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Unexpected Basketballs

I’m on a mission to ever expand the parentheses of “normal.” Now for “the other shoe to drop.” Will I be able to drag that into the periphery of those little ()? I’m afraid I’m afraid. I fear not knowing the profundity of the proverbial shoe.

So I do what all do- I wait. And as they say, “Don’t hold your breath.” And speaking of sayings. Something comes along and knocks the breath out of you. Now that’s a bit frightening – until you pass out. And this happened to me once.

We had an open field in the middle of our neighborhood, maybe as large as 3 football fields. Towards the middle, someone’s Dad put up a creosote pole with a homemade basketball backboard into the red Alabama dirt. With a goal and net of course. Bring your own basketball. And we did. I suppose if all the hours were added together, like man-hours on the job, we played a total of 4 or 5 years out there. We once played some 2 on 2 in 18 degree weather for at least 3 hours one day.

But it was another pick-up game with the neighborhood guys that I felt that panic of not being able to breath.

In our neighborhood, everyone seemed to live there forever. Everyone knew who lived in every house, all around the rather large “suburb” of Oxford, Alabama. And one of those families was the Youngs, the kids were Willard, Paul and Charlotte. They lived across the street from my sister’s future husband’s family, the Owens.

One day we chose up teams and played several games, and for this particular game, Willard was on one team and I the other. I was at the time about 12 or so, and Willard I think about 18 or 19. Willard wasn’t as I recall the athletic type, not like his brother, Paul. He even wore what we called “horn-rimmed glasses.”

During the heat of the game, the ball was about to go out of bounds, which was something of a misnomer, since there were no boundary lines painted or drawn on the red dirt court, made barren and smooth enough by hundreds of hours of thousands of dribbled basketballs. But we played on the honor system – you fouled, you admitted it. And if the ball was going out of bounds, the consensus was “out on you!” or “Our ball!” Unless someone saved it.

The ball was bouncing toward what would be the baseline, and Willard tight-roped the understood boundary and scooped the ball with his right hand, and flipped it vigorously back into play. Only I was standing right in the path, and the ball hit me squarely in the gut. I went down on elbows and knees, not breathing.

I recall thinking that if I held my breath just long enough, I could at a point then exhale and be able to inhale, to “catch my breath.” It was my plan. Until Willard Young, who felt badly about hitting me in the stomach, tried to help me up but placing his hands on either side of my stomach, and lifting me up, caused all the breath to escape my body. And the lights went out. I passed out cold.

When I woke up, I remember being upset with Willard. If only he’d left me alone, I would have certainly caught my breath and been fine. He only tried to help. He was nice like that as I recall.

Willard came to our house a few years later in an Army uniform. I don’t remember Willard ever being in our home before. He was a year older than my brother Larry, and think was there to talk to him. I do remember him talking to my Daddy, who was also in the army in World War II.

It could be that Willard was proud of the uniform. As I recall, he was very bright and was off to college, but had voluntarily joined the army. Whatever the story, it seemed strange to me that this sort of bookworm kind of guy had joined the army. He was there telling us that he was off to Vietnam.

It was only 4 years or less from that day, March 3, 1968, that our whole neighborhood, our town and our school, Oxford High School, got word that Willard had been killed in action in Vietnam.

That knocked the breath out of me in a different way.