Dan Newland celebrates his addiction to writing and the right to life, literature and the (sometimes desperate) pursuit of happiness. Essays, stories and comments on writers, writing and life in general, in a twice-monthly blog published on the 13th and 27th of every month..."or any other time the spirit moves me."
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
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
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
“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
“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,
“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.
“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
“He’d have wanted you to play, Danny. Don’t you
“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.