NEA Literature Fellowships

Michael Paterniti

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(2002 - Prose)

From The House That Thurman Munson Built

So I give you a boy and a neighborhood of boys and a town of boys. I give you a suburbia of boys, and I give you boroughs of boys, a city following a team that is a circus. A stitched-together bunch of brawlers and hustlers, cussers and bullies, led by their captain, who, as Ron Guidry puts it, can make you laugh and then just as soon turn around and put a bullet through your chest.

I'm not sure how the news about Thurman Munson gets out-- maybe someone's older brother hears it on the radio or maybe someone's mother sees it on television. A friend dons a Yankee uniform and disappears inside his house, watching the news behind drawn curtains with his father and brother. Another friend hears about it in the backseat on the way to football practice and puts on his helmet to blubber privately, behind his face mask. Another simply won't come out of his bedroom.

For me, August 2, 1979, has been like other summer days: swim-team practice, some baseball, lawn mowing, then down to the Sound with my buddy Mark Zengo to swim again. And that's where I hear that Thurman Munson is dead. I'm dripping salt water, and someone's brother says that Thurman Munson was burned alive.

When I get home, the downstairs is empty. Somewhere I can hear running water -- my mom pouring a bath for my youngest brother. Something is cooking and I turn on the television. An anchorman and then the wrecked Cessna Citation, a charred carapace emblazoned with NY15, and flashing lights everywhere like some strange Mardi Gras.

It was an off day for the Yankees, and Thurman Munson was practicing takeoffs and landings, touch-and-gos. He'd had less than forty hours of experience with his new jet, and he accidentally put it into a stall. The Cessna dipped precipitously before the runway. It scraped trees, tumbled down toward a cornfield, hit the ground at about 108 miles per hour, spun, and had its wings shorn off. It crashed a thousand feet short of the runway and sailed to a stop some five hundred feet later, on Greensburg Road. The two other passengers-- a friend and a flight instructor-- survived, and they tried to drag Thurman Munson from the wreckage. He was conscious, probably paralyzed, calling for help. And all of a sudden jet fuel leaked, pooling near Thurman Munson, and the Cessna exploded.

Afterward, he was identified by dental records. Nearly 80 percent of his body was badly burned. The muscles of his left arm were wasted. He had a busted jaw and a broken rib, and the corneas of his eyes were made opaque by flame. He had a bruised heart and a bloody nose.

"The body is that of a well developed, well nourished, white male," read the autopsy, "who has been subjected to considerable heat and fire, which has resulted in his body assuming the pugilistic attitude."

The truth is I've had only one hero in my life. And his death coincided with a million little deaths-- of boyhood, the seventies, a great Yankee team, an era in baseball, some blind faith. I didn't go Goth after Thurman Munson's death, I just changed a little without knowing it, in full resistance to change.

And to this day, I don't understand: What happens when your hero suddenly stands up from behind home plate, crosses some fold in time, and vanishes into thin air?

One answer: You go after him. You enter your own early thirties and, as a man, you cross the same fold and try to bring him back, if only for a moment. You go to Canton, Ohio, on a hot day not unlike the day Thurman Munson died, to the house that Thurman Munson built, a fourteen-room colonial set on a knoll, a house with pillars out front like some smaller, white-brick, suburban version of Tara, and meet Thurman Munson's family -- his wife, Diana, and the three kids: Tracy, who has three kids of her own now; Kelly, who just got married; and Michael, who was four when his father died and who himself played catcher in the Yankees' farm system. Their father has been gone twenty years and they still don't exactly know who he is. Or, he is something different for each of them, and then different in each moment. An ideal, an epiphany, a hero, a betrayal.

People didn't know Thurman, says Catfish Hunter today, they just loved the way he played.

Michael Paterniti is the author of Driving Mr. Albert: A Trip Across America with Einstein's Brain, which has been translated in 20 countries. The winner of a National Magazine Award, Paterniti's work has appeared in, among other publications, Harper's, the New York Times Magazine, Esquire, Outside, Details, and GQ, where he is now a writer at large. He lives in Portland, Maine, with his wife and son.

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