Nine Lives

It’s always been held that cats have nine lives, but a friend of mine, affectionately known as the Cat, must be close to running out.  Just how much longer he’ll be around is beginning to worry me.

He’s been the Cat since well before we both retired, and almost no one calls him by his real name—if they even remember it.  The reasons for the nickname are long-forgotten, although he claims to remember.

“Just look at how I move,” he says.  “I’ve got the grace and power of a big cat.”

big cat

Sometimes he stumbles as he says this.

I was telling some new friends recently about my old pal, a guy who lurches through life’s little lessons, always landing on his feet.  At least, that’s how he sees it.  He’s always boasting of how he demonstrates the feline reflexes and agility that only the truly-gifted athletes have.

Such claims are usually accompanied by a sheepish grin, following, for example, a frantic scramble to retrieve the food he has just spilled off his plate at the buffet table.

My friends were fascinated by my tales of the Cat’s adventures, if somewhat disbelieving.  They asked if he were still alive, and enquired about the escapades he’s endured.  I obliged them by relating a few—all true, as sure as I’m sitting here now.

After deciding to spend winters in the south with his long-suffering wife, he began to participate again in many of the athletic endeavours he had previously given up.  With wanton disregard for the years that have passed, he threw himself recklessly into everything.

For example, there was the time a group of us were playing in an oldtimers’ slow-pitch tournament.  We were there, more for a good time than to win.  Hence, the Cat was batting fourth in our lineup, rather than last.

When he stepped up for his first turn at the plate, he swung so hard at the pitch lobbed by him that we thought he’d screw himself into the dirt.  But, the Cat wasn’t phased.

“What—a—ripple!” he declared admiringly, unwinding himself awkwardly from the bat.  “Did ya see the power behind that swing?  Panther-power, just like a cat!”  He struck out on the next two pitches, but with a mighty swing both times.

Later in the game, however, the Cat did make it to first base—after being hit by a pitch he couldn’t twist away from.  On his way down the line, he attempted to imitate the pigeon-toed run immortalized by Babe Ruth, but with mixed results.  It looked fine until he tripped on an untied shoelace and fell.

safe

“I was gonna try out my home-run trot,” he explained later, “except I remembered I don’t have one.  But, I hope you guys noticed how gracefully I slid into first base when y’all thought I had tripped.  Every move is planned!”

Following our final game of the day, we adjourned to the community pool for a swim, a few drinks, and a cook-out.  The Cat was thirsty, but he didn’t stay that way for long.  By the time we got around to eating, he had definitely been over-served.

Sitting fully erect on an aluminum lawn chair, the fold-up kind, he was holding a plateful of food in his hands.  With glazed eyes and a fixed smile, he stared straight ahead, lips moving wordlessly.  Then, ever so slowly, he toppled sideways, out of his overturning chair, and on to the grass.  Incredibly, he never tipped his plate!  Didn’t spill a morsel!

“I wish I’d been there to see that,” the Cat said later.  “I’m sure I handled it gracefully, just like a cat!”

His full day ended with a swim in the pool, something else he doesn’t really remember.  He was walking back and forth across the shallow end, bent over with his face in the water, wearing a face-mask and snorkel.  The Cat likes to take great risks like that.

Inevitably, he stepped into the area where the pool-floor slopes down to the deep end.  He sank like a stone.  When he bobbed back to the surface, still face down, he drew a huge, shuddering breath through the snorkel tube.

That marked the onset of a great thrashing and splashing, punctuated by whooping and coughing, and wild flapping of arms.  The tube, of course, had filled up with water.

snorkel

It took six of us to get the Cat out of the pool, still clutching the mask and snorkel when we deposited him on the grass.  After a few moments of laboured breathing, he grinned up at the crowd staring down at him.

“Notice how I managed to grab the snorkel before it sank?” he sputtered.  “Just like a cat-fish!”

On another occasion, when we all went roller-skating (some of us wearing inline skates), the Cat sailed onto the floor with great abandon.  He managed to remain upright as long as he was moving forward, but turning was another matter entirely.  Over the first few minutes, he became intimately acquainted with every corner of the skating arena.

His tour de force happened when he was resting for a few minutes, leaning on a railing that separated the main floor from the rest area.  Suddenly, the roller skates on both feet shot forward from under him, plunging him straight down.  His underarms and chin caught on the rail, and he hung there for a moment, legs outstretched, before dropping to the floor.

When he recovered enough to speak, he croaked, “Did ya see how I caught myself there, before I hit the floor?  Like a cat!”

Unbelievably, these were only some of the escapades from which he’s emerged relatively unscathed.  Several years ago, he went river-rafting with his son and a few other lunatics.  One of their favourite activities as they went careening through the white-water rapids, was to fill the bailing-buckets and toss water at each other.

As it was told to me, the Cat forgot to hold on to the bucket on one toss, and it hit another rafter squarely on the shoulder, toppling him out of the raft.  The Cat was quick, though.  With blinding speed, he lunged for his unfortunate victim, missed him by the slimmest of margins, and followed him over the side.

After much floundering and flailing, punctuated by surges of pure panic, the other rafters managed to pluck the two of them from the river.  The Cat was jubilant.

finishing-the-rafting-adventure

“Notice how I went right in after him?” he crowed.  “There was no time to lose!  Poor guy coulda drowned!  Instant response, no hesitation, quick as a cat!”

My favourite of his adventures, however, happened up north, on a winter weekend several years back.  A group of us had gathered at a friend’s farm to boot about on his snowmobiles.

I’m not sure the Cat had driven a snowmobile before, but he approached his designated machine with even more confidence than he usually shows.  Leaping aboard, perhaps assuming it had a neutral gear, he gunned the throttle.  The machine shot forward, the Cat’s head snapped back, and his helmet dropped down over his eyes.  Clawing at it to push it up, he realized he was headed directly for a parked car.

His car!

With his famed, cat-like reflexes, he yanked the handlebars hard to the right, missing the car by a whisker.  As he pulled, however, he fully depressed the throttle under his thumb, and that was his undoing.

Recalling it later, our host said, “He turned away from the car, alright, but then accelerated straight into a tree!  I never saw anything like it!”

snowmobile

The tree put a stop to the brief, wild ride.  The Cat kept moving after the snowmobile stopped, of course, smashing into the cowling and windshield.  Bruises on his chest and a couple of muscle strains were the lasting effects of his thirty-foot expedition.

“Guess I’ve bought a snowmobile,” he observed ruefully, surveying the wreckage later.  He lapsed into rueful silence for awhile, but then brightened considerably.

“Did you guys see how fast I reacted when everybody thought I was gonna hit my car?  I turned that sucker in the nick of time, cool as a big cat!  Every move is planned.”

The Cat’s friends, and they are many, figure he has maybe two of his nine lives left, if that.  We all hope they’re charmed.

Like them, I love the Cat.  But, given his predilection for tempting fate, I make a point of never standing too close to him.

Boyhood Heroes

If you’re of a certain age or gender (and being Canadian could help), you may score well on this little sports quiz from my boyhood.  Give yourself one point for every athlete you can identify from the nicknames listed below; they are all North American because international sport had not registered in my consciousness way back then.  The answers are found at the end of this essay—

a) the Rocket; b) the Golden Jet; c) Number 4; d) the Bambino; e) the Yankee Clipper;     f) the King; g) Slammin’ Sam; h) the Rifle; i) Rocket Rod; j) The Greatest.

As a boy, I began to idolize sports heroes as soon as I gained an understanding of the games they played.  Throughout my teenage years, and into young manhood, that veneration gradually lessened; but I did hold onto an admiration for what they could do on their respective fields of play.  And even today, although I have learned such heroes are mere mortals, I retain an appreciation for their role in shaping me.

boy at ballgame

When I was about twelve years old, a favourite uncle (himself a renowned amateur athlete in his youth) gave me a copy of a book he had read and enjoyed.  It was written in 1954 by Grantland Rice, an American sportswriter from the so-called Golden Age of American sport, the 1920’s to the 1940’s.  Its title is The Tumult and the Shouting, and I have it still.

A memoir of sorts, it tells of Rice’s life as a sports journalist, writing about the athletes he encountered over a working lifetime, people he regarded as heroes.  During the course of fifty-plus years, by his own account, he wrote 67,000,000 words—22,000 newspaper columns, 7000 sets of verse, and 1000 magazine articles—while also holding forth on radio broadcasts for over thirty years.  This was in a day when most people never got to see their sports idols and had to rely solely on what they read in print or heard over the airwaves.

For them, and much later for me, Rice was a gateway into a world that seemed magical, unsullied by the realities of the mundane lives we led.

loc_family_radio

The parts of the book I most enjoyed in the beginning were the pictures of Rice hobnobbing with the athletes he covered, many of whom were also personal friends.  But I also came to love the more-than-twenty chapters devoted to these sports icons of a bygone era—people I had heard of, but who had long since left the building—in which Rice regaled me with stories of their exploits, both on and off the field.

In the years since, I have learned that many of these heroes had feet of clay, that they were subject to all the prejudices and shibboleths of their time.  Some became little more than lost souls when the games at which they excelled ended for the final time.  But the book doesn’t focus on those later, sadder times; rather, it tells of the athletic brilliance these men and women exhibited during their prime.  And for a lucky few, the glory never faded, even as their youth and prowess did.

If you are of my vintage, you will doubtless remember the names of many of the heroes celebrated in the book.  From baseball, there is the scurrilous Ty Cobb (the Georgia Peach), some of whose records still stand today; Lou Gehrig (the Iron Horse) who died too soon of ALS, a disease now named for him; and the inimitable Babe Ruth (the Sultan of Swat), cornerstone of the feared Murderers’ Row of NY Yankee hitters.  All three are in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Murderers--Row

From golf, there is the only man to win all four Grand Slam events in one year, Bobby Jones, who did it in 1930, and who later co-founded the famed Masters tournament; Babe Didrickson Zaharias (the Other Babe), a woman who was also a three-time Olympic medallist in track and field; and ‘Bantam Ben’ Hogan, a Career Grand Slam winner, widely considered to be the finest technician the game has produced.  All three are in the Golf Hall of Fame.

Football (where the ‘big-time’ was college ball, not the pro variety) contributed its share of heroes, including Harold ‘Red’ Grange (the Galloping Ghost from Illinois); Jim Thorpe (World’s Greatest Athlete from Carlisle), an Indigenous man who won Olympic gold in decathlon and pentathlon; and Bronislau ‘Bronko’ Nagurski, a Canadian-born fullback who excelled at Minnesota.  All three are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

From boxing, which was in its heyday back then, Rice mentions Jack Dempsey (the Manassa Mauler), world heavyweight champion for eight years; James Joseph ‘Gene’ Tunney, who twice defeated Dempsey—most famously in the fight known forever after as ‘the long count’—and who reigned as both light-heavyweight and heavyweight champion during that time; and Joe Louis (the Brown Bomber), world heavyweight champion for thirteen years, who endeared himself to Americans with his knockout triumph in 1938 over a German fighter who was thought to represent the growing Nazi menace.  All three are in the Boxing Hall of Fame.

louis

There were far fewer ‘big-time’ sports devoted to women than to men during Rice’s time, but, in addition to Zaharias, he gives prominent space in his book to Helen Wills Moody (Little Miss Poker Face) and Maureen Connolly (Little Mo) of tennis fame; Sonja Henie (Pavlova of the Ice) in figure skating; and Esther Williams (America’s Mermaid) in swimming.

All in all, over the course of 368 pages, there are numerous other athletes whose names I knew who are mentioned.  A partial list would include: Eddie Arcaro, Tommy Armour, ‘Dizzy’ Dean, Jimmy Demaret, George Gipp (Win one for the Gipper!), Walter Hagen (the Haig), Joe Jackson (Shoeless Joe), Cornelius ‘Connie’ Mack, Byron Nelson, Branch Rickey, Jackie Robinson, Gene Sarazen (the Squire), ‘Big Bill’ Tilden, and Cy Young.

He references famous combinations, as well:  baseball’s Joe Tinker, Johnny Evers, and Frank Chance of the Chicago Cubs, their lethal double-play skills immortalized in a 1912 poetic refrain, Tinker to Evers to Chance.  He mentions football’s Notre Dame backfield—Jim Crowley, Elmer Layden, Don Miller, and Harry Stuhldreher—of whom he wrote following a 1924 win over Army: Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again…  And that is how they are remembered to this day.

04.four-horsemen

There are even references to several famous racehorses, which (being a devotee of the Sport of Kings), Rice considered athletes of another sort:  Citation, Count Fleet, Exterminator, Man o’ War, Seabiscuit, War Admiral, and Whirlaway.

As a youngster, I couldn’t get enough of these tales of grace and glory.  It did seem to me as I read them, though, that the athletes being lauded were all old; indeed, they were much older than I.  But today, looking at their pictures, I am struck by how young they were in their prime.

I believed then, and to some extent now, as well, that there is a simple beauty inherent in athletic contests between two individuals, or two teams.  If the scandals surrounding the doping of athletes can be set aside, if the corruption at the top of the world bodies that control sports can be ignored, if we can strip the competition among athletes down to its purest essence, that beauty can be appreciated.

On a level playing field, the best of the competitors will win, the losers will embrace the fact that they gave their best, and that is as it should be.  It is the sentiment that helped to shape my approach to life.

And that, in a nutshell, is why The Tumult and the Shouting still graces my bookshelf, overflowing as ever with the tales of my boyhood heroes.

orr

Answers to the quiz:

Hockey – a) Maurice Richard; b) Bobby Hull; c) Bobby Orr

Baseball – d) Babe Ruth; e) Joe Dimaggio

Golf – f) Arnold Palmer; g) Sam Snead

Football – h) Sam Etcheverry

Tennis – i) Rod Laver

Boxing – j) Muhammad Ali