“Get the ball, Zander!” I screamed. From the sideline I could see my son on the soccer field running circles around the other children as he does every week. Unfortunately, he was doing it in the literal sense, orbiting the small group of four-year-olds struggling to free the undersized ball from a tangle of little legs. When the ball popped out, it landed, as it often did, right in front of my boy. He smiled from ear to ear and waited patiently for another child to take the ball so he could continue his pursuit and encirclement, throwing a few elbows and occasionally tackling, but never meaningfully playing the game.
I slapped my forehead. I did not need to see Zander score a goal or be on the winning team, but I was desperate to see him compete, to try, but his best run of the night had been west on a north-south field, dashing for the fence while the other children watched from the sideline, waiting for the ball to be returned. With the ball back in play I screamed, “You can kick the ball, Zander!”
Among the senses, the ears don’t snatch old memories from the dark corners of the brain with the speed of tongue and nose; the taste and smell of apple pie is far more redolent of home than the sound of the oven door closing. Hearing my own voice, however, culled a recollection, the voice of Senior Drill Instructor Sgt. Easley standing above the 5-foot-wide boxing ring designed to keep Marine Corps recruits at Parris Island from doing cowardly things like moving their feet to avoid the strikes of fellow recruits. At the hitting skills course boxing was distilled to the essence: fists hitting faces.
The Marine Corps has a slavish devotion to hierarchy that hits a snag in basic training where every recruit has the same rank (none), the same time in service (little), and is equally worthless. This obstacle is easily overcome by height; everywhere else in the Corps people line up by rank, but at Parris Island they line you up like Russian nesting dolls, tallest first. A toothpick at 6-foot-4, 175 pounds, I was second-tallest and thus paired with Ivan Drago, 6-foot-6, 1 ton.
Size was actually less a problem than that I had never been in a fight. Easley blew his whistle. My hands remained level with my throat, out in front of me in the stance we had been shown before the fights began. My opponent started swinging and I recall blinking each time his gloves connected with my face, an effect not unlike a strobe light.
It was not a fair fight, but in the Marine Corps rationale the pairing worked out great because Drago got some good practice and I enjoyed some toughening up, which is funny because the same thing done to steak is called tenderizing. There was no chance this was going to be a pleasant experience for me but my drill instructor did manage to make it a touch more humiliating by screaming, just inches from my ear, “You can hit him back, Scheib!” Those words came to mind as my son studied his navel to the sounds of cheers as another child scored a goal.
The day of my first fight continued like all others at Parris Island. I did pushups and foot-locker dips, carried my rifle around, attended classes, but all with a throbbing skull. I dreaded the next day of boxing but when it came, a reprieve! Drago was recalled to the Soviet Union or something and in his place I was paired with the next tallest guy, Hayes, who was normal, about my size, shape, and experience. I gave him a bloody nose. I felt bad about it because I liked him, but I was also proud. I started to enjoy boxing, then pugil sticks; physical fitness tests went from drudgery to opportunities to compete. From that point on I wanted to win.
Like all good parents I wish to spare my son my own past humiliations, and of course this is accomplished by visiting some entirely new ones on him. “Go after the ball! The ball!,” I caught myself yelling. This was his second season of soccer. Why wasn’t it taking? If only he could drink from the victor’s cup or at least have a good run on a goal he would know how great it felt. Then he would develop those killer instincts I had lacked at his age, in elementary and middle school, those traits I had somehow failed to acquire in the concert chorus and show choir in high school.
On the way home after the game I told Zander I was glad he had fun, but maybe he could kick the ball next time. I was speaking Athlete and it went right over his head. But later that night we took to a different field, playing a memory game where one turns over cards to match them. The boy has a yawning memory; his father does not. “Yes!” he says pumping his fist in the air. “You missed it!” he taunts with each turn as his stack of paired cards grows exponentially to my own.
After winning his second consecutive game he stands and does a little victory dance. I watch this display with dawning pride. You go, victor. You go, competitor. Play like a champion!
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