My First Baseball Team: Big Brothers

Craig Dunning, Richard Cox, and David Cox at the field before their game, Summer 1973.

Craig Dunning, Richard Cox, and David Cox (l to r) at the field before their game, Summer 1973.

My introduction to baseball came in the Summer of 1973. I was seven and intended to spend a few weeks with my cousins Richard and Donna in Oklahoma City. Richard invited me to play on his baseball team, the Big Brothers of OKC, whose season had already begun.

The first hurdle was to get permission from my parents, which went fairly smoothly because they expected that I would not want to stick with it and would come back home to Dallas before too long. The second hurdle was my age. I was seven, but the team was for nine-year-olds. My aunt Linda said, “we’ll just tell them that you are nine and you can play.” That’s what we did just before a game, and I was on the team without even the first practice. The coach went and got a uniform out of his car and told me to get dressed.

Craig Dunning in Big Brothers uniform, Oklahoma City, Summer 1973

Craig Dunning in Big Brothers uniform, Oklahoma City, Summer 1973.

I had not played baseball before, so there was a lot to learn. In my first game, I was placed in right field and was told to throw the ball back and forth with the center fielder. Since this was all new, I really had no idea how to throw nor, more importantly in this case, how to catch a ball. I threw the ball to the center fielder; he caught it and threw it back to me. As the ball approached, I stuck my glove in the air for my first catch. However, the ball descended right past my outstretched hand and hit me squarely in the right eye. I cried, my eye immediately swelled up, and I had my first baseball scar: a big black shiner.

At my first at bat, I watched four balls go by, earning a free pass. The umpire said, “Ball four, take your base.” I dropped my bat and proudly ran down to third base. I was as raw as they come. I’m sure the spectators laughed as my coach re-directed me across the field to first base, but I didn’t care.

I ended up staying in OKC the whole summer. Each week when my mom called to check on me, she would ask if I was ready to come home. To her surprise (and disappointment, I think) I always said, “No, I still have baseball.” In the Summer of 1973 I fell in love with baseball, which set the course of my childhood. Every spring and summer from then on, was dedicated to baseball.

Craig receives his first trophy, Summer 1973.

Craig receives his first trophy, Summer 1973.

 

 

Our Engagement

Craig and Colleen, standing on the Charles Bridge (Prague, Czech Republic) after he asked her to marry him, 2 NOV 1998.

Craig and Colleen, standing on the Charles Bridge (Prague, Czech Republic) after he asked her to marry him, 2 NOV 1998.

On November 2, 1998, which was 1 year, 10 months, and 9 days after we met at Chinese Kitchen in Odessa, Texas, Colleen and I were engaged on the Charles Bridge in Prague. That morning I flew into Prague, and Colleen, who was working in Czech Republic at the time, met me at the airport. However, before crossing passport control, I went into the restroom to make the final preparations for my plan.

Because I intended to pop the question on the Charles Bridge, and I didn’t know how she would respond, I tied the ring to my belt with fishing line. Although I didn’t expect her to jump up and down shouting “YEEEESSSSSSS!” I didn’t want to take the risk that in her excitement she might unintentionally toss the ring into the river or drop it and it fall through a drain. It was hard enough to get the ring in hand, I didn’t want to see it sink to the bottom of the Vltava River. Although it took a few minutes to get the fishing line rolled up properly and the ring stored in my pocket in a way that would keep me from accidentally pulling it out at the wrong time, the feeling of security was worth the time.

Before taking the bus to Brno, the city in which Colleen worked and lived, we spent the rest of the morning and afternoon touring Prague. We did all the touristy stuff. But most of all, we simply enjoyed spending time together.

When the time seemed right, I suggested we walk across the bridge. And, when we got to a place on the bridge that seemed right, I slowed down and drew Colleen’s attention, got down on one knee, extended the ring toward her, and asked, “Will you marry me?” She immediately and calmly said, “Yes.”

Time seemed to stand still for a bit as a few people looked on, smiling at what they had witnessed: A man and woman offering and accepting to spend the rest of their lives with each other.

I’m so happy she said, “Yes.”

The birth of my firstborn

Here’s how I described the birth experience of my firstborn, Grace Anne Dunning:

“I stood next to the midwife near the foot of my wife’s delivery bed. I was taking it all in, doing my best to encourage my lovely bride to finish the task that was hers – but mostly standing there numb trying to take it all in. While “our” labor and delivery was a relatively quick process start to finish, time seemed to drag on. As each stage came and went the midwife seemed more excited than I was, but I was taking it all in with great amazement and wonder. Finally, our daughter’s head crowned and suddenly there she was! It seemed quicker than the flash of a flashbulb; and in one motion the midwife caught the baby and delivered her into my wife’s arms.

I hope that one moment in time, a flashbulb of a moment, will never leave my memory. I pray that any future sickness, injury or old age will be kind to me, allowing me to treasure that sweet and amazing moment until my last breath.”

Craig-Grace-first-pic-20040108

Craig Dunning holding his firstborn, Grace, for the first time (08 JAN 2004).

Six Flags Over Texas and Me

Six Flags Over Texas opened in Arlington, Texas on August 5, 1961, just four years before I was born. That means we sorta grew up together.

I’m not certain how old I was when I first went to Six Flags, but my earliest memory is of sliding down the Oil Derrick Slide (see photo below) when I was 5 or 6. My aunt Lynda, uncle Ronnie, and cousins Richard and Donna Cox were visiting us, and on our trip to Six Flags we went down the super slide. Actually, it wasn’t that simple. At the top of the slide, each rider was supplied a burlap sack to sit on and then directed toward one of the slide lanes. Everything was fine until Richard looked down the slide and decided he wasn’t going. Ronnie had a different opinion and told Richard he was, in fact, going down the slide. He said, “You have two options: ride by yourself or ride with me.” Richard wanted neither option and began to cry and refused to slide. Eventually, Ronnie grabbed Richard, sat him on his lap and slid down the slide. Richard screamed the whole way down. That was that, and we went on to ride other rides.

While the tower remains the centerpiece of the Tower Section, the 12-lane slide that was attached to the tower at the 50ft. deck, was removed in 1976. (Continue reading below the photo.)

Oil Derrick Super Slide at Six Flags Over Texas, circa 1960s-1970s.

The Oil Derrick Slide at Six Flags Over Texas, circa 1960s-1970s.

I also remember going to Six Flags with cousins Jamey and Jeff Locke, though I think we were closer to 10, maybe 11. In those days, one of the local grocery stores (Minyards, I believe) sold discount Six Flags tickets with a grocery purchase of a certain amount. I can’t remember the amount of groceries one needed to purchase, but I seem to remember the Six Flags tickets were $5. My mom dropped us off before the park opened and picked us up when the park closed. Things have changed much since then; I wouldn’t even think about leaving my kids there without adult supervision. But in those days it wasn’t such a big deal.

As a kid, I also enjoyed the Caddo War Canoes, which I doubt could be possible today due to political correctness and safety/litigation concerns. The canoes were long fiberglass canoes that were painted solid colors (green, blue, yellow, etc.) and sported a painted “Indian” symbol on each end. Each boat accommodated 18 to 20 guests, who were supervised by two “Indian guides,” who wore only leather “Indian” loincloths. In pictures from that period, like the one below, you can see what the guides wore AND what the passengers didn’t wear: a loincloth and a life jacket, respectively! I can’t imagine either would be possible today.

The reason I liked this ride was because it was interactive, which is to say, the riders powered the boat with wooden paddles. The guides gave us direction and steered, and sometimes told corny jokes … “you no row um, we no go um.”

This ride was removed in 1983. (Continue reading below the photo.)

Caddo War Canoes at Six Flags Over Texas.

Caddo War Canoes at Six Flags Over Texas, 1960s-1983.

Another favorite of my childhood was an original ride in the park that lasted through the 1982 season: La Salle’s River Boats in the French Section. These were motorized boats that must have held 30-40 passengers. A single guide, dressed in period costume, who drove the boat. I think he/she did actually throttle the engine, but the the steering was only for show as the boats moved along an underwater guide track.

The guide gave a running narration of the French history in Texas mixed with corny jokes as the boat moved down the Lavaca River past Indian tee pees, a Spanish fort, a French trading post, a trapper’s camp, and certain other sites of the period. The gunshot and cannon sounds, splashing water and animatronic beavers and falling tree were a delight for a little kid. I always found this ride fascinating.  (Click the link above to see a video recreation of the script set to photos, then come back and continue reading below the photo.)

Lasalle River Boat at Six Flags Over Texas.

La Salle’s River Boat at Six Flags Over Texas was an original ride that opened with the park in 1961. The last journey down the Lavaca River was August 15, 1982. It was removed to make room for the Roaring Rapids.

I have so many great memories of visiting Six Flags. I always loved the fresh asphalt smell in the summer heat. Anytime I smell that smell, regardless of where I am, I’m immediately transported to the Six Flags of my childhood. The Dolphin Show was always fun, especially when I got close enough to get splashed. The Petting Zoo provided kids the opportunity to feed smelly fresh fish to the seals, pet goats and other barnyard animals, as well as ride on the back of a giant tortoise.

I “learned to drive” on the antique cars and the modern sport cars. Both car types had real engines that were accelerated by a gas pedal. They also had real steering (limited by a center rail) that allowed the kid drivers to actually drive a car. The antique cars are still operating today, and my kids are now learning to drive on them. Also in the same area of the Happy Motoring Freeway, was the Big Bend roller coaster, which jumped the track at least once before it was removed in 1978. In that area today are the Aqua Man (see video below) and the Pandemonium.

I broke my roller coaster teeth on the Mini-Mine train before graduating up to the Runaway Mine Train, both of which are still operating. Also a favorites of my childhood, which still exists today are the Gunfight Show and the Log Ride. Who could forget the Log Ride? It was the wet ride that made 100-degree summers bearable. It seems something has been changed on the Log Ride because we can ride it now and not get wet. That wasn’t true when I was a kid; we always got wet. Soaked, in fact! Not to worry, though. The Aquaman provides the perfect opportunity to get drenched. On the ride itself, you can get wet, depending on where you sit in the boat. However, the best place to get wet – really wet – is on the exit bridge. See this video from the bridge, then continue reading below.

My parents always insisted on seeing the musical at the Southern Palace Theater. Though I must have seen 5-8 musicals during my childhood, and remember them to be quality presentations, I remember only one specific show: Hello Dolly. And from that show, I only remember the main song, which created quite an energy among the audience members. The Southern Palace was also a survival technique in the blazing Texas summers because ti was air conditioned. That alone made it worth sitting through a musical. (Continue reading below the photo.)

Spindletop at Six Flags Over Texas, circa 1960s.

Spindletop at Six Flags Over Texas, circa 1960s.

Thirty-five years ago, in the late summer of 1981, I worked in food service at Six Flags. I wanted to work Rides, but Food Service was the only thing available. At least I wasn’t sweeping and emptying trash cans in Ground Services.

Food Service wasn’t bad once I wised up. When I first hired in, I worked the night shift, which meant I was primarily cleaning up the kitchen after teens had spent the day making a mess of it. The mess was particularly bad in the hamburger stand and the Mexican and bbq restaurants. Wow, grease everywhere! And we had to pass an inspection every night before leaving. More than once, the supervisor rubbed his finger along the top or side of a shelf and said, “this isn’t clean.” We were able to skate across the floors in our company provided tennis shoes because there was so much grease on them. We had to scrub the floors clean, too. After a few hours of playing Mr. Clean, I smelled like a vat of grease. And it seemed like I could never get rid of the smell.

I worked pool at that time, which meant I moved around to different food stands to fill in where ever I was needed. On occasion I had easier gigs like making sundaes and other treats in the ice cream parlor or selling Pink Things from a cart. So, working pool helped alleviate some of the suffering of being on night crew in food service.

Thankfully, after a few closing shifts at the fish house, I wised up and realized that if I opened, I wouldn’t have to clean anything. So, I asked to move to the early shift and my wish was granted. With the shift change, came an assignment change. I moved out of pool and was permanently stationed at Fisherman’s Wharf, across from the Oil Derrick, which is now Panda Express.

Opening was easy: I was responsible to bring ice for the drink bins from the ice house, turn on the fry vats, start a pot of coffee, and open the soft drink fountains. The best part of the job for this 15-year-old was the “necessity” to test all the fountain drinks. I wanted to make sure the mix was right. I really thought it was a perk to take a sip from each fountain.

Since we were in the back of the park, we didn’t start getting customers for at least the first half hour the park was open, and then it was a slow trickle until about 11:30. At that point, we made serious business of frying fish and flat tater tots. Now, each time we visit, I always point out where I used to work and tell my kids how “I could fry fish like nobody’s business.”

In those days, the employee appearance code was much stricter than it obviously is today. Not only did we have to wear company provided uniforms, including shoes, males had to keep their hair short (i.e., off the ears). I was pretty committed to “long” hair back then and managed to get past the area supervisor for a while by simply tucking my hair behind my ears. However, as the summer moved toward fall my hair was long enough that it wouldn’t stay behind my ears.

Over the course of two weekends, my Six Flags career came to a screetching halt … all because of my hair. On the first of these two weekends, the supervisor told me I needed to cut my hair. I explained that I could simply tuck it behind my ears and everything would be fine. He didn’t argue with me; he simply told me I needed to cut it. On Sunday, I simply came to work and tucked my hair behind my ears. The second weekend, he caught me on Saturday with my hair, once again, over my ears. Again, I explained (and even demonstrated) how I could tuck it behind my ears and everything would be fine. Again, he didn’t argue with me. This time, he simply said, “Don’t come back until your hair is cut.”

Well, … that made me angry enough to show him a thing or two. I didn’t go back. I just quit! I bet he’s still smarting from that. Funny how, thirty-five years later, I see how silly I was at fifteen, even though I thought I was making a pretty principled stand. Funnier still, is that I’m now bald and the only hair on my ears is actually growing out of my ears!

Apart from that single dust up (and cleaning up greasy kitchens!) I really enjoyed working at Six Flags … even in Food Service. I like talking to the kids who work there now and seeing the surprised look on their faces when I tell them, “I worked here over thirty years ago.” (Continue reading below the photo.)

Spee-Lunker's Cave at Six Flags Over Texas, circa 1960s.

Grace standing next to the Spee-Lunker’s Cave photo billboard at Six Flags Over Texas on August 7, 2011. She was about the age I was when I enjoyed the Spee-Lunkers Cave ride.

Now, I enjoy taking my wife and kids to the park. We have season passes and live close enough that we can jump over there for a few hours at a time without feeling pressure to do everything in one day.

One of the things that I really enjoy now is reliving my happy childhood memories as I watch my kids do some of the same things I used to do. I wish the Oil Derrick Slide was still there. I know they would both enjoy it so much. In my mind I can hear Zach shouting, “Wheeeee!” all the way down. That makes me smile.

I wish my kids could enjoy the Dolphin Show, feed the seals, ride on the back of the giant tortoise, paddle the Caddo Canoes, ride La Salle’s River Boat, and enjoy the original Pink Things. But there are still some rides that we can share in common, and they have a host of new rides they can enjoy.

Although, Zach has a small list of rides he likes at this time, I think he’ll begin to like more rides in the years to come. Grace likes the extreme rides like the Titan and Mr. Freeze and the Superman (see photo below). She once rode the Titan 9 times in a row. Since there was no line, she simply made a loop; she rode the ride, exited down the stairs and went right back around to ride again. Nine times! I sat on the exit steps waiting for her to have her fill.

I couldn’t have imagined it when I was a kid, but I am in a happy place simply watching my kids enjoy the rides … even those that don’t excite me, like Zach’s truck ride or Grace’s Titan adventure. I’m perfectly content to watch them ride their favorite rides. I must be getting old.

Grace is too short for the Superman, August 7, 2011.

Grace was not quite tall enough for the Superman (August 7, 2011), which now stands on “Caddo Lake” in place of the Caddo War Canoes.

NOTE: The “historic” photos included above are from photos I took of photo posters displayed by Six Flags in different parts of the park in celebration of their 50th anniversary year, 2011.

 

The Engagement Ring

I was blessed to inherit my grandmother’s wedding ring set. The antique platinum set was not only much more than I could have afforded to buy at the time, it was the perfect style for Colleen as well. One problem, though. The rings were in Oklahoma and I was in Israel, and I needed to get them in order to take them to Czech Republic where Colleen was living at that time.

I planned to ask her to marry me on my upcoming visit to Czech Republic and had to figure out a way to get the rings. I could have had them mailed to me in Jerusalem, but the taxes would have been crazy expensive. In God’s providence, Meno, my Israeli ministry partner had been scheduled to speak at a church within 5 minutes of my parent’s house outside of Oklahoma City. Now, I had a plan.

I asked Meno to bring the rings back to Israel, and he was happy to do so. He arrived early in the afternoon on Friday, and called to say that he had arrived safely and that he would bring them to church on the next day.

Bill and I were visiting Florence Wellborne, an elderly lady from west Texas who lived fairly close to Meno’s house, so I told Meno we would hop on over and get the rings. Meno insisted that I didn’t need to come all the way over to his house because he would bring them to me the next day. Again, we were only 10 minutes away, so I said, “we’ll come on over and get them.” Back and forth we haggled until he finally relented: “Okay, but you need to come quickly because we are going out to eat.”

Bill and I hustled over to Meno’s and retrieved the rings. I was really happy with the job a jeweler friend had done refurbishing them. But I was more happy to have them in hand … that made my upcoming engagement seem more real.

Later that evening, I received a call from Meno. He got straight to the point: “Craig, it’s a good thing you came and got your rings because our house was robbed while we were gone.” I snickered and said, “Come on, Meno, I don’t believe that.” He insisted they had, in fact, been burgled. I continued to refute his attempt to fool me. But after a minute of back and forth, he finally said, “Craig, I’m not kidding. We went out to eat, and when we came back, as Anat opened the door, someone inside pushed it shut. By the time we could get the door open, he had gone out the back, jumped off the balcony, and all we could see was a man running down the hill.” “Come on, Meno,” I pushed back, but not as strongly as before because this was starting to sound more plausible. “I’m not kidding, I had $700 from my trip on the dresser. He took that and all of Anat’s jewelry. I’m so glad you came to get your ring, or it would be gone, too,” he said.

I was immediately sick at my stomach, and the excitement of having my rings in hand, was soured by the fact that Anat’s jewelry had been taken, and that my rings could have been gone, too. I appreciate that neither Meno nor Anat made me feel guilty for still having my rings. In fact, they seemed both relieved that it was only their stuff that was stolen and not mine AND genuinely happy for me.

 

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