Wednesday, September 23, 2015

I Don't Wanna Play Football

Hi Bill

I have already written about my love for baseball and what an important part of my magical young life it played. You may remember that football was also part of my childhood and adolescent life, although it was not a particularly endearing part of it.

Just like baseball, our West Plank Road neighborhood also played football. Yes, we would put on those flimsy plastic helmets and our equally flimsy plastic shoulder pads and crash into each other as hard as we could during our pickup games between teams of three or four players each, depending on how many guys were available. We also had practices under the tutelage of the older guys, i.e., you, Mike H, Mike O, and Victor P.

You were older than the Mikes and Victor and you continued attending high school in the city, where you had many good friends. You also had a part time job in the city. However, we were lucky that you made time to help us with our football skills (or lack thereof). You were especially helpful to me, teaching me how to throw and catch a football (although my hands were not big enough at first to do either of those very well). You also showed me how to block and to protect myself when I got blocked or tackled. My mantra was: “Please God don’t let those big thugs tackle or block me! Please don’t even let me touch the ball!” However, you also inspired me to “Take it like a man!” without crying, even though I felt the pain and was very scared. Eventually, you didn’t have enough time to help with our neighborhood activities due to your school, band and job responsibilities.

Mike H and Mike O continued as the neighborhood organizers/team captains and they recruited all us younger kids to play football. Well, by “recruited” I mean they told us that we were going to play! Even though we all knew that we were going to die on the field because some big ape would pulverize us, we couldn’t let them know how frightened we really were. I remember putting on the helmet and shoulder pads and feeling invincible. However, that invincible feeling vanished when I got hit with a body block or tackled when I accidentally (and reluctantly) found the ball in my hands. I tried very hard to avoid that frightening twist of fate, but I had to take one for the team every once in a while.

As we all got a little older, our neighborhood team captains (the two Mikes) began arranging games against other neighborhoods. That was a terrifying change for us younger kids, because we knew that we would have to subject our bodies to extreme brutality to be victorious for the neighborhood. We couldn’t just fall down or jump out the way when a big bruiser was barreling toward us. We had to show our prowess during those games, but us younger guys really didn’t have much prowess and didn’t want to show what we had. We just wanted to get it over with and somehow go home without any cuts, bruises, broken bones, comas, or deaths. Oh yes, we also wanted to go home as winners, but eliminating the cuts, bruises, broken bones, comas, or deaths was our biggest concern. These neighborhood teams each had conscripts of many different ages. So there would be 8 to 10 year-old’s who just tried to survive and older teammates who looked like monster trolls that wanted to win at all costs. Unfortunately, younger guys were usually sacrificed by being pushed in front of big bruisers to maybe trip them as they stomped over us. There was always lots of fear and pain, but of course crying was not to be tolerated.

It is amazing to me that those neighborhood experiences did not dissuade me from later trying to play football for our school team. I guess I reckoned that if I could survive football in the neighborhood, I could survive school football with proper equipment, coaches who hopefully know what they were doing, and officials who kept the players under control during the games. You’d think that … but naaaaah, I just wanted to impress the girls through my manly football brutality.

In any case I tried out for the football team when I was in 9th grade. I must say that I was fairly athletic, fairly strong and tall at that time. However, I certainly did not have the kind of muscular body that most football players have. Surprisingly, the coaches decided that I should be an “End” and hopefully do some blocking and catch some passes, which sounded good to me. I would also occasionally have to try to block someone or even tackle someone. Mostly I just wanted to be a hero and catch a pass or two and run like hell with the ball – hopefully toward the appropriate goal line and without getting pulverized by some 200-pounder. However, I just couldn’t get beyond those childhood football terrors!

I was surprised by the grueling hours of practice that was required to be on the football team, but I endured. Unfortunately, right before the season schedule began I injured my shoulder in practice. I’m not sure how that happened, but it could have resulted from hitting the blocking sleds or from being hit in a scrimmage game during practice. In any case I saw a doctor and x-rays revealed a slight fracture of my right scapula. I thought my football career was over, but it was not! I had to wear extra padding on that shoulder blade and lighten up on hitting during practice. Amazingly, I was able to play the entire season and I even caught a pass or two.

It was no surprise that my 9th grade football experience did not persuade me to continue playing football. It made me realize that I was just too thin and not muscular enough to endure the physical traumas that come with football. Or perhaps I was just too much of a sissy to endure it! Whatever - my football days ended after 9th grade.

Amazingly, I have fond memories of all those neighborhood football activities and my 9th grade team experiences. I don’t regret anything about those them, but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t want to tweak those experiences just a little to make me a superstar if I could. Wait … being a superstar includes too much pressure and responsibilities! Clark is happy to be a fan.

Bill - I don’t remember whether you saw any of my 9th grade football games, but they were not very memorable.

I hope you and your family are well and happy.



This was a great group of guys that I was very lucky
to have as teammates and friends.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

In The Jungle, The Mighty Jungle …

Hi Bill

Once again I have been thinking about the bygone days of my childhood and our homestead on West Plank Road. Although that neighborhood was not far from the city, it provided many aspects of a rural environment. You may remember the Hunt Club, which stabled many horses and held annual equestrian competitions. You may also remember the forested area behind (I believe south of) the Hunt Club. Now I like to call that area "Our Mysterious Jungle" because it was one of the most intriguing areas near my childhood neighborhood. You probably also remember my friends (Tom and Tim T., Pat H., Bob D. and others) who often accompanied me into that jungle.

Clark's 5th Grade Photo - 1959

The Hunt Club itself was also a wonderful place to me and my friends, because we could feed the horses and carefully pet their noses when they were outside in one of the corrals. There were wooden fences around those corrals with electrified wires on them. The horses certainly seemed to dislike those wires and so they mostly stayed away from the fences. However, us human critters could always get them to come to the fences with carrots, pieces of apple, and other stuff that the caretakers did not want us to give them. Maybe little boys back then were immune to electric shocks because we didn’t seem to worry about those little buzzes, even when we happened to lay the barrel of our metal toy six-guns on the wires. In fact it was something we just had to do when we snuck up to the corral fences to prove we were tough guys.

Anyway, the Hunt Club was on the way to "Our Mysterious Jungle", which was a favorite environment for make-believe wars, gunfights, monster attacks, and other exciting adventures. It provided an extremely dense forest with a small stream running through it. There were hardly any paths through that jungle, which made it easy to get lost and that happened to us often. However, we just roamed around until we found the winding stream and then walked upstream until we got our bearings.

Our expeditions into the jungle were always exciting and sometimes a little scary. This was “The Wild” and it was alive with creatures of all sorts. Of course the bugs were prevalent and they were ugly, beautiful, monstrous, tiny, crawly, flying, strange, and (most of all) hungry. Some of those bugs looked like big B52 bombers that were aiming to take us out. The parents always could tell when we had ventured into the jungle because of the red, swollen and itchy bites on our skin. Of course, we often captured the bugs (especially the strange ones) and brought them home where they were usually quickly executed by our parents. Then we got the lecture about not bringing bugs home and staying out of that wild forest. However, they didn’t sound like they really meant it and we considered it our duty to patrol those danger zones near our neighborhood.

Of course, we encountered more than bugs in those woods! All kinds of roving creatures including squirrels, skunks, snakes, deer, and many imaginary murderers, monsters and “Lions, and Tigers and Bears, Oh My!” were there to entertain or enslave us. Somehow we were able to fight our way to safety no matter what creatures were stalking and attacking us.

Probably the worst adversaries in those woods were the plants. They were thick, camouflaged, and ripe with noxious irritants that produced painful and itchy patches on our skin and thorns that pricked and cut us. Mercurochrome, Iodine, soothing lotions and salves were necessary after many safaris through the jungle. In addition, there were big cabbage-like plants that we called “Skunk Cabbage” because they dispersed an odor similar to skunk spray into the air and onto our clothing, especially when we kicked them. Our moms were not big fans of the skunk cabbages. However, we were men (well little men) and we didn’t cry when injured or worry about how we smelled, at least until we got home to our moms.

One of the main attractions in "Our Mysterious Jungle" was the stream that meandered through it. We would bring toy boats to float on that stream and have boat races. When we didn’t have toy boats, we would float pieces of wood. We also tried to build little dams in that stream, but they never held much water. In addition, we tried to build bridges over the stream using branches, which mostly resulted in wet boys in the stream. However, the best thing about the stream was the creatures that lived in it. We often brought small nets and containers (jars, buckets, etc.) that would hold water, which we used to catch small fish and crayfish (with multiple legs and pinchers). Then we would delight our parents by bringing them home, where we would put them in an aquarium. Unfortunately, they usually didn’t live very long but we kept trying. We also caught frogs and toads in (or near) that stream and brought them home. The toads seemed to last longer than the other creatures we caught. However, they required larger and more secure habitats. You may remember that Mom was not enthralled with me bringing toads into the house. However she did tolerate most creatures that could be contained in an aquarium.

Overall, "Our Mysterious Jungle" behind the Hunt Club provided a wonderful passage to a fantasy land for us young guys. We didn’t have many girls in our neighborhood, and the girls who were there were either younger or much older than our group of wannabe manly misfits. At that age we didn’t want to hang with the girls anyway. We lived in a man’s neighborhood and "Our Mysterious Jungle" was certainly part of that manly environment, discounting the crying from our poison ivy, bug stings, cuts, and abrasions.

Bill, I believe that you helped introduce us to "Our Mysterious Jungle" and I was proud (and happy) that you did. However, you didn’t really accompany us on most of our excursions. I wish we could visit that “Wild” place again together, but it is long gone. The entire area is full of retail stores including big-box stores now. Only our memories (as vague and insubstantial as they may be) can take us back to those wonderful days.

I hope you and your family are well and happy.

Take care.

 Sincerely Clark

My 6th Grade Class Photo - 1960
I'm the weird-looking child behind the teacher.