SI Vault
Ezra Bowen
March 04, 1968
Dreams of athletic glories ebb, a shadow no larger than a man's hand becomes a menacing cloud, stabs of pain grow into unsubsiding aches and then—fair warning having been received—a man faces up to 40
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March 04, 1968

Crossing The Bar

Dreams of athletic glories ebb, a shadow no larger than a man's hand becomes a menacing cloud, stabs of pain grow into unsubsiding aches and then—fair warning having been received—a man faces up to 40

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As for tennis, after my 237th consecutive loss I said to her one day at the net, "Just think, as you're getting weaker and weaker, I'll be getting stronger and stronger." She reacted to this filial warmth by going to bed for three days with a sore throat. (Since, by the family code, it was immoral to show any conventional stress signs, my mother's reflex in the face of adversity was always to get a sore throat, which, being of uncertifiable origin, provided the moral sanction for a brief collapse into bed.)

In any case, my comment at tennis, besides being a wretched thing to have said, turned out to be a very poor assessment of impending circumstances. The present year is my mother's 70th and, though she has abandoned both tennis and Pounce, largely for lack of suitable opponents, her only real concession to age is that she now breaks her walk with 20 laps in the heated pool of a friend who lives a half a mile from the house. For my part, while there have been various minor peaks—and a number of major valleys—in the years since, on this particular morning at Alta my strength was by no means waxing.

Nevertheless, propelled in part by maternal heritage and in large measure by confidence that the proper juices would soon start flowing, I headed up to the mountain. At the top, alas, I could see that a number of depressing changes had occurred on the ski slope overnight. The snow struck me as heavier, and very patchy, with funny transitions all over the place. It seemed dangerous that other people were skiing so fast; terribly lucky for them, too, that they were making it all right in such bad stuff. After a good deal of cautious sideslipping, I tried two turns, butchered the second one, got up and crashed again right away. Sitting in the snow at the head of a steep gully, I became aware that my toes were numb and cold from clutching at the innersoles of my boots. Moreover, my goggles were fogging up and, when I raised them to clear the lenses, the sun seemed unnecessarily bright. Things stayed pretty much this way all day. Finally, at 4 o'clock, I wrote off the day and staggered back to the lodge. Tomorrow morning would be better.

But tomorrow morning was just terrible, too. Every bump was a surprise, and I always seemed to be going too fast. I quit at 11 for a sauna and an extended lunch. Feeling somewhat restored, I spent the afternoon taking a private lesson and went to bed early, set for a breakthrough next morning. I am sorry to report, however, that there was no morning breakthrough. Nor was there one in the afternoon. The fourth day was bottoms. Still hurting in various bones and sinews, I went out with a pair of avalanche patrolmen to ski a tree-strewn cliff that was mantled with another yard of fresh powder. I tried terribly hard. At trail's end, one of them said, "Say, you know, you're a good sport." Lay translation: "You stink."

Wounded, I sought wifely comfort, and wifely comfort is what I got. She was on the sun deck, reading something on Henry James. I told her what had happened, and that, dammit, I was going to take three days of private lessons if I had to, because I just wasn't going to be that bad. "I think you're being silly," she said, striking just below the waterline, and returned to Henry James.

Coming as it did, with the range and velocity of obvious forethought, this was a particularly damaging shot. It seemed to imply something not just about the past few days, but about many, many days past—not to mention an indefinite number of days ahead. About the days past, it seemed to say that any man on the threshold of middle age was, expressly, silly to knock himself out trying to hang onto something that was going to get away sooner or later no matter what he did. It never occurred to me that I had fallen into this foible, simply because I had been at some pains to insure myself against it, the way anyone else could who really cared to. By the simple exercise of self-control, any man could see to it that he ripened in carefully controlled sections. That is, while his head grew gray and calm, the rest could be kept keen and springy. And, thus, he would be ever better equipped to meet all challenges, both physical and mental. This, however, is not at all what my wife seemed to be saying.

About the future, I thought I caught in her words the more specific message that the time for conquest of the vigorous sports had simply run out. This was terrible news indeed. By conquest, I do not mean just getting a little better than the next guy, particularly if the next guy is a soggy commuter who is perfectly happy paddling about in a quiet lagoon of slow stem Christies, mid-90s golf or middle-aged doubles. I mean getting really good, like an athlete should. And I could not imagine or remember a) wanting to be counted anywhere but among the really fine athletes or b) believing that there was not still time to make it. I mean, there had always been time.

There had certainly been plenty of time way back when this passion had first taken hold. That was in 1933, as I recall, in the second grade, when the keenest ambition of most small boys around the country was to be a baseball player, a pitcher like Dizzy Dean or a slugging first baseman like Lou Gehrig. In Philadelphia, however, the spirit of baseball fantasy had long since been broken by the ghastly spectacle of the Phillies and the A's, whose pitchers then had names like Boom Boom Beck and Line Drive Nelson and whose most memorable first baseman, in my book, anyway, was a baggy-kneed disaster named Talmage Abernathy. For almost a decade while I was growing up, these men committed prodigies of malfeasance that left their teams 20 games in the cellar and all surrounding boys with the conviction that major league baseball was a garbage heap to which no sensible boy need aspire. Under these circumstances, the thing to be in Philadelphia was a football player, and preferably what was then called a triple-threat halfback, like the ones at Penn and Princeton.

Right up through the first year of high school I had shared this dream with another skinny, slow-footed little boy named Neddy Dillon. Of course, neither of us showed anything like the proper physical promise. Then, one fateful September day, he came back from summer camp 30 pounds heavier and much swifter afoot, with leg muscles and tufts of hair here and there and whispered knowledge of unmentionable things. Soon thereafter he was, in fact, a triple-threat halfback on the school varsity while I, along with three million other 10th-graders, was still little and skinny and slow. For the next 25 years, there had been a temptation to keep looking ahead to one's own share of Neddy Dillon's miracle in which, through the mystical awakening of latent hormones, you became powerful and quick and surpassingly skillful, able to call forth at any moment whatever physical resources the situation demanded.

But these years tended to slide by in relatively unrequited order. And while it occurred that I came back first from camp and later from the Navy both taller and stronger—though alas no faster over 100 yards—something far more fundamental happened at the same time: the current crop of triple-threat halfbacks all began to have birth dates after mine, in years like 1930 or 1932. And no matter how skillfully one might manipulate the theoretical variables—such as being red-shirted through half a dozen seasons or even waiting to blossom as a nonrunning quarterback on a professional team—the raw mathematics became a formidable obstacle for a future football star born in 1927. Furthermore, there was progressively less sustenance to be had from the illusion that player A or B was better than me because he was older.

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