I was only a little kid when my father took the whole family to an ice hockey game. Midway in the second period an awful fight developed. Over the screams and yells of the home-town crowd I could hear one blood-curdling, semihysterical voice shouting, "Kill the son of a bucket! Kill him!" It was my father.
I know the reader will find it hard to believe that Harvey Rhoades, friend to small animals and sick birds, giver of bubble gum to little children, secret Santa Claus and Tooth Fairy, could be standing up waving his program and calling for the annihilation of some poor son of a bucket from Boston. But he was. My mother was as perplexed as I. "Harvey!" she said. "You sit right down this instant and compose yourself!"
"What?" said Father. "What? What?" He turned around like a man coming out of a dream. He looked sheepishly from Mother to me to Susan to Charley, as though seeing us for the first time in his life. Then he sat down and said to Mother, "I didn't mean for anybody to kill anybody, Caroline. I mean I only said it in a sporting way."
Well, I spent many a long and sleepless night trying to figure that one out. How do you kill somebody in a sporting way? I finally came to the conclusion that people are not themselves at sporting events. Twenty-five years have now gone by, and I have been forced to revise my conclusion only slightly: People are themselves at sporting events. It is when they are away from the arena that they are putting on an act. In fact, I would say that the best way to find out what people are really like is to study them in battle or at an athletic contest. Of the two, I have always found the second to be more enjoyable.
The thing is, we Americans throw our own egos and psyches into the games we see. We tend to identify with the bruised and battered quarterback, standing up under that awful red-dogging attack from those rats on the other team; we put ourselves into the shoes of that stout-hearted little left-hander who has gone 3 and 0 on the hitter, with the bases loaded and nobody out in the ninth; we see a little bit of ourselves in that valiant horse lying 10 lengths back at the stretch turn. (For that matter, my wife says that there is a little bit of me in every horse I bet on, or maybe vice versa.)
This all became clear to me as I grew older and Father and I attended more and more sports activities together. I realized that this quiet, subdued man saved up his emotions for the day of the game. The simple words "Play ball" or "They're off" or "Gentlemen, start your engines" would turn him into a volcano of passion and violence and noise.
At the race track, for example, Father would treat each $2 bet as though he were risking the equity on our house. If Father's horse won, he would jump up and down on his chair, hug old ladies sitting near by and blow kisses to all the men. The horse hadn't won; Father had won. Normally, this would not have been offensive, but you have to remember that most of the people sitting around you at a horse race have just lost money. They are not in a mood to sing jolly songs or propose a toast to your $5.20 worth of good fortune. Father could never catch on to this idea. "I don't know, Sonny," he said one day after a man had told him to siddown-and-shuddup-yeh-dumb-jerk-yeh. "People just don't know how to lose gracefully."
Father was certainly right about that, and he proved it himself many a time. If the horse carrying our huge $2 investment on his nose failed to win, Father took it as an offense of the most personal sort. In the first place, he had always nursed a suspicion that all sports events were fixed. To Father, every baseball game was a Black Sox scandal, and every horse race was a boat race. It was merely a matter, Father said, of figuring out which horse had been given the most cocaine. Furthermore, he often suspected the horses themselves of being the fixers. He would watch them as they turned onto the track, and if he saw two of them hanging together head to head, he would turn to me and say, "See? One of those two horses will win. They're working it out right now." Strangely enough, he was often right.
Father's antic behavior at horse races became so disturbing that we finally talked him into simply sitting in the paddock area during the running of the race. There we could hear the progress of the race over the loudspeaker, enjoy the sun, eat popcorn and chart the next race. On the whole this worked out better, but not for the horses. If Father had a loser, he would walk up to the paddock fence and wait for the offending animal to appear. He would say in his angry, high-pitched voice: "How could you do this to me? How could you?" He would fling the torn-up $2 ticket in the horse's face and stalk off. I always felt sorry for the poor horse—it was bad enough to lose, without being criticized for it—but Father was unrelenting.
Father had the traditional American approach to spectating at a bullfight, but he took it (or it took him) a little further than most. One summer we were visiting relatives in San Diego, and on a Sunday afternoon Father drove the whole family down to see a corrida in Tijuana. None of us even had much of an idea what it was about, except Father who, of course, claimed to be an expert. He explained to us that the bullfighter usually won, but if you could get the right odds—say about 12 to 5—the bull wasn't a bad bet and could even be an overlay.