1. High School
In my junior year in high school, I was number two on the tennis team and a senior named Bill Bailey was number four. It was a military high school in San Antonio, Texas, and at the beginning of the year Bill had been favorite to make battalion commander, highest-ranking student officer. But the military passed Bill Bailey by, basically for excessive individuality and strangeness. In reaction Bill grew his left thumbnail the rest of the year.
In the spring, the team's coach and first four players all drove down to south Texas for a statewide schools tournament. Bill played his first match Saturday morning and won. Then in the afternoon in his second match Bill got mad about something and wouldn't stop arguing, so his opponent called over a tournament official. The ensuing intense discussion between Bill and the official ended when Bill proposed the official perform the famous physical impossibility, turned, and stomped off toward the baseline to resume play. By about the third stomp, our team was disqualified from the tournament.
Since there wasn't time to drive back to San Antonio before dark, the coach decided we'd spend the night as planned. Late in the afternoon, Bill and I and a third player from the team got together for sympathy over beers with some players from the local high school hosting the tournament. Afterwards the three of us ate woozy suppers at the homes where we were staying. Then we met up again with the local guys for more beers and some Saturday night pool-shooting. Two or three hours later, we were cruising town and feeling much better about everything. To arrive by fate in front of the host high school's deserted and dark main building. There we parked drinking, clowning, casing the situation. Until unnoticed by anyone, our anger and self-pity had dissipated in a haze of besotted well-being. I lobbed my empty beer can at the flag pole in front of the school. Clanking on the concrete walkway, it fell about twenty feet short. We drove off.
The thing about our school at just that time was that after years of trying, it had almost succeeded in re-creating itself. A military correctional facility for well-off delinquents was being reborn as an academically respectable, college preparatory school. And in fact out of the thirty-five students in my senior class the next year, six were admitted to Ivy League colleges, probably not a great many fewer than in the school's preceding fifty-year history: one to Harvard, one to Columbia, one to Yale, two to Princeton, and one to Dartmouth. I was the one to Harvard....as a result, I think, of the fact that in total disregard of the school's least flexible and most draconian disciplinary policy -- regarding students and alcohol -- no official punishment whatsoever befell me as a result of my tossed beer can.
I took the game and changed courts without a thought. Worse, it was years before it occurred to me that the match was even close, and that if Bill Bailey had thrown the beer can -- and his family hadn't reputedly owned half of West Texas -- he likely would have been expelled.
2. The Year George Won Northern California
I was thirty-nine in the summer of 1981, the summer George won northern California, and deeper into the vodka than I'd ever been before. Really deep, and out of desperation I'd started spending weekends at Boyle Park Courts in Mill Valley, in Marin County across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. So I wouldn't be drinking all day and night Saturday and Sunday in addition to five nights a week after work. I hadn't played in years, but there I'd be at the courts early in the morning, banging away at the wall before the crowd showed up. Eventually, I'd hack out a couple of sets, watch play a while, hit the wall again, watch some more and maybe play again. Then I'd eat lunch, come back and do it all again.
George was in his middle twenties and the best regular player at the courts, which had a reputation for the best pickup games in the San Francisco Bay area. Already a couple of weeks before I met him, George had won a Northern California "A" tournament. "Northern California" was an organization within the U.S. Tennis Association and ranked players every year based on the results of tournaments it sanctioned in northern California. Professionals all competed together, but because the amateurs were so numerous, their rankings were based on their results in tournaments for different groups based on different levels of play. The summer George won, the amateurs played in four groups -- from strongest to weakest -- A to D. A lot of the younger players at Boyle Park were B, or strong C, players and several regulars in addition to George were legitimate A's.
Pretty soon George and I got to be friends, and I went with him to an A-tournament he was playing. I was almost the only fan there. Amateur tournaments usually had very few fans, and usually only in later rounds or the finals. But George won the tournament. And then he won every one of the five or six subsequent A-tournaments he played that summer; I'm sure of this, because beginning with that first win I went to, I was George's fan-in-the-stands and companion at all of them. As a result of his string of tournament victories, George won the northern California A's hands down. And I felt like, if not his manager, at least and indubitably George's one truly constant friend and fan.
The high point of the summer for George was probably winning the San Francisco A-Tournament. But the tournament I remembered best was sponsored by Beringer Wines in the town of St. Helena about 60 miles north of Mill Valley. It was a popular tournament with players not only because it was sponsored by a winery, but because Beringer gave prizes to the semi-final winners -- free bottles of its excellent wine! George and I finished off his bottle early Saturday afternoon and we just kept drinking. We shot pool and partied for a couple of hours, and before we got back to Mill Valley George was totally smashed. It was the only time I'd ever seen him drinking, much less drunk.
Soon afterward, I moved to another part of the Bay Area and lost touch with George completely. I heard he'd played a season on the professional tour in Asia and was world-ranked in the three hundreds. A couple of years later I heard he'd come back to Marin County and was a teaching pro somewhere. Somehow I got out of the bottle. And as the years drifted past, I gloried in the memories of those tournaments and the summer of my wonderful vicarious championship tennis.
Then one day, I decided to stop just thinking about it and actually look George up. So I went back to Boyle Park courts in Mill Valley and found out a couple of places he might be. And...the first place I looked....there he was! The consummate personable tennis professional and head of the municipal tennis program of Larkspur (a town adjoining Mill Valley), George was giving a most attractive lady a late-morning lesson on serves. And he was obviously surprised and happy to see his biggest fan again after all those years.