A look back at my experience trying to develop a bit of athleticism.
MCKNOTES THE ATHLETE
I grew up in Granite City, Illinois, which is a steel mill town. My father worked 8 hours a day at “the mill” and another eight at a service station pumping gas and maintaining automobiles for other people. Younger readers will have no concept of what I’m talking about, but way back then one would drive up to the gas pump and say, “Fill her up.” If money was tight, the driver would ask for a lesser amount, usually determined by the amount of money available that day. “Give me a dollar’s worth of regular,” could be heard frequently. That amount of gasoline didn’t take anybody very far, but in those days, people went to work and back, and a dollar bought quite a lot more gas than it does these days. The average price of regular leaded gas in 1950 was twenty-seven cents per gallon. For no extra charge the attendant would check your oil and wash your windows.
My father worked hard and was good at both jobs. When he wasn’t working, he was at the hospital visiting church members in crisis. He taught a Sunday School class for adults that was quite popular and thought to be the backbone of the church we attended. He would even go to people’s homes after work sometimes to counsel them when they were having marriage difficulties. He had no degrees, but a good ear and a great heart.
Meanwhile, back at home, I was growing up. My father loved baseball, and took me to baseball games at Sportsman Park, where the Cardinals played in those days. He got tickets from various vendors he worked with at the mill. It was a big treat to go to a ball game. I knew we couldn’t afford it on our own, and most of the other people in our town couldn’t either.
Dad never taught me a thing about baseball or cars. I don’t think he played catch with me once in my entire life, but at the age of about 8 or 9, it was time to try out for little league baseball. Mother didn’t like this idea all that much, but dad had a twinkle in his eye that was undeniable. I sensed that I was out of my league from the get go. The league just wasn’t little enough.
I watched the pitcher throw a few balls to some of the other boys trying out, and they all seemed to know their way about the diamond. When it was my turn, I was coaxed up to the plate and given a bat. Someone must have showed me how to hold it. My guess is that the pitcher looked on thinking I would be an easy mark. Fortunately nobody was taking home movies at the time. I may have started with the bat upside down for all I know.
On the first pitch, the boy on the mound reared back and with what looked like all his might, hurled the ball at me. I could see where it was going and I thought I could at least try to hit it. At the last minute, the ball curved. I leaned directly into the path of the oncoming ball. It hit me squarely between my two front teeth, chipping one of them and knocking me down, and out. Sure, I could take the base, but I was unconscious. I don’t have a clear memory of what all happened next, but I do remember a hysterical mother, and a father whose eyes no longer twinkled. So baseball was over for me.
We all had gym class in those days. The most popular activity was dodge ball. I suspect that my P.E. teacher failed to plan his lessons and relied on a last minute decision to let us hurl balls at each other until the best athlete stood alone. The winner was usually the same guy. That was never me. Not ever. In fact, I also imagine that I may have been one of the first to be eliminated. These days, they’re trying to do away with this game. They’re saying now that it’s an organized form of bullying. I have no opinion about that, but it would have been nice if my teacher would have pulled me off to the side one day to offer a tip or two that might give me a chance to last a few seconds past the starting whistle.
This went on through most of my schooling. I just wasn’t good at athletics. Shortly after the baseball incident, we discovered that I was legally blind in my left eye. This meant that my perception was badly flawed. Tell that to my dentist. However, I’m not sure that 20/20 vision would have changed anything. I was just trying an activity for which I was destined to fail.
In the sixth grade I was a patrol boy, We stopped traffic to let students walking to and from school to cross the street safely. It was an honor to be chosen for this duty, and I took it seriously, but when the spring came, the other boys who were not patrol boys played softball on the school playground. I had visions of hitting a ball over the fence to the Park and Eat lot. That was not going to happen as long as I was ushering other students across the street, so I quit my patrol boy duties so that I could play softball. This was a big mistake. While I probably wasn’t a stellar patrol boy, I had to be better at that than I was at softball, but this only lasted a couple of months of warm weather at the end of the sixth grade. When the guys designated as captains of the two teams chose up sides, I was not in the first draft.
A couple of years later, in eighth grade, I decided that basketball would be fun and certainly glamorous. I could learn. I was not a poor student, so I should be able to learn how to play a game. Needless to say, there was no teaching going on. The coach of the eighth grade basketball team had already picked out his starters and his bench. He even knew who would collect the dirty towels. Once again, it was made clear to me that I was just not cut out for this.
The good news at that point in my life is that I could play the piano better than anyone in the whole school. That didn’t make me popular, but may have saved what little self-esteem I had left after the various failed efforts at sports. I could also sing. I sang with a boy’s choir sponsored by the local Optimist Club. Some of the older guys in that group were also athletes. That was as close as I would ever get.
Much later in life, I learned to play tennis. I was never exceptional, but I really enjoyed playing. I could totally exhaust myself and then go back for more. I may have been terrible, but nobody was hanging around to tell me. I even did a stint with golf. From all I could tell, nobody was all that good at golf except the big name people like Jack Nicklaus. One shot would be off to the left and the next off to the right. It was the same for everyone else as far as I could tell.
Through all of this, I continued to get better and better at music. At some point I realized that I could make a living with my music, and I would not be red-shirted at age 30. Now I’m 66, and probably still have some chops.
I went to my high school reunion a few years ago. All of the athletes who were well built and good looking in high school had turned overweight and not very good looking. I was in better shape that just about any of them. I still wasn’t good looking unless comparison counts. So I guess things turned out pretty well for me. I survived the humiliation of my athletic shortcomings and figured out my strengths. That’s something to be proud of.