It was one of the greatest moments of my life, even if it did kind of fizzle out and end with the hero — ME — playing second fiddle to an Army bugle call and Old Glory.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that, mind you. Actually, it’s only fitting and something as American as apple pie, especially when you love your country with all your heart.
The memory from long ago just happens to be one of the real treasures of my childhood that often comes to mind on special days like today — Memorial Day — when the American flag and what it stands for is celebrated across this great land.
Then, of course, there’s always going to be a big fat grin on the face of this old Army brat whenever my ears are blessed by the sweet sounds of those bugles at nearby Fort Campbell or other military installations around the world.
Let me tell you a story that puts a spotlight on patriotism and love of country.
It’s all about “The Catch.”
No, not that amazing over-the-shoulder catch that Major League Baseball Hall of Fame center fielder Willie “The Say Hey Kid” Mays made to help the New York Giants win the 1954 World Series.
It was that “miracle” catch made by me as a young boy — one where a baseball somehow found its way into my mitt during a Little League baseball game that was played on a rinky-dink ball field in Vicenza, Italy, sometime around the Memorial Day holiday in 1966.
Back then, baseball — not soccer — was king, and every young boy everywhere had a bat and glove and played America’s game.
My baseball team — the Giants, by coincidence — were playing those darn Yankees on that hot, weekday afternoon on post at Camp Ederle. Before the game’s first pitch, our coach decided to put me — clumsy and all of 9 years old — into the starting lineup as a last-minute substitute.
For a beginning ball player who rode the bench, it was quite a shock.
Now, the coach hadn’t lost his mind. Come to find out, he really had no choice but to stick me in the game to play left field after catching his regular starter smoking behind the dugout during warm-ups. Kids used to do some mighty stupid things back in the old days.
Even with me trying to hide in the outfield, all was going well that day for the Mighty Giants in their battle with the Yankees, probably because absolutely nothing had been hit in my direction. With the game nearly over, my uniform was clean as a whistle.
Finally, it was the bottom of the sixth inning, and the Yankees were down to their final out. Behind by a run, with one runner on base, their best hitter walked up to the plate. He was real big for being a little kid, and he was known for getting mad and hitting home runs.
Out there in deep left field, a sense of panic suddenly overtook me. Only one thought was racing through my mind: PLEASE DON’T HIT IT TO ME!
Well, you know what happened because it happens every time in life.
There was a crack of the bat so loud it could have awakened the dead. The baseball sailed high into the air, and it began heading straight for me and the left-field fence.
It looked like a game-winning dinger, for sure. Frozen in my tracks, paralyzed by fear, a little voice in my head yelled for me to JUMP and to raise my glove up to the high heavens.
My leap of faith was a beautiful thing. But, the ground landing sure could have used some work. It was hard and horizontal.
Lying flat on my back just a few feet from the fence — without my ball cap and eyeglasses, both of which had been knocked off of my head during that crazy leap and fall from grace — there was momentary silence, and then a tremendous roar from the crowd.
Amazingly, after looking into my glove, the ball was in there. The Giants had won, thanks to my game-saving catch. Everything would have been perfect if only Dad — who was off soldiering somewhere on a field exercise and had to miss the ball game — could have been around to see “The Catch.”
By any stretch of the imagination, my teammates should have mobbed me and rewarded my heroics by carrying me off the field on their shoulders.
They probably would have done just that, too, if it hadn’t been exactly 5 p.m. on an Army post.
Rising to my feet at that precise moment, the bugle call known as “Retreat” — it signals the conclusion of the work day on a military installation and includes the lowering of the American flag and the firing of a cannon — sounded in all of its glory at Camp Ederle.
Now, bugle calls are a time-honored tradition for the American military that date back to pre-Revolutionary War times. Installations throughout the world use them to honor our flag and to remind the country of the sacrifices that soldiers make every day.
During the playing of “Retreat,” service members stop whatever they’re doing, face the headquarters, and salute smartly. Civilians on post are expected to stop their activities and stand respectfully still. Many stand at attention with their right hand over the heart — just like the Little League crowd did on that long-ago day at the ball park in far-off Italy.
The bugle call of “Retreat” lasts just short of two minutes, and by the time it was over, so was most of the excitement about my amazing catch.
Walking off the field after the game, there were a few pats on the back for me and a warm handshake from my happy coach.
It felt really good to be a hero.
But, you know what?
It felt even better to be an American who loves his country.
ROB DOLLAR was a reporter and editor for the Kentucky New Era for 20 years. A resident of Hopkinsville, he has authored three books on topics of local interest in recent years. He can be reached at email@example.com.