June 24, 2002

When Dodge Ball was Dodge

When Dodge Ball was Dodge Ball c. Ryan Rhodes, Oct. 24, 2001

This column is not about anthrax. While I sat and pondered the topic for this week, I dismissed anthrax both because it's tough to think up a good anthrax joke, and because you can find out everything you never wanted to know about anthrax pretty much everywhere else. I'm fairly certain I heard Barney the Dinosaur singing a little diddy about anthrax early last week: "Infect you. . . Infect me. . . Infect one more, so now there's three."

No, I decided to dedicate this column to the disturbing trend in America's schools to ban the time-honored grade school activity of dodge ball. Apparently, jittery school officials and parents of less-than-athletic children have managed to curb the dodge ball practice in several grade schools nationwide. This deeply saddens me. The reasoning, according to dodge ball detractors, is that the game instills violence in students and enforces the mentality of jocks versus nerds, with the jocks being those who hurl the balls, and the nerds being those struck by them.

Now, I'm a product of the dodge ball era. What's more, I'm a veteran of the era when dodge ball was dodge ball, when the game was played with debilitating rubber balls, not the Nerf contraptions of today. We used thick, rubber, half-inflated burgundy spheres that included a slightly raised star pattern, presumably for a better grip. Any face unfortunate enough to come in contact with a high velocity sphere would wear a painful star pattern for several hours. It was generally believed in school yard circles that these balls were originally created as top secret World War II weapons that mysteriously found their way into our classroom toy boxes.

I realize the absurdity of a 26-year-old male invoking the phrase "back in my day," but back in my day, dodge ball was the passion of the morning and afternoon school yard. Sides were quickly organized through the demeaning but necessary practice of team captains picking members. I can honestly and proudly say I was rarely the last one picked. In fact, I was often in the middle of the pack, which, oddly enough, is where I find myself today. Anyway, I attribute my dodge ball skill to my early realization that it stung like crazy to get hit by an oncoming projectile. Ducking and dodging came naturally after that.

I was also quite good at catching, which was a highly sought after skill because, if someone caught a ball, his or her team was able to reclaim one of its tagged out members, while at the same time disposing of the person who threw the ball. Therefore, I commonly heard the phrase, "We gotta get Rhodes out early." I hated that.

In addition to the use of rubber weapons of death, my school was chock full of farm kids and kids who developed physically way, way, way ahead of schedule. I knew I was in trouble when lunch boxes included Gillette razors so my buddies could shave at noon. In other words, there was some dangerous muscle behind roughly 80 percent of every hurled ball.

Each game started out tentatively, with no one really wanting to charge the line and throw their ball at a team consisting of well-armed opponents. So, we normally would huddle up and think up a strategy involving the sacrifice of a team member to draw the enemy fire. Usually, the sacrificial lamb would have a name like Erwin, a poor soul who wore taped glasses because he had been nominated for the same task several times before. Poor Erwin.

Once Erwin exited with a star pattern emblazoned on his face, the real fireworks ensued.

There was some real bravery exhibited on the dodge ball field. Team members would sacrifice themselves to save a good catcher, or to simply retrieve a ball bouncing uselessly in no-mans land. The sharp smack and howl of soldiers being tagged by rubber torture devices reverberated throughout the game, and games could last an entire hour if you had good catchers on your team.

I learned a lot by playing dodge ball, namely that I could be smacked in the groin by a ball thrown by someone who professed to be my friend just half an hour earlier. It was a school yard version of the corporate ladder, where you could trust no one.

In addition, after playing dodge ball for hundreds of mornings and afternoons, and getting hit countless times by speeding rubber projectiles, I'm really not that scared of anthrax.

Posted by Ryan at June 24, 2002 12:31 AM
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