NOTE: This is a short story that I reference in the blog entitled "Wizzards to the Rescue." It is not a published work and all rights are reserved.
The Dare on the Bridge
by John Warley
A few miles from Jamestown, Virginia, where the very earliest settlers of this country first planted the British flag, there is today a field devoted to the very British sport of soccer. On a recent Saturday, I stood on a grassy incline overlooking that field, an observer to what has become a common spectacle of suburban America: the weekly soccer match. If you have been to one of these, you know the intensity the game generates for the three dozen or so people watching and for their thirty children competing on the “pitch,” as the Brits would say. As the father of four active kids, I have been to hundreds of them. Some were more important to the standings or playoff hopes than others, but none rose to the level of criticality that a few overbearing parents attached to the outcome. You know the type.
On this particular Saturday, the mystics of astrology had conspired with a human league official to schedule a game that should have been impossible to play. The Williamsburg Wizards had been pitted against the Richmond Magic. Wizards, of course, use magic in the everyday course of their lives, so the concept of fighting magic is not an easy one to reconcile. It would be like Batman sucker-punching Robin or Ozzie decking Harriet. But cosmic implications aside, this game possessed very earthly, practical significance, for this contest was the quarter finals of the 1990 Virginia State Championship for players born in 1980, or as it is known to those of us who spend every weekend in vans littered with shin guards and fast food containers, the State Cup.
The Wizards are a wonderful team. I know this because all of my children have played, at one time or another, on teams that were not wonderful. Those teams had mediocre players, bickering parents and coaches who didn’t know the game. The coaches deserve forgiveness, for they grew up in sports which their children don’t play and are asked to teach a game they never played. But the Wizards are different. They have been carefully selected for ability and potential. Their coach is a top college soccer coach who has rules for the players and strict rules for the parents—no “coaching” from the sidelines, no yelling at your son, and no protests to the much-maligned referees. My son is the #10 Wizard. He is a very good player and my behavior as a parent has also been very good. The Wizards play with a precision few teams made up of ten-year-olds can match. They are, in my mind, the wonderful Wizards of Williamsburg.
On this day, in this game, the Wizards are on the verge of their first defeat ever. In their eighteen months of organized play, they have yet to lose a game. Three ties in 30 odd matches give testimony to the fact that they are human, but no loss has yet been suffered. After a scoreless first half, we well-behaved parents assure each other, in the tones of quiet confidence which we have perfected, that the inevitable victory is but 25 minutes away. But with nine minutes left, the Magic scores a goal. The hero is a slight boy who is taken out of the game with a post-game explanation from his coach that he couldn’t make that shot same again if he had 1000 chances. Clouds gather over the field and over the heads of Wizards’ parents, the confident tones now tinged with words of caution and just a hint of anxiety. Two minutes later, with the Magic inspired by its lead and the Wizards suffering a rare sink in spirits, the Magic scores again. Seven minutes left. Clouds darken. Wizards’ parents can feel dismay creeping toward them like a sinister swamp creature. The word “defeat” is now overheard, along with phrases like “that’s it” and “that does it.” Fear-filled, caring eyes turn to watch the last seven minute gasp of the Wonderful Wizards.
With just over three minutes remaining, the Wizards score. Not a pretty goal, not the kind of slashing, zinging goal of beauty we have come to expect, but a plain, ordinary, work-a-day goal that counts. Hope flickers, but now only thirty seconds remain. The ball takes an unintended carom off the well-intended foot of a Magic player, into the path of Matt, the blonde, fleet forward of the Wonderful Wizards. He races toward it neck and neck with the last field player defender. He wins the race.
Now he streaks for the goal, defended by the last Magic player who can deny him. The keeper leaves his goal and charges Matt, as he has been trained to do. At 25 yards they meet, and as the keeper flails his body sideways at full extension, Matt unerringly slips the ball under and past him. It rolls toward the goal, and all eyes watch as it kisses the back of the Magic net. Uniformed boys leap in joy and cry in frustration, and we parents celebrate this impossible reprieve. The game goes into overtime, which the Wizards dominate. The truly Wonderful Wizards of Williamsburg have won again. An hour later, I am driving my van with five of these same Wizards in the back, singing, fighting, laughing and being ten. Three years from now, the conversation will
center on the game, the winning goal, the trash talked by the other team. In seven years, these same boys will be focused on girls, college and cars. But age 10 is none of those. It is an age of wonder, of the nonsense of pre-pubescent fantasy anchored an unreliable realism. There is enough worldliness to snicker at the younger sister who holds fast to Santa Claus, and not quite enough to prevent complete absorption in “Return of the Jedi.” There is no talk of the game today, but much of sights along the
road, funny looking cars, who on the other team had the “baddest” haircut, skateboard ramps. And, of course, there is talk of the carnival to which we are heading. This outing was the product of a bribe to the #10 Wizard earlier in the week. With an important science test on the horizon and an average in that subject that could stand some good news, his mother and I had concluded that an incentive was essential. In exchange for an A, we were prepared to take him and five teammates of his choosing to the carnival after the game. Our offer produced, as it often does, the desired effect, and five invitations were issued. One Wizard declined, as he commutes a mere 200 miles to be a part of their special team and had to return home after the game. So the four who accepted, plus the #10 Wizard, make up the noisy, bubbling, full-of-fun and kinetic energy group that is pushing the back seat toward chaos. Our trip to the carnival takes us through Yorktown, the tiny, historic community where I spent my tenth year. There was no soccer, but there was baseball and my best friend with whom I spent countless hours engaged in the same kind of chatter now permeating my van. As we near the bridge that separates Yorktown from Gloucester,
where the carnival is taking place, I sense remorse that I cannot recapture the feeling of being ten. I remember it somewhat, but I can’t feel it. I tell myself that this is natural— that I likewise cannot recreate the feeling of being 35 or 25; that part of maturity is full realization that as we live our days and years we pass them, and that memories, however pleasant, are not quite the same as being there. This insight, common to people my age, helps us to live life for the moment, and that is important. Still, it wouldbe nice to go back.
The carnival in Gloucester is being held in conjunction with a horse show. My daughter has a 1000 pound friend with whom she spends her weekends, and she and her friend have entered this show. My wife is also here, faithfully attending to her
duties as groom par excellence. As the van enters the parking area of this rural schoolyard, I am oblivious to what the Wizards spot at once—there is no Ferris wheel, no flying saucers, no bean bag throw, no cotton candy. There is, in fact, no carnival.
Major problem. Huge screw-up. In the places where our carnival should be there is . . . art. Somewhere along the fuzzy lines of communication that led us here, this art exhibit had mutated into a carnival. I was on the verge of a platitude along the lines of nothing being as bad as it seems when a look from the #10 Wizard told me that in fact things were worse. For a fleeting instant I considered pushing the “lemons to lemonade” gambit to its outer limits by offering an attenuated insight into art; “See that painting, guys? What looks to you and me like a barn and pasture is really meant to symbolize the transience of life . . .” A
less experienced dad, or me at an earlier age, might have pressed ahead with such a well-intended, completely misguided disaster. But a sixth sense told me that waiting at the end of that trail would be a unanimous verdict from the Wizards: geek. No dad runs that risk lightly. But discarding the art lecture option, as savvy a decision as it seemed at the time, did not solve the underlying question of what to do with five restless Wizards for the balance of the afternoon. As we pulled away from the carnival-turned-art-show, I settled upon the reliable, practical solution of putt-putt. I bounced it off my Wizards and thought I heard consensus, followed by questions about where we would go to play. As I drove back through what town there is in Gloucester, one of the boys said, as though reading, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” Heads turned. “Where?” “Over there.”
“Dad, what about a movie?” So we took a vote. The movie beat putt-putt 5-0, including votes from two Wizards who had already seen it. I noted the time as 3 p.m. as I u-turned back to the theater, to be greeted by a sign that informed us that tickets would go on sale at 3:45 for the 4:30 show. As I pondered filling the hour and a half interval, a miracle occurred. A bowling alley sprang up beside the theater. Oh, I suppose it had been there unnoticed all along, but it seemed to me to have been placed there only moments earlier by the patron saint of foundering dads. The gleeful shouts of “bowling!” confirmed that I had stumbled upon a winner. As we hit the merciful wall of air conditioning inside the alley, I felt the tender strength of the #10 Wizard around my waist. “Thanks, Dad. I was getting worried.” Such a sentence, spoken earnestly by a boy with soft, brown eyes can carry a man many miles.
Renting shoes is not an event unless you’re ten and unsure of your size. Within minutes there were eight pairs of shoes on the counter, five on the floor, and the ones they wore on arrival were scattered all over. The beleaguered attendant, who had just seen his peaceful Saturday (there weren’t three other people in the place) shot down like a heat-seeking missile, was about to waive the “no street shoes” rule to be rid of them. Then came the selection of a ball—done strictly by color in combination with the ability to stretch fingers into the holes, no matter how tortured or painful the stretch.
I was designated scorekeeper, which essentially gave me the afternoon off, because soccer players cannot bowl. The safest spot was the middle of the lane. Gutters left; gutters right. Occasionally a pin or two would fall, to much laughter and shouting. After a while, shoes selected by trial and error upon entering came off to permit maximum sliding in socks. This soon gave way to its logical extension—sliding on the back and stomach after discharging the ball toward the gutter. Matt, a confirmed southpaw, began aiming for the gutter while applying enough spin on the ball to bring it back out of the gutter, across the lane, and into the opposite gutter. This brought roars of laughter. Byron, the smallest Wizard, was the best bowler, but his technique dictated that he release the ball waist high, yielding a resounding thump on the hardwood lane. This did not prompt laughter from the others, as they saw it as a natural means by which to propel the ball. I, on the other hand, was near hysterics as I pictured the owner’s blood pressure rising to stratospheric heights. Derrick, a child blessed with rare athletic talent, was the worst bowler imaginable. To relieve the boredom of gutter balls, he began rolling his eight-pound sphere from behind the scorer’s table, a good five yards from the traditional mouth of the lane. This was successful in that he got to watch his ball roll freely for a time as there was no gutter for it to enter. Predictably, it found a gutter, but seldom the one Derrick lined up on.
Such scenes of adolescent lawlessness normally prompt me to pull in the parental reins. It is part of my closely held reserve that I will worry about its effect on others; other patrons, damaging the hardwood, or perhaps just opening myself up to the anonymous criticism by some invisible citizens group that I have raised rowdy children. But on this day I say nothing. I correct no one. For this small window in an afternoon, I refuse to parent.
With so many balls being directed down every lane available, it was inevitable that someone would roll a strike. The honor fell to Graham, a gentle free spirit with just the right air of mischief about him. While his feat momentarily revived the strength of
tiring young arms, no one else came close to another strike. But it was fatigued arms and aching fingers that provided the climax to this chapter in our afternoon, for one boy decided to make one more try by using a “granny.” A granny requires spreading the feet to either side of the lane and pushing the ball underhanded using both hands. I can’t recall which boy let the ball go, but as it began its molasses-like journey down the lane, the other boys stopped to watch. An unseen gravity drew them together. The hush which fell over them would have been complete were it not for the ever so faint rumble of thunder made by the ball upon the wooden lane. Five boys huddled together like statues, their eyes fixed upon the ball as it made its inexorable way toward the pins. No one breathed. Their eyes grew wider as the ball veered ever so slightly, just perceptibly, toward the gutter. At the last possible instant, the ball fell off its plane and grazed, ever so gently, the last pin in line. The pin wobbled like a wounded prizefighter and fell backwards. In unison the boys exploded with cheers and laughter, high-fiving and rolling on the floor. And it seemed to me, from my vantage point, that the falling of this single pin produced more joy, more cheers and more wonder than the incredible goal of the morning’s game.
Now it was on to the movie, and after diving into a dizzying assortment of candy and popcorn we dove into the entertaining world of turtle power and turtle justice. I thought the best line was in the end when all the heroes let go with a mighty “Cowabunga!”, a line from the deep memory of most baby boomers like me. Perhaps it was the producer’s way of thanking me for bringing my kids to see his turtles.
As we re-entered the van for the ride home, the chatter about the movie gave way to a period of calm. They talked in low voices, and as they had distained low voices for the entire afternoon, I could only assume that the discussion was not meant for my ears. I listened. I heard the word “dare” and formed a quick mental judgment that the matter under consideration involved a dare and in all probability what my mother termed “bathroom talk,” a decided proclivity among boys this age. My judgment derived solely from their efforts to keep from being overheard and in the end I was proved wrong. As we approached the Yorktown Bridge which would return us home, the boys each took up a position at an open window. Whatever was going to happen was going to happen as the van reached the top of the bridge. There was giggling, then muffled laughter. I mentally prepared for the worst, but I did not parent. I waited. As we neared the apex of the bridge, the part where you could look down through the steel grating to the water and the vehicle shimmied as the tires passed unsteadily over the waffle-like mesh, one of them yelled, “Now!” and they all began screaming, in lung-bursting frenzy, “I love you” over and over. I did not know then and do not know now why they chose that phrase. My guess is that they settled on something that they knew would embarrass them if anyone actually heard them say it. The fact that people sunning on the Yorktown beach a quarter mile away might hear them made it risky enough to be the proper subject of a dare. The truth, I knew, was that from the top of that bridge at 55 miles per hour they couldn’t have been heard with the aid of the Rolling Stones p.a. system. The only one who could hear them was me, and not being a parent on this day, I didn’t count. But I heard them. With their falsetto screams out the window to the world, I heard the wonder of being ten; felt the unrestrained joy of life before puberty changes things forever; knew again the forgotten mysteries known to small boys. As the van rolled off the bridge and entered Yorktown, I smiled as I must have done 35 years before, when I was their age. In the rear view mirror, the #10 Wizard clamped his teammate in a headlock. He won’t have many days better than this one, and neither will I. Next week is the State Cup semi-finals. Go Wizards.