Wednesday, February 11, 2015


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, 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...