In Left Field
Posted on October 28, 2016
It was a great day for women, I suppose. The news came in 1972 that institutions of higher learning were now legally bound to provide equal athletic opportunities for women as they had been doing for male students since Ben Hur drove his chariot around the track at his homecoming game back in the 1st century. Before the federal law was passed, athletically enthusiastic girls had two sports to choose from: cheerleading and, in my high school, hula dancing. As the new law took effect, brand new women’s locker rooms, many of them with running water, were built in schools across the U.S.; female coaching staffs were hired and given shiny new whistles to wear around their thick necks; and scholarships, long the only way many male students could secure a higher education especially at top-tiered schools, were also doled out to deserving female high school students who showed promise on the athletic fields.
If I were athletically inclined, this could have been a very good thing for me. Although, quite frankly, I attended Cal back when the tuition was free and an A- high school student, like me, could be accepted even without being elected class president of her high school or discovering the cure for cancer. Imagine, if you can: The term “community service,” hadn’t yet found its way into our lexicon. But, had I been “sporty,” as we used to call the girls in my high school with unshaved legs, cropped hair, and a propensity for all sorts of sports particularly on the offensive side of their teams, I might have been nudged to apply to a prestigious college out of state. The girls who did shave their legs and their armpits, who had tossed around their lustrously long and straight tresses, and who could throw a ball or run a decent race found their place atop the high school pecking order. For athletic prowess, exhibited in the right dosage and in the appropriate manner and executed with long and denuded legs could yield fantastic results: Popularity! A position on the cheerleading squad, maybe. Certainly a shot to be on the arm of the blue-eyed quarterback at the next dance, which was the brass ring most of us coveted. Talk about the 1%.
Although a nearly straight-A student, I was on the high school roster B list of coolness. It was a manageable perch, being there, because I rarely worried about slipping to the netherworld below me; and I could aspire, no matter how unlikely, to higher ground. It was the stuff of my dreams, in fact. Like marrying George Harrison, it seemed anything might be possible if luck shined its high-bright beams on me. To my way of thinking, I could make friends with the A-listers, catch a fleeting glimpse of what one might experience atop the peaks and never have to don an oxygen mask because I wasn’t staying but a minute in that heady, high-altitudinal atmosphere. Like Groucho said: Hello, I must be going.
And, I knew the code. If you stayed in the background, you had plenty of scenic points from which to surveil eternally desired popular behavior. I shaved my legs and had much-admired long, red hair. I could make people laugh on occasion and help them with homework when humor wasn’t called for. In other words, I made myself useful but certainly was not indispensible. To feel as though I were necessary would be to set myself up for disappointment. Physically, I was as coordinated as the next girl. In the 1960s, who knew from concepts like stamina, conditioning, being in shape, or finding your core? You just did it—like the soon-to-come Nike slogan espoused. What I lacked was self-confidence, and what I feared most was participating in any sport activities when boys were around. In fact, the one-two punch of doom was comprised of boys AND team play. Either was scary to contemplate let alone to experience. But both? A paralyzing nightmare.
On my street about ½ mile down the way and tucked back from the road there stood a wooden three-sided structure that looked like something my nearby girlfriend’s handy father could have slapped together. Inside the shed was a bench about 2 feet off the ground, so that no one ever sat on it. Maybe two small kindergarteners could sit there, side by side, but only if they put their lunchboxes on the dirt floor beneath them.The bench would have been fully occupied just with those two tiny bottoms. It was a handy shelter for those occasionally blustery winter or hot autumn mornings where little children could cluster together to wait for the school bus.
This wooden bus stop served the sole purpose in my childhood of being a place marker. “Meet you at the bus stop,” my little girlfriends and I would say to each other with as much delight and eager anticipation as we might say a few years hence when we would rendezvous at the mall. My parents would demand that I was not to bike or walk farther than “to the bus stop,” as if the beyond its boundaries lay land mines. And, I never did go beyond it. But that was solely because to do so meant you had to bike up a steep hill on the return.
Biking to the bus stop started, I’m not sure when, to become a competition. And, once the neighbor boys got wind of this, my problems really began. I was painfully aware that even though my bike was worthy of the task, just the thought of interacting with boys made me grab the handlebars too tightly. My balance was therefore in jeopardy. When I fell in front of Brady Hendricks one day as a group of us sped to the bus stop, and he broke out in laughter, I never again got on that bicycle. Instead, I feigned a painful injury and limped home. The bike remained in our garage until my dad finally gave it away. The fear of ridicule brought me to my knees and kept me off my two-wheeler for decades.
There was no physical education that I recall at my small private school, which I attended from kindergarten through third grade. Instead, at recess, we played jacks, marbles or hopscotch in the playground. Blissfully, I floated through those early grades and the requisite outdoor play as if my hardest task were to find a place to rest in the shade.
But when my parents transferred me to our local public school in the fourth grade with its burdensome emphasis on the benefits of intramural sports and prescribed team play and the concomitant co-educational existence, my world order was kicked to the side like an out-of-bounds soccer ball.
Picking teams was a particular nightmare. In today’s pseudo-inclusive culture, this is anathema. But my young world was headed by those who got to pick the team and those who were picked. Or not picked. Somehow two special children were knighted as captains and they stood sentry in front of their classmates…eager soldiers ready to serve… forming a long line that faced the small-fry generals who held others’ destinies in their sweaty little hands. The sport rarely mattered; what was the defining qualification for being picked was popularity—or maybe allegiance. And, it was that last requisite that was my only saving grace. For years and years, grade after grade, my best friend and I were always the last two remaining to be chosen. Until one day when Clementine was chosen to select her team members. Clemmy was one of those aforementioned “sporty” types—unshaven legs, chopped off hair, who walked through life like a truck driver. But Clemmy was a team captain who wanted a winning team and also wanted to have fun. If you wanted the latter, especially, you picked my best friend and me to be on your team. We might not add much to the final score, but we sure as hell made you laugh. We were the merry pranksters in this monotonous but gruesome physical ordeal. If we laughed at ourselves first, what else was there to make fun of? A useful and life-affirming tactic always.
It was at my 20th-year high school reunion when I finally was able to thank Clemmy for helping me survive that team-picking trauma. And, when we found each other at the bar that evening so many years after the asphalt jungle of high school P.E. classes, she introduced me to her wife as I did my husband to her. Clemmy was now Carl and sported a full beard. Obviously, she still hated to shave.
When I arrived at Cal, mercifully there was not a PE requirement to meet. It was all we students could muster to get to classes each semester. We had war to protest, after all. But, somehow I managed to find a sport, more like a recreational activity, that defied my past and those accompanying traumatic experiences with team play combined with boys. I know you’ve guessed it already…
Balkan Folk Dancing. It had it all: movement, music, and the smell of marijuana. I had found my way in to a socially manageable and physically rewarding experience. If I got to class early enough, I could even manage to be partners with the cutest boy in the room, Steven. The call-and-response from the teacher combined with the most curiously exotic music created an enticingly foreign atmosphere for all. None of us knew what we were doing and so there was no benchmark by which to be measured. We all needed each other to create the movement, and together our intricate weaving patterns and clunky stomping steps fashioned a bizarre and hypnotic realm. It was as easy to be in that class as it was to play hopscotch on the playground at my small, sheltered primary school.
Steven, the cute guy in Balkan Dancing, even came with a motorcycle. He actually walked to class but when he picked me up for our first date, he pulled up on a Harley. I tossed my long red hair to one side and gracefully picked up my left leg to straddle the vehicle’s enormous leather seat. My flowered bell bottoms were so tight I was relieved that mounting the bike didn’t result in splitting my pants. He revved the engine, asked me over his right shoulder if I were cool. I said I was and with that we took off. Actually, he took off and I fell off the back. But, unlike Brady Hendricks at my local bus stop back in fourth grade, Steven, aghast at the sight of me on the pavement, rushed to my side to help me back on the bike. Astride that motorcycle, and this time, with enough sense to hold onto my handsome date, we took off—his hair and mine tangling up together in the wind. I quickly made a joke to diffuse the situation and to foster a future date possibility. Steven, I could tell, admired my wit (and my hair) and was relieved that I didn’t pout or cry or sue his careless ass.
And, I could tell that something shifted for me. I fell and I recovered. Nobody laughed but me; nobody could tell I hurt because I just climbed back on and flew down the road on a scary machine driven by a really cute guy who picked me, for a few more dates anyway, to be on his team.
Backfield in motion,