Baseball and Other Life Lessons

“Show me how far you can hit the ball,” I challenged Dad that day in the park when I was ten. I hadn’t planned to say it. It was an impulse, a child’s rare curiosity to see her father as an individual, apart from his role as a parent.

Dad studied me for a moment, hesitating, then, with a look of amusement, he reached over and took the ball from my outstretched hand. He rested our old family bat against his shoulder with his other hand as he positioned his body, scuffing the dirt into little puffs of dust as his feet found their familiar stance. Then, in an instant, the toss, the coiled torso, the crack of wood against taut leather—a blur of sound and movement that stands out in movie-style slow motion in my headful of childhood memories.

I think of the movie The Natural when I recall the incident now. There’s the leading man Robert Redford standing at the plate, the fans in the stands and the background soundtrack suspended in dramatic anticipation. Then Redford tears into the pitch and it’s slow-mo, fast-mo, the whole laser light show—they pulled out all the stops.

My dad would have laughed at the comparison, being the unassuming man that he was. My memory of that day in the park probably has become exaggerated with time, taking on larger-than-life proportions. It was so unlike my dad to show off, but I was his young daughter, and likely he felt comfortable catering to my whim. Knowing him, I’m sure he would never have overtly tried to impress another adult by grandstanding in such a way.

The incident stands out in my memories of Dad because it was one of the few times I recall seeing a glimmer of ego. Dad was a quiet man, a modest man, one who rarely talked about himself, told stories about his upbringing, or bragged about his accomplishments.

When I was a young adult, I often wondered if Dad’s reticence about putting himself forward was a form of weakness. I’ve since decided otherwise, realizing that Dad was comfortable in his own skin, a man with a quiet self-confidence who didn’t feel the need to impress others. But his reserve could be frustrating. He knew I wanted to put together a story about his life. I often questioned him about his past, wanting to know more about his childhood, his military service, and his baseball career. He wasn’t much help. He frustrated my need to know with short answers that only skimmed the surface. It’s likely he felt his life wasn’t important enough to write about. His daughter always thought otherwise.

My father, Donald Glen Parrett, was born to Glen and Ethel in Los Angeles, California, on March 5, 1922, ten months after their marriage. He took his middle name from his father, but Donald seems to have been chosen simply because his parents liked the name. There were a number of Donalds in his high school year book, so it must have been a popular boys name at that time. His relatives affectionately called him Donnie, though, even when he outgrew the nickname. On the playing field he was always Whitey, Whitey Parrett, the platinum-haired athlete who seemed to shine no matter what kind of ball he held in his hand.

Early pictures of him show a cute little boy, with blue eyes and a thick shock of straight blond hair. His chubby baby face would lengthen as he grew older, as he developed a long jaw line like his mother’s and that thick blond hair would thin considerably as early as his mid-twenties, for he had inherited his father’s baldness.

 

Donald Parrett, age 1.jpg

From somewhere in his gene pool, Dad also inherited a gift for athleticism. Baseball, basketball, tennis, or golf, Dad was a natural at all of them, but baseball was his game.

An old wooden trunk sat in the corner of our one-car garage when I was growing up, a curiosity to a young girl. Its large rusty hinges opened to reveal an array of interesting old clothing. Stashed among Dad’s Navy uniforms and tattered sailor hats was an assortment of heavy flannel baseball uniforms, the big blousy-legged variety you see in old photographs of Babe Ruth. Baseball caps, leggings, and flattened, old-style leather gloves had been stowed away in treasure chest of memorabilia from a life before I was born. I’ve often wondered what happened to that old trunk. It was probably thrown away in one of our moves. Why didn’t I ask Dad about it?

As I grew older by a few years, I picked up snatches of conversation at my grandparents’ house that remain with me still. There was talk of Dad being the star of his high school team. “The outfield often moved back when Donnie came up to bat.” “They were always writing about him in the school paper. Sometimes even the local paper.” It was mostly Grandma who said these things.

My father’s sister, our Aunt Virginia, lived with my grandparents. Constrained to a wheel with multiple sclerosis, Virginia made a hobby of preserving her brother’s newspaper clippings in a photo album. After Grandma and Virginia died, the album must have been stored at our house, though I don’t ever remember seeing it. It wasn’t until I began collecting old photographs for my father’s 65th birthday celebration that my mother brought it out.

I flipped through the heavy black pages covered with tattered sports clippings. I had to smile at the glossy black and white photos of Dad in his 20s, 30s and 40s, Dad in the prime of his life. He had played shortstop for the Redondo Beach High School Sea Hawks and was captain of the team his senior year. Turning the pages, I marveled at the number of awards and press clippings that honored him. “One of the most consistent players in recent years….” “Unselfish, a real sportsman on and off the field….” “As a team man, he couldn’t be beat….”

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Emma Merkt (1873-1937)

I once asked my dad to tell me what he remembered about his grandmother. He squinted his eyes, trying to resurrect a memory of her that would satisfy his inquisitive daughter. My father was only six when his grandmother died in Denver, Colorado, so I wouldn’t have blamed him if he had no mental image of her. I suspect he only saw her a time or two, if that. However, after a time, my father looked at me and said, “I recall her having black hair sprinkled with grey. Wore it short. I’d say she was about 5’2” and stout. And it seems like she was a good cook.” I’ve since wondered if he actually remembered these things about her, or he picked them up from a conversation he once heard. Regardless of the source, I’ve held onto these tidbits to help humanize a woman I know little about.

My great-grandmother, Emma Merkt, was born in Coffeyville, Kansas, on November 27, 1873, one of seven children born to German immigrant parents, John Georg (John) and Christina (Baier) Merkt, who had come to America when they were teenagers. Emma spent her first 13 years on a Kansas farm, like Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz.” Her father’s obituary states that he was a missionary for the Lutheran Church, so religion must have played an important role in their family life.

Emma Merkt, sepia

Emma Merkt (1873-1937)

Before medical research discovered the cause and cure of diseases like malaria and typhoid fever, these illnesses frequently swept through Midwestern communities at certain times of the year, taking the lives of young and old and devastating families. Such was the case when, in the fall of 1886, Emma’s mother succumbed to typhoid fever at age 44. It’s not difficult to imagine the loss a thirteen-year-old girl would have endured losing her mother at that critical time in her life. Emma had at least five siblings, two sisters who were 15 and seven when their mother died, and three brothers, aged 21, 19, and 15 at the time. Emma’s father may have felt the need to start afresh after his wife’s death and business opportunities elsewhere may have promised a better future for his family than farming. Whatever the reason, John abandoned the farm and departed for Colorado, where gold and silver mining and the booming railroad industry were attracting settlers from all over the country. Emma and two of her siblings accompanied their father in a covered wagon to Chaffee County in southern Colorado. It’s possible they may have lived in the wagon for a time until they could find a suitable place to live. John eventually became a patent medicine salesman, a popular and sometimes lucrative trade in that day, though considered more of a shady occupation as the medical profession and pharmaceutical industry developed. Continue reading

Jasper Parrett: He “Out-Crusoed Robinson Crusoe”

When I was old enough to appreciate a good family story, my mother told me that Dad’s great-uncle Jasper—she drew out his name in an exaggerated, spooky Jaaaasss-sper—had been murdered at his gold mine in the Sierra Nevadas. Either that, she said, or he was bitten by a rattlesnake. She wasn’t sure which story was true. Every family needs an unsolved murder or grisly death to snare relatives into genealogical research. Some years later I took the bait.

I had to face the rumors about Jasper’s death when I began writing about the Parretts for my family history, The Parrett Migration. Jasper was a brother of my great-great-grandfather Joseph Parrett, one of the subjects of my story.

With minimal research, it was easy to put Mom’s titillating tale to rest. Jasper hadn’t been murdered after all, but the circumstances of his death still surprised and puzzled those who had known him for years. Jasper was a hermit, which explains to some extent why his life is tinged with mystery and intrigue.

From left to right: Hillis, Jasper, Edward and Collins Parrett. Hillis, Jasper’s nephew, worked at the mine with Jasper for a time and eventually inherited it. Edward and Collins, Jasper’s brothers, were visiting from their farms in Iowa.

He was also something of a romantic frontier hero, a Civil War veteran who headed west with the rest of the crowd hoping to make a fortune in mining. It turned out, in the late 1870s, he entered the first of what would become fourteen claims in the Sierra Nevadas. Jasper was in his mid-thirties, a bachelor. His family back home in Iowa heard he had made good. Real good. Continue reading

Marion Wyllie Clark Bulloch, My Scots Great-Grandmother

Marion Wyllie Clark Bulloch, 1851-1938

Marion Wyllie Clark Bulloch, 1851-1938

Marion Wyllie Clark was born in the middle of the nineteenth century on June 29, 1851, in Wishaw, the heart of Lanarkshire, Scotland’s coal mining and cotton weaving region. She was third of eight children born to Janet Sellars, the daughter of cotton weavers, and her husband John Clark, a wagon driver and farm laborer. Marion’s parents had been married seven years when she was born. They followed the Scottish naming conventions of that era and named her Marion Wyllie after her paternal grandmother, who lived in nearby Ayrshire, where John had grown up.

handloom_weaver

Textile weaving was an important industry in Scotland in the nineteenth century.

 

Marion was born at a propitious time for genealogists in future generations. Because 1851 was a census year in Scotland, information about Wishaw is readily available. The town had 4100 residents in 1851, double the number reported in the census a decade earlier. The railroad had come to the parish in recent years, generating an industrial boom and new job opportunities. Until then, the area had been a home for Scotland’s flourishing cotton-weaving industry, which had provided a living for Janet’s family. Most Wishaw homes had a textile loom and, except for the very young or old, all members of a family typically were required to perform one or more of the varied tasks required to turn cotton into fabric. Textiles were hauled north to Glasgow, first by wagon and later by train, and sold throughout Great Britain and elsewhere. Other Wishaw households eked out a small living as tenant farmers who typically worked for either the Coltness or Wishaw estates, owned by the Stewart family. James Stewart, who owned the Coltness property, was a successful economist and author who published books pioneering his economic theories. By mid-century, however, the cotton weaving industry in that area was giving way to coal mining and brick and tile works.

When Marion Wyllie was born, Wishaw’s long main street housed artisan workshops and service trades in the upper end and row housing for about 120 pit workers and their families in the lower section. The majority of the mining families lived in either the Byrnes or Wilson colliers’ rows.

Marion was eleven when her father died in a freak accident that caused him to be crushed between two wagons. By then there were eight children in the family, five of them younger than Marion, one, six-month-old Isabella. In that era, there would have been no life insurance to help out a widow in the event of the death of her husband. Likely the family had barely subsisted on the meager earnings of their father even before his death. One can imagine the grief and financial crisis the family endured after John Clark’s passing. Then, six months later, the tragedy was compounded when year-old Isabella died. Marion’s older brother, James, was barely seventeen. It was common in that era for children to begin helping support the family in their early teens, so it was likely James had probably started working a couple of years earlier, probably as a coal miner. Now he was the main breadwinner for the family, but at his age, he wouldn’t have earned enough to make ends meet.
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Ethel May (Nelson) Parrett, My Paternal Grandmother

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Ethel Nelson, Pueblo, Colorado, ca. 1919

My paternal grandmother was my age when she died. I was startled to discover this recently when I studied with fresh eyes the span of dates that comprised her life. Funny, she had seemed so old to me the last time I saw her when I was seventeen.

What wouldn’t I give to sit down with her now, two women the same age, and catch up on the events of each other’s lives? We’d sit at her green Formica table in her sunny yellow kitchen with the marble-patterned linoleum on the floor. As we chatted, we would look out the picture window to the tiny manicured yard edged in pansies she had planted on her hands and knees in her house dress, since women of her generation didn’t wear pants, even for gardening. We would share something good to eat, maybe a piece of her famous coconut cream pie, because she was a woman who went out of her way for company.

Ethel and her parents

Ethel flanked by parents, Paul and Ada (Johnson) Nelson, who emigrated from Sweden in the 1880s

I would be a better listener now than I was when she tried to tell me the story about her parents, Ada Johnson and Paul Nelson, who emigrated from Sweden when they were teenagers and met each other in Kentucky working in the same hotel. They married young, eventually parenting eleven children, of which Grandma was the eighth. The family was living in Pueblo, Colorado, in 1903 when my grandmother was born. Ada and Paul named her Ethel May.

About ten years ago, I found the 1910 census record that showed where the Nelson family lived in Pueblo. Later, on a vacation to Colorado, I drove to that address on Elm Street and parked my car at the curb. A small, white, wood-framed house stands on that property and could very well be the Nelson home, given its weathered, dilapidated state. I stood on the sidewalk in front of the house, taking pictures, my mind whirling with unanswered questions. A few blocks away, I found Pueblo Smelters where Paul Nelson worked, within walking distance of home. Large, grey, and rusty, the steel plant still stands, a silent, decaying remnant of the noisy thriving enterprise it must have been in its day when it employed most of the men in Pueblo.

Between bites of coconut pie, I’d ask my grandmother how a family so large managed to make a life in a house so small, how her father could earn a living for thirteen on the salary he earned as a steelworker. Continue reading