The Playing Fields of Wynnewood

My faithful reader Budd is eager for my revisits of my adolescence, since no doubt since it over-lapped with his. So here’s the next one. I never submitted this for publication, which suggests I had my doubts about it, but since a majority of my readers appear to be robots…

The Playing Fields of Wynnewood
Friends Central, which I attended from 4th through 12th grade (1951-60), believed in mens sana in corpore sano. So we had compulsory sports, fall, summer, spring.
This was fine with me. Sports were fun; proficiency was valued by the culture; and, among my classmates, seemed more important than, say, mastery of Latin. I wanted to be seen as a Regular Guy and accepted by the Right Crowd, and this seemed to require demonstrating athletic skill, of which, fortunately, I was not devoid. (Once, my fifth grade teacher asked us to list what qualities were most important in our choice of friends and, in recognition of the world I saw around me, I included “good in sports.” She either couldn’t comprehend the truth of this insight or censored it, for when translated onto her master list, it had become “good sport.”)
Baseball had initially been my favorite. But my career ended in 10th grade, when, having driven in the tying and winning runs of our opening game, our coach benched me for our second, as far as I could tell, only because Rickie Dickers had just come out for the team, and his father gave money to the school – while mine only muttered darkly in private about its cost, my underachievement, and what he was getting for his dollars. My principled response to the coach’s personnel decision – quitting – was probably not admired by the Athletic Department, but I never played baseball again.
Basketball I rejected for sounder reasons. I couldn’t shoot; I couldn’t dribble; I felt totally humiliated by the process. Every school, it seemed, had its tall, uncoordinated center, with glasses, and I was ours. In hindsight, had we a minimally competent coach, which we didn’t, I might have been instructed (nicely) to not shoot from further than one-foot from the basket, to grab rebounds, at which I had demonstrated some adeptness, and to immediately convey them to a guard, who would be properly positioned to receive outlet passes, as opposed to ours, who, for usefulness, might as well have been in the biology lab. I would have also been allowed to set picks, but that was a word I did not even hear uttered until my freshman year at Brandeis, a school not exactly known as a repository of jock wisdom.
Football became my best sport. But my career peaked in 10th grade, when I was a prototypical “Mad Stork” defensive end on an excellent JV team. I hardly played, deservedly so, the following year on an undefeated varsity, but in 12th grade, when I expected my star to rise, I scarcely saw greater action. I realize Forgiveness is an important virtue, but I am damned if I can get past Coach Gogg on my master list. I don’t know if his shunning me was due to my being Jewish or a “wise guy,” both of which were true, but suddenly fellows who had played behind me for four years were logging more minutes on the old gridiron than I was. (In Coach Gogg’s defense, I would note that the only other Jew on the team, when asked by me a few years ago, denied ever sensing any anti-Semitism directed toward him. But then, he was a “star,” and I was not, so I have not been led to eliminate all-other-things-being-equal…)
I replay the palpable injustice to this day in my head and gut, while others, academic and social, have morphed into smiles. It says more about me than anything else, I am certain, but I have yet to figure out what or why exactly. If I do, maybe I will let it go. Or maybe I will settle for the attar of wisdom to be derived from retaining Grudges.

Since writing this piece, I have discussed it with the noted theologian Benj DeMott. He provides the dispensation that “forgiveness does not apply to coaches of high school athletics.”


7 – 9

The Upper School required boys wear ties and jackets (or sweaters, my preference). It held Quaker meeting once a week, boys on one side of the auditorium, girls the other. (The Quakers were liberal on political issues but cultural, not so much. Each fall, we would lose classmates, boy or girl, rumors about whose personal lives had led them not to have not been “asked back.”)
My grades stayed the same. “AU” in Math, Latin, English, Social Studies. “U” in Manual Training, Music, Art, Gym. So did my assessments. “Robert” needed to “become more attentive,” “less careless,” and “settle down.” “If (he) applies himself,” one teacher wrote, summarizing the thoughts of many, “he should do excellent work.” Though Robert seems not to have behaved as recommended., one English teacher found him “a pleasure to teach.”

I played first base on the class baseball team and defensive end in football; but basketball, given my height and lack of coordination, proved an embarrassment. Even more shaming was my social life. In eighth grade, make-out parties had become the order of the day. But to be invited, you needed a girl friend, and I had none. A girl or two might have been willing to make-out with me, but none gave any overt sign of this, and I was too shy and self-conscious to take any steps required to find out. (Between my glasses and my newly developed acne, I had much to feel self-conscious about.) Besides, one’s stature was influenced by whom one made out with, and the most stature-enhancing girls seemed well beyond me.
In my neighborhood, things were worse. At FCS at least, my athletic capabilities – and the positives attendant upon not settling down – gained me credibility with “A” list guys; but in West Philly, my externals and internals, combined with my “private school kid” taint – that tie being as shaming as a scarlet letter – made me a near untouchable for both sexes.
Which was not all bad.

I had enough belief in my self-worth that these exclusions, while painful, were not crippling. Having one world where I was somewhat comfortable and another where I was somewhat not provided a valuable perspective from which to view both. I mean, the fact that one could feel comfortable in one surround and uncomfortable in another meant that these feelings did not depend on who one “was,” since one was always the same and only the surrounds different. Thus, the “one” became more important than his “worlds.” And the development of this one became the area where my interests and instincts called forth the efforts my elders would have preferred I channel elsewhere. I undertook, with diligence and purpose, investigations of somewhat out-of-the-way corners of orthodox West Philadelphia and orthodox Friends’ Central and took from them what seemed of most significance for the person I hoped to become.
The next several blogs will be accounts of that process. I wrote most not knowing what the next would be and, certainly, in the beginning, unaware of their commonality. For the most part, they stemmed from anecdotes I enjoyed telling over the years to others or inside my own head. Only when I began writing them down, decades later, did I begin looking for the lessons they might contain.

Dog Net

Another compliment Miss Griffiths paid me on my report card (See my blog “Lower School”) was to note I wrote “fine stories.”
She had us write one a week. She divided us into groups, within which we read our stories to each other. Each group then selected a story to be read to the entire class. My stories were always selected. I wrote an series about a small band of soldiers, either in World War II or Korea, rich in camaraderie, like the Blackhawks, but only one story survives, and it is none of these. [Author’s Note: I wonder if this band and my quest for the right gang of buddies to hang with represented an effort to re-establish the “happy” family that had been lost following my sister’s death. Readers are welcome to keep this in mind.]

“Dog Net,” which is the surviving story, parodied the TV show “Dragnet” and was heavily influenced by my admiration of “MAD” comics. It was also a ground-breaking example of appropriation art. I did not tell Miss Griffiths but the idea – and some of the material – came from my neighborhood pal, Mickey Kipper, who’d regaled me with his recollections of a comedian he’d heard on the tube..
In any event, Miss Griffiths called “Dog Net” to the attention of Mrs. Woerner, the head of the Upper School’s English department, and Mrs Woerner selected it for inclusion in “The Literary Supplement,” a (to me) unheard of honor for a Lower School student. [Mrs. Woerner would become a great champion of mine in the Upper School. She continued to admire my writing – but not my spelling and punctuation – and she never gave me an “O.”]

The distinction of having my story selected for “The Literary Supplement,” at the time, had less impact on my sense of who I was or whom I might become than had my inability to handle overhand pitching, which had eliminated my plans to play first base for the Phillies. But it stuck with me. When you do not have an abundance of successes, you keep those you do accrue, neatly at hand. “Dog Net” was probably in my mind the afternoon I sat down across from Professor Leviathan (See my blog “How I Became a Writer ii”). But I had the good sense not to mention it.
Here is how it began (slightly edited). Be warned, it does not stand the test of time:

“This is the kennel. 2500 dogs. I see ‘em all. I’m a police dog. .ARF… arf-ARF arf.We were working on a homicide detail. My partner’s name is Spotty. The boss is Captain Tige. My name’s Rover. ARF… arf-ARF arf.”

Lower School

I had a good three years.
I had fun with my friends. (My two closest and I formed OYLTO, a Treaty Organization, utilizing the first letters of our last names. NOTE: Since I have a history of fictionalizing my friends’s names, I have fictionalized their initials too.) I played soccer ineptly and baseball semi-eptly. I gave a my generation’s definitive interpretation of the villainous, one-eyed Duke of Coffin Castle, in our fifth grade (unauthorized) adaptation of James Thurber’s “The Thirteen Clocks.” (This performance was slightly sullied by my overlooking my decision to raise my eye patch between acts and re-don my glasses and then resuming my portrayal with my glasses in place and my eye patch in the middle of my forehead.)
I received less critical acclaim when, my spirited, if thoroughly off-key audition performance of “The Halls of Montezuma” failed to win me a seat in the school chorus, and I was cast to stand mute as Joseph in a Nativity scene tableau, while nearly everyone else among my contemporaries sang Christmas carols. My father, among the aisle-sitters, was most critical in his assessment of finding his son in this role.

Friends’ Central’s grades ran, top-to-bottom, “Outstanding,” “Above Usual,” “Usual,” “Below Usual,” and “Seriously Below Usual.” I got “O”s in Reading, Literary Appreciation, Written Composition. I got “A”s in Oral Composition, Arithmetic, and Social Studies, for which I recall composing papers on Peru and Albania, researched entirely in the Encyclopedia Britannica, Jr. I got “U”s in Art, Crafts, Music, and Phys. Ed. So I obviously pre3maturely concentrated on the Core Curriculum aspects of the process.
Even more noteworthy were my teachers’ comments. From the start, I was identified as someone “not… working to (his) full ability,” a judgment whose accuracy I would confirm throughout my academic life. I needed to improve “self-control” and “neatness.” I did not pay attention to “detail.” I lacked “organization.” I was “careless,” easily distracted” and, in class, “disturbing.” [On the other hand, Miss Griffiths, who taught me both in fifth and sixth grades and who penned most of those complaints, also complimented my “fine sense of humor,” “incisive comments,” and “mature grasp of current affairs.” I was, she concluded, “a stimulating person to teach.”]
Each report card afforded space for parents to reply. My mother took the opportunity to note how pleased she was at my “progress” and how I seemed “to be enjoying school…” (Adele, on reading these comments, said they raised my mother even further in her estimation for her ability “to focus on the important things.”)
My father did not commit his thoughts to paper. But he was free with them around the dinner table. Public schools had been fine for him. And if I did not do better at FCS, he would yank me out.