Old man Schultz was a mean old soul, absolutely no doubt about it!
All of us kids thought so. He would often yell at us for trespassing on his property, riding our bikes in the street or just exploring abandoned buildings. His house was next to a condemned building and sandwiched between them was an empty field – a field just large enough to play baseball.
The field was more of a trash dump than a playground, but we made the best of it. We also had to make the best of old man Schultz’s bossiness. Before we could play, he made us move rocks and construction materials out of the way, pick up trash and rake the area for broken glass. Only then could we put down potato-sack bases and scratch foul lines in the dirt with sticks. Everything was makeshift, but it didn’t matter. When we stepped up to the plate, we imagined ourselves to be Willie Mays or Mickie Mantle.
On one occasion with the game on the line, I was batting. And, “dang it all,” I hit a pop-up that ended the game. Watching from his back yard, old man Schultz growled, “Too bad kid … losing the game like that.”
His comment made me mad, and I forgot my mom’s instruction to always be courteous to older people. I shouted back at him, “Why do you have to be so mean to us?”
He looked at me hard, “Life is tough kid, and you better get used to it.”
That night, I confessed my outburst to my mother. She didn’t berate me; instead, she told me about our neighbor – about how life of late hadn’t been good to him. He was a widower, in poor health and had to eke out a living as a night watchman.
“As a result,” she said, “He became very bitter – a real curmudgeon.”
I thought this over and, even though I didn’t know what “curmudgeon” meant, I did know that any word with three or more syllables in it couldn’t be good. Right then and there, I decided to make the other guys retrieve any foul balls hit into his backyard.
Now, as I mentioned earlier, next to our makeshift ball field was an abandoned two-story building. It was a wreck with all its copper piping and any other salvageable item ripped out. It just stood there, waiting for the bulldozers to knock it down and make way for the new highway. It was creepy looking, but that only added to its mystique and allure.
It was meant to be explored – to wind one’s way through dilapidated hallways with imagined threats around every corner. We could test our courage by going down into the dank basement or up into the cobwebbed attic and look out through broken panes at the steep roof that overhung rough ground covered with broken glass, splintered wood and bent pipe.
And, kids being kids, we would dare each other to do things that reasonable people would not do. Today’s challenge was to walk across the roof to the opposite dormer. We drew straws to see who would go first; I lost.
As I crawled out the first dormer window, I tried to convince myself that it was just a few steps. On the second step, I lost my footing and began to slide down the steep slope, but I managed to catch myself on the roof-top gutter. However, I was still in a tough spot – just hanging there with most of my body dangling over the edge.
My friends couldn’t help and just yelled at me to pull myself up. But, after several failed attempts, all I could do was hang on. I held on for as long as I could; but, in the end, I felt my grip loosen and just had to let go. I closed my eyes and fell backwards …
I imagined being impaled on a protruding piece of pipe, but that didn’t happen. Instead, I slammed into a hard body which broke my fall and preserved my fragile existence. It was old man Schultz, who, seeing my dilemma, rushed to my aid and caught me just in the nick of time. His reward was a bloody nose and a black eye. And, as soon as we got up off the ground, he began to yell at me.
But this time, I didn’t mind.
You see, I finally realized what he was doing; he was watching over us. Whether making us remove dangerous things from the field, warning us not to go into condemned buildings or yelling at us for riding our bikes in the street; he was just trying to protect us.
I wish I could say we became friends, but we never had the chance. In a few weeks my family moved away from the neighborhood. But, just prior to my departure, I went by old man Schultz’s house and waved goodbye to him. He didn’t wave back, but he did offer me a slight nod of his head. It wasn’t much; but, it was enough.
PS: Later in life I learned what “curmudgeon” meant; I never applied it to Mr. Schultz.