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Hardwood Glory, '60s-Style

Vossler, Ron. "Hardwood Glory, '60s-Style." North Dakota REC/RTC, March 2000, 11.


Each little prairie town boasted its own gymnasium. It was in those gyms, during each basketball season from junior high until high school graduation, that we enacted our own teen-age dramas, North Dakota-style.

Players and fans alike were caught up in their own Greek drama, prairie-style. There were heroes. There were villains. There was the chanting chorus of the crowd. There was something elemental, close to life.

Those mid-century gymnasiums were the cathedrals of our innocence. Long before consolidation, when television reception bristled with hazy dots, each little prairie town boasted its own gymnasium. It was in those gyms, during each basketball season from junior high until high school graduation, that we enacted our own teen-age dramas, North Dakota-style.

Our out-of-town bus driver was a farmer named Otto, who we called "Ottomatic" for the effortless efficiency with which he steered our clunky yellow bus along rural highways in the heart of winter. Eventually, our bus chugged into the neighboring town, which resembled our own hometown only too closely--its two-block main street, consisting of a series of false-fronted businesses, laid out straight as a plumbline between bulky grain elevators and several high-steepled churches.

As we neared the gym for the big game that night (all games were big to us then), we shouted from the back of the bus to celebrate our arrival: "Hey, Ottomatic. Squeal out. Lay some rubber and wake up this sleepy joint."

"Yah, you kits shut up with your big mouths," Ottomatic joked back in his accented Germanic drawl. "Or maybe I leaf you behind after the game and then you haf to grow up here. How wut you like dat?"

As best we could, on toes frozen into slabs from the bus heater that never worked right, we'd try to swagger like conquering heroes into the neighboring town's gym.

Those evening games were hard-fought battles, for almost all the gyms had built-in home-court advantages. Tiny gyms, ones we called "cracker boxes," were so cramped, we sometimes joked, that the out of-bounds lines were painted on the walls.

One gym had a low ceiling that dropped high, arching shots from the air, like ducks shot mid-flight. Another gym had almost invisible guy wires strung to hold a backboard in place, effectively blocking all shots from one corner, a fact visiting teams learned too late.

There was a rumor that on weekends the smallest gym in our area, in the little town of Zeeland, doubled as a movie theater, dance floor, and even a roller skating rink. It was a fact, however, that if you dived for a loose ball on that floor, you'd end up with slivered knees and a cluster of "raspberries," floor burns that took a month to heal.

My hometown gymnasium in Wishek, hewn from local field stone by Roosevelt-era craftsmen, had huge, laminated beams, bolted together to hold up a ceiling as high, I always thought, as a European cathedral's. It also had, we bragged, the best wood floor in the state, presided over with loving care by our janitor, Emil, whose stocky presence was a fixture in our school. Each summer--and one time I helped him--he sanded, waxed and burnished the floor to its usual immaculate shine. Woe to any student or staff member who dared besmirch that holy surface by walking on it with what Emil called "street shoes."

My hometown gymnasium also had a huge badger, our team mascot, snarling from one end of the gym at all who entered, rendered there in vivid color by our own rural Michelangelo, Jim K., the town sign painter. At the start of each game--to the fanfare of music and a blinding spotlight that beamed from the darkness--our player streamed onto the floor from a door which opened between the badger's blood-dripping canines.

The town of Ashley, 30 miles to the south, was Wishek's arch rival--a rivalry stretching back to the turn of the century, when that town was chosen over Wishek for the county seat. Ashley's home-court advantage was its partisan fans, a deafening mass of humanity who crammed themselves into the Ashley gym whenever our team played there.

Sometimes Ashley fans resorted to German dialect cheers, like this one which I heard while trying to make a freethrow during the McIntosh County basketball tournament in 1965. I don't remember if I made the shot or not, but the cheer always stayed with me: "Blutwurst, Leverwurst, Schwatamaga, Speck, Wishek Hoch Shule, Wek, Wek, Wek." (A loose translation: "Bloodsausage, liver-sausage, headcheese, fat; Wishek High School, away, away, away!")

Thirty miles to the west, in the neighboring town of Linton, players and cheerleaders of St. Anthony's parochial school sported intimidating red uniforms. Even the pom-poms waved by their cheering squads looked like they'd been soaked in blood.

In addition, their rousing school song, "When the Saints Come Marching In," seemed, I thought then, to unfairly enlist the aid of the Deity. (No doubt the reason, I rationalized as a kid, that their team so often beat ours.)

My grandmother, who nursed an Old Country suspiciousness toward those not of our evangelical faith, had taught me only too well. The first time I undressed in the locker room of a neighboring town's Catholic gymnasium, I felt uneasy--a fact compounded by strange, metallic noises that emanated from beyond the wall which separated our dressing rooms. Everyone on our "C" squad team, seventh and eighth graders, seemed to grown tense. With gaping mouths, we wondered what secret weapon those Catholics might turn against us on the basketball floor.

We learned later that those metallic sounds came from a farm grease gun, as the Catholic players pumped axle grease into their sweat socks to help prevent blisters--a procedure our team eventually adopted.

Gymnasium bleachers were crowded for basketball games with spectators in one town resembling those in all the other towns: squat, solid people, with weather-beaten faces--the men as bandy-legged and hawk-nosed as the women were broad-beamed. They were the children and grandchildren of German-Russian immigrants, an ethnic group which settled south central area of North Dakota at the turn of the century, an area some jokingly called "behind the Sauerkraut Curtain."

Weaned on hard farm labor, fans watched their children and grandchildren apply that same work ethic on the basketball court. It seemed like all of the players shared the same never-say-die attitude, diving and scrabbling for every advantage, any loose ball.

For the most part, players on teams from our area of the state resembled each other physically too: In stature under six feet, stoicism pressed into well-scrubbed features, Brilliantine combed into their hair. In fact, it didn't matter if we played in Zeeland or Ashley, in Linton or Streeter. On each team suited up against me, I was sure to find, reassembled in the guise of an opposing player, some version of my own features.

Truth was, on most teams I had cousins, second cousins, or other relatives, by blood or marriage or both--that far-flung familial network of Germans from Russia. It was our shared kinship, I told myself then, that enabled those other players, so often better than I was, to anticipate which way I'd cut, which way I'd dribble.

Our players were mostly "Schtetlers," town kids, who were spoiled and soft from easy town living. At least that's what my own uncle and other farmers sometimes claimed. No doubt there was some truth to that attitude. I know I disliked rough basketball, what we called "plow ball," a kind of playing we blamed on farmers, when elbows and knees were used to raise lumps and charley horses.

Even in victory, we suffered against teams that played "plow ball." Once, our "B" team beat a neighboring town's "B" team by the score of 65-3, and the overmatched team managed to score only a single basket and a single freethrow. Successful by the scoreboard but defeated by the bustling physical mass of "those farmers," after the game we could only limp meekly into our locker room, deflated.

Whenever our team played on those winter gymnasium evenings, there were always several preliminary games. Junior high and "B" squad players skittered up and down the floor like wild rabbits. Some young players, wearing hand-me-down, oversized uniforms which hung from their bony frames, resembled starving prison camp victims. To make loose Jersey tops fit better, other players wadded white ankle tape around the upper straps, so that the final result resembled the bulky shoulder epaulets of some banana republic dictator.

But it was the "A" squad game that everyone awaited. The gym filled to capacity. Bleachers were lined with people, elbow to elbow. There was a keen sense of anticipation. Teens flirted around the water fountain. Boys ran wet combs through their hair. Grade-school kids scuttled themselves breathless under the bleachers. The poked their heads up like gophers to see if the game had started; they pulled on people's legs, than ran away. Future Farmers of America boys, strolling the sidelines in blue jackets, sold bags full of popcorn to finance their annual trip to the state convention.

Finally, over the public address system, starting teams were announced. the frenzy of action began. Megaphones boomed. Tennis shoes squeaked.

Player gleamed with sweat. The basketball thumped and whined sweetly on the polished floor. It swished through the net, it squirted loose into the crowd, it caromed off the rim. Fans rode waves of elation and disappointment. Referees clamped whistles between their teeth. With each basket, cheerleaders scurried onto the floor, arching their backs and scissoring their legs in athletic cheers.

Players and fans alike were caught up in their own Greek drama, prairie-style. There were heroes. There were villains. There was the chanting chorus of the crowd. There was something elemental, close to life.

Then, before we knew it, the final buzzer blew. The game ended. What happened, we wondered? Where did the time go? Players disappeared behind dressing room doors. The gymnasium cleared, spectators filed out the exits, their steamy breath rising into the cold air of the winter's night.

With wide brooms, janitors swept the floor, gathering popcorn bags, pop cups and colored strands shaken loose from the pom-poms. The bleachers emptied, except for some junior high and "B" team players, waiting for the "A" team to dress.

With their scarves tossed carelessly around their parka necks like chivalrous World War I airmen after an airborne contest, thee young players--I was one of them once--clustered on the bleachers, speaking in quiet tones to comrades-in-arms about the triumphs and disappointments of the evening's game.

They bragged about what they'd done in the game that night. About what they might do in next week's game. How in later seasons, they'd become the best players on the "A" team--when the gymnasium floor, the game, the world, or the corner of it they knew, would belong to them fully.

So they waited, clutching to their parkas make-shift duffel bags, soggy Red Owl paper bags in which they toted sweat-soaked uniforms, damp towels--waited there for the long cold bus ride over the frozen prairie, with all their dreams of hardwood glory to keep them warm on their way back to their hometown.

Reprinted with permission of the North Dakota REC/RTC Magazine (http://www.ndarec.com/magazine.htm).

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