Music — Medicine — Mound

By Frank Vespe

Paul’s acceptance letters to his choice colleges, Baruch and Stony Brook, arrived soon after Christmas, and with them, the dilemma of which one to choose. After much family brainstorming, endless bickering, countess YouTube videos, and microanalysis of each, the choice became more clouded, until I blurted out, “Flip a coin.”

Stony Brook, a smorgasbord of music, medicine, and sports, won, and a new dilemma surfaced: Paul’s major, a decision molded by his 18 years of life.

Michael Clark, who owned Crossroads Music on North Main Street in East Hampton, a 1960s-style mom-and-pop store straight out of an “Andy Griffith Show” episode, often hosted family-friendly, community-happy, staged concerts in the Springs Presbyterian Church for local bands to show off their talents, much like comedy’s Catch a Rising Star, but sans the hecklers. It was a jovial gala that charged $5 per person and always filled the sanctuary’s adjoining meeting room with what appeared to be the entire community, especially when I nearly knocked over Tony Soprano’s sister (Aida Turturro) leaning for a cup of cider — an exciting and welcoming gathering I miss today. 

Since Michael knew I shot and edited videos, he asked me to produce a polished video for airing on the cable access channel, but instead of collecting cash, I offered to trade my services for an instrument in his store that I could take home to my kids. Soon, every room in my house was littered with six guitars, a violin, a flute, a trumpet, and a set of bongos Ricky Ricardo might have owned. (The Steinway wouldn’t fit in my Civic.)

With instruments everywhere, it was only a matter of time before Paul, 7 at the time, would claim one as his own: a New York Pro folk guitar. A month later, he played the entire middle break and ending lick to “Whole Lotta Love.” Two months later, when Paul had an electric guitar, his sister, Elizabeth, bought him a tiny but loud Pignose amp, and, well, I’m trying to forget those sleepless nights. 

Fourth grade at the Springs School brought a new challenge: which instrument to play for band.

“Trumpet,” Paul quickly filled in on the application, an instrument not needing an amp, but, amazingly, he continued with it for the East Hampton High School band and jazz band, competing in the renowned NYSMA, SCMEA, and HMEA contests, leading to his Tuesday concerts with the Sag Harbor Community Band, playing summers in front of the American Legion and hundreds of visitors.

The other Saturday, he played trumpet in Stony Brook’s marching band for the spring football scrimmage in LaValle Stadium.

Music, it appears, is Paul’s love.

When Paul entered high school, his love shot another arrow: science.

“I love science,” he once said. “I think I could become a doctor,” he would often say, with family members beaming at holiday events: “My cousin Paul the doctor.”

Standard science classes morphed into A.P. science classes, and his TV viewing switched from “Family Feud” and “Cash Cab” to science-related shows on Discovery, A&E, and Bravo. Getting test scores in the high 90s became a regular occurrence.

“Ya know, Dad,” Elizabeth would often say, “Paul should be a doctor, he can do it.”

Science, it appears, is Paul’s love.

Baseball was a game Paul slowly grew into. His older brother, Anthony, was a star pitcher back in our Levittown North baseball league, his sister played on the East Hampton J.V. softball team, easily hitting home plate from deep centerfield on one bounce, and we made regular jaunts to Long Island Ducks games with seats next to their dugout, so baseball was not foreign to him. 

Reluctantly, 10-year-old Paul would accompany his sister and me to Maidstone Park to shag flies, but he always shied away from her hard, deliberate throws, often leaving the field in tears from the rockets she would hurl his way.

As Paul developed physically, so did his self-esteem, playing for the East Hampton Little League, mostly in the outfield, until one day when the team needed a pitcher, he hopped on the mound, and over the next seven years he hasn’t moved from that position, pitching for the high school team. (I built a pitcher’s mound in our backyard, with backstop and home plate, where he pitched every night; my left palm has the hairline fracture to prove it.) 

I found his pitching prowess impressive, so last year I took him to the U.C.L.A. Bruins’ baseball showcase in West Los Angeles, where he pitched at their Jackie Robinson Stadium and had a great showing, with the coach asking him to return to their next workout, but before that, Stony Brook sent its acceptance letter, and he started working out with the baseball team there, leading, we hope, to his becoming a hurler for the Seawolves.

Playing the opening lick of “Sweet Child of Mine” and knowing the difference between H2O and H2O2 impresses me less than Paul’s gift for hitting a 17-inch white slab of rubber 60 feet away, especially when that gift is a commodity, much like gold, silver, or eggs. While his decision between music and medicine could be a coin toss away, my hope is his field of study focuses on the mound, with emphasis on a much different major: M.L.B.

Baseball, it appears, is my love.

Frank Vespe is a regular “Guestwords” contributor. He lives in Springs.