As Tom Brady waits to appeal a four-game suspension for his part in the NFL’s Deflate-Gate scandal, and Milwaukee Brewer’s pitcher Will Smith gets tossed for having a foreign substance on his forearm, I’m reminded of a gentler time when a young boy dreams big, then goes out does what needs to be done.
As the school year neared completion, Henry lived for Field Day, that sporting carnival where prize ribbons were up for grabs, and the atmosphere filled the air around the school grounds with the smells of burgers and hot dogs sizzling on over-sized grilles.
Notwithstanding “God has given you one face, and you make yourself another,” (Shakespeare) grade school is often where identities are formed. If you were considered X in grade school: smart–dumb, fast–slow, fat–skinny, good lookin’ or otherwise, the designation tended to stick.
In grade school Henry was considered skinny, smart and quick, traits he used against school bullies.
“Forget about him,” they’d huff, “he’s too hard to catch.”
At Henry’s school Field Day featured competitions in four events: high jump, long jump, ball throw and dash, with blue ribbons going to the winner in each class, red for second, white for third. Henry always won the dash and the long jump. But even though his dad stood over six feet, by sixth grade Henry had yet to reach a measly 5’0” in height, which frightened him, since his mom flew under the radar at 5’4”.
“Mom, come here for a second and let me ask you something,” Henry said one night before dinner as his mom bustled around the kitchen setting the table.
“What’s that dear?” she said wiping her hands on the dish towel.
Nodding in the direction of his dad, who sat with his legs crossed in the living room reading the evening paper, Henry said, “Mom, I know he’s my dad, but we are talking about that guy, right? I mean, he is my father.”
“Henry, what on earth are you talking about?”
“Mom, look at me. I’m a runt. Am I ever gonna grow? I don’t want to find out later that you had something going with a 5’6” guy while I’m trying out for the basketball team and learning improved high jump technique.”
“Henry, don’t be silly. You’ll be at least as tall as your father before you know it. Now wash your hands before we eat.”
Assuaged for the moment Henry’s immediate height constraint still was an issue in the high jump. While Henry could leap nearly his full height, even using the old-fashioned scissors technique, he still came well short of his friend Jay who, at nearly six feet, needed only to jump chest high to win. Not to say Jay wasn’t an excellent athlete; he played center on the school basketball team, quarterback on the football team, and was second fastest runner in the class. But sometimes he would get sick and not show up.
In sixth grade Jay missed Field Day. So here was Henry’s chance. With Jay out, Henry took claim to the sixth-grade high jump and long jump competitions in the morning session. Wearing two blue ribbons on his chest made him a real star at the lunch break as everyone knew he’d be picking up a third blue ribbon in the dash later that afternoon.
But first up in the afternoon session there was the ball-thrown. While Henry was a whip-armed center fielder on the school baseball team, he was also challenged by a still-tiny throwing hand. Plus, for the competition they didn’t use baseballs, which Henry could grip handily, but over-sized softballs, which he couldn’t.
Remember, though, Henry was also considered smart.
After lunch he bought a Slo Poke, nearly two full ounces of pure carmel on a stick that you could fashion into a knife if you licked it right and pulled the carmel into that shape over time with your teeth. Another good tool for fending off the bullies.
Anyway, as the teachers lined the sixth-grade class up for the ball throw, Henry waited near the end of the queue sucking away on his Slo-Poke. When his turn came in round one, he calmly patted that Slo-Poke sucker on his right palm like Oakland Raiders wide-receiver Fred Biletnikoff and defensive back Lester Hayes, who both used Stickum on their hands, forearms, and jerseys to help the football, well, stick.
With that softball well secured (and carmelized!) Henry used all his speed in the run up. And man, did that softball fly! As the center fielder on the baseball team he could peg a throw home on the fly. So it wasn’t arm strength that was the issue, just grip (See Tom Brady and Deflate-Gate).
When the ball finally thudded to earth, it was well out beyond the next best throw. So there it was, his third of now an assured four blue ribbons. Kids ringing the area came up and patted him on the back. Henry re-deposited the Slo-Poke in his kisser and just beamed, feeling just a little smug, at that.
But as he sauntered back to the group, the official who retrieved the ball felt the all-day tack Henry had left behind. He brought the ball in, and conferred with the school’s headmaster, who oversaw all the competitions. Henry waited nervously.
The headmaster was the dictionary definition of his job with bow tie, bristle moustache, close cut gray hair, and impenetrable mien. His word was law, and no more than a sideways glance could put the fear on you. All the boys, with good reason, were afraid of him.
After a short confab, the headmaster held the ball aloft and declared Henry’s winning throw invalid as it had been achieved by illicit means. The Slo-Poke, it seems, was considered a foreign substance.
“What! Are you kidding??!!” thought Henry. “That’s not cheating! It’s creative field leveling. I just made it gripable. The extra tack probably cost me a few feet.”
Henry’s protest fell on closed minds. And though he was allowed to take his second round throw – after his all-day sucker had been confiscated — the attempt fluttered harmlessly off to the right as he couldn’t fully surround enough of the softball’s mass with his little monkey paw to transfer his full arm strength into a straight line effort.
At the awards ceremony at the end of the day Henry was feted for his three blue ribbons, as he did manage to win the dash after the ball throw. And though he was the only kid in school to win three blue ribbons that Field Day, he only could remember that he had been denied the fourth.
The next two years his pal Jay returned for Field Day, and reestablished his height-advantaged dominance in the high jump. And though Henry still won other ribbons, he never went back to the ball-throw.
Yes, the foundations for life are laid in grade school. Henry finally grew, as his mom had predicted, but never quite up to his father’s full height. As the years piled on he lost his whip-thin leanness, and as for speed, well, these days he’s become a real life Slo Poke.