It was sports (with an s), not sport (no s), that clutched at our hearts in Mississippi back in my highly charged growing-up days—the '50s. Of course, sports (with the s) was a reflection of politics, which became a version of sports again. Sports was a metaphor that championed winning, calculable results achieved through modes of extreme competition: many touchdowns, many, many baskets, more home runs than the other team. And it meant more ducks downed, more quail, more deer, more wild turkeys shot, way more doves killed than anyone would've imagined possible. Field sports. � Sports was scoring. And by scoring's mean calculus one computed one's worth, even one's pleasure. Sports in the Magnolia State back then, of course, didn't entail fellowship or camaraderie or even genuine competition—not really—since there was that entire disapproved race of potential competitors across town, Negro sportsmen we didn't test ourselves against. Sports meant exclusion and extremity, just like the politics of those days. It's better today, thank goodness, but the warping absurdity of those race relations—those race nonrelations—seems now to have been near the heart of the strenuous atavism with which we pursued our sports; as if by banging, banging against each other, but not those other boys, by galloping terribly, as the poet said, against each other's bodies, by winning, defeating, scoring, totting up victories, championships, crowns, laurels, we could force it all to make sense and be sporting after all.
Not surprising, then, that sport (minus the s)—that more idealizable endeavor, the thing you do just for the doing and not necessarily to score or rain defeat on opponents or wildlife—that good and novel idea, came to me from different quarters of my Mississippi life. That gift I owe to my father, who took me fishing.
My father was a commercial traveler—an occupation all but gone now—five days on the road, two home. There wasn't much time to fish, to cultivate equipment options, to scout the choicest waters. There was just weekends to get in the car and go, from the time I was six till I was 16, when he died. And we did go. We fished in old cutoff river channels in the Delta, in pay-to-fish ponds in Yazoo County and Copiah County, in brackish backwater bayous on the coast, in great marly reservoirs, in unpromising mud streamlets we passed over on the way to someplace else. Almost always we caught nothing, or we snagged fish too small or too ugly and unrecognizable to think of keeping. We lost our bait—crickets and worms and half-dead minnows. We broke off our last hooks. We snagged our line. It was just cane poles and rickety rented rowboats with numbers painted on. My father was a country man, but neither he nor I knew a lot about fishing—no more than I knew about football.
Oh, I knew even then it was supposed to be different. I dreamed lush dreams of lunker bass, slab crappies, slick, whiskered catfish too brawny to handle, of my father and me smiling, nodding in mutual admiration as the golden Mississippi sun sank below the cypress, and the stringer grew heavy. It's a fair survival skill, though, to make pleasure be the thing you do, instead of wasting life competing with the things you're supposed to do, or can't. And that's what I did with him: cultivated the doing, the going, the trying, the patient waiting, even the failing, all those less extreme particulars—the sport of it—since, inasmuch as I wasn't much of an athlete, those other results, the standard big victories, weren't meant for me.
I won't propose a grand theory of sport learned by lacking this or lacking that. We learn what we learn often haphazardly. It just happened to me this way. Sport, or what I came to know of sport, made me forget about the other—about sports. And Mississippi, my birthplace, my home forever, came to mean not old hallowed and dubious ground, but something better, a sweetness riven into these lessons I learned from my father when I was young.