My height might have afforded a natural athlete some magnificent opportunities, but my growth rate always seemed to me ominous, like the overextension of a rubber band. In the mirror at night I would examine the stretch marks that crosshatched my middle like tribal tattoos, and I had a nightmare once in which I actually split apart and had to be patched together with special elastic substances. My bedroom was a half-refurbished cellar rec area in a home of niggardly construction. The acoustical-tiled ceiling was six feet high, and I was always parting my hair on the halo-shaped fluorescent light fixtures in the dark.
I was nearing my present height of six feet four inches by the tenth grade, and had been plagued throughout my boyhood by middle-aged men who mistook me for basketball material. I managed to avoid actual team sign-up sheets all through junior high school, but during my first senior high school gym class Coach Odarizzi took me aside and said, “Ward, with that height you could go places. Why don’t you take your glasses off and live a little?”
Somehow I found the coach’s call to action irresistible. While I was not about to dispose of my glasses (which were crucial to any slim hope of athletic accomplishment I might have had), I did in fact show up for the first junior varsity practice that year.
After the usual setting-up exercises, we were informed of our first passing pattern. Three of us were to stand side by side at the starting line, the man in the middle holding the ball. When the whistle blew, each man was to weave in among the others, passing the ball to the man directly in front. I am still a little shaky on how it was supposed to work. I guess it was like braiding, or maybe square dancing. In any case, I was in one of the first trios, and when the whistle blew and I was passed the ball, I kind of zigzagged across the court in no particular pattern, throwing the ball at whoever was handy. I think at one point I threw the ball into the air and caught it myself, but I might have imagined that.
I never could chin myself. Still can’t, without taking a little leap to start with, which is cheating. Chinning was part of our high school physical fitness test, and when my turn came (we were to chin ourselves as many times as we could in thirty seconds) I would jump up, grab hold of the bar, and just hang there, for all intents and purposes, until my time was up, or my hands slipped, or Coach Odarizzi told me to give it up.
“Work on that, Ward.” he’d mutter, jotting something down on his clipboard. (Perhaps “jotting” is not the word for it; the coach was a laborious penman who tended to bite down on his tongue as he wrote.)
I suppose Richard Walters, who was more than a hundred pounds overweight, had a harder time of it than I did. He would spend his thirty seconds jumping up and down beneath the bar in a vain effort to reach it, as the coach solemnly stood by with his stopwatch.
We usually kicked off gym class by climbing ropes to the gymnasium ceiling. I started on the smooth, knotless ropes, but after a few floor-bound, rope-burned days I was shown to the one knotted rope, before which I queued up with the anemic, the obese, and the cowardly, who could not have made it up a ladder, let alone a rope.
I would grab hold of the rope and then try to get it tangled with my legs as I dangled. Within seconds. I would get this drained feeling in my arms and down I would slide to the floor, folding up like a spider. The coach sometimes said I wasn’t trying, but he never noticed how the pits of my elbows hollowed during rope climbing—sure evidence of my exertion.
I don’t think I was ever the very last to be chosen for gym class teams, but I was usually among the last four. This group also included Richard Walters, who had about as much trouble getting around as he did chinning, a nearly blind boy named Merritt Hull who was always losing school days to urinary tract complications, and an eruptive menace named Merenski, who frequently fell into rages, kicking at groins when anyone tried to tell him what to do. By the time the choice was narrowed down to this foursome, one of the captains would say, “What the hell, at least he’s tall,” and I’d be chosen.
I still don’t know what “offsides” means, and I avoid all games in which the term is used. I played soccer once in summer camp, but only because I had to, and every few days someone would shout that I was offsides. I would always apologize profusely, and stomp around kicking at the turf, but I never knew what they were talking about.
Football huddles were a source of mystery and confusion for me. There would always be a short, feisty character who called the plays. I rarely had a key role in these plays, and usually wound up somewhere on the line, halfheartedly shoving somebody around.
But I do remember a time when, in a desperation move, the captain selected me to go out for a long one. I guess the reasoning was that no one on the opposing team would ever suspect me of such a thing. I was told, in the redolent hush of the huddle, that I was to break formation on 24, try a lateral cutback on 47, head forward on hike, and then plunket closed quarters in a weaving “T” down the straightaway. That may not have been the precise terminology, but it might as well have been.
I think I ran in place on 24, turned 360 degrees on 47, was totally ignored on hike, ran a little ways, and then turned in time to see everybody on both teams, it seemed, piling on top of the quarterback, who was shrieking, “Where are you? Where are you?” I suppose if I had gotten hold of the ball we might have managed a first down, but I don’t know what that means, either.
The first gym teacher I remember was a soft-spoken and great-jawed man named Mr. Bobbins. Mr. Bobbins took me under his wing when I showed up in the middle of the seventh grade, the new kid from India. My family had been living in India for four years, and most of us returned to find we were profoundly out of touch. It was basketball season when I arrived, and the class was already pounding up and down the court, shooting hoops. “The idea here, Andy,” Mr. Bobbins said when I confessed my ignorance of the game, “is to put the ball through the basket.”
I had known that much, but found Mr. Bobbins so reassuring that I asked, “From the top or from underneath?”
“Definitely from the top.” Mr. Bobbins replied gravely. “You won’t get anywhere the other way.”
M y gym suits fit me only in sports shop dressing rooms. By the time I got them to school they’d be several sizes too small. I don’t think I ever passed a happy hour in a gym suit, and at no time was I unhappier than during the week we had coed gymnastics. All the equipment was set up in the girls’ gym, and I guess the Phys. Ed. department figured it would be logistically too difficult to have the boys and girls trade gyms for a couple of weeks.
Nowhere was I flatter of foot, spindlier and paler of leg, more equivocal of shoulder, and heavier of acned brow than in the girls’ gymnasium. We would have to line up boy-girl-boy-girl in front of the parallel bars, and it was no picnic when my turn came. I could never straighten my arms on the parallel bars, and spent a lot of time swinging from my armpits and making exertive noises.
We had to jump over horses in gymnastics class. We were supposed to run up to the things, grab them by their handles, and swing our legs over them. This seemed to me to be an unreasonable expectation, and I always balked on my approach. “You’re always balking on your approach.” the woman gym teacher would shout at me. “Don’t balk on your approach.” Thus lacking momentum, I would manage to grab the bars and kind of climb over the things with my knees. My only comfort was in watching Richard Walters try to clear the horse, which he never did, even by climbing.
The balance beam was probably the least threatening piece of equipment as far as I was concerned. I had a fair sense of balance and enormous, clutching feet, and I could make it across all right. But when the exercise called for straddling, and my flaring shorts endangered coed decorum, I would pretend to slip from the balance beam and then hurry to the next piece of equipment.
Coed gymnastics was in some ways a mixed bag, for while there was always the agony of failing miserably and almost nakedly before the fair sex (as it was known at the time), we were afforded chances to observe the girls exercising in their turbulent Danskins. I hope I’ll never forget how Janet Gibbs moved along the balance beam, how Denise Dyktor bounced upon the trampoline, how Carol Dower arched and somersaulted across the tumbling mats. Perhaps one of the true high points of my adolescence was spotting for Suzie Hawley, who had the most beautiful, academically disruptive calves in Greenwich High School, and who happened once to slip from the high bar into my startled and grateful clutches.
But that was a fleeting delight in a context of misery. Mostly I remember just standing around, or ducking from the end of one line to the end of another, evading the apparatus and mortification of coed gymnastics as best I could.
Wrestling class was held in the cellar of the high school on gray, dusty plastic mats. Perhaps it was the cellar that made these classes seem clandestine, like cock fights. We were all paired up according to weight. I think at one point I was six feet two inches and weighed 130 pounds, and I was usually paired up with five-feettwo-inch 130-pounders, rippling little dynamos who fought with savage intensity.
I would often start off a match by collapsing into my last-ditch defensive posture, spread-eagled on my belly, clutching at the mat. That way, no matter how much Napoleonic might was brought to bear on flipping me over for a pin, one of my outstretched limbs would prevent it. I remember an opponent’s actually bursting into tears, because every time he managed to fold one of my limbs into an operable bundle, out would flop another, too distant to reach without letting go of the first. I may never have won a match this way, but at least I lost on points, not pins.
By my senior year I had really stopped taking sports—even their mortifications—very seriously. I still hated to be among the last chosen, but no more for gym teams than for anything else. I took to making jokes when it seemed to me that my teammates were getting all worked up over nothing. I winked at opposing linemen, I limped around with tennis balls in my socks, I did Gillette commercials between plays, I stuffed the soccer ball under my T-shirt and accused my teammates of getting me into trouble.
None of this went over well with the athletes among us, nor with Coach Odarizzi. “Knock it off, Ward,” he would bellow from the sidelines, “and grow up.”
Playing games still comes up from time to time, and when it does, some of the old miseries return. I pass a couple of friends who are shooting baskets on an outdoor court. “Hey, Ward,” one of them shouts. “Come on, Stretch. Let’s see what you can do.” I have mastered the weary shrug, the scornful wave, the hurried departure. But the ball is tossed my way—deftly, by a man who comes to my shoulders— before I can escape.
I make a pawing motion to gather it toward me, try to trap it in the hollow of my stomach. It rolls down my clamped legs, bounces upon one of my size fourteens, rolls listlessly away. I reach for it with a clapping movement, capture it between my palms, straighten up, and sigh.
“Okay, Ace,” someone shouts, “swish it in there.”
“It’s been a while.” I say, giving the ball a tentative bounce. I squint over the top of the ball, regard the distant basket, hold my breath, and at last, with a hunching lunge, throw the goddamn thing.
It takes a direct route to the rim of the hoop, which makes a chattering noise on contact and sends the ball back in a high arc over my head. “Man,” I say, lurching after it, “am I out of practice.”