In the summer of 1978, I discovered RC Cola and baseball.
I guess the soda that was a cheap knock-off of Coca-Cola had always been around, as was baseball, but that summer I consumed as much of both as humanly possible.
The reason? The collector cans that featured the RC logo and its slogan “Me and My RC” on one side and a photo of a Major League Baseball player on the other with his signature, stats and other pertinent information, such as was he right-handed or left-handed.
The collecting became an obsession and the stack of royal blue 12-ounce cans soon filled a wall of my bedroom. While I was always hopeful of an All-Star, such as Pete Rose or Reggie Jackson, it was multiple cans of little-known light-hitters like Freddie Patek and Bobby Grich that made up my shrine.
These ballplayers were the ones I heard Jack Buck talk about at night and on Sunday afternoons, his voice stretching from the St. Louis Arch out across the corn fields of Southern Illinois and the cliffs of the Shawnee National Forest, across the Ohio River and into our little pocket of western Kentucky.
We lived “out in the country” as they said back then and my momma said it was too far to drive into town for Little League baseball. So, one day, I took a can of black spray paint and drew out a square strike zone on the side of our new brick home. I picked up a rubber ball and stood 12 feet away and threw as hard as I could, over and over, aiming for perfection. My daddy came home, saw what I did, spanked me good and gave me a can of turpentine and told me to scrub. And I did, until my fingers ached, but that black box remained, now part of our home.
And, inside those brick walls, the monument of tin cans grew larger and larger as I drank more and more RC. And, as you can surmise, an 11-year-old boy hopped up on caffeinated soda is going be clumsy and careless and the temple would often come clanging down, oftentimes at night when I’d stumble making my way to the bathroom.
Maybe collecting the cans was a gene thing, like a widow’s peak hairline, passed down from generation to generation.
My dad cherished a can of unopened Billy Beer, a beverage known more for being endorsed by the beer-guzzling brother of then President Carter than for its taste. And he proudly displayed that single can of Billy Beer on our living room mantle next to the family Bible handed down by the teetotaling Robinsons on my mother’s side. I’m sure he saw fortune in his future and a day when that can of Billy Beer would be worth thousands of dollars.
But maybe it was more than that.
Eventually, my RC cans were dispatched to a grey, weathered barn that was starting to lean more than it was upright with a good part of its rusty tin roof curled back like the shavings from an apple’s peel.
That summer I remained true, continuing to drink RC and adding to the collection, the cans climbing the slats around a feed crib that contained more rats than healthy ears of corn. But the rains came, as they do, and the bottom of the cans began to rust. And I picked up football in the fall and then basketball in the winter and spring. There would be girls and then a driver’s license and the cans would topple and fall when the winter winds blew between the ever-widening planks of oak.
Eventually, the rust spread, covering the faces on the cans, and I could no longer see if I was looking at Freddie Patek or Pete Rose. One fall day, the cans were thrown into black plastic bags and tossed in the back corner of the corn crib, that darkest part down where the rats made their nest.
But the can of Billy Beer remained. For a while.
More than 40 years later, the homeplace remains, as does my mom. She’s like the maples she planted in that western Kentucky dirt. Still strong and rooted in place. The old barn has long been torn down, replaced by a shiny red, two-story building built by the Amish from down Crittenden way that is more guest living quarters than it is a work shed.
The RC Cola cans are also long gone, dispatched not soon after my father left when most of his blue jeans and those country western shirts with the pearl snap-on buttons were taken from the closet and dumped in the backyard, doused with lighter fluid and a match was struck.
I don’t know if I ever asked my mother if she took the cans to a recycling center or just simply put them in the burn barrel, their sides blackening, indistinct. Just another can in a smoldering mess of household garbage. Forgotten.
Come to think of it, I don’t know if we’ve ever really discussed the divorce much.
The separation stung at first, but eventually as you get older and perhaps wiser and maybe forgiving, you learn to accept the betrayal and loneliness. Like the collector cans, the pronouncement of “till death do us part and forever and ever” was something that was just taking up space and needed to be thrown out. The connection gone.
Still, there are days, like today, when an overheard bit of conversation or a question about obsession takes me back to those cans of my childhood. It’s those memories that remain. Good and bad.
It’s your mom going to the IGA, picking up a six-pack of RC Cola and there being two more Freddie Pateks in the bunch. You disappointed, but not saying anything as you pull the tab and drink the bland soda, hopeful for another day.
It’s spray painting a black square on the side of a brick wall. And bits of that square block still clinging to that sturdy brick, 40 years later.
It’s clinging to the past and hoping that what you hold will only become more precious as time goes on. But, more importantly, it’s realizing when it’s time to just take it out to the burn barrel, light a match and move on.
A pristine can of Billy Beer, unopened, can be had for $21.
But nobody’s buying.