It might have been the perfect convergence of time and place
–1964 and Pennsylvania – that PE teaches allowed their charges
to beat the crap out of each other. It all took place within the
mayhem of a game called Bombardment.
The basic game was simple. Two teams of thirty 7th and
8th-grade boys confronted each other on a basketball court.
Around 20 under-inflated gym balls were divvied out. On the
whistle, we started hurtling balls at each other. Get hit and your
out. Catch a ball and a team mate could re-enter the game. We all
Time out for a demographic note. There is a significant
biological difference between 14 year olds and 12 year olds. Some
of the older kids were grown fucking men. There was also a
dividing line between the athletes and the rest of us. In our Jr.
HS, wrestlers and football players were kings. These boys could
get away with anything. The PE teachers also coached football
We also had a subgroup called the “hard guys”. They wore flashy
clothes featuring long shirt collars. These boys were older,
having been held back multiple times. They were just biding time
until they got a girl pregnant and grabbed a job tending a
blast-furnace at US Steel. We were in deathly fear.
Back to the game. Our gym teachers added a small wrinkle to the
rules. If you shot a basket on the opposing side, all the kids on
the bench were released. We called this a jail-break. But, not
easy. To make shot it was necessary to cross mid-court. This was
called “walking the plank”. Defenders could do anything to stop
you. Anything at all.
In Bombardment, I had a strategy called “hang back”. The balls
really hurt. By staying on the backline, thrown balls had lost
most of their steam. It was a strategy of self-preservation.
One day the strategy backfired. I was the last boy standing on my
side. All the balls had been expended by the other team. There
were 10 minutes left in the period. And the gym teachers didn’t
like me because I ran track. In their eyes, not a sport.
Some of my benched team mates were chanting, “walk the
fucking plank”. (Yes, this was allowed. They were wrestlers.) I
picked up a ball and started running. A wall of boys formed at
mid-court. I was going to die.
Just before the first boy landed a haymaker on my chest, I flung
the ball before going down beneath a wave of punches and kicks.
Soon, the wall started moving. It was a jailbreak. The ball went
in! A wild fracas ensued. Kids were fighting and scores were
being settled. The intensity levels even alarmed the PE teachers.
I watched it all from the backline. My safe spot.
Later that year, I hit puberty. I grew 7 inches and added 30
pounds. The PE teachers noticed. I pledged football for the
upcoming season. But I never had an athletic moment like the
day I walked the plank.