Looking back, it was possibly one of the worst decisions I ever made. Our sixth grade year was drawing to a close, and excitement was in the air as representatives from Junior High came to each sixth grade classroom to sign us up for our classes for next year. Junior High! Changing classes! Lockers! The excitement was palpable, and caught up in the moment, I signed up for football like most of the other guys in Mrs. Smoot's room. But then, as the long hot summer wore on, my old nemesis, self-doubt, begin to creep in and take hold. Football? What was I thinking? I was a pudgy little guy, and I began to seriously doubt my ability to make it through the practice sessions. Athletic prowess had never been my strong suit, and although I tried to convince myself otherwise, I was unable to shake the apprehension I felt about football. So, there was nothing left to do but bail. So, in a decision that I have forever regretted, I sat down and composed a letter to Mr. Rackley, the Jr. High principal, requesting that he change my schedule from football to PE. So, when we picked up our schedules at the beginning of school, I was no longer participating in football.
One of the first orders of business for those of us participating in PE was the purchase of our official PE uniform. The PE uniform was actually a stunning orange and black t-shirt and shorts combo, with "Waldron" emblazoned across the front. We also were responsible for purchasing a pair of Keds, and we were strongly encouraged to dedicate them exclusively to PE so as to not bring dirt and pebbles onto the gym floor from general purpose wearing. My first PE teacher was Mr. Porter, who was one of the coaches. I don't remember him after seventh grade; it is possible that he decided to pursue a less stressful career, like monkey dresser for a traveling circus or something.
Actually, Mr. Porter was not my first PE teacher. When I was in sixth grade, in the spring of that year, the Waldron School District, in a move way ahead of its time, hired a PE teacher for upper elementary students. Carolyn Hill taught PE classes once a week or so to Mrs. Smoot's class and all the other fifth and sixth grade classes. Carolyn was a great PE teacher who made physical activity fun, which is so very important to creating good lifelong exercise skills. She also taught us content as well, and I remember taking written tests and writing "Fizz Ed" across the top of the paper.
But, back to seventh grade. Ah, those uniforms. We tried to take them home every Friday to have them washed, but occasionally someone would forget and they would be left in our lockers to ferment. I remember one particular unnamed student who made it a matter of pride to see how long he could go without taking his uniform home to be washed. He finally had to give in when the paint started peeling from the interior of his locker.
Every morning in PE, we would begin with a series of tortuous exercises designed to break the spirit of even the most ardently dedicated prisoner of war. My particular favorite was the leg lift, in which we would lie on our back and elevate our feet about 6 inches off the gym floor. Mr. Porter would give the command, "Up," and we would hold our legs in that elevated position until we heard the command "Down," which would come at some interminable length of time later. Mr. Porter, prone to occasional flights of fancy, would sometimes become lost in revelry between the two commands, only to be brought back to consciousness by the sound of guttural moans. Then, on a particularly good day, we would proceed over to two specific physical education devices, the peg board and the climbing rope. Here is a video of someone climbing a pegboard properly. Ours was not as big as the one in the video, and a few of the guys could actually climb it, but I was never able to advance past the first peg. As a matter of fact, I was never able to pull the first peg out while I was still hanging on to it. Mr. Porter would usually let those of us less able hang there until it was painfully obvious to everyone concerned that there would be no rapid procession up the peg board, and then we would hop down and make way for the next poor slob. After being sufficiently publicly humiliated on the peg board, we would then step over to one of the two ropes hanging from the gym ceiling. The ropes had knots tied in them every few feet to theoretically make it easier to climb. To properly climb the rope, you were to grasp the rope firmly with both hands and then proceed to pull yourself up, hand-over-hand, until you reached the gym ceiling. There, the astute climber would slap the ceiling joist on which the rope was attached and proceed rapidly back down the rope. If you were really good, you would extend your legs out perpendicular to your body as you climbed, making no use of the knots tied in the rope. Again, upon my turn, I would advance to the rope in a confident manner similar to that with which wrestling champion Danny Hodge would advance upon Crazy Chuck Karbo, and then firmly grasp the rope with both hands as I jumped up as high as I could, and then hang there pitifully, unable to pull my body even as much as an inch up the rope. Amid shouts of encouragement mixed with derision, I would mightily try to pull myself up until, resigned to my fate, I would drop sheepishly back onto the floor, and someone else would get to try.
But it wasn't all bad. Some days, after our spirit-breaking exercise routine, we would get to play a game we called Bombardo. The half court stripe on the gym floor would be lined with small rubber utility balls, and two teams would be lined up on opposite sides of the gym floor, facing the half court line. Upon a signal, each team would run as fast as they could to half court, and grab a utility ball and try to hit someone from the other team. If you got hit yourself, you were out of the game. The game would continue until the inevitable scenario where one team had only one player left, and the other team had four or five, and the subsequent slaughter would be great spectacle. Those little balls left huge bruises, which became a source of pride for weeks thereafter.
Another fun activity was the trampoline. Backyard trampolines were unheard of back in those days, so the trampoline in the gym was an exotic device to us. We were taught three basic moves: The seat drop, the knee drop, and the forward flip. I was completely adept at two of those moves. My seat drop and knee drop were things of beauty, but propelling myself into space while contorting my body to land upright was a bit out of my league.
I guess I took PE most every year. Later on, when I was in high school, I had a few more skills but was still no great athlete. But I was tall, and I remember one particular time when we were playing basketball, I was having pretty good luck with my shots. This resulted in Perry Atchley, who was on the opposing team, uttering a phrase that was never heard before and has never been heard since. "Watch Yates," Perry said.
But back to that letter I wrote Mr. Rackley. What if I'd never sent it? What could have been? I can see it now. Under the proper tutalage of the Waldron coaching staff, I would have excelled as an athlete. With my size and excellent hand-eye coordination, I would have been quickly moved from linebacker to tight end. Excelling at that position and being almost singlehandedly responsible for our undefeated season as a senior, I would have been offered a full scholarship to the University of Arkansas. Impressing the coaches during my freshman redshirt season, I'm given a tryout at quarterback. Although having never played that position, my impressive throwing distance and dead-on accuracy are quicky brought to the attention of Frank Broyles. I'm summoned to his office, where I find him along with the assistant coaching staff. "Boys," Frank intones. "I wont yall to know that we've just found our new quawt-ah-back. Somebody go break it to Calcagni."
Ah, what might have been.