In the summer of 2016, I received an email from an old friend: Jack. I had first met Jack at an abandoned lot in Baltimore where a group of neighborhood kids got together every afternoon to play softball and touch football. We were all about seven or eight years old at the time. By the time we went to high school, the game had broken up. It was just one brief moment. But Jack wanted to recapture it. He was planning a reunion. And he thought it would be fun for everyone to get back together and play softball again. So he emailed the 20 or so boys who had played at that abandoned lot—most of whom had left Baltimore and spread out across the country, one as far away as California.
Remarkably, almost everyone who was contacted agreed to come back to Baltimore at the end of the summer. I hadn’t seen some of these boys in 50 years. And now that we were all in our 60s, I thought there was little chance we could actually play a softball game—that we could run and catch fly balls or field ground balls and throw across the diamond to first base. But we did it. We pulled it off. And although the game looked like it was being played in slow motion, no one fainted, cramped up, or had a heart attack. One of the men said that what surprised him most was that no one had to walk into the surrounding woods to urinate. We all agreed that this alone was a victory. (Although without water, with the sun pouring down on our balding heads, and with high humidity, I think that we were all probably a little dehydrated.)
Reunions usually involve classes from high school or college or graduate school or other professional or institutional groups. But we were just a bunch of seven- and eight-year-old kids who grew up in the same neighborhood and played sports in the same abandoned lot. Now we were playing again. Most surprising, in the requisite regression that comes with seeing people you haven’t seen in a long time, we related to each other in much the same way we did 50 years ago, laughing at swings and misses, and dropped flies and bad throws. Celebrating runs. Shouting instructions and encouragements.
Then we went back to Jack’s house for lunch. At high school or college reunions, people update themselves with questions like: What’s new? What have you been doing the last ten years? New kids? New grandkids? New jobs? But some of us in that room hadn’t seen each other for an entire lifetime. The more appropriate question was: Did your life work out the way you wanted it to? For the most part, all of the important decisions in life that could have been made had been made. We didn’t have many more moves left in us, other than deciding when to retire.
After lunch, Jack showed us an unusual piece of film. It was taken at his birthday party when he was seven years old. There we were, playing softball at the abandoned lot. Running around screaming, laughing. The men sitting in that room stared silently at that film, transfixed by those little boys, at their abandonment and joy. Generally, we had had done well. We were successful businessmen, doctors, and lawyers. But some of the boys in that film weren’t in the room. One had descended into madness, refusing to leave a small apartment. Another had killed himself. And one of the men seeing himself as a boy had recently lost a son to cancer. All of the men watching that film had experienced the tragedies and heartbreaks that are inevitable in a long life.
Those little boys on the film, however, had no idea what was to come. All that mattered to us then was getting to first base. Because if we could get there before the ball, then we knew that we were safe.
Paul A. Offit, MD, is a weekly contributor to The Daily Beast and the co-inventor of the rotavirus vaccine, Rotateq, which was recommended for all infants in 2006.