One summer something happened in South Bend, Indiana, where I grew up. I don't remember just how it all began, but that doesn't matter. What does is that the new summer playground at the Laurel School became a place where life took on new meaning for all of us. Because a man named Mr. Rockne was our director.
There it was, a brand-new playground. It had a clean gravel surface with well-marked play areas for games. There were plenty of nice new softballs and bats and smooth white volleyballs and nets and a basketball court. There were swings of every kind and size, seesaws, a sandbox and a new shiny Maypole that didn't creak—all safely enclosed by a wire fence you could see through. All of these things alone would have made a happy enough summer. But it was Mr. Rockne who made this the most important summer of our lives.
Before this, summer vacations had been dreary, as I recall. There weren't many things we could do, once the Fourth of July picnic and Circus Day were past. We played hopscotch with a piece of broken glass (there always seemed to be plenty of that around), and when there were a few more of us we played "one o' cat," using as a Softball an old black cotton stocking stuffed with rags.
We never went near the school. Laurel School was named for one little tree growing at the corner. It was a scowling, dark brick building set in a grassless, dusty play yard, the bareness of which was relieved by a single, rusty swing set and a lonely, half-tilted Maypole. Even these were forbidden us by a wooden fence on which kids had scrawled sentiments denoting a certain disenchantment with the state of things.
But in the summer of Mr. Knute Rockne, all this was changed. There was something to get up for in the morning now. All the chores had to be got out of the way before the playground opened at one o'clock. Even the precious little money-making jobs were forgotten. Long before Miss Doolittle, the playground director, arrived we would be waiting for her to unlock the gate. And invariably our first question was: "Is Mr. Rockne coming today?"
Mr. Rockne came around often, even though he supervised other playgrounds like ours. His little two-seater Ford would rattle along noisily over the bumpy brick pavement, and we could spot his red head and wide grin a block away. Even before his little car jolted vigorously to a determined stop near the gate we were already at the curb, bursting with eager questions and exclamations and the sheer joy of seeing him again.
We thought Mr. Rockne was funny looking, with his squashed nose and his red hair and a grin that made crescents of his eyes—and that strange nasal voice of his. But when he smiled at you, you knew it came from way down deep, and you knew he meant that smile just for you. You could talk to Mr. Rockne and not be afraid. And he always seemed to have plenty of time for you.
Even though Mr. Rockne didn't come every day, it wasn't long before he had us all organized into teams. All kinds of teams—softball, volleyball, newcomb, German bat ball—it didn't matter what the game, he just made us feel how important it was to be on a team—and how important it was to play a good game. Playing a good game didn't always mean being a star, either. Somehow it had more to do with what went on between you and the rest of the team. If you caught a fly, or hit a home run, or kept the volleyball going back over the net six times in a row all by yourself, you didn't feel much more glory than if you had made that little inconspicuous supporting play for somebody else.
I don't remember that Mr. Rockne ever talked to us about "fair play" and "being a good loser" or anything like that. He never preached to us about such things. It was just that there were certain rules of the game, which it was everybody's business to know, and rules were rules, and what sort of a player were you anyway, if you didn't abide by them? It was winning according to the rules that made you feel proud and exhilarated. And somehow, even losing was a part of the game. That was the chance you had agreed to take. You didn't hate your opponent if you lost, unless of course you were sure he had cheated. Then you would call him all the nasty names you could think of, but not when Mr. Rockne was listening. Strange, though, how he sometimes didn't seem to hear you, even when he was within hearing distance.
We were the intermediate group, and of course Mr. Rockne was often busy with the older boys, the very ones we used to be afraid of before the playground got started. He often took them off for games with other teams, but even when they were around we began to notice that these boys weren't so bad after all. They began watching our games, advising, encouraging and teasing us in a good-natured flattering way. And we, for our part, found ourselves taking more notice of the little ones, those younger than ourselves. We would help Miss Doolittle look after them, think up things for them to do, settle their quarrels, protect them, become fond of them. And gradually the idea of a team began to expand to an ever-widening circle.