Then it rose straight up and hit him in the face. Yes, it did.
Spring is here. Which means that Summer is not that far from us. As a youth, this would be the time of the year when my friends and I would do more and more activities outside (or late at night) because that’s what we did. Between the superhero training and just playing games, our hands were full—and so was our time.
When I was very young (man that makes me sound old—but, I am old. not like old-old, mind you. just old. I’m almost halfway through my personal century which means that—statistically speaking—I’ve passed my halfway mark, for men. okay, I’ve deviated. apologies)… I actually had to go back and read the first part of this sentence that is now a paragraph to remember what I was writing. Serious. Let’s just try again.
When I was very young, my family had this game that I loved to play. I didn’t know the name of it then. What I did know was that the ‘rackets’ (for a lack of a better term) strongly resembled the things that extended from Kevin Flynn’s arm in the 1982 Disney film, Tron. It was this extension that was something like lacrosse, except attached to your arm. Later we would get another set, one with a wider end, and the box had ‘TRAC-BALL’ printed across it. Well, too bad. By that time, I was calling it Tron, because that was the only time I had ever seen this game played. To this day, it is still Tron—in my mind.
Author’s Note: In searching the internet for Trac-Ball images, I found out the Tron game is a real sport called Jai Alai. Apparently, it was popular in certain parts of the United States and still is in parts of the world. I had never heard of it before. I found an interesting less than four-minute video about it here: The History of Jai Alai, America’s Forgotten Sport.
I know, I know. Where is this going? Well, when I moved to Manti, I met some friends and introduced them to Tron (the game, not the movie. they already knew about the movie). Erich took a real liking to it. I always loved it, but finding someone who would be willing to chuck a ball up into the air, wait for you to catch it, and then wait for the return was a hard body to find. The game is fun, but it can get boring—and blinding.
Yes, blinding. When you toss the ball high up into the air, the sun is there because, well… daylight. So, you know. Yeah. Blinding.
On more than one occasion one of us would toss the ball high, and the other would look up only to see the fiery sphere of flaming plasma we label as the sun. We would then scream out, drop the racket, cover our eyes, and tear up. We would tear up, not cry. It is a biological response to extreme eye strain and stress—like looking into the sun. We did not cry. Okay? Oaky. So, yeah, it was not that much fun depending on the time of day. Then one day someone figured it out. How to properly use the Trac-Ball.
See, there are two balls that come with the set, but if you don’t have the package (because they are sixteen years old and the box was thrown away thirteen years ago)… Anyway, one ball is for speed, and the other is for distance. Also, the tracks in the rackets put a spin on the ball that allows them to do tricks. Who knew? Not I.
Anyway, one of us went to throw it high up and hard. And at the last second, accidentally snapped the wrist. This gave the ball an extra bit of impetus at the right second that caused the ball to fulfill physics fantastically. It went up and made a hairpin turn and hit the dirt hard. Like, more than just gravity-pulled-on-it hard. Now, for those that are familiar with baseball, and more particularly baseball pitches, you already know that when thrown just right, the pitcher can get the ball to curve due to aerodynamics. This is was we discovered with that plastic Tron ball—it was still Tron. Because, in the movie Tron, the ball is a lethal element.
So, in our game, if you got hit with the ball, or you didn’t catch it, your opponent won a point—like in the movie. Now, while we could have just tossed it anywhere, that would not be fair. “What was fair?” you may ask. Trying to hit each other. That was fair. Yes, you read that correctly. We tried to hit each other.
However, now we had a trick. Still, we needed a way to use it to our advantage. And be able to repeat this cool backspin-aerodynamic trick-thing again and again. What else to do but practice? Practice we did. We played Tron for hours. Out in that infamous backlot of mine. There was so much space to toss the ball back and forth without it getting lost. We had long since realized that in order for the backspin to work we needed a few things: Power (the muscle kind which only develops from using them), space (distance for the ball to be able to have the time to do what it needed to do in order to curve), and nobody else around (to get in the way when we missed our intended target of each other because it still really hurt at the speeds we could send it). We were getting good at it. We were at the point where we could send the ball from a side pitch instead of the typical overhead pitch.
It was a beautiful thing to see the ball go far off target, then curve back toward the victim… Target! Toward the target. The target. It would curve back toward the target and then we just had to wait to see if the other person could react fast enough to catch it. If you didn’t it would hit us in the torso, typically. The welts and bruises from the plastic ball… All in the name of superhero training!
Tron, at first, was fun. Boring, but fun. There was no real excitement. But now… Now there was adrenaline! We were getting deadly accurate. We could make that ball do all kinds of tricks. Plus, when we screwed up and the ball went wild, we didn’t get upset anymore. There was no more, “Seriously? Come on man. AIM.” or “I’m over here!” We were only upset because we wanted the other person to succeed. We were actually hoping to have to risk the highspeed-hit if we failed to catch that polymer projectile of pain. It was So. Much. Fun. seriously.
The only problem with escalation is escalation.
Once you know you can do a thing, you have to see if you can take it to the next level.
While we had not perfected the side-pitch to the point where we could get it every time, we had an 80%+ average. And it was only getting better. Next step: The straight-forward-sent-right-at-you pitch. There had to be a way. I just knew it.
Time and again I would attempt to apply the same physics-ical (I know what I wrote) execution that I could do with a side pitch, to a forward pitch, at Erich. How hard could it be? Let’s put it this way: Erich was on the verge of not playing anymore if I kept trying it. It was that bad. The ball would hit the dirt and then roll. Or, it would go high (over the Turtle Tower) and into the neighbor’s yard. Neither was good. When it hit the ground, it would hit with enough force that it would make a small dent in the dirt and stop. Or make a small dent in the ball (then we would have to carefully work it out). Or, if it went into the neighbor’s yard, we had to crawl through some serious bushes… I understood why Erich was getting so upset. Then, one day it happened.
It was like in the movies when the hero has to make that perfect shot. That shot they can never make. Right when the buzzer buzzes. When the shot has to miss the girl and hit the bad guy—one bullet left. It was one of those moments. Also, because of the tremendous distance between Erich and myself, that ball seemed to move through the atmosphere in the slowest of motions (and I know what slow-motion in real life is like). I can still replay it in my mind’s eye.
I brought my racket into an overhead pitch motion. I did it all so perfectly: The power, the distance, the wrist snap… Perfect. That yellow orb shot toward the ground about twenty feet directly in front of me. The backspin I had applied did just what it was supposed to, it pulled that would be dirt-nap into an airfoil and gave the ball just enough lift that it hovered above the ground. Inches. It was inches, maybe two or three off the ground. Erich’s eyes got wide (so did mine). It was doing it.
Still going forward, now in a line—no curve upward, Erich prepared to catch the perfect pitch. He did what he knew he had to: Rotate his racket with the end pointed toward the ground at an angle that would let the ball run right up the tracks and into the cup at the base. He was going to score this point. He had been doing it all afternoon.
Then, physics kicked in. Hard. With Nitro.
At the last possible second, that mean little sphere changed direction. It curved upward after traveling at a constant distance off the ground for over ten feet. It shot up, traveling at the perfect gap right above the racket. Right above the arm that was holding said racket in front of my friend. Right straight into Erich’s face. Bloody bullseye! I hit his nose.