I wrote “A Hoosier Christmas” years ago. It’s much too long for a blog post [4300 words], so I have broken it into four parts. I’ll post one part each day. By the time I am ready to take a Christmas break from blogging, you will have the whole thing. So, you can either read one part each day, or wait until Thursday, Dec. 22, and scroll down to Dec. 19 and read the whole thing by scrolling back up to the 22nd.
A HOOSIER CHRISTMAS--1954
It was three on two. I was almost good enough to be on the short side of an odd-man game, but not quite. It was David and John and me against Philip and Kenny. We were beating them and crowing about it.
"Aw, man...," they whined. "This doesn't mean nothin'. It's only 'cause you've got three guys. Two on two, we'd take you any day."
They had a lot of pride at stake. They were twelve; John and I were just eleven, and David was only nine.
It would never have occurred to us to leave one "man" out for a game so the sides were even. When you played, you played with what you had--the kids, the weather, the court. Those were just the variables; no one really cared about them. The game was the thing. All you really needed was the ball.
We played in snow storms with mittens on, in rain so hard we couldn't see the basket, in heat so intense we couldn't grip the ball because of the sweat running down our arms. We played in rutted hog lots, in garages so narrow that every shot was from the corner, against barn sides that threatened a concussion every time you dared to drive to the basket. We played with fathers, cousins, uncles, friends, strangers. We played wearing stocking caps in winter, straw sombreros in summer, clodhopper high-tops or pointed-toe "street" shoes or four-buckle galoshes or P.F. Flyers. We played "horse" and "pig" and odds and evens and shirts-and-skins. We played when the only others out were "mad dogs and Englishmen," when the moon was high enough we could see the rim and when it was so low we could judge if a ball were in or out only by the sound. We were Hoosiers. We played basketball.
"Ha!" David grunted. "You couldn't take us with a ten-foot pole and the Fort Wayne Zolner Pistons to boot."
"When I get a ball to practice with, then you'll wish you were in the morgue," I predicted.
I had two obsessions that year--the morgue, which figured prominently in the radio mystery shows we listened to on Sunday afternoons, and getting my own basketball.
I started a drive for the basket that ended with the first bounce as the ball caromed wildly away. Kenny's barnyard was never smooth enough to return a dribbled ball anywhere near the player who tried it, and the early December freeze had hardened every rut and hoof-print into concrete.
"Big talk," yelled Philip, grabbing my boot-ball and heaving it in the general direction of the bankboard. "You could practice all day and not hit the side of a barn with a twelve-gauge shotgun."
"Yeah, you could practice all day and still not be able to catch a cold."
We played basketball with our feet and with our legs and with our hands, but especially with our mouths.
I walked the two miles home from Kenny's house. The dark was gathering earlier every night as we headed toward the shortest day of the year. Normally the darkness hid a whole rag-tag army of fears and dreads. They were accompanied by a sound-track of wind in dead sassafras leaves and echoes of my own steps on the hard-frozen gravel. Tonight, though, I wasn't even thinking about the anxieties that normally dogged my steps in the dark. I felt good.
I had been on the winning side, even if it had been three on two. Better yet, Christmas was coming, and I knew I was going to get a basketball. Having your own basketball defeats a whole host of fears.
We didn't play basketball during recess at school. Only the older boys got to do that. There were just two baskets, and unless you were in the seventh grade you were never chosen for the ten on ten melees that churned over the broken blacktop like a cat-and-dog fight in the funny papers. We younger boys pitched washers and commented on how poorly the chosen twenty played.
"Shit fire," exclaimed John. "If I couldn't shoot any better than that, I'd quit school and move to Kentucky."
"Those guys don't know whether to shoot or get off the pot," smirked Philip.
"They never even heard of defense," muttered Kenny."
"If I had my own ball, they'd wish they were in the morgue," said I.
Of course, none of these comments were stated loudly enough that they could be heard either by Mrs. Mason, as she made her rounds of the playground, or by the seventh grade boys as they profaned the art and drama of basketball.
Since sixth graders and lesser life forms could not play at school, and since I did not have my own ball, I could participate in the magic only by going to the home of one of my friends when I knew they were getting a game up. That was not easily done. We lived in the country and did not have a car. Sometimes, if my father did not need the horse for farm work, I could borrow a saddle from Mr. Heathman, our closest neighbor, and ride "Old Prince" to where the action was. Old Prince, however, was almost always hitched to a wagon or rake or cultivator plow. So, I walked--a mile or two or three…
Being the newest kid on Jimmy Bigham's bus route, I got the seat over the hole in the floor, which corresponded with the window that was stuck in the half-open position in the winter and the half-closed position in the spring and fall. It was a great air-conditioning system, except that in hot weather the air was laden with dust, and in the winter it circulated a chill breeze that was often laced with slush. From that strange vantage point I watched them, the boys and their basketballs. It seemed that every boy in the county had a basketball of his own. That is, every boy in the county but me. They would be shooting baskets when the bus pulled up in the morning. Some of them even had backboards that existed for the sole purpose of basketball, rather than doubling as the side of a barn; that was impressive! When Jimmy gave his impatient two hoots on the horn, they knew they had been seen and could now casually toss the ball aside, letting it lie there and wait until the bus returned them in the evening. Then I would look back and watch them as they scored two or six or even ten points against some imaginary foe before the bus had even pulled out of sight.
"If I had a ball of my own, you'd wish you were in the morgue," I would grumble at them, to myself.
How could they be so cavalier about those balls, I wondered, just leaving them outside all day like that? Probably even left them out all night, to be sure there would be no hold-up in the morning when it came time to shoot again. Certainly wouldn't want to be caught with no ball to shoot when the school bus was coming. If I has a ball of my own, I'd take care of it, and I certainly wouldn't show off with it, not me! I'd practice and practice, in secret, and then suddenly I would appear on the scene, shooting shots that no one had ever seen before, becoming a star before they even knew I had a ball. Ah, but first I had to get my hands on one of those "marvelous, magical spheroids" for myself.
We actually talked like that, even when we played.
"Toss me the spheroid," Philip would yell.
"If you want the golden globe, learn to rebound," came Kenny's retort.
"Intercept that projectile," John would instruct me.
"If I had a rounded ellipsoid of my own, you'd wish you were in the morgue," I said.
We had little idea what those words meant, except for "globe," but we learned them because we were avid readers of "The Great Scism” [Dan] who wrote the sports column to which we were addicted. For some reason, the sports writers in our time and place felt it was a loss of face to refer to "the old pig bladder," as a ball. They would try anything to avoid calling the "mystical balloon" by its given name. Reading them gave us a well-rounded education. We learned history, mythology, folklore, music, astronomy, science, Bible--all from the pages of the sports section. Furthermore, we thought those were the words that normal people used about basketball, so we spoke them as we played, dribbling the "majestic moon" trough hog manure, shooting the "amazing atom" at the side of a barn. Needless to say, we also learned the allure of alliteration.
My entire vocabulary was shaped by the ethos of basketball. I recall listening to Paul Burns, the local postmaster and a lay minister, preach one Sunday morning in the Forsythe Methodist Church. "Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner," was his text. I heard it as "Lord, have mercy on me, a center." I carefully to the sermon but could not figure out why centers were more in need of mercy than guards and forwards. This was especially disturbing since I was growing fast and assumed I would be a center.
To me, they were all wonderful words, because they all meant basketball. I ran them over in my head in the hard cold of that dark December evening, savoring them as I walked home, for I knew, as sure as I could be, that I was going to get a basketball from Uncle Ted and Aunt Nora for Christmas.
TO BE CONTINUED TOMORROW