Thursday, January 14, 2016

American Mysteries

When my family first came to the US, the land was shrouded in mysteries. For my mother, these centered largely around food-shopping. She wasn’t accustomed to everything being wrapped or packaged and some items truly baffled her. She was awed by the meat counter, but the butcher’s horrified look when she asked for cow brains and lamb kidneys embarrassed her. The sheer number of laundry detergents was staggering.  In France, you washed your clothes by hand using Omo, a granulated cleaner that I think was invented before the French Revolution. Here, a dozen or more detergents crowded the aisle.

My father, though he spoke English fluently, often ended up in the wrong part of town when he took the bus to work. Once, the driver dumped him unceremoniously across the Potomac in Virginia—terra incognita—and he had to take a cab back all the way to our home in Maryland. Even at the time, the ride emptied his wallet and, I think, prompted a lifelong dislike for taxis, which he claimed were bigger thieves than any merchant he’d encountered in the souks of North Africa during the war.

Me, the mysteries were focused on sports.

My first or second day in America, Johnny King, the teen-aged son of the people in whose house we were staying, handed me a catcher’s mitt. It sort of looked like one of the couch cushions my elderly great-aunt Thérèse had strewn on the sofa of her house in St. Germain.  

Johnny did a complex wind-up and hurled the ball towards me. I watched it approach at terrifying speed. I never considered raising the catcher’s mitt. The ball—it was very, very hard, which I came to understand is why it was called a ‘hardball’—hit me square in the middle of the forehead and knocked me out. Johnny ran off into the surrounding woods. His mother, Mrs. King, saw me lying unconscious in her front yard. So did my mother. This was everything she had feared about coming to America: Savage children attacking her son with solid objects. She wailed her disapproval.

I was unhurt but had a huge knot right between my eyes. Johnny got blamed and immediately became a lifelong enemy. Baseball never had a chance to grow on me.

Football was another thing entirely. I played with neighborhood kids who took glee in handing me the ball and then wrestling me to the ground and jarring the ball loose. It took me weeks to realize they weren’t calling me Dumbo when this happened; they were saying ‘fumble.’  Since at the time I hadn’t quite grown into my ears, I was certain they were comparing me to Disney’s flying elephant. To this day, even after watching hundreds of football games, I still react strongly when a runner drops the ball.

Hockey had no impact; I’d never even seen ice before coming to the States. Basketball seemed sort of silly and I never quite mastered one-hand dribbling.

It was assumed that, being European, I played soccer. I didn’t but pretended to and found a certain ease in taking the ball down the field. The school soccer coach, who I think knew less about the game than I did, always had a favorable word, so that became my sport.

It still is.



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