Baseball and booze

Published 10:15 am Friday, June 27, 2014

by James D. Howell

My high school class is returning from a trip to Washington D.C. We’ve seen the Washington Monument, the Jefferson Memorial, an assortment of governmental buildings and a small part of the Washington Zoo. It’s a very successful, educational trip. The school bus stops at its assigned space behind the high school and we all climb off.

A town policeman is looking for me and tells me he is to give me a ride home. The officer is familiar and I think little about the circumstances. Police officers are known for providing courtesy services from time to time and this does not seem strange to me. Somewhere during the trip, he informs me that my brother has died. He was working up an electric service pole and he suffered a fatal heart attack.

It’s a short trip to the farm and we enter our front path to a never before witnessed gathering of neighbors, friends, and relatives. The Young family is here as well as some of our church family, most of my siblings and their families. A great sadness pervades the gathering and, while the sun is shining, it cannot brighten the spirits of those gathered.

I see my father crying.

I’ve never seen my father cry, but here he is, in the company of friends, tears rolling down his cheeks, unable to do more than choke back sobs, and try to talk with a voice that just will not cooperate. Our friends stand beside and around him, somber, supporting, available. I find my way inside, greeted by a similar scene of weeping, sad people, quietly talking in small groups. I find my way upstairs and stay for a while, not fully recognizing the enormity of what I am witnessing.

My brother was much older than me; we were separated by much more than age. He attended high school in Franklin and excelled at baseball. When WWII came, he and my oldest brother found jobs at the Newport News shipbuilding yards. Both my brothers learned trades that would provide them with a livelihood during their later, peacetime lives.

Baseball remained a part of my brother’s life; he played for teams made up to provide recreation for the shipyard workers. He lived in housing built for the increasing workload of the war effort. He always seemed happy at whatever he was involved with.

At war’s end, he returned to Franklin and became a part of the local baseball team, working at whatever jobs would provide for his family. Franklin, Suffolk, Portsmouth and Norfolk all fielded baseball teams, and he worked his way through some of those and wound up in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, playing for a AAA team, the Ft. Lauderdale Braves. His record continued to impress others, but something happened somewhere along the way.

Nobody knows exactly when the downward spiral started, but some knew that booze and other drugs were the grease on the skids. The spiral paused for a moment in a flop house in Baltimore, Maryland. Two of my other brothers made the trip to Baltimore and returned the errant baseball player home to our house on the farm with as little fanfare as possible. Slowly, the closeness of relationships becomes strained and the addict is isolated.

The next few years included a divorce, a trip to a psych facility in Richmond, and some electro-shock therapy. At least that’s what it was called. He wandered through our neighborhood and Suffolk, with little vision for a future, trying to escape a recent past. He tried a variety of jobs; someone always remembered his baseball days, and he was a very likable guy. A job was always available.

Eventually, he landed a job with the Town of Franklin as an electrician, and seemed to enjoy the stability. Then came the final pole climb and heart attack.

The death certificate reads heart attack. My information and best guess is that body organs long abused by alcohol, other drugs and questionable therapy finally quit. He just happened to be climbing the pole at that time.

The community remembers bygone accomplishments and cannot understand what happened.

Addiction is a consciously hidden disease; nobody wants to face up to it. So much shame and guilt is involved that most families try, successfully, to hide the behavior until it reaches a state that it can no longer be hidden. In the meantime, families are torn apart, trusting relationships vanish, and the human spirit can no longer cope with simple, day-to-day living.

Much of the family history about my brother is obscured behind a curtain of fog, some intentional, some not. Even the shadows are elusive, few pictures remain. What is burned into my memory is the sight of my father crying.

JAMES D. “ARCHIE” HOWELL is a Southampton County native and 1955 graduate of Franklin High School. Contact at