Climb the Rope or Die

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We continue this intermittent series on 1973 with a story very few people know. I’m putting it on Off-Topic Tuesday since it has nothing to do with music, really.

One of the big changes between elementary school and junior high involved physical education class, which was no longer just glorified recess games. When we got to seventh grade in the fall of 1972, we had to wear gym suits—and not just any old T-shirt with any old shorts, but a uniform we were required to buy at one of the local stores. Boys were also required to wear an athletic supporter, which I found to be a unique combination of uncomfortable and ridiculous. And worst of all, we had to change out of our clothes and into this garb in front of our peers, and after class was over, shower in a gang of them as well.

I was always a fat kid, never athletic, never especially graceful . . . and pretty modest. So taking my clothes off in the locker room was torture. Having to do physical things in that ridiculous uniform, and in front of girls too, was torture. Having to stand naked in a shower with a bunch of other boys (at various stages of physical development) was torture. Also, the teachers simply refused to recognize that not all of us were jocks. If the best athlete in the class could climb the goddamn rope in 10 seconds, then you were expected to climb the goddamn rope in 10 seconds too. My willingness to make jokes at my own expense—which more than a few of my teachers considered a smart mouth—wasn’t enough to save me from repeated humiliation.

One February day in 1973, I faked a note from home that said I should be excused that day, signed my father’s name to it, and gave it to the sadist-in-charge. I am pretty sure it took him 10 seconds to see that it was fake, but he didn’t make me participate. So I wondered if maybe I’d gotten away with it.

I got away with it until later that afternoon, when somebody from school called and told my parents. The next morning, I got paged to the principal’s office, where I admitted what I’d done, with downcast eyes and a doleful nod. The principal was a no-nonsense man but also essentially kind; draconian punishment was not his thing, at least not for good little boys like me who’d never done anything like that before. So I didn’t get an in-school suspension or detention or anything like that. What happened to me at home I cannot remember, although I suspect there was lots of yelling. A couple of weeks later it was my birthday, and whatever trouble I was in must have passed by then. I had been planning for weeks to have a couple of friends stay overnight at our house as a celebration, and they did.

So if we’re looking for a narrative for 1973, we could start here: I got a crash course in toxic masculinity, where your value as a human being was reduced to the quantity of your athletic ability and the size of your junk—and your willingness to lord your superiority over those perceived to be inferior. I’d like to think that to whatever extent my masculinity is non-toxic today, it’s in part a reaction to what I experienced back then.

(I could give you another 500 words on physical education. After my experiences with it, I believed—and still believe—that it ought to be the first thing that gets cut from the curriculum if cuts need to be made, long before music programs, for example, or quite literally anything else. Whatever benefits it might bring to a few kids are far outweighed by the discomfort, embarrassment, and outright spiritual pain it causes the majority.)

There’s no musical angle to this post, I don’t think. As I look over radio surveys from February 1973, I don’t see anything that fits. Well, there’s one song. But I’m not going there. A man’s got to have a little self-respect.


6 responses

  1. My Dad’s job had him flying across the country three weeks for every week he spent working at the company’s HQ in town, so when I joined a baseball team as a pre-teen, to say I threw a ball like a girl would have been an insult to the fairer sex. One season of hoping no one would hit the ball to center field later, I’d had enough of competitive athletics. If they awarded medals for being picked last or near-last for sides in gym class, I could have retired right then and there after melting them all down.

    Tenth grade was the last year phy ed was mandatory at my high school, and at the beginning of one gym class that year, we were instructed to strip, shower and head to the pool. The sight of the entire class standing naked around the pool pinned the awkwardness meter beyond repair. But this particular session turned the usual alpha jock/omega nerd hierarchy on its head, after the instructor barked out a single order: “Those of you who know how to swim, go over here, and those who don’t, go over there.” Having taken several years of swim lessons as a kid in that very pool, it felt downright exhilarating to march to the head of the line, for once. I remember being surprised to see that a number of the usual team captain-types had never taken Otter 101.

    Each swimmer was paired off with a neophyte, and as the instructor led the way, it was up to us not only to teach our partners how to float, but to reassure them that they theoretically weren’t going to drown. Y’know, it never occurred to me until writing this, that those athletically-gifted landlubbers probably understood at that moment what it felt like to be the last ones chosen.

    The non-swimmer I’d been partnered with was much bigger than I was, and we never really knew each other all through school. The next time I saw him was at my 40th H.S. reunion, and we had a great chat. He’d just retired from a decades-long naval career, so I must’ve done alright that day in the pool.

  2. Thanks, Jim. You are 100% on the mark.

  3. Amen, brother. P.E. was the absolute low point of the school day.

  4. My dad wanted me to be a star jock; my mom recognized the musical talents I’d inherited from her side of the family. It was the age when President Kennedy was touting this damnable in-school physical fitness crap. Music took me around the world – literally – and brought me boundless joy. My knee injury from high school football has given me a life of miserably painful arthritis in that joint.

  5. I liked gym fine in grade school and OK in high school (esp. when being on a team allowed me to get out of the square-dancing unit). But almost everything in middle school sucks and gym class is right there with it.

  6. They couldn’t have come up with a better system for turning people against the idea of exercise and sports if they’d tried. And Timothy Morrissey is spot-on about the “President’s Council on Physical Fitness”: it became the official religion of most public schools. It actually existed before JFK’s admin, but was ramped up at that time, especially post-Sputnik. All you had to say was “The Russians are ahead of us” on something and all hell would break loose.

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