A backyard can fill a book with stories. This is just one.
|The Backyard Pole-vaulter
“Gary, you’re almost fourteen years old,” my father began. “Now’s the time to start makin’ somethin’ of yourself. Decide what you want to be in life and start workin’ toward it.” A no nonsense fellow. Dad wanted his youngest to fend for himself in life’s battle. This time my father, usually a man of few words, surprised me by continuing. “It don’t make much difference to me if you work with your hands or your head. The important part is that you work to be good at whatever you do.” For the first time I heard the words “work” and “good” and put them together in my mind with the phrase “whatever I do”.
What was I good at, and what did I want to do? With his words still ringing in my ears, I performed a quick self-evaluation. The words “average-male-adolescent-teen” fit me perfectly. Like most other guys my age, I went to great lengths to avoid doing chores. My mom nagged me to do my homework. I really liked Mary, the girl up the street, but wouldn’t admit it. I really enjoyed fishing (Blackjack Creek, just down the hill, provided a personal paradise.). Born with a short temper, I hated being called Bucky Beaver – the sappy cartoon creation in the Ipana toothpaste commercial. Sure, my two front teeth were a little oversized, but my head simply hadn’t grown at the same rate. Give it time! But deep within my “averageness” I knew I carried the potential to achieve greatness. I suppose the picture of my hero, twice-Olympic champion pole-vaulter Bob Richards, on the new box of Wheaties provided the clincher. I resolved to reach fame as a pole-vaulter.
But pole-vaulting wasn’t something a kid did overnight. It took practice, training, and time. Pole-vaulting was not something a beginner did in public either. First, I needed to refine it in private. To attain my goal, I set about building a pole-vault pit in my backyard. Unintentionally, my practical father helped. Dad believed anything that might possibly be useful anywhere or anytime should be saved. A shed on wooden stilts rested to the side of our property, and beneath it he stacked all the odds and ends that wouldn’t fit inside.
I scrounged about searching for lumber and eventually found enough to erect the standards – the two upright poles that held the crossbar. Then, finding some old curtain rods, I straightened them, hack-sawed them to proper length, and reassembled them to make the crossbar.
But how could I get my hands on a vaulting pole? I couldn't afford to buy a real pole – the hollowed steel poles used for vaulting during that time. And I had no idea how I could obtain one of those bamboo poles that had been used in the Bob Richard’s era for pole-vaulting. I needed a pole that was straight, sturdy, but light enough to carry on a dead run. The only raw materials I knew that fitting that description were the young alder trees reclaiming an old logging trail that intersected Goldenrod Road in front of our house.
Armed with a saw, a knife, and a purpose, I marched across the potholed asphalt into the thicket of young trees to find the perfect vaulting pole. With a discerning eye, I checked for height, diameter, and straightness. A curved tree might make a good archery bow, but it would make a lousy vaulting pole. After some searching I discovered the perfect tree. I sawed it off at the base, trimmed the branches, and stripped away the bark from the gripping area. Then, I dragged it home and propped it in the sun for a couple of days to season. After it had properly dried out, I wrapped the gripping area with masking tape.
Almost ready to pole-vault, I first had to build a padded landing area. After all, if one is to soar to great heights, one can’t afford to be injured on the cold, hard ground. Obviously, I couldn’t afford a five-thousand-dollar port-o-pit. Since necessity is truly the mother of invention, and since my imagination wouldn’t submit to failure, I determined to create my own. It was autumn, the season of falling leaves. I raked several wheelbarrow loads of maple leaves and dumped them into a pile. I also wriggled through the barbed-wire fence into the field next to our property and whacked down long blades of dry grass. Then, I wove them into cylindrical clumps and tied them with kite string. After throwing countless bundles over the fence, I arranged them into layers that covered the leaves. My landing area was finished, it wasn’t the world’s softest pit, but it was far better than nothing.
Ready to vault, I measured a runway from the chicken coop past the pump house to the pit. I eyed the elevated standards, then the runway. Next I began my approach, gripping the pole with purpose, bringing it into position as I neared the pit. Once there, I planted it in the pole-vault slot, pushed off, and soared over the bar – all of six feet above the ground. I wasn’t a champion overnight, but I steadily improved – seven feet, eight feet, and finally nine.
My confidence grew. “Watch, Dad!” I yelled, making him pause halfway to the garage with an armload of heavy tools. With his complete attention I proceeded to arch my body over the nine-foot bar on the first attempt. My achievement drew a smiling grimace framed by my father’s frown. (He had already told me that pole-vaulting wasn’t on his list of practical occupations. But, I’d show him.) I eventually reached the nine foot eight inch height before IT happened.
One day after school I made the customary beeline for my pole vault pit. After a couple of weeks of incessant use, my alder pole was well seasoned. I rotated it, planted it, and flexed it a bit. The pole passed my inspection, and I placed the crossbar at the beginning height of eight feet. Measuring my steps to my starting mark, I went through my prevault routine (gripping the pole, psyching myself up, and visualizing success), and began my dash down the runway – slowly at first, gradually gathering momentum. Nearing the pit, I planted the pole, pushed off, and soared upward toward the bar. Poised at the top, my body ready to uncoil, I heard the sickening “Craaack!” My pole snapped, and I plummeted to earth like a plucked pigeon.
Landing nearly vertically, my right shoulder and head struck the ground at the same instant. I lay on my back gasping for breath, only partly conscious. Gradually regaining my wits, I gently tried to move my fingers. They slowly uncurled. My arms responded as well. Then my legs. Carefully I struggled to ease myself into a standing position. But halfway up – I got stuck. Stuck! From my waist up, no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t straighten up. Imagining the worst, I became terrified. I envisioned myself walking about as a hunchback for the rest of my life. I imagined the Quasimodo of Goldenrod Road! The freak of Blackjack Creek sentenced to live out the rest of his days in his father’s shed! I began screaming for help.
My mother heard my cries and, dressed in her housecoat and slippers, came running. “Gary, what happened!” she demanded. (She never simply “asked”.)
I explained as best I could, and then she commanded, “Straighten up! Straighten up! Now!”
Since I was still bent over, I couldn’t see her face. But my eyes became fascinated with her agitated toes. Through her skintight slippers they bobbed up and down like the fingers of a nervous piano player. Since I didn’t heed her command, her volume increased, “GARY, STRAIGHTEN UP!”
“But, Mom,” I managed to whimper, “I can’t.”
“Yes, you can,” she argued, unwilling to accept bad news.
“But, Mom, I really can’t!” I whined after making a halfhearted, unsuccessful attempt.
My mother had never taken a first aid course in her life. She had never developed an ounce of patience, and she was used to getting her way. A creature of whim, her immediate impulse was to straighten me out herself. So, gripping me under my arms, my diminutive mother with a gargantuan strength derived from desperation heaved upward with all of her strength.
A series of cracks accompanied my straightening, and in the blink of an eye, I grew a foot taller than an instant before. I tried moving my head back and forth, but it moved more easily to the left than to the right. In fact, I could barely turn it to the right at all. At least I wasn’t paralyzed. I could stand, walk, and even someday turn my head. My mom’s extreme "laying-on-of-hands", although unorthodox, proved to be effective first aid.
A couple of weeks later I even tried pole-vaulting again. This time I found a sturdier, thicker, heavier pole that provided the security of unbreakability – no matter how high I vaulted. However, I really didn’t need to worry about soaring to greatness anymore. After the broken pole incident my highest flights as a pole-vaulter were limited to my dreams.
Thus, my pole-vaulting career ended. My father, who said nothing, couldn’t completely mask his “I-told-so-smirk.” So, I retired my pole under the shed along with my aspirations of pole-vaulting greatness. But what kind of greatness could I achieve now? It needed to be an endeavor where I wouldn’t have to fear a broken pole and a headlong fall from great heights. I gazed at my stored vaulting standards, noticing how closely they resembled high jump standards. But . . . high jump standards are much shorter, I thought.
High jump! That’s it! I could be a high jumper. My dad wouldn’t approve of high-jumping either. But, I’d show him!