A Very Long Way

In October of 1979 I was serving as a weapons platoon leader with the First Infantry Division at Fort Riley, Kansas. We were on the second day of a four-day field problem in the far corner of the post. The weather was kicking up an early taste of winter as I rode in my jeep to the battalion headquarters located in a series of large tents. I went in and began to warm my hands over the small field stove and turned my attention to a meeting led by our battalion executive officer, Major Fred Wong. The XO was a no nonsense professional soldier who used every encounter with lieutenants as an opportunity to teach. Today, we would be receiving quite a shock. Our unit had been identified by Department of the Army as a candidate for a short-notice full scale test deployment to Germany. The mission, called Distant Thunder, would require us to do all the logistical and administrative preparation for such a move followed by the possible actual movement to Europe. I began making a mental checklist of all that would be required. Because my company commander was back in garrison for an appointment I was the ranking officer for the company. I was nearly overwhelmed with the “need to do first” lists I was making in my head. The meeting broke off, I caught my breath, and headed for the jeep.

When I first approached my company area, I noticed that several soldiers were taking refuge from the cold in vehicles or hex-tents. Feeling the need to get the company re-oriented to the first steps of that possible mission, I began making a circuit to visit each group and get them moving. As I entered one tent I found one of my 81mm mortar crews huddled around a radio. When I figured out what was being broadcast, Distant Thunder fell away and I instantly plugged into the activity. With all the field work, I had nearly forgotten that the World Series, which normally would be on my front burner, was in progress. I inquired about the score and the response was “Our Pirates are winning!” My mind was jarred, these were after all, MY Pirates…until I recalled that the entire gun crew, Puerto Ricans all, may also have a claim to my team as well.

I let them know we shared a loyalty and they began to ask questions. “Did you go to games when you were a kid?” “Most certainly.” Then Sgt. Mendez, asked in a hushed and reverential tone, “Did you ever see Roberto Clemente play?” “Ahh, yes, many times.” The soldiers fell into a reverential hush as I related some specifics I could recall with clarity like the time Jerry Lynch of the Reds took a big turn after hitting a single to right only to turn around and find that Roberto had thrown behind him and picked him off. My favorite was the story of the Bucs trailing the Astros 6-0 and Roberto leading off the 7th inning with what should have been a lazy single to center. He burst from the batter’s box and tore into second. The momentum of the game changed and the Bucs won. Mendez took out his wallet and produced a stack of “saints cards” the type carried by some Catholics everywhere. Among the canonized was a card featuring a post-impressionist image of Roberto. He said he bought it at the museum to Clemente in his hometown. There was something about the picture, but I could not imagine what it was. Time to proceed with the mission at hand.

We did not deploy. The Pirates won the series. Months later, while going through boxes of memorabilia at my mother’s house, I dutifully piled old editions of my high school paper, The Knight Times, for burning. There seemed to be no merit in keeping my old accounts of sports events that I covered for the paper so I proceeded to cut down on clutter. But as I piled up trash, one edition caught my eye. I remembered the story I was reading but… could this be possible? I did remember that classmate, artist and baseball fan, Phyllis had painted a portrait of her favorite ballplayer and taken it to a game and presented it to Roberto Clemente where it was received with admiration. Now I could see that the picture in the school paper was indeed the same image I had seen on that card. Somehow, the portrait must have made its way to the museum in Puerto Rico. Someone must have judged that the image was worth producing and selling to the faithful. My section sergeant must have seen that image and wanted to include it in the pantheon of heroes and carry it with him as a treasure where I would see it a dozen years later and a thousand miles from home.