A very rough draft of Jim Harstad’s memoir, ON HE RODE — Chapter 39

ON HE RODE — Chapter Thirty-Nine

The country school I attended in grades five through eight was a steep-roofed chalet built of river rock, heavy Douglas fir timbers, and cedar shake roofing taken from the ground on which it was built by the WPA in 1938. A gorgeous edifice immaculately maintained by angular post-retirement old-timers in bib overalls, it was a privilege to be a student there.

At its north end the chalet did a transverse expansion into a combination fieldhouse/auditorium, its stage framed by enormous timbers from which the bark had been carefully peeled, radiant wood gently hand-sanded and lacquered. The concrete auditorium floor was also the floor of the basketball court, and it had a tendency to accumulate moisture and grow slippery when it hosted lively, well-attended events such as ball games. Of course our home-team advantage was only enhanced by such discreet strategies as dusting our All-Star soles with powdered resin and avoiding especially treacherous “ice holes” — slippery spots — and luring unsuspecting opponents into them. It was like driving on black ice.

The first time we played Mary M. Knight School that year was a home game, and we smoked’m bad. I played low post and got a ton of mileage out of a turnaround bank shot modeled on my hero Bob “Hooks” Houbregs after a quick pass from Evers’ faux Joe “Slippery Sip” Cipriano. Possibly our special home court advantage came into play, but we doubted it. The floor wasn’t even getting damp until late in the third quarter. And we won by A LOT. Can anybody spell dynasty?

Later in the season we had no trouble with Vaughn, Hoodsport, Skokomish, or Union City, so you might guess we were a bit complacent about our second game with Mary M. Knight. And you know what, besides having a woman’s name, Mary M. Knight didn’t even have an indoor basketball court. They practiced outside and played their home games in a National Guard Armory cracker box. No wonder they were so easy! They practiced in the rain, ha ha.

Only, you guessed it, they were laying for us. It seems they didn’t like the way we’d acted in the first game. Besides the unsure footing, we had run up the score quite a bit, feeding my selfish appetite to make thirty points in one game. Not very good sports, were we? Is it worse that I stopped three points short of thirty, or that, given the circumstances, I tried at all — honor, sportsmanship, etiquette, etc., considerations that I actually did take into account now and then. But how often do you even get a chance at thirty? Ever? Never? Whatever.

Mary M. Knight at the armory for our second matchup, and they were ready for us. Ever hear of a full-court press, Evers? Evers has, but he’s never had one laid on him like this. Can’t pass, can’t dribble, can’t move. Time out! Too late. Turnover. Inbounds pass, bounce pass inside, off the board, swish! Two for them.

Time out for us. Strategize. Beat the press by having the forwards cross at mid-court, a long bounce-pass up the sideline, inside to . . . oh no — never heard of plugging up the lane, stealing the ball from center (me), downcourt baseball pass, layup, two more for the home team, Mary M. Knight.

They took us by surprise, all right, had us on our heels, on the ropes, knocked us around a bit, but we’re not hamburger so we fight back, crash the boards and feed the forwards, Swanson and Byerly. It comes down to an off-the-backboard putback by Byerly of a missed shot by Swanson that saved it for us at the final buzzer. Still undefeated. Did anyone score double figures? Not me.

We were regular-season champs, a good thing to be sure, but post-season tournament champs, that would mean something for all time. It would be played on a full-size high school court with hardwood floors, tiered bleachers, and an electronic scoreboard at each end. It would include all the rural elementary schools in Mason County and would play out over three days. It would be a really big deal. Our school PTA bought us spanking new green and gold uniforms and called us the Raiders. I don’t remember what they called us in our old, faded blue and white unis. Cougars? Orcas? Luck of the draw, our first game is on Friday, and we will play Mary M. Knight.

I’m a top-of-the-heap eighth-grader at school, but at church I am a barely visible hybrid class-unto-itself as I quietly prepare to confirm full membership in the Missouri Synod of the Lutheran Church. It is designed to be a two-year tutorial followed by a public examination and graduation ceremony. Classes meet on Saturday mornings to study the Old Testament the first year and the New Testament the second year.

Whitey pled hardship. Driving twenty miles into town every Saturday for two years was, well, a lot. His son is a reader, he tells Pastor Wieg. Could I be assigned readings in the Old Testament while taking classes in the New Testament, finishing the whole thing in one year? Well, ah, er, hmm . . . well, I suppose,  etc. Whitey’s son ended up promising to read the whole Old Testament on his own while studying the New Testament with the second-year class. Then, probably to everyone’s surprise, I actually read the entire Old Testament, five chapters a night, night after night. And enjoyed doing it and came to believe that by doing it and by learning The Lord’s Prayer and The Ten Commandments and studying Martin Luther’s explanation of their meaning, I was homing in on The Meaning of Life. Really.

I believed I was living a life greatly enriched by my personal relationship with a God who apparently liked me a lot. Life was not just good, it was really good. It seemed that I didn’t have to actually ask for anything, ever. It would be given to me for no other reason than my unswerving belief that there was a God and that as long as I paid Him homage He would see to it that I got everything I needed and maybe more. Would that include the Mason County Rural Elementary School Basketball Championship?

Tough call. Why was it so important to me? Doesn’t it go against the humble nature of my spiritual ideal to want that kind of success? Wouldn’t I actually be more likely to lead my team to victory if I didn’t want to win so badly? If I just keep doing the evening prayer and reading ritual, wouldn’t victory be my automatic reward? But if I don’t let God know how much I want to win, maybe He won’t know how important it is to me? Oh yeah. An omniscient God wouldn’t know?

After thus pondering a good part of the night before the first game of the tournament, I came to the resolution that God must like to be asked for favors, that such asking was acknowledgement of His supremacy in all things. However, in order to assure God’s compliance with my wishes, I cannot ask for purely selfish things that elevated my standing at the expense of others. The request, the prayer, should be short, all-inclusive, and public. No matter how I couched it, what simple words and phrases I used to make my ask, the difficult part would be going public. Can you imagine an eighth-grader . . . praying . . . to God . . . in front of classmates? I wasn’t sure I could either.

But I’d have a prayer ready, just in case. How do you ask for something you really want without being selfish? Hm. How about if you ask for the inevitable? Please, God, let whatever is going to happen, happen? All things considered, we are a better basketball team than Mary M. Knight. A safe approach would seem to be a simple, built-in acknowledgement of that fact. How about, “Lord, please help us all to do our very best. Amen.” If Mary M. Knight did their best and we did our best, why wouldn’t that take care of it?

“Fresh Lone Star?”

“Why not?”

Mahalo for reading!

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