Saturday, October 26, 2013

Passionate About Pole Vaulting

I haven’t been passionate about too many things in my life, but when I was in high school, I developed a passion for pole vaulting. I thought it was the most beautiful sport. It took both strength and finesse. In the spring of our freshman year, my friend Jim and I decided to show up after school for track practice and try out for pole vaulting. To our surprise the coach said there wasn’t anyone else interested in it, so we were shoe-ins.
Both Jim and I were “day-students” at Principia, a private Christian Science school in St. Louis. Most of the students were from other parts of the country and boarded in dormitories at the school. With few exceptions, day students were not considered as “cool” as boarders. My sister Karen was one of the exceptions. She was athletic and played on many of the girls’ sports teams. When she was a senior and I was a freshman, she was a cheerleader. I became known as “Karen’s little brother”, which to me was not a bad thing. At the time I hoped that some coolness went along with the title, but I had my doubts. I weighed 89 pounds was skinny and had big ears. Jim was big and strong, had short blond hair, and played the banjo. He and his friend Dick performed bluegrass at some of our school functions. Jim turned me on to bluegrass, especially the music of Flatt and Scrugs. He didn’t seem to care whether anyone thought he was cool or not. I admired him for that but still wanted to be cool. On one end of the track field was a sawdust pit surrounded by hay bales with an asphalt runway leading up to it. The school supplied Jim and me with aluminum poles. Mine was red and silver and Jim’s was all silver. These poles had absolutely no flexibility. That first season we spent practicing running down the runway, jabbing the pole into a wedge-shaped box and just prior to becoming airborne, hoping our arms didn’t rip out of their sockets. We pulled and wrestled our way up and over the bar, not really knowing what we were doing. We had fun learning by trial and error. We were thrilled to clear the bar set at six or seven feet. During one afternoon practice I landed on a sharp piece of wood in the pit. It poked through my tennis shoe and into my foot. The next day I noticed a red line running up the side of my leg. Instead of taking me to our doctor, my parents decided to use a Christian Science Practitioner. I was skeptical and I think my parents, being new to this religion, were as well. The practitioner was a friendly old lady. Sitting across from me in her living room, she read out loud passages from the Bible and Science and Health. She told me I couldn’t be hurt or injured because God is perfect and I was God’s perfect spiritual reflection. I wanted to tell her “but my foot hurts like hell” but didn’t. The whole time I was thinking, I wish they would have taken me to the doctor. The next morning when I woke up and looked at my leg the red line had vanished and the red inflamed puncture wound was now a barely perceptible hole in my foot. I touched it. No more pain. Maybe that little old lady knew what she was doing. I was able to return and finish out the track season. Sophomore year everything changed. The sawdust pit had been replaced with big chunks of foam rubber. An older boy named Pete helped to coach Jim and me several times a week. He pole vaulted at Principia College and was knowledgeable about the sport. He brought his own fiber glass pole and wore special shoes with spikes on the front. Pete taught us the techniques of the sport, like when running down the runway, lift your knees high and build up as much speed up as possible, hold the pole close to your side and swing your elbow back and forth in the rhythm of your steps, before planting the pole in the box, lift it straight over you head. Pete was patient and supportive and his techniques helped immensely. Coach asked Jim and me if we would purchase our own fiber glass poles and spikes. We both enthusiastically said we would. We felt like we were entering the big leagues. With Pete coaching us, we didn’t just practice vaulting over and over like the year before. We ran laps with the long distance guys and did wind sprints with the sprinters. We climbed up and down the rope in the gym without using our legs and jumped on the trampoline to practice twisting and landing on our backs. We lifted weights to strengthen our upper bodies. When we finally got our fiber glass poles, we meticulously wrapped grip tape around the area where our hands would hold. We rubbed our hands with some sort of white powder before each jump so they wouldn’t slip. Vaulting with the new poles was tricky. It was all about timing your jump with the bending of the pole. Pete told us to lay back and ride the pole, allowing it to complete its bend before flinging our bodies up into the air. Jim got the hang of it before I did. I was being flung all over the place, but soon learned to let the pole shoot me up and not out. By the end of our sophomore year, Jim was clearing 10’ 6” consistently and I was clearing 9 and sometimes 9’6”. We often placed first and second at track meets with other schools. Junior year a guy named Bruce showed up for practice with a fiber glass pole. He was tall, muscular and good looking. He said he’d never pole vaulted before, but thought it might be fun. Pete was no longer there to help us, so Jim and I tried to impart some of his knowledge to Bruce, but Bruce said he wanted to do it his own way. I was now vaulting over 10’ and in only a few weeks of practice Bruce passed me by and was vaulting 10’6”. Jim was closing in on 12’ at that time. At the track meets, Jim usually got first place, Bruce got second and sometimes I got third. Bruce thought I was a loser and one day he told me so. He dated the cutest girls in school and I was still afraid to ask a girl out. He was friends with the coolest kids and I had only one school friend, Jim, whom I think Bruce thought was a loser too. Jim could have beaten the crap out of Bruce and I secretly wanted him to, but Jim had no intention of doing this and didn’t seem to care what Bruce thought. Bruce never did vault higher than Jim who by the end of our junior year was clearing 13’. He won match after match. Bruce cleared twelve feet a few times and I made it over 11’ once. I changed schools for my senior year and started attending McClure High School, which was the local public school. I loved my new school and the friends I made there, but wasn’t allowed to participate in team sports because I was a new transfer. My pole vaulting career was over. Jim went on to improve in his senior year and Bruce dropped out. I think he lost interest or maybe he was frustrated because he could never beat Jim. Thinking back on those times, I remember how much I loved pole vaulting with my friend Jim and what an asshole Bruce was.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Content in the Basement

When I was six, my family moved to a house in Ferguson, Missouri about 20 miles north of St. Louis. It was closer to where my dad worked as a machinist at a match factory. The new house, a one story red brick rambler, was slightly larger than the previous one. My older sister Karen and I were excited, we would each have our own bedroom. House on Moundale Every house in the neighborhood had a basement, the family’s refuge from tornadoes, oppressive summer humidity and nuclear bombs, an important consideration in the 1950s. Our basement had a “fixed up” side and a “dirty side”. In the “fixed up’ side was a large recreation room, a smaller area next to the descending staircase and a bathroom with a sink and toilet. The floor was cream colored linoleum and the walls some sort of wood with deep grooves. At the far end of the rec room was a large toy box, but I don’t remember ever putting any toys in there. The smaller area next to the descending staircase was set up as an alternate TV room. In the summers dad would haul the cabinet TV from the living room down the stairs. Mom furnished the room with an old wood framed couch and matching chair with flower print overstuffed cushions. A large circular braided rug covered the floor and a coffee table sat in front of the couch. The family could escape to the cool damp basement on oppressive muggy mid-west nights to watch TV. I was allowed to decorate the walls of this room with my brightly colored State Pennants, souvenirs from our summer vacation travels. I thought my pennant collection added brightness and color to the otherwise dark room. When my parents bought a second TV, a portable one, they put it in the basement permanently. On Saturday mornings, I looked forward to getting up early and slipping downstairs to watch the morning children’s shows. I don’t remember the exact line up, but I do recall some of the shows, Howdy Doody, The Lone Ranger, Roy Rogers, Sky King, Fury and The Andy Devine Show. Sometimes I watched a Tarzan movie starring Johnny Weissmuller. When my friend, Paul, came over to spend the night, we would often retreat to the basement, pull the cushions off the furniture and beat each other half to death with them. Laughing the whole time, we had to force ourselves to take breaks in order to insure that neither of us would pass out from exhaustion. The cushion off the chair had a piece of plywood sewn in the bottom and it became, for one of us, a secret deadly weapon. That baby could do some serious damage. The “dirty side” of the basement had the washer and dryer on one end and dad’s workbench and table saw on the other. There were certain activities restricted to the dirty side, such as any sort of shooting activity. When I was about eight, I acquired a pump action BB rifle and a Colt 45 cartridge powered pistol with an authentic western holster. It’s a wonder I never shot my eye out. I practiced my quick draw, standing, running, jumping and tumbling, attempting to shoot my plastic army figures off of dad’s workbench where I had carefully lined them up. The BBs ricocheted off the floor and walls in a matrix pattern eventually rolling into the corners of the basement or becoming embedded in the overhead floor joists and support beams. My dad was an artist in his spare time and his “art studio” for some reason was relegated to the “dirty side” of the basement as well. He didn’t seem to mind though. He set up a desk and easel and surrounded himself with his most recent paintings. He spent hours down there in the evenings after work, painting, whistling and smoking his pipe. As a young teenager I decided that maybe the girls would notice me if I built up my scrawny physique. So dad put up a chinning bar across from his art studio and I bought a set of weights. I enjoyed the activity of lifting weights in the basement listening to the local rock ‘n’ roll radio station. After several weeks of pumping iron, I felt I was making real progress. Checking myself out in the mirror, I was certain I was looking quite muscular, but I needed to be sure, so I called up the stairs to Dad who was sitting at the kitchen table, “Dad, do you have a picture of me when I was skinny?” His immediate reply was “No, but I’ll take one.” He was quite the card. When Paul and I returned to Ferguson in our 60s to see how it had changed, to my surprise the people who currently lived in the house let us come in and look around. The elderly man took us down into the basement and showed us how they had fixed it up. It didn’t look the same. There was no more “fixed up side” and “dirty side”. It was now all just a “fixed-up side” and looked like a Las Vegas lounge. The walls were covered over with cheap paneling. A pool table sat in the center of the room with an imitation tiffany lamp hanging over it. There was no trace of Dad’s art studio, the ceiling was covered with those acoustic panels and no signs of Dad’s workbench or my chinning bar. There was no TV room and no colorful pennants on the wall. We lied and told him how nice we thought it looked. True to our Midwest heritage, we didn’t want to hurt his feelings. When the basement tour was over and we began to ascend the stairs, a slight glint of light caught my eye. I stopped and looked more closely. There lodged in the wood beam of the stairwell was a copper BB. A mixed feeling of joy and sadness came over me. Somehow this BB had managed to travel all the way from the “dirty side” to the “fixed-up” side. I’m glad my mom never saw it.