Friday, April 3, 2015

THE RELUCTANT ATHLETE: Part Four

By the time I was fourteen going on fifteen, I had graduated from a paper route and odd jobs to working as a movie theater usher and janitor and playing in a rock and roll band. I could have just played for fun, but this was my kind of in-your-face, rebellious raspberry to Whitie. “Look at this, Daddio,” I was symbolically saying, “not only did I buy my drums myself, but I’m also making money with them.”

Truth be told, back then, at the beginning, it was the grunt work that made me the money that kept me largely independent of parental interference (and of any insistence I go out for sports), even if I’d already started thinking of myself as “a working musician”. I worked three or four times a week as a ticket-taker and usher at the Wapa Theater and then made a little extra sweeping up the popcorn, popcorn boxes and candy wrappers, and scraping the chewing gum and half-sucked candy off the floor. After my father’s night janitor at the Teddy Bear Restaurant retired, I also took up that job for a while, after I got off work on movie nights and every other night of the week but Sunday.
Working at the movie theater was fun. My best friend Mark worked there with me for a while as well, which made it more fun still. And the concession stand was run by the theater-owner’s daughter, Barbara (who was a year younger than I was), and a classmate of mine called Debbie. They were both shy girls whom I’d never really gotten to know at school other than to say hi, but here at the movies, we chatted and joked and laughed during the lulls in our work and generally had a good time.  
The Wapa’s manager was a young guy called Leslie who was from out of town, someplace in Indiana. He drove a powder-blue Caddy convertible and dressed to the nines, but lived in a rented mobile home in a court on the north side of town. He was easy to work for and was always good-naturedly kidding us. When he found out Mark and I were old-movie buffs he used to now and then invite us to his place to eat popcorn and watch the black and white classics that he collected and projected on a screen in his living room.
Leslie didn’t own the Wapa. The building was from the turn of the century, had originally housed an opera house and theater and was quite grand inside for a small-town cinema, with a main floor and two balconies. One of the balconies—referred to as “the third balcony” for some reason the logic of which escaped me—had long since been hidden from view by a lowered acoustical ceiling, above which lived a colony of brown bats that would swoop down in the darkened theater and flash their scary silhouettes across the silver screen during projections, eliciting shrieks from the girls and nervous laughter from the boys in the audience, especially during viewings of Christopher Lee’s stunning portrayals of Count Dracula.
But you could still appreciate the scrolling and ornamentation on the side walls and the fancy fronts of the former box seats that had also been closed up.
I liked to imagine what it must have been like back in the building’s pre-Great War beginnings, when early twentieth-century Wapakoneta residents arrived in gala dress for the first shows at what was then the Brown Theater. It had been owned from the 1930s by the husband of a grade school teacher of mine and she had inherited it when he passed away.  Leslie leased the movie theater part of the building from her. A former Ball State University student, he had done some acting in college and had a real love of Hollywood and theater, but this appeared to be as close as he could come to getting into show biz.
I also became friends with the projectionist, ‘Herbie’. That wasn’t his real given name, but he preferred his moniker. Herbie was a couple of years older than I was. He was shy and overweight and didn’t have many friends. At school he was a popular enough “folk figure”, since he was the photographer for the high school yearbook (known as The Retro) and for school newspaper publications. We didn’t have a school paper per se, but rather, a column in the Wapakoneta Daily News entitled The Lantern. Herbie’s nom de guerre at school, then, was ‘Flash’. When he showed up with his 35mm camera around his neck, everybody was glad to see him, but he wasn’t the sort of guy most of his classmates hung out with. He wasn’t one of the “cool kids”.
I didn’t feel cool either, but I tried to make eccentric, rebellious and non-conformist work for me. I felt it should work for Herbie too. To my mind, he was eccentric enough to be non-conformist-cool. He was a conscientious projectionist and a surprisingly mature and artful photographer. And his “secret cool” that nobody saw during school hours was that when school was out, he was a biker! Herbie had a Honda Superhawk. That and his Pentax camera were his two prized possessions. They were also props in his dual-life persona. Seeing him mounted on that bike with his oversized denim jacket, engineer boots and two-hundred-plus pounds of humanity, you’d have thought Herbie was really bad-assed, somebody you didn’t want to mess with. You’d never have guessed he was a melancholy, easy-going boy with a big sad heart who hadn’t had it easy.
Herbie used to invite me to the projection booth when there was nothing else pressing to do and show me how the twin carbon-arc projectors worked, how it was important to adjust the carbons every so often so that the picture didn’t dim, or how when a reel was reaching its end, you had to look through the little window that gave onto the theater to watch for some small white dots that would appear on the right-hand side of the screen to let you know when to turn on the second machine that held the next reel. Herbie also knew how to splice broken filmstrips and how to fix the huge projectors when they broke. Herbie knew a lot of things and I found them all fascinating.
Another thing Herbie was in charge of was changing the big metal letters on the marquee whenever the feature film title changed. I used to help him do that and found it a lot of fun. It involved going in through a restricted-admission lateral entrance from outside and climbing a narrow staircase on which a tall folding step-ladder was leaned up against the wall and covered that side of the staircase practically from top to bottom. The staircase led to a cramped store room, in which the wall on one side bore a series of large pigeonholes containing several sheet-metal cut-out copies each of every letter in the alphabet. Reading from a paper where the theater manager had written down the title of the upcoming movie, we gathered the letters necessary to spell it out twice (once for each side of the marquee), placing them in a sturdy wooden box. Then one of us would grab the box and the other the stepladder from the staircase. We would also take along another wooden box to put the letters in that we took down. Once the two-sided ladder was set up under the marquee, Herbie would climb up one side of the ladder and I’d climb up the other carrying the empty box. He’d take down the old title letter by letter, handing them to me, and I’d put them in the empty box.  Then I’d take that box down, carry up the other box holding the letters for the new title and hand them to Herbie as he called them off: C-H-A-R-A-D-E, for instance. Up close some of the letters looked kind of pitted and scratched and rusty. But when we would climb down to inspect our handiwork against the lighted marquee, they looked like for a New York premiere.

Herbie and I remained friends even after I quit working at the Wapa. A couple of summers later, he would announce he was joining the Air Force. People said, “Herbie? The Air Force?” But I wasn’t surprised. Herbie was a guy who knew what he wanted...and it wasn’t this. He had gotten into a special experimental training program that the Air Force was trying out on overweight recruits. It was not your regular Basic that did fat guys a lot of good but that didn’t get to the root of their problem. This was a rigorous regime of healthy eating, psychological motivation, and intensive, scientifically engineered physical exercise.
A few months later, Herbie came home on leave and had to tell my mother who he was when he showed up to say hi. She didn’t recognize him! And if he hadn’t spoken, I wouldn’t have either. It was as if he had gone into training as William Conrad and had returned home as Steve McQueen. We were amazed and Herbie was pleased, self-satisfied and more self-confident than I’d ever seen him before. After he shipped out for overseas, I would never see or hear from him again.          
The job at the Teddy Bear was a routine janitor’s job, but I managed to make that fun too. I was always my own best company, so working alone in the place after hours was okay with me. A couple of years earlier, I had enjoyed working at the Teddy Bear during business hours in the summer or on Saturdays because the older girls who worked there always treated me a little like a pet and I wasn’t all that used to that kind of attention from the other sex. Whitie had me in the back a lot, peeling spuds and cutting them for french fries, washing dishes and helping with other types of food preparation, while he was out behind the counter.
My most fun relationship was with a bouncy, bubbly girl called Linda, who was about eighteen at the time. She pretended to flirt with me, which caused me to have an instant and terrible crush on her and to loath her older fiancé who often dropped by for coffee and to see her. The Christmas that I had turned thirteen, Linda blocked my path under the mistletoe that hung above the kitchen door and laid a big wet kiss on me that left my lips smeared with her bright red lipstick, and then laughed her head off at the combined look of shock, embarrassment and contentment on my face.
But it wasn’t like Linda was having a laugh at my expense. She genuinely liked me, as if I were an adoptive kid brother, and we shared little inside jokes and secrets. For instance, I had started pilfering smokes from Whitie’s packs of Pall Malls when I was twelve going on thirteen. The first time Reba Mae smelled smoke on me she said if she caught me smoking again, I’d be punished. But I wasn’t put off by the warning. I simply tried not to get close to my mother if I’d just had a smoke. Then I got greedy and started helping myself to Whitie’s cigarettes to the point that he noticed. My father was a lot more pragmatic than my mother, so his warning message was more economic than moral: If I was going to smoke I should “buy my own goddamn cigarettes,” because he didn’t plan to support his habit and mine too. So I took him at his word, found a corner grocery store that wasn’t picky about whom they sold tobacco to and, by age thirteen, was smoking several cigarettes a day. Linda, for her part, smoked incessantly and usually had one going in an ashtray on the shelf above the work counter in the kitchen, so when we worked there side by side on Saturdays, we would take turns smoking and if my father or mother came into the kitchen while I was having a smoke, she’d swiftly grab my cigarette and take a drag, leaving the end marked with her lipstick.
That part of working at the Teddy Bear during the daytime when it was open I sometimes missed, though not the almost constant bickering between Whitie and me, since none of the work I did was ever quite up to his exacting standards of quality control. Speaking of which, I don’t think there has ever been another restaurant in our town (or anywhere else) that had a more thorough clean-up routine than the Teddy Bear. After closing each evening every member of the staff had a specific cleaning task to do. And after they had all gone home, Whitie would go back and re-do every single one of those tasks—always alternating between whistling tunelessly and cussing under his breath. For himself, he reserved the jobs of re-ordering the refrigerators and cleaning and polishing the stainless steel back counter, soda fountain, under-counter refrigeration unit, fryers and grill. By the time he was done with them, these pieces of equipment always gave the impression of being brand new and having just been installed the day before. So when I came in, long after closing, the place was practically spotless, except for the dining room floor, which had merely been swept clean.
My job was, first, to mop it thoroughly with hot water and industrial detergent, to dry it with a squeegee and floor rag, and then to wax it with a thin layer of fast-drying liquid wax and buff it with the industrial buffer that Whitie kept in the back room—a machine so powerful that, more than use it, I was dragged around the room by it. The whole process took a couple of hours and I took advantage to turn it into some quality alone time (as if I hadn’t already been enough of a lone wolf). 
After making sure all of the curtains were drawn over the front windows, I would put a quarter into the cigarette vending machine and get myself a pack of Winstons or Salems, depending on my mood, and light up with a book of the free advertising matches that were in a fish-bowl by the cash register. Then I’d take a couple of “special quarters”—the ones painted with red fingernail polish that the restaurant got back when the maintenance man came to service the machine and change some of the records—and, putting them into the coin slot on the colorful Wurlitzer jukebox, I’d choose eight of my favorite tunes—usually ones that would have been the last choice of any other kid in town, numbers by Peter Nero, Duke Ellington, Enoch Light, Henry Mancini, Ferrante and Teicher, Frank Sinatra, Mantovani, and so on. Finally, being very, very careful not to leave a single mark or drop of water on the stainless steel fountain, the meticulous last inspection of which would surely have included a final obsessive once-over with my father’s own pocket handkerchief, I would build myself a vanilla phosphate with extra “dope” (trade jargon for syrup) and light on the ice. Then, and only then, I’d be ready to get down to work. I “danced” with my mop to the sounds of the Duke’s band playing Satin Doll, to Ferrante and Teicher playing Theme from The Apartment (a movie that had made me fall in love with Shirley MacLaine and loath Fred MacMurray even more than I originally had), Mantovani’s orchestra playing Hernando’s Hideaway, Frank singing I’ve Got You Under My Skin, Peter Nero mixing The Yellow Rose of Texas with Mozart in a fascinating fugue, and Enoch Light and the Light Brigade playing a rousing rendition of Whatever Lola Wants, among a list of other personal favorites.

There, alone by night in my father’s restaurant, I could be whoever I wanted to be. I didn’t see myself as a confused, unhappy fourteen-year-old boy. I was a cigarette-smoking adult with a vanilla phosphate that could just as easily have been a tall scotch and soda. And I could pretend that the famous musicians on the jukebox were my personal friends. I could see myself playing with a studio band in New York City instead of mopping the floor in my dad’s soda fountain and grill. I could imagine myself a whole other life that I had no doubt would eventually come true, one where I was doing what I wanted to do and was really good at it. I would be a writer and musician and was sure my combined arts would be my ticket out of here and into a brand new and glamorous world.
To be continued...

You can read Parts 1, 2, and 3  of The Reluctant Athlete at the following links: 

Monday, March 2, 2015

THE RELUCTANT ATHLETE: Part Three

From the age of twelve, work became a big part of my life. I started out, like a lot of boys, with a paper route. My dad, Whitie, thought it would be a good idea.  He felt I needed to man up. The implication was that if I wasn’t going out for any sports, the least I could do was learn how to earn my own spending money, and not just be sitting around the house “with my nose in a book all the time.” It would build character for me to get out and see what earning money entailed, to see that it didn’t grow on trees, that there were no “free rides”.

The first paper route I had was for a morning newspaper, the Dayton Journal Herald. The city of Dayton was over an hour away from Wapakoneta, my home town. And the Journal Herald didn’t have an arrangement, like a number of other Ohio newspapers did, with the local Newsstand—actually not a “stand” at all, but a storefront business—so each morning the Dayton daily’s distributor delivered the local carriers’ bales of papers, hot off the press, to the Post Office across the street from the Newsstand. Although the Post Office counter was closed behind a heavy rolling metal curtain at night, the main hall of the building was open twenty-four/seven, to allow patrons to get to their PO boxes. So it was the perfect place us for paperboys to get together with our papers.

The job entailed getting up at five in the morning, pedaling my bike up to the Post Office, cutting open my bale of papers with a pair of wire-cutters I carried for just that purpose, rolling my papers to a proper throwing size, slipping a rubber band around each one, packing them into my delivery bag, and then making the rounds of my paper route, which started a few blocks north of downtown Wapakoneta and extended almost to my house in the west-side Oakwood Hills addition. I would arrive home in time to wash up, have breakfast and catch the school bus or ride my bike back to town for classes.

Reba Mae, my mother, was less convinced than Whitie that this was such a good idea. She was concerned about my health. The year before, I’d been seriously ill, having caught infectious hepatitis. I’d spent several weeks in bed, so sick I could barely look at food.

Illness was something Whitie and I had shared that year. He was experiencing one of multiple nervous breakdowns that he was to suffer, from the time I was five years old on.  That year, when I was eleven, his manic depression was rampant and he spent weeks on end holed-up at home, mostly in the room he and my mother shared, curtains drawn and sleeping throughout much of the day, while Reba Mae took over for him at our family restaurant, the Teddy Bear, running both his shift there and the house until he got better. So while my older sister and younger brother were off at school and Reba Mae was off at work, it was just Whitie and me there at home, in our new house on Kelley Drive.

For all the company we were to each other, however, my father and I might as well have been each on his own planet, instead of just down the hall from each other in our separate rooms. We were mutual aliens, he trying to purge himself of a crippling inner sadness that seemed to know no cure, and I, biding my time until my young liver turned from a volatile jelly-like state back into a properly functioning organ. One of us only knew the other existed by the creaking of the hall floorboards and the sound of the toilet flushing or the water running. Neither of us was eating much (with the state my liver was in, I mostly subsisted on weak tea and saltine crackers or dry toast) and neither offered to make anything or do anything for the other. In the harsh light of day, we were both painfully thin and pale, my own pallor a ghastly shade of yellow. But we were entities more separate than if we’d been living in a boarding house. If we saw each other at all, it wasn’t until Reba Mae and my sister and brother got home in the evening and my mother prepared supper. And even then our contact was limited since Whitie often refused to come out of his room to eat and, at my sickest, I took my frugal meals in bed.


I remember feeling guilty. I realized how depressing a climate Whitie and I were creating for the rest of the family and how worried my mother must be for both of us. For my part in this silent, blue environment, I was full of remorse.


Still, when I got to feeling a little better, so I could sit up for more than a few minutes at a time, I began to take a strange comfort in this illness, and because I did, I reluctantly began to understand, somewhat, how Whitie must feel holed-up there in his room. Hepatitis had become my shield from the world. The fact that I was so ill meant nobody expected anything from me. I was sick! There was nothing for me to do but stay in bed and get better. Once the early symptoms of the disease were past, however, I was free to do what I did best—read and write—all day long. In fact, it was part of the routine established between my mother and me “to keep me from getting bored.” In addition to bringing me my homework assignments from my fifth-grade teacher, who lived less than half a block from the Teddy Bear, every few days Reba Mae would bring me a new batch of books from the public library, and once I had finished my school work, I would almost obsessively gallop through that outside reading between naps. Then later, I would try my hand for a couple of hours a day at writing stories of my own.

After a couple of weeks of hanging out in my room doing what I loved most in the world, I began to feel safe and unassailable there. Even though I knew it wasn’t normal or healthy, I started developing a feeling that I never wanted to leave that room again. It became my world, my safe harbor, a miniature planet on which, despite my illness, I was in complete control. And through the books my mother brought me, I could live the most exciting adventures in my mind, traveling to exotic destinations without ever changing out of my pajamas. Whitie, I understood, must feel much the same way: safe, unaccountable, unassailable, immune to the demands of others, in complete control of something for a change, even if only of this hundred square-foot space.  

But remorse eventually got the better of me. It became impossible for me the read the sadness in Reba Mae’s face each day when she came back from work to find the house in the same morbid stillness it had been when she’d left and both Whitie and me still barricaded in our separate rooms. Somebody had to break this stay-at-home stand-off and, on the spur of the moment—one afternoon when I went by the kitchen door and saw my mother sitting alone at the dining table crying—I decided it would be me.

As soon as the yellowness had drained from my eyes, I emerged from my room one early-spring day, fully dressed and, donning jacket and cap, declared myself cured and told my mother I was going for a ride on my bike. She was too elated to tell me no, and instead smiled a little dubiously and said, “Well, all right, but don’t go far and don’t over-exert yourself. You’re just getting over something serious and you’re still very weak.”

As it turned out, her warning about “not going far” wouldn’t have been necessary. Within a very few blocks, I had run out of steam and had to laboriously walk my bicycle back home, panting and feeling awful the whole way. When I stumbled in the back door, she looked at me and said, the smile draining from her eyes, “Are you all right? Gosh, your lips are blue!” And with that she rushed me back to bed. So it was that I learned a new word: relapse. And I never could hear the term after that without picturing myself half-walking my bike and half using it as a crutch so as not to collapse, and wondering how I’d ever make it back home.

But perhaps my premature outing served a purpose, because that evening Whitie got up, and that same week he started back to work, and began going to the psychiatrist again. For my part, I spent another few weeks in bed, guilt-ridden the whole while by the fact that I couldn’t have felt more at home there.

So it was little wonder that, the following year, when I was just starting to gain back some of the weight lost and to regain something like an appetite, Reba Mae was less than anxious to see me hopping out of bed at 5 a.m. to ride my bike around in the dark delivering newspapers before school. But Whitie was on a manic high right then, being so assertive that he was hard to recognize. And when he was like that, weakness wasn’t something he easily tolerated. Working would be good for me—get me out of the house, give me a taste of reality.  

At first, I wondered how I would ever remember all of the houses I had to go to each morning. And the first few days, Reba Mae and I did the route together in the car until I learned the streets. She made it fun, almost like a game, and I quickly learned that each house had defining traits to help me remember it: an aluminum initial on a grill over the screen door; a nameplate hanging beneath the yard-light; shingles, stucco or tongue-and-groove siding; a lawn dwarf, a birdhouse, or a metallic-glass ball on a pedestal; a friendly dog; an unfriendly dog; a distinctive weather vane; a certain kind of wind chime on the porch, or any of a number of other distinctive features. In no time at all, I had learned the route and was ready to do it alone —even if, on the foulest of mornings Reba Mae was still apt to say, “Let me take you today. It’s just too awful out for you to do your route on your bicycle!”

Though I wasn’t particularly crazy about having to get up so early, especially as autumn progressed and the mornings turned frigid, and although staying awake in class got to be an issue, Whitie was right about one thing: Making your own money was a game-changer. Suddenly, I not only had new options and increased independence, but also a logical explanation for not doing the things I didn’t want to do, like going out for team sports. Those things were child’s play. In rural Midwestern society, work was serious business that superseded everything else. And a lot of things might be forgiven of a boy who worked compared with one who didn’t.

In the meantime, at school I had joined the band. I was studying percussion and loved it. Being a drummer took a great deal of brain-muscle coordination—precisely what Whitie had always claimed I didn’t possess. But as it turned out, I was quite good at this new coordination-intensive skill. I apparently had a talent for it. Who knew!
That, of course, quickly led to my wanting to also join some kind of pop band outside of school. For that, I needed a set of drums. A friend of my sister’s, who was three years older than I, was selling his old set to buy a new one. He wanted ninety dollars for it. I asked Whitie for the money.
“If I thought you’d stick to it,” my father said, “I probably wouldn’t mind. But how do I know you will? I mean, you’re not very good at sticking to things, are you?”

I didn’t say anything.

“Are you?” he repeated. “You know, baseball, basketball, and so forth...”

Still I didn’t respond.

“I just don’t want to put a bunch of money I don’t have into something like this and have the drums just sit around later.”

“They won’t,” I said. “I’m good at this and I really like it.”

“Well, yeah, Danny, but what if tomorrow you quit liking it?” he said. “Then what? I mean, you are kind of a quitter. I mean, be honest. You need to be more responsible. Maybe you should save up and buy the drums yourself. That way you’d appreciate them more.”

With that, he considered the subject closed.

I sulked. Eventually Reba Mae intervened. He wasn’t being fair. Hadn’t they paid for my sister’s trumpet when she joined the band? That was different, Whitie felt, because she stuck to things. She wasn’t a quitter. They eventually reached a compromise: he’d let my mother lend me the money to buy the drum set. But I’d be required to make weekly payments until the loan was paid back.

I grudgingly accepted the loan, determined to prove I was more than good for it. Very shortly, I found a bigger, better afternoon paper route with The Lima News, headquartered in the industrial city of Lima, Ohio, fifteen miles away. Its routes were run out of the back room of The Newsstand, operated by Russ McLean. Mr. McLean was good about letting me browse the racks in his shop before and after I delivered my papers each afternoon, after school. It was there that I started reading Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, as if I were in a lending library. I read “stolen” snatches of Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone magazine and Classics Illustrated, as well as of Time, Life, Look, Newsweek, The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, and other popular adult-audience publications as well. All of which fed my other passion: writing.

As I became aware of how liberating it was not to depend on my father for money, I sought more of both cash and independence. Keeping busy was, I found out, almost as safe a haven as holing up in my room. Who could expect more of an adolescent who kept busy every waking hour either in school or working for his own keep, instead of looking for trouble?

Before long, in addition to the bigger and better paper route, I had also started picking up extra work among my newspaper customers, mowing their lawns, raking their leaves, shoveling their snow, and doing any other odd job they might trust me with, as well as volunteering for kitchen work in our family’s restaurant whenever I had spare time on Saturdays or in the summer.  This allowed me to pay off my drum set in short order.

If Whitie was notoriously stubborn, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree and once the drum set was mine, free and clear, instead of finding the good in the lesson my father had sought to teach me, I tacitly and obstinately vowed to myself never to ask him for anything again and that vow was to form part of the emotional barrier he and I erected between us for a number of years afterward.

The most emblematic symbol of that division would continue to be team sports, which he loved and which I no longer simply avoided, but adamantly opposed. We asked and expected nothing of each other and chose to be strangers from that point on through my high school days.

To be continued




Wednesday, February 11, 2015

THE RELUCTANT ATHLETE: Part Two


The Kennedy Era sparked in me a new interest in physical activity and sports. I mean, don’t get me wrong: I was still a bookish kid who could happily spend long hours indoors reading, writing, listening to music, drawing and watching some unusual TV favorites for a kid my age—Leonard Bernstein’s singularly didactic children’s concerts, Walter Cronkite’s documentary series called The Twentieth Century, and a Saturday morning English murder mystery theater among them—as well as some of the more normal TV kids’ stuff. But I was also an outdoor boy in all four seasons of the year. I played “war” and “cowboys and Indians” and sandlot ballgames and shot hoops with the neighbor kids and shot my BB gun at birds and telephone-line insulators and got my share of split lips and bloody noses like most other Wapakoneta, Ohio boys, and I fished and hiked and rode the wheels off of my bike in spring, autumn and summer, and sledded and skated in winter, and hung out at the city pool and took every swimming course available during summer vacation, and so on. But because of the apparently insurmountable deadlock between my dad, Whitie, and me over organized sports, I had, up until then, avoided them like the plague. Why bother, if Whitie had already convinced me I’d never be much good at any of them, even if he still wanted me to play? If it was true, as he said, that I was innately clumsy and uncoordinated, what was the point?
But I greatly admired John F. Kennedy (another view not shared with Whitie, who, dyed-in-the-wool Republican that he was, considered JFK a socialist, a crook and a liar), and President Kennedy had a really healthy obsession with fitness. He made getting America into shape a major goal of his administration. What first seems to have set off alarm bells with one of America’s most popular (and unpopular) presidents of all time in the years of progress, affluence and general peace that followed World War II and its aftershock, the Korean War, was that a growing number of officers and men in the US Armed Forces were failing their physical training tests. Kennedy’s presidential predecessor (and five-star general) Dwight D. Eisenhower, had already founded the President’s Council on Physical Fitness, but Kennedy, a former naval officer himself, breathed new impetus into the program.
As a first challenge to the council, the president introduced what would come to be known as “the Kennedy march”. This was not his idea originally, but emerged from his discovery of an executive directive by “Rough-Rider” President Teddy Roosevelt challenging Marine Corps officers to complete a fifty-mile hike in just twenty hours. This made JFK wonder how many modern-day military officers would be able to pull off such a feat. So he decided to find out. He showed the Roosevelt document to Marine Commandant David Shoup and asked him to take the idea as his own and recommend it back to the Executive Branch. Shoup did as the president asked him and Kennedy responded enthusiastically that if Shoup’s ultimate report showed that modern Marines were as fit as their predecessors in Teddy Roosevelt’s time, he, JFK, would “ask Mr. Salinger to look into the matter personally” and give him a report on the fitness of the White House staff as well.
Salinger wasn't about to do the "Kennedy march"
This reference was to Kennedy administration Press Secretary Pierre Salinger, a former naval officer as well, but a rotund, cigar-chomping, armchair sports enthusiast in his reincarnation as Kennedy aide, politician and, eventually, major journalist. And the indication was that part of Salinger’s investigation into White House fitness would include his own participation in a fifty-mile endurance test.
Fat chance! Salinger joked incessantly about the challenge but cleverly avoided the walk. Ever the reflection incarnate of his brother’s policies and more invested in the JFK legend than big brother “Jack” himself, however, Attorney General Robert (“Bobby”) Kennedy made good on the chief executive’s dare and not only did the fifty-mile hike in twenty hours, but did so on a wintry day in snow and slush, inadequately shod in sturdy leather oxfords instead of in footwear more suited to the test and to the weather. Salinger latched onto Bobby’s walk as proof positive that the White House practiced what it preached and declared the president’s challenge won.
But President Kennedy wasn’t satisfied with this alone and extended the presidential fitness program to other levels of society. “The age of leisure and abundance can destroy vigor and muscle tone as effortlessly as it can gain time,” he wrote. “A single look at the packed parking lot of the average high school will tell us what has happened to the traditional hike to school that helped to build young bodies.”
JFK made fitness a national priority
So there was no longer any avoiding the gym in junior high and high school. In many public schools, such as ours, Phys-Ed went from being elective to being a required course. That was how, in the sunset of the Kennedy era, I met Mr. G, my seventh-grade gym teacher.
Other gym teachers I was to have tended to be a lot like that Peewee League coach of years before—jaded, lackadaisical, former high school sports stars whose fame hadn’t followed them to college and for whom professional play was only a frustrated childhood dream, guys who were content to divide the class up into “shirts” and “skins”, toss up a basketball between the two best players and let nature take its course for the duration of the period. Or failing this, to roll a bunch of “kickballs” out onto the hardwood and sit back and laugh their proverbial asses off at a lightning round of a Darwinistic “game” called, alternatively, “dodgeball” or “bombardment”. In this “game” the “rabbits and mice” in the class were lined up against the wall and were forced to dodge, dive, roll and feint in an effort to avoid being “creamed” by the whistling orbs fired at them by “the fittest”, whose ultimate goal was to hit their targets in the crotch so as to delight to their agony as they squirmed on the floor, or to smack them square in the face to see how far the blood flew when their noses splattered, even as the “coach” with stifled glee, would good-naturedly chide, “All right, guys, no hitting in the face or below the belt, now.”
But Mr. G was different, a true sportsman, coach, teacher and disciplinarian, he was bent on helping all of the kids in his classes to reach their full potential. A former All-State wrestling champion, he knew that fitness was about more than pitching, dribbling, batting, kicking or passing a ball. And he started out by actually training us, teaching us the routines of calisthenics and how to build muscle, cardiovascular resistance, balance and coordination, body-building that we could do anywhere with nothing but the weight of our own humanity as equipment. And when he saw us gaining strength, he started teaching us new skills: tumbling, acrobatics, rings, horse, parallel bars and rope-climbing. Now and then he conceded to the whining of the “team-players” and we played a game of basketball. But these games too came with instruction. He called time-outs and corrected the moves of those already well-initiated but also patiently taught the rest of us the basics of the game—proper dribbling, how to feint and pass, how to drive, to complete a lay-up, to make long shots and short.

He was on top of us from beginning to end, pushing us to be the best we could be, whatever our skill level was. But his specialty was, of course, wrestling, and that activity he taught with such exquisite insight that he was capable of turning the legendary “ninety-eight-pound weaklings” of the old Charles Atlas body-building ads into lean and mean fighters who were slippery as eels on the mat.
Between his precise wrestling and patient tumbling instructions, I suddenly realized that I wasn’t nearly as clumsy or physically inept as Whitie had led me to believe. In fact, these two sports activities quickly taught me to trust my body and my instincts, to fall and roll, to break holds and apply them, and before long, I became a fairly effective wrestler. I had leverage in my long arms and legs and learned to use it to advantage. I didn’t win every bout, but I wasn’t, by a longshot, losing them all either. Suddenly, I had game!
That year, Mr. G started working on me to join the basketball team. He knew I was an enthusiastic member of the Blume Junior High band and that this activity would conflict with football (his second love), but basketball was a team sport option for male band members. I told him I was “no good at that sort of thing.” Even my dad said so.
Like a lot of teachers, Mr. G was a breakfast regular at the Teddy Bear restaurant that Whitie owned with two of his brothers, Red and Chuck. So Mr. G said, “Well, I’ll talk to Whitie, but at the risk of contradicting him, that’s just not true. You’ve got height, long arms and legs and really good hands. All you need is some speed and practice and you could be a really good player. If you did the practice and training, you’d be up to speed in no time.”
I said I’d think about. But if Mr. G had imbued me with new self-confidence before, he had now become my hero. He had virtually lifted the “clumsy-uncoordinated curse” from my head and given me authoritative permission to be whatever I wanted to be and do whatever I wanted to do.
A few days later, when Whitie came home from work, he said he wanted to talk to me. He sat in an armchair in the living room smoking a cigarette and I sat on the hassock in front of him. Conversations like this weren’t very common between us and I was a little nervous, wondering what I’d done wrong.
He said, “I was talking to Mr. G today. He said you said I’d told you you couldn’t play basketball. I never told you that, Danny! Hell, I’d be delighted if you played basketball, or any other sport for that matter.”
“Well,” I told him, “that’s not exactly what I said. What I said was that you said I was too clumsy and uncoordinated to be good at any sport.”
“Oh now, Dan, I never said that!”
“Sure you did! A lot of times.”
“All I meant was you’re not a natural. You’ll have to work at it, you know? Anyway, Mr. G wants you to go out for the junior high basketball team.”
“And how about you, Dad?”
“Well, hell yes, Dan,” he said. “I think it’d be great for you to do that.”
Again, I said, “Okay, Dad, I’ll think about it.”
“Well, don’t think too long, buddy, or the season’ll be over,” Whitie said, but he was obviously pleased.
A little later that same month, on the twenty-second of November of 1963, President Kennedy made his infamous sojourn to Dallas, Texas, where an assassin’s bullet would snuff out the life of one of the most brilliant minds ever to preside over the White House. I, like millions of Americans, was stunned by JFK’s death and lived in a haze of mourning for some time afterward, as if affected by a truly personal loss.
Eleven days later, on December third of that same year, Mr. G went home from work and, at 5 p.m., promptly collapsed and died of a massive heart attack before the horrified eyes of his family. He was just forty years old. I couldn’t believe it. Not even when I visited the Siferd Funeral Home downtown and saw the coach’s body lying in state, surrounded by weeping friends, family and athletes of all ages.
For several days after that, I had trouble eating or sleeping. I felt guilty because I wasn’t thinking of his family’s loss, but of my own. I’d just lost the only sports mentor I’d ever had, the only man who’d sought to convince me I was as able as any other player, the only one who’d truly made me believe that I could be whatever I wanted to be, that I had game.
Finally, after several sleepless nights in which I was racked with anxiety, I got up from bed one night, butterflies churning in my stomach, and, seeing a light in the living room, went in to find Whitie, watching a late-night movie, as he often did, and eating a bowl of ice-cream.
“Hey, Danny,” he said, keeping his voice low so as not to wake up the rest of the family, “what’s up?”
“Can’t sleep,” I said, clutching the front of my pajama shirt with both hands just over my milling stomach.
“What’s wrong?”
“I dunno. Nothing...Everything.”
He was silent.
“Dad,” I said. “I’m not going out for basketball.”
His expression changed so that I saw in his eyes how this announcement had made his heart sink. He set his bowl of ice-cream on the side table next to his chair.
“I thought you’d made up your mind, Dan,” he said. “What’s the story?”
“You know,” I said, my voice quavering, “Mr. G and all...”
“He’d have wanted you to play, Danny. Don’t you think?”
“Yeah, I know.”
“So?”
“So, yeah, I’m letting him down and I’m letting you down, but, uh...I just can’t do it. Not right now.”
“Well, I’d for sure like to see you play, but that’s not the point, whether you’re letting me down or Mr. G down. The point is not to let yourself down. Not to be a quitter, you know, like with Peewee League...”
“Long time ago, Dad. How about we let that go.”
“Well, but here you are, quitting again...”
“No, not quitting, Dad. Just never starting.”
“Well, I wish I could talk you out of it...”
I didn’t answer. 
“But I guess,” he continued, “you’ll do whatever the hell you want, like you always do. Just sayin’...”
“I guess,” I muttered. Then I stood up to leave, and he picked up his ice-cream and turned his attention back to his movie.
The interview was over and I’d become a disappointment to Whitie... yet again.
To be continued...    


Sunday, January 25, 2015

THE RELUCTANT ATHLETE: Part One


“Geez, Dan, you’re the only kid I’ve ever seen who can trip over his own two feet standing still!” Whitie said, laughing.  This struck the other kids at the picnic—cousins and second cousins all—funny to the point of hilarity.
He—my dad, Whitie—must have seen the hurt look in my eyes as I scrambled to my feet and brushed myself off, because he said, “We’re not laughing at you Dan’el, we’re laughing with you. And everybody “laughed with me” some more.  (If you were laughing, you were obviously one of the winners).
It was a family reunion and we were playing whiffle ball. Whitie was the only adult playing. The other kids had tried to talk their dads into playing too, but after a heavy picnic lunch—fried chicken, hotdogs and hamburgers, potato salad, deviled eggs, ham salad, beans and franks, huge bags of potato chips, heavenly hash, three bean salad, scalloped potatoes, macaroni and relish salad, Waldorf salad and an assortment of pies, cakes, cookies and brownies—on this hot July day, they got turned down flat.  But to my surprise, my dad was the only one to say, “Yeah, what the hell, I’ll play,” before stubbing out his cigarette, downing a cup of coffee drawn from a gallon Thermos, and following the kids over to an open area of the park where we quickly laid out an ad hoc baseball diamond: “That bench over there’s first, that bush is second, that maple’s third and this here’s home plate.”
I hadn’t asked Whitie to play like the other kids had asked their dads. I figured the answer would surely be “no,” so why bother? But Whitie could be full of surprises depending on his drastic mood swings. When he decided to play, however, I couldn’t help thinking it wasn’t that he didn’t like playing a little ball, it was just that he didn’t like playing it with me, since he always seemed to have better things to do at home than toss a ball around with me or show me some of the boxing moves he knew so well, or put up a backboard and shoot some hoops with me.
Today, by some odd bastardization of the rules, Whitie ended up being permanent pitcher as well as a sort of coach-slash-umpire for both teams. I found it incredible to see him on the imaginary mound calling the pitches as he threw them: “Fast ball...Slow ball...Curve...Look out, now, here comes a knuckle ball...Grab a towel, kiddo, here comes a spitball...hahaha, swing an’ a miss...” I couldn’t recall a single time he’d done this with me at home. Reba Mae, my mother, was the one who’d taken charge of teaching me enough about baseball so I wouldn’t be too embarrassed to play some sand-lot ball with my cousins and a few friends. She was always a good sport, playing some pitch and catch with me and popping me some flies to catch (she’d played some softball as a girl and could bat incredibly well, but she didn’t have a mitt so I had to throw the ball back to her gently).
Peewee League had been a short-lived disaster that was forced on me and in which I mostly haunted the sidelines until I got bored and quit...which, I suppose, was the coach’s ultimate idea. Somebody had given me a mitt. I was a southpaw and it was a right-handed mitt (in other words a mitt that went on the left hand), so I was obliged to learn to throw with my right. This meant I seldom missed a catch but couldn’t throw for crap. When I played the outfield (which was most of the time...the further out the better, my team-mates felt), if I accidentally caught somebody out it was difficult to throw hard enough with my right arm to pull off a double play, so sometimes, after the catch, I’d quick shed my glove and give the ball a heave with my more powerful left. But for lack of practice a long pitch with my left hand always went wild. Long story short, I could throw with either hand...though not good enough for anyone to be impressed. And the same was pretty much true of batting. No one seemed interested in helping me develop my switch-hitting potential, least of all the volunteer coach who was usually hung over and smelling of booze for morning Peewee League practice and pretty much left the playing up to the kids who already knew how, telling the others to “have a seat on the bench for a while.”  
On the drive home from the picnic, Whitie said, “That was pretty fun, wasn’t it Danny?”
“What was?” I asked, playing dumb though I knew exactly what he was talking about.
“Playing some ball,” he said. “You had a good time, didn’t you?”
I didn’t answer.
Didn’t you, Dan?” he insisted.
“Not as much as you, obviously,” I said with sullen apathy.
He clucked his tongue with irritation and then very ostensibly ignored me for the rest of the trip home, chatting with my mother and sister and now and then saying, “Whacha doin’, ‘Clody’ boy?” to my little brother, Jim (‘Clody’ to Whitie), who was dozing on Reba Mae’s lap on the passenger side of the front seat, as if to let me know I’d offended him and was being intentionally left out of the conversation. I kept wanting to apologize, to say I had indeed had a good time, mostly because it was nice to do something fun with him for a change, and why couldn’t  we do that more often? But I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I was as angry and disappointed with him as he was with me. Kind of permanently angry, both of us. So why should I be the one to capitulate?
And that was pretty much the standoff that Whitie and I maintained as I was growing up. Baseball, that all-American link between father and son, blended into any kind of organized sport and became the barricade we erected between us for our impasse. When it first took shape, I can’t say exactly, but sometime between the time as a preschooler when I inherited Whitie’s love of boxing, sitting on his lap to watch the Friday Night Fights on our big black and white TV, and the time when I was old enough to play Little League baseball (and didn’t), that early rapport was lost and I decided not to do anything I knew he would want me to from then on. The feeling got to be kind of mutual.
He was passionate about organized team sports and had pretty much played them all in his youth and now watched them all on TV. But I viewed that as something he didn’t want to share with me in any hands-on way, so why should I feign interest? I saw other dads getting involved with their boys’ sports, encouraging them, pushing them to be as good as they could be, rooting for them at their games, correcting their techniques, buying them the best equipment, even coaching their teams. Whitie didn’t do any of that. It was as if he’d given up on me before I’d ever gotten started.
It wasn’t that Whitie didn’t want me to play. On the contrary, he would have liked for me to have been the “normal” sports-loving son most men want to be represented by. (Indeed, that was precisely the point of my rebellion). Rather, it was that, from the beginning, he let me know that he had no real expectations for me. In fact, he basically said I should just play for fun and try to do the best I could, because I was a guy and guys played sports, period. But he felt I’d probably “never be really, really good at sports.”  So...okay, I figured, game over!
The guys on his side of the family were, he observed, of the quick, light, agile kind. Even his dad, who’d never played team sports, was a lightning-fast, highly capable and very dangerous fighter, though he never weighed more than a hundred and fifty pounds soaking wet. It was, then, a question of genes. Not better or worse, he consoled me, just the way things were. Some guys had it and some didn’t.  Some were “naturals”. Others had to work at it. Still others would just never have what it took. The indication was that I formed part of the latter group. 
I took after my mom’s side, Whitie often clarified, “Big, solid, German farmers...Strong, don’t get me wrong, but pretty slow and pretty clumsy. I mean, don’t take it the wrong way, Danny, but let’s face it, you are pretty awkward.” Then seeing the look on my face, he might add, “Well, but don’t worry, you might outgrow that, once you grow into your hands and feet.”
When he said things like that, I used to picture Grandpa Vern, my mother’s father. By no stretch of the imagination could I think of him as slow or clumsy—German and farmer though he was. In fact, words like “rugged”, “rawboned”, “lightning fast” and “lethal” sprang to mind when you spent any time with Grandpa Vern. I figured the fact that he’d never played organized sports had more to do with his having grown up out in the country and only having gone to school for three years, and in a one-room rural schoolhouse to boot, than with any lack of the required physical prowess.
In my own case, it wasn’t that I didn’t like physical activity, but that organized sports had become my nemesis. I had been consistently convinced by someone whose judgment I couldn’t help but trust—my father—that I would never be any good at them. It sounded like a sentence and felt like an illness, a disability diagnosed by an expert on the subject: Whitie. So at first, I avoided them out of embarrassment, and then grew to hate them and to consider them enemy territory.
Instead, I turned to the activities that my city-raised father abhorred: trekking along rivers and creeks, camping, bike hikes to parts unknown, fishing with my father’s father, hunting with my mother’s father and both those activities with friends later on. The great outdoors was fine with me as long as it didn’t involve diamonds, courts, pitches, courses or playing fields.       

         To be continued...