Physical Culture

Louise Elementary School was a magnificent old brick building to my eyes. Although constructed in an entirely functional, even stark, manner with nothing else in mind other than to beat good citizenship into our noggins, and with absolutely no thought that esthetic surroundings might serve a useful purpose to youngsters, I still loved it. It was Eisenhower personified in architecture. I learned very little history here, geography went in one ear and out the other, and mathematics was a total washout. The latter was arithmetic, really, although my sixth grade class partook of the infamous "New Math" regimen--you know, that approach which completely baffled instructors, though the kids got it at once. I sort of wish I had paid more attention at the time, for the clandestine purpose of that curriculum was to embody the notion of axiomatic systems, something that would become so important to me later in life.

But I did learn to read. More importantly, I learned to love books at Louise. The start of every school year included the ritual of distributing reading primers, intended to last an entire semester. But I always devoured them cover to cover within a couple days; I just couldn't bear to set my copy down without knowing everything Dick, Jane, Sally, Spot and Puff were up to at their grandfather's farm. As mentioned before, addictions have always come easy to me and reading was among the first of many.

Louise was situated on a decent plot of land, and just behind it was a wonderful playground. It included all sorts of dangerous appliances: a fifteen foot high three-banger swing set, an honest-to-god jungle gym constructed of zinc-plated iron bars, a shiny slide polished by countless buttocks housed in starched britches glistened blindingly like a supernova, a tetherball rig, see-saws and even a merry-go-round, all situated on a blacktop pad. Unlike the anemic play accoutrements of today molded of dayglo plastic and guaranteed safe (and hence no fun at all), here was a complete set of equipment guaranteed to sprain ankles, break arms, put out eyes and rupture groins on a regular basis. (A favorite prank was to engage someone you disliked for a little see-saw activity, wait until that person had attained his highest altitude, and then hop off with alacrity. It's a wonder more testicles weren't rendered inoperative at Louise Elementary School.)

And that blacktop! Constantly inscribed with chalked-in hopscotch patterns, and site of solo and group rope-skipping endeavors, there was always no end of bloodied knees and elbows. Kids nowadays don't know what they're missing.

But most unbelievable of all was the fact that railroad tracks ran right along the western edge of the playground, not more than ten feet from the jungle gym. Trains would come through several times a day, admittedly at less than five miles per hour, and we would place a penny on the tracks just to see it get squashed flatter than a pancake. These often became pendants on our necklaces, along with the buckeyes harvested from Mrs. Van Black's magnificent tree just a few blocks away. Nobody plants buckeyes anymore, the severely beige lindens and maples having taken over--sort of a metaphor for modern American politics, don't you think?

My point is, unlike the kids of today who are protected from everything (even flattened gonads), we lived in a more progressive time of danger all around us. It was a good way to grow up.

On the southern side of the school building lay the baseball diamond. It was paved with finely crushed limestone and shielded on Stanton Avenue (but not the railroad side) by a seven-foot high chainlink fence. Presumably, the administrators were more worried about excited kiddies running into the street and being struck by automobiles, although diesel locomotives were less of a concern.

That fence! It was so tall! It was my next challenge as a grammar school student.

Keep in mind, that I was exceedingly scrawny in those days, a trait to hound me until safe from the Viet Nam War draft. I really was the skinniest of the kids in my class, but also the tallest, until Ricky Wells came along a little later. Those sorts of things mattered to me.

So, despite my boney body with buggy whip arms and pipestem legs, I found myself becoming more and more attracted to softball. With a bit of coaching from my brother Bill, I quickly rose to the top of intramural competition. Not only was I the fastest runner (I still have no end of blue ribbons from our grade school Olympics), but I could reliably smack a homerun the longest distance of anyone in our class.

Which brings us back to the fence. Just across the street from the diamond and its fence, lived an older couple you simply wouldn't have believed: Emerson and Marie. A professor of philosophy at Iowa State, Emerson wore the cheery visage of Brigham Young, supposing the latter had just sat down pronto on a quickly released see-saw. His wife was always decked out in mens' trousers (unheard of in the fifties) and Army issue stiff leather boots. When the two promenaded down the street, it was exceedingly slow and deliberate (no doubt an attempt to convey intense ratiocination), bolt-upright, as though each were balancing an unseen volume atop, in some sort of deportment exercise. As near as we could tell, they were humorless to the nth degree. Most of my buddies were terrified of them, but they didn't trouble me particularly. Though skinny, I had already figured out at an early age how with just a little bit of thought one can trip up any adversary. Sort of like Archimedes' lever contraption to hoist Roman ships out of the sea and tip them over with nothing more than a single man's muscles.

But, again, back to that fence. Whenever a ball topped it, it would invariably wind up in their front lawn. Like clockwork, one or the other would dart out the front door and confiscate the softball, it never being seen again. You see, they hated kids. Leave it to a philosopher with that revulsion to move in next to a grade school.

And this is how I became such a fine hitter. Whenever I went to bat, the last thing on my mind was the score. Like Babe Ruth pointing to where he would smack a homer prior to actually doing so, I would mentally visualize Emerson and Marie's lawn as the intended destination and follow through unerringly. I'm not kidding, until Billy Bond came along in the fifth grade, no one could hold a candle to me when it came to belting balls out of the park. (Billy and I had a real rivalry that even caught the attention of the school principal--we were always neck and neck in footraces and softball and hated each other's guts. And he wore a crewcut.)

So there you have it, the inside story of how I became an athlete. It had nothing to do with a sense of physical accomplishment, or pushing the body to its limit or any such nonsense. I just wanted to see how much I could annoy the vinegary philosopher and his wife, while simultaneously diminishing Louise's supply of softballs.

Is the pattern coming out yet?

Next installment: The Euterpe of Stanton Avenue

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