Honus Wagner and the Wittsburg Treasure (Part 1)

By CL Bledsoe

My name is Nathan Bedwell, and I’m nine years old. The big 0–9. My birthday is in a few weeks. Then I’ll be in the double digits. That’s when everything starts to change, Dad says.

I live with my dad in a small town in Arkansas called Crowley’s Ridge. Dad teaches English classes at a couple different colleges nearby, so he drives a lot and he’s gone a lot. We live in an apartment right above Ms. Whimple, who is this big, red-headed lady who smells like food and used to work in the high school cafeteria, but she’s nice. When Dad teaches night classes, I stay with her. At first, I wouldn’t eat anything she cooked because I was afraid it might be poison, but then she made fried chicken and okra and it smelled so good I thought it would be worth the risk, and it was. Now I eat with her all the time. Dad does too, sometimes. Ms. Whimple lives alone and she says she likes the company. I don’t think that’s true. I think she has a lot of friends because everybody knows Ms. Whimple. I think she’s just being nice.

My mom died three years ago. She had cancer. I used to live in a big house on the river with her and Dad and Grampa. It was the house Grampa grew up in, and we went fishing all the time and swimming. It was great. But Dad thinks the water was polluted and that’s what gave Mom cancer, and he and Grampa couldn’t afford to pay the property taxes on the house after all the medical bills, so we moved into town and Grampa moved into the nursing home. We never go fishing anymore, and Dad won’t let me drink tap water because of the pollution. He started a group to try to make the state clean it up. He has meetings with big, important people and ends up on the news sometimes, when he gets in trouble for yelling at them. He doesn’t call it getting in trouble; he calls it being “passionate.” Whenever I’m “passionate,” though, I just get in trouble. So that all means he’s gone even more.

The reason Grampa moved into a nursing home is that he has trouble remembering what’s real. Sometimes he thinks the nurses are my mom, and sometimes he gets lost in the hallway on the way from his room to the lounge for dinner. But, at the same time, he can remember things that happened when he was a little kid. It’s weird. He can’t remember who the nurses are but he always remembers me.

Even though Dad works most of the time, he takes Saturdays off. He goes and gets Grampa and we all go for a drive together in the country, and Grampa tells stories. My favorite ones are about baseball players a long time ago when Grampa was my age. Grampa’s favorite place to go is Wittsburg, which is where Grampa grew up, and it used to be a town a long time ago. Now, it’s just a couple houses. He’ll point to a field and say,

“That used to be Olsen’s store. All the old folks would sit on the porch when the crops were laid by and gossip.”

“Did you do that?” Dad asks.

“Nah, I was just a little sprout, and they never let kids hang around. Momma would send me for some flour or lard or tobacco or something, and I’d take my time so I could listen to the stories. They got a radio when I got a little older. Saddest day of my life. Folks stopped talking and just sat there and listened. I didn’t think of it like that at the time. I used to love those radio shows when I was a boy. The Phantom. George Burns and Gracie Allen. Say Goodnight, Gracie.”

It’s an old joke he taught me, so I reply: “Goodnight, Gracie.”

The way Grampa talks about some of the old radio shows — some of the science fiction and adventure ones, especially, sounds pretty cool. One time I asked him if they were so good, why did people watch television, and he said it’s not about something being better than something else:

“When you grow up, they won’t even have TV. They’ll have something totally different. Maybe you’ll put on a pair of glasses and watch movies like you’re really in them. But you’ll still look back on things you saw on TV when you were a kid and think how much better they were.”

I think I sort of understand what he means. It’s like when mom was still here. I sometimes feel happy, now, but I still miss her.

We have to cross a big bridge to get to where Grampa’s house is, where he used to live. It’s on the riverbank. Grampa says when he was a kid there were riverboats and a salon.

“They’d play cards, and somebody would accuse one of the gamblers of cheating, so a fight would break out. And somebody would get shot. Bang!” He points his finger at me. “And they’d dump the bodies in the river. That’s why there were alligators in the river.”

“Dad, don’t tell him so many lies,” my dad says.

“It’s the truth! Alligators! Big as cars!” He stretches out his arms.

“There aren’t any alligators this far north,” Dad says.

There are just a couple buildings left of the town, besides Grampa’s old house. One is an old warehouse the riverboats used to store whatever they were hauling up and down the river. When he was a young man, Grampa worked in that building, loading and unloading things for riverboats.

“This was during the Depression, you see, when alcohol was illegal. But the steamboats all sold drinks and would transport liquor. So we had a secret hiding place in the warehouse where we hid it. The old man who owned it shut it down and left and never came back. Me and his sons pulled all the stock out and sold it in a hurry, right before he left. I think maybe the feds had got wind of what he was doing, and somehow he’d been tipped off. I cleaned that warehouse out and locked it up by myself.

“I started working when I wasn’t much older than you, Nathan. I’d work for a few cents a day and buy tobacco for my Dad and candy for my little sister, and do you know why?” I shake my head. “For the cards! In those days, you got baseball cards with tobacco and candy. Goudey was the best. Hank Greenberg! Lou Gehrig! Ty Cobb! Dizzy Dean! They had all the best players. There were other companies that put out knock-offs, but Goudey’s were the best. I’d get the gum and just give it away. That’s how much I loved the cards.”

Dad parks at Grampa’s old house so we can see the river. There’s a sign in the yard that says “For Sale” and one on the door that says “Foreclosure.” I won a spelling bee in school because I know how to spell that. One time, when we came here, Grampa talked about what a shame it was the house just stood empty because nobody was going to buy it, but the bank would rather have it stand empty than let him stay in it. I don’t like the bank very much.

Grampa turns around and looks at the old warehouse. The last time we were there, Grampa got this mischievous look on his face and pointed at the warehouse.

“That’s where they all were,” he said. “That’s where I kept them. I had them all! You know what a set like that would be worth now?” He winked at me. I smiled, and he nodded like he’d just told me a big secret.

* * *

Sometimes, Dad takes me to Burdon’s Barber Shop. Burdon is this big guy who talks ALL THE TIME. Dad says everything Burdon says is a lie, but it’s a treat to hear such a good liar. That doesn’t really make much sense, but whatever.

Burdon sits you in his chair, talking the whole time, and when he cuts your hair, he leans in and pushes his stomach into you. It’s big and hard and round; it always knocks me a little to the side, and then he mutters something, and I get scared he’s going to mess up my hair. Not that I care that much about it, but kids at school would make fun of me.

The funny thing — the weird thing — is that, the more stories Mr. Burdon tells, the more my Dad argues with him. They argue politics and sports and all this boring stuff. Dad gets so mad, but then he goes back a few weeks later. I don’t get it.

The other thing about Mr. Burdon is he says he has a Honus Wagner tobacco card. This is a really rare card worth a ton of money. He keeps it in a plastic sleeve and only ever let me see it one time — he held it up but wouldn’t let me look very close or touch it. Dad says it’s probably a fake because there are only a handful of them known to exist. Grampa says it’s because kids like he used to be didn’t know they’d be worth anything, so they played with them, stuck them in their bike spokes to make their bikes sound like engines, and didn’t take care of them.

“The thing is,” he said. “If we had known they’d be worth something and put them away and saved them, they wouldn’t be worth anything. Ain’t that a hoot?”

Even though it was in plastic, I could tell some things about Mr. Burdon’s card: it was wrinkled like it had been wadded up. That made it look old. Its corners were round, not straight, like it had seen a lot of wear and tear. And it looks like the card. I mean, I’ve seen copies of it. It looks just like one of them.

When I told Grampa about it, he shrugged and said, “Who knows?”

* * *

I play baseball, some. I mean, I play at school. I play in Little League. I play baseball video games. Sometimes I’ll play stickball games with neighborhood kids. I watch it on TV. Okay, I guess I do play a lot.

Grampa comes to games, even now that he’s in the nursing home. Dad hardly comes anymore because he’s always working. Used to be, Dad and Grampa both came. We’d drive up to St. Louis to watch the Cardinals every summer. It was the only time they didn’t argue. Now, I’m glad Grampa comes, but I wish Dad would too.

* * *

I talk to Dad about Mr. Burdon’s Honus Wagner card, and I show him a copy I got.

“You think that’s what he has?” he asks.

I go and get a plastic sleeve and wad my card up and then flatten it out and stick it in the plastic like Mr. Burdon’s.

“Wait, the corners,” I say. I get some scissors and trim the corners and then mess with them so they look like they’d been worn naturally. He laughs and laughs. I feel a little bad about it. I take it back up to my room and put it on my shelf, hoping he’ll forget it, but the next time we go to the barbershop, he reminds me about it so I take it.

We wait until it’s our turn, and I go up to the chair. Dad starts talking about Mr. Burdon’s card a lot, and Mr. Burdon starts smiling and bragging.

“You know, my boy has one of them,” Dad says.

Boy, does Mr. Burdon’s attitude change! He gets mad real quick. I have the card in my pocket, and Dad makes me show it to Mr. Burdon. He goes and gets his out of the drawer. There are a couple other people in the shop watching this like it’s on TV. They look at the two cards and say they look the same. Then I turn mine over, where it says “Copy” on the back.

“Turn yours over, Burdon,” Dad says.

He shakes his head and doesn’t want to do it, but the other customers keep telling him to and start saying rude things. He gets so mad he chases us out without even cutting my hair. I haven’t seen Dad smile so much in a long time.

* * *

The reason Grampa likes Honus Wagner so much is that he saw him when he was a little boy.

“’The Flying Dutchman,’ they called him cause he was so fast. His playing days were over when I was a boy, but he was a hell of a coach. Pittsburgh was one of the best teams in the country.” His eyes come alive and his voice gets excited.

The game Grampa saw was an exhibition game, but he says they played just like it was a real game.

“It was a point of pride, you see,” he says.

“Did your Dad take you?” I ask.

He kind of laughs and looks at my Dad, who blushes a little.

“No,” Grampa says. “I hopped a boxcar and rode up to Memphis to see it.”

“Don’t give him any ideas,” Dad says but he’s smiling.

“It was a different world in those days,” Grampa says. “Nowadays, if you tried something like that…”

“You’d never be able to find a train to sneak onto,” Dad says, and we all laugh.

* * *

The reason Grampa likes baseball so much is he used to play when he was a young man. He played through high-school and college and even played in the Minor Leagues.

“It was hard, but it was a good hard,” he says. “We all wanted to be in the majors so we played hard and we practiced hard. We’d do anything to get there; we’d play anywhere. There were always rumors that some scout was looking for players for some major league team. You never knew if it was true, so every time we played, we had to play like it was.”

“Why’d you stop playing?” I ask.

He laughs. “Your grandmother and your father. Even though I loved it, I couldn’t make good money playing ball. A lot of us were working second jobs, but it’s hard to hold down jobs when you have to take off and play in some other state. I had to quit so I could afford to make a good life for my family.”

“You must’ve missed it,” I say.

“I would’ve regretted it a lot more if I hadn’t done right by my family.”

* * *

The way Grampa describes the Wittsburg when he was a boy is like a movie. Even though people drove cars back then, most of the people in town couldn’t afford them, so they still rode horses. Some of the farmers had old-timey trucks and tractors but you didn’t see them in town much.

So there would be horses and buggies in town, and folks walked where they needed to go.

“The air smelt clean, except for the horses,” he laughs. “There wasn’t smoke or car exhaust. There wasn’t as much noise, so you could hear people coming from a mile away.

“Everybody had a garden, and most of us farmed a little. We’d grow our own vegetables. Most folks had chickens or a couple hogs. We’d trade for whatever we didn’t grow.”

I want to say something, but he stops me.

“You’re thinking it was boring, but you’re wrong. We were busy all the time, but we weren’t busy playing video games; we were doing things that mattered. And the food! It was so much better than it is now. Everything was fresh. They talk about ‘organic’ farming; everything was organic back then! There was no other way to do it! The stuff people eat now; we wouldn’t have even put that stuff in our mouths back then.”

“So if everything was so great back then, why did it change?” Dad asks.

Grampa shrugs. “Greed,” he says. “And laziness.”

That just makes Dad scowl. “So you’re saying all the medical advances, all the Civil Rights advances don’t add up to anything?”

“Of course they do, but plenty of other bad things happened also.”

When they argue like that, I like to stare out the window and imagine what it would be like to be Lou Gehrig or Ty Cobb or Babe Ruth. I wonder if they knew they would be famous someday when they were kids like me. I wonder if they had the same doubts and fears I do, or if they just left that all behind at some point.