Once each month the DSS van picked up my Uncle George and took him to the clinic to get his injection. After his monthly visit he would feel a little stiff for two or three days, but otherwise there were few visible side effects.
“It’s subtle, son,” he said. “But believe me it does a great deal of good. You should have seen me back in those days. I was a holy terror.”
Uncle George was a big man. He was six foot three and about 285 pounds. I had heard stories of George’s mind turning suspicious, George becoming angry and going on rampages. When George yanked a parking meter out of the concrete and started swinging it at the police, claiming to be the Emperor of China, and threatening to lay siege to the Mauldin Hill Ladies’ Book Club, the City stepped in and said “Can y’all not do something about him? Now he’s tearing up public property.”
George’s doctor figured out that the shot could calm him down. It was a wonderful discovery. As long as he would come in once a month and pull down his trousers, he stayed his normal genial self. The city even arranged for the van to come by and pick him up.
For five years Uncle George’s symptoms had been cleared up. He didn’t get suspicious or angry anymore. He didn’t hear imaginary voices. He didn’t threaten military operations against matrons. There was one thing, though: he believed himself to be Babe Ruth. His monthly injection didn’t touch that.
Of course my uncle and the great Yankee slugger shared the same first name of George. Added to this was his mother’s – my grandmother’s – maiden name being Ruth Herman, which were the Babe’s other two names. That was enough to convince Uncle George that he was in fact the Sultan of Swat long after his other suspicions and delusions had faded.
“Harmless” was what my mother called it. “It’s really kind of cute,” she said. “It certainly doesn’t hurt anyone and it gives him something to do and to think about with that wild imagination of his.”
So we decided it was an outlet for Uncle George. A particularly good outlet for him because he fervently loved baseball. I was a fan myself and would often go with my uncle to watch our local team – a Red Sox farm club – and a couple of times a year we drove to Atlanta to see the major league Braves.
One Friday night during my fourteenth summer my parents dropped Uncle George and me at Braves Stadium for a twi-night doubleheader. Mom and Dad had some business to see about in the city and planned to join us by the second game. My uncle had been behaving so well for the past year that they trusted me and him to be all right for a couple of hours.
“George, I know you like to drink beer at a baseball game, but you tend to overdo,” said my mother. “You can have one beer during the first game, okay? Barry you make sure that’s all.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said.
We entered the stadium on the third base side and I noticed Uncle George had bent his head over as he searched for our seats. He wore sunglasses. It was a large crowd at the stadium. A low murmur.
“Why are you looking down, Uncle George?”
“Son, I’m trying to stay, you know, incognito.” He tapped his shades. “Ah, here we are.”
We moved to our places and sat down. Suddenly there was a flourish on the stadium’s organ and the crowd roared. Uncle George chuckled and shook his head. He stood to his feet and began waving at the stadium. “See there?” He smiled broadly. “It’s just no use. It doesn’t matter my clothes, what hat I wear, sunglasses or no. They always spot me. I don’t really mind though.” He sat back down in his chair. “Say I think I could use a snack. You want something?”
Uncle George bought eight hot dogs and two cokes. Two of the hot dogs were intended for me but I was satisfied for the moment after the first one. Uncle George ate six hot dogs, then finished my extra one in three bites. “I don’t know about you, but I burn a lot of energy during a ball game. Two games, well, that much more.” The starters were announced and the players all stood on the field for the National Anthem. The Braves were sending up Pascual Perez to pitch against the Cubs and Ferguson Jenkins. I was thrilled to be seeing the legendary Jenkins for the first time. Uncle George had several observations about him.
“Fergie is a pitcher with endurance, big and strong. He would have been a great pitcher back in my day as well. Goes the distance. Most of the panty-waist pitchers these days can’t even finish a game.”
The game started out slowly. Two good pitchers settling into a duel. Every time there was a cheer from the crowd, however slight, my uncle would either wave or tip his hat to everyone. At one point Dale Murphy hit a towering blow that got everyone to their feet, but the outfielder caught it at the fence.
“That calls for another snack,” said Uncle George, mopping his chins with a handkerchief. “You want something?”
“I think I’ll wait a little longer, thanks.”
George bought six more hot dogs and a large coke. “We’re in Atlanta,” he said, “home town of Coca-cola.” I made a trip to the restroom and when I returned my uncle was chewing the ice at the bottom of his cup. There was no sign of the hot dogs. He evidently noticed my expression.
“Yeah, I know I eat a lot, son. But I’m a big man, like I used to tell Miller Huggins. Miller used to give me holy hell about being fat and eating too much and why didn’t I stay in training, but I don’t take orders from him anymore, no sirree!... br-r-re-e-ep!”
A lady sitting in the row in front of us turned around at the sound of my uncle’s belch, gave him a look, then turned back around without making a comment. He chuckled at her. “They want to say something, you know, but when they see who I am…”
I gave a slight grin. “Yeah.”
A minute later Uncle George chuckled again. “Son, reminds me of the time those fine Catholic matrons were visiting the Boy’s home. One particularly proper lady came up and asked me if they fed me well. My only reply was a loud belch.”
“You were bad, Uncle George,” I laughed.
“Incorrigible! That was what Father Matthias called me. But he said it with a wink.”
After the sixth inning the score was knotted at 1-1.
Gene Garber pitched the seventh. He was a good pitcher, but not particularly so tonight. Ryne Sandburg singled, then stole second. Larry Bowa hit one that bounced all the way to the wall and stood on second as Sandburg scored. Ron Cey came up and kept hitting foul balls until he saw his pitch which he clobbered. Bob Horner could only watch as it sailed thirty rows into the stands.
Fergie Jenkins had a four run lead going into the seventh inning stretch. Uncle George did indeed stretch. His gigantic stomach protruded dangerously over the man seated in front of him like a stone ledge on a mountain side.
“Ah, well I remember the futility of playing in a Braves’ uniform. The 1935 Braves were one of the worst teams in the history of baseball.” he sighed. “You knew I played my last season for the Boston Braves?”
“Uncle George, you’ve never been out of Georgia.”
“Why Barry Barstow! Did your mother tell you that?”
“I think I just sort of knew it.”
“I’m afraid you’re laboring under a delusion, son. The Yankees traveled all over the United States.”
“I’m sorry… I just thought….”
“Oh forget it. I was making the point that there’s no baseball sadness quite like Boston baseball sadness, whether it be Brave or Red Sock. I suppose it’s an opportune time for my single cup of beer. Drown our sorrows, you know?”
“Can I have a coke and another hot dog?”
“You bet you can! Hey buddy, let me have a beer and a coke and seven… no, eight hot dogs.”
“Dang Uncle George. How many hot dogs is that?”
“It’s almost enough, I guess. We’ll see. You could help me eat them.”
During the next inning my uncle’s belches became more frequent and louder. The lady in the row in front of us turned around once again, then whispered something to her husband. At the next belch they stood up and left their seats. Uncle George sat still in his seat until the bottom of the eighth. The Cubs now had a six run lead. Then Brett Butler was thrown out trying to steal second.
“Whaddya think you’re doin, Butler?” Uncle George roared. “Ooh, that hurt! Trying to steal a base when you’re five runs down. Puts me in mind of the time I faced Pete Alexander in the Series.”
“Which series,” I asked.
“World Series of 1926. Yankees and the Cardinals. Old Pete had pitched a gem the day before and it was rumored he had had a wild time of celebration the night before. Oh he looked rough, son, real rough. Face like a rat – a hungover rat! His curveball still had a bite to it, though. Bottom of the ninth here comes big old me up to the plate and I figure he got a little rattled. Walked me in four pitches even though the bases were empty. Rough as he looked I thought he might not be paying that good of attention, so I tried to steal second and get in scoring position? Damn if I didn’t get thrown out and we lost the series. Rogers Hornsby tagged me out extra hard, I thought. But that wasn’t enough for the Rajah. He also spit on my shoe.”
“Wow. I never heard that story.”
“That night I met up with Old Pete and drank him under the table!” Uncle George laughed. Then he coughed. Then he groaned, rubbing his stomach. “Damn, son. I’m getting some kind of acid back up or something. Barry, I’m going to need to get another beer. I know your Mama said just one, but this one is medicinal. It’ll help settle my stomach. You want a hot dog?” He whistled for the vendor.
Uncle George bought a beer and four more hot dogs. He handed one of the hot dogs to me.
“No thanks Uncle George. I said I didn’t want one.”
“Oh, my mistake,” he said, and bit the hot dog in two.
By my calculations – after he had finished this round – my uncle had eaten twenty-four hot dogs. He washed them down with the last of his beer, smacked his lips, sighed, and released the loudest belch of the evening so far. This time a man turned around.
“Buddy, do you mind?”
Uncle George tried to reply, swallowed several times, then let out a growl. “Oww!” He started breathing heavily. “Oh son, I’ve got some trouble here. I’m blowing up like the Goodyear blimp.” He began puffing for breath.
“Do you want to go to the rest room? I’ll help you.”
“I don’t think I can move right now. I tell you what you can do though. Punch me in the stomach. Hard as you can.”
“Punch you in the stomach?”
“You’ll be doing me a favor. Come on, right here in the breadbasket.”
“I… I can’t do that, Uncle George.”
“Well, if you can’t punch me, then push me. Push my stomach in. Please, son! I need some relief.”
I put my hand on his stomach and gently pushed it in.
“Oh no, son,” he said between huffs and puffs. “Here, stand up in front of me. Now put the heels of your hands together so. Now… really lean into it with your whole body and push. OOOWWWWW!!!”
I pushed, and saw my uncle’s face turn purple, then white, then red with beads of sweat gathering into streams.
“What in the name of…” the man in front of us turned back around. “Oh mister, you look bad. Son, I’m a doctor.” He looked at my uncles eyes and quickly took his pulse. “We need to call an ambulance. Can you go do that? I’ll stay with him.”
My Converse All-Stars were a blur as I raced to find help.
* * *
“I kept asking him how many hot dogs he was eating. I tried to get him to stop. But I can’t control him.”
“I guess we were premature in asking you to supervise him,” said my mother. “I’m sorry. It looks like he’ll be okay though.”
Three days later I took the elevator to the sixth floor of Grady Memorial in Atlanta.
“How’re you feeling Uncle George?”
“I feel like a big boob, son. Physically, I’m a lot better.”
“They said you had acute indigestion.”
“I sure as hell had indigestion, though it didn’t seem very cute to me.” He chuckled. “I guess that’s doctor’s talk for ‘too many hot dogs’.”
“Mom and Dad will be up in about an hour.”
“You know, kid, I really appreciate how they’ve been able to keep all the reporters and publicity hounds away. A fellow needs time and space to recuperate.”
“It hasn’t been easy. A lot of people have been curious.”
“I never did hear about Game Two.”
“Oh yeah, the Braves won. Phil Niekro pitched. Dale Murphy hit a homerun.”
“Well good,” my uncle smiled. “Sometimes a fellow just has to carry a team. Murphy’s number 3 you know. That was my number too, with the Braves and with the Yankees.”
“Hey Uncle George?”
“I think you might have broken the old record.”
“What record you talking about son? You know I’ve been retired since 1935.”
“Babe R… I mean, your record for eating the most hot dogs.”
Uncle George considered this information for a minute. He looked at me and winked. “You could be right son. I don’t quite remember how many it was the last time. I passed out, you know.”
“I looked it up. Some said it was eighteen. Some said twenty-one or twenty-two. One of them said twenty-seven, but nobody really believes that.”
“Sounds like twenty-four is probably the record.”
“I guess… I should say congratulations.”
My uncle chuckled softly. “Well, thank you son. After all these years who would’ve thought the Babe would still be setting records and making headlines. But you know something, son?”
“What’s that Uncle George?”
“I believe I’ll just let this record stand.”
Davis Horner studied elves at Furman University, and has been a staff features writer for various tabloids and newspapers. He became a writer as a young man, quit in disgust to become a musician, and now is writing again. He has had stories placed recently at Scrutiny, Foliate Oak, Gravel, and Furious Gazelle. He lives in Greenville SC with his wife and two cats. His wife and one of the cats are internationally famous. He is not.