Recently my son Patrick commented on his own blog (See link under “Son of War Baby”) that his “hippie” parents thwarted any ambitions he had to play organized sports in general, and baseball in particular. As I commented on his site, our recollections differ to some extent, but I confess that my own experiences with sports and games as a child and adolescent were almost all negative.
I have very early dream-like memories of roller skating with my brother Billy wearing the old fashioned skates that required a skate key (usually worn on a string or chain around a child’s neck). I remember making sure not to skate too fast. And even skating crouched down, knees bent, bottom resting on my heels, afraid of falling. This is an indication of the natural caution (except in affairs of the heart) that contributed to my poor showing at any sport that involved the remotest risk of physical injury.
I was a small, skinny little girl. Because of my date of birth, I entered kindergarten when I was not yet five. I don’t remember recess problems in kindergarten. First grade was the beginning of years of inadequacy and sometimes downright misery I associate with competitive sports.
In 1948 before synthetics were widely available, snow suits were much more serious, not to mention heavier than today’s brightly colored nylon stuffed with fiberfill . I vividly recall struggling with brown wool pants topped by a heavy quilted jacket with a stubborn zipper. The outfit weighed pounds, making it difficult for me to run.
We were living in Rhode Island the winter I turned six. I attended a four room school house with a bell tower (the rope for the bell was in our classroom). The only exercise facilities were a large field next to the school and a small basement, used only when it was pouring rain. My own memories of recess in winter snows are blissfully dim. However, my mother often told me that she would get tears in her eyes when she drove by the school and saw all the other children running far ahead as I trudged along, trying to catch up, a sad and solitary figure in dark brown against the white snow. I also do remember that I feared and hated recess so much that I stretched out a meager lunch ( five peanut butter and cracker sandwiches) to last throughout the entire lunch hour. This did not please my first grade teacher, Mrs. Companion. I also recall being very relieved that we moved away before the ceremonial end of my first grade year, because part of the festivities were relay races and other competitive sports, a guarantee of public humiliation. Being last, one way or another, was pretty much a description of my sports experience. I was last chosen on every team when we moved from freestyle recess to organized sports.
I wasn’t too good at hopscotch or jax either. Do any little girls still play jax any more? I remember the smell of the little red ball and how pretty the gray jax looked, almost star like with their five or six short stems with rounded ends. The object was to toss the jax and then bounce the ball and catch it with one hand while picking up the jax I think you picked up one of the jax (onesies) then two (twosies) and so on until you picked up all of them at once. If you were playing with someone else, and you faltered, it was her turn. I think you had to start from onesies each time you missed.
Jump rope was another simple game that I could not seem to master. Bad enough when I was trying to jump by myself, using the special red and white rope with red handles. When I was between two girls turning the long rope the schools always seemed to have available and chanting the required rhymes (I especially remember “Mable, Mable, set the table and don’t forget the RED HOT PEPPERS !), I was even more awkward. I would trip, or just end up running out and standing aside, dazed. Double Dutch jump rope where two ropes crossed one another overhead was worse.
Now that I know the significance of never having had depth perception, I can understand why my father’s attempts to teach me to catch or bat a ball, and my months long attempts at archery (I only managed hit a target twice!!!) failed.
It’s less understandable that I was also a failure “knock ball.” I think knockball was devised to avoid the problems many kids have with catching smaller baseballs or softballs and the possible injuries involved in many ball games. The person who was “up” stood on home base and” knocked” the ball as you would serve a volley ball. I’m pretty sure the balls we used were actually volley balls. Then you ran arouond the bases as in baseball. I couldn’t seem to get anywhere with the game. It was so bad that a sweet friend suggested I pray for a miracle: a home run. My faith was pretty simple then an I followed her advice. And, I actually did hit one home run. Wanting to be sure it wasn’t a fluke, I asked for a second. That one came too. After that, I still was chosen last, but I didn’t feel quite so helpless. I didn’t want to annoy my Heavenly Father, so I never asked for a third.
Other games, like “Red Rover,” and later speedball and soccer, that involved only a willingness to keep running across or up and down a field were much less humiliating, although I never did well. Basketball brought out my competitive spirit, but only as an agressive guard in “girls’ basketball” where we had only five players and could only run half the court.
And don’t get me started on tennis, where I was responsible for the loss of a number of balls, despite my kind parents’ paying briefly and futiley for tennis lessons. (I had pictured myself in a white shirt and tennis skirt, tanned in the warm California sun, moving gracefully about the court. Instead, I stumbled around and spent more time trying to retrieve balls from outside the court than volleying.)
All of this made me more miserable than can be imagined. In the 40’s and 50’s your social status was pretty much determined by your ability to play sports. Is it any wonder that I never became an enthusiastic Little League or soccer mom.