When you are embedded in a group of soldiers, you learn a lot about the American identity. This is particularly true if the soldiers are going to war.
During their preparation for a tour in Iraq, I listen to these young men and women trade friendly insults, curse in frustration, marvel cynically about instances devoid of common sense, and crack up after a stupid joke levels mounting stress and tension. After spending time with them, the civilian world takes on an entirely new hue. One begins to care intensely about current events, politics, and the shape and direction of foreign policy after watching them care for one another as they progress toward palpable danger and the ultimate test. Irrationality and an entitlement attitude are rejected and jettisoned when survival is dependent on your actions and the actions of those around you.
When it’s mission time, the chain of command and the culture of conformity serves its purpose. They fall in line. They attack. Organized, they know their role and perform it without question. Their movements are precise, aggressive, vicious. Wisdom, like a fine film that glosses their eyes, grows with every mission. The violence they inflict is born of a desire for survival—for themselves and their beliefs, values, and ideals. Their attitude is one of defense against oppression; there is no pleasure in oppressing others. If there is animosity, it is only toward those who do not resist oppression. They are sobered by their job and the realization that this is what it takes to remain secure. “The military is no place for sociopaths,” a sergeant says. “It’s a place where people grow to love peace through the painful and costly realization of what war is.”
The mission comes first; however, when the mission is complete, the code of conformity diminishes slightly. The unique people inside the uniform can afford to emit a spark of their individuality. Their light is often rich with the study of history, intriguing, entrepreneurial, admirable, and motivating. Outsiders who can’t understand a moral aspect of reality or can’t bear to acknowledge that evil exists often shove these young soldiers into an easy category of fools, pawns played by the wealthy in bourbon dens, uneducated meat that perpetuates an unenlightened cycle of violence. These are short-sighted views possessed by a fearful group who, too powerful for their character, insulate themselves with wealth and leather-bound sophistry. If they took the time to shed their comfort for a greater understanding, they would frequently encounter heart-rending selflessness, titanium perseverance, intense dedication, and unparalleled integrity in young people who grew up in the neighborhood, walked the halls of their high schools, or labored on the family farm. These are a category of people whose values include sacrifice, discipline, moral responsibility, hard work, duty, and loyalty.
One of these young people is a soldier who prefers to remain anonymous for this article. His deployment pack includes a yellow WIFFLE ball bat and a bag of WIFFLE balls. The bat protrudes un-tactically from his combat pack. His platoon sergeant just shakes his head at the sight, but half an hour later that same platoon sergeant is wiffing as this soldier’s pitches race passed his swings. Further investigation reveals that the soldier isn’t an anomaly. He’s part of the ever-widening movement of WIFFLE as an actual, legitimate sport. He talks about the various tournaments he’s attended, the assortment of rules that exist, and the addictive “crack of the plastic” which references the sound of a WIFFLE pitch being swatted by the iconic yellow bat. He senses my initial skepticism and then directs me to www.bigleaguewiffleball.com. Nation-wide tournaments (although most are in the East to cater to the strongest WIFFLE contingent), serious prize money, and a level of organization which annihilates the idea that this is “just a child’s game.”
The bond between WIFFLE ballers is powerful. Perhaps because it is a sport that is relatively unknown to the national consciousness and hasn’t been commercialized to death (WIFFLE owners have purposely turned down business practices which would’ve meant more profit but also increased the cost of their product). Perhaps because those who play it know how challenging and exciting it is. Perhaps because it is so accessible: the price of a WIFFLE ball and bat is generally less than five dollars and to get a game going all you need is two people with a little bit of space. Or perhaps it’s because it’s so fun.
The bonds go even deeper. The patriotic sentimentality of baseball collides with an almost extinct American value: inclusiveness. Anyone can play. There’s no base running so people of various physical abilities can play. As long as you can throw a pitch and swing the lightweight bat, you’re in the game. You don’t need to live in a gated community to be able to afford the gear. All you need is 5 bucks to get a bat and ball and you’re ready to go. Big League WIFFLE Ball is considered “medium pitch,” which means that the speed is regulated to make pitches hittable. You’ll know what it’s all about as soon as a swing of the bat sends that white plastic ball into the bright blue sky. “The homerun has officially been recaptured from steroidal millionaires,” the soldier says with pride. It looks like kids may be forfeiting video game consoles for fresh air, exercise, and the strange concept of being around other human beings.
Nick Benas and Jared Verrillo, founders of Big League WIFFLE Ball, love this “apple pie” aspect of their sport. Their WIFFLE tournaments are a mixture of hearty competition and a backyard barbecue. Their patriotism doesn’t end there. Benas served in the Marine Corps and did a tour in Iraq. He brought some WIFFLE gear with him and soon Iraqis were even playing. “The ball and bat concept was foreign to them. Soccer was their main sport. But they started getting the hang of it.”
The word “plastic” has been used to describe the fake or disingenuous, an exterior devoid of humanity. Maybe that’s why there is such a shared satisfaction in the phrase: “the crack of the plastic.” These unique segments of American society are the latest manifestations of core values that have made this nation great. It’s fitting that they should surface in the most difficult work there is and in a reflective, uniquely American form of leisure. Directly between these extremes is where American business is drowning in its own greed. These businesses which once were the backbone of America have lost the values that spawn greatness, forfeited for temporary highs that please the short-sighted. They please them for the moment just before they are smashed by the reality of their insufficiency.
But there are Americans of character who are waiting to take their places. These Davids, these enlisted, have gathered their smooth stones. Their hands and hearts are bursting to produce a society that cuts off Goliath’s dented head, that is, wealth without character and fragmented, short-sighted people with no concern for the whole. No one should fear the recent downfall of many American businesses. This is an opportunity. This is a cleansing. This is what makes America unique among all nations. This is the time when courageous Americans of integrity can unify to construct business that values its employees and its community, that ceases dehumanizing their own by making their goal greater than a financial profit. It is an opportunity for business leaders to make a spiritual profit, one that liberates, gives life, and apprehends happiness. That is the country America is. It’s here, underneath the ineffectual bureaucracy and belief systems that can’t keep our peanut butter from poisoning us, our imported toys from harming our children, our bailout money being used for high-end executive parties or lost altogether by a lack of accountability, our marriages from unraveling, our teenagers from sexually transmitted disease and personality disorders, the credit card debt we racked up because the television told us we needed this stuff, and our mouths from slamming obesity meals. It’s here, an actual chance for us to make a difference, to live a spiritually wealthy life, to make war on selfishness and decay, to contribute to the eternal. Contrary to the advertisements, the best times in life are the hard times.
Image by: gwarcita, flickr
Mack Dreyfuss is a freelance writer and writes on a variety of topics while doing his best to enjoy all four seasons. He lives in Wisconsin with his wife and daughter. He has been rumored to occasionally change a diaper one-handed, but his wife states that such a feat has never been witnessed. You can read more of his work at themackdreyfusslounge.com.