I can only imagine what the three young adults were discussing as they watched me from the nearby tennis courts.
“What the hell is that skinny old man doing?”
“He appears to be hitting a rubber ball against the wall with some kind of a goofy club.”
“And then he chases after the ball and does it again.”
“Is it some atavistic type of ritual — or just a crazy game?”
“Should we ask him?”
“No; he may bite.”
Yup, after a nine-year hiatus, I returned to the racquetball courts. I drove 11 miles to see if I still possessed some semblance of the skills I had when I last played the game.
After about 25 minutes of tormenting myself in front my small audience, I decided that if I consumed large doses of ibuprofen, did enough warm-up exercises and prayed to the almighty that I don’t have a heart attack on the court, I could play racquetball again.
And there’s a reason for it. A friend, who is about four years older than me, had issued a challenge. Next time you come to Lakeland, let’s play at the Y, Chubby said.
So began the jock talk.
“Bring your crying towel,” I said.
First things first. I need a new racquetball glove. The only one I have is about 12 years old, more shriveled and smelly than I am.
The five or six racquetballs I own barely bounce.
Not sure if the strings on the racquet will withstand more than one game.
Not sure if my body will withstand more than one game.
But a challenge is a challenge. Blame it on the Y chromosomes.
As I whacked the racquetball against the wall recently, memories came calling — such as the time the legendary Cooter tried to defy the gods by devising a drainage plan to help dry off a three-wall court.
It was in the summer of 1983 in Kissimmee, and the all-too-frequent late-afternoon rains had delayed our racquetball games yet again.
Cooter pulled a shovel out of his truck and proceeded to start digging a ditch around the courts. Yeah, I’m sticking to this story.
“Watch and learn something, gentlemen,” said Cooter, who spit tobacco more often than the outlaw Josey Wales.
Though the ditch seemed to be effective, it couldn’t stop the rain from falling, much to his chagrin.
Cooter loved wielding his war club, and he used his skills, size and seniority to his advantage, such as making up rules in the middle of a game.
But the king of racquetball in Kissimmee was Bear, who lorded over the four-wall courts at a fitness club.
“The man with the 13-wall shots,” a friend said.
Playing against Bear was like being inside a giant pinball machine. You never know when and where the ball was going to land. And when Bear sparred against the local high school football coach, stand clear. The coach could throw his racquet farther than he could a football, and that happened quite frequently when he played against Bear. Suffice it to say, the coach didn’t like getting beat.
Over a couple of beers one evening, the coach confided in me.
“I can’t believe I lost to that fat-a---d Bear,” he said.
“You’re not the only one who lost to that fat-a---d Bear,” I replied.
After all, I reminded the coach, Bear is the master of the 13-wall shot.
In 1999, Bear persuaded me to fly to Cutbank, Montana, to play in a racquetball tournament on St. Patrick’s Day.
Flyers for the annual event indicated that beer was included with in the entry fee.
“Does that mean they drink before they play?” I asked Bear.
“Tom, they drink while they play,” he said.
And they did.
The last thing you want to do if you play in a racquetball tournament in Cutbank is lose in the early rounds. There’s not much else to do in Cutbank other than to go looking for prairie dogs. I didn’t get the hang of it.
Meanwhile, it was a sad day for me about a decade ago when the city’s racquetball courts near my condo in Largo were torn down. By that time interest in outdoor racquetball, at least around here, was on the decline, and pickleball was gaining in popularity.
Have been thinking about picking up the sport, which might be easier on my knees than racquetball. But I’m not sure if pickleball etiquette endorses cursing.
Besides, a challenge is a challenge, and I have to get ready to spar with Chubby.
So for the next few weeks, I will continue to make the drive to the three-wall court in the Tyrone area and try to sharpen my skills. If you know what court I’m referring to, no need to notify recreation officials. I don’t own a shovel, and I usually don’t curse when I’m playing by myself.
Sparring with Chubby, that’s a different story. It will be déjà vu all over again.
And we will likely be heard all the way from Lakeland to Cutbank.