Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Handball match

One wall Handball was very popular in New York City.  Every park seemed to have endless handball courts.  During the first half of the twentieth century when the city was teeming with immigrant and first generation families, handball was an inexpensive outdoor staple for fitness, well before Jack LaLane's health clubs hit the scene.  In New York, the game was known to have many Jewish players because at that time the city's population was more than a third Jewish.  My father is one of those handball aficionados who teamed with his brother-in-law playing pick up games at Queen's Highland Park.

I learned the game from him.  Looking on, handball seems very basic and easy: hit the ball against the wall in way the opponent can't return to ball to the wall on the fly.  Yet, according to my father, handball is very complex because winning is usually determined by strategy and smarts.  When the ball should kept high on the wall and when the ball should be rolled out as a "kill" shot depends on the circumstances of each possession.  Sending a player to chase the ball careening off the wall to either side of the court is also a good move to keep one's opponent off balance and out of position.

When I came home one day and told my father that I had found handball courts at one of the neighboring parks, his immediate desire was to visit the courts and see what was in the offering. His face lit up; he had not played in years!  Our family had moved away from New York four years previously.  I think my father gave up handball since he started his family.

We got into the car and I directed him to the park.  He took one look at the courts and reacted, "This in not a handball court!- I have never seen a court with two half side walls!- I am used to 'one wall'." I told my father that it could not be so different than the game that he was used to.  There was irony in the term "used to" because my father had not played handball in probably 15 or 20 years; I was 12 and he was  41.  Subsequently, we went to a sporting equipment store and bought handballs and gloves and went back to the park and started hitting the ball.  He taught me the game.

I went to the park more frequently during summer vacation with friends and we happily played for hours; handball is one of those rigorous, satisfying workouts.  On weekends, my father would come and play with us.

I remember on one particular Sunday that my friends could not make it to the park, so only my father and I were playing that day.  As we were warming up, two huge athletic looking fellows walked up to watch us warm up.  They were obvious collegiate athletes resembling Football players.  One spoke to my father asking him if he was interested in playing 'doubles'(two against two).  My father looked at me as he said, "sure!" To me he said, "I'll take the left side because that is what I played when your uncle Ben and I paired up "(that must have been more than 20 years ago before my father was married to my mother!). Even though I was left handed and could guard the left side with my strong hand, I was not about to argue with my father who anticipated a great handball game, a workout and some real fun.

And fun we had!  My father consistently had an amazing overhand kill shot to the left corner with his right hand and only a few times did the ball go through our strength, through the middle since I felt it unclear who was supposed to hit the ones coming up the middle of the court.  Indecision resulted in allowing the ball to go past us both.  Fortunately, that did not happen often because our opponents, although unusually strong, were not playing a very smart game.  They were hitting the ball incredibly hard but without strategy.  As a matter of fact, we had to switch balls because they broke one by hitting it too hard: it split!  We won the first game handily and we were immediately challenged for a re-match.  

At this point, I could see the sweat poring out on father's forehead.  He graciously accepted the challenge.  He had not had such a workout in recent memory.  We beat them a second time too creating slight irritation that an 'old man and his kid' beat collegiate athletes!  My father was resting at this point always dabbing his forehead.  A third chance for redemption was understood, so we played a third game and again beat them!  

Our opponents could not believe that they were vanquished by a father and his son.  My father was incredibly tired, exhausted to the extent that one of the athletes asked if he was ok.  He answered in the affirmative and asked the fellows where they learned to play handball.  They mentioned that they were Stanford Football players and their coaches recommend playing handball to stay in shape in the off-season.  My father was duly impressed with their coaches because he had not heard of handball on the west coast but always knew it was a great game and workout!

Our opponents graciously thanked us for the match and went on their way.  We, however, stayed parked at the side of the court resting.  Although I was ready for more, my father just sat there with a satisfying smile on his face saying, "great games weren't they?!"  I could tell that my father was spent, he had trouble getting up and sweat was still poring out.  It was as if the perspiration was making him giddy, marveling at dispatching a pair of collegiate athletes half his age.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Programmed Hatred

We had just finished a group project in Junior High school.  Dave and I were proud of our contribution to some Social Studies assignment and simultaneously commiserated and celebrated our effort. I liked Dave; he was a soft spoken, studious, kindhearted fellow and we made a good team in school.  That same week we began a new physical education initiative of a 'lunchtime 3 man Basketball league' with a by-standing team providing the referee. Every team eventually had to provide a referee when it was not scheduled to play. In this initiative, Dave and I were separated; we were assigned to different teams which meant we could not collaborate as in Social Studies.  I even recall some regret that we were not placed on the same team.

Well, that same beginning week, I was assigned to be a referee for Dave's team's lunch time game. The game was incredibly lopsided because Dave was playing against a much bigger team.  One of the reasons that Dave and I got along so well and identified with each other was because we were both short fellows; in line ups (according to height) we were perennially next to each other.  Dave's team did not have a chance; there was no way to defend against people a full head taller.  The other team racked up the points.  When I called a foul against Dave's team, he winced.  After a second foul, he grimaced.  And after the third foul he went ballistic and tore into me: #$%@#!!! JEWS CAN'T REF! @#$%$^&!! JEWS CAN'T REF, I HAVE HAD ENOUGH OF YOU! YOU STINKIN' FILTHY JEW!! GET OUT OF HERE, YOU CAN'T REF! JEWS CAN'T REF!!

 I was dumbfounded, shocked and hurt.  Then I fumed silently.  Without saying a word, I removed my whistle and walked determinedly to the Physical Education office, looking for Mr. Sutton, the PE teacher and commissioner of the lunch league.  The teacher asked me what was up and I handed in my whistle saying, "I didn't realize that I was breaking some rule."  He asked, "What are you saying?" "I am handing over my whistle because I didn't realize that Jews are not allowed to referee.  Dave screamed at me 'JEWS CAN'T REF!'"  Mr. Sutton was momentarily speechless.  He had never encountered such an occurrence.  "There is not such rule! You are a fine ref! I can't accept your whistle.  I will talk to Dave. We do not tolerate such behavior here."

I never spoke to Dave again nor did he to me.  Over the years I have played this game over and over. I asked my self why did I have to be so "impartial" and call the fouls as I saw them?  Why could I have not shown a little bit of compassion, seeing a lopsided game and overlook the fouls committed by the weaker team?  Had I shown a little bit of compassion, I would never have experienced that outburst and Dave and I would probably have continued collaborating on projects and I even might have shown him by example that Jews were not the terrible things that he conceived them to be.

Each time, however, I came up with the same answer: I was not an adult, I was programmed to be an "impartial referee who calls the fouls as he sees them regardless of who commits them"  Had I the wisdom of a compassionate adult, I would have looked the other way.  I was, however, an adolescent trying to be impartial, trying to figure out the world around me.  As a result, I discovered programmed hatred, the blurting out of some preconceived prejudice that came to light under limited circumstances of frustration. No former teamwork, friendship, collaboration or common commiseration could have elided the programmed hatred.