I didn’t have an older brother, and my dad was working while going to night school, so I never really learned how to play catch or whatever else young boys supposedly learn about sports. Consequently, when I entered school, my male classmates did the only thing sensible to another child—they ridiculed me, making sure I’d be alienated.
Gym class was worse. First, I had to change in front of other boys, then spend an hour wearing shorts. They made fun of my knees (nothing wrong with them, but I didn’t know that). The “class” consisted of little more than playing Dodge Ball, or, more properly named, Slam Anyone You Can as Hard as You Can, and the more timid the target, the better. Gee—I didn’t prosper (someone should adjust the rules to allow points for the force of the tag). Sometimes we had to climb ropes—no instruction, just a drill sergeant gym teacher screaming while students helplessly swing. Other times, we practiced on spring boards or on the horse—the purpose still escapes me.
In fifth grade, when my dad was transferred, I got to enjoy going to a new school where no one knew me. What fun. Talk about bully target! I was regularly attacked on the mile long walk home by either Claus or Robelard. I spent a lot of time on my back while someone sat on me. Even my friend Mike seemed to enjoy this pastime. I didn’t. I DID learn a lot about squirming, but I wanted as much distance from these tormentors as possible.
Looking for something more fun, I pestered my parents for a bike. Our old home had been far out in the country on a highway, but now we lived in a suburb! My parents relented—although my mother wouldn’t let my sisters or me ride in the street until we could prove we had enough control to ride around the yard without wavering handlebars. What a fascist.
I rode everywhere—for hours and hours. I rode to Mike’s house. I rode to explore the surrounding countryside. I rode across town to the village library—I loved to read. A few years later, after pestering my parents again for private music lessons (which I later learned were secretly subsidized by my grandmother), I rode to the next town for music lessons. When my Boy Scout troop proposed a 50 mile bicycle trip, my fellow scout Terry and I practiced by taking several such trips (or at least as close to them as our understanding of the maps allowed).
My parents loved to camp. Every vacation, and several weekends, we headed for forest campgrounds, where I learned to climb trees—sometimes climbing 60-80 feet (I fell once, hitting several branches on the way down—getting the wind knocked out of you is wicked awesome scary, especially when you don’t understand what’s happening). “Why don’t you shinny up the trees?” asked the fascist, noticing my choice of trees with low hanging limbs. Well! I wasn’t going to let HER win! I practiced and practiced on my many long walks on forest trails, and in time, I could climb any tree strong enough to support my weight—and quickly, too. Take that, Mom!
I took another look at that gym rope. It DID look like fun, just not with the drill sergeant “helping.” I snuck into the gym from time to time to practice—no spotter. Before long, I could reach the top! The next time we did this in class, my gym teacher just looked at me in disbelief. [OK, I misplaced the fascist label.]
Sixth grade featured the class going outside from time to time to play softball. I, of course, was always chosen last, and stuck far in the outfield, I was mainly bored. One day, a batter hit a foul far to the right of first base. Well, someone had to retrieve the ball, so I headed over and caught it. My team mates went wild, rushed over, and carried me back to school—I had just, unwittingly, won us the game. A few months later, when Robelard was terrorizing me over recess, suddenly he was pulled off me—a dozen of my classmates, who had watched this all year, decided enough was enough, sharing their insights with Robelard. The bullying stopped.
In Junior High School (another new school), I briefly flirted with joining the wrestling team. One of my favorite teachers, Mr. Neufang, was the coach, our school excelled in wrestling, I liked what little I had learned about it in Gym, and I also learned something about the sport—when a new bully targeted me, the new kid who couldn’t throw an effective punch, I rushed in close and pinned the stunned attacker to the ground. A nice change—but ill fated. The school nurse/doctor had to approve us before we could join a sports term, and thus, they discovered I had a heart murmur. Before I could continue, I would need to see my own doctor and get written permission. Scared the hell out of me.
My family doctor, a wonderful man who let kids feed lollypops to his very fat dog, was not concerned. My heart murmur was congenital, not a news bulletin—and, as he explained, could very well heal (it did). “You’re not going to have a career in professional football,” he jokingly explained, “Or run up mountains” (he was wrong about that one), “But you’re fine, and there’s no reason you shouldn’t join the wrestling team.” Weeks had passed, however, and I was frustrated. “I’ve decided not to make the commitment,” I explained to him as I quit the team. “OK,” he accepted, “But you do know that you’ll have to make a commitment to whatever you decide to pursue?”
I nodded. I don’t know if he believed me, but I did understand (hey, how many people remember the name of their seventh grade teacher?). Another favorite teacher in eighth grade, Mr. Wiltze, coached the track team, and I considered it, but I had just had enough.
I still rode my bike everywhere. I rode to the next town just to have an awkward conversation with Lisa, who I thought of as my girlfriend. I met the Woodruff twins on my travels, two very gregarious boys who welcomed me into their almost non-stop basketball game—and given their popularity, other participants just learned to live with my poor skills.
High School changed things. I decided I wanted to be a professional musician, I needed lessons from professional symphony musicians, and my parents (thanks, Grandma!) eventually acquiesced. “I’d like to do this piece for NYSSMA (a state music competition),” I told my teacher, indicating the Mozart flute concerto in D. “Well, to do that,” my teacher explained, trying to discourage the choice, “you’ll need to practice 3-4 hours a day.” I missed the discouragement. I had chosen my commitment, and much to the amazement of teacher and parents alike, I practiced 3-4 hours a day.
This is not a light thing. The strain on fingers alone is extreme (when I move a finger even slightly, you can see the tendons ripple up my arm). The breath control involved in mastering wind instruments (I added bassoon to hedge my bets) at a professional level is extreme—I got up at 5 a.m. each day to run five miles before breakfast (the average person at rest breathes 12-16 times a minute—I breathe 2-3 times). I didn’t have time for sports—although a musician girl friend got me into tennis and ice skating.
I continued with Boy Scouts, enjoying the down time, just having fun. I learned to swim quite well, started mile long swims, and took lifesaving lessons from an instructor who would practically drown any student giving her the slightest opening (I’m not exaggerating). I learned to canoe quite well, including how to right a capsized canoe in the middle of a lake while fully clothed. (This proved fun when, at a camp party as an adult, I took off like a rocket in a canoe across the lake. My shepherd mix, concerned she might be left behind, took off after me. As motor boats were racing about the lake, this was dangerous, so I pulled my 90 lb. dog into the canoe without capsizing it. People were impressed. I was drenched.)
College offered me my only fun taste of sports. My housemates organized a weekly baseball game, and I tagged along. Much to my surprise, though, I wasn’t stuck in the outfield, and I wasn’t buried in the lineup. My teammates took a close look at available skills. “OK, he can’t hit far—but he always gets a hit,” they noticed, so they had me bat first. First! That’s because they also noticed I could run. So, I hit the ball, the infield jogged over for an easy out, turned to throw—and found I was already comfortably settled on first base, unpacking, ordering room service. They shook their heads. From there, they had to constantly watch me, the lead runner, as our stronger hitters batted me in. We scored a lot of runs.
The field was equally fun, for once. I wasn’t stuck in the outfield—I could catch, but I still threw like a girl, so unless I caught the hit, I wasn’t much use. Well—where do you put a guy who can’t throw but can always catch (as long as you didn’t Dodge Ball me)? I became our First Baseman. We won a lot of games.
That, though, was the last of my interest in sports. Today, I just have little time. When I can free a day or two, I go hiking in the mountains. Every day, depending on the weather, to exercise my dog and to keep in shape, I either run or cross-country ski for an hour or two along forest trails with my dog. Sometimes I’ll take off for a day in my kayak. But I just don’t have time for sports.