Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Evolution of Beach Life

Returning from five near-perfect days at the beach, I'm always surprised by how different each visit feels.  The visits are stored in my own mental iCloud like reels of celluloid film, quickly becoming more fragile each time I hold a private viewing.

The first trip I can remember was around age eight...the annual family vacation that I know my parents had saved for all year.  Slick-bottomed boogie boards had yet to be invented, so kids either had the inflatable canvas rafts or the cheap vinyl version.  People usually rented the canvas rafts, but the vinyl blow-ups sold for a dollar or two and lasted for about that many days before developing a hole.  My parents spent a lot of time waving their arms for my brother and me to stay in the area directly in front of the family blanket, as the surf constantly moved us down the coastline with each ride.  We would catch waves and ride them in repeatedly until getting caught at the wrong break of a large wave which pounded us down to the sandy bottom.  It was like being churned in a mixer, and unsure which way was up.  Gasping for breath as we finally made our way back to the surface, we would sit out for a few minutes until our courage returned.  There were no skin cancer warnings, and everyone smelled of Coppertone or cheap No-Ad suntan lotion.  There was no such thing as sunblock.  All the kids in our extended family had New Delhi street beggar skin by the time August rolled around. 

Dad took us to dinner at a restaurant twice during vacations.  One night would be at Capt. Bunting's so we could all see the big fish (usually marlin) hanging on the docks while we waited to be seated, and the other night would be Phillips Seafood restaurant.  Every year, without fail, my father would lose it when the waiter took our order at Phillips.  Everyone had steamed crabs except me.  I liked crabs well enough, but for some reason I always ordered fried chicken.  He always groused at having to pay five dollars at a time when fryers sold for nineteen cents a pound.

Vacations changed when I hit fourteen.  My parents bought a lot at Susquehanna Trails and discovered the economies of camping.  I HATED everything about camping: the musty tent, sleeping bags, smelly outhouses and all.  It wasn't confined to only the summer months, but spring and fall as well.  I'd started dating and missed untold parties and events while imprisoned in the woods of Pennsylvania.  Sulking inside the tent, I tried to sleep the weekend away to make the time pass more quickly and avoid the pretense of boring campfires and marshmallows.  Desperate to escape, I landed a full-time summer job and began working part-time the rest of the year.  The extra funds helped to avoid a wardrobe from Epsteins and the dreaded bargain basement clothing of the downtown Big Four retailers.

Eventually the summer between junior and senior year of high school, I managed to convince my mother to let me spend Memorial weekend at Ocean City, Maryland with girlfriends.  Four of us banded together to save on the room rental.  We discovered the heady power of strutting on the boardwalk in bikini-clad, tanned bodies.  Parties and beer flowed, resulting in days spent on beach blankets, tanning while recovering from the previous night's excesses.  After a few hangover sunburns, we resorted to wind-up kitchen timers to "ding" loudly enough to remind us to turn over.  A slice of 9th Street pizza and a cup of Thrasher's fries were our sole sustenance.  These weekends were what we saved and lived for in high school.

Finally, the beach visits of college arrived with no restrictions.  The numbers sharing hotel rooms increased to allow more money for beer and included both sexes.  One memorable weekend included balcony jumping at a popular motel.  Unfortunately, my last jump was an epic fail from the third floor.  As my hands searched frantically for something to grab onto during the swift fall, I hit the ground and regained consciousness to find myself surrounded by people calling for an ambulance.  Luckily, I jumped to my feet and quickly walked to the elevator back to my room.  If my parents had received a call from the local Emergency Room, I knew that would be the last beach trip as long I lived under their roof.  The next day on the beach was brutal, as I'd scraped the skin off of my fingertips, and had lovely bruises blossoming from the fall.  To make matters worse, I was so hard asleep on the blanket that a friend had to wake me to advise that part of my anatomy was hanging out of my bikini top.

After I married and had kids but no money, the death march camping vacations returned.  I never considered packing, unpacking, cooking, cleaning up and swatting mosquitoes while chasing a two-year-old very relaxing.  This past week's trip was less work than those, as I stayed in a hotel with my daughter and grandkids, but the seven year old wraps herself around me like a vine whenever we sleep in a shared bed.  On the drive home, I mused that since I soon will have more free time on the weekends, I might enjoy a date or two.  Despite her selective hearing loss, the seven year old responded, " YOUR age?"

Maybe someday I'll again share a room with someone closer to my own age, toss back a few drinks and stay up past bedtime .  But no more balcony jumping.     

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Pilot Light

The phone rang yesterday.  I wasn't home, so the blinking red light on the answering machine called to me when I returned.  As I listened to the recording, a tousled blonde voice jerked my heart back half a century to a silver-grey Vespa piloted by a six foot tall teen Adonis.  He called to find out when "The Body War" - the sequel to my book, "Ednor Scardens" - would be available.  The first time he read it out of curiosity, wondering what lay between the covers of a story written by someone he knew.  Satisfied, he put it aside until recently, when he read it again more slowly, dissecting the clues buried in the main characters: a certain phrase, an expressive description, or a setting that no longer exists. Unable to resist, he had to ask how much of himself had been poured into the young alpha male of the story, Michael Kelsey. 

He is still happily married to his lovely wife with whom he has several adult children.  I am not, having unwisely married my childhood off-again, on-again boyfriend who had traded me in for a newer model some years back, so I couldn't help a bittersweet 'what if' moment.  My caller had been the love of my life when I was fifteen, until an unfortunate convergence of misunderstandings brought our relationship to an abrupt end.

We were at a dance and a mutual male friend approached during a band break.

"I always wanted to go out with you," the friend said, out of the blue.  Caught off-guard, I blurted what I thought was a polite reply.  "I always wanted to go out with you, too."  And the evening spiraled out of control from there.  The traitorous boy wasted no time repeating my meaningless (to me) comment to Tousled Blonde, who announced in a wounded, aggrieved voice, that I was now free to do exactly that.  Weeks of varying degrees of anguished tears followed as I banished myself to my tower on Rexmere Road, sadly writing his name in bubble letters in my wire-bound spiral notebooks. 

We both moved on, to very different lives and parts of the country, until I saw him again last year when he stopped by unexpectedly to pay his respects at my brother's funeral.  Still handsome and remarkably unscathed by time, he told my sister-in-law that I once had the ability to stop traffic by simply standing on the curb.  Well, lots of women have that effect, and make a lot of money at it, but his rose-colored assessment still made me blush.

Even as I compose this, the strains of the songs we danced to...the Ronnettes' "Be My Baby'' and James Brown's "Try Me" float softly through my brain.  I told him that the character, Michael, was a composite of boys I had known: the star athlete, the wealthy son, the cheat, among others.  He was not those.  But the devilish humor, kindness and compelling good looks...well, I've been outed.  Now I'm going to be embarrassed, wondering what he'll think as the characters mature into more adult activities in the four-book series.  

You know who you are, and you are welcome.  You've been immortalized and I know I've just made your day.  Hell, at our age, I may have made your year! ;)

Friday, June 1, 2012

A GREYHOUND WHO STILL WOOFS! Reflections on the decades of talent out of Loyola University (Md)

As the afterglow of the Loyola University (MD) Cinderella story begins to cool, much has been made of the unlikely convergence of talent at the small Jesuit school at the corner of Cold Spring Lane and Charles Street in Baltimore.  It is a testament to the deep roots the sport has in the Free State.  

Although the game was first documented by Jesuit missionary Jean de Brebeuf in Ontario in 1636 when he observed the Huron tribe playing the strange sport, other tribes throughout the U.S. and Canada were also playing “The Creator’s Game”.  The Iroquois played it for the enjoyment of The Creator and, in special ceremonies, to heal tribal members.  But it was the French Jesuits who dubbed the webbed stick “le jeu da crosse” for its resemblance to a shepherd’s crook or a bishop’s crosier.  It took another quarter of a century before W. George Beers set down the rules, standardizing the game.  And that was fifteen years after then-Loyola College had been founded.  

Through the years, Loyola University of Maryland has produced a wealth of fine athletes, in spite of its lack of big money and endorsements.  The emphasis is on producing students grounded in spirituality and the Jesuit tradition of service to their fellow man.  Recruiting isn’t always easy, competing with the powerhouse machines of much larger universities like Duke, UNC, University of Maryland and many others.  Still, this small, private, catholic school has produced over 90 All-American men’s lacrosse players since 1959…and the number is higher if you count the players who were named over multiple years such as the Greyhounds’ coach, Charley Toomey in 1989 and 1990.

Looking over the long list, I recognized several names from my own college years and, in a “where-are-they-now” moment, I decided to track one down.  His name is John White, All-American lacrosse middie from 1967.  One of the most natural athletes of the 1960’s, John played three sports as a 14-year-old freshman:  football, basketball and baseball at Loyola High School (Blakefield) during ’59-’60, a year that brought state championship titles in all three of those sports.  He modestly describes the achievements as “harmonic convergences, where a couple of outstanding coaches accidentally hooked up with a couple of outstanding players”.  He doesn’t include himself in that group, saying that the championships weren’t due to any efforts on his part.  But the real significance of that year was the introduction of lacrosse to Loyola High by coach Eddie Miller and, aided by Gene Corrigan, the enthusiasm that the men brought to the “new” sport made John White want to be both a player and a coach.

Intrigued, John dropped football and basketball in his sophomore year, concentrating on lacrosse and baseball.   He laughs when asked about his lacrosse beginnings.

“There’s an old Joseph Campbell quote, ‘Follow your bliss’.  I was nuts about lacrosse but could barely cradle the ball, pass or catch.  I had no idea what the rules were.  But my uncle Harry (Nance) was All American at Hopkins and played crease for the Mount Washington Lacrosse Club.  He was one rugged dude and nearly as fast as Gene Fusting.  He gave me one piece of advice:  learn to go both ways and they’ll never be able to shut you down.  It worked.  I came up with some stupid moves, but they always got me open.  I practiced shooting at my brothers in the backyard.”

And John’s “stupid moves” worked so well that by his senior year, he was named All Maryland midfield. 
He headed to then-Loyola College and played short stick middie for four years.  When asked how his equipment differed from what players use today, John explained:

“We didn’t have the perfectly-balanced replaceable plastic heads.  We had old wooden crosiers that you bought at Bacharach Raisin and hoped to hell you didn’t break.  We’d stick popsicle sticks in the wall and shellac it overnight.  For the pocket, we used Neatsfoot oil.”

Ever-humble, John feels the reason for his lacrosse success was dominated by conditioning.
“The only reason I was ok at college lacrosse was because I did a lot of running.  I did NOT want to woof my cookies in the 4th quarter with the clock on the field.  We ran three midfields.  You went both ways in those days – no platooning.  I didn’t drink until after I graduated.”

When asked how today’s lacrosse players differ from those of his college years, John replied,

“Everybody today has great stick work and generally is buffed.  It wasn’t like that when I played.  It was more of a party atmosphere.  But, make no mistake, the great players of that era would be great whenever they played.  My idols (too many to mention) played for Mount Washington, Hopkins, Navy and Virginia.”

John White’s favorite game of his college career was also his last.
“It was at Penn State in ’67.  I think we tied 13-13, but I had 5 goals and a couple of assists.  A month later I was backpacking through Europe and when I got back to the states, the All American list was out…and I was on it, way down at the bottom with the barely mentionables!”

So what has life held for All American John White since his glory days as a ‘Hound?

“I served in the army and when I was 29, I moved to California and became a tennis pro.  I didn’t even know how to play tennis, but if you do something you love every day, all day, it’s amazing how quickly your skill level improves.  I’ve been a tennis pro, running clubs and teaching, in California, Arizona and Maryland for 37 years and I absolutely love it.  And forty years after Eddie Miller introduced me to lacrosse at Loyola High, he became one of my tennis students!  I didn’t pick up a lacrosse stick again until, after 21 years out west, I returned to Baltimore and started “Affordable Sports” where I taught tennis, lacrosse and golf.  Shots and dodges were my favorite thing to teach in lacrosse, but nowadays it’s just tennis and golf.”

Today’s lacrosse players often begin as soon as they’re old enough to walk and hold a stick in their hand.  When I asked John’s advice for today’s young players and their parents, he offered this: 

“As a little guy, baseball was my passion.  Then it was basketball, then lacrosse, and now golf.  They each had their chapter.  I think if there is a secret for kids and parents, it’s to experiment with as many things as possible, whether it’s sports or whatever.  When you find your bliss, it’s not work – it’s play.  And when it’s fun, you’ll put in twice as much time and you’ll be twice as good at it.”

In closing, when asked what his goals are now, John stated,

“To stay out of trouble and hit a lot of balls…golf AND tennis.  My project for this year is to get out some ebooks and podcasts, and play a lot of guitar.  Guitar started as it did for a lot of guys…a way to get girls, but now it’s because I love it.  Another one of those ‘follow your bliss’ things.  I’ve always remembered something that Carl Jung said about picking a career.  He said it should be about as difficult as falling off a log.  Follow your nose.  That’s what you’re meant to be doing.”

John White Sports can be found at