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Gravel, Tommie Rothie and the Twelfth Street Tarantulas
By Jerry D. Mohrlang
Monday, April 01, 2002
GRAVEL, TOMMIE ROTHIE, AND THE TWELFTH STREET TARANTULAS
<p>Gravel. I hate gravel. I hate the sight of gravel when a dumptruck disgorges it from its bed and spreads it along a roadway as a base for a new road or highway. Never mind that the gravel will shortly become invisible by layer upon layer of macadam or concrete. I know it's still there--hidden, maybe, but there nonetheless. I hate the sound of gravel, too. The unyielding grate of steel against stone prickles my spine and sends waves of uncomfortable chills through my body whenever I see a neighbor shovel gravel, scoop by scoop, in his backyard. And the sound of gravel crunching under-foot is even worse. I even hate the smell of gravel. To me, gravel has a scent of nakedness; stripped as it is of all traces of its former symbiotic relationship with moss or lichen or any other organic material that once cloaked it and gave it a pseudo-respectability among nature's living things.
Even after all of these years since Tommie Rothie's death, I still cringe when I hear someone speak in a "gravely" voice or when I'm forced to drive along a gravel road to reach my destination.
I suppose it's fair to say that most kids my age (ten at the time) considered Tommie Rothie to be a jerk and there was, in all honesty, some truth to that. Tommie couldn't throw a baseball worth a damn much less catch one and genetics had saddled him with adenoids and a body so small and frail that he wasn't much good at any activity that required stamina or coordination.
Tommie didn't give much attention to enhancing his image either. It never seemed to bother him that his haircuts always looked as if the barber had placed a bowl over his skull and then sheared him in a circular fashion so that when he stood alone with his shock of blonde curls reaching skyward above his pencil-thin frame, he appeared more like a living broom than a human being.
Unlike most boys our age, Tommie never wore jeans. Instead, Tommie had a fondness for Big Mac coveralls and long-sleeved shirts whose sleeves he never rolled up and he always, always kept the top button of his shirt fastened. I
never understood why Tommie kept the top button of his shirt fastened, but then again, there were a great many things about Tommie Rothie that I didn't understand.
"Rothie's a jerk. Why d'ya let him hang around for?" was a question I often fielded from peers back in the early '50's. Although I don't now recall the specifics of my replies to such inquires, I suspect the answer lies in the circumstances of mine and Tommie's lives at the time. Our fathers both worked for the State Highway Department of New Mexico as rock-crusher operators. The north-south arter of State Highway 44 from Farmington to Las Cruces was being built and as each section of road was completed, off we'd go, both our families towing trailer homes, on to the next town along the survey line. We were gypsies of sorts, Tommie Rothie's family and mine, our two lives inexorably bound by the nature of our fathers' jobs; never in one place long enough to develop a sense of community beyond our two tandem trailer-homes, never making friends along the way other than in superficial ways and always living on the perimeter of a town near one gravel pit or another with the omnipresent crushing sound of the pits attendant rock-crusher.
In a sense, we were vagabonds passing through, outsiders only, always making plans for our next move before we had settled in from the last. I resented my life then. I had no roots and I craved companionship beyond anything that Tommie Rothie could provide. For me, ours was a friendship of proximity and necessity, not of choice.
I suspect, however, that Tommie felt differently. He seemed always satisfied with whatever crumbs of kindness I tossed his way and went to the extreme to feed whatever friendship he thought existed between us. To his credit, Tommie tried to emulate the great ballplayers of the day, but his pitifully uncoordinated body simply refused to accommodate his desire and invariably his best attempts were seldom more than embarrassing disasters. His clumsy attempts to excel in all things physical, fail and then endure the acid ridicule of his peers probably explains why Tommie eagerly looked forward to our families' next move. Another town, another chance, perhaps that's what Tommie thought.
As much as I felt Tommie Rothie needed me for whatever friendship he thought we had, there was a solitary aspect to
his nature as well. Tommie would often stroll over to the
gravel pit and watch his father or mine stand astride the thirty-foot high platform of the crushing machine from where they manned the controls that swallowed enormous boulders at the machine's mouth, pulverized them in an enclosed factory of steel molars and then disgorged the masticated rock as gravel along a length of steel-mesh conveyer belt to a waiting pile of regurgitated, broken stone. Occasionally, Tommie would beg me to accompany him to the pit, but I never did. It was, after all, our fathers' bondage to the rock-crusher that made Tommie my only friend and I resented them and the machine for that.
I guess I never understood the depth to which Tommie regarded our friendship until that summer day in '54 when we met Frankie Puente and the Twelfth Street Tarantulas. For the first time that summer, our caravan of two families pulled into a trailer park filled with other mobile homes somewhere northwest of Albuquerque. We weren't in the city proper, but at least we were in a community with other kids my age and, more importantly, the gravel pit and rock-crusher were far enough removed from the rows of parked trailers to make it feel like a real town to me. I was ecstatic with my new surroundings, and with the dawn of the
first day, eagerly anticipated finding a few of the boys I had glimpsed the evening before with the thought of playing in a real ball game or anything else that involved more than just my own imagination or Tommie Rothie.
I can't say I was surprised to find Tommie waiting by the side of my trailer that morning when I eagerly stepped into the sunshine, but I was disappointed and I'm sure it showed. This was my day, I had thought, and if there were friends to meet, I didn't want Tommie tagging along. My previous experiences with similar situations such as this told me what I already knew--Tommie Rothie really was a jerk.
"Gonna look around?" Tommie queried in that irritatingly nasal whine of his.
"Yeah," I said, folding the bill of my ball cap over my eyes like I'd seen Duke Snyder do and then striding away toward the nearest row of parked trailer homes without saying or doing anything that could be construe d as an invitation for Tommie to join me, but he followed anyway.
"I see ya got your mitt," he said. "I got mine, too."
"Great," I sighed.
"Maybe we can get up a game," Tommie said, already wheezing in his efforts to keep up with my quickened pace.
"Maybe," I replied.
"I saw a bunch a guys over by the laundry," Tommie said. They got 'em a bat and ball. I think they're gonna get up a game. Wanna head on over there and see?"
I shrugged. "Sure, why not?" It was now evident to me that my abrupt demeanor hadn't dissuaded Tommie at all. I only hoped that his presence wouldn't cause problems for me as it often did in the past.
It didn't take long to reach the laundry, a two room cinder-block building near the center of the small trailer park and, just as Tommie said, several boys near our same age were congregating near the building. Most of the boys carried baseball mitts and wore ball caps sporting the insignia of their favorite teams and it heartened me to see that a couple of them wore Dodger's hats just like mine.
"You the two guys who moved in last night?" I later learned that the question was asked by Frankie Puente, the biggest boy in the group and captain of the Twelfth Street Tarantulas.
"Sure did. All the way from Farmington," Tommie replied before I could open my mouth. "My folks are parked
in space 29 and his are in 30," Tommie added, referring to me with a maladroit toss of his curly head. While Frankie seemed to appraise him, Tommie fidgeted awkwardly and then began punching the pocket of his baseball mitt like he'd seen the pros do.
"You guys play ball?" Frankie finally asked, addressing the question to the both of us. But I noticed that both Frankie and the boys with him had their eyes glued on me for the answer. I suppose it was because, although younger, I was as tall as Frankie Puente and in the social world of adolescent boys, big counts.
"Yeah, sure," I said, hoping to find a balance between confidence and eagerness. "You guys got a game going?" I asked.
"Yeah, we gotta game soon as the rest of the guys show up," Frankie replied. "We're taking on the Albuquerque Bombers around ten."
An uncomfortable moment of silence followed in which I waited for Frankie and the others to finish sizing us up. Finally, we must have passed muster because Frankie broke the silence and offered introductions all around and after Tommie and I introduced ourselves, Frankie said, "We're the
Twelfth Street Tarantulas. That's the name of our ball team."
"Neat name," I said, meaning it.
Tommie concurred with an overly vigorous shake of his rooster-like head and said, "Yeah, really neat-o. Did you make it up?"
Frankie acknowledged that he had. When I asked why 'Twelfth Street' since I hadn't noticed any street signs around the trailer park he said, "I used to live on Twelfth Street in my old neighborhood in Denver and I picked 'Tarantulas' 'cause them spiders gotta be about the meanest, most dangerous critters on the face of the earth. Beats the hell outta pussy names like 'Bombers' and 'Orioles', don't it?"
I remember being impressed by the ease to which Frankie used the words 'hell' and 'pussy'. I, of course, was forbidden to utter such adult expressions and I never heard Tommie use them either. I also like Frankie's team name. I really did.
"So, what do you think, Frankie?" I said, feeling a lot more confident in the company of the Tarantulas than I did a
few moments earlier. "Think we can play some ball with you guys?"
"What position d'ya play?" Frankie asked.
"First base...some short," I said.
"Anything! I'll play anything!" Tommie blurted. He demonstrated his eagerness by spitting into the hollow of his baseball mitt, then mashing the saliva into his glove with the fist of his hand.
"Well, I don't know," Frankie said. My heart sank, believing that Tommie had ruined my day once again, but then Frankie added, "We could use a first baseman though, but I'd have to talk it over with the team first. Then, if it's OK with them, you gotta pass the initiation. That OK with you guys?"
Before Tommie had a chance to inquire about the initiation, which I knew he would judging by the expression of concern on his face, I said, "Sure. No problem."
Other members of the Twelfth Street Tarantulas had straggled in while we conversed with Frankie and he stepped away and formed his team into a tight huddle, ostensibly to pass final judgment on me and Tommie. I tried to appear as athletic as I possibly could and rolled the visor of my ball cap and pulled it low over my forehead like my hero, the
Duke. No matter what Tommie would have done, I'm sure he would have appeared to the Tarantulas pretty much like the
jerk he was. A complete pro uniform couldn't have transformed Tommie into something he wasn't and I guess I must have realized that fact at the time, because I remember withdrawing from him in an attempt to enhance my own chances to play ball with the Tarantulas. I leaned up against the laundry wall, standing on one foot while the other pressed against the cinder-block wall, trying my best to appear both confident and nonchalant. And, to be truthful, to dissociate myself from Tommie in the minds of the Tarantulas.
To my dismay, Tommie closed the gap between us anyway. "Think they're gonna let us play?" he asked, worry furrowing his brow.
I shrugged and looked off into space. "Maybe, maybe not," I said, withholding the truth that I thought my chances were vastly greater than his since Frankie had said that the Tarantulas could use a first baseman.
"What d'ya think Frankie meant about an initiation?" There was a hint of fear in Tommie's voice when he asked the
question and I took the opportunity to exploit it in the hopes of frightening Tommie into leaving. "Maybe
we'll have to fight," I said with a casual shrug. "You know how it goes sometimes."
"Gees, I hope not," Tommie wheezed, casting a nervous eye in the direction of the Tarantulas. I'm sure he was scared at the prospect of a fight, but to my consternation, he didn't make a move to leave.
Shortly, the Tarantulas broke their huddle and before Frankie approached us to announce the decision, two of the boys who had been scratching at the ground handed him something.
"We voted that we're gonna let you guys join the team," Frankie said with a genuine grin. "'Course you still gotta pass the initiation first. That OK with you guys?"
"Yeah, sure. No problem," I said.
"Wadda we gotta do?" Tommie asked suspiciously.
Frankie extended his closed fists toward us while the Tarantulas gathered around and began to giggle and jostle with one another. "Nothing tough," Frankie said. "You just gotta eat these." Frankie opened his fists. There, squirming in the palm of his hands were two of the biggest, reddest earthworms I'd ever seen.
Tommie's mouth fell agape and horror and revulsion paled his face. I didn't feel much better, but I don't think I let it show.
"What's the matter with you guys?" Frankie asked, amid the laughter of the Tarantulas. "You guys chickenshit or something?"
"Chickens! Chickens! Chickenshits!" the Tarantulas chorused gleefully.
Reflecting back on that moment, I don't know if what I did next was an act of courage or just plain stupidity, but before the next chorus of jeers rang out from the Tarantulas, I snatched a worm from Frankie's palm and sucked it down my throat. I may have gagged, even thrown up, but I don't remember. My only vivid memory beyond swallowing the worm was the expression on Tommie's face. Tommie's collapsing countenance told me that he couldn't make himself swallow a worm if his life depended upon it.
"Cool, man," Frankie said to me while the Tarantulas murmured their admiration for accomplishing the feat. "You passed the initiation and are now officially a member of the Twelfth Street Tarantulas."
No sooner had Frankie issued his congratulatory proclamation to me than the Tarantulas turned their attentions to Tommie.
"Your turn," one of them said to Tommie.
Tommie stared with revulsion at the worm in Frankie's palm for a long moment. Soon a new chorus of jeers erupted from the Tarantulas. "Pussy! Chickenshit!" they chimed.
Tommy turned to me, a blank expression on his face.
"Chickenshit! Pussy!" the Tarantulas taunted.
Tears welled in the corners of Tommie's eyes all the while he stared at me. But there was more. His defeated expression revealed a disappointment in me that bordered on abject betrayal. Tommie's shoulders heaved and he began to sob in earnest before he abruptly turned and ran away.
Maybe it was the worm I swallowed or maybe I was just giddy with the knowledge that I had passed muster with my newly found friends, I don't know, but before I could think about it, my own voice joined the taunts pummeling my former friend. "Chicken! Chickenshit! Pussy!" I shouted at the top of my lungs.
Just then, Tommie stopped running. He turned and directed his tear-stained face directly at me and cried,
"I'm not a chickenshit! I'm not! I'm as good as you! You just wait! I'll show you! I'm as brave as you!"
I realized at that moment that Tommie's concept of our friendship was much different than mine, but I didn't begin to feel the guilt of my betrayal until later. That was the last time I saw Tommie Rothie alive.
No one knows with certainty what Tommie was doing at the gravel pit that same night of the initiation. My Dad said Tommie must have climbed to the top of the rock-crusher and accidentally turned on the switches that brought the huge machine to life. How he fell into the grinding steel jaws of the crusher is still a matter of conjecture. All that remained of Tommie Rothie was a blood-stained pile of gravel at the bottom of the crusher's conveyer belt.
My Dad said it was an accident. Maybe it was, but then again, maybe Tommie was trying to prove something to himself. I can't help but think he was trying to prove something to me, too.
Site: Colorado Writer
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|Reviewed by Charles O'Connor III
|You are very good with imagery and the plot and everything tied with it works extremely well. I enjoyed it.
Charles D. O'Connor III "Check out my new story 'Mabels Grave'"
|Reviewed by Sandy Knauer
|Captivating! I enjoyed this very much and look forward to reading more of your writing.|
|Reviewed by Allison Gates
|Great plot line and wonderful insight into boys and their pressures. I enjoyed the jeering and the fact that such an "initiation" would be cast upon one so young and impressionable. The ending goes well with the "sounds and sights" that you would imagine in a gravel pit, dare I be graphic, and the images that play with the body of a young boy grounded.|
|Reviewed by Connie Bernhardt
|What a great story! But such a very sad ending. Gave me goosebumps.|