The two silver maples stood like sentinels in our backyard as they guarded the house with their interlocking canopies of green. During the brutal St. Louis summers when the heat and humidity would fight to reach 100F first (38C) – then stay the longest – the shade from those old squirrel-bearers represented the fringe ground of relief in a world bounded by torpor and sweat.
Strung at a height of around seven feet (2.13m) between the two trees ran a twisted rusty wire on which my mother used to hang potted flowers, part of the riot of colors she cultivated in our yard. But that old wire always represented something more to my agitated young mind than a tree-leveler or flower pot holder.
You see, I was a high jump enthusiast in my youth, just as I would become a running enthusiast in my adult years. So whether it was jumping up to touch the top of every door jamb I passed, hopping over the hedge mom had planted out front along the sidewalk, or paying a neighborhood kid a nickel to keep holding a broomstick for me to scissor over, my life was nothing but an extension of my athletic passions. On many a sweltering summer night as I lay open to the endless possibilities ahead, I dreamed of being able to leap over that wire in our backyard, because that was how high my heroes jumped.
During those growing years when athletes were still unseen giants of the imagination, two of my athletic heroes were Olympic high jumpers John Thomas of Boston, and his great rival Valery Brumel of the Soviet Union. Between the two of them Thomas and Brumel exchanged the high jump world record nine times in the early 1960s (six for Brumel, three for Thomas) as they battled for leaping supremacy when Olympic sport was a highly-charged subtext of the Cold War. (more…)