Thursday, August 13, 2009

There Was This Bat Factory

There used to be a baseball bat factory in Athens, GA - the Hanna Manufacturing Company. Hanna produced bats from 1926 until they went out of business in 1976.

Now should be the part when I wax nostalgic about our fine old bat factory, but I can't. I remember using a Hanna bat or two in little league, and I remember that the factory was located near downtown, behind where the Classic Center is now, downhill toward the river - near where Tyrone's was. And I vaguely remember getting a group tour of the place with some other schoolkids. Was there a lot of . . . sawdust? I couldn't tell you. That's the extent of what I recall about the Hanna bat factory.

But remembering what little I do about the factory has made me realize how useful it could be as a setting in somebody's novel (not mine, of course - fiction is not for me). Think of it - a family-run baseball bat factory. Could there be a more evocative setting? Baseball bats - so American in their function. Useful in both athletics and crime. Made from glorious old ash trees, carved and balanced and finished by tough, skilled, knowing hands. The signatures of living legends burned into the wood. When the ball hits them just right, they send it soaring. When the ball hits them wrong, they crack and become worthless. This bat that is on the lathe now - what is its destiny? Is it going to Yankee Stadium or a remote American Legion field in Mississippi?

I could never write that kind of stuff well, let alone with a straight face. But some would-be W.P. Kinsella ("If you build it, they will come") should take this bat factory idea and run with it. If you're writing contemporary fiction that aspires to be both popular and literary, you can't go wrong with a quirkily meaningful workplace or coming-of-age setting (consider the novels of John Irving, with their New England prep schools, tombstone factories and orphanages). There can't be a thing corporate about it - it must smack of homegrown authenticity. It has to be the sort of place where the primary activity has a symbolic aura about it, and where the main character can absorb life lessons from charming eccentrics as they go about their unusual work.

So I'm thinking that a family-run bat factory in a Southern town is absolutely full of narrative possibilities. There's a boy, of course - the main character, our hero. A callow but introspective young man who wants to grow up free from the burdens of operating a bat factory. Dad is the second generation plant manager, a man whose devotion to the art of bat making (and to keeping his small factory alive in a world of corporate behemoths) has caused him to neglect his family. I see a loyal but long-suffering mom, gifted with a fatalistic sense of humor, too. As for the factory workers - well, you can imagine the line up of types. You can bet that one of them is a wise old black man who has seen too much of life but is still strong in spirit. Our hero will learn a thing or two from him.

And the storylines: A flashback to the time a big slugger visited the factory and something scandalous happened. An attempted hostile takeover by a large bat maker in a certain Kentucky city. A bat from the factory is the weapon in the murder of a prominent citizen, causing everyone in the factory to reflect on his work. Our hero gets caught rolling in the sawdust with his girl.

This thing writes itself.

We had a big fertilizer plant in Athens, too. Not much you could do with that, unless you want to write a bildungsroman entitled The Education of Neal Boortz.

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