The ball rolled to my feet by the baseball diamond cut into an eastern Iowa cornfield and it was a perfect metaphor that encapsulated a trip my friend and I took in 2006, a month after my wife passed away.
I was standing along the third base line at the Field of Dreams movie site in Dyersville, Iowa, on a hot August morning when the cliché rolled up. How often does something like this happen? You stand at a baseball field immortalized in a movie where baseball players who have died go to play the game for eternity and a ball rolls up to you.
My wife had suffered from kidney disease, a cruel ailment that slowly robbed the life from her. She died on July 12, 2006.
After a month of my grieving, my friend decided that a road trip to the sports mecca would help begin the healing process I needed. He knew I was a sports fan to the point of obsession and he had gotten me the Field of Dreams movie as a present one year. He also knew that I, like most guys, loved the movie and I, like most guys, wouldn’t admit to tearing up at the end when (spoiler alert) Kevin Costner’s character plays catch with his dead father.
So, in mid-August, I drove from my home in Jonesboro, Arkansas, to the home of my friend Randy in West Plains, Missouri. I spent the night there and early the next morning, we loaded into his Chevrolet Lumina and headed north on U.S. 63 to Rolla, Missouri.
The adventure began. The sense of freedom, of being off the clock and off the grid, was refreshing as the miles passed by. But there was still the fear I felt of loss. I had no family; my wife was my keel and now the seas were stormy.
Tea and history
We continued on, picking up Interstate 44 in Rolla and heading east toward St. Louis. We went through Cuba, Missouri, where I did a poor imitation of Fidel Castro, and as we neared Eureka, I looked for an epiphany so I could blurt out the town’s namesake as if I had made a discovery. The humor was weak, but it and the hypnotic lull of the car as we put miles behind us helped take my mind off my loss.
We got lost under the I-44 and I-55 exchange in St. Louis and drove aimlessly around until we spotted the correct on-ramp. We crossed the Mississippi River on I-55 and the urban sprawl of St. Louis was gradually replaced with the vast openness of rural fields.
Because Randy was a history buff, we veered off I-55 in central Illinois, bypassed Peoria and drove to Galesburg—home of Knox College where in 1858, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas held the fifth of their storied seven debates for the U.S. Senate in the Old Main building on the campus.
By then, my depression was returning and I began nodding off to sleep as Randy regaled me with tales of that Senate race. I woke long enough to go into a convenience store in Galesburg to get snacks while he refilled his Big Gulp container with the tea that was his constant companion on this trip.
We pressed on, heading back to I-55 rather than cross into Iowa from Galesburg. We drove around the never-ending construction that looped Rockford and then picked up U.S. 20 and pointed west to Dubuque, Iowa.
At one point, we had to stop for gas in some lonely, Children of the Corn-type town near the Illinois-Iowa state line. The gas station attendant was strange and almost menacing. Randy took a long time in the bathroom—those Big Gulps will do that to you—and I was beginning to wonder if he had been abducted and we would be featured later on some Dateline NBC program about mysterious murders. I realized then that for the first time since my wife died, I wanted to stay alive and I’d battle the gas station attendant for my life if it came to it. Randy came out of the restroom, a sheepish grin on his face, and apologized for the length of time he took.
Field of Dreams
We crossed the Mississippi River in the late afternoon and saw Dubuque perched hard along its banks. We found our hotel on Dodge Street and I stood in the parking lot by the car trying to grasp what was going on. I was in a town I had never been in before and where no one but Randy knew I was. Traffic swirled along the street. Life continued on and so did I.
The next morning, we drove to Dyersburg and then north through some of the most rural parts of Iowa. Tall stalks of corn framed the road and we could really only see in front of us and behind us.
We topped a hill on Lansing Road and, then, there it was. The magic of the Field of Dreams beckoned. Maybe it was just the suggestion that the place had become a baseball holy ground rather than it actually being one. Either way, though, I was taken by it, the beauty of the green baseball diamond carved into a corn patch and sitting next to the iconic two-story farmhouse.
And that’s where it happened. A father, in his 80s, reunited with his 55-year-old son at the field and the two were playing catch. He missed a ball and it rolled to me.
I picked it up and threw it back to the father. I say “threw.” Earlier in the year, I tore my rotator cuff and still had difficulties with the shoulder. My throw wobbled about 15 feet and plopped to the ground as my shoulder cried out in pain. I’ve seen babies get better loft on pitches.
My one chance of a lifetime to do something zen-like and I blew it. The ball fell short, the keel was not uprighted, the seas continued to storm.
But the die was cast. Ten years later, I took another road trip. I drove to Chicago to see a woman I met online and fell in love. I made that 547-mile trip 16 times over the next eight months. On the 17th trip, she came back to Arkansas with me and on this past New Year’s Eve, we were married.
I bought a souvenir ball at the Field of Dreams site and I still have it. I can throw it a long ways now.