Boredom was a regular part of life growing up in small town Princeton, Minnesota. My family didn’t have cable TV until I was well into my teens, personal computers were just starting to be a thing, and my cries for an Atari game system went unheard by my parents year after disappointing year. The 70s and 80s were also an era before the advent of travel teams and club sports and helicopter parents. We kids were on our own for vast stretches of time, especially during long summer months when it was up to us to create our own fun. I remember doing a lot of reading and shooting hoops alone in the driveway. I also remember climbing trees and taking meandering bike rides around town and through the country. I wrote a little, watched lousy reruns on TV and played catch and horse and touch football with my friends. One thing we had a lot of in those years was time. Lots and lots of time.
Perhaps the best way of all that my neighborhood friends and I killed that time during those endless summer days was by playing wiffle ball. The tradition began in our backyard. Friends with names like Mouse and Bags and Soup would join my brother Nathan and I in our tiny yard trying to bend the slotted ball when we pitched and smack it hard with a plastic bat for a home run when we batted. Home plate was near the back porch. The outfield “fence” was across the alley. And anything hit into our parents’ multiple gardens was a ground rule double. The games were great, and we played them endlessly. But as you can imagine, we quickly outgrew the claustrophobic confines of our family’s backyard. We needed a savior, someone with a bigger yard and a new location to expand our wiffle ball dreams.
In stepped the Campbell family down the street – brothers Chad and Jay, their willing parents and their spacious yard complete with a natural treelined outfield and a Fenway pseudo-replica “Gray Monster” garage of a right-field wall. It was perfect. Definitely not too small, and also not too big for a sport that mimics baseball but in which the ball travels tens of feet rather than hundreds. We were set. All that was left was to trick the yard out with fences, backstops, bases, baselines, a pitching rubber, a scoreboard and even lights. It was our obsession, with oldest brother Chad Campbell taking the lead and acting as field construction foreman. During those early days it’s safe to say we spent just as much time building the field and tinkering with improvements as we did playing.
Wiffle ball games at the new Campbell Field seemed to occur daily during those years. Sometimes you’d call up buddies from across town and agree on a time to meet up. Other days you’d just head over to the field, hoping to catch an impromptu game or waiting until other kids showed up. You didn’t need a lot of players. Four was enough. And all ages were welcomed, from high school boys to first grade girls. We created the rules complete with ghost runners, “back in two” and hurling the ball against the backstop to complete an out at first. It was perfect – a little slice of small town heaven. Rain or shine, day or night, in the summers you could find us playing wiffle ball at Campbell Field.
A few weeks ago siblings Chad, Jay and Heidi Campbell lost their father Lee. He died peacefully in his sleep. Lee was a great man, always kind, always generous and always welcoming. He was giving to his children and he was giving to us neighborhood kids. It was Lee, after all, who granted his boys and their friends permission to transform his beautiful backyard into a landscape of dirt, chicken wire, plywood slabs and endless strands of electrical cords. He didn’t mind. In fact, he celebrated it. He encouraged it. Not infrequently were Lee and his wife Donna on hand with lawn chairs and snacks and coolers full of pop for all us players. And it didn’t matter if their kids weren’t involved in the games. We’d go to Campbell Field and play wiffle ball regardless if the Campbell kids were home or not. Lee and Donna never told us to leave or never complained about the noise that would go on well after dark.
Thanks to Lee, and the entire Campbell family, I have these incredibly fond memories to look back on from my years growing up on Princeton’s north side. Many of us do. Hardly a nostalgic conversation with old friends goes by without the mention of those sentimental days getting dirty and sweaty at Campbell Field. Thanks Lee. It would not have happened without you.
My first stab at a novel for young people was a book called Wilgarball. The story was based very closely on experiences I had playing wiffle ball at Campbell Field. It was a blast to write, and in it I conjured up many an amazing memory from my youth to fill the chapters and to give the characters life. My childhood recollections are in the pages of that novel. The novel was fun to write, but I’ll acknowledge now that the writing isn’t all that solid. The book just wasn’t that good, and the novel was never published. But no matter. When I think back on it, the story was probably written more for me, as a memoir of my early days, than it was for publishers and a wide audience. Here is an excerpt from Wilgarball. I hope you enjoy it. And I hope it succeeds in some small way to take you back to your youth, to your summer days, and to the people in your life – like the Campbells in mine – who made that time special.