Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Wright Words: The 25-year anniversary you don't care about

It is an anniversary of absolutely zero significance to anyone else in the world but me. Not even my wife knows. (Note to self: Tell wife before column is published.)

Twenty-five years ago I heard my father shout two words at me I'll never forget. Even though the meaning has changed, their significance hasn't.

The journey to those two words started on a tennis court nestled on my neighbor's historic and humongous southern plantation. I learned to play the sport by hitting balls against a faded green cinderblock wall. The practice wall was standard height, but what waited for me on the other side wasn't so standard at all.

If I caught too much air, balls would fly into a field filled with a toxic mix of thick weeds and thorny bushes that ate my 12-year-old bony legs. I learned quickly not to hit the balls over the wall.

Once I was comfortable with the rules and could sustain something vaguely resembling a rally, I let a much more talented friend talk me into entering a citywide doubles tournament to be held on the grounds at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

I'll never forget the day my father picked us up from school and drove us to campus to see the tournament draw. We rode in the bed of my father's prized, silver Dodge Rampage. It was one-third truck, one-third car and one-third complete awesomeness.

Sure, we were happy to learn we'd received a first-round bye. Sure, we were excited to see we'd drawn one of the few mixed-doubles teams. But we were downright giddy that the female half of the opposing duo was a student from our high school who we knew we could handle on the court. We didn't recognize her playing partner's name, but he just had to be lousy. No reason, just because.

We sat in the bed of the truck as Dad drove my friend home and felt like we ruled the world. I recall how we repeated our opponents' names over and over with derision and disrespect dripping from our lips. "We got matched against them? Them? We can beat them! With a bye and then these chumps, we're guaranteed to make the third round!" We even came up with a snarky little chant.

Every day after school we practiced and strategized. On the day of the tournament I felt like such a man pulling up the new socks my mother bought me at a real sporting goods store. Not Sears or Kmart but an actual sporting goods store. I stretched them over my calves and made sure they didn't crinkle or get bent at the top, so friends and competitors alike could see the brand name.

There were at least 20 courts at the tennis complex, and we were assigned to one that ran alongside the major thoroughfare in Charlottesville. Our parents and a few friends sat on a grassy hill between the sidewalk and the court with a perfect view.

The four of us met at the net for introductions, and I wondered who the old guy was with the girl we already knew from school. Funny thing: It turns out there wasn't an age limit in the mixed-doubles competition, and the chump staring at us was her personal coach. They promised to take it easy on us, and I promised to beat my friend later with my tennis racket.

The girl was very good, much to our surprise and chagrin. Thankfully her AARP playing partner kept his word and played loose and light.

The first set was competitive and stood at 4-4 with my partner serving. I hugged the net, my strong suit, and stabbed and punched back every volley I could.

We engaged in a long rally with me on the right side of the court. Grandpa hit a crushing forehand that sent me diving toward the doubles alley. My sweet '80s hair flew behind me, and I launched through the air like Superman in gym shorts and a tournament-issued T-shirt. I grunted for effect and somehow, miraculously, I got the ball back over the net and into play. The rally continued without me.

Twenty-five-years later I remember lying on the court with my hands at my sides and feeling the sting of little pebbles embedded in my palms.

Twenty-five-years later I remember my father shouting two words at me from his perch on the grass hill: "Get up!"

I did. Then two or three exchanges later we won the point, and my friend and I exchanged "Top Gun"-style high fives.

This story could end like a Disney sports movie where everyone gets what they want, and both the game and film come down to the final play and the final scene. Or it could end with the truth, that we lost that first set in a close battle and then got hammered in the second by the girl and Abe Lincoln.

Yes, we lost two sets to none. Yes, I took it hard. But I'll never forget hearing my father's voice from the distance. I'd lose a thousand tennis matches to have learned the lesson.

Sometimes I fall and get up. Sometimes I don't. But my shot at being successful only comes on the occasions when I brush the pebbles off and stand again. Even then, as much as I want it, I still sometimes lose.

My father died less than a year later, and I wonder how many times since his passing he has shouted at me from his perch on a grassy hill. "Get up!" I wonder if he knew then how badly I needed to hear those two words or how many times I've longed to hear them since.

No, this anniversary means nothing to anyone but me, and that's just the way I like it. I simply hope that all these years later I'm still trying to "get up" every time I fall.

I also hope he's still shouting.

1 comment:

  1. WOW! Very inspiring story. Thank you so much for sharing it.