Sowing Seeds in Fields of Dreams by Sara Etgen Baker


The author with her home run hitting brother, Eddie

We stood outside the dilapidated picket fence and shaded our eyes, casting our gazes across the grassy pasture of old man Buhler’s farmland. His cotton farm had once been one of the largest in the region—a thriving, twenty-odd acre piece of land near the center of town. When hard times prevailed, old man Buhler had sold all but a few acres to a developer who, in 1951, converted the acreage into suburban city streets with row upon row of tract homes. Smack dab in the middle of this suburban development was what remained of the Buhler property—a two-acre field with a farmhouse where old man Buhler lived and tended his sheep.

I lived directly across the street from that field, its weeds and tall grass surrounding the tired, old farmhouse, which wore the color of unfinished wood, weathered for countless years by harsh rains and the broiling summer sun. Like old man Buhler himself, it faced our suburban neighborhood almost defiantly with its rusted tin roof and sagging porch. In summer, the smell of dried grass and warmed earth from Buhler’s field were like a siren’s song compelling my friends and me to ignore his NO TRESPASSING signs, climb over his fence, and explore the undiscovered country that stretched out before us.

Our curious explorations were harmless until the fateful day we decided to transform part of Buhler’s field into a baseball diamond—our very own field of dreams. We commandeered a portion of the field and spent days trampling over the stiff, dry, tall grass until it was flattened making sure, though, to keep the surrounding grass intact so as to hide ourselves from old man Buhler’s scrutinizing eyes. We then began hauling our baseball gear down the street and tossing it over old man Buhler’s fence. We most certainly had no costly baseball equipment, just an overly long, thick stick, one tattered ball, an assortment of well-worn gloves; and three metal trash can lids to serve as bases. Once over the fence, we each took our designated positions on our makeshift diamond, spending our summer days whiling away the hours playing baseball in old man Buhler’s field with him none the wiser.

And so things went on until the day we happened upon a discarded, cracked baseball bat. We filled the crack with rubber cement; wrapped it in duct tape; and headed over to Buhler’s field where, one at a time, we each practiced swinging it at a pitch. We weren’t used to the heft and feel of a real bat, so we mostly just hit grounders and pop-ups somewhere in the infield. Three of us eventually made it to base; that was when my brother, Eddie, came up to bat. He planted his feet firmly and tapped the bat on the ground signaling the pitcher that he was ready.


First, came the windup, then the pitch—a fastball fired straight toward the catcher and across home plate. Eddie swung and leaned in. The bat struck the ball and ‘Crack!’ the bat splintered into a gazillion pieces at his feet. “It’s going….going….Gone!” Eddie sang out, while we went wild and those of us on base rounded our way to the plate screaming and shouting, “It’s a homerun! It’s a homerun!” But in the midst of our triumph, we heard glass shattering and knew the ball had flown through a window at Buhler’s farmhouse. Almost immediately, old man Buhler bolted out and barreled his way across his property shouting, “Get out of here you good-for-nothing kids! Ain’tcha got no respect? Can’tcha read the ‘NO TRESPASSING’ sign?!”

We grabbed our gear and high-tailed it over the fence with old man Buhler hot on our heels. We ran at white heat speed into my backyard seeking refuge underneath Dad’s upturned flat-bottom boat. We hunkered down in the shadows and hid, quaking and sweating, and held our breath silently waiting as old man Buhler approached the boat stopping just inches from our faces. From the darkness I saw his brown boots, their leather creased and weathered; their laces frayed; and their soles worn through. Seconds later Mother emerged from her kitchen into the backyard.

The author's mother, Winifred, in her apron.

“What brings you to my backyard, Mr. Buhler?” Mother asked him.

“I’m looking for those dang kids!” he said in an explosive voice.

“Which kids? What on earth for?”

“They busted out a window in my house. Window panes are expensive, ya know. Someone’s gotta pay!”

Mother reached inside her apron pocket, retrieved a twenty dollar bill, and handed it to him. “Will this cover the damage?”

Buhler snatched the $20 from Mother’s hand, mumbled, and retreated in the direction of his field.


After Mother went inside, we kids scrambled out from under the boat. “Do you think we got away with it?” Eddie asked me. I told him I thought we'd probably be grounded but days passed, and Mother said nothing to us about the broken window or the twenty she had forked over to Buhler. Perhaps Eddie was right. Maybe Mother didn’t know we were the kids who’d broken the window.

But guilt sat heavy inside my heart and eventually I confessed.

“I apologize, Mother, for Mr. Buhler’s broken window.”

“I’m not the one you need to apologize to. You must apologize to Mr. Buhler.”

“You mean go over there all by myself?”

“Yes, ma’am. Sooner the better. He deserves your respect.”


I remember that day with great clarity. I walked over to Buhler’s property and trudged across the field to his barn, which I’d never gone anywhere near before, hesitating before daring to walk inside. The barn was chock full of old-timey farming implements and tools. It was like traveling back in time to the first of half of the century when cotton was king in our part of Texas. Along one wall, Mr. Buhler had thumbtacked pictures that told the tale of his days tending his fields with his family and farm hands. One picture in particular caught my attention. A young Mr. Buhler was standing in the middle of his vast cotton field with truckloads of recently harvested cotton behind him, his face beaming with pride.


The sound of Mr. Buhler’s raspy voice startled me, “What cha’ doing in here, kid?” I turned in his direction and immediately noticed how different his face was now from in the picture. It was sad, leathery looking, and creased like his shoes, evidence of his hard life and resilient character. Something inside me shifted, and I realized that the little patch of land on which what was left of his farm now sat was all that remained of that bygone time. It was Buhler’s field of dreams, not ours, and we kids had been disrespectful. “Mr. Buhler,” I said my voice cracking. “I apologize for coming onto your property. I had no right to do so. Please forgive me for being disrespectful. It’ll never happen again.”


To my surprise, he said nothing, only lifted a single eyebrow and stared at me in disbelief. Before he could speak, I turned tail and ran home, never venturing onto his property again. I have sometimes asked myself since whether—when Mr. Buhler sold all but ten acres of his vast farmland—he'd known that a developer would buy it all up and convert it into a subdivision covered in row upon row of two-bedroom, cracker box houses built to attract young couples beginning their families. Within a few short years, our new blue-collar neighborhood was teeming with children whose parents were mostly poor and nomadic, renting the cheap houses for only a short period before having to move on. Their children tended to roam the neighborhood streets ignored, drawn to our happier home like iron shavings to a magnet, showing up in our front yard seemingly out of nowhere and typically around mealtimes.


Over the years. many of them joined us in whatever game my brothers and I were playing that day. When the game ended, Mother would emerge from the house giving them a brown paper sack with a peanut butter sandwich and some of her homemade cookies. She occasionally outfitted some of them in shoes and clothes we’d outgrown or gave them toys we’d discarded. “I don’t understand why you take care of all these ragamuffin children when you can barely feed and clothe your own!” Grammy often complained.

“We’ll manage,” was ever Mother’s cheerful response.

“You can’t possibly know if you’re even making any difference.”


But Mother had grown up during the Great Depression and knew first-hand what it was like wearing ill-fitting, dirty clothes, going to bed with her tummy aching from hunger, and wondering when she might eat again. “You’re right,” she’d tell Granny. “I don’t know, but I’m content with not knowing. What I can do is make a difference in a child’s life today and hope that something bigger than me will make a difference down the road.”


Deanna was one such little girl who, on a bitterly cold January afternoon, wandered into our front yard where my friends and I were playing a winter version of dodgeball using snowballs. She was the epitome of a ragamuffin—a malnourished little waif roughly my age in a tattered dress and worn out old shoes too big for her feet. Her small hands were gloveless, chafed and slightly red from being exposed to the cold. Her face was grimy and bore a most woe begotten look—a look that reminded me of Hans Christian Anderson’s poor little matchstick girl. When I approached her, she looked as if she was on the verge of crying and, having had that tale read to me many times, I wondered whether she dared not go home because she’d not sold any matches.


Deanna was sweet and we quickly became friends, eating lunch together at school and jumping rope with one another during recess. After school we’d walk home together and then sit on my front porch finishing our homework, playing card games or checkers, and cutting out clothes for our paper dolls. “I don’t think Deanna has toys at her house,” Mother casually mentioned one day, “Just imagine how boring that must be for her”, nudging me to put myself in Deanna’s shoes. “Maybe you could give her one of your dolls.” I did, of course, because I couldn’t conceive not having a doll to sleep with at night.


Just before my elementary school’s annual father-daughter banquet, Mother took me aside. “Not every little girl’s father is like yours. Her daddy is a troubled man whose soul is broken. Like so many men who are that way, he’s full of anger—anger that comes out in cruel words and actions. Imagine living with a daddy like that,” she said, again asking me to place myself in Deanna’s shoes. “How would you feel about sharing your daddy with her, just for the night of the father-daughter banquet?” Sharing my dolls was one thing, but sharing my daddy? That was something entirely different! I reluctantly agreed, harboring a lingering childhood resentment.


On the night of the banquet, Deanna came to our house. Mother brushed and curled her hair, then dressed her in a freshly washed skirt, a starched white blouse, and a pair of snug-fitting, polished shoes. We headed to school with Deanna on one of Dad’s arms and me on the other. I was a little jealous of the attention being showered on Deanna— until I saw the joy that flashed across her usually mournful face. I was briefly overcome with childhood tears when I understood the difference a moment of kindness can make. A few days after the banquet, I rode my bike over to Deanna’s house only to find the door locked and the windows shuttered. Emptiness and pain filled my heart; she, like the other vagabond children, was gone in an instant.


Throughout the years, I frequently thought of Deanna, but I never saw or heard from her again—not until the day of Mother’s funeral. After the service a vaguely-familiar woman with two small children approached me. “I’m sorry for your loss,” she began, choking back some tears. I’m not sure you remember me. My name’s Deanna.

“Of course! I remember you!” I exclaimed, “How absolutely wonderful to see you after all this time. How kind of you to come. How did you hear of Mother’s passing?”

“I saw her obituary in the paper and knew I simply had to come and honor her and your family. Were it not for your mother’s kindness and generosity,” she continued, “I surely would’ve starved. Were it not for your father, I would never have known what a kind, patient man looked like. And were it not for you, I might never have come to know friendship and belonging.”


Deanna and I sat on a bench outside the funeral home for quite some time, catching up and reminiscing about our short lived childhood days playing together. Imagine my surprise when she told me, “I’m happily married to a kind and generous man. We serve as foster parents, giving abandoned and wayward children kindness, respect, and a temporary sense of home and belonging. The children who came here with me today are two of four we adopted last year, rescuing them from an abusive father much like my own. I do so wish I’d told your parents the difference they made in one girl’s life and continue to make through me in the lives of a new generation of forgotten and neglected children. I hope they knew their small acts of kindness were like little candles, each one lit countless other candles.”


“Not to worry,” I smiled and hugged her. “Wherever they are, they know. I'm sure of it.” We exchanged phone numbers and parted ways. I drove home, the sting of grief over Mother’s passing diminished somewhat by what she had told me. I took solace in knowing Mother’s simple acts of kindness were seeds that took root and spread in all directions. Those roots sprang up and made new trees that seeded in turn, sending out roots so that there was indeed no end to the impact both she and my father had. Deanna’s story lent credence to that old adage: “No act of kindness, however small, is wasted.”


 
Author Sara Etgen Baker

A kind teacher’s unexpected whisper, “You’ve got writing talent!” first ignited Sara’s desire to write. For decades, she ignored that whisper and pursued a different career. Eventually though, she rediscovered her long lost inner writer. Her pieces have been published in anthologies and magazines, including Chicken Soup for the Soul, Guideposts, Times They Were A Changing, Wisdom Has a Voice, and The Santa Claus Project.

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