Thursday, October 27, 2005

Why I Don't Play Basketball

Growing up as an Army brat had its ups and downs. On the negative side, we were always moving every year or two. Until high school, I never had the benefit of a "lifelong childhood friend." Every bond made was temporary, and friends were disposable and soon forgotten after moving. Having gone to high school in a non-military town, I felt distinctly at a disadvantage. All of my friends had known each other since kindergarten. I had to forcibly insert myself into their lives.

However, on the positive side, moving every two years provided a much needed fresh start. This was particularly useful for me since I was a weak and nerdy kid who was often teased. In the years of elementary school through junior high school, when kids are unbelievably silly, cruel and hurtful, nicknames are given, and these names attach themselves to you like tar. Names like whitey, spaz, and, one of my most hated names, D.W.E. (which lovingly stood for Dick With Ears). Ugly names like these have a scarring effect on the life of a kid, whether he's eight, ten or sixteen. So it was always a great relief that every year or two, there was a way to purge the demons from one place, move on, and begin collecting fresh new demons in a new home.

This all leads me to my favorite nickname, which I will reveal to you later. I say "favorite" now because the mercy of time and age has softened the hurt, and I find myself more amused and nostalgic about the name with 27 years lapsed.

I was never a strong athlete, but my parent signed me up for various after-school sports. Despite my lack of coordination and, more importantly, confidence, I did enjoy the sport activities. I wasn't very good, but I enjoyed playing. So, in third grade, my folks signed me up for an after-school basketball league.

It was a brisk winter's evening on our first practice. We were walked into the gymnasium of our school after hours. It was wonderful and strange to be in the school in the dark of night. The coach was a young black GI, very tall and athletic. He was probably a staff sergeant or something who was volunteering as a coach after work. He probably had a kid on the team. I remember liking him at once and looking up to him immediately. He started us off with some basic drills: bounce passes, dribbling, chest passes. I was having fun. The smell of the gym at night, the squeak of the shoes on the highly polished wooden floor--it was all so new and exciting to me.

There were about thirty of us kids, all different ages--some of the kids were little third-graders like me, and there were bigger kids in sixth grade, and everyone in between--a real mix up of ages. We practiced for a half hour until one of the boys had to pee. Heck, then we all had to pee. Coach called a break and sent us to the boys' room. We all rushed for the doors, but when we all slammed up against the exit bar, the door wouldn't give. The gym was locked off from the school. We had no access to the regular part of the school, including the bathrooms. What were we going to do?

Being an enterprising guy, Coach decided to do the only thing he could do. He sent us all outside. Lining up against the brick wall of the school that brisk winter night, all thirty of us kids started peeing. We must have been quite a site, a chorus line of boys with all our hips all flexed forward decorating the beloved wall of our school.

I don't know what gets into the head of a hyperactive eight year old, but at that moment, standing there, I wasn't happy with my position in line. I had to be at the other end of the line. I don't know why. And the shortest distance was right down the line. Without thinking, I jumped in front of the firing squad. Oh my God. What have I done? Realizing my mistake, I sprint for the other end of the line. But it's way, way too late. The throng of boys turn into a Jedi rodeo, wildly wielding their yellow light sabers at me. Instead of accidentally peeing on me, they begin aiming for me.

It's probably one of the first instincts a boy has upon potty training, to aim for a target when peeing. My own kids really didn't understand what peeing in the potty was all about until I gave them a target or two to aim for, usually a piece of colored tissue paper shaped like an elephant or a giraffe. Even the airport at Munich makes use of this phenomenon, placing a painted housefly in the porcelain of the urinal. Well, that night in Babenhausen, my head was the porcelain fly. It was a massacre!

Drenched in urine, I began sobbing. The coach rounded up the other boys, and I could hear him chastising them. "Even if he ran in front of you, you shoulda cupped your hands over yourself!" He demonstrates the cupping motion with his hand over his crotch. But I could tell by the note in his voice that he wasn't totally buying that. It's what he had to say. Even his own natural reaction would have been to take aim and fire away. He was holding a chuckle under his breath, trying to act the proper adult role.

Still sobbing, I ran home. When I arrived at home, crying viciously and smelling of urine, my parents were horrified. What had happened?? How could this be? My Dad asked me to explain, but I told him, "No. I won't tell. You'll laugh."

"I won't laugh, Scott. Tell me. What happened?" he said.

"No, you'll laugh," I replied.

"I won't laugh," he said very seriously. "Tell me."

So I told him. And he erupts with laughter. My mother, choking back a laugh of her own, reprimands my father, "Warren! It's not funny."

My father is laughing so hard tears are forming in the corners of his eyes. My mother takes me upstairs and begins to clean me up.

For the remaining months after the incident, before moving on to Heidelberg, I was formally known as "Peehead". Everywhere I went, people who never noticed me before cheerily called out, "Hello, Peehead!" Or I'd overhear, "Did you ever hear about Peehead? One night that kid decided...." It was agony.

It was the most disgusting and hated name I had ever owned. And I deserved it, which was the worst thing. Damn, why had I done that? I just couldn't explain it. But having suffered my "basketball trauma" (as it would later be called), I would never again set foot on a basketball court. The association of this incident with basketball was too strong to overcome.

As a parent now, I want to protect my kids from everything evil and hurtful in the world. But it's incidents like this one that make me realize that I can't. My kids will have to live their own lives, and the best I can do is to try to choke back the laughter and provide them a measure of compassion. Just like my parents did.

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Please do not reproduce or copy without the permission of the author.