The games on base were well organized, there was at least one team for every squadron of students and, at Keeseler AFB in 1969, there were 24 active squadrons. When it came to win and losing and to championships earned... the squadron I was assigned to was always the best. And along with being the best, at least among all of us 18 to 21 year old males, there also came a swagger and an arrogance and a blind willingness to take on any and all challengers presented. In our hearts and minds, and certainly within our egos, we could do no wrong.
And it was in this grandiose spirit of semi self righteousness that one summer's afternoon, on behalf of all my teammates, I enthusiastically accepted an unsolicited challenge to play the women's softball champions of Gulfport, Mississippi.
When this challenge presented itself, I was working in the squadron's headquarters, it was late in the day, the phone rang and, in proper military fashion, I answered, "4066 Tactical Air Command Squadron, Airman Mathias responding."
There was the smallest moment of silence... and then a seductively and innocent feminine voice... a voice steeped deep in full southern politeness and the fragrance of magnolia in Spring, offered up an introduction. "Airman Mathias, this is Faith."
She was calling, she said, "to find someone who could put her in touch with Keeseler's champion softball team... and might I know who that someone would be?" Truth be told, I quickly disengaged my brain, was absolutely intrigued by the voice and, in the true proverbial sense, was fully caught... hook, line, and sinker.
I explained matter of factly that she was in luck, that I was just the person she needed to talk to, and that, "The good ol' Four-Oh-Six-Six , indeed, claimed the rights to being the best."
She said softly that she, too, represented a softball team... and a champion team at that, and maybe, just maybe, the two teams, the two champion teams, hers and mine, might get together for a square-off, for topnotch game of ball.
Without hesitation, without question, without doubt, and without any thought whatsoever, I fully accepted the offer... and the field location, date, and game time was set.
Her parting comment was that her team played "fast pitch." "Not a problem," I mentioned, "not a problem," thought I... although on Base, all of us played the slow pitch variety. Much later, with hindsight looming strong, I came to realize that while conversing with Faith, I might just as well have been strolling along the Gulf Coast Beaches enjoying the building of the waves as Hurricane Camille silently threatened in the distance.
On game day, my team arrived at the playing field only minutes before the scheduled start... so confident were we as to neither plan well nor allow time for warm-up or practice.
The Gulfport Women's Team was a sight to behold... crisp, sharp uniforms, tight organization, lovely ladies. We quickly set out our bats, surveyed the field, went through the most cursory of introductions, and then got the game underway. Being visitors, we had first at bat.
It is not all that often when an attitude wake-up call presents itself in such a flash, in a sudden instant, and with such clarity that, literally, the mind in almost flip-flop fashion changes its way of seeing the world. Such was the unfolding of this game.
I was the lead-off hitter, I walked to the plate, did my little comfort setting in to the batter's box routine, scratched my feet in the dirt, planted my stance, took several practice half-swings, looked the pitcher over once or twice, then confidently and sharply focused the depth of my eyes directly into hers... and ever-so-subtly, I cracked a "just-so" smile that said both "hello" and "there isn't anything you can throw that I can't hit."
That woman shot back an icy stare that could have reversed the trend of global warming. It was a hard stare, an aggressive stare and, disconcerting, it was an extraordinarily calm and brutal and resolved stare... and, in the fraction of an instant, she spun her throwing arm around like a recoiling tightly wound spring, she lunged forward, and threw that ball at me as if it were pure fire.
All I saw was a blur... and all I heard was a short whisssssshhhhhhzippppppppp and the Whackkkkkk of the ball meeting the Catcher's mitt. The Umpire yelled out, "Steeeeerrriiiike One!"
The Catcher stood up, threw the ball back to the Pitcher and, returning to her catching stance, looked at me and said... "she's got good stuff."
I pondered for only a second and then excused myself from the batter's box for a moment, shuffled over to our dugout and calmly said to my teammates, "we just might be in for a world of trouble." Danny Norris, our shortstop, and a kid from the rural reaches of North Carolina, said, "you wuzn't watchin' the ball."
"Yes, I was," I said, and just as quick he replied, "no you wuzn't, you was watchin her, you wuz watchin' the pitcher... and all'ver moves. Jus' watch the ball."
Jack Roaches, a street savvy black from the ghettoes of Houston, let loose a string of good humored epithets all of which in one form or another challenged my manhood and then told me to, "Jus' go back out there and giv'her a good whuppin."
All of them, my team, still had their arrogance and smugness and confidence... but I my doubts... I had just seen some speed that I was completely unfamiliar with. I returned to the batter's box and two pitches later I had been struck out. One, two, three. Batter up, batter down.
And so it went for the whole team. Three up, three down. Three up, three down.
And, my, could they also hit... it was one long ball after another. The end of that game couldn't come fast enough... it didn't come fast enough... and we, my team, was glad when the end finally did come.
As best I can recall, we were humiliated.
In walking off the field, I attempted some half hearted small talk with the Gulfport Pitcher. I reflected that her girls had beaten us pretty fairly... but she said, "No... the women here didn't beat you at all...," and then she paused before continuing on in her delightful southern drawl, "What we did was kicked your boy's tails." So they did... and so they did.
Thank you, ladies.
(I might add as a postscript that Marlene does a pretty decent job of regularly reminding me of this lesson learned... i.e., no regression allowed.)
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