November 2012

Walter Biggins

nonfiction

A Drive into the Gap by Kevin Guilfoile

Early on in A Drive into the Gap, Kevin Guilfoile captures, simply and sadly, the key difference between his dad and mom these days:

To my dad, I am five years old and also a novelist. I am forty-three years old and also an undergrad at the University of Notre Dame. I am an assistant media relations director for the Houston Astros and I am not yet old enough to drive. I am a Little League coach in La Grange, Illinois, and a Little League player in Bethel Park, Pennsylvania. I also work in advertising.

My mother knows me as all those things, too, but she understands time as an organizing principle, that I was each of these things at a different stage of my life. My father does not. To him I am all of these things at once. He lives in an unrelenting present, with no real concept of yesterday or tomorrow.

Guilfoile's mother, in short, does not have Alzheimer's. His father does. Bill Guilfoile has become unstopped in time, much like Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-Five. Unlike Vonnegut's protagonist, however, Bill Guilfoile doesn't realize what has happened to him. There are gaps of time that he can no longer process or sort. Everything's happening now.

His son's memoir of-sorts -- a tale about how we remember things and how that memory can be faulty, even when seemingly well-documented -- has the most appropriate title imaginable. As long as we're breathing, we're all driving relentlessly forward in time. The older we get, though, the more likely it is that the drive, and our memory of the experience, will grow murkier and develop gaps in our consciousness. If we're lucky, those gaps are short; we laugh them off. If we're unlucky, as is Bill Guilfoile, years of our lives are hacked out of our brains, smudged, and then shoved into places where they don't belong. Our loved ones are left to sort the experiences into something true, into something that makes sense.

If any sport can be said to serve as a metaphor for America and the stories it tells about itself, it’s baseball. Baseball draws more storytellers -- folklorists, tall-tale spinners, highbrows, sabermetricians, and poets -- to it than any other sport. Like the Wild West, baseball lore acts as our base legend, our source for the stories we tell ourselves. Right now, the country’s current story -- maybe the world’s current story -- is that we live in a perpetual present. Due to social media and being perpetually online (even on the toilet, even walking in a park), we can be present everywhere at once. We’re tweeting about the “Arab Spring” surreptitiously while attending our cousin’s bat mitzah, while listening to a comedy podcast. We’re everywhere but where we actually are, physically. Because every update comes at us simultaneously, so quickly, we feel bombarded. We can’t sift through the material, or make sense of it. It’s all there but out of order, in fragments without connective glue.

So, it's fitting that A Drive into a Gap, a nonfiction novella about Roberto Clemente's 3,000th base hit and about growing up with baseball, is largely about Alzheimer's, the ultimate loss of stories. Clemente, the greatest player to ever wear a Pittsburgh Pirate uniform, was a man both Bill and Kevin Guilfoile knew. On September 30, 1972, the day Clemente did what only ten men prior to him had done, Bill was the Pirates' public-relations director. He was in charge of the Pirates brand, which largely meant that he was in charge of maintaining Clemente's image. Like any good PR guy, he took notes. On his first day on the job, he wrote on a yellow pad of meeting Clemente for the first time, when asking him to talk with a sports TV broadcaster:

Roberto reacted with a three or four minute outburst, combining English and Spanish, to let me know exactly how he felt about [Dick] Stockton. Apparently he and Dick had had a falling-out some time ago over something Stockton had said on the air.

Then Roberto paused, regained his composure, and looked at me with a little smile. "Would it help you if I did the interview?" he asked.

"Well, it's my first day on the job and I'm trying to get off on the right foot," I said. "Yes, it would help me if you would talk to him."

Clemente nodded and said, "Ok. For you I will do it, my friend." He finished dressing, walked out on the field, and gave an interview to Dick Stockton for the first time in years.

Clemente wasn't just Bill's colleague, but his friend. When Clemente died in a plane crash off of Nicaragua, on New Year's Day 1973, it was Bill who made the initial phone calls alerting the world. When Clemente smacked that drive into the gap of left-center field, and thus recorded his 3,000th hit, it was Bill who was entrusted to retrieve the bat and make sure it got to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

You wouldn't think it hard to discern what bat that is. The moment was captured, as Kevin Guilfoile articulates, in the following ways: by the eyes of 14,000 fans at Three Rivers Stadium; on cheapo Super 8 film shot by a schmo who snuck his way into the Pirates dugout; on video shot by at least three television studios; on the radio by ecstatic announcers; on celluloid by the team's staff photographer. There was a whole PR department, headed by Kevin's father, dedicated to seizing and then disseminating that moment.

As Guilfoile's book proves, all of them got it at least partly wrong.

Some people think Clemente's bat hung in Kevin's bedroom throughout his childhood. Bill Guilfoile thinks it's where he thought he put it, in Cooperstown. A photographer thinks Clemente gave the bat to him. Clemente, Kevin Guilfoile discovers, told at least two people that he was giving them the bat. Louisville Slugger, which had an exclusive licensing agreement with Clemente, wants to believe Clemente swung its bat. Adirondack wants to believe he swung theirs, and there are eyes -- including Willie Stargell's, another Pirates legend and Clemente's teammate at the time -- that support this.

Using videotape, YouTube footage, conflicting stories, Bill's notes, newspaper archives, and firsthand accounts, Kevin finds the truth. I won't reveal the answer here, not because I dislike spoilers but because it's the mystery -- and the way the mystery became active in so many accounts, and becomes "truth" -- that's important to Guilfoile's narrative. Guilfoile, in a conversational but awestruck prose style that he gleans from his father, shows how all these narratives get created. They all seem credible until he unpacks them. They all seem to happen at once, even though -- at best -- only one of them could have occurred.

Though there are pranks and practical jokes told throughout A Drive into the Gap, the potential holders of Clemente's 3,000th-hit bat all seem sincere. They believe what they saw, heard, and felt. The story of the bat isn't just another baseball tall tale but true memory. But since all the stories can't be true, the nonfiction novella calls into question the very nature of memory, both personal and collective. No matter how many ways an event is recorded, there will be unseen interstices, caesuras, gaps. No one ever has the full story, about anything, even something so widely known and seen. That doesn't stop Guilfoile's protagonists -- and he is one, grappling with his own recollections -- from imprinting themselves with a false memory.

Can memory actually be memory, though, if it's proven to be wrong? If our "memories" are actually constructed by other people's recordings, with all the attendant omissions, do they belong to us? If not us, then to whom do they belong? A Drive into the Gap delicately shows that this may be exactly how an Alzheimer's sufferer feels -- possibilities of life flood you but you can't sift fact from fiction, present from past. What you see, feel, and "remember" doesn't belong to you, but you don't know whom it does belong to, or who gave it to you for safekeeping and remembrance.

Using his dad's individual struggle with Alzheimer's as a lens, Kevin Guilfoile inquires into the problems with collective memory and oral history. Again, baseball keeps up with America. With the advent of social media, we're all starting to live with a sort of Alzheimer's. What's ours and what's not get blurred. We can scroll Facebook timelines and Twitter feeds to see, abstractly, the raw contents of someone's life right now and two years ago, all on the same page. But, if someone decides to erase a segment of that timeline -- a discarded husband, a dog who died, a joke about abortion that you now regret -- that pic or note or video or wall statement disappears, instantly. It becomes a memory that no longer exists, that's become unstopped in time. We live in an eternal present of possibilities but any of it might disappear (or be disputed) at any time.

For Alzheimer's sufferers, that's a nightmare. For those of us who love those sufferers, who remember them when they didn't have Alzheimer's, it's a nightmare, too. To do this to ourselves voluntarily? Maybe that's the scariest nightmare of all.

A Drive into the Gap, using one dad's struggle and one writer's quest to find the truth about (let's face it) an ultimately inconsequential event, reflects on all these issues. It gets away with it, because Kevin Guilfoile writes in a supple, matter-of-fact way that belies its deep concerns and hard questions. Like the Geto Boyz said, "my mind's playing tricks on me." With baseball, Guilfoile shows some of the ways that becomes possible and real, even when it's not real at all.

A Drive into the Gap by Kevin Guilfoile
Field Notes Brand Books
ISBN: 978-0985831615
66 pages