfortunately, small round prickly balls got stuck on the bottom of my pants legs. When I got home Mother noticed and I got into big trouble. I didn’t care. I was about to be free.

3. Baseball

18563_468567730132_852630132_10944141_5291721_sGan-gan started training me to play baseball as soon as he could. He’d only had daughters and really wanted a son, so I was it. He knew the basics and was deadly serious. Crooked fingers on his left hand from having played catcher before real gloves were available proved it. “I also wiped my ass with corncobs,” he said.

We practiced every day. Gan-gan wouldn’t even let me go swimming, because he thought it would deplete my energy for baseball. (I never did learn to swim.) In grade school, he told me not to play softball, because it would throw off my timing for baseball (Eventually, I persuaded him to let me play softball.)

Shortly before I turned seven, I joined my first Little League team. Opposing pitchers almost always walked me. I was so small they had trouble throwing me a strike. So the manager used me strategically as a pinch-hitter and put me in right field, the least demanding position. Once I actually caught a fly ball. Everyone was thrilled, none more so than I was.

After we moved to Dallas, I became a Little League super star, partly due to my speed. In the fifth grade, there was only one student in my class faster than me, John Elliott, and he was barely faster. During recess, my class would play a game called “it.” First, one person would be “it” and run after others. When he managed to tag another boy, the two of them would try to tag others, and so on. John and I would usually be the last ones untagged. Often I’d be the very last.

I soon graduated to shortstop in Little League, my favorite position. One year we were playing on live television. The commentator was a pro on the Dallas minor-league team. On a ball hit to my left, I ran, caught the ball, whirled, threw to first, and managed to nip the runner on a close play. When I came home, Mother told me the commentator had remarked, “That kid’s going to be a big leaguer.”

That comment reinforced my already firm conviction. I was not only going to make it to the majors; I would be first-string shortstop for the New York Yankees.

But Gan-gan never had me do strengthening exercises. That was not the norm back then, and I wasn’t naturally muscular (though my legs were from running so much). I also wasn’t very limber, which you have to be to excel as a batter. The upshot was that I hit poorly, and hardly ever for extra bases. In high school I even failed President Kennedy’s physical fitness test, though I played all sports well.

In baseball, my forte as a batter was bunting. I would sometimes drag a bunt and use my speed to beat out a hit. When I was at the plate with a runner on third and less than two out, the manager would often call for a “suicide squeeze.” This strategy calls for the runner to head for home before the pitch is thrown; if the batter misses the bunt, the runner is tagged out at the plate. With my skills as a bunter, I almost always got the bunt down and the run would score. Those instances remain in my memory as the most exciting moments of my Little League career.

During the summer following fifth grade, my Little League baseball team practiced on my grade school’s field. After practice we’d run to the gym to drink refrigerated water, and, since I was the fastest runner, I usually got there first. One day I found that our normal portal of entry, a window, was locked. So I reached through a broken pane to unlock it and cut my arm severely. I looked down and saw a canyon of white skin that quickly filled with blood. I jogged back to the parking lot and was taken to a doctor, who stitched up my wound. Since the cut was only a half inch from an artery, I consider that incident to be my second close encounter with Death.

When we played softball in grade school, I was always a captain charged with picking players for one of the teams. I was very intense, serious, and hyper-competitive.

Another side of me, however, was quiet and timid. Perhaps for that reason, my baseball hero was Ty Cobb. In addition to being a great hitter, Cobb was a terror on the base paths, very fast and aggressive. He was notorious for his willingness to gash opposing infielders by sliding into them with his cleats high. This gave him a huge edge as a base runner, since it caused the infielders to shy away and made it easy for him to safely take the base.

One spring while playing with my junior-high team, the first baseman from another school irritated me and I decided I’d take my revenge when we played them again. My intent was to get on first, take a long lead, slide back into first like Ty Cobb, and cut his legs. I practiced this plan for fifteen minutes or so and planned to follow through with it. But when game time came, I soon realized it wasn’t practical.

When we moved to South Oak Cliff, I switched Little League teams. My new manager was Buddy Nix, whose hero may also have been Ty Cobb. He was a small, pugnacious, high-strung individual, a manifestation of the worst aspects of youth athletics. The film Bad News Bears captured his personality perfectly.

Every summer, our team would go to Houston to play a game. The fathers who drove raced each other, passing other drivers against the yellow line while going uphill. Their recklessness scared me, though they never had an accident. When we got to Houston, things got even worse. In the humid heat, Nix insisted we wear our complete uniform, including long-sleeve cotton jerseys and wool pants and shirts. I’ve hated Houston ever since.

One summer, playing shortstop in a very important game, I made an error in the final inning that caused us to lose. I was devastated, and cried as I walked to the car. Nix walked up to me and said, “Stop crying like a baby. Take it like a man.”

In Little League baseball, adults often told us, “It’s not whether you win or lose that counts, but how you play the game.” But they did not practice what they preached. More often coaches taught me that “winning is everything.”

By the eighth grade, I was no longer an outstanding player. My peers had caught up with my early training and, in general, their bodies were maturing earlier than mine. I was no longer among the fastest runners. The upshot was that, when three players in my class were selected to play on the ninth-grade team, I wasn’t one of them. That disturbed me greatly, and my confidence was shaken. Maybe I wasn’t going to be first-string shortstop for the Yankees after all.

Once, while still in the eighth grade, I was stationed at second base as we practiced making double plays. Our third baseman would lean back, wind up, and throw the ball to me as hard as he could. In practicing the double play, he should have used a quick-release sidearm throw to get the ball to me as quickly as possible. The manager should have told him to make the throw properly, but he didn’t, and I was nervous about it.

On another day, I was again at second base as we practiced the double play. This time, as the throw from third headed my way, I stepped on top of the bag and raised my body relative to my glove, and the third baseman’s very hard throw, which failed to sink in its trajectory as much as most balls thrown by eighth graders do, hit me squarely in the mouth. After oral surgery, my teeth appeared normal. But down deep, I was terribly embarrassed, and my dreams of playing pro ball faded even further. (Years later, I woke up in the middle of the night with my face swollen like a balloon from an abscessed tooth and even later had to get a bridge.)

Shortly thereafter, our team played a game attended by the school principal, who was a hard-driving sports enthusiast. At pep rallies he’d go on and on about “intestinal fortitude.” The phrase was unfamiliar to me, but I assumed he meant “guts.”

Early in the game, I managed to get to first base. I took a big lead from the bag as usual, hoping the coach would give me the steal sign. The pitcher repeatedly threw to first to try to pick me off, but each time I dived back to the bag head-first safely. When the pitcher realized he couldn’t pick me off, he threw the ball over to first with much less velocity, just to keep me cautious about taking big leads. Even so, I still wanted to take as big a lead as possible while minimizing any chance of getting picked off. So I kept diving back head-first.

From his perch, the principal yelled at me, “There’s no need to do that, son.” His comment prompted Gan-gan (who was at every game) to stand up and shout to the principal, “Don’t you tell my grandson how to play baseball.”

A short while later, maybe 30 minutes, Gan-gan collapsed from a stroke and was taken to the hospital. When I arrived home, Uncle George took me to a game involving the Dallas minor-league team (a rare treat). The next morning, I was told that Gan-gan was dead. I assumed I was responsible, because he had gotten so angry at the principal who was irritated with me.

I was in shock. The anchor in my life, the source of my meaning, was suddenly gone. But Nix had taught me his lesson. I did not cry. No one else cried either, so far as I knew. We didn’t discuss Gan-gan’s death or how we felt about it. We just went on with our lives. But there was a big void in my world.

Years later, as a sophomore in college, I went to the mental health clinic to talk about sex. After I entered his office, the psychiatrist never spoke. I don’t think he even said hello. So I just sat there, not saying a word for almost the entire hour. Then I started talking about my grandfather’s death and my feeling that I was responsible for it. The psychiatrist immediately told me there was no possibility I was to blame. With that verdict, an enormous, almost orgasmic, sense of relief swept over my entire body. Nevertheless, to this day I still wonder whether I may have contributed to my grandfather’s death.

Even without Gan-gan’s encouragement, I continued to play on my junior-high and high school baseball teams, and in college I proudly wore the letter jacket that I’d earned my senior year in high school. Yet, in truth, I stuck with baseball largely out of habit. The passion was gone. The dream of making it to the Yankees had evaporated and I’d become more interested in chess and books.

In high school, my homeroom was assigned the last row at the back of the auditorium for mandatory assemblies and pep rallies. Even though the baseball coach stood right behind us with the other coaches, I sat down during the school song to protest being forced to go to these events. I feared the coach would punish me for my rebellion, but I don’t believe he did. I wasn’t good enough to win a starting position until my senior year, and even then the coach may only have given me the spot as a reward for my persistence.

I never became friends with any of my teammates, who probably viewed me as an oddball. Once I had a confrontation with Karl Sweetan, who later became a pro football quarterback. While still in high school, Sweetan had reportedly hit someone over the head with a pool stick in a fight at a pool hall. He was our starting second baseman and, following practices, was supposed to bring the second base bag into the locker room. One day, carrying the bag after practice, he threw it at me, hitting me in the chest, and told me to bring it into the locker room. I left it on the ground, though I worried he would beat me up for refusing. But he didn’t and got into trouble with the coach for flouting his duties.

That’s pretty much all I remember about my high school baseball career. Not too much excitement there.

Mostly out of curiosity, I went to a baseball workout my freshman year at Cal, thinking I might try out. But I soon realized it was pointless.

I was through with baseball, but I did enjoy playing intramural softball at Cal. My student co-op, Ridge House, organized a team and I was the coach. One year the fields were so wet from rain that they couldn’t be used for practice. But a nearby parking garage, still under construction, provided our team a convenient dry place to get our act together. So we practiced incessantly, gaining on the competition who couldn’t practice.

One day while hitting infield practice, I knocked the ball over the fence and across the street into the backyard of the Chancellor’s mansion. I went to retrieve the ball, knocking on the front door and being let in by the Chancellor himself. I walked through his house with my wet shoes, retrieved the ball from the backyard, and went back to practicing. The Chancellor seemed unfazed.

Even though the softball we played was fast-pitch, and we didn’t have a very good pitcher, we almost won the championship that year.

Professional baseball, however, fell off my radar that year. The San Francisco Giants competed in the World Series in 1962, but I was immersed in my academic and other activities at Berkeley, and obsessed with sex, and hardly noticed. In the late 1980s, however, I again became a passionate major-league baseball fan. I was inspired by Roger Craig and his “Hmm Baby” Giants, especially by their proclivity to steal home, the most daring play in baseball.

In 2002 I went to my first World Series game, the Giants against the Angels. My sister, Mary, had purchased a share of two season tickets in the left field bleachers and took me to a game at the Giants new, beautiful downtown park. Unfortunately, however, two large, tall Angels’ fans, bikers, sat in front of us. I didn’t know there were bikers in Anaheim! But these guys fit the stereotype: loud and obnoxious. Worse yet, they were very witty and quickly put down anyone who engaged them in trash talk. And when the Angels started scoring many runs, they would stand up and block my view. The Angels won the game handily. Not the best introduction to the World Series.

I finally had my ultimate World Series experience in 2010. The Giants had won the National League Championship and captured the town’s love with an endearing “band of misfits” that perfectly reflected San Francisco. The players included Tim Lincecum, who had been busted for marijuana possession, Brian Wilson, the notorious performance artist with a YouTube video featuring a “neighbor” in S-and-M garb that went viral and elicited praise from Governor Arnold Swarzenegger, and Aubrey Huff, known for his red “rally thong” that he wore throughout the post-season and displayed at the victory parade and rally.

Prior to the Series, the Giants first offered tickets to their season ticket holders. I initially assumed they would all sell out and that tickets on the secondary market would be too expensive for me. But one day I was home in the afternoon and received a bulk email from the Giants announcing that a few tickets were still available at regular prices. I jumped at the opportunity and got a seat in the first row of the upper deck right behind home plate. It was arguably the best seat in the house, and I got to see Lincecum win the first game!

The Giants then went to Dallas-Fort Worth, where they eventually won the Series. For me, the victory was especially sweet because George Bush, the war-monger, had a clear view of his Rangers’ defeat from the very first row next to the field. Beating Texas added to the joy. I joined in the celebration of the Giants’ victory in front of AT&T Park in San Francisco. On the day of the parade to City Hall, I took a folding chair and got a front row seat. More jubilation! The first ever World Series victory in San Francisco!

Baseball is still my favorite sport. The pace of the game appeals to me. There is no clock imposing an artificial deadline, and even at the last minute, the losing team can still win. Violence is minimal. Many different skills are involved, and even very small players can be successful. The moment-by-moment tactical decisions are intriguing. The critical subtleties of team dynamics are a challenge. Confidence and fearlessness are fundamental to success. And, at every game, fans see something they’ve never seen before.

In addition, baseball has a spiritual dimension. Playing it well requires a delicate balance between action and a meditative state, between being forceful and being relaxed, not getting too high or too low, maintaining an even keel. Staying “in the zone” is key, and too much thinking gets in the way. “See ball, hit ball” is the rule, and, for this, concentration is fundamental. Some players report not even being aware of the crowd noise. Wes Krukow, a very successful professional dancer who is the son of the former big league pitcher Mike Krukow (currently an announcer for the San Francisco Giants), has reported that one baseball lesson he’s trying to absorb from his father is: “As a professional, you have to find a balance and moderation in all of it. The thing I’ve been able to get from [him] is to ground yourself, be humble. You’re never as bad as you think you are, and you’re never as good as you think you are.”

Perhaps baseball’s most attractive trait is that it demands a primary commitment to the team, rather than to individual self-interest. In recent years I’ve been hearing more and more stories about how players have dedicated themselves to the well-being of their teammates. Such camaraderie is especially important in baseball, because players are with one another almost every day for eight months. But nurturing team spirit is tricky. The manager has to have a careful touch, and veterans on the team must set a good example. The Giants found their chemistry only after the departure of Barry Bonds, the ultimate prima donna who undermined team unity. Even as an adult, I continue to learn new aspects of the game that apply to life in general and offer clues for how to live.

Finally, baseball is great for the sense of community it generates among its fans. In San Francisco, complete strangers will talk with fellow fans on the streets who are wearing Giants’ gear. The gear serves as a “uniform” that signifies common membership in a community. That same sense of community prevails at games, where differences in socio-economic status are no barrier. Everyone is a member of the same family. I know this community is shallow. But it does bring fun and enjoyment to life. In a world characterized by increasing isolation, I’ll take any sense of community I can get.

For all these reasons, I wait each winter for the baseball season to begin. I know the boys of summer will take the field as soon as it stops snowing, and keep playing until it starts snowing again. Play ball! A metaphor for life.


2. Daddy

IMGMy father was the enforcer. He hid in the closet until Mother summoned him to lash my butt with his belt. Once or twice a year. Enough to keep me on my toes. Even when all was quiet, he was lurking.

Daddy would whip Sally, too, though less often. Once he went after her with such fury Mother feared he would seriously injure her.

Ulcers ate at Daddy’s stomach, and he was always ready to explode. His own father had been a sharecropper, and when he was young Daddy had worked the farm too. Until he retired, Daddy worked hard, real hard. Still, the only thing I remember about him from my time in Arkansas is the Jewel Tea truck he drove while distributing and selling sundries. In my life, he was a non-entity. Gan-Gan was my de facto father.

Around the time I was born, when Mother took the family to Arkansas, Daddy decided he would divorce Mother as soon as I left home. He decided to wait because he didn’t want people to say about him what they had said about his father: that he left home when his kids were still young. In Daddy’s case, the birth of my sister Mary confined him to another ten years of love-less marriage. As noted previously, I rarely observed any exchange of affection between my parents.

Before he married Mother, Daddy had been married to another woman, but his first wife had died. I think that broke his heart. And maybe he had been worn down years earlier by having to be “the man of the house” after his father left home. As the eldest son of a single mother, and having a bad back, he was excused from serving in the military during World War Two, but the war must have affected him. That event, and the Great Depression that preceded it, traumatized many of his generation, leaving them numb.

As was the case with most of his peers, Daddy was not very good at handling or communicating feelings. Visiting someone in a hospital, for instance, was a traumatic event for him, so he hardly ever did. The only heartfelt feelings he ever expressed to me before I left home consisted of long monologues. I think there may have been three.

Daddy’s father, George Sr., lived in Corpus Christi, and we’d visit him from time to time. When he was sixty or so, he married an emotionally disturbed woman who was thirty or forty years younger than he was. They had a child, who had her own hard time in life.

During our visits with George Sr., Daddy, his father and his siblings would mostly drink and play 42 and Moon, two games played with dominoes. They were very serious about it and played for money, a penny a point.

Daddy was serious about everything. The main lesson he taught me was, “A job’s not worth doing unless it’s worth doing right.”

We’d go over to his mother’s house in Dallas for Thanksgiving and Christmas. His mother was rather strict, and I didn’t particularly enjoy her company. The females would prepare the food and the males would go into the living room and watch football or play 42. I did enjoy my cousin Sonny, who was closer to my age. I also liked my two uncles, Roy and George, who were quite lively.

Daddy worked afternoons and nights seven days a week managing theaters, so I’d only see him during dinnertime. The family would eat while watching the evening news on television. We didn’t talk much.

Daddy and I basically only discussed sports. He never told me anything about sex. But when I was twenty and very involved in the young adult group at the Northaven Methodist Church, one of my best friends, Frank Murray, was an older man who sold beauty supplies. He was gay, but I had little inkling of that. He’d give me a ride home and, when we’d pulled up in front of my house, I’d stay in the car with him awhile, continuing our philosophical conversations.

Mother was worried and told Daddy to warn me about homosexuality. He did so one day while I was riding with him in his car: a ten-minute lecture that mystified me. I knew little about heterosexuality, much less about homosexuality. So I just listened and said something like, “Okay.”

But, with Mother’s concurrence, Daddy did buy me the Vespa motor scooter for my paper route. Without ever complaining, he also paid for the windows I’d break when I’d zoom down the street, throw a bundled paper toward the porch, and hit a window.

During my high school years, Daddy hired me to work at the South Loop Drive-in Theater, which he managed. Though Daddy never cursed at home, he cussed up a storm at work, revealing a hidden side of himself that stunned me. To me the change seemed like Jekyll and Hyde.

Most drive-in theaters were known as hot-beds for adolescent sexual activity, but Daddy was proud of South Loop’s reputation as a “family theater.” One popular feature was a children’s playground in front of the screen. Daddy would walk the back rows of parked cars, snooping on patrons with a flashlight. Whenever he found flagrant sexual behavior, he’d demand that the perpetrators leave. Years later, I deduced that those inspection tours probably gave him a sexual thrill.

Once, he horrified my mother and surely disturbed many of his regular customers by showing And God Created Woman. The movie introduced the world to Brigitte Bardot, the French sexpot known for being photographed nude on the beach. Though the film contained nude shots of Bardot, it was tame by today’s standards. Back at that time in Dallas, however, it was considered to border on pornography.

On another occasion, we were leaving the house and Daddy glanced at a film on television featuring Sophia Loren. He made some comment about her large breasts, which disturbed me. He was definitely a man with a dark side.

After I went to Berkeley, Daddy disapproved of my involvement in the civil rights movement and reduced his financial support because of it. He did this in spite of his increasing income. After I graduated from high school, Associated Popcorn Distributors, Inc. hired him to be Vice President in Charge of Sales. The job involved selling concession supplies to the Astrodome in Houston and to theaters throughout the Southwest. Daddy was a great salesman, so sales boomed and he began to earn big bucks. His crowning achievement was an invitation to join the Dallas Athletic Club, an old, exclusive country club where he played golf. He bought several pieces of land throughout Texas, including the “ranch” in the Hill Country where he ultimately retired.

Over the years, however, the ice between us melted. One turning point was reached when he heard two sermons about racism and the civil rights movement. Those sermons were apparently an epiphany for him. He told me about them and said he had been wrong in his views on civil rights in the past. He didn’t express explicit appreciation for my involvement in the movement, but it seemed to be at least implicit, which was comforting. (But when Mother invited her spiritualist friends over to hear my report on LSD, he fell asleep in his recliner.)

Later, when Mary was in high school, Daddy softened even more. I couldn’t believe how much he loved the family’s poodle, Choo-Choo. He’d sit with that dog in his lap for the longest time.

Daddy was living and working in Houston, and having an affair, when Mary finally graduated from high school. Soon thereafter, with no warning, he mailed Mother the divorce papers, which shocked and devastated her.

Daddy’s new wife, Wilma, was about twenty years younger than he was, and proved herself a loving, compassionate woman by the good care she took of him in his illness-plagued later years. She was good for Daddy and he became noticeably happier.

Despite his heightened mood, however, he still never gave my sisters or me praise for our accomplishments. Occasionally, I’d try to explain my life commitment to community organizing, but I don’t think he ever understood. Once I told him, “I think you should tell Mary you are proud of her.” He never did.

One day I told Wilma, “You know, Daddy has never visited me in San Francisco. I’d really appreciate it if you could get him out there.” A few years later, she and Daddy came together, and we had fun touring around. Wilma kept saying, “Well, anything goes in San Francisco.” She was a serious evangelical Christian, but had a tolerant streak.

One of Wilma’s siblings who had several children got into serious trouble of some sort. In the circumstance, she and Daddy adopted two of the children, who were in grade school at the time. Whenever I visited, I’d notice that Daddy would treat the children like slaves, ordering them around to do this or that. That behavior bothered me, in part because it reminded me of how he had treated me.

As it happened, when his best friend at Popcorn Distributors died, the remaining partners fired him. They later regretted the act, for the company’s business rapidly collapsed without my father around to massage his contacts.

Daddy then made a serious mistake. He invested in a jewelry company that failed when the Texas oil economy tanked. His brother George had to persuade him, in the face of Daddy’s great reluctance, to declare bankruptcy and salvage what assets he could. Thereafter, he was forced to sell most of his properties and squeak by on Social Security. A sad downfall.

Once he visited me in San Francisco for about a week by himself and stayed with me in my apartment. I enjoyed his visit, especially our road trip north to Bend, Oregon, where we spent the night next to a beautiful river. In the city, he seemed thrilled like a young child by the sound of fire, police, and ambulance sirens. Once, while we were walking down the street, a hooker passed in front of us. Daddy crudely lifted his cane horizontal to the ground simulating an erection and made a suggestive comment. I ignored him.

My father’s older sister, Jenny, had been married multiple times and had several children. The last I heard, the children were all still at odds with one another. Daddy’s younger sister married twice and had a troubled second marriage. My father’s two brothers were married a number of times, never had children, and had many health issues. They both died at a fairly young age.

Since neither of my uncles had children, I was the last male on that branch of the family tree. (There was some distant Hudson male who may have kept his branch alive, but we weren’t in touch with him.) Once I asked Uncle George if Daddy was concerned that the family name might die with me. George said he was. But I felt our branch of the tree was profoundly poisoned. I didn’t care to keep it alive.

After I had settled in San Francisco, one of her sons, Sonny, moved to the Bay Area. I visited him and his family once or twice, but he and his family never accepted my invitation to come and see me in San Francisco. Once, my father and I visited them on the peninsula. At one point, out of the blue, Sonny started talking about the shape of my thin lips, which felt creepy.

All in all, it was not a healthy extended family.

In early 1987, Daddy’s youngest sister told me, “Wade, you should go see your father. He really needs you.” She said it in a way that indicated that was all she wanted to say, so I didn’t ask why.

When I arrived at his home outside Harper, Texas, I learned that he was in trouble with the authorities for sexual abuse of the twelve-year-old girl he and Wilma had adopted. After dinner, Wilma went to bed and left us alone to talk. He told me that he’d been accused of fondling the girl and had agreed to go to a certain number of therapy sessions in exchange for having the charges dropped. But now, he said, the authorities were threatening to file charges against him anyway.

During my previous visit to his home, Daddy had been using a large scalp massager to give family members back massages. At the time, I was encouraged to see the interest he had taken in massage and relaxation. But in retrospect, I suspect the scalp massager was a surreptitious sex toy for Daddy that he used with his adopted daughter.

Though Daddy never fully admitted the crime, he left no doubt in my mind that he was guilty. But he was seventy years old and I didn’t want him to go to prison. So the next day I consulted with a friend from high school, Mike Doughty, who was a social worker. He recommended that, because Daddy’s caseworker was on vacation, I talk with the caseworker’s supervisor instead and urge him to honor the agreement Daddy had described. I did so, and the supervisor assured me that the charges would be dropped. Later, they were.

I left Harper with an empty feeling in the pit of my stomach. In my own mind, I basically disowned the Hudson family. I had long ago lost any sense of attachment to them. This discovery was the final straw.

Sometime later, I learned that my father had engaged in similar behavior with my older sister Sally when she was about the same age. When Mother found out about it, she was outraged – though, overtly, she blamed Sally! It must have been because of that incident that she told me she was thinking about divorcing Daddy. No wonder!

Still, I loved my father and continued to visit him occasionally, often with other family members. Daddy and I pretty much talked only about sports and politics. He was basically a right-wing populist. He hated “the Rockefellers” as much as I did.

The last long conversation we had before he died was when Ralph Nader was running for President in 2000. He asked me who I liked. I told him I hoped Nader would get 5% of the vote to qualify the Green Party for federal funding during the next election, since that would give Nader a platform for promoting his ideas. Daddy said he agreed with me. I was thrilled and relieved. Other than our shared disdain for “the Rockefellers,” this was more than we had ever agreed on anything in connection with politics, and he was eighty-eight years old.

In the end, Daddy died a long slow death as a victim of Parkinson’s disease. Over the years, he got more and more stiff. The last time I visited him, he seemed to be frozen solid. Lying with his back to me, he said, “Son, do you ever cry?” I said, “Yes, I do from time to time.” He replied, “Well, so do I.”

After a while, he said, “I feel I was not a very good father.” I answered, “You did the best you could.” I could also have told him that I appreciated his repeated support for my independence, and that I had picked up from him his moral concerns, his interest in politics, and his dedication to hard work.

Prior to the funeral in Dallas, the wife of one of my cousins brought the scalp massager to the house and laid it on the floor by the door, which came across to me as a statement of disgust about Daddy’s sex abuse.

When Uncle George and I were alone in the living room, I asked him if he knew why Daddy and Mother had moved to Arkansas. He didn’t say a word. Instead, he got up and left the room.

Not many people came to the funeral. When I arrived, I sat down next to George, feeling close to him and sympathizing with his loss. He moved away to another seat. I can only guess why. I assume he disapproved of my religion, my politics, and my life style. And he probably thought I had not been a good son.

Since Wilma had warned me not to say too much, I said only a few words at the service. So did Sally and a few other people. Then, with Wilma’s three sons and some other family members, we scattered Daddy’s ashes at a golf course, the field of green where he played out one of his greatest passions.

When I headed back to California, I swore I’d never set foot in Texas again.