Forgetfulness of things past
Copyright © 2020 Nat Segaloff
Back when I was in high school our phys ed coach, a sadistic prick named Vanner (he doesn’t deserve the memory of a first name), taught us a game called Murder Ball. We played it on days when it was raining too hard to go outside and grovel in the mud and we had to stay in the gymnasium. In Murder Ball the class is divided into two halves with each half lining up against the cinderblock walls. Then the coach let most of the air out of a volleyball so you could get a good, right grip with your hand and throw it with painful accuracy. The object of the game was that whoever had the ball would throw it as hard as he could at the team on the other side. The thrower had to stay behind a center line, but he could run up to it as fast as he could to get momentum before letting to at his target. Whoever the thrower hit with the ball would be out. If someone caught the ball, the thrower would be out. Everyone else scattered and became collateral damage.
Naturally, you tried to take out the biggest, meanest, strongest guys on the other team first. They were the most dangerous because they were usually the class bullies anyway and in Murder Ball they could beat up on you and get away with it. You also tried to get yourself out as early as you could so you could be rid of this nonsense, and the best way to do this was to try to draw attention and then turn your back. Even if you managed to catch the ball – or, more likely, if you dodged it and reclaimed it on the bounce off the back wall -- you handed it over to the biggest, meanest, strongest guy on your team to lob it back. This was because your team had its share of bullies, too.
The thing about getting hit with a mostly empty leather volleyball is that it doesn’t just hurt, it stings like a sonofabitch and leaves a red patch. And since, in gym class, you’re usually wearing shorts and maybe have your T-shirt off, there’s more bare skin area to hit. A red patch in Murder Ball is not a badge of courage, it’s a sign that you weren’t fast enough.
And so it would go until most of the kids on both sides were out and it became a game between the most agile and the most brutal. At this stage the only way to win wasn’t to hit anybody on the other team, it was standing your ground prepared to catch what was thrown at you. (You could also win by default if the other guy hit you in the nuts.) But by then coach Vanner usually blew his whistle and sent us all to the showers because it was no fun any more (for him) since all of his favorites (the aforementioned biggest, meanest, strongest jocks) were out of the game.
There is a metaphor here, and not just the idea that Death stalks everyone and gets you sooner or later. The metaphor I think of is a twist on Game Theory in which the bullies go after each other but also take out the little people as they engage in battle. Like a bad super hero movie (isn’t that redundant?) the world may survive but, meanwhile, New York is in ruins. As with Murder Ball the main action is with the big guys while the little people scramble as best they can. And yet when the game is over the big guys go off together making side deals, confident that they will live to fight another day, while the little guys limp away to nurse their red patches. The fact that the big guys always survive and never pay for the pain they have wrought is a powerful lesson, but I don’t think it’s the one that Coach Vanner meant to teach us. The lesson he meant to teach us is that it’s the ones who controls the bullies who make out best of all. As I remember him sitting on the sidelines with his arms folded, teething on his whistle and smiling at the carnage, I see that he was right. The prick.
Please have your thoughtful response to this notion on my desk by Monday morning.
I don't write on spec, but every now and then something gets me fired up and I can't stop my fingers from hitting the keyboard.