On July 4th The Son and I pulled into Veterans Home in Yountville and found ourselves momentarily speechless. “Whoa,” he finally said. Before us was a Field of Dreams baseball diamond, complete with ivy-covered outfield walls and a 40-year-old (I’m guessing here) cruddy double bathroom labeled “Visitors” and “Home.” His team had several games scheduled here and the boys, who had always looked large and confident on their home fields, were suddenly dwarfed and – for a short while – hushed by the dusty and broken history of the place and, I hope, by the veterans in their wheelchairs who were there to watch every single game that day. We have many servicemen and servicewomen in our family and it occurred to me I did not think of them often enough. The vets I met on this day guffawed over every error and muffed play but also cheered for both teams. One younger veteran was selling homegrown zucchini out of his backpack. He scared me a little. The facility had been improved to make a clear and safe path for all the motorized wheelchairs. There was decent coffee, a hot dog roller and souvenir programs with photocopied rosters and a list of major league players who’d played in the Joe DiMaggio League. (Tony Gwynn! C.C. Sabathia!) The vets were crafty fellows; they were selling those mimeographed programs at a hefty profit. I respectfully asked about the price of the t-shirts and had to shimmy out of a “deal” for two XLs and twenty raffle tickets. And at the top of the 7th inning, I did NOT win the $10 sandwich coupon from the local market. Watching a ballgame there was especially poignant because my 89-year-old Uncle Pete died a few weeks ago, and he had been a serviceman, Army, stationed for a long time at Mare Island, and one of the few constant father figures in my family’s life. He and Aunty Inez were married 67 years. Growing up, my poor mom dragged us to their saltbox house in Vallejo almost every weekend so she could see her sister while all ten kids basically tortured each other. The boys took turns trying to trick me and my other girl cousin into wandering out to the wash house in the backyard, where Aunty Inez did laundry. “Don’t be scared,” they would say, “there’s no ghosts out there, only Duke and he won’t do anything.” My brothers were snapped up in rollaway beds to play “Meet the Press,” (the cousins’ idea; they always got to watch more tv than we did), while the girl cousins kneaded Filipino/Irish potato rolls with Aunty Inez.
Post Napa Valley we headed out to Stockton where Yvette had a softball tournament. I’d woken up that morning with a recurring facial swelling – sounds more gruesome than it is – so I ran to retrieve my Prednisone from the car, not looking forward to a day feeling like a caffeinated squirrel. But hey, I looked forward to room service that evening; one glass of red wine delivered to your room goes a long way in the delta. America, where wine, guns and steroids are 100% accessible, but birth control? Not so much anymore.
The hotel highlight was seeing the contestants from the Baton Twirling National Championship arrive in our hotel. Leggy young girls rolled in their costumes while their moms marched in, excited but puzzled they’d flown all the way to California to land in Stockton. I wanted to tell them about the wines from Livermore and Lodi, but I’m not sure they were listening. One sassy New York mom said to me in the elevator, “I told my mother, ‘well if you never hear from me again, I did find a nice church.'” We exchanged a few words about teens on the way to college and split up at the pool, where five contestants in tiny, tiny shorts were throwing batons in the air and giggling. I do like Hiltons. They are the tofu of hotels, quietly absorbing whatever crazy flavor/foibles you’re bringing and offering you free soap and fluffy pillows.
So, if you’re road tripping anytime soon, here are a few reading suggestions: Tim Cahill (hilarious travel writer), Michael Lewis (no explanation necessary, and I love him, but his statistics alone will help you drift off in an unfamiliar bed), Where Nobody Knows Your Name, Life in the Minor Leagues of Baseball by John Feinstein, any and all the local papers (one of my favorite things to do and always a great source for local activities and restaurants, because let’s face it, key lime pie in the hotel lobby is $9.50 and terrible), Eudora Welty, the queen of southern writing and always worth a visit, and maybe a little Sandra Cisneros, Zadie Smith or Pablo Neruda just to keep it lively and thoughtful. And if you’re not ready for a book commitment, pack a Smithsonian or Outside Magazine.