A Boy’s View – 1960
The muggy atmosphere was redolent with the comforting Owensboro-specific scents of of sour mash bourbon, the slight odor of Sulphur from a steel mill nearby, mixed with Hickory barbecue-smoke in the air. A heady dose of Springtime lilac and dogwood blooms in this lush and heavy Kentucky late Spring made as if Nature had planned an extreme contrast – the exact languid opposite of the energy being expressed on the gorgeous brilliant green grass infield at the baseball field where two teams battled it out for a year’s worth of bragging rights and certain immortality.
Chautauqua Park in Owensboro, Kentucky was a boy’s paradise. For a 13 year old, new to town, browsing the local Little League baseball talent among the local fields – all imminently reachable by bicycle – it was a comparative feast. But not only were there the “known un-knowns” such as a set of completely new guys spoken of by my few friends who still played in those leagues, this Bowling Green transplant also got to see the “big guys” play next door at Chautauqua Park, a venue which held Little League and Major League dimensioned fields, side by side. In the end, the choice of who to watch was always easy – more compelling for me was the near grown-up drama and skill shown by the American Legion team who were the only ‘big’ game in town that fresh and surprisingly new Summer. Nervousness over being “the new guy” disappeared in the face of this up-close vision of baseball electricity. Every one of my senses was heightened by the real time displays of athleticism produced by such awesome strength and speed.
No Little League sound could conceivably match the concussive echo of a “crack of the bat” by these guys. Home runs were sometimes hit at major league distances by supreme athletes produced by a town which was apparently sports crazy. The enormous gorgeous green hill – profuse in green grass as well as large shade trees – looming just across the small street leading into the park beyond left field – offered the equivalent of a left field bleacher seat at Fenway Park. Sitting a full 100 feet above the action, you could cut up with a friend or two, or one could watch in wonder at the baseball pageant below. Or you could roll down the big old hill for a while, laughing uproariously enduring the dizzying effects of gravity and anarchism. That happened a lot too. In fact, large cardboard boxes could supply the equivalent of an afternoon at the best amusement park in its pure recreational release of derring-do, speed and accidental hilarities.
The seriousness, however, of competition was a frankly almost fearful thing to a 12 year old represented by the virtual young adults playing baseball in front of me. Owensboro’s team had abundant players over 6’ tall, as did their opponent. Their seriousness seemed magnified by the image of a huge man I watched lumber slowly to the third base coaching box.
This was my first-ever image of Jack Hicks as I watched what eventually became a familiar image, his gait magnified by his straight right leg swung wide, buttressed by a few inches of heel added to the bottom of his boot, slowly making his way into position and voicing encouragement and hitting advice while passing to his accustomed spot in the third base coaching box. He busily sent signs to hitters, voiced pleasure and displeasure, waved runners towards home plate and acted in general as if the entire field were his domain. Mesmerized somewhat as children can be over physical handicaps, I watched his overall level of comfort and found him somehow a fixture of awesomeness. This was the leader of these guys. He belonged to a category I was literally mystified by and very unsure of. I have often thought this may have been one of my first glimpses of real Zen.
The Owensboro American Legion Post 9 “Velvet Bombers”, very creatively-named after their sponsor, Velvet Milk, Inc., became legendary for young boys with baseball fantasies, of which there were many – most pointedly including me. They seemed to – and did – play nearly every single night during those wonderfully long summers, at times in front of reasonabley large appreciative crowds. Teams would stream in from Nashville, Louisville, Memphis and, of course, the ever present local rivals from Henderson or Bowling Green, Kentucky and Evansville, Indiana to provide exotic and extremely high-quality opposition for the Owensboro teams and players who had met them at very advanced levels of post-season, tournament play. July 4th celebrations often included a home game and fireworks afterwards, usually against terrific competition.
Among the highlights distilled from a million impressions, I so recall watching Randy Embry patrolling shortstop. In one game I remember so vividly I still dream about it to this very day, Randy leaped straight up in a desperate grab for a hard-hit line drive shot off the bat of someone. His legs spread out in the splits in mid-air, Randy reached as high as he possibly could and actually speared that line drive – and “spear” is the appropriate verb. It all happened amazingly quickly, a feat accomplished within a second of earthly Time, but it left an impression of permanent durability – another incentive for a young baseball aspirant to hope he could someday match or even approach the unholy athleticism and sheer desire that produced such an impossibly elegant maneuver. These are the stuff of legends for young men. They are the motivations which inspire for literal lifetimes.
I recall a tense moment in the later stages of a ballgame between my former home town of Bowling Green and the “Bombers” when pitchers from either side had successfully dominated the game until the late innings. I believe Frank Ballard was pitching for Owensboro, just as I am partially certain Tom Gentry was throwing for Bowling Green’s team. In what I recall as being the 8th inning, I remember being mesmerized by the sheer velocity of Gentry’s fast ball – a common experience in we young fellows, marveling at the abilities of recently-arrived ‘grown men’ who had worked at the game for long years.
Gentry was throwing what we used to refer to as “Aspirin Tablets” – “BB’s” – fastballs thrown at such a velocity, it literally made the ball look tiny, if one could actually follow it at all. Owensboro had just had a guy walk, to make it to first base, had bunted him over to second to put him closer to scoring. I recall thinking the “no brainer” prediction would be that the batter, Frankie Williams, would undoubtedly be a virtual victim of anyone who could throw like Gentry.
I was wrong.
In a lesson which stayed with me for the entirety of my own baseball career and beyond, I watched Frankie Williams match the speed of Gentry’s next bullet with speed of his own, his bat whipping like it knew precisely what it was doing and sending this line drive blast with a ‘crack’ of incredible volume out into the nether realms of right centerfield. For the sheer beauty of baseball’s innate competitive sensibility, Frankie Williams’ hit that evening provided an absolute template for my future. I was surprised and shocked to find out that there was no one who was so overpowering that he could not be hit, and hit hard. I learned that intimidation was a 2 way street.
It was a complete revelation. The spectacle of speed on speed registered in that same place reserved for Space Travel and women like Marilyn Monroe. I was stricken with the forever-imprinted ghost of achieving something Impossible. What would mesmerize me for all time on those days of watching the “big guys play ball” became not just a goal and impetus for playing at that level, which I surely did, but provided the grist for a view of life itself which included the definition of World Class. It made everything seem possible.
But what equally mesmerizing on that perfect day was the very idea that a man could gather groups of athletes and help them realize that dream. The knowledge and wisdom inherent in this sort of enterprise bordered on the religious to my young mind. The fact is, this never changed. He became my first Guru.
This is the story of that man.
In 1926, Owensboro, Kentucky had become a bustling town of industry and agriculture of some 25,000 persons, complete with a police department, fire stations and infrastructure common to mid size towns. Among the residents was a local constable, Dayton Hicks, who was married to the love of his life, Nancy, and with whom sired a seemingly unending series of children. Young Jack was produced as the second youngest, when all was said and done, joining a retinue of 7 sisters and two older brothers. The 5 bedroom home on 9th Street was a busy site at the slowest of times and young Jack was as welcomed as the rest.
A year or two passed in infancy and then Fate delivered a dreadful blow to young Jack. He contracted polio, a common enough occurrence in an era which featured a panoply of dis-eases, many resulting from expanding populations and the inability of water and sewage systems to keep up with the standards which later reduced these incidents. Typhus and poliomyelitis were both products of sanitation issues regarding fecal matter and sanitation issues of a changing era of modernity and mass population. As a result, it can be considered a by-product of the Industrial Age, but it all – the worst of it – occurred at a strange segment of time, right when humanity seemed to be getting a grasp of the role of hygiene and who were adapting with the times.
A Word About Polio
History reveals poliomyelitis as a literal scourge of an era during the first half of the 20th Century. The dread of polio was most common just prior to the invention of the Salk Vaccine in the early 50’s and the universal application of preventative measures – including better water treatment. Those of us with parents who lived that era have heard of their absolute terror of birthing children in an era where Polio was so aggressive.
Outbreaks of polio epidemics began to inflict the fearful souls of expecting moms and dads with an abject fear soon after the turn of the 20th Century. Ironically, polio epidemics were virtually unknown prior to then, although the disease has a history extending far, far back through human pre-history and history. Alas, thousands of years of experience with the illness did not prepare the world for its first appearance as a literal epidemic until the 1880’s when widespread epidemics first appeared in Europe. In the US, the first report of multiple polio cases was published in 1843 and described an 1841 outbreak in Louisiana. A fifty-year gap occurs before the next U.S. report—a cluster of 26 cases in Boston in 1893.The first recognized U.S. polio “epidemic” occurred the following year in Vermont with 132 total cases (18 deaths), including several cases in adults. Numerous epidemics of varying magnitude began to appear throughout the country. By 1907 approximately 2,500 cases of poliomyelitis were reported in New York City. In 1916, they counted over 2,000 deaths in New York City alone, with 27,000 cases and over 6,000 deaths from Polio, nationally. Families were quarantined, names and addresses published and their homes were identified by placards placed in visible locations on the houses. Then the worst hit.
From 1916 until the Salk Vaccine was discovered on April 12, 1955, a polio epidemic struck somewhere in the United States every summer, with the most serious occurring in the 1940’s and 1950’s. In 1949, 27,000 cases were reported with nearly 3,000 deaths. The 1952 polio epidemic would be the worst outbreak in the nation’s history. Of the 57,628 cases re-ported that year 3,145 died and 21,269 were left with mild to disabling paralysis. According-ly, it was the literal peak of parental fears of the disease. It also began the all-important fo-cus of public awareness on the need for a vaccine. In 1927, the year Jack was born, Ow-ensboro recorded some 12 cases, one of which included Jack.
Polio itself has as many various manifestations as it has causes. Ironically, younger children of 6 months old or less would not generally contract the disease, but those 6 months old to 4 years could suffer a variety of effects, from mild symptoms and thence to an immunity to polio to the more debilitating effects suffered in mostly the lower extremities. It was this which 2 year old Jack Hicks contracted.
Ironically, much later, Epidemiologists found a stunning, seemingly counterintuitive fact about these outbreaks. It turns out that all that terrific newly achieved hygiene – the purification of po-table house water – actually contributed to the problem rather than relieved it. Prior to that, they believe kids all contracted and beat polio with their natural immune systems, quietly and all on their own. As water systems became modernized, it led to the virtual eradication of Diphtheria, Typhoid and other scourges. However, in this theory, polio proved the exception to that rule. Evidently, for centuries, kids had beaten polio with their natural, inbuilt defense.
Jack’s right leg became paralyzed and unusable – it ‘withered’ early on, not keeping up with the growth of the rest of his body, unresponsive to stimulation or nutrients. About three in 1000 cases progress to paralytic disease, in which the muscles become weak, floppy and poorly controlled, and, finally, completely paralyzed; this condition is known as acute flaccid paralysis. He suffered from a “flapping knee” – which meant that his leg basically could not support him. It led to a system of heavy, bulky and ridiculously uncomfortable braces which were often made of iron or a heavier steel. Jacks speaks of the occasional exasperation suffered by the family as he would “break” the brace – probably “doing something stupid” – requiring a “fix” from a local ironworker and welder well aware of the boy and his trials. Jack would wait as he would re-weld broken parts for him, before launching out on his next boyhood adventure.
The brace Jack wore for long years attached to a canvas belt worn around his middle, which held it up. It also made for a stunningly uncomfortable ride. Heavy, bulky, clangorous, Jack’s edifice of mobility did, however perform the function of letting him get around. Make no mistake, Jack was delighted he could travel and, like any boy, he traveled and did everything any boy does. At the same time, Jacks upper body became wide and strong as he depended far more than others for arm strength for purposes of sitting and rising. He used an occasional cane, especially early, which also grew his always-impressive biceps and shoulders.
Father Dayton’s position as local police constable was a fortunate job to have during the Depression years which formed Jack’s earliest memories. Waste was unheard of. Many Owensboro families suffered as manufacturing slowed and the demand for its many agricultural products weakened. At the same time, Owensboro’s diversity – from its river port, to farms and their products, local coal mines as well as a small but well-managed manufacturing base helped guide it far more successfully than company towns dependent on, say, a single industry.
As young Jack grew, he became increasingly mobile and physically functional as the months and years following his acquisition of Polio passed. The benefit hidden in this scourge of young children lies in its numbers. While somewhat rare, the variety of polio suffered by Jack provided many examples of such coping. Needless to say, the children with similar syndromes learned early to move with the aid of a crutch and later perhaps a cane supplanting the anchor for the useless leg. Rising to a stand from any position became an effort equally demanding arms strong enough to lift one’s entire body temporarily, without the help of the strong leg. Typical of the youngest lads with lower extremity impairments, young Jack’s chest, shoulders, his hands and his strong arms developed over time into amazingly able and strong personal features. He was ‘broad shouldered’ at a very young age and his handshake could crush a friend’s hand.
Young Jack’s two older brothers and his large retinue of sisters were forever faithfully help-ing him cope with his infirmity from the very first. He was a quick study, in some ways, hungry to get on with devouring the world. He adapted as he should have – learning the methods of dealing with what life had presented him without rancor. He discovered early on that lamenting his fate was a destructive possibility. He made the single most important decision of his life.
He banished regret of his fate from thought as a very young person. It remained the signifi-cant and life-affirming value he maintained for his entire life. He would tell people later that he felt blessed to be who he was, active and alive in such a loving family at such grueling times in the nation. His compassion for the misfortunes of other people was formed early. He always felt his misfortunes were small compared to theirs. At the same time, he relished and even celebrated observing what men were capable of. He had zero jealousies about other men – in fact, it was the opposite. The only negative issues Jack would take with male physicality would be in the squandering of such a bounty. Later, as a coach of young men, he illustrated his learning in the form of their improvements. He taught technique and power. He became someone who ‘honed the rough edges’ to form a more perfect specimen.
As a student, from his first grade and further, Jack was attentive and diligent, and his grades reflected it. His family practiced a no-nonsense attitude towards schooling with little toleration for excessive frivolity. At home, young Jack had chores to accomplish just as did the rest of the Hicks family and they were unfailingly completed. Jack was responsible for the small lawn outside the home, as well as for daily feeding the family dogs. As an adult, he often hearkened back to his roots in describing a lifestyle which included hard work and a distinct lack of complaints. Things were simply done, no questions.
But there was also much love in his house. Nancy was an excellent cook who made the best out of their resources and who supplied increasing numbers of hungry young mouths. Visitors and young friends were never turned away at lunch or dinner time. And the Hicks kids were not small, it should be noted. Jack himself became 6’ tall and his brothers slightly taller. These were strapping young people.
Until Jack’s second year, Dayton and Nancy understood how fortunate they had been in making such a large family. But tragedy was also not unknown. Two sisters of Jack had died in their infancy. The times were very hard and heartbreak always hovered near above all the families of the era, a threatening companion of daily life, made worse by the Depression years during which young Jack grew up.
Jack’s polio was also a hard blow to his parents and family. Their response in making him as able and competent as possible led to a debt he never failed to acknowledge.
Dayton’s fellow police officers sympathized greatly. These hard men – the 24 members and constables of the Owensboro Police Department – adopted young Jack as if one of their own. His forays to the station were always boisterously welcomed – a welcome break from dealing with evil, as it were. Smiles beset the lad, hair-tousling and even quite a few trips skyward in their incredibly strong arms to squeals of delight at both parties. Jack explored the station, sometimes with the men, sometimes on his own. He nervously discovered the cells where criminals and drunks and scofflaws of all types were held. He witnessed resistance and the calming of out-of-control types at the hands of Dayton’s fellow officers, not as regular fare by any means, but on rare occasion. He developed not only a sense of justice and penalty, but of the competing factors to love and acceptance alive on the planet. He also witnessed true evil and larger social forces in action in a most galvanizing event.
A Murder and National Scandal
Jack Hicks – Chapter 1
A Boy’s View – 1960
Wonderful opening into the world of a fascinating man written by an equally fascinating author. Applause, applause.
Thanks, Johnny. We both patrolled the infield for him.