New town. New life. Opportunities afresh. Only thing is, you’re still you.
“Hey, you play basketball?”
The shout came from a small group of kids across the road from me. They looked about my age, middle to late teens, or maybe some of them were a bit younger. One of them was a little taller than the rest, perhaps an inch taller than I was; maybe a little heavier, too. I was pretty slender. They were dressed in tees and sneakers; one of the younger-looking ones had jeans on, the rest shorts, either Bermudas or athletic ones.
I stopped walking. “Yeah,” I called back, sounding a little cautious. That was just me.
“We need a sixth. We’re a man short today. You wanna play?” The kid calling to me was kind of stocky with a black buzz cut and red cheeks. I thought he was probably a year younger than me. I’d be a senior when the next school year began in a couple of months. I guessed he’d be a junior. Most of this group looked like that.
“Thanks,” I shouted and crossed the road. This was good. I loved basketball. I’d played a lot back where I used to live. I’d thought that was something I’d be giving up, moving here. At least today, I’d be playing again. Maybe more than just today. This was exciting.
So began a new chapter in my life.
＋ ＋ ＋ ＋
This was my third day in Otterbridge, Ohio. I’d spent the first two doing slave labor for my mother, and today I’d slipped out right after breakfast while my mother was occupied studying the living room furniture. She was gazing at the results of my tedious handiwork with a bemused expression, pondering the way she’d had me set things up the day before. Today, I’d slipped out the back door quickly and quietly, utilizing my teenage stealth to secure my freedom. Two days of lifting heavy boxes and dragging heavier sofas and chairs from one location to another, carrying awkward boxes up into the attic and then back down when she realized something she needed might be in one of them, two days of moving everything from mattresses to recliners—well, I’d passed my limit. I was sure she would have a different idea about that, though, limit-wise.
Instead of more manual labor—unpaid manual labor, definitely unpaid manual labor—I’d gone for a walk. We’d moved from a city of over one million people to a town of fewer than 18,000. Dad was now director of research for a division of a large corporation that liked to have its many divisions spread far and wide. They liked their research people nestled away and separate from the distractions of a big city. They sold the idea to their employees by saying they’d have a richer family life and their kids would thrive growing up in small-town America. Dad’s division was involved in an esoteric product line, one of the sidelines of the company, and in this location their research department had only about seventy-five employees. He was the new head of the unit. He’d received a pretty nice salary bump, and that had led to him purchasing a much nicer house than we’d had before. It was located in a good area in town—on the edge of town, really, where a new development was being built. I didn’t know my way around the town at all and thought that walking through my immediate neighborhood, taking in the sights, getting a feel for the area, made much better sense than enjoying another backbreaking sweatfest with Mom.
I’d been out most of the morning. It was now going on eleven when I turned around and headed back in the direction of our house. I’d been careful not to get lost, but it would have been hard to lose my way here. We lived on a street that ran parallel to the main drag through town, and it was that main street I was then walking along.
I could see the sign saying, ‘Leaving Otterbridge—Come back soon!’ just ahead. I kept walking, passed the sign, and very quickly saw the town became countryside. I knew where our house stood was now behind me on a parallel road, but not far behind. I kept walking, delaying my return home for just a bit. I thought it would be interesting to see what was here out in the country. I wasn’t in any rush to get home for lunch and meet my mother’s inquisition about my escape that morning.
Near where the sign was posted, what had been a concrete sidewalk became a dirt path that ran alongside the road. There wasn’t much traffic; there hadn’t been all morning. I’d lived all my life before this where I’d become accustomed to a steady stream of cars on city streets, day and night. Things weren’t quite so busy here, I’d been finding. Life had slowed down.
I was no longer walking in town. Countryside would be the best way to describe my surroundings. For a born and bred city boy, this was a unique experience. I hadn’t walked far before I’d come to what seemed to be a high point, even though I hadn’t been walking up any sort of slope. It was apparent that the ground dipped away from me at this point, and I could see out over the lower-lying terrain. Farm houses freckled the distant landscape, some with barns and silos and other outbuildings. There were both wide fields of crops and some empty fields, too. Trees dotted the untended fields. The impression I got, just standing there looking around, was of great beauty and peaceful tranquility. Was that redundant, I wondered? Maybe so; I’d have to look it up. But that’s what the scene said to me, what I felt standing there, observing my new whereabouts. It gave me a sense of calm, of life being good here. And, mixed in, was the recognition that this was nothing like where I’d lived before, yet it was only a five-minute walk from where I now lived. I just stood for a few moments, absorbing the beauty of the scene.
After that, I kept strolling, leisurely, just killing time and enjoying the calm of the day, the warm late-June sunshine that was getting hotter as the day grew older. I was also very conscious of the freedom that comes with having nothing pressing that needs to be done. Enjoying being away from my tyrannical mother. Well, in truth, tyranny wasn’t her game. It was just that when she had her heart set on something, her focus sharpened on that and there was no distracting her. I’d done well to escape. I doubted she’d really hold it against me.
I stopped again and was standing there simply reflecting on the panoramic beauty laid out before me when I heard someone shouting at me.
“Hey, you play basketball?”
I’d answered and crossed the road.
“Hi, I’m Roger,” the buzz-cut guy said. “These guys are Tim, Phil, Carl, and Jimmy. You’ll sort out who’s who pretty quick. We usually have either six or eight players but could only round up five today. We play most every day. You any good?”
I told them I was Dave, Dave Catchings, and joined them as they walked on the dirt path on their side of the road going in the same direction I’d been going, away from town. I answered their question, was I any good, by telling them I loved the game, but was only so-so as a player, not good enough for the school team where I’d lived before. That seemed like an answer they approved of.
We turned in at the first house we came to. It was set back a ways from the road. Houses here were father apart and not all with front yards of the same size like one finds in the city. They weren’t all set the same distance from the road, either. The one where we turned looked to me like a farmhouse. It had a small barn behind it, and that’s where we were headed. The barn had an upstairs to it, a single room, and that room had been turned into a basketball court.
I couldn’t have known it at that time, but walking up to that barn, climbing those stairs, was the beginning for me. The six of us played just about every day that summer. Occasionally two other guys would join us, but it was usually three-on-three basketball. Their sixth man, the one missing that day I joined the group, was named Paul, and he was there sometimes but not every day. The fact I was now part of the group meant he didn’t have to show up or feel guilty about not coming, and I figured out he liked that. When he came without bringing someone with him, we played three on four, or someone rotated out and rested for a game before someone else sat out. It was warm enough most days to make sitting out pleasant. But mostly it was just us six; I was the sixth man that day and for most of the summer. The deeper into summer it got, the less frequently Paul showed up.
I should describe the main guys, the five who were regulars with me. Perhaps the way to do that is to briefly put each guy in a game situation. That’s how I knew them best: as basketball players, as friendly competitors. You get to know guys really well by competing against them. Their character emerges. You learn who they are faster and more clearly than most any other way I can think of.
I’ll start with Roger. It was his barn. Well, his parents’, really, but I didn’t see all that much of either of them. Roger was indeed a rising junior, and he was the unofficial leader of the group. A kid will get that leadership designation for any of a number of reasons, but the most usual one is his personality. Roger had that—an outgoing way, an easy confidence, and a presence about him that just made him easy to listen to. He was the one who had called out across the road to me. He was the one who did introductions, who made the decision to invite me to play with them. He was the one who, by his acceptance of me, made it possible for me to fit in so well with the others. And, of course, it was his barn.
As a player? Well, he wasn’t the best, but he did fine. We all did, some a little better, some a little worse, but we all had our roles. There was one day, early on, that showed the sort of kid Roger was.
We were playing three-on-three, Roger, Tim and Phil against me, Carl and Jimmy. Usually we played with Tim and me on different sides because we were the two tallest and pretty much the two best players. If we were together on one side, it usually wasn’t much of a game. We’d control the boards and the game.
The thing about Tim was, he was very competitive, and he had a temper. He especially had a temper when his team was losing. One time, our side was winning because Carl was hitting his shots more than usual and Roger was missing his.
I took a jump shot well away from the basket, and with the ball in the air, Tim crashed the boards as usual, but Jimmy had position on him under the basket and was able to block Tim far enough away from the boards that Carl ended up with the rebound. That’s when Tim called a foul, snatched the ball away from Carl and took it out of bounds, ready to throw it in to one of the guys on his team.
And Carl called timeout. He was pissed. “You weren’t fouled! Jimmy had a clean box-out on you. What the hell, man! If there was a foul, it was you going over Jimmy’s back. No one touched you. You were climbing all over Jimmy. Where the hell was the foul?”
“Jimmy bumped me off the ball. I would have had it, but Jimmy bumped me aside. He ran into me. It was a foul, and you know it. Stop crying. Our ball.”
Carl was turning red, and Jimmy was getting hot, too. I didn’t think there’d be a fight. There hadn’t been any since I’d started playing. Sure, there were arguments, but nothing serious. Now, Tim was calling Jimmy out, and the stop-crying comment to Carl was way over the line. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen. Tim’s team was getting beaten, he’d just been outplayed by the way Jimmy had blocked him out, he’d lost his temper, his ego became part of it all, and now, knowing he was wrong, he was challenging Carl as a way to bring the focus off of Jimmy. He didn’t want to accept that he was the one screwing up. He never wanted to do that.
Tim was taller, heavier and older than Carl. He was bigger than Jimmy, too, but not by as much as he was bigger than Carl. This was starting to look like a showdown to me. Carl didn’t like being called a crybaby. That was way out of line for a friendly game. Jimmy could accept being called for a foul that he hadn’t committed because, well, that was sort of part of the game and we all knew how Tim was: that he had a hard time admitting he was wrong about anything; Jimmy could easily let it slide. Carl was another matter. He felt belittled, and he wasn’t going to put up with it. He felt Tim was challenging him, and he had to respond. I could see it in his eyes.
I wasn’t the only one. Before Carl could react, Roger stepped between them, took the ball from Tim, and said, “I didn’t see any foul. Let’s take a break, and it’ll be Carl’s ball when we start up again.” He handed the ball to Carl, then walked off the court down the stairs. We all followed and took a rest break.
I gave that incident some thought afterwards. Well, I tend to overthink things, and that’s the sort of thing I liked to ponder on. What happened, how it happened, how it could have played out differently, why I didn’t step in . . . I could go on and on in my head with this sort of thing. But one thing was abundantly clear: Roger had stopped anything more from happening right then. Could I have? Probably not—for a couple of reasons: I was on the other team, and if I’d said it wasn’t a foul and we should get the ball back, Tim could claim I was prejudiced and just trying to win. And also, there always seemed to be a little tension between Tim and me. Probably because we were so frequently going for the same rebound, and probably because we were so often opponents who guarded each other.
But Roger. Roger could do it. It wasn’t because he was on Tim’s team; it was more than that. It was Roger being Roger, having the presence he had, and the fact he generated respect by just being himself. Roger would be the last one Tim would challenge. And in fact, he didn’t. When we were all back on the court and the game was ready to resume, Carl tossed the ball back to Roger, a conciliatory gesture, and Roger tossed the ball to me, we took it out, and that was the end of the kerfuffle.
That sort of confrontation was quite unusual. If one did pop up,
Tim always seemed to be in the middle of it. But he was one of us, and we had to learn to live with him just as much as he had to learn to live with us. That’s the way things went more often than not with most any group of boys.
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