I Dreamt Of Pole Vaulting is a new idea I'm trying out here: essays about my own personal experiences with sports, whether as a fan or participant. We'll see if it lasts. Don't get too attached -- like avocados and fate, I can be fickle.)
Well, okay, maybe not always. There was a time when I didn't dream of pole-vaulting, at all, but that time was when I was very young and had other dreams, like the dream of becoming an oceanographer.
Admittedly, I was not the coolest of little kids.
The dream of pole-vaulting first came to me sometime in the beginning stages of high school. High school, and pole-vaulting for that matter, were not things that I was suited for. As far as I can tell in my life, I am more or less perfectly suited to be a middle-aged man, in that the things I do either seem normal for a middle-aged man to do (reading The New Yorker, not even just for the cartoons, having a receding hair line) or are things about which I no longer care if society approves of (wearing blue Crocs in public, writing sentences like "about which I no longer care"). But I was not suited for high school, where sustained happiness can be hard to come by if you are not rich, good-looking, or both. Of the two, rich is better: You could be, in my high school, rich and not good-looking, and still be part of the popular crowd, while there were good-looking people (some, anyway) who were not part of the popular crowd because they could not keep up, clothing- and car-having-wise.
(There were only a few of the good-looking who were not also popular, because part of what makes you good-looking is being popular; once you are popular people judge others' looks by you, or so I assume, having never been popular.)
And once you were popular, everything was open to you: girls, parties, girls, and I'm sure there were other things that people cared about in high school.
In actuality, everything really was open to you once you were popular, while nothing was open to you if you were not popular, and that includes sports, but not just sports. Unlike many high schools*
*Note: I only attended one high school and have no information about other real high schools, because my own kids limited the amount of information they shared about their own high school experiences to three categories: 1: How much their teachers hated students, in general, 2: How much their teachers hated them in particular which was why they were getting such bad grades, and 3: a category I can only refer to as "I don't want to talk about it," which was their answer to every other question I asked, including questions like "Do you think your teacher would like you more if you turned in the homework when it was due, rather than long after?" The point is, my information about high schools in general comes from watching John Hughes movies. Picture Ally Sheedy liberally throughout this story. She was kind of hot, back then.my own high school did not break into cliques based on activities, so much. Instead, activities were the province of the popular kids who got to choose what they would do and whether the unpopular or barely-noticed (I was more of the latter than the former) would get to take part at all.
So Student Council, which is only supposed to be a kind-of popularity based thing: reserved for popular kids like Dave Weber, who ran for student council president against me and who won and who then organized a boycott of the hot lunches. Student newspaper: even though nominally run by the journalism class, which I took, was reserved for popular kids. Unpopulars got to write things like "movie reviews," which never got published.
Even the plays and Swing Choir were reserved for the popular, something that makes me snicker when I watch Glee, which I never do anymore because honestly that musical gimmick gets old after a while. I'm as fond of fake high schoolers singing covers of songs I never heard of as the next guy is, which is not very. In our high school, the glee club was called swing choir and you could only get on it if you were already popular, as I found out the time I tried out for it by singing a version of Wake Me Up Before You Go Go (this was 1986, after all) and never got a call back.
"Trying standing still while you're singing it," the choir director told me, because apparently I had shifted my feet. I didn't make the cut. They must not have needed a fat guy with a lazy eye and a vocal range of three notes. But I wouldn't have made it anyway even if I was a better singer, because we were not rich and I was not popular. (See, e.g., "lazy eye," and "fat.")(Also, I played Dungeons and Dragons.)
The really odd thing is that sports were reserved (mostly) for the popular at my high school, too, a weird twist on the traditional route to popularity -- get good at sports, movies and TV shows and books tell us -- and you can become popular, or at least accepted. Or so I've gathered from my muddled memories of sports in pop culture. Didn't that dirtbike-riding kid in The Bad News Bears become popular because he could play baseball? Didn't people like Englebert after he could play baseball, too, in that same movie? Didn't they make any other movies about kids playing sports besides The Bad News Bears?
All good questions that deserve investigation.
At our school, football and baseball and soccer and basketball were the province of the cool, and you tried out for them at your peril, literally: I tried out for the baseball team and I was actually pretty good in the tryouts: my lazy eye made me terrible as a fielder but I was okay as a batter and the kid who was trying out for pitcher wasn't very good at all, so in batting practice on day one I was up to bat and got about 7 hits in a row, hitting them pretty well out to the outfield, too.
That should have at least gotten me a shout-out from the coach and maybe one or two potential teammates, because who doesn't want a good hitter on their team? But the practice was really quiet as pitch number 8 came in and I hit that one, too.
Then pitch number 9 came straight at my head. Straight. At. It.
I tried to duck away but not in time and got caught on the temple, just at the edge of the helmet, and it didn't do much other than really rattle me and make my head ache just a bit because it made the helmet hit my head hard. So I stepped out of the box for a second, and the coach said "Get back in there!" and I had to step back in and before I even raised my bat the pitch number 10 hit me in the leg.
"Next batter!" the coach yelled. I waited for him to tell me where to go stand in the field, to shag flies, but he didn't say anything.
"Where should I go?" I asked.
"Better shake off those pitches," he said.
The pitcher looked at me and shook his head. I sat around until tryouts ended and didn't go back the next day.
I can't prove that it was all intentional and done because I wasn't cool but I can't not prove it, either, and that's more or less the same thing, right?
The exception to the coolness requirement in sports was track: you could get on the track team even if you weren't cool, because nobody much wanted to be on the track team and also the track team needed lots of people and so if you were on the track team you were not taking a spot away from a cool kid, you were just on the team. I'm sure that if you were not cool and you were on the track team and you beat a cool kid, there might be repercussions, but I never found out what those were as there was no chance that I might beat a cool kid.
That accessibility might have been part of why I wanted to be a pole vaulter, but only part. I wanted to be an athlete in high school, for obvious reasons: athletes are cool. Even for a kid like me, who read comic books and Doonesbury and listened to the Violent Femmes and wrote short stories and liked the book Childhood's End when we read it in high school and once got a 108 on his British Literature essay exam, getting 8 points' extra credit when he hadn't even done the homework, even for that kid, sports held the allure of society's adulation and accomplishment. Already, by ninth grade I'd been inculcated with how much people love athletes and how little they care for oceanographers: I'd seen my Mom, who hates sports, watching the Super Bowl, and we'd been dragged to the Little League All Star Game the year my older brother played in it, under the lights on the big baseball diamond at Nixon Park in Hartland, and all the kids played T-ball, even me, and the T-ball and Little League teams marched in the 4th of July parade, and our middle-school gym teacher, Mr Fry, was rumored to have once gotten a tryout as a kicker for the Denver Broncos, a legend that I was never able to verify but which shows just how little athletic accomplishment is necessary to elevate you above the pack. I look back now and think: Tryout? I think: Kicker? I think: DENVER BRONCOS? and I wonder why that was even worth repeating but repeated it was, year after year, as kids passed on the all-important information.
Sports trophies are displayed front and center in high schools. You drive into towns and the Welcome signs have the local accomplishments on them, and those local accomplishments are always "Girls Volleyball Champions, 1991", and they never put on there "Three State Senators and a guy who started his own veterinary supply business lived here, back in the day." The other day, listening to a story about some kids who took place in Mock Federal Reserve competition, which apparently is a thing, I heard the winner talk about the trophy they got to take back to their high school. It would be displayed in the economics room, she said, because nobody else would probably care.
Imagine if you saw a sign that said Welcome to Middleton, Wisconsin -- home of the 2012 Mock Federal Reserve Champions! You'd probably turn around. The only thing that's not athletic at all but which regularly gets attention in a sort-of-comparable way to athletics is the spelling bee, which ESPN televises, now, but ESPN will put anything on the air to give the Sportscenter hosts a break to try to think up more stupid synonyms for home run ("Ryan Braun of the Brewers hits his third humdinger of the week, giving him 14 gnocchi-makers on the season and putting him on a pace to beat Hank Aaron's record for lifetime Breakin'2 Electric Boogaloos").
Study hard and get good grades, we're told as kids. Brush your teeth and eat your vegetables, we're reminded. But nobody gets put in the 4th of July parade for having finished off their broccoli and Hartland Meats, my old T-ball team, didn't sponsor kids' flossing. Sports is where it's at, and especially when I was a kid, you were expected to be in sports.
Which, again: lazy eye. Fat. Comic books. See where the problem might lie?
Which leads me to pole vaulting, and specifically how it fits into my life of sports, or sports attempts. To reiterate: the track team was at least potentially accessible to me, as a high school student -- I could try out for track without worrying about sustaining brain damage, or having to run against Dave Weber, or even having to think about not moving while I sang a song.
And I had three friends on the track team: Fred, Bob, and Eric, all skinny guys who were able to run, and so run they did: sprints and longer runs, and I think even hurdles, and Fred and Bob and Eric bonded over their track events, taking the bus to track meets and talking about practice and, I don't know, being skinny, which was a big allure for me, too, and so I decided that I would try out for the track team.
And I hit on pole vaulting as my event.
To this day, I can't exactly describe why pole vaulting. Here is what I think of when I think of pole vaulting: I imagine me, in track shorts and a tank top and cool track shoes and wristbands and a headband, holding a pole.
That song from Chariots of Fire starts. (I think it's called Chariots of Fire.)
I grimace. I know what a grimace is because (a) I looked up once why the Grimace was called the Grimace and (b) I wanted to grimace in this imagining, but I wasn't sure what to call it.
After grimacing, I begin to run. (That music is still playing.)
I run for a really long time, pole in hand, probably in slow motion. This entire time, you are looking at me from the front, head-on, and I am determined. Also, I look really cool in that headband, so shut up.
The pole plants, at a part where the music is dramatic. (I don't actually remember the song Chariots of Fire all that well and sometimes get it confused with Music Box Dancer.)
Then you see me from below, and I am soaring, rising up and over the pole, which in my imagination is something like 30 feet in the air. I let go of the pole. (Music Box Dancer gets more dramatic, still, probably with a tympani).
I fall into the big mat, and people cheer. Do people cheer pole vaulting? They do when a suddenly-skinny guy with lazy eye sets a world record and brings it, probably saving the town from an oil baron or something.
Then I get a date for the prom, too.
So I decided to try out for the track team.