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Never Quite the Same Twice

IN fifth grade, I gave up being bad. One day I threw a wad of paper in the air and yelled "Sputnik" in honor of its short orbit. Just then, my all-time favorite teacher, Mrs. Cheney, walked into the classroom. I saw her face, and then I saw my missile smack right into it. This event was the last in a series of behaviors that led Mrs. Cheney to give me an F in conduct. I got all A's and an F in conduct. My behavior did not prevent her, however, from hugging me as I sobbed after losing the school spelling

contest. (Her daughter won.) Nor was she ever anything less than my favorite teacher for that F. That grade did exactly what she probably hoped it would: I gave up being bad.

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But one day, five years later in a boarding school far away from Mrs. Cheney's classroom, I got that old twinge again to let go of my best-dressed, straight-A, patrol-captain personage. I felt pulled toward a canon ball.

The "Stray Shot" was an old lead ball purportedly of canon caliber. At the school I attended, it was an object of much attention. It would be found, stolen, and hidden for months or even years, until a rumor would get out about where it was and the hunt would begin.

I heard that the Stray Shot was in the basement of a barn used as a theater at the school, and that it was under lock and key. I decided to steal it and enlisted some help.

After "lights out" in the dorm, three of us went to the barn. All the doors were locked. The basement had lattice windows, old and weathered. Then it came to me: Nothing but putty held these windows in. So I manipulated one of the windowpanes until the old putty loosened. Slowly I pulled out the pane in one piece. And swiftly I opened the window.

We climbed in and searched the room. No one talked: We were swift and deft. I found the ball and, without words, handed it to one of my partners as he climbed out the window. The last to leave, I closed the window and left the unbroken pane of glass on a table in the room: it was perfect without being planned, and nothing except old, loose putty was lost. The consummate moment of carrying that cannon ball away was not only an indelible triumph for me; it was also a moment of almost perfect cooperation. W hat had happened in those minutes together could happen only once.

Last week, my seven-year-old son finished his second season in tee-ball, a season that ended with the children hitting balls pitched by a real pitcher rather than off the tee. To my pleasure and to his, Jeremy hits even better when he is pitched to. As he moves toward little league, the prospect of next season is a good one.

I never played either tee-ball or little league; I only got as far as one game a week in Bobby Knutzman's backyard, which usually ended when he decided that somebody was cheating. Anyway, I had never been big on baseball until Jeremy. As a child, I went to games just to get the hot dogs. But that has changed.

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A few days ago I went to pick up Jeremy for the special time that we spend together each week, now that his mother and I have separated. I asked him what he wanted to do. He said, "Let's go buy me a bat and ball. I'll pay for half, and you pay for half." So it was. Between the wooden bats he won't use and the $80 model was an $18 aluminum one in his size.

We got the bat and ball and went to the car. "What now?" I asked. He said, "Let's play, Dad." The thought that hadn't occurred to me. I suggested the place he always played with his team. He agreed.

WE went to the little-league park. The diamonds had been raked and fresh lines drawn. I stood on the mound, and Jeremy stepped up to bat. I realized that I had never pitched from the pitcher's mound. I pitched, trying to imitate Jeremy's coach. I did well enough for him to hit, but soon I got tired of running after the ball.

I saw a boy in the bleachers watching us. I asked him if he wanted to do some outfielding. He did, so out he went and I pitched until Jeremy got tired of being his own catcher. Another small boy had appeared by then, looking like a pet-store puppy waiting for release from his cage; I asked him to catch and he did.

I pitched, and Jeremy hit. I pitched, and they all got a chance to hit. The pitching and the hitting, the throwing and the catching, the repeated gestures and trajectories made the day a dance of unpremediated cooperation, a moment in which the rhythm of time became something other than the tick-tock of clock time; it was the rhythm of four guys combining their attentiveness to the never-quite-the-same-twice experience of sending the ball and returning it.

Finally I said it was time to leave, and the two young strangers left. Jeremy said, "Not yet, Dad," and I pitched a few more to him as a kind of coda. But the punctuation was his as we drove to his home: "It was good, Dad."

During that same week, I called my children to say good night. Jeremy was talking about his day and then stopped. "What is it, Jeremy?" I asked.

He replied, "Daddy, why do I like to be with you so much?"

"I don't know, Jeremy," I said. "Why do you think you do?"

"Because you pay attention, Dad."

I liked that a lot. I write it here to hold it forever. I like to think about the moments when paying attention paid the deeper dividend of knowing that something unpremeditated and perfect had happened with other human beings, as when I closed the lattice window of an old barn behind me, and when I closed my car door after a day spent with my son. These were not just good times. They were moments that gave forth something perfect, without my trying to force anything to happen. All I need to give, it see ms, is my attention.

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