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I was the fastest draw in the East. I once had a very extensive collection of guns. Six-shooters. There was Roy Rogers, Gene Autrey and, my favorite, Hopalong Cassidy. Hoppy’s was a hard metal cap gun with a genuine Bakelite handle, cradled in a top-grain leather holster.

I used to strap it on each Saturday morning and stand out on our front lawn and have duels with the bad guys of Calvert Street. Billy “The Kid” Flanagan. Buzzy “The Bandit” Cacciatore. I never lost. This was before psychologists figured out that playing Hopalong Cassidy would lead to a life of murder and mayhem.

My father was different. He never owned a gun. Never needed to. My father’s weapon of choice was a 34-inch Louisville Slugger. He kept the bat in the hall closet, right near the front door. Right next to his galoshes.

We didn’t have very much money, so there wasn’t a lot in our house that bad guys would want to steal. Unless they really had a thing for tiny turquoise cockatoos. My father’s prize possessions sat in front of the house, inside the green Chevy station wagon parked by the curb. My father sold toys. Every Friday afternoon, he would pack the Chevy to the gills with the newest Frisbees and hula hoops, Tonka trucks and Lincoln Logs. And there it would sit for three whole nights, until he drove it down the Shore first thing Monday morning to pedal his wares on the Boardwalk.

The station wagon, with windows all around, was an easy target for any punk kids in the neighborhood. They’d pull on the doors and bang on the windows trying to fill their Christmas wish list a few months early.

My father had radar for that. He’d be sitting at the kitchen table, with no view of the street. His ears would suddenly perk, his eyes would get wide and he would bolt from his blintzes and, in a matter of seconds, be standing on the front step with the Slugger in his hand.

“Yo,” he yelled. “Touch that car one more time, you punk, and I’ll break every bone in your body. There are 206 of them, you know.” My father never went to college, but he did subscribe to Reader’s Digest.

And then, just in case they weren’t scared enough, he would pick up the empty milk bottle he kept on the step, toss it in the air and shatter it with one swing. Glass would go flying everywhere. So would the would-be perpetrators.

One day, a kid from Crafton Street showed up and tried to be a real tough. “You don’t scare me,” the boy told him. My father would take a few steps down the walkway.

“Do you know Johnny Hegeman?” he asked.

“Never heard of him,” the kid said.

“Yeah, that’s because he never comes out of his house. He’s crippled. For life. In a wheelchair. You know what he did? He leaned on my car. You wanna go say hello to him?”

With that, my father would slam the bat into his open fist. That horrible thud of wood pounding on flesh made the kid run for his life.

With that, my father would slowly walk in the house, shove the bat in the closet and run some cold tap water over his reddened palm.

The word was out. Nobody messed with my father. He had a baseball bat and he wasn’t afraid to use it.

Truth be told, he was a gentle man, my father. Oh, and there was no Johnny Hegeman. He made up the story. But our house was always safe. You can have your pistols and attack rifles. My father kept Calvert Street calm with a piece of pine.  There is a lesson to be learned here. Never mess with a man who swings a big bat.

April 2013
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