I know that for many people, tetherball evokes fond memories of suburban backyards and lazy afternoons at the swim club. But for me it dredges up feelings of humiliation and anxiety. Most of all tetherball brings back images of Howard Ham.
Howard was the tetherball king of my third-grade class at Leal Elementary in Cerritos, Calif. In a time when your degree of coolness was determined by how good you were at wrapping a length of cord attached to a volleyball around a 10-foot pole, that meant something. I, on the other hand, played horribly.
Howard had a simple strategy that rarely failed. He would swipe the ball downward at a severe angle so that it popped skyward, making it impossible for his opponent to return. Usually I just stood there, helplessly looking up as the ball orbited in a near vertical plane around the pole. When I served, Howard deployed the monkey bump, a cruel attack in which he used two clenched fists to spike the ball directly back at me. I got monkey bumped a lot, mostly in the face.
For some reason tetherball was considered a sport—at least it was in the 1980s, when I played it. Like all sports it was supposed to build character. After building enough character to last a lifetime, I finally caught a break following fifth grade. I transferred to a new school. The blacktop was thankfully tetherball-free.