You never know until you try
Giving life to your dreams
At the start of every school year – all the way to the sixth grade – I was checked by the school nurse because of having had polio. This annual procedure reinforced in me that I was not able to do all the athletic things the other boys did.
So I never really tried.
I always played right field in softball during recess because I always was the last kid chosen by the team captain.
In the fifth and sixth grades at Washington Elementary School in Anaheim, how opposing teams were selected was simple:
When the bell sounded for recess to start the boys would quickly leave the classroom and everybody would run to the north-west section of the playground where home plate was. The first white boy to reach home plate was captain that day of the Americanos, and the first Mexican boy to touch home plate captained the Messicanos that day.
There was nothing racial about the process. About half of the kids at that school were Mexican, and the other half Caucasian. Messicanos and Americanos was just how we pronounced the words.
Most of the time, I went through the motions to make it look like I was running as fast as I could to reach home plate. Other times I just trotted, figuring I’d be last anyway so why make the effort?
But an interesting thing happened during sixth grade. I grew nearly eight inches that year. My somewhat chubby frame turned into a lean frame. Suddenly I was one of the two or three tallest kids.
One day when the recess bell sounded I decided I was going to run as fast as I could. I beat everybody to home plate.
All of the kids were shocked—including me—that somehow I’d transformed into the fastest kid at Washington Elementary School.
I got to be captain of the Americanos that day. Instead of playing right field I chose myself to pitch. No more right field for me.
The next day I was captain again.
And every day after that the rest of sixth grade.
That summer I joined Little League with my buddy Bill Gilliam, who could hit hard line drives. The first time I got on base was because I got hit by a pitch. I stole second base, third base, and two batters later stole home. After that I was put into games to steal bases and score. I could do that fairly regularly, but I was not a good hitter. If they had to wait for me to get on base by hitting, I would rarely have the chance to steal bases.
I missed much of the season because Della had accepted a house-sitting assignment from a friend who lived in Loma Linda, California. I took my bicycle and several times rode down to Riverside and back. Other than that I read books and played solitaire. Those few weeks away from Anaheim were pretty boring. I was anxious to get back to see my friends.
I lived with Della in Anaheim until the break between the first and second semester at Fremont Junior High. I still was one of the faster and taller seventh grade kids at Fremont, which included seventh, eighth, and ninth grades. When physical education class was over I’d race the other kids back to the locker room, and usually got there first. I quarterbacked and played halfback in flag football during P.E., and played center and captained an intra-mural basketball team that played for the school championship.
Two incidents involved broken bones.
Going out into the end zone to catch a pass while playing football, I cracked a bone in my right forefinger when I jammed it into the goal post. Another time a smaller kid collided with me on an outdoor basketball court, causing him to sprawl onto the concrete and break his arm. I felt bad about that.
Before I finished seventh grade at Stockton Junior High in Stockton, California I had reached my full height of 5-feet, 9-1/2 inches. I thought for sure I’d be 6-feet-one like Dad, but that never happened. I did not have his large bone structure; rather, I had more of a small bone structure like my birth-mother, who was probably no taller than five-feet-two.
My athletic glory years were primarily confined to the sixth and seventh grades.