I am Mickey Mantle
SFX: (SOUND OF BAT HITTING BALL, STADIUM CHEERS)
I am Mickey Mantle, switch-hitting slugger of the New York Yankees. Ripper of rawhides, launcher of long balls. Young boys idolize me for the tape measure home runs I hit. Pretty little girls’ eye me as I round the bases.
(SOUND EFFECTS FADE OUT)
I am 10 years old—a fourth grade hero. And soon to be fifth grade hero.
Or so I think, until the eighth of September 1958, the first day of school, and she is nowhere to be found. She… is Mrs. Wallach, my new teacher—the one all the kids in fourth grade wanted.
She is warm. She is sweet. She is nurturing.
But apparently she is also pregnant and has suddenly stopped teaching.
In her place stands a brawny, broad-shouldered man with tattooed forearm. He is not the kind of teacher one might expect to teach innocent 10-year old children.
He is not warm. Not sweet. Not nurturing.
In the next few months the person known as me will no longer exist. I will be erased. For the next 54 years, I will dream of revenge for the damage he inflicts upon me. But do not be misled into thinking this story is about death and destruction. It is not. It’s simply about a boy whose identity is stolen.
Because of him…
His name is Sergeant Zweitz. That’s right, he calls himself Sergeant. And appropriately so, for he will run fifth grade like the platoons he drilled in the Marine Corps.
Anybody in this class
Gonna get their little ass
Slapped if they should disobey
Anything I write or say
Sound off, one-two…
Okay, okay, I’m only kidding. He does not really say that. But he might as well, because Sergeant Zweitz—as in dictates and castrates—is not going to let any little peon like me desecrate his classroom.
I take a seat in the front row in my usual display of confidence. He writes his name on the board. Sergeant Zweitz. Z-W-E-I-T-Z. I notice his name begins and ends with Z’s, but there is no nodding off in his class. We sit at full attention.
I keep my clever little fifth grade observation to myself. Just by the way he looks, I know better than to speak out in class, which is not easy for me to control. That’s because I am not just a baseball hero. I am also a class clown extraordinaire. The two go together well. Sports and humor, that is. It comes from the supreme confidence of knowing you are the best there is. All the great ones do it. Ruth… Mantle…
And me—king of long liners and one-liners. Master of wit and wallop.
SFX: LARGE GROUP OF CHILDREN PLAYING OUTDOORS IN PLAYGROUND)
At recess that first day, the boys play baseball as usual, but the topic of conversation is less about batting averages and more about Sergeant Zweitz.
I can’t help but make fun of his name, like you might expect a 10 year-old to do. Private Weiner I call him. Then Colonel Corn. Followed by Corporal Punishment, and my personal favorite, Chef Master Zwieback, which causes the other boys to roll on the ground in stitches.
But it is me who is about to be toast, when I turn around and see Sergeant Zweitz standing right behind me; hands firmly on hips, legs spread-eagled shoulder-length apart in a stance he summons up from his Marine Corps drill instructor days.
He glares down at me. Eyebrows curled like hooks. And what do I do? Something stupid.
I smile. For what reason I do not know.
All I do know is that I am a born smiler. I smile all the time, even when I’m unhappy, even when I’m sick, even when my grandpa dies the next year. I just can’t help myself.
One day a psychiatrist will tell me that a constant smile can be interpreted as a sign of weakness, hidden secrets or dimwittedness and opens up a person to all sorts of ridicule. I guess there is nothing more irritating to a grownup—or a shrink—than someone who smiles at them for no reason.
As for Sergeant Zweitz, he reads my smile as an arrogant display of disobedience. Thinks I’m a wise guy—and, maybe I am a bit. But the punishment he metes out goes far beyond the crime.
“Recess is over for you,” he barks out as he grabs me by the back of the shirt collar and marches me back to the classroom. He walks me down the aisle to the last desk in the back of the class and slams my books down...
SFX: BOOKS SLAMMING ON DESK)
...turns the desk around so it faces the wall, and slides it all the way into the corner.
That is how I spend the entire first semester of fifth grade. In the corner, my back turned to the class, my eyes facing a drab green wall.
Every morning when I enter the class, Sergeant Zweitz says, “Go to your corner.”
After every recess, “Go to your corner.”
It will echo in my head for years.
“GO. TO. YOUR. CORNER.”
I have lost all the power I once held over classmates. I am now a metaphorical singles hitter.
This is nothing to smile about. Still I grin.
“That’s one happy kid,” people think. I think I’m in solitary confinement. But, being resourceful, I soon find an escape…
Up here, in my head.
My mind begins to wander, and visits far off places, twisting and turning every little thought that pops into my head, discovering unknown pathways worthy of exploration. I fly over treetops, swim in clouds, and dream. And question. And wonder:
How high do birds fly? Where do goldfish come from? Why do they even bother to sell Neapolitan ice cream?
Then one day I get so lost in daydreams that I begin to make up a song in my head. In a momentary lapse of consciousness, I began to sing half under my breath.
Can you come-a come-a to my par-ar-ty?
I am unaware the class has gone silent with all eyes turned back on me. Suddenly, I notice only the feint sound of my voice filling the classroom. I turn around, and the whole class bursts out in laughter.
SFX: LARGE GROUP OF CHILDREN LAUGHING
I am humiliated, but refuse to show it. Instead, I stand up and take a full bow, turning the laughter in my favor—and my teacher further against me.
Zweitz orders me to take a hike into the hall. But I think he really means hell. For that is what he puts me through from that day forward.
As the leaves fall, my grades fall. As autumn retreats, I retreat.
I lose confidence along with recess privileges, further filling the dark recesses of my brain with thoughts of death and destruction. But like I said earlier, this story isn’t about that. It’s about stolen identity.
Stolen by Zweitz, as in hates. Me.
Do I go to the principal’s office to complain? No. Do I clue my parents in on what is taking place? No. I just endure, swearing one day to get revenge.
I ask, would you be surprised if I became a serial killer? Instead I become a killer of cereal, devouring box after box of Frosted Flakes. THEY’RRRRE GRRRREAT! But they also make me fat, along with all the other cakes and candies I turn to in frustration, and with all that extra weight putting pressure on my knees, it soon hurts to simply walk down stairs, let alone run bases.
The doctor says I have a condition known as Osteochondritis Dissecans. It’s a disease more common to thoroughbreds than to humans. No joke. But it soon means the same thing to me as it does to those racehorses. My days as a stud are over.
I am broken. And about to lose control, when I am suddenly saved by a non- clichéd bell.
SFX: (CHRISTMAS SOUNDS, I.E. CHURCH BELLS, SLEIGH BELLS, CAROLING)
Church bells and sleigh bells. Christmas Vacation. A time of caroling and cocoa. Red-ribboned wreaths and roasted chestnuts. I breathe it all in, and am comforted. And though I am Jewish and know there are no toys under any trees for me, I soon receive the greatest gift of all.
When school starts in January, there is no more Sergeant Zweitz. He has been erased.
In his place, stands Mrs. Wallach. She has had her baby and has returned to teaching.
She is warm. She is sweet. She is nurturing.
And I? I am resurrected. Reborn. Remade.
I am no longer Mickey Mantle, switch-hitting slugger of the New York Yankees. Ripper of rawhides, launcher of long balls.
I am Ricky Leslie, imagineer of ideas, maker of melodies, dreamer of destinies.
I will one day grow up and perform my songs on stage and sing on commercials. I will become an advertising copywriter and network news producer.
I will hit a few tape measure home runs along the way.
I will share Thanksgiving with the Navajos, ride with the Canadian Mounties, and will be exposed to cosmic dust at NASA. And, I will one day become… a storyteller.
In a final act of revenge, I will tell a story about Sergeant Zweitz—and what he did to me. But, by that time, I will not be sure whether to kill him.
Or kiss him.
Oh, and unlike so many people who will be sad each year when the holidays come around, I will always think of Christmas as my salvation.
I will smile.
And I will be happy.