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|Publisher:||St. Martin's Publishing Group|
|Edition description:||First Edition|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.58(d)|
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On Sports, Men, and Dreamsâ"That Don't Die: A Memoir
By Bill Reynolds
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1998 Bill Reynolds
All rights reserved.
Sports were the glue that held my family together.
Eventually they wouldn't be strong enough to continue to bind us, but I didn't know that back in the tail end of the sleepy Eisenhower 1950s, coming of age in a suburban Rhode Island town. In retrospect, I knew almost nothing of my parents' lives then. I would be an adult before I knew my father had spent two years of his adolescence unable to see his mother, even though she lived in the same city. But I knew that my father once had played freshman football and baseball in college, knew that my mother once had been a high-school basketball star on Cape Cod, had spent winter nights taking a boat to away games on Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket. I knew that they played golf together on Sunday afternoons, and that my mother played golf on many summer mornings, would practice hitting shots in the backyard with plastic golf balls. I knew that with the exception of visiting relatives the only trips we ever took together as a family were day trips to New York and New Haven to see college football games.
So it's not surprising that sports became a way of life early, changing sports with the seasons. I was one of the youngest kids in town to make Little League, and brought to baseball a passion that bordered on fanaticism. I pored over baseball magazines, lined my bookcase with baseball cards, played whiffle ball against the side of the house, went searching for pickup games. On winter nights, I threw a ball across the room, aiming for my pillow. I played endless games of catch in the backyard, sandlot games in the neighborhood, listened to Red Sox games through the static. I cherished my first Little League uniform, treating it as if it were some family heirloom. By age ten, I was a starter on a Little League team named after a local factory that made lace, one of the few industries in the town. The next year I made the All-Star team and at twelve was named the Most Valuable Player in the entire league. For this I was given a small black trophy with a statue of a baseball player on the top of it. I put it on my desk in that autumn of my first year of junior high school and stared at it endlessly while supposedly doing homework.
Playing sports was fun, certainly more fun than anything else. I didn't have any other interests. No fishing, or camping out, like some kids in the neighborhood. No woodworking, or fascination with cars and the mysterious engines under the hoods that made them go. No stamp collecting or other hobbies. Nothing. Just sports.
In my little corner of the universe, sports were the way masculinity was defined. Being good in sports made you accepted in ways that being good in other things did not. It got you approval from parents and other adults. It got you approval from other kids in the neighborhood. Kids who were not good at sports got picked on; kids who were, did not.
This realization started very early, as soon as you started playing neighborhood games. The strongest kids, the fastest kids, the kids who were the best at games were the ones looked up to. Not the smartest. Or the ones who did the best in school. It was a lesson I learned as early as the second grade, when I used my baseball ability to be accepted by a group of cliquish kids from another neighborhood, kids who had little to do with me before. Later, in Little League, it was even more apparent. Adults went to the games, circled the field on playoff nights, patted you on the back when you did something well.
And everyone looked up to the local coaches. They were role models before we knew what the word meant. Their rules were absolute, unquestioned; if they told us to jump we asked how high. Even as young kids, we all knew the names of the high-school coaches, knew that Mr. Ainsworth, the longtime high-school gym teacher, called everyone "clobberheads," and made you scrub parts of the gym floor with a toothbrush if he caught anyone walking on it with street shoes on. Coaches had a certain status teachers did not have.
This was all taking place in Barrington, a sleepy little town about ten miles south of Providence on the road to Newport, a town in the midst of a transformation from small town to suburb.
It's a town that lies on a peninsula that juts out into Narragansett Bay. It's bordered by water on virtually three sides and by East Providence to the north, a low-lying area of marshes, estuaries, two rivers, and big shady trees. Barrington was incorporated in the early eighteenth century, first belonging to Massachusetts before becoming part of Rhode Island in the mid-1700s.
And where once Barrington had been a half hour away from Providence on a country road, now a new highway brought Providence closer, making Barrington an attractive bedroom community, a little hideaway of about 13,000 people on the bay with clean air and good schools, a place where in the late fifties you could go to bed at night and leave your doors unlocked, a place where trouble was some kid hot-rodding down a tree-lined street. A place where people came to forget their small beginnings and dream of larger futures.
Certainly my parents had begun that way. They had married in Idaho where my father was stationed during the war and had come back to Providence's leafy East Side to one upstairs room in my paternal grandfather's house, before moving to the suburbs and the American Dream, an old wooden brown house with a front porch one block from Narragansett Bay to the south. It was about a mile from the center of town where there were two gas stations, two drugstores, a church, and a small shopping center. No one ever called it downtown. It was "the Center," had been built in the late 1940s, and at night the older high-school kids would park their cars there and wait for something to happen, a party, some excitement, something, anything, a suburban version of waiting for Godot.
It was an era of Sadie Hawkins dances and homecoming queens, of poodle skirts and penny loafers. Of men who came home from working in Providence to water their lawns in the soft twilight, and women who always seemed to be home baking cookies from Betty Crocker recipes. No one had ever heard of cholesterol. No one's parents were divorced Whatever social problems there were were kept hidden behind the manicured lawns and the doors of the well-lighted homes.
I didn't know about Beatniks, or the House Un-American Activities Committee, or the "red scare" in Hollywood, or any of the fissures running underneath the placid surface of American life. Occasionally, there would be something on the television news or in the newspaper about "sit-ins" in the segregated South, but in a town without any blacks, all of this might have been happening on the far side of the moon as far as I was concerned. And if somewhere there were people in Barrington starting to question the values that ran through the town like sedimented rock, not only was I unaware of them, I never saw any evidence of it.
"The times they are a-changin'"?
Not in Barrington.
Instead, there was a sense of optimism, the feeling that you could grow up to be anything you wanted to be, an unquestioned belief that the future always was going to be a beautiful summer morning. When I was a young child, my mother would take me down to the beach at the end of the street, point across the bay to Warwick, and tell me, "I could swim to the other side with you on my back if I had to."
I never doubted her.
She also thought of herself as an athlete. She wasn't someone who stayed at home baking brownies or took any great delight in being a homemaker. In high school she had wanted to go to college in Boston to become a physical-education teacher, but her parents had sent her to secretarial school in Providence instead, where she eventually became player-coach of the girls' basketball team. She was in her thirties before she ever started playing golf, but once she started she was serious about it. She always was tinkering with her swing, hitting plastic golf balls in the backyard or going to the driving range to hit buckets of balls.
It wasn't until years afterward that I came to realize how unusual it was to have a mother who thought of herself as an athlete, especially in an era when women athletes were rare. She had been the club champion at the country club for three years straight when I was a kid, and I used to caddy for her a lot in those days. The caddying started when I was eleven, and lasted six years. Eventually, I came to know her swing better than she did, could tell her what club to hit, how far to the left a putt was going to break. At an age when many other kids began to feel alienated from their mothers, unable to relate, I was her biggest fan.
We lived in an old neighborhood in an area dominated by many summer houses that traditionally had been rented by Jewish people from Providence. It was between the two points that jutted out into Narragansett Bay, the two most prestigious addresses in town. To get to elementary school I walked past the woods across the street from my house, past the cemetery, down a hill, and past more woods. The next year, the bulldozers came and cleared out the woods across the street. Soon the houses came: big, new, pastel Colonials, houses different from the rest of the neighborhood. This was happening all over town. Barrington was growing up with me. It's conjecture who turned out better.
Running west of the Center was Maple Avenue, an inappropriately named street about a mile long. This was Barrington's Italian section, a little sliver of working class tucked into the middle of a burgeoning suburban town. Many of the families living on Maple Avenue had been there for generations, their ancestors once coming to work in the now-defunct brickyards at the turn of the century. Tightly knit, ethnic, many of the families interrelated, the Italians viewed themselves as separate from the rest of the town, resented "the Americans," as they called them, for moving in and taking over their town. They ran the shops, built the houses, performed the services for a community that was becoming more and more commuter-oriented. They were the kids I caddied with at the local Rhode Island Country Club, which looked majestically out over Narragansett Bay to the south, a private club that excluded Italians.
Sports were the only thing that bridged these two separate cultures, the only common denominator. Which is how I met Mike Raffa when I was eleven years old. He was the catcher on a rival Little League team, small, wiry, dark-haired, one of those scrappy little kids who always seem to make up in hustle what they lack in natural ability. Even at eleven there was a hunger about him, some burning need to use sports as a vehicle for social acceptance in a town where Italians were the "niggers," discriminated against, looked down upon.
We met one summer morning while caddying together and became instant friends, a bond formed by the respect we had for each other as Little League players. Raffa lived on Middle Highway, the main road perpendicular to Maple Avenue, in a one-story white frame house.
The first time I visited, it was like being in a foreign country. There were religious statues on the walls. The center of the house was the kitchen, dominated by a large table in the middle of the room. The living room was off one side. There were three small bedrooms off the other.
Eventually, his cramped house would become like a second home to me, his mother forever giving me plates of macaroni. In the insular world of the Italian community I had achieved a certain acceptance: I was Raffa's friend.
His mother had grown up in Barrington, one of nine children, the daughter of a dairy farmer who had been born in Italy. Mike's father had grown up in Providence, also first-generation Italian. Both of his parents had quit school to go to work—his father in the sixth grade after his own father had died—and both viewed work as being important, not education. So Raffa had started caddying at Rhode Island Country Club while in the third grade, caddying being a rite of passage for virtually every Italian kid in Barrington. They would sit on benches under a big Copper Beech tree in front of the white stucco clubhouse, the designated caddy area. They weren't allowed in the clubhouse, save for the hallway that went by the pro shop. They weren't allowed on the veranda in back of the clubhouse that looked majestically out over Narragansett Bay. They weren't allowed in the pool area where the snack bar was. In a club where there were no Italian members, and only a couple of Catholic ones, the message was that they were socially inferior, second-class.
It also was a message Raffa got at home. He was forever being told he wasn't like "the American kids": didn't have as much money, didn't live in the kind of houses they did, was different in some fundamental way. His father didn't want him playing sports; to Raffa's father, sports were a waste of time, a road that headed nowhere.
To Raffa, though, sports were the only thing that made him feel he had value. It was a lesson he'd first learned in Little League, and then in the sixth grade when he'd been bused to a school outside of the Italian section. Sports had been his validation, the passport to acceptance, and he played them with a burning intensity, as though his whole being hung in the balance. I needed basketball for an identity. He needed it for everything.
He started playing pickup games with a bunch of us over off Rumstick Road, a long street under a canopy of elms that led from the Center to the monied homes at the end of Rumstick Point. It was there, in Jay Sarles's backyard, that we established our own unofficial pecking order.
Sarles was lean and quick, wore glasses that gave him a sort of bookish appearance, a curious mix of athlete and academic. He always got all A's in school, and one of us would invariably say, shaking his head heavenward at the apparent incongruity of it all, that Sarles was the only one anyone knew who, when faced with the choice, would rather read the book than see the movie.
By the ninth grade Raffa, Sarles, and I were the three best players in our grade, and I had quit playing baseball and football to concentrate on basketball. Which was a big decision, one that my father tried to talk me out of. It was still the age of the three-sport star, the high-school athlete who moved through the different sports with the changing of the seasons. No one at the high school seemed to play only one sport then. The best athletes seemed to play everything, the same kids in different uniforms. It was expected.
But basketball had a built-in advantage: you could play it by yourself. And I did. Hour after hour. Day after day. Sometimes it seems as if my entire childhood was spent in the driveway behind my house where my parents long ago had put up a slightly bent orange hoop. It was a driveway that served many roles, part sanctuary, part escape, a launching pad for innumerable fantasies.
While my brother Geoff, only a year younger, listened to Elvis records, snuck cigarettes, hung out in the Center with his friends, a suburban childhood out of some Norman Rockwell magazine cover, I shot baskets by myself in the backyard. At night I'd carry a flashlight through the backyard, place it against a rock so it illuminated the basket, and shoot in the dark, the thumping of the ball and the clanging of the rim the only sounds in the residential quiet. When it snowed I shoveled the court. When it was bitterly cold and the long gray New England winter with its unrelenting leaden skies froze everything, I wore a mitten on my left hand, keeping my shooting hand free.
If all that time had been spent practicing the piano I might be in the concert halls of Europe now.
It was not.
It was spent in the driveway, playing imaginary games in my head, games in which I always won with some last-second heroics. Two nights a week I went to see the high-school team play, intoxicated by the cheers, the crowd, the excitement that ran through the packed gym like an electric current. It was all there: the blue championship banners on the walls, the frenzied cheerleaders in their blue-and-gold uniforms, the crowd that seemed to be a living, organic thing. The stars of the team became my personal heroes in ways that the Celtics—playing only an hour and a half away in Boston, and the very best basketball team in all the world—never were. I knew where the high-school players lived in town. I knew who their girlfriends were. I imagined them living always in some suspended state of grace, an exalted status conferred by playing basketball for the high school. Sometimes I would see a couple of them in the drugstore in the Center. You could buy an ice-cream cone for a nickel and watch them lounging at the counter like stars in their own movies. I never doubted for a second that I would one day become like them; never doubted that my destiny was to play on the varnished court of Barrington High School beneath all those blue championship banners and hear the cheers of an adoring crowd. At fourteen years old, in the ninth grade, that was all I wished for.
Excerpted from Glory Days by Bill Reynolds. Copyright © 1998 Bill Reynolds. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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