In 1987, Bob Babbitt co-founded Competitor Magazine. One of the features of the publication was his editorial that ran at the front of the publication. This book is a collection of his favorite editorials from both Competitor Magazine and Triathlete Magazine. His stories bring out the human side of running, cycling and triathlon in a way that no one else ever has. Through humor and inspiration, this book will become a must-have for the hundreds of thousands of endurance athletes who have made these sports not just their hobbies, but an integral part of their lives.
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Never A Bad Day
“Bob Babbitt writes with an evenhanded honesty, an astute insight and an outrageous sense of humor! Whether you pound the pavement, grind the gears or slash through the water – likely all of these – his stories are sure to captivate and inspire.”
Dean Karnazes, Ultra Endurance Athlete
“Bob Babbitt has never written a sports story. His stories are about humanity and that is what makes you laugh and cry and think. Sports are just an excuse for writing words that matter.”
Ken McAlpine, award winning author of the books Off Season, Islands Apart, Fog and Together We Jump.
“Bob Babbitt is the co-founder of Competitor Magazine and a man whose grinning mug would appear on a Mount Rushmore of endurance sports.”
Austin Murphy, Sports Illustrated
“Bob Babbitt is the sage of the endurance sports world, a knowing and humorous voice who reminds us all that life is just that much better when we learn to push our personal limits.”
Martin Dugard, New York Times bestselling author of To Be A Runner and co-author of Killing Lincoln and Killing Kennedy
“Few people on Earth enjoy their jobs like Bob Babbitt. Bob is universally loved and respected. His energy is contagious. Bob is one of the best ambassadors for the endurance community. ”
Meb Keflezighi, 2004 Olympic Marathon Silver Medalist and 2009 ING New York City Marathon Champion
“If there is anyone in the world that knows anything about endurance sports it is Bob Babbitt. I love to listen to Bob’s interviews with other athletes and coaches across a variety of endurance sports because I always learn something. I am grateful for the work Bob has done in the endurance sports world. He has inspired me to be a better runner!”
Ryan Hall, two-time U.S. Olympic Marathon Team Member, 2:04:58 marathon personal best
(Left) Bob Babbitt and double above knee amputee Cody McCasland at The Muddy Buddy Ride and Run Series. photo courtesy The Competitor Group.
(Right) Bob Babbitt at the 1980 Ironman Triathlon World Championship. Photo courtesy Bob Babbitt
These columns originally appeared in Competitor Magazine and Triathlete Magazine. A huge thank you to The Competitor Group for their support of this book.
NEVER A BAD DAY
BY BOB BABBITT
Meyer & Meyer Sport
British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
Never a bad day
Maidenhead: Meyer & Meyer Sport (UK) Ltd., 2013
All rights reserved. Except for use in a review, no part of this publication maybe reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means now known or hereafter invented without the prior written permission of the publisher.
This book may not be lent, resold, hired out or otherwise disposed of by way of trade in any form, binding or cover other than that which is published, without the prior written consent of the publisher.
© 2013 by Meyer & Meyer Sport (UK) Ltd.
Auckland, Beirut, Budapest, Cairo, Cape Town, Dubai, Hägendorf, Indianapolis, Maidenhead, Singapore, Sydney, Tehran, Wien
Member of the World Sport Publishers‘ Association (WSPA)
E-Mail: [email protected]
CHAPTER ONE – MEMORIES
A DANCE THROUGH TIME
ICE WAS NICE
ALWAYS GO TO THE STICK SIDE
“YOU… WILL… GET… TALLER.”
AN ALL-STAR GAME WITH DAD
BASEBALL CARDS & CLASSIC TRIATHLONS
CHAPTER TWO – THE TRI LIFE
WHAT I’VE LEARNED
TIPS FROM THE BOTTOM
EVERYONE IN THE POOL
IT’S ALL ABOUT STYLE
LIFE IN A BUBBLE
CHAPTER THREE – PRICELESS NUGGETS
TIDBITS TO LIVE BY
SAVOR THE LITTLE THINGS
MY THOUGHTS ON “TRAINING”
WHY IT’S GOOD TO BE BAD
TAKING IT FROM SPORTS
CHAPTER FOUR – ALL IN FUN
THANK YOU … THANK YOU VERY MUCH
THANK YOU … THANK YOU VERY MUCH – PART 2
MAKE MY DAY
AN E-TICKET RIDE
MR. ED EXTRAVAGANZA
THE DIRTY DOZEN
MY BUCKET LIST … NOT!
CHAPTER FIVE – PERSEVERANCE
HE SHOCKED THE WORLD
FEAR THE KNIGHT
“I GET TO RIDE MY BIKE TODAY”
MILE MARKER 86
CHAPTER SIX – INSPIRING
CHANGING A NATION FOREVER
40 DIAPERS A DAY
LIVING THE DREAM
CHAPTER SEVEN – MIRACLES
TAZ THE WONDER DOG
RAISIN' THE BAR
CHAPTER EIGHT – MILITARY HEROES
A SALUTE TO HIS SOLDIERS
A WARRIOR FOR THE FALLEN
BOOTS AND UTES
“DON’T EVER GIVE UP”
CHAPTER NINE – LEGENDARY
“PRE” AND ROD
A TAINTED MEMORY
THE HOLY GRAIL
OUTKICKED BY A 14-YEAR-OLD
ONE AND DONE
MEANT TO BE
DAVE SCOTT’S SIGNATURE STYLE
PLAYING CATCH ON THE QUEEN K
WHY NOT DROP OUT?
CHICKEN SOUP AND A GLOW STICK
BULLY A BULLY
AN IRON GENT
THANKS FOR BELIEVING
CHAPTER TEN – GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN
“LIVE LIKE KLAUS”
A MAN WELL LOVED
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
From the age of 9, I lived in Wilmette, a small suburb north of Chicago. I grew up playing recreational baseball, football and basketball and, while I had absolutely no skills whatsoever in any of those sports, I did have an ability to get the kids from my block together for semi-organized games in the street in front of our houses. Now some might think it would be a no-brainer to get kids out to play, but I’m here to tell you that it’s a bit of an art form.
If I stop by your house and ask you to come out and play some baseball, the first question you’re asking is a simple one: Who else is playing? No big deal if I’ve got a group already committed, but if yours is the first house I’ve approached I have to be a tad creative. Even as a kid we all want to be part of something cool. If no one else is there, you’re just another dweeb with a baseball glove.
“Jimmy, Johnny, Darren and four others are in,” I’d insist. “Grab your bat and your glove and meet us out there.”
Now I’ve got to get quickly over to the other guys’ houses and have them buy in as well. I was the organizer, the guy who always arranged the games and gathered the players. It was a role I happened to excel at, and a role I have embraced every day since.
When I moved to San Diego in 1978 and created a physical education program at a small private school, we didn’t have large fields to play ball on, so I moved away from traditional sports and fell in love with running, swimming, cycling and a brand new sport called triathlon.
When I flew to Hawaii and finished the 1980 Ironman Triathlon, the third running of that event, I knew that my life had been changed forever. I felt like completing that event – which I was totally unprepared for – gave me a business card that I would carry with me for life. That card, based on finishing 2.4 miles of swimming, 112 miles of cycling and 26.2 miles of running all in a single day, would allow me to take on any challenges that came my way and to conquer any task that looked to be too ridiculous for me to overcome.
Finishing the Ironman gave me the courage to leave my job as a teacher and, along with my dearest friend, Lois Schwartz, the art teacher at that small private school, to eventually create a magazine called Competitor that would showcase the athletes, the personalities and the events that Lois and I had grown to love so much.
We didn’t rely on focus groups or statistics or someone with an MBA. Nope. We relied on our gut even though the sports we chose to cover were about as non-mainstream as humanly possible.
Over time, we expanded Competitor magazine to numerous publications around the country, added a weekly radio show called The Competitors and an awards gala called The Competitor Magazine Endurance Sports Awards. Our goal was to make something big out of something small. We believed in our heart and soul that what we were doing was right, even if advertisers sometimes chose to ignore our pitch.
But we hung tough and eventually big business started to realize that the world of endurance sports is a huge one. Now the small company that Lois and I created back in 1987 is called The Competitor Group and underneath that large umbrella are the Rock ‘N’ Roll Marathon Series, The Muddy Buddy Ride and Run Series, The Tri Rock Triathlon Series, A Woman’s Half Marathon Series plus Competitor, Triathlete, Inside Triathlon, Velo and Women’s Running magazines – along with a ton of websites.
When I first came to California, my goals were simple: l was hoping to never hold a 9 to 5 job, never work at something that wasn’t my passion, and to wear shorts to work as many days as possible. I am proud to say that I have been successful at all three.
When I speak to groups from time to time about the growth of endurance sports since the creation of Competitor magazine, I like to finish up by telling the story of a young man named Michael Collins, the son of the creators of the Ironman Triathlon, Commander John and Judy Collins.
Michael raced in the 1979 Ironman, the second edition of the event, when it was still on the island of Oahu. There were no time limits back then, Michael was only 16 years old and, after mechanical problems and much, much more, Michael ended up taking over 24 hours to finish the race.
Flash ahead to 1997. Michael and I are standing at the Ironman finish line in Kona, Hawaii, as people streamed across the line. Yes, the race was still an adventure and a long day for many, but for those who dedicated themselves to actually training for the event, they were able to have time goals for race day.
One after another, the athletes would come across the finish line, look at their watches, shake their heads and kick the ground in disgust. Their goal had been to go 11:20 and they had gone 11:30. Or their goal was 12 hours and they went 12:15. “Crap,” they’d yell, “I had a bad day!”
Michael turned to me and, without hesitating, said the following:
“These people have no idea,” he insisted. “You know what a bad day is? A bad day is when you’re out walking the Ironman marathon, you’ve been out there over 24 hours, the paper boy is coming by and he’s delivering the paper with results of a race you’re still in. Now THAT’S a bad day!”
Fortunately for me, because of the wonderful world of endurance sports and the people who have embraced it, my life has been this awesome journey filled with friends, family, memories and, of course, nothing but great days.
Jack and Jeanne Babbitt
A DANCE THROUGH TIME
ICE WAS NICE
ALWAYS GO TO THE STICK SIDE
A THOUSAND MILES
“ YOU … WILL … GET … TALLER.”
AN ALL-STAR GAME WITH DAD
BASEBALL CARDS & CLASSIC TRIATHLONS
“My dad taught me some of life’s most important lessons with these gloves. He taught me, among other things, to stay calm in the heat of battle and to hit what you aim at.”
It was only 6 p.m., but she was already in bed.
“I was so busy every day that by the time it started to get dark, I had a hard time keeping my eyes open,” remembers Jeanne.
Just as she was about to doze off, her sister Dorothy burst into the room to tell her that their Aunt Rosie and Uncle Sam were on their way over to take them to a dance at the Kramer Hotel. Jeanne quickly changed, jumped into the Buick and headed off to the dance. Not long after she arrived, a good-looking young man with jet-black hair, a ready laugh and twinkling blue eyes approached the pretty 17-year-old.
“He introduced himself as Jack Green and asked if he could dance with me,” remembers Jeanne with a smile.
She accepted, and their hands touched for the very first time. It was a meeting that would change their lives forever.
Among his friends, Jack was known as the D.D., the Designated Dancer. He had actually danced professionally for a time.
“My friends Teddy and Maury didn’t dance, but they liked to meet girls,” recalls Jack. “Teddy would say, ‘I’d like to meet that girl in the blue,’ so I’d go over, dance with her and then bring her over to meet my friend Teddy. Then Maury would say ‘I’d like to meet the girl in the pink,’ and I’d do the same thing with Maury.”
The three buddies liked to have a little bit of fun, so they preferred to travel incognito. That’s why they never gave their real last names when they were out on the town. Usually Jack went by Mr. Green, Teddy was Mr. White and Maury was Mr. Black.
“Sometimes we’d forget who was who,” laughs Jack. “It changed from night to night.”
But this night was different. Jack knew Jeanne was something special. He wasn’t about to introduce her to Maury or Ted or anyone else. She wasn’t out of Jack’s sight – or off his arm – all night long.
“While we were dancing, he asked me for a date,” remembers Jeanne. “During that date he asked me to marry him.”
Marry him? After one dance and halfway though one date?
“I had dated lots of girls,” insists Jack. “I knew right away that this was the girl for me. Period. That was it. No question about it.”
My dad Jack-you-can-call-me-Green Babbitt and my mom Jeanne waited a year after that chance encounter on a hotel dance floor in the winter of 1940 to seal the deal.
On February 16, 2006, they celebrated 65 years of marriage.
”Can I have this dance” became ”Can I spend the rest of my life with you?” And what a life it’s been – three kids (I’m the youngest), five grandchildren, six great-grandchildren and hundreds of friends. Plus, they passed on a zest for life that all of us share.
It’s still there. You can see it in their eyes after 65 years, 23,725 days and 569,400 hours together – that same look of knowing, of wonder; that same instantaneous bond that they shared for the first time on that snowy evening in Chicago. It started with a trip across the dance floor and became a trip through the second half of the 20th century and beyond.
They may have aged, but their devotion to each other has not changed a bit. No one has ever cut in.
When you love each other, time becomes immaterial.
It just seems to jitterbug on by.
The ceiling above my head was a mere four feet high. The pavement my knees scraped against was raw and abusive. As a child, the crawl space under my parents’ home was always one of my favorite places to be. It consisted of memories stored in rows and rows of boxes just waiting to be rediscovered.
My sister Judi, my brother Floyd and I all had dad-made wooden toy boxes with our names in script on the side. Floyd’s, although 10 years older than mine, was still immaculate and well organized, just like its owner. Mine is missing two wheels and a fair amount of paint. Inside, there’s a pile of cobweb-covered blue splinters with random pieces of long-forgotten games strewn among them.
I smiled and started rummaging through. Head pieces from the Rock ‘Em Sock Em’ Robots. My favorite game, electronic football (little magnetic guys and a cotton swab in the shape of a football), was still somewhat intact. Man, my friends and I could entertain ourselves for hours with that baby. Huddle up the players, tuck the cotton swab under one of their miniature arms, throw the switch and watch everyone scramble. Every time you switched the game on, every other electric appliance in the house switched off. Lucy, Desi, Fred and Ethel suddenly became an X-rated scramble. It was what you might call a maximum impact toy.
In a corner of my toy box, beneath some stuffed animals, was a pair of red boxing gloves I haven’t seen in over 35 years. Suddenly, I’m 10 years old, back in the basement, facing my dad.
He circles to the right and leads with the left. Out of nowhere, a padded glove thuds against the side of my head. I stagger back, seeing small farm animals circling my forehead. There’s the pig. Look at the size of that cow! In a fog, I try to remember my dad’s instructions: “Keep your gloves up and protect your head,” he told me over and over again. “Always protect your head.” It’s too much. My dental-floss-look-alike arms fight a losing battle, struggling to keep those mammoth red piles of padding aloft at head level, quivering from the effort.
Fathers and sons share a unique relationship. Most of our communication is of the barely spoken variety. When you’re about four or five, a glove and a ball are introduced for the first time. Not a lot of dialogue comes along for the ride. “Let’s throw” is what I remember. Further down the father-son timeline, dad introduces a full assortment of life’s props with the same type of exciting banter. From the guys I’ve talked to, “Let’s hit” accompanies a bat and usually occurs around the same time as “Let’s throw.” “Let’s drive” and “Let’s fill out these college applications” is still light years away.
I remember how the basement boxing started. I came home from school with a bloody nose after a scuffle of some sort. The next day, these red lace-up pillows entered my life. “Let’s box,” said my dad.
My dad worked late every night, so by the time he got home the rest of the family had already eaten. For the next year or so, every few weeks he appeared at my door after his dinner, gloves in hand. We would retire to the basement, silently tie them on, and then dance the pugilist tango. I was the original designated hittee, my dad the designated hitter. Left hands, right hands, combinations, uppercuts, body blows … to me the guy was a human octopus. The words were scarce, but they sunk in. “Block with the left … load up the right … protect the head.”
I’d be breathing heavy from exhaustion and panic after just a few minutes and could never remember my cues. “Block the left? Lead with the right?” I could feel my heart pounding in my head, accompanied as always by his omnipresent right jab. After 10 minutes or so, my dad would realize I had no more left to give. He would put his arm around me and tell me how good I was doing. Good? I hadn’t come close to hitting him. I was a sweaty mess and had red glove tattoos all over my anatomy.
Then one day it happened. We had been going at it for about five minutes or so. He circled left and threw a left hand. I blocked with my left and attacked with the loaded-up right. For the first time in my life, my glove actually made contact with something other than his gloves or air. I hit him in the left shoulder – a glancing blow to be sure, but a blow nonetheless. We both stopped and stood motionless. My body was heaving back and forth, the sweat dripping from my flattop into my eyes.
He smiled, blue eyes dancing, and started unlacing his gloves. Taking the hint, I unlaced mine. As always, he put his arm around me as we walked to the stairway and back upstairs. At the top of the steps, I turned right to my room and he headed back to his.
“Great shot,” was the last thing I heard before he disappeared. We never boxed again.
Back in the crawl space, I held the gloves up to the 60-watt light bulb above me. They seemed to be in pretty good shape. My dad taught me some of life’s most important lessons with these gloves. He taught me, among other things, to stay calm in the heat of battle and to hit what you aim at. I placed the gloves back in the corner of my toy box, crawled back towards the entrance and flicked off the light. My dad just happened to be walking past as I emerged. He smiled.
“Lunch?” he asked. Sounds good to me.
Thanks for the pounding and the lessons, Dad.
Mike Geier’s throw from behind the Estrin’s hedges was right on target. Mark Avrech, barreling towards the dirt spot in the street that served as second base, was a dead duck. I had the ball in my glove and enough time to read a book while waiting for him to get there. He was history. The third out was so obvious that the other guys had already tucked their gloves under their arms and were headed towards the Ford Fairlane that served as our dugout. We had decided that the Fairlane was the class car of the neighborhood because it was the only one we knew of with a hood ornament. It seemed that the driver, who I happened to be related to by birth, had hit a robin the day before and somehow it had become lodged in the radiator. Only its tiny head and beak were visible above the top of the hood. Not exactly a Jaguar, a Mercedes or a Rolls Royce flying lady, but hey, a hood ornament is a hood ornament, right?
So the guys were already on their way to the Fairlane when Mark Avrech decided he would try to dislodge the ball from the glove the best way he knew how, by dislodging my arm from my body. It was a good attempt, but after the collision – after we both hit the ground – the ball was still firmly in my glove, and he was still unequivocally out. He helped me to my feet, and as I trotted toward the Fairlane accompanied by the shouts of my teammates, the worst possible thing that can happen to a kid happened. “Bobby!” yelled my mom, “It’s time for your piano lesson!”
Being the scumbuckets they were, all the guys gave me a rousing chorus of “Bob-by! Bob-by! Time to go play the pi-an-o!” in the most derisive tone they could come up with on such short notice.
Disappointed, I kicked at the street and mumbled something about moms being created for the sole purpose of ruining every kid’s life. Then I grabbed my Johnny Antonelli autographed glove, my battered Cubs cap bent appropriately at the corners of the brim just like my hero Ernie “Let’s Play Three Today” Banks and, head down, trotted back to the house. I had the same spring in my step as you’d expect from a convicted killer as he makes the final jaunt from death row to the electric chair.
Sitting at the piano waiting patiently was Mrs. Debelva, my instructor. The redeeming part of finishing the long walk to the electric chair is knowing that it’s a one-shot deal. You never, ever have to do it again. Piano lessons, as I was beginning to find out, never end. The piano bench itself was slippery and rock hard, and Mrs. Debelva always smelled like some giant purple fruit that I never could identify. Every time I went to push one of the keys it was always the wrong one. The rest of my family appreciated my piano lessons and practice time as much as most of us would appreciate having Stevie Wonder drive us home. My brother invented the world’s first Walkman in an attempt to deal with the racket. He took two transistor radios, put one over each ear, turned them up full blast, and secured them in place with a pair of earmuffs. He would walk around the house like that until he saw Mrs. Debelva’s car pull away. My dad and sister would huddle together downstairs in the family room like they were in an air raid shelter waiting for the big one. They would keep the sound on the television set up full blast, hoping to somehow drown out the ear-splitting sounds that emanated from the living room.
My mother, though, was a real glutton for punishment. She would sit in a chair in the very same room with me and Mrs. Debelva. She would smile and hum along to the nonsense that I slammed out on a daily basis. My music was so bad that Sid Vicious would sound like one of the great masters by comparison. And, after driving the family home and listening to it, Stevie would have prayed to be deaf too. It’s not overstating the point to say that I was the absolute worst piano player in the history of the world.
Fortunately for both me and the musical world, my brief career as a pianist was about to come to an end. Mrs. Debelva had fire-red hair and spoke with a clipped French accent with an emphasis on the last syllable. “Bobby!” she said, “Today we will play Popeye the Sailor Man! Are you ready? One … two … three … go!” A very short time later, after I had played the “I am Pop …” part of the song – even before my mom started humming and swaying to the beat – Mrs. Debelva did a nose dive on middle C. Boom! She was out cold, facedown on the keyboard. A quick look down gave a hint to the reason. The bone of my left forearm was protruding through the skin, a compound fracture that was the result of my sterling defensive play at second base just minutes before. In all the excitement of the tag and the death march home, my body had yet to inform me about the trauma to my arm. Unfortunately, Mrs. Debelva was the first one to spot the injury. My mom yelled out and, before I knew it, my dad and I were in the car with the funny-looking hood ornament going for help. After an hour of frantic driving, we found a hospital and my arm was put in a cast. My brother, of course, was elated that he didn’t have to wear his earmuffs in August ever again. And, even after I healed up, no one ever mentioned taking piano lessons again. Years later, I heard that my mother suggested it once, but my dad vetoed the idea, saying something like, “Dear, don’t you think that poor woman has suffered enough?”
It was true. Mrs. Debelva had suffered plenty. For me, though, the incident was a blessing in disguise. During the period when I had the cast on my arm, I was able to hit a baseball better than I ever have, before or since. I was almost upset when the doctor said it was time for the cast to come off.
The reason I have digressed back to a childhood injury is that right now I am sitting here with a funky brace around my neck and under both arms. I made the mistake of trying to do a Greg Louganis half-gainer off my bicycle seat into the pavement the other day without the benefit of a watery entry. My collarbone was broken in two places and the doctor said it will be four to six weeks before I can expect to go out and play again. And guess what he recommended when he gave me the diagnosis? “Bob,” he said sincerely. “This might be a good time for you to pick up a new hobby. Have you ever given any thought to playing the piano?”
Gee doc, thanks for the idea; but I have to agree with my dad. I think the poor woman has suffered enough.
“Okay, we can take those off now.”
I have just finished swimming five 200-yard freestyle repeats. The water is invigorating, the pace manageable, and my lane mates and I are getting along just fine. Life is good.
The words come from up high, from the coach on deck. The sun is directly behind her, so as she speaks her face is a glowing orb. She reaches out for my pull buoy, that foam piece of heaven that you put between your legs to keep your butt up and your legs and feet from dragging. Real swimmers know how to kick. A lot of us swimmers-come-lately fight to stay above the waterline. Pull buoys are our saving grace in the pool and wetsuits do the same in open water. I cling to the pool’s gutter hoping she will give up and go away. No such luck. My pull buoy is gone, and I will have to work to stay afloat.
Suddenly I am whisked back in time and am once again five years old.
The alley behind our Chicago apartment building was runway-model narrow and paved in jagged, bicycle-tire-eating fissures. As a kid, you wonder about stuff like sidewalk and road cracks. Is someone buried underneath them? Will some cement-entombed creature one day suddenly reach a grimy tentacle up through a gaping crevice and swallow your sister whole?
As a little brother, you can only hope.
Our living situation was somewhat special. My grandfather – whom we called Poppaboy – and grandmother lived across the hall, and I had aunts, uncles and cousins living both upstairs and downstairs. We were never short of playmates or babysitters.
I remember Poppaboy’s whiskers scratching my face when he kissed me goodnight. More often than not, he’d slip the kids silver dollars whenever he came over. Obviously he – and the cash – were always welcome.
One day I “accidentally” tripped one of my cousins as she galloped by on one of those sticks with a horse head glued on top and was sentenced to two days of off-the-bike time. It was my parents’ punishment of choice, because tooling through the alley on two wheels was my favorite thing to do.
A few days later, my penalty served, I ran to the backyard to mount my steed. My dad was waiting, a big smile on his face and a big wrench in his hand.
“Today’s the day,” he said.
The day? I wondered.
“Today we’re taking off your training wheels and teaching you how to really ride a bike.”
“I already know how to really ride a bike,” I said to myself. “I’m happy, I’m safe, and what genius decided two wheels are better than four?”
But my dad was determined to take away my link to the upright world. He then voiced those same tragic words:
“OK, we can take those off now.”
The argument makes sense. Without training wheels, I would eventually achieve two-wheeled independence. For us leg draggers, pull buoys are our training wheels. Without them – the subject of today’s lesson – I would supposedly learn better balance and achieve aquatic independence.
I beg for just one more set with my friends, but the jig is up. I am forced to go it alone, to actually use my legs to stay afloat.
If Poppaboy were alive, he’d slip me a silver dollar for learning the proper way to swim. But if I had my druthers? I’d slip Poppaboy two shiny ones and swim off into the sunset, arms pulling, legs floating, butt hovering above the waterline, my beloved pull buoy firmly in place.
When I first moved to Southern California, I was amazed at the size of some of the houses and the yards, but what really blew me away were the driveways. The what? Yep, the driveways.
When you’re a California native, a driveway is, well, a driveway. When you’re from the Midwest, a driveway is something that needs to be shoveled every time it snows. A quarter-mile long uphill driveway? A major league payday.
That’s why the winter of 1961 was so weird. I was 10 years old, the month was January and the weather was cold enough to make the tips of your ears tingle and for my buddy Mike Geier to do his famous I’m-going-to-drench-my-head-in-water-go-outside-and-watch-follicles-turn-into-popsicles icicle head imitation.
But even though we could break off chunks of Mike’s hair on a daily basis, we were still awaiting our first snowfall. There were lots of clouds, lots of wind, lots of cold but no white stuff.
My spending money came with the first snowfall. Without it, I was a landscaper without lawns, a window washer without windows, Matthew McConaughey with his shirt on or Britney Spears as mother of the year. I needed and loved the snow, but the Big Guy in the sky wasn’t cooperating.
I knew that cold weather was the necessary evil that went along with snow. And snow? Merely the greatest toy ever invented.
When I got older, snow, ice and cold quickly lost their appeal. Adults have to drive to work on slippery pavement, dig out of snowplow-induced 10 foot drifts, and watch the street salt and slush do a frenzied termite imitation to the side of the Buick. And, of course, adults have to wear those fancy go-to-work clothes that never, ever keep you warm.
Kids don’t have those problems. All they have to do is put on 12 layers of clothes – none of it matching – and go frolic in the powder. They don’t have a best-dressed award. Instead, there’s the best snowball arm – the longest distance thrown and the most resourceful in a full-on snowball attack. That’s important. The biggest bummer? Getting all your snowball battle gear on and then realizing you have to completely ungear and go to the bathroom.
In our Midwestern version of a street gang, every neighborhood had its own snow fort. We would gladly sacrifice our little brother, little sister – or both – to defend it. During school hours, there was an unwritten law that no one messed with anyone else’s fort. As soon as that final bell rang though, everything – and every fort – was fair game.
A good snow fort could be six feet tall, ten feet long and eight feet wide. We’d cut peep-and-throw holes in the side of each fort and spend every waking hour making snowballs, fixing up cracks in the large snowball foundation (you could only do repairs on days when the snow was good packing) and loading up for the next battle. The game itself – the heart pounding in your chest during the chase, the redness in your cheeks after an enemy “face wash” – was all that mattered. Winning was sort of an unnecessary by-product.
Every once in a while a flurry of snowballs would hit near Mrs. Thelma Hector, who always seemed to be out walking her poodle Victor during full-scale attacks. She majored in the nasty stare, and her fashion preference was definitely a bizarre mixture of early Amish and classic Phantom of the Opera. She wore a black pointy hat and long black cape. It was sort of fun to bounce snowballs near her and Victor and then take off. The look was worth the ammo.
But this was 1961, our snowless winter. Every evening we looked skyward, hoping for snow-filled clouds. One evening, I remember things looked especially promising: full-on cloud cover. I went to bed that night excited, hoping that when I woke up everything would be blanketed in white.
As I tried to sleep, I heard a sound that was vaguely familiar but didn’t seem appropriate. If this was March through October, rain would make sense. But it wasn’t … and it didn’t.
The next morning, I woke up to a picture postcard. It had rained all night, and then the water froze. The entire neighborhood looked like a glazed donut. Perfectly formed icicles hung from the trees and the roof. The sun reflected off the ice that covered my driveway and the streets. I had never seen anything like it. After taking two steps from my house, I slid all the way down the driveway on my chin. As I lay there facedown, I wondered if I could skate on this stuff. I ran in, laced up my hockey skates, grabbed my stick, slapped some electrical tape on it and hit the street.
Before I knew it, Mike Geier and I, along with all the boys from the “hood,” were out there playing hockey in the street … on skates! It was a miracle. Our street had never, ever frozen solid before.
After a full eight hours of skating and laughing and scoring and face plants and bouncing pucks off the side of Mr. Estrin’s Ford Galaxy 500, we all collapsed exhausted on the curb. As we sat with our elbows on our knees, wordlessly watching our breath come and go in the expanding shadow of the sun, it began to snow.
The snow was what we had been waiting so long for, but no one was jumping up and down. We all knew that playing hockey in the streets had been really special. We were replaying in our minds what would turn out to be a singular adventure in our lives.
Who woulda thunk it? Winter was just about to break down and finally give us snow – but we didn’t care.
For the time being, ice was nice.
It’s about two-foot square and has jagged edges on all four sides. Next to this small tuft of carpeting is a lumpy pile of weathered black electrical tape. Home is a small box where the carpeting rooms with Cuno Barrigan, Tommy Aaron and a few of baseball’s other all-time great unknowns.
It’s not often that carpeting can make me smile, but this piece always does – guaranteed.
We heard the door close and peered out through the drapes to watch my parents and our 1962 red Ford Fairlane 500 pull away. Alpine Lane was still shiny with ice, and you could see the small puffs of cold air coming out of the mouths of each passerby, sort of like the little word bubbles you see in cartoons. The frost on the window, the icicles and the quick movements of people bucking headwinds outside told us that inside was the place to be.
The coast was clear. My cousin Glen grabbed the pillows from the couch and shoved the bigger ones under his shirt and the smaller ones into the legs of his pants. I brought the electrical tape from the tool box and pulled a line of the black stuff around Glen’s body to keep his chest protector in place. An aluminum pie plate with eye holes and a rubber band was hidden from view under the EZ Boy for just such an occasion. It was no longer a pie tin, though. It had become a cooler-than-cool hockey mask.
Glen grabbed his goalie stick, pulled on his mittens and pretended to skate in circles, just like Chicago Blackhawks goalie Glen Hall.
I, on the other hand, was working over my Bobby Hull-autographed, biggest-curve-on-the-face-of-the-earth hockey-stick-from-hell. The tennis balls appeared, and it was show time.
Glen and I had 45 minutes max to get in our game, hide all the evidence and get the room back to normal before my parents got back from lunch. I’d take 10 shots, he’d take 10 shots. The prize? BR for the week and double dessert. (BR meant Bragging Rights, and nothing made your chest puff more proudly than bragging rights.)
Cushions formed the sides and back of the goal. There were very few arguments about a goal being in or not. We knew. We both knew.
The shooter would emerge from the far bathroom, skim across the brown linoleum (a great sliding surface) and move into the carpeted part of the room. The goalie would smother any attempt to jam one in from close range, and long range shots were difficult because of the narrowness of the hallway. The best way to score was to build up some speed coming across the slick stuff and then either pound in a 12-foot slap shot or wrist one in from straight on.
Big G’s weakness was his stick hand. The guy had a magnet on the left (his glove side), but he knew – and I knew – that he could be had with a low shot to the stick side.
Wordlessly, I glanced his way. He nodded his pie-pan-covered face, and I moved in for the kill. Out of the bathroom, push up across the vinyl, a low wrist shot glove side from the carpet … GOAAAAAALLLLLLL Bobby Hull! I PF-Flyered my way around the room as the crowd on our reel-to-reel tape deck went wild.
Big G swatted his pillow-encased shins with his stick, telling himself to bear down. I chuckled. He looked like a rotund marshmallow with a metal head.
Flash Gordon was on the television in the background. Soon we would break for the show’s Grand Prize game. This consisted of a caller asking the host to turn over a particular planet and then either receiving the gift on the back or getting stiffed.
“I’ll take Saturn, Jim,” the caller would say.
“Congratulations!” replies Jim. “You just won a month’s supply of Ovaltine!”
We watched because a few weeks before someone – in the age of live television – had called in and said, “I’d like to pick Uranus.” Jim turned white and the show immediately went black. The next week, our favorite planet was missing when the show came back on the air.
Someone was picking Mars in the background, and I was picking on the Big G’s glove side again.
Blackhawk star Stan Mikita said that sometimes you can become too predictable. I smiled to myself. Forget the big guy’s weakness. I’m going right at him.
I was four out of seven when I got in a little too tight. Big G came up and out of the net, sliding right at me. I tried to lift the tennis ball over and wrist it toward the left post.
My stick stuck in the carpet and lifted out a two-foot-square patch of shag. We both froze. What do we do? Not a word was spoken.
Pie-pan face started to put all the pillows away and undo himself. I got out the black electrical tape and tried to assess the damage.
My mother is a vacuum-aholic. She could hum and vacuum all day long. Lint was the enemy, and she would seek it out relentlessly. Her Hoover would suck on this carpet until she sucked all the evidence into the hose.
This would be tough. We had to make this surgery mother-proof.
I took the piece of shag and tried to replace my divot. Stepping on it was not going to be enough.
There was no time for a major operation. I grabbed the square. Big G doubled up the tape, Flash Gordon crash-landed on some planet that looked oddly like the local forest preserve, and we jammed that puppy back into place.
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