Friday, December 23, 2016

Song for a Winter's Night

          Winter's solstice has just passed. Christmas Eve is drawing near, with year's end close at hand. It gives me pause to remember Gretta and let the lyrics of a Gordon Lightfoot song speak to me one more time before I contemplate the future.

internet image

First and last verses of
"Song For A Winter's Night"
Gordon Lightfoot
The lamp is burnin' low upon my table top
The snow is softly falling
The air is still in the silence of my room
I hear your voice softly calling

If I could only have you near
To breathe a sigh or two
I would be happy just to hold the hands I love
On this winter night with you 
And to be once again with you

Thursday, December 1, 2016

A Little Surprise on Wedding Day

Gretta's smile was like a magnet.

Preface: It’s been a tough year in losing Gretta, but a big part of my therapy is to remember the good times and happy times. I’ve decided to share some funny moments in this blog and in the next few to come. We liked to laugh, but Gretta had a rule that I couldn’t tell her anything funny if she had any food or drink in her mouth, because she didn’t want to choke.

So here’s the first of a few anecdotes:

A Little Surprise on Wedding Day
by Gregory E. Larson
Greg and Gretta’s Wedding day – February 7th, 2004
St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church
Mission, Kansas

           With five minutes to go before the bride’s procession, brothers Dan, Tim, and I were in the side chapel at St. Michael’s. The priest said it was our holding pen until he came in and gave us the high sign. Excited and nervous, I looked around the small, modern room that was designed in a style similar to Frank Lloyd Wright’s - a very different space than the big, traditional sanctuary that awaited us.

          I spied a pedestal with a sleek, ceramic bowl, and picked it up to inspect the piece of art. As I tipped the bottom up to see if it was signed by the artist, I was rudely greeted with a whoosh of water cascading down the front of my black suit.

          Tim had an incredulous look on his face. “What are you doing?”

          Dan exclaimed, “Holy Water!” Then we all laughed.

          I put the bowl back on its pedestal and we quickly mopped up the water with some tissues, leaving the soggy mess under the chairs. Immediately the priest knocked on the door and said it was time to go.

          That’s when I understood why people wore black clothing to formal occasions. It hides accidents. We walked out to stand in front of all the family and friends seated before us, and my smiling bride began her walk down the aisle from the rear of the church as the organ music swelled and filled the sanctuary.

          The ceremony was a happy occasion (the black suit dried quickly), and Gretta was all smiles. At the end, we proceeded out of the sanctuary, toward fellowship hall for food and music. I noticed the church custodian in the narthex and motioned for Gretta to wait just a moment. I leaned over to the custodian, and spoke in a hushed and nonchalant manner, “Oh, I noticed some tissues on the floor in the chapel. Some kids must have been playing there. You might want to check it out.” I turned to Gretta and said, “Don’t ask, I’ll tell you later.”

          The reception was alive with harp music, a buffet dinner, and lots of friends and family. I realized my brothers and I were the only ones who knew about the splish-splash in the chapel — just our little secret. The wedding festivities ended and Gretta and I were full of anticipation to leave on our honeymoon to Jamaica. It wasn’t until we were driving to the airport that I told her about the incident in the chapel. That was just the beginning of many laughs we had together over the years. Holy Water! Who would have thought that I’d get an informal baptism just in the knick of time, before we said our wedding vows.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Skating in the Light

Gretta at USFSA - 1998 Adult Nationals
photo by Wendi Collins

Skating in the Light
by Gregory E. Larson

Preface: I give a special ‘thank you’ to artist and adult skater Wendi Collins for giving me permission to use the photos in which she captured Gretta preparing to compete in the 1998 United States Figure Skating Association - Adult Nationals in Oakland, California.

          In the aftermath of Gretta’s death and funeral, the sympathy cards covered the dining room table. All were special to me. I read them over and over many times. It was evident that Gretta had made a deep impression on the lives of so many people. The cards and letters included heartfelt memories of times together, pictures, artwork, and personal observations about her friendliness and strong character.

          One of the cards, from Wendi Collins, included black and white photos of Gretta, taken in 1998 at the Adult Nationals figure skating competition in Oakland, California. It was her second national competition and she placed first and second in her two events. The pictures were of Gretta preparing and waiting to go out on the ice to perform. They had an artistic flair of dark and light, with Gretta in unassuming poses while she tightened the laces on her skates or while she stood at rink-side. 

Gretta preparing to go out on the ice
photo by Wendi Collins
          I couldn’t quite put my finger on why the photos were different, but I kept going back to look at them. Part of the fascination was their realism. It seemed as if I could reach out and touch her cheek. I sensed she was focused on making sure her mind, body, and spirit were ready.
          One day, I pulled out the black and white pictures, to ponder each one and give them a closer look. I sat down with a cup of afternoon coffee, or kaffestunde, as Gretta had called it. The late afternoon break had become my grieving ritual, a private time to think about all the happy times we shared and how much I appreciated being with her. As I looked at the photos, a metaphor began to take shape in my mind, with the skating rink as heaven, and the sideline-bench area as earth.

          I looked at Gretta standing by the bench near the rink. Her head, with that giant, signature smile of hers, was turned back towards Wendi’s camera. Oh, that smile. It had refreshed me countless times, whenever I returned home from work or an errand. It was a magnetic attraction. When I fell in love, I told myself I wanted to be around that smile as I grew old.  
Gretta showed no fear
photo by Wendi Collins
          If she had any fear of going out on the ice, her smile and state of mind were her weapons to fight off the trepidation – something I saw in the months and weeks before she succumbed to cancer. In the photo, it was apparent that she had prepared to go out and perform on the rink, just as she had prepared herself for the unknown during her final days. 

          I touched the edges of the photo and noticed that the bright lights of the rink had washed out the background. It reminded me of how much fun I had going to the competitions in the dark of winter. The light on the ice was always a magical spectacle to me, a place where the skater’s sequins sparkled as they spun their magic and the music pulsed throughout the rink. It was a perfect remedy for shaking off the winter blues.

          The two men in the picture stood closer to the rink and were looking towards the light, as if enthralled at a place where they could not go – a place so close, yet so far away – thus the metaphor of the rink as heaven.

          In the left side of the picture, I also noticed the concrete column. Attached to the column was a placard of rules. Yes, there are plenty of rules on earth – some more significant than others. Once on the rink, or in heaven, the rules fade away, and those who have prepared will experience the exhilaration of a fantastic new universe.

          I remembered Gretta telling me that when she was out on the ice waiting for the music to start, sometimes her knees began to shake in the silence before the crowd and the judges. To overcome her fear, she always took a deep breath, smiled at the judges and then focused on the task before her. I saw those same qualities near the end of her life as she fought the cancer and eventually as she came to terms with meeting her maker.

          It was Gretta’s character that also attracted me to her. She had a discipline and a persistence that towered above most mortals, including me. It was a discipline that was not stressful to her. It came as a natural force from within – a matter-of-fact quality that was a part of her personality.

          In her last weeks, she spent a lot of time sitting outdoors, facing into the wind with her eyes closed. To me, those were her private times with God. Whatever fear she had, she kept it within, preparing for her day of reckoning as a skater would prepare for the day in front of the judges.

          Now I know she’s up there somewhere, smiling, awash in the light, full of energy and floating across the ice, at peace with God and the universe.
Gretta skating in the light

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Skating Images of Gretta

It is difficult for me to do much writing these days, so soon after Gretta has passed away. I do like sharing memories of her, especially that relate to her skating.
I am sharing this post of three pictures of Gretta during her 2003 Adult National Competition in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The pictures were sent to me from  an architect and adult skater, Jesse Miguel. These three photos are some of the best skating pictures that exist of Margretta, and they came from a fellow skater, not a professional photographer.
Gretta in her spiral pose (the middle judge is smiling!)

Gretta is airborne in one of her jumps.

Gretta smiles with a look of pure happiness.

A rare winter day on a pond near Topeka in 2007

Gretta's signature spiral glide in the freedom of the outdoors

The skater's pose (Gretta - not Greg)

Thursday, August 25, 2016

The Day I Heard Violins

Gretta in the north woods of Wisconsin

Preface: In 2002, Gretta and I fell in love in the little town of Crandon in Northern Wisconsin. It wasn’t Paris or Rome, but it was a place which taught us that life is what you make of it.

The Day I heard Violins
by Gregory E. Larson

           The pines of northern Wisconsin exhaled their scent on the warm July day, while Gretta and I perspired profusely as we pedaled our bikes for the start of a week-long tour. We had hoped the trip, with its route along the Wisconsin River, would provide relief from the Kansas heat, but the temperature had reached the 90s by early afternoon. The Wisconsinites on the tour were complaining about the heat and some of the riders were getting dehydrated. Other than the pine scent, it seemed like a summer day in Kansas to Gretta and me. We just put on more sunscreen and drank more water. No big deal.
A hot day in Wisconsin
          After fifty miles of pedaling, we arrived at the Crandon High School, the first night’s destination, and pitched our tents on the practice field. Crandon was in the north woods country, but there were no large trees around the school.  Inside the school, the muggy air in the hallways rudely made us aware that no air-conditioning existed in the building. Even with big fans and root beer floats in the cafeteria, everyone sweltered.
          This was our first week-long vacation together, and I was worried it was fast becoming a bad experience.  “What’s wrong with this picture?” I asked Gretta. Our eyes met. I made a quick decision. “Let’s ride the bikes into town and see if we can find a park . . . get some shade. It’s only a couple of miles.”
          Gretta eagerly responded, “Sounds like a plan. Let’s go.”
          I liked Gretta’s spirit. She was always ready for adventure. We felt better the moment we hopped on the bikes and rode in the cross-wind towards Crandon. Once in town, I looked left and right at each intersection, hoping to see a grove of trees, but nothing looked inviting. We noticed the Crandon Police Station and I said, “Let’s ask them if there’s a park in town.” I knew from experience the police have a wealth of information, including good places to eat.
          The officer at the front desk looked bored on the Sunday afternoon. He peered at us in our bike clothes and said, “Looks like you’re having fun. What can I do for you two?”
          “Well, we’re with the cyclists staying at the high school. We thought there might be a park in town to find some shade.”
          The officer’s eyes perked up and he responded, “I can do you one better than that. If you go back west one block and then south for six, you’ll be at Crandon Beach on the lake. It’s real nice . . . has trees for shade, grass for picnics and a sandy beach.”
          Gretta and I gave a look of incredible to each other.
          “Thanks for the info.” I opened the door for Gretta. “Let’s go.”
          We followed the instructions and coasted most of the way down to the lake. It was a one-way ticket to heaven on earth. The small beach had a family atmosphere of dogs, kids, and parents, a dozen people in all. Other than the two of us, there was not a single cyclist or bicycle in sight. I flopped onto the cool grass in the shade.
          Gretta sat beside me and said, “There’s no one here from the bike tour. Can you believe it? We’re the only ones here out of hundreds of cyclists.” A strong, south breeze flowed across the lake and onto the shore, while the white-capped waves rolled onto the beach causing the children to jump and laugh.
          I was amazed. All I could say was “Wow. This is so cool.”
          Gretta sat with her face to the wind, eyes closed. I suspected she was enjoying it, too. For the next few minutes we sat with legs outstretched and with our elbows propping us up to catch the breeze.
          I broke the silence. “The water looks like fun. You want to get wet?”
          I pulled the bike jersey up over my head and tossed it on the ground. Incredibly, Gretta did the same with hers. Thank goodness she was wearing a sports bra. We walked hand-in-hand to the beach where the wind, the waves, the freedom and relaxation – all of it washed over us. As the sand and water tickled our feet, we felt giddy and began to laugh.  Deeper and deeper into the water we waded, when all of a sudden a big wave appeared. Gretta jumped as a white-cap splashed us, we caressed and I held her with my arm under her knees and the other arm wrapped around her back.
          That’s when I heard the violins.
          Cupid cranked up the orchestra. I looked in Gretta’s eyes and thought why would I want to be with anyone else? Gretta’s eyes appeared to say the same thing, and we kissed. It was such a heavenly feeling. Her body seemed weightless in the water and I didn’t want to let go. I kept walking with her in my arms, hoping the bliss would never end. That was the moment I knew I was truly in love. I was convinced that good things happened when we were together.
          Eventually we strolled back to the shore where I found a fisherman’s cap which had washed up on the beach. I wore the wet cap as a memento, and we sat back down in the grass to dry off.
The fisherman's cap I found on the beach
          That’s when another cyclist rode into the park and brought over a six-pack of beer wrapped in a beach towel.
          He smiled and said, “I stopped at the store and got some beer . . . I thought there would be a lot of cyclists down here.”
          I replied, “We’re the only ones, but a beer sounds good to me.” We each opened a can and surreptitiously sipped the beer while we visited. It was a nice finish to a magical day.
          Over the years, we both reminisced about our walk in the lake at Crandon Beach. The rest of the bike tour was full of fun, laughter and adventure. Truly, it set the tone for our entire relationship and our future. We had discovered how to make our own happiness.
Making our own happiness
         Crandon. Whenever the word came up in our conversation, we’d give each other a dreamy gaze. It was the classic Gretta Factor - when I was with her, good things seemed to happen.
          I will always remember that special day when I held her in my arms and heard violins.

          Click the link above to hear Joshua Bell playing the violin to Claudio Monteverdi's ‘Pur Ti Miro’ which is Italian for ‘while I gaze.’ I listen to it and daydream about Gretta practicing her figure skating. I can see her starting out slowly gaining confidence and freedom on the ice, then doing little half-jumps and turns – a picture of contentment. As the music quickens I see her boldly jumping into the air. This was symbolic of her life in the last fifteen years – a person who was free to accomplish many things with the self-assurance and happiness that was visible to all.



Friday, July 15, 2016

Eulogy for Margretta Larson (1952-2016)

Eulogy for Margretta Larson (1952 – 2016)
by Gregory E. Larson

          We all honored Margretta on the day of her funeral. With the church so full of friends and family, I imagined that those who passed by must have thought the service was for some business titan, a CEO, or well-known public figure. No, it was a farewell for a simple, private person, Margretta, who touched so many people with her smile and kindness. She caringly made her connections one person at a time. It is a reminder that our daily interactions do have an impact on others in this troubled world.
          I want to thank all who came to the service and I give the most heartfelt thanks to my friend, Kirk Gastinger, who so eloquently read the eulogy that I wrote for the one I will miss so much.
           The loss of Margretta is incomprehensible. The void is immense. I want to rend my shirt, raise my fists to the sky and scream, “Why, God, why?”
          Why is she gone? God only knows.
          How will we cope with the loss? God only knows.
          Every morning, my heart sang arias and a Jamaican love song, just knowing that I could reach out and touch her. She meant the world to me. Our love, which had many facets, grew stronger each day. We wanted it to last for 10,000 years and have Douglas our dog with us, too.
          The mutual trust and admiration fueled our love and made us believe we could do anything. All was in balance. We each enjoyed our own personal hobbies and time with friends, and we also loved the time we spent together.
          I admired her figure-skating ability and was amazed at her persistence and tenacity while she practiced in the early mornings. She was a gutsy gal, physically strong, yet she had such a sweet, feminine side with her smile and her caring nature.

Margretta shows her 'joie de vie'
            Although she competed in national figure-skating competitions, many people didn’t know that the competitive side of her took a back seat to the pure joy she had on the ice. Once she learned how to figure skate, her coaches begged her to compete because her skills were so strong. She crafted her skating costumes and glued every sequin onto the fabric to make it sparkle when she moved on the ice.  The judges didn’t miss her Cheshire-cat grin while she glided past them during her performances.
          When we rode bikes together, I marveled at her ability to keep up with riders twice her size. Once in Wisconsin, I watched her stand up on the pedals as we rode up a big hill in the rain. I said to myself, “She is one tough woman.”

Margretta made me feel like a king on the tandem
           On the tandem bike, we rode all the side streets in Kansas City. I felt like a king as we pedaled to Brookside or the Plaza for coffee. We found any excuse to ride: picnics, visits to see friends, and trips to our favorite restaurants and specialty stores. Children would see the two-seater bike, then point and yell, “Hey, look!” Margretta always rang the bell and gave a big wave as we sped past.
          Our travels in the U.S. and in Europe brought out the best in us. During the journeys we’d have unexpected twists and turns. When things got bizarre, we’d look at each other, smile and laugh, knowing everything would be okay. We relished every trip and had so much fun along the way.  She was my Audrey Hepburn, and I, her Cary Grant.
Margretta at Cathedral Rock - Sedona, Arizona
          We wasted no time during the fifteen years we spent together, finding adventures around every bend and corner of our journeys together. During her cancer we were able to travel to Boston, Phoenix, Santa Barbara, and Switzerland.
          One of our traditions was afternoon coffee. She said the Germans called it Kaffestunde. Her preference for strong coffee with a cookie or pastry treat fueled our discussions. Many times our short chats would extend into hour-long discussions filled with laughter. She often shared what she was reading for her book club, the close-knit group of friends that meant so much to her.
          Margretta was a linguist at heart, and she spoke fluent German, Italian and French. She was very precise with the grammar rules of each language and was a master at verb conjugation. Her attendance at La Causerie classes were a tradition started by her mom decades ago.
          On her last day at KU Med Center, a doctor asked her a question. She responded, speaking fluent French. The doctor said, “I’m impressed with your French, but I only know how to speak English today.” Then he asked, “How do you feel?”
          She paused and spoke with determination. “I am really tired, but my French is very good.”
          I just ask God to help all of us in the days ahead. I pray that he’ll ease our pain and give us a litany of thoughts and memories to get us through the loss. We are all truly blessed to have seen her strong heart and spirit.
           Why is she gone? God only knows. How will we cope with the loss? God only knows.
          But I am convinced of one thing. There was only one Margretta, and her memory will brighten the lives of those she touched.
Margretta is miles from nowhere in Weminuche Wilderness, Colorado

Margretta Larson (1952-2016)

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Gentle Giants in the Countryside

World-Renowned Budweiser Clydesdales
Internet - public domain photo
Gentle Giants in the Countryside
travel memoir
by Gregory E. Larson

           On the large stone wall next to the wrought-iron entry gate, the understated sign read: WARM SPRINGS RANCH. In smaller letters below: HOME OF THE WORLD-RENOWNED BUDWEISER CLYDESDALES. The motorized gate opened, and I drove the car forward where a guide greeted us and gave instructions on how to proceed. A translucent sky in the cool spring morning had slowly turned bright blue during our drive through the Missouri countryside to reveal the budding trees and green valleys. My wife, Gretta, and I had arrived at the ranch near Boonville for a tour of the Clydesdale breeding operation, and were fortunate to have tickets which sell out months in advance.
Warm Springs Ranch near Boonville, Missouri
photo by Gregory E. Larson
          The 300-acre ranch was directly before us, nestled in the hills adjacent to the Missouri River. It was a horse farm with massive barns, white fences, green fields, and giant horses grazing the hillsides. As we drove towards the parking lot, Gretta exclaimed, “Look!” She pointed to a foal with wobbly legs in one of the pens. It looked like a baby camel and made jerky movements while it followed the mother horse.
          “That horse doesn’t look very old.” I said. In fact, we later learned the foal was born just five days earlier.
Five-day-old Clydesdale Foal with Mother
photo by Gregory E. Larson
          We entered the large red barn and walked to the breeding room where we were told the tour would start. There were no mood lights or padded walls . . . no soft music. The horses must already have an idea about what to do when they are brought together.
          At the beginning of the tour we viewed a short video which had clips of the baby Clydesdales in the Super Bowl commercials. When it ended, our guide stood by the massive beer wagon and shared many stories and facts about the horses and the ranch.
          Warm Springs Ranch is the only location where the Budweiser Clydesdales are bred. The ranch contracts with various breeders to bring in stallions that have the desired breeding qualities. The breeders select horses with these specific traits:
·        White noses
·        White lower legs
·        Black mane and tails
·        Eighteen hands in height at the shoulder (approximately six feet)
·        Overall chestnut-bay color
          The male foals which grow to meet these requirements are neutered to become geldings and trained to become parade horses.
          There was a collective gasp from the women in the tour group when the guide told us the gestation period for Clydesdales was eleven months. We learned that when one of the mares is ready to deliver, the ranch manager receives an electronic notice from a sensor. Whether it is night or day, he is there to assist the deliveries.
          When did these gentle giants become the icon for Budweiser? The beer-wagon and horses idea was implemented by the Busch family to celebrate the repeal of prohibition. They wanted to tell the country they were ready to deliver a product that would quench the public’s thirst. Strategic deliveries were made in 1933 by the drivers and the teams of horses to famous personalities such as Franklin D. Roosevelt at the White House and to the former governor of New York, Al Smith. With photos appearing in all of the major newspapers, the Budweiser brand became associated with the Clydesdales.
          Today there are Clydesdale ranches in the Midwest, and on the East and West Coasts to serve as headquarters for multiple teams of the famous horses. From these locations, the crews and horses have a busy schedule to attend over 300 events and parades during the year. They tour the highways to their destinations in style and comfort in large red eighteen-wheel trucks with sparkling stalls in the air-conditioned trailers.
          Everybody loves a parade, and the Budweiser beer wagon and the Clydesdales have become a part of Americana. Good times, happy times, the best of the best — the Clydesdales reflect a feeling of pride and strength. In a process that takes six hours, the horses are groomed and harnessed in leather and brass, then finally hitched to the wagon to become the stars of the show. For early morning parades, the handlers are required to begin the preparation in the middle of the night.
          Each horse weighs over one ton, with the entire team weighing over 16,000 pounds. They pull the symbolic beer wagon which weighs only 8,000 pounds, thus the exertion for any one horse is minimal. The largest horses are hitched closest to the wagon since their massive strength is what gets the wagon rolling. The lead horses are selected for their agility and responsiveness to the commands from the driver.
          An important part of the beer wagon is the driver holding the reins. Good upper-body strength is required to hold the leather straps and guide the eight horses. The tension on the reins can exceed 75 pounds, thus two drivers are required to take turns during the parades which can be as long as ten miles and last several hours. The drivers have a single Dalmatian as their companion. The large, spotted dog is now a symbolic image of its original function, which was to guard the wagon from thieves during beer deliveries.

Drivers and Dalmation
Internet - public domain photo
          Our tour guide passed around one of the horseshoes for the giant hooves. It weighed five pounds and was twenty inches in length around the curve from end to end. The parade horses require re-shoeing every four to six months. The guide pointed out an interesting detail on the cast horseshoe — a small clip angle that points upward on the front of the shoe. This angle transfers some of the pressure from the shoe to the front of the hoof, thus reducing the stress on the nails at the underside of the hoof. We were told if the angle didn’t exist, the horses would require three times as many re-shoes.
          Although our tour group was eager to see the baby horses, we first met Duke, a retired parade horse. All of the horses we saw impressed us with their calm manner, and we were told that it was okay to use the flash on our cameras. The relaxed character trait of the breed allows them to endure all types of stressful situations that occur when performing before large crowds where unexpected noises and lights are encountered.  
Tour Guide with Duke, a Retired Parade Horse
photo by Gregory E. Larson
          The body temperature of a Clydesdale is 101 degrees. When it was our turn to greet Duke and pet his nose and neck, we quickly noticed the warm sensation when our fingertips were close to the horse’s hair. Duke never tired from the attention he received. He was always ready for more people to come up and marvel at the majesty of his presence.
          Near the end of the tour, we visited the stalls where two sets of mares and foals were resting. The foals, which spent most of their time lying on the hay, were about one-and-a-half months old. The moms were always available when the young horses became hungry, which was quite often. The Clydesdales reveled at the attention and nuzzled the cameras and cellphones with their curiosity. 
Foal with Mother
photo by Gregory E. Larson
         After the tour and the free beer, we wandered out to the parking lot and noticed a small group of people standing by the exercise pens where we’d seen the baby Clydesdale. The mom and baby were resting, so we walked over to a pen where one of the parade horses, covered with a blanket, stood looking at us. His look seemed to say, “Come on over and visit with old Bud.” He was proud to get the attention of the small group. 
"Come on over and visit with old Bud."
photo by Gregory E. Larson
          All of a sudden, people noticed that the baby Clydesdale was up and running with its mom, which immediately caused our group to hurry over to the their pen. Old Bud wasn’t too happy that his brief popularity was gone. He let out a big N-a-a-a-y, as if to say “Why is everybody leaving me? What’s that little horse got that I don’t have?”
Five-day-old Clydesdale
photo by Gregory E. Larson
          The five-day-old was the star, and it came right up to the fence with its mom nearby. We were glad we’d come to see what it was like to live a horse’s life at Warm Springs Ranch. Undeniably, we all want to be loved, and the horses were no exception.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Green Grass in Arizona

Green Grass in Arizona – A Day at Spring Training
travel commentary
Gregory E. Larson

           Alcides Escobar, the first Royals batter of the day, walks up to home plate and steps into the batter’s box at the sun-drenched ballpark in Surprise, Arizona. I’m overcome with feelings of nostalgia as I look out over the verdant field and see a stadium that could be in Memphis or Chattanooga, you know, one of those AAA-sized ballparks. It’s an intimate setting for 10,000 fans, but big enough for the bigs. After fouling off a few pitches, Escobar hits a high, pop fly.
          While the ball hangs in the air over the center fielder, the woman seated next to my wife, Gretta, states matter-of-factly, “Can o’ corn.”
          The old-time baseball term for an easy catch was one I’d not heard in decades. It said so much about the crowd at the spring training game in the Cactus League. Most of the 8,800 fans who come to see some baseball are retired folks from all over the United States. It’s a crowd that has a deep knowledge of the game but most of the fans are out to have a good time. The stress-o-meter in our section in the shade of the upper deck is next to zero. During the course of the game we share where we live and who we’re routing for. We’re there for the love of the game and to appreciate the talent on either team.
          I have three items on my checklist: (1) Have fun. (2) Get some stats for my brother who is setting up his fantasy baseball team. (3) Make an executive decision selecting food and drink.
          I descend the stairs from the small upper deck and look towards the plaza along the first-base side of the field. The food and trinket tents are set up like a state fair. What should I get? Funnel cakes? Corn dogs? Craft beer? Lemonade? Brats? Maybe all of the above. I gravitate to the fresh-squeezed lemonade stand (Gretta will like that) and order two giant lemonades, one with strawberries in it for me. I add a corn dog and curly fries. The gal taking my order finds a small, beat-up cardboard box to serve as a carry-out container.
          The daytime game takes me back to the old traditions when games were played in the afternoon, and school boys hid transistor radios in their classroom desks to listen intently through the earpiece when Maris and Mantle were at bat.
          The solitude at the spring training game hits me in the second inning. There’s very little PA noise. No flashing lights. No chants with pounding drum noise. The announcer identifies each batter as they come to the plate. Nothing more, except when Row N in Section 115 is told they’ve won Papa Murphy’s Pizza Coupons to be redeemed at the local franchise.
          Some late-comers to the game get some friendly haggling as everyone in their row stands up to let them get to their seats. A lady at the end of the row announces to the new arrivals, “We’ll let you in this time, but you get only one potty break.”
          When the Royals are up to bat, I recognize Rusty Kuntz, the Royals’ first-base coach down on the field. He’s always got a smile on his face and talks to all of the players within earshot. He’s an old-timer, but he acts like a young coach at a little league game. Heck, I wish I could hit the ball and run to first base just to get a slap on the back and an encouraging word. He’s a one-man welcoming committee for any Royal that makes it to first base.
          I frantically write the players names on my dollar program and score sheet, then use some custom hieroglyphics to keep track of what happens. Interpreting the chicken scratches becomes more difficult as the game progresses. What the heck, we’re here to have fun.
          The Royals are looking good in every facet of the game. They’re hitting the ball with authority, making home runs, triples and singles with ease. They’re bird-dogging the ball when the other team is up to bat. Double plays seem routine and the over-the-head catches in the outfield draw big cheers from the crowd. The pitchers are moving the ball around the plate and changing speed on different pitches. This could be another good year for the boys in blue.
          Everything is easy-peasy in the stands, but I can’t imagine the stress on the players, especially the Roster Invitees, those from the minor leagues selected to participate in spring training due to their promising talent. This might be their only chance to break into the majors. Each crack of the bat, each bounce of the ball could mean success or disaster to their statistics. Fate could give them a life of multimillion-dollar contracts or ride on the bus from Spokane to Redmond. I think of the years each player has donned a uniform, from little leagues to now, always hoping to make it to the big-time. Both teams substitute players at a torrid pace as if there are revolving doors on the dugout. My score sheet has become illegible.
          Bubba Starling comes to bat for the Royals. Hey, maybe we could start a Bubba fan club. I turn to Gretta. “We could get a chant going for this guy. How about Hubba-Bubba, Hubba-Bubba?”
          Well, it seemed like a good idea. We’re having fun in this make-believe summer in the middle of March. At the seventh-inning stretch I keep my tradition of singing Take Me Out To The Ball Game by singing it one syllable out of sync: Me out to the ball game, take . . .  me out to the park, buy . . . Gretta laughs as she gives me a weird look, just like she always does when I sing it that way.
          All too soon the game is coming to an end. With a 7-1 lead, a Royals pitcher, a Roster Invitee named Moylan serves up a fat ’tater to an Angels batter for a three-run homer in the top of the ninth. That’s not going to look good on Moylan’s pitching summary. But shortly thereafter the Royals record the third out and the game is over.
          Say it ain’t so. The grounds crew rushes out onto the field and the crowd files out. I take one last look at the lush field before we walk out into the parking lot in the desert.
          The rental car thermometer reads 93 degrees. I pull out of the gravel lot and Gretta says, “I heard the forecast is for snow in Kansas City – about the time we get back home.”

Oh well, it was fun while it lasted.