Nothing mattered more to me in elementary school than the playground. After sitting inside the classroom for a couple hours, we’d be released to go outside the do the things we loved.
We played kickball on the macadam behind Willow Street Elementary school. The “bases” were not traditional in any sense of the word. In fact, the “field” was a rectangle, not a diamond or a square. That meant the run to first base was longer than the distance between first and second. The run the third was also long, and the run from third to home was short.
We accepted those aberrations as part of the deal. But the most interesting part of that field was the tall metal swingset in left-center field. Any ball kicked over the swingset was an automatic home run. We kept a careful and accurate tally of the home runs we kicked, and in third grade, I led the entire school in total home runs. Every day I’d race out there eager to kick another home run. I could sense the right kind of rolling pitch that allowed me to connect with ferocity and full might. The reddish kickball with its classic starburst patterns molded into the rubber launched from my foot in a satisfying arc.
Then I’d trot around the bases triumphantly and get back in line with the team “at bat” and hope for another shot.
We’d move out into the field to play defense and I was merciless in gathering up kicked balls and striking other players with the ball if they came within range trying to get another base. One day a heavier kid named Jimmy was trundling along between second and third base when I scooped up a grounder kicked by his teammate. I gathered the ball up and threw it hard right at his head. He wasn’t looking and the kickball hit him flush in the mouth. He stopped for a second, grabbed his mouth, and then blood started gushing through his fingers.
He’d bitten clean through his tongue. I stood there shocked and a bit disgusted that he wasn’t paying attention while running the basepaths. Because that’s how I judged the world. If it was tough on me, I reasoned, it was tough on others too.
Jimmy was taken to the nurse’s office that day. He returned a week or so later and was sitting in the cafeteria during lunch hour poking a pencil through the hole in his tongue to show the other kids the extent of his injury. He looked up at me and yelled, “You didth thith to me!” I didn’t think he was supposed to sticking pencils through his tongue according to medical directives, but there he was, sticking out his tongue jabbing the eraser end of the pencil up from the bottom of his tongue while the other kids laughed and gagged at the sight of it.
I never learned if Jimmy’s tongue healed properly or not. To my way of thinking, it wasn’t my problem if he wasn’t paying attention during kickball.
I wasn’t exactly immune to injury myself on the kickball field. Quite often I’d bong my head on that swingset while trying to run down a possible home run kicked by another player. I’d smack my head on the metal post and get a big goose egg on my forehead for the trouble. The first few times it happened the school nurse called my mother. After a while, my mom stopped worrying about me and told them to just stick ice on it. I’d go back to class with a big ice pack pressed to my head. The teacher would just shake her head at me.
The same sort of ferocity ruled my brain in the game of dodgeball as well. As a skinny, agile kid I was always one of the last to get hit during dodgeball. But I truly relished nailing other kids with the ball as I threw hard and accurately thanks to my almost perpetual practice of throwing some kind of ball.
By the time I was in sixth-grade my arm was so deadly that I almost felt bad the day I nailed some pale kid in the arm during our first game of the season against a team that was never any good in the Lancaster baseball league. A kid was crowing the plate and a hard pitch hit him in the back of the arm where the bare skin was exposed. The game stopped because he started crying, and I felt bad and walked in to check on him at home plate. The seams of the baseball left a bright red imprint on his arm. The umpire sent him to first base. I was mad that he’d gotten a walk so I kept an eye on him at first. The moment he stepped off the bag I spun on the mound and picked him off at first. It was a merciless move but to me it was the right thing to do. “Stay away from the plate,” I muttered to myself on the mound.
I kept hurting other kids wherever I played the game of baseball and other sports. But sometimes I got hurt myself. One afternoon in elementary school I was playing catcher when a kid popped up the softball in front of home plate. I jumped out of the crouch position and ran out to catch it. Our pitcher ran straight in from the mound and was looking up at the ball when his front teeth nailed me in the face. He happened to have buck teeth and they gouged me below the eye. Blood s started running down my face. Despite the collision, I’d caught the ball and stood up to yell, “You’re out!”
All that playground violence came to a horrible head when we were playing softball in a 6th-grade inter-class championship. Again I was playing catcher because it enabled me to control much of the action on the field. This time when a short popup came off the bat of an opponent, I caught beside home plate and turned to see the runner at first tag up and start running toward second. That was a smart move on his part, and I wound up and threw an ice-cold liner out to the second baseman.
He was a friend named John, and I reasoned he could handle the throw. But at the last second, he must have not known it was coming so fast and moved his glove aside to check. The softball struck him hard in the face and he went down in a heap. He was knocked clean out, but that was not the worst of it. The paramedics arrived and moved him onto a stretcher for a trip to the hospital.
My teacher Mrs. Cooper pulled me away from the field and took me inside Hans Herr Elementary. She asked me a question, “Why do you always throw at the head?” she wanted to know.
I’d never thought of that. But I did. I used people’s heads as a strong target point for every throw I made. All those days I spent throwing the ball into the pitch-and-catch net at home gave me deadly accuracy. I could kill birds with stones and even took out a rabbit or two by the age of ten years old. In fact, I had a disturbing desire to kill things at times. Years later I’d come to realize that all that fearsome accuracy was the product of a kid with some wounds deep inside him. The sometimes harsh treatment at home had a release point, and that was my right arm. With that right arm, I could control much of the world around me. And the right foot, too.
Sadly, I learned that the player I hit in the baseball with that softball that day suffered a detached retina. The accident required surgeries to fix, and that made me feel genuinely bad at having caused someone genuine harm. Perhaps as karma for that early incident, in my early twenties, I found out that I had a retinal detachment likely caused by rapid onset of astigmatism. What goes around, comes around.
Right arm to right at them
That same right arm shot thousands of baskets at the neighbor’s court. I could throw footballs long and straight, with that satisfyingly clean spiral that delivered it into the hands of a receiver. I won the local Punt, Pass and Kick contest and thought I’d become a quarterback someday. My father thought better of that and sent me out for cross country instead, where I made the varsity as a freshman. Father knows best.
By the time I finally gave up “ball sports” for running, that right arm was absorbed into my body like the tail of a tadpole sucked into the body of a frog. It fueled my competitive spirit for miles and miles.
And yet, my right arm wasn’t entirely done in my athletic career. During an intramural Superstars competition in college, one of the events was the softball throw. I lined up and tossed it more than the length of a football field, past three hundred feet. When the measurement was announced, the other competitors launched into complaints that the throw was mismeasured. That angered me fiercely. “Fine,” I told them all standing there. “I’ll throw again.”
I stood there for a moment shaking with anger. All my life I’d faced that kind of doubt and criticism. My father and brothers often teased and snarked about my athletic ability. In that moment with that softball in my hand, my whole body became the angry right arm of my being. I ran a few steps and heaved that goddamn softball even farther. It soared a few feet past my previous mark and the group around me went silent.
I know that story sounds fantastical. What 140-lb runner could throw a ball that far? Looking back, I wonder about that myself. But I also wonder how I could run 5:00 miles for miles at a time. The vigor of youth is a mystery as you age. All I know is that I won the Superstars competition that spring, and gladly collected a football jersey with the name CUDWORTH printed on the back.