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Saving a foot by an inch

October 15, 2010
Adirondack Daily Enterprise

Although the Petrova school of my youth was a K through 12, I don't recall any direct contact between the lower and upper grades, except in one venue - sports.

In the fall were the football games - Americana at its best. There was crisp fall air (and sometimes frigid, snow-filled air), cheerleaders, a band resplendent in uniforms that looked like they'd come from Czar Nicholas the Last's garage sale, a cheering crowd, and of course Our Boys, God Love 'Em.

As played then, football was a running game. Passing was considered as nelly as ballet or figure skating: If a guy did it, it was only out of desperation, and if discovered, it resulted in lasting shame.

Instead, we were treated to The Clash of the Titans. And what I?remember about those clashes were the sounds - mostly grunts, growls and the thuds of body on body, followed by the thuds of body on ground.

Then the stalwarts would get up, huddle, and repeat the demolition.

Inevitably, however, the flow would be disrupted when someone got his bell rung big time. Then we were treated to the 1950s equivalent of "Adam 12," when the school medico Dr. Murphy rushed out on the field, huge black bag in hand, long overcoat flapping in the wind, about to minister the finest emergency medical treatment of the day.

Back then the sports medicine arsenal had two big guns. One was Ace bandages and adhesive tape, the other was smelling salts, and their application depended on whether damage had been done to connective tissue or to brain stem, respectively. For any other injuries, the standard prescription was to "shake it off."


Basketball pool

Then there were the basketball games, which were unforgettable- not in an athletic sense, but an architectural one. They were held in the SLHS gym, which was to intelligent gym design what SUVs are to intelligent conservation.

It was rumored to have been originally designed as a swimming pool, but due to insufficient funds, was switched to a gym in mid-chlorinated-stream. I never believed that, but there's no doubt the gym was unique (meaning "as weird as it gets"). The bleachers were on only one long and one short side and they started atop an 8-foot wall. So rather than looking at the game, we looked down at it.

Another neat feature: The walls were maybe 3 feet from the court, making an out-of-bounds save as risky as riding Brahma bulls or defusing bombs. People who talk of "home court advantage" but never saw b-ball in the Petrova gym have no idea what they're talking about.

Moreover, when it came to weird sports design, our track was right up there with the best.

It was cinder-covered, something typical in a time when almost all schools were heated by coal furnaces. But what wasn't typical was its size. The track was where the bus lot is now and one lap was far less than the standard 440 yards. In fact, it was so small, the 100 yard dash couldn't be run on a straightaway.

I've got only one memory of a track meet and it's a real doozy.


The horrors of intelligent design

Because those were simpler, more naive times, especially when it came to safety, and because the track area was so small, the athletes and the spectators were cheek-to-jowl, literally. During the first meet of the 1958 season we were all jammed together on that field watching the shot put circle, where warming up for his last throw was George "Tiny" Nesbitt.

Tiny's nickname was ironic. He was big all around - big in height, big in girth, and big in heart. I don't know how much he weighed but it had to be in the range of three-large. But he wasn't all bluster and BMI: He had good coordination and was the football team's kicker, was on the basketball team, and of course was a shot-putter.

Getting psyched, Tiny huffed, puffed, flexed and frowned.

Next, he hefted the shot, first in one hand, then the other. Then he tossed it back and forth lightly, almost delicately, his face the very picture of concentration.

At last he was ready.

He got in his crouch, one arm cocked, the shot perched on his fingertips; his other arm outstretched. Stock-still, he looked like a huge coiled spring.

A long moment passed, then another, and suddenly he exploded, launching the shot up and up and up.

And "up" was it - the shot was not going out, where it was supposed to go. Instead he'd fired it to his left, over the crowd.

Higher and higher it went, till it reached its apogee, where it hung, as if suspended by sky hooks.

It was directly over us, but we stood there, transfixed, dumbfounded, unable to move.

Then in a flash, gravity took over and the shot landed in the crowd with a loud "Whoomp!"

We were all trapped in a parallel universe - one without sound, movement and time.

Finally the spell lifted, we returned to Terra Firma, and I tiptoed forward to check out the damage.

Standing alone, with no one near her, was a high school girl, as still and pale as an alabaster statue. She was gape-mouthed and goggle-eyed, staring at the ground in front of her. For there, half buried in the sod, was the shot put - not more than an inch from her left foot.

She stared at it; I stared at it; everyone stared at it.

The moment was interrupted by a movement to my right. It was Tiny, wending his way through the crowd. Then he stopped, reached down and plucked the shot out of the ground.

Then he straightened up and with an embarrassed look and an apologetic shrug said, "Musta slipped off my fingers." Then he was gone.

The girl just stood there, staring at the dimple where the shot-put had been, numb, dumb, still trying to process how close she came to having gone to The Land From Which No Traveler Ever Returns.

Seconds later, the specter of the Grim Reaper once again out of sight, and thus out of mind, everyone returned to their previous level of fun and frolic and frivolity. For all intents and purposes, the Close Call had never happened.

I went to the rest of that season's home meets. They were all without any near-death experiences or incidents of any sort and were as much fun as ever.

In fact, there was only one thing missing from them - the girl who Tiny almost took out.



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