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Tiddlywinks, anyone?


Although I have now attained the age at which I sometimes must refer to my driver's license if someone asks my name, when it comes to harking back to the days of my youth, no sweat. Next time you see me on the street--or sidewalk, because I seldom walk in the street; not yet, anyway--if you should jump out from behind a bush and yell, "Hark back!" nine times out of ten I could do it. How far back I could hark depends upon--I'm sorry, I've forgotten what it depends upon. In fact . . . what was it we were talking about?

Oh, yes. An item in Time recently set my memory buds in gear by recounting George Plimpton's weekend at Camp David with our sports-minded President. What Plimpton thought would be three days of nothing more strenuous than bird watching turned out to be a period of open sweat glands from bowling . . . horseshoe pitching . . . volleyball (no, not volleyball) . . . skeet shooting . . . tennis . . . and even tiddlywinks.

Tiddlywinks did it. I, in all modesty, was once the top tiddler in all of Richfield Center, Michigan. I can remember tiddling all my winks into the cup while my opponent was still looking for his first one, which he often found lying on the piano keyboard. The secret was in luring my victims onto the spongy surface of our living room carpet. They never did get the hang of it.

After running out of competitors at age 10 (I was always young for my age; boys of my age were usually 12 or more), I graduated to the even more demanding sport of marbles. Not the citified version, shooting them out of a circle drawn in schoolyard dirt. This was the country version, rolling cheap clay agates at a "snotty" (excuse the term), a clear glass thing of beauty having a milky center.

Being a gifted child, I discovered early on that if I set up my snotty behind a hump in the kitchen-floor linoleum or a crack in the concrete entry at the schoolhouse, my chances of success were vastly improved.

Only once did this strategy threaten to cost me my life. Or worse. "Ham" Seib, having squandered his entire inventory of agates vainly rolling at my target, accused me of purposely positioning it behind a blemish in the concrete surface. Imagine! But before he could lay his murderous hands on me, I was off and running--another sport I was good at. The only reason I am here today is that after I vaulted the fence behind the schoolhouse, my pockets were relieved of the total take of agates, which Ham stopped to retrieve, giving me time to disappear into Wartella's cornfield.

As for my still rather robust biceps, I credit the sport of horseshoe pitching, which experts now praise as "the greatest nonprescription medicine in the world."

The object here, professionally speaking, is to pitch a 2-1/2-pound horseshoe in such a manner that it will embrace an iron stake at a distance of 40 feet. If the closed end makes contact with the stake, the shoe is inclined to carom off, often to embrace the ankle of a player at this end of the court. A veteran horseshoe pitcher can be identified by, besides a limp, a pitching arm two to three inches longer than the other.

Today's horseshoe lovers like to say that accidents in this sport are rare. Today's horseshoe lovers, however, never played on the clay court laid out behind the old Stoddard barn. When playing doubles (two players at each stake), some dummy was always mistaking the number of shoes thrown and would be bending down to retrieve his pair, only to have the last one make a ringer around his neck. You talk about ring around the collar! That baby didn't wash out.

Being a smart kid, as I may have mentioned, I managed to escape injury until I moved up to the great American game of baseball.

I refer you to the annual Davison High School game with Montrose during my junior year, when, in racing back for a long fly ball in center field, I ran over a stump.

"Didn't you see that stump?" Mr. Wolfe, our coach, foolishly asked while pouring a bucket of water over me.

Why, of course I saw the stump. I just wanted to see how it would feel to hit a stump while running at top speed. How he thought I could keep my eye on the ball and on a stump at the same time--without the risk of being cockeyed for the rest of my life--I never asked. Mr. Wolfe was also my English teacher.

My next stunt, after I had several weeks of convalescing to regain locomotion, occurred on our Sunday school team, the Richfield Sodbusters. Under the absurd assumption that injuries never befall first basemen, I had taken over this position. The diamond having been laid out on my dad's 40-acre field just south of Richfield's four corners, I had at least an acre of clear sailing before arriving at the line fence. And an acre, I figured, should be plenty.

From cars lined up along the road (M-15) that day, spectators enjoyed the added treat of watching me chase a foul ball one second and, the next second, vanish completely. This phenomenon being somewhat unusual, even on a sandlot diamond, our entire infield rushed over to the spot where I had abruptly disappeared. They found me at the bottom of a ten-foot well just beyond the mowed area. I watched the rest of the game from a car seat laid out in front of our bench.

When it comes to harking back to incidents embarrassing as well as painful in my sporting career, I don't have to hark far. Only this summer my grandson, Gaven, fresh from earning a credit in golf from Indiana University (he may be going for his Ph.D. in golf, for all I know), invited me to play a round at Spencer's Pine Hills course. I hadn't played for several years, but thinking it might give the kid confidence to beat his saintly grandfather, I went out to the shed to rummage for my clubs.

Now, even in my playing days I was never keen on teeing off before an audience, just in case my drive should slice across the road and disappear into the cornfield. But the size of the audience on this day left no alternative; it was take our turn at the tee or finish up by match light. Which, in retrospect, would have been the better choice.

Like so many worries that come to naught, the drive was not my immediate concern. My No. 1 problem was getting my driver out of the bag. I mean I pulled, I tugged, I yanked, until I even had traffic stopping along the road. Not until I was sure every eye was upon me did I finally lift the bag off the cart and bang it on the ground. Out came the clubs, accompanied by large chunks of tunneled mud, courtesy of the mud daubers who had been busily engaged in cementing my clubs to the bag.

My drive sliced over the road and disappeared into the cornfield. I didn't bother to look for it. A brand-new Golden Ram too.

When it comes to embarrassment, however, this was little league.

For big-time embarrassment, I now hark back to the big Fourth of July baseball bash that pitted the Sodbusters against our archrival, Henpeck (you can look it up).

In the last of the ninth, two out, a man on first, our team two runs down, I came to bat. And I poled one. I mean that ball had home run written on it when it left the bat. Although obviously a waste of effort, the left fielder turned and chased after it. For what happened then I had to rely on word of mouth, as I was too busy on the base paths to take note.

The way it was told to me, when the left fielder finally caught up with the ball, he threw it to the center fielder, who winged it to the shortstop, who wheeled and pegged it to the catcher, who went through the seemingly futile motion of tagging me sliding in. I say futile, because I wasn't sliding in. Nor had I crossed the plate and begun receiving plaudits from my teammates for having sent the game into extra innings.

No, where I was was on my stomach, elbowing desperately for second base. Seems that after I rounded first, the spikes on my right shoe had penetrated my left shoe, reducing my progress to a crawl. The catcher's throw to the second baseman arrived well before I did.

Not long afterward, I would be pitching baseball for the University of Michigan (you can look it up). And in my three-year tenure, I would lose but one game--to Indiana. Which is one reason why I moved my family down here. I couldn't think of a better way of getting even.
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Author:Stoddard, Maynard Good
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Sep 1, 1990
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