As a kid growing up in Guantanamo, I always wanted to be a baseball player when I grew up. My brother, my friends and I played baseball all year round. The equipment we used were the cast offs the grown ups discarded. In those days, on the naval base, the only sporting goods shop, just sold golf equipment and tennis racquets.
I still aspired to be a ball player when we moved back to the states in ’64. My goals hadn’t changed, but the neighborhood we lived in was rural. Organized baseball for kids was in the distant future. I walked around with an old glove, tossing the ball in the air. I would go to a cow pasture and toss a baseball in the air and see how far I could slug it, chase it down, then toss in the air again and hit back.
I started the 7th grade at Paxon Jr. in ’65. That’s when my goals started to change. I listened to the Beach Boys on the Radio and Jan and Dean. “Let’s go surfing now, everybody’s surfing now, com’n and go with me.” The surf and the beach were just as distant as the ball diamonds in my far off dreams but the radio was just on the outer side of my ear. For my 13th birthday, My Aunt Alice bought tickets for her daughters and I to go see the Beach Boys in concert at the coliseum. That was my initiation into the real world.
The fashion craze at school was to wear “Surf Shirts.” The stores didn’t really carry them, it was just a fad. If I wanted to wear a surf shirt, I needed to get someone to make me one. I did buy one from a friend at school then took it to my granny, who after some prodding agreed to try to sew one together for me. Soon, I had 4 or 5 shirts. Being cool at school wasn’t all that easy, but I did my best.
At 14, the beach was still a fair distance and I was years away from a drivers license. I wore my bangs down across my eyes in an attempt to emulate my idols, the Beach Boys. I made my own surf skate. Later, they started calling them skateboards. It was a crude contraption but I didn’t care. I ruined a pair of skates to build it, driving nails half way into a two by six and then bending them over to hold the skate in place. Every where I went I carried my skate board with me. I was either on it or had it under my arm.
When I turned 15, with the help of a restricted license, I was driving. I bought an 8 track and several tapes of the Beach Boys and Jan and Dean. I made several trips to Jacksonville Beach where you could rent a motorcycle or a surfboard. During warm weather I would skip school on Fridays with my friends. We would ride the city bus to the beach, spend the day having a great time and wonder on the way home how we were going to explain our sunburns to our parents.
My surfing skills mostly consisted of paddling around on one of the huge surfboards that were available at the rental store. The waves weren’t that big, so most of the time I spent paddling out past the breakers, then swimming back to the beach to retrieve my board when I fell off the side.
One day near the house I was swimming in the creek. I tried a back flip out of the top of a tree over hanging the water. When I jumped backwards, the branch sprung up and punched me in the back. The pain was so intense that I almost blacked out. The current was pushing me upstream with the tide, agonizing I grabbed a rope hanging from the tree and held on while my brother Gary went to get help. It seemed like forever but he came back with my Dad and his friend. They waded into the water to rescue me.
I was paralyzed from the middle of my back down. I could move my upper body but not my legs. The navy Hospital took some Xrays and told my Dad that it may not be permanent. Time will tell.
Recuperating, I spent the summer on the front porch laying in a lounge chair, reading all the books my Dad could carry. To escape my misery, Dad started bring some books home from the library at Cecil Field. I dove completely into the books Dad brought home. These were books that interested him when he was a kid. Three to five hundred pages a day. Most of the books were either about adventure or baseball players and their biographies. People like Ty Cobb, Jim Thorpe, Pee Wee Reese, Jackie Robinson, Phil Rizzuto and the Mick. I guess my Dad’s thinking was to get me motivated enough to get out of that chair. It worked. It took me about 3 months on the sly, to get to where I could walk baby steps.
Supposedly, to fill in a low spot, in front of the house, Dad ordered a load of sand. Right where I could see it. When he came home from work, he would stand in the middle of the pile and start spreading dirt. Tossing it left and right. He was tossing sand in low spots of the yard. Dad smoked a lot, so after 30 minutes he was done, but he would leave the shovel leaning up against the house, just out of reach from my chair.
The next day, while Dad was at work, I started my own therapy sessions. I would reach and crawl to the shovel, pull myself up into a standing position. Using the shovel to lean on, I would twist my body left and right, making baby steps. Back and forth until I got to the pile of sand. Once I got to the sand I used my arms and the shovel to pile sand around my feet so that I wouldn’t fall. Then I started spreading the sand, one small shovel full at a time. Left and right.
I made sure that I returned to my seat in the lounge chair before dad got home. It was agonizing, both the shoveling and the trips back and forth. You know what they say, “No pain, no gain.” Each day was slightly easier than the last.
The day before school was supposed to start back up for the new year, I had a piece of a stride. Not much of one, but I could make baby steps. Five or six together before I had to brace myself. After reading those sports biographies all summer, I wanted to play football. Jim Thorpe won the Olympics in a pair of shoes he found in the trash. In normal conditions, I think I would have made the team and been a pretty good player. In my present condition, to most people it would have been a joke.
I made it through the school days, in between periods, changing classes early. Leaning on lockers for moral support. I was determined that I was going to be back to normal. I was in a hurry and was too impatient for Mother Nature to take it’s course.
Have you ever heard the expression, “Suck it up?” That’s just what I did. I didn’t mention football to my Dad. He would have squashed that idea. I didn’t tell the coach about my back. Fearful that he would send me home if I told him about my back. Plus, I wasn’t looking for sympathy, I just wanted a chance to make the team. I just got in line with everybody else and tried to do the things I was told to do. He put us through the paces. Before my injury, I was probably one the fastest runners in school. Just knowing that gave me a sense of pride. I didn’t want to be beat. Sure I hurt, I hurt like hell. Funny thing about pain is, your ego can overcome it. After while pain becomes an old friend. Remember Glen Cunningham? The first man to break the four minute mile. He burned three of his toes on his left foot in a house fire. Trying too hide the fact that I could barely walk I hid in the crowd. When the coach blew the whistle and told us to line up for wind sprints though, I got up front. No matter what it took or how much I hurt, I wouldn’t let anyone get in front of me. I don’t want to remember how much it hurt. All I could think about was left, right, left right. I did my best to match every challenger step for step. If someone surged past me, it was only for a step or two. After a hundred yards we would get a 60 second breather then the coach would blow his whistle and tell us to line up again. It was murder, pure murder. Still the guys that were trying to beat me could tell I was hurting and figured they would take me this time. It never happened.
After the wind sprints, were the “Jericho Rolls.” A group of guys would stand in a circle, when the coach blew his whistle we would get in a prone position and dive over the guy next to us, while he rolled under. More agony. The pain was so intense. I kept telling myself I was stupid but I didn’t want to see any smirks on the faces of my competitors, even if I was clumsy and slow. The coach kept telling me to get with it. I don’t think I looked that athletic at the time. I needed a minute to be able to regain my feet.
I guess one of my motivating factors is the coach had just married my English teacher. The one that kept telling me that I had promise as a writer, to stay with it, to apply myself. I had a teenage crush on my teacher and she showed me favor. Now this son of bitch was her husband and he made me pay dearly. The drills helped me though in the long run. The muscles in my back seemed to respond to the rigorous training, painful as it was.
My Dad had been transferred to Viet Nam for a year. It was just me and my brothers to help Mom with our trailer park. My goal was to make the team. When the coach posted the names of the guys that had made the grade, my name was on the list. The last one. I did it, the try outs were the longest two weeks of my young life. I was still hurting, having problems moving my lower body without pain but I was able to carry myself so that if you didn’t know, it didn’t show. My Mom was in an accident soon after. Taking care of Mom, meant, no football. If the truth be known, I was happy just to make the team.
Dad must have known what he was doing when he ordered that load of sand. I bet he carefully selected every book he brought home from the library. Dizzy Dean, couldn’t read or write. His grammar was terrible yet he made a second career out broadcasting, after his pitching days were over.
Baseball wasn’t in the cards for me, ever. Too short and injury prone, I’m no Pee Wee Reese. Surfing didn’t show up on my horizons either. The closest I got to Corky Carrol was watching his Dad, James Arness on TV. No man, I was duck footed. Not overly fond of shoveling dirt, what I remember most about my convalescing period is what I gleaned from those books. When Dad started bringing home biographies of Plato, Socrates and Marcus Aurelius, I knew it was time to let him know that I was gonna be alright. If I ever see Ms. Starnes again, I just want to let her know that I am still trying to apply myself.