Love in the Time of Corona, Part 8. “Jabbo et al.”

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I’ve told this story before so if you’ve heard it, I apologize. It’s a funny story about fear, three of them actually having to do with my early experiences with athletics. 
As an adult, I turned out to be pretty athletic. Early on, someone must have pulled me aside and explained to me that if I were going to “be gay” I’d need to acquire a gym-membership post-haste and so I did. Cut too: years later, at 34 when I joined the Marine Corps, I belong to Gold’s, Crunch, and Terry Houlihan’s Boxing Gym. I played rugby in New York City in my early forties. But I’m getting ahead of myself in the story. Like a lot of little boys who grew up in Alabama, I played toy bowl football and little league baseball. That was back in the hard, tough good ole days before all that sissy t-ball stuff came along. Now that I think of it, I think the coaches actually did the pitching. In my mind’s eye, I can see her there, our couch, standing on the mound, a bandana in her hair, Daisy Dukes showed off summertime-tanned legs, slick and shiny. Truth be told, I kind of sucked at baseball. I remember one of the teammates whispering in my ear in the dugout as I was coming up in the batting rotation. He simply said, “Let it hit you and take your base!” It hurt me to the core! Oh sure, as I type this I’m laughing now. I can certainly see the comedy in a lot of these memories and God knows I could learn from his courage about now. But at the time the thought that he would rather my risk injury rather than rely on what skills I might have. The saddest part was, I shared his low estimation of my talent. I’d stand out there in Centerfield praying the ball wouldn’t come to me. I chewed the salty leather string on my baseball glove and stared at overpassing aircraft silhouetted against the sun. This all sounds blitheful and listless until you remember what I said I was supposed to be doing out there in that field and soon I’d hear the crack of the bat and screams directed toward me that the “ball!” was coming but of course when I retrained my gaze from the sun toward the direction from which the ball would be coming, all I could see was of course a big black dot from staring at our own personal star and pondering its distance instead of paying attention the baseball game. I’d try to trick the big black dot of sun blindness by darting my eyes back and forth and hoping to catch some glimpse of the ball in what was left of my peripheral vision but alas, Rodney Blankenship had made his way from right field to save the day as I continued to walk around like a drunk praying mantas trying to regain my bearings. And I’m sorry, I know that’s a pretty pathetic story to have to hear and trust me, it was no picnic having to live it but the truth is, through my experience of it, I learned something very important about myself. I learned what scares me the most. One would have thought by that point in my life it would have been fear of physical violence and even though that was present most of the time, it was actually my fear of my own feelings that scared me most, my big, ominous, uncontrollable feelings. My feelings would betray. My feelings would show everyone I wasn’t a real boy. I’d stand there in the aftermath of the botched play, feeling awful, dreading going to the dugout, and then I would feel them coming. Oh no, oh no. The wave of tears would start at the base of my neck and wash up and over the top of my head. Please don’t cry, please don’t cry. Washing down the inside of my forehead and flooding my eyes. And invariably, just at that moment, with absolutely no help from me, my team would get the third out and to the dugout we would go. I’d pull the bill of my baseball cap down over my eyes hoping no one would notice the tears. 
Years later, when I saw the movie A League of Their Own and heard Tom Hanks deliver his now-iconic line “There’s no crying in baseball!” I’m pretty sure I said out loud in the theater, “my ass.” There was most definitely crying in baseball as I played it. 
I went out for Junior High football in the 7th Grade. It was an interesting time given some of the changes that were happening inside my body (and outside for that matter). I was nearly as tall as I am now but weighed about a hundred pounds less. I look like Picasso’s etching of Don Quixote. There was this kid on the line named Jabbo. Even as a 7th Grader he looked like a Senior in high school. He was built like a fireplug and a fireplug would probably to be easier to run over than Jabbo. Everyday at practice I would pray, “Oh Lord! Please oh please don’t make me have to scrimmage against Jabbo.” He, as I said, was on the line, both offensive and defense and I was in the backfield on both so there wasn’t a huge likelihood my fear would ever come true. Yet still, everyday, “Oh Dear Lord! Please don’t let me have to scrimmage against Jabbo.” And then the day came. I think Coach Harbin had an affinity for the line because his idea on that particular day was to put the players from the backfield, one at a time, down on the line, so that they could fully appreciate what the linemen go through so they can dance around and get cheered for in the backfield. And you know who they put me up against– Jabbo! I thought, “Well I’m about to experience what I’ve been afraid of for months.” But I want you to know, when the quarterback called the count and the center snapped that ball, Jabbo’s cleats dug into that muddy Alabama field and his helmet connected with mine with what I imagine the force of a canon ball to be and it was so much worse than I had imagined. And by worse I mean like it was a hundred times worse. I had always thought the thing in cartoons when stars go around some character’s head was just for effect because we all knew what it meant but I actually saw stars. As I tried to stagger back to the huddle, it already broke and everyone knew the play but me. It didn’t really matter. I knew my job. Jabbo. I got back down on the line for another dose of thunder and lighting. It was every bit as bad that time if not a little worse and after that hit I started planning ahead about how I was going to take my mouthpiece out before I started puking which I was pretty sure was about to happen. But it didn’t. I found myself instead sucking air in and out real fast with my teeth clinched tight on that rubber mouthpiece. It tasted like grass, snot, and a bit of my blood. I got down on that line again and the next time I brought just a little more fight before ending up on my ass. I just kept coming back and put myself into sort of a trance thinking about how nice is was going to be to get home and shower and eat tacos in front of Mork and Mindy.
What I learned from the whole Jabbo thing was that even though it was worse than I had imagined, I really did waste lot of time fretting over it and in retrospect, as bad as the licks were, they couldn’t compare at all the weeks of fear. It was the fear, in the end, that was worse.
I played basketball in the 8th Grade and Mr. Taylor, the Principal, told the coach to get me a key made to the school. He wanted me to be able to practice anytime I wanted around the clock. He could see how tall I already was and he saw it as a way for me to pay for college. As an educator he was one of the few men from around there and of his generation who got to go to college. He could see I was smart and he wanted to help make college a part of my future. Mr. Taylor had also been my elementary school teacher. He’d long been in my corner. When I would get sent to the principal’s office (as you can imagine this was not infrequent), he’d give me a stern talking-to about my potential and how my clowning around was going to mess that up. I remember him giving me a couple of paddlings. I also remember a time in the fourth grade when Mrs. Rowland had cast me out of her 4th Grade class once again to “go explain that to Mr. Taylor.” After I did, and when that explanation ended up with me in tears (again). Mr. Taylor took me up into his lap. And although one could never do such a thing nowadays, I can tell you there was nothing creepy about it. Mr. Taylor had lost his arm from just below the elbow in a sheet metal machine accident as a young man. I felt the soft, warm nub against my neck and it gave me comfort. So years later, when he told the coach to give me a key, I saw him as my longtime confederate and champion. 
I’d been playing trumpet for a couple of years by then and the band director and the coach were both increasingly pushing me to choose. It was nothing personal. The practices just interfered with each other. It was a hard decision because I really did want to do both. I gave myself a week to decide. It didn’t take that long. The next day at basketball practice the coach told us all to go get jump ropes. “Get out there and get familiar with ‘em. Y’all seen Rocky.” The toe of my number 13s seemed to catch the rope on every pass. I got madder and madder with each failure. Finally, I could link together a few reps with the rope without screwing up and my confidence was building; I was bouncing right along. I can’t imagine I sang the “Miss Mary Mack” song out loud but I sure was singing it in my head. Mamma had taught it to me when I was little. I started to rotate in place as I skipped and skipped around the clock and turned away from wall I’d been facing and towards the rest of the team. About half of them were standing there slack-jawed pointing and laughing at me. The decision was made. All I got in the band room was praise. I hoped Mr. Taylor wouldn’t be too disappointed in me.
In each case when the disappoint or challenge came, it sucked. But all the cataclysmic build up to each one, the constant worry about what might possibly happen bad in this life is so much more of a punishment we heap on ourselves. Let bad shit come and go. The rest of the time should be spent making prudent preparations to be safe and healthy where possible, to help other people and to enjoy life.

People play baseball differently; some with tears, some without.
The “Jabbos” in life may put us on our ass but they will also introduce us to how much fight we have inside. 
And finally, we all have our strengths in life and we can’t all be good at everything we try. Put down the rope and walk toward the music.


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