No better way I'd say to cut yourself a slice of Americana than to go watch children play baseball -- or softball -- during the summer.
Over the years I've witnessed my share of youth softball games in Lawrence -- that'll happen when you're blessed with daughters -- but not until this summer had I ever sat in the bleachers at the 4-H Fairgrounds and watched a Douglas County Amateur Baseball Association game.
DCABA has three fields -- two side-by-side, and one down the hill to the east. That's the one you can't see from Harper Street.
Too bad because the lower field is certainly the most distinctive with the endless auto junk yard looming behind the left field fence and a lone stone stove standing as a surreal sentinel far beyond the right centerfield fence.
Anyway, I ran into Walt Houk not too long ago and mentioned how, after all these years, I had finally seen some DCABA games.
Houk couldn't help but smile because he's light years ahead of me in that category. Could be, in fact, he's seen more DCABA games than anybody.
"I still take my grandsons out there," Houk told me. "Once they're old enough, who knows? I might be back in the fray somewhere."
Houk's grandsons are three and four years away from kindergarten, so it'll be awhile. But, heck, he'll be only a little past 60 by then.
Houk, who owns Travellers Inc., a local travel agency, was one of the five people who started DCABA back in 1971.
Martha Parker, Paul Caine, Chuck Shelley and Don Chaney were the other ringleaders. All five had boys who played baseball and all five wanted more than the city-sponsored program had to offer.
Basically, everyone who signed up for a city program was guaranteed the opportunity to play. In DCABA, they would have tryouts.
"The idea was to be more competitive," Houk said. "The downside was some kids couldn't play because there weren't enough teams. But they have more teams and diamonds now."
Lawrence parents who wanted their boys to play in a more competitive environment had to drive to Topeka. Lawrence had a couple of teams in the Shawnee County Amateur Baseball Association in the late '60s, but -- as anyone who commutes to the Capital City will tell you -- the more you make that drive the longer it becomes.
So the Founding Five went to work. Houk says the late Walt Cragan, then a county commissioner, was instrumental in letting DCABA use the fairgrounds site. DCABA had to pay rent, though. It was $1 a year.
During the late winter and spring of '71, Houk et al. set to work building a diamond. They leveled some ground and built a backstop. A snow fence delineated the outfield. And they needed lights, of course.
"We went down to Douglas County Bank and the five of us co-signed a note to pay for the lights," Houk reflected. "Then we did candy sales to pay for them."
Today, DCABA players still sell candy. Rare is the Lawrence resident who hasn't seen a young boy -- or, in some cases, girl -- standing at their front door dressed in a team uniform with a big box of candy bars.
DCABA had 12 teams that first year -- six in the Midget League for 9- and 10-year-olds and another six in the Gopher League for 11- and 12-year-olds. Houk coached a team in each league that summer because they couldn't find someone to fill one of coaching vacancies.
Prior to the summer of '72, a second field was built. A few years later, they added the third field when DCABA expanded and formed an eight-and-under league.
Since Houk was in the travel business, he was also in charge of DCABA's annual post-season trip to a Royals game.
"That was an organizational nightmare," he recalled with a chuckle. "We had about 250 people. We had a bunch of school buses and that was scary. We had kids hanging out the windows. We looked like the Bad News Bears."
In the early '80s, Houk left DCABA and founded the Maupintour Travellers, a semi-pro baseball team that played for 10 summers before Houk decided to retire from coaching after the '93 season.
Will he be back? Well, what goes around comes around and don't be surprised if he surfaces at the fairgrounds after the turn of the century.
"If they let me out there with a cane, I might pitch batting practice," Houk quipped.
-- Chuck Woodling's phone message number is 832-7147. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.