Jackson Howard awoke in a full blown panic. His head whipped back and forth as he surveyed the unfamiliar surroundings. Slowly, the nausea and butterflies in his stomach receded and his pulse rate dropped to a point where he could no longer hear the blood roaring in his ears. He took a deep breath and waited for his mind to clear. Okay, he had driven straight through from his home in the Florida Panhandle and had arrived late last night. Jackson didn’t know how far it was from Apalachicola, Florida to Wild Pony Ranch in Shenandoah County, Virginia, but when he left he was sixty six years old and right now he felt about one hundred and ten.
John Howard knocked softly on the door and opened it. “Dad? You awake?” he asked.
“I’ll be down in a minute,” Jackson said.
Papa!” five year old Emma Howard exclaimed as Jackson Howard entered the kitchen.
“There’s my favorite granddaughter,” Jackson said as he pulled Emma into his arms.
“How long can you stay, dad?” John Howard asked as he handed his father a plate of grits, fried apples, and homemade biscuits.
“Did I tell you my plans last night?” Jackson asked. “I was so tired I really don’t remember.”
“It was late,” Sarah Jane Howard said, handing him a glass of orange juice, “and Emma was asleep. Why don’t you start from the beginning.”
“Do you want the long version or the short version?” Jackson asked.
“The long version,” John, Sarah Jane, and Emma replied in unison.
Jackson Howard finished his biscuit, eased his chair back from the kitchen table, and began.
It was May 27, 1960, and the Highland Meadows, North Carolina high school baseball team was about to realize an impossible dream. Two weeks earlier the team from the tiny school in the remote mountains of southwestern North Carolina had won the state championship. A series of highly improbable victories in the regionals had brought them to the national championship game against a legendary powerhouse from southern California. When the dust settled on that historic day the state of North Carolina had its first national high school baseball championship. Fifty years later that team remained the only national baseball champion from North Carolina. Jackson Howard had been the second baseman on that team.
“There was an unreality to it,” Jackson said; “a feeling of destiny. That championship game we played was like the movie with Kevin Costner. I felt like we were playing on a Field of Dreams.”
The next day Coach Thompson had gathered the team together for the last time. He spoke of the magnificent achievement that had brought such pride and respect to their school and the state of North Carolina. But, more importantly, he spoke about the lives that were in front of his players. He knew that most of them would leave Highland Meadows and lose track of each other in the years ahead. He told them to treasure this milestone in their lives.
“The last thing he asked of us was that we agree to meet back here at the school baseball field on May 27, 2010, to celebrate our lives and the fiftieth anniversary of our achievement,” Jackson said. “We all agreed. I don’t know how many of my teammates remember that day and that promise, but I do. And I’m going; even if I’m the only one there, I’m going.”
“Dad, the twenty seventh is tomorrow,” John Howard said.
Jackson Howard nodded. “I’m leaving this afternoon.”
There was a brief silence. Sarah Jane Howard looked at her husband and daughter, and then asked “may we come?”
They checked into a motel on the outskirts of town and had dinner at Sonny’s Pig Pen.
“Didn’t I tell you?” Jackson Howard asked. “Right here, the best pork barbecue in the United States.”
The others just nodded, too busy wolfing down the delicious food to stop and talk.
“Papa, did you used to bring Nana here?” Emma asked.
“No, honey,” Jackson Howard replied. “I met your Nana later on after I moved away from Highland Meadows.”
Emma finished eating a french fry and sighed. “I wish she was here now,” she said.
“So do I, Emma,” her grandfather said.
Ellen Howard had been struck down by a massive heart attack the previous year and Jackson was utterly lost without her. They had been married for forty years and it had become a struggle for Jackson to find a reason to get out of bed each morning. He was taking anti-depressants but they just made him groggy. He wasn’t a drinker, but he spent most days in a mental fog.
“I used to bring Beth Ann Rogers here when we dated in high school,” Jackson said. “Boy, did I have it bad for her. Talk about good looking.”
“First love?” Sarah Jane asked.
“For sure,” Jackson replied.
“What ever happened to her?” Sarah Jane asked.
“Oh, I wasn’t in her league and I think she figured that out after awhile,” Jackson said. “She traded up to Harold James, the quarterback on the football team. Ended up marrying him. I think they still live here in town.”
They returned to the motel and turned in early. The reunion was scheduled for ten o’clock the next morning. Jackson was showered and dressed before dawn and killed time pacing back and forth in the parking lot. He was a nervous wreck. For maybe the hundredth time he considered the possibility, even the likelihood, that he would be the only one there. He would have dragged his family here for nothing and they would see him as a ridiculous old fool.
It was time. Jackson directed them to the school. They parked in front of the gym and Jackson practically raced across the parking lot to the hill overlooking the baseball field. John, Emma, and Sarah Jane caught up with Jackson and looked down on the ball field. It was deserted.
Everyone came; the entire team. Harvey Walls, their star pitcher, arrived five minutes after Jackson, and within fifteen minutes everyone was there. Hugs and handshakes were exchanged as the players mingled with a sizable group of spouses, children, and grandchildren. Most of Jackson’s teammates had enjoyed comfortable and productive lives. Law, education, business, and banking were the primary professions represented at the gathering. Harvey Walls was the exception. Bright and personable in high school, Harvey had been diagnosed with schizophrenia his sophomore year in college. His life had spiraled downward and he had spent his life working sporadically at a series of low paying jobs. Harvey’s social security check enabled him to pay for groceries, his medications, and clothing from the Goodwill store. There was no money left for housing or transportation. He was homeless and destitute, without a wife or family. He had hitchhiked to the reunion from Atlanta, wearing only the clothes on his back.
Jackson looked up as a man he didn’t recognize stepped up to a podium in front of the bleachers.
“Welcome to the fiftieth anniversary of the Highland Meadows High School national championship baseball team,” the man said. “My name is Jason Thompson, and I’m the baseball coach here at Highland Meadows High School. I took over from my father when he retired. I’m sorry to say that dad passed away two years ago. One of his final wishes was that I represent him on this special day.”
Coach Thompson cleared his throat and continued. “When I call your name please take your positions.”
The players trotted on to the field as their names were called. Their bodies were bent and slowed with age, but the same fierce pride and determination that had served them well through the years remained.
“Jackson Howard, second base,” Coach Thompson called out.
Chills raced up John Howard’s spine as he watched his father jog out to his position. When the last name had been called Coach Thompson paused and looked out at the men on the field. Turning back to the crowd, Coach Thompson swept his arm toward the field and said, “your 1960 Highland Meadows High School national championship baseball team.”
The cheers rang out.
A catered picnic lunch awaited the players and their families at River Ridge County Park on the outskirts of town. At least half the town had turned out for the celebration. Delicious food was consumed while the stories and conversations flowed. Harvey Walls sat off by himself devouring hot dogs and potato salad like a man who hadn’t eaten in a good while.
“You’re an inspiration, dad,” John Howard said as he balanced a plate of food in his lap. “You all are.”
“Even Harvey Walls?” Jackson asked with a nod toward his friend and former teammate.
“Are you kidding?” John Howard asked. “Especially Harvey Walls. There’s a man who has fought mental illness his entire adult life and is still surviving. Can you imagine how much courage it took for him to come to this reunion?”
Jackson Howard shrugged.
“I’ll tell you how much, dad,” John Howard said. “Picture the homeliest looking girl in your high school going to her senior prom alone with no date. She knows that she won’t be asked to dance and will be the butt of jokes.”
Horrible,” Jackson said.
“Sure,” his son replied. “Only “Carrie” had a worse prom. Anyway, take that and multiply it by about a hundred. That’s Harvey Walls courage. The man is a warrior.”
Jackson Howard looked up into the smiling face of Beth Ann Rogers. He leaped to his feet, knocking his plate of food to the ground and dumping a drink in his lap. Beth Ann laughed her wonderful laugh as Jackson made the introductions.
“My god, Beth Ann, you look amazing,” Jackson said. “how do you do it?”
Beth Ann blushed. “I can’t tell you that,Jackson,” she said. She glanced nervously at Sarah Jane, and added, “that’s why they’re called beauty secrets.”
Sarah Jane smiled warmly at the older woman. She could tell that she’d had some work done, and the blond streaks in her tousled hair had definitely come from a bottle. A man wouldn’t notice and wouldn’t care. It wouldn’t bother Jackson if Beth Ann got that look by shampooing with margarine. He was staring at her like he was fourteen years old.
“How’s Ellen?” Beth Ann asked.
“I lost her last year,” Jackson replied. “Heart attack.”
Beth Ann touched his arm. “I’m so sorry, Jackson,” she said. “I didn’t know.”
“What about Harold?” Jackson asked. “Is he here?”
“I wouldn’t know,” Beth Ann replied. “I’ve been replaced by his twenty five year old secretary.”
Jackson stared at Beth Ann and said, “Harold’s a fool.”
Later that afternoon Beth Ann invited them all back to her place for a light supper.
“Guess where we ate dinner last night, Beth Ann,” Jackson asked.
“Not at Sonny’s?” Beth Ann replied.
Jackson nodded and tossed her a wink. “We even sat at our table.”
Beth Ann laughed and her face colored like a young girl.
After dinner they were beginning to say their goodbyes when Sarah Jane pulled Jackson aside.
“You’ll never have another chance,” she told him in a quiet voice.
Emma, Sarah Jane, and John waited out by the car for Jackson.
Jackson cleared his throat to speak. Beth Ann looked like she might cry.
“You know, Beth Ann, I’ve learned in the past year that I’m not very good at being alone. I love Florida and I’ve got a great little place on the Apalachicola River, but I take anti-depressants and walk around in a daze half the time.”
Beth Ann didn’t trust herself to speak.
Jackson’s heart was galloping. He forced himself to look at Beth Ann. “Have you ever been to Florida?” he asked in a voice that was barely audible.
Jackson carried Beth Ann’s suitcase out to the car, grinning like a school boy. Beth Ann was flushed and radiant as a newlywed on her honeymoon. It was time to go.
John was pulling onto the highway when he spotted Harvey Walls standing on the shoulder with his thumb out.
“Hop in, Mr. Walls,” John said.
Jackson and Beth Ann slid over to make room.
“Where you headed, Harvey?” Jackson asked.
Harvey shrugged and said, “no place in particular, maybe Charlotte or Richmond.”
“Since when did you start liking the big city, Harvey?” Beth Ann asked.
“Since never,” Harvey replied. “ But,that’s where you find the soup kitchens and large social services agencies and veterans hospitals.”
Emma turned in her seat and asked, “what’s a veteran, Mr. Walls?”
Harvey Walls smiled and said, “that’s anyone who served in the armed forces, honey. I was in the army.”
“Were you in a war?” Emma asked.
Harvey’s smile faded. “Yes, I was,” he said softly. “ I did two tours in Vietnam.”
John Howard looked in the rear view mirror and caught his dad’s eye.
“I can’t imagine what that was like,”John Howard said. “I always try to take away something positive from any situation but I guess there wasn’t much positive to bring back from Vietnam.”
“Just this,” Harvey said, pulling something from his pocket and handing it to John.
John glanced at the item and nearly drove off the road.
“Holy God, man!” he gasped. “This is the Medal of Honor.”
Everyone in the car turned and stared in open mouthed amazement.
John handed the medal back and said, “thank you for your service, sir.”
Harvey returned the medal to his pocket and fell silent.
The miles ticked by as they drove deeper into the night. Jackson caught his son watching him in the mirror. John nodded slightly. Jackson shifted in his seat and found Beth Ann looking at him. She smiled and nodded.
Jackson Howard looked over at his friend and said, “say, Harvey, how would you feel about a sleepy little town in the Florida Panhandle?”
Harvey Walls stared at Jackson and Beth Ann for a long moment. He looked away long enough to rub something from his eye.
“I think it would feel like home,” he said.
The highway stretched out ahead, seemingly endless. Emma awoke from a light sleep and snuggled up against her father.
“I like reunions, daddy,” she said.
John Howard could feel the joy as he carried his passengers through the night; taking them home.