The first three weeks in his new home had made the boy feel more relaxed. He had been nervous at first, but slowly, the sun and the turquoise waters had melted his fears into echoes from a place far away, and the boy luxuriated in the extra sleep and the debaucherous lifestyle of an unemployed athlete. He had never experienced anything remotely close to this new way of life. In fact, because his childhood on the farm was antithetical in so many ways, he could not shake the feeling that he was becoming lazy…
For about a week, he shrugged it off and spent his time exploring. Driving the sleek Firebird up and down the coast on a minor route that followed the Intracoastal. It soon became his favorite drive– the sparkling waters teaming with wildlife and boats of all types… schooners that harkened back to a more interesting time, at least in his mind, when sea travel was in it’s heyday and pirates traversed these waters in large numbers. A time of excitement and danger. Of brash men who lived and died paving the way for ‘civilization’…
Often, Matty would drive the A1A route for 45 minutes, with the thoughts spinning thru his head as the road wound before him and the twin air scoops on the hood became nostrils, perhaps of some mystical creature, atop which he rode to places he had only dreamed about.
It was on one such morning that he drove that shaded corridor that he found himself crossing into another county. He had completely lost track of the time. Not that it mattered all that much, but he had wanted to start creating some sort of schedule and to implement a strategy that he had planned with Bobby some time ago…
They had discussed, amongst other things, how they would support themselves, and Matty had offered that because of his background in tennis, he might be able to find a job in one of the local resorts, where tennis was a focal point of the recreational activities. They had no idea what might be found in that area, save a few places Matrty had researched, but it did appear that tennis was extremely popular, so he was pretty confident that with determination, he could break into the profitable industry, even if it took becoming certified as a teacher, which he had not done at that point.
So, he sat on the sandy shoulder of the road that morning and read the sign diagonally across the road… “Turtle Cove’. There was a large, cream- colored stucco wall that effectively obstructed the view of what appeared to be an upscale complex with two story buildings that rose majestically above the barrier. Tall, royal palm trees lined the shell encrusted macadam that wound its way into the community past the guarded entrance. Inside a smallish but stout building at the entrance, an older gentleman in a guard’s uniform studied the boy in the shiny muscle car while he talked to someone on a black, wall mounted phone.
Matty looked down the winding road and saw the quaint sign. A marker with arrows pointing in various directions. It was perhaps 50 yards away but he could read the white notations on the dark background, and about halfway down, he saw what he had been looking for… There, a brief description directed the inhabitants to the left to what was represented as ‘tennis courts and pro shop’…
The tall, tanned boy felt the butterflies rise in his throat. Somewhere, out of view, there was a potential job for him if he could find a way to convince the right people of his determination and enthusiasm. He knew in his heart that he had the potential to become a good teacher of the sport he loved, but had no formal training as a tennis professional or certification as a result. His plans included a remedy for that- A two week program of intensive training in Cypress Gardens designed for tennis pros who wanted certification and training in the various areas of the job, from hands on teaching techniques to pro shop and club management. It was a recognized program run by a maverick entrepreneur in the sport who Matty admired and would soon meet, but for now, he was on his own, trying to squeeze a living from something he had talent for but no credentials.
His stomach was churning as he turned the Firebird into the entrance to the wealthy seaside compound, and slowed to a halt at the security checkpoint. The well- groomed , gray- haired guard smiled at the nervous boy and listened intently as Matty inquired about admission so that he could talk with either the resident pro or someone in management about offering his services. The man was kind and non- judgmental, and heard the boy’s entire speech before nodding his head and instructing Matty to wait momentarily. He seemed to be pondering options he might not normally, perhaps sensing the sincerity in the young man’s voice or the enthusiasm borne of a dream that the unfaltering voice projected. Here was a boy, making his way in the world. Looking for a chance, and nothing more.
It took a few agonizing minutes to make the necessary phone calls, during which the guard asked Matty to move the sleek Firebird to a small parking spot so that he wouldn’t be blocking the gate for residents. Well- dressed retirees trickled through in very nice cars, most of them of foreign origin or of a luxury class the boy had seen only at rich peoples’ estates. The smell of money was everywhere. He felt conspicuous, sitting in the muscle car while Mercedes and BMWs passed to his left, but he braced himself and took a deep breath. After all, there was nothing to lose, but potential unemployment. While his savings were still intact, he wanted to get the feelers out for what he was up against in this new environment where most everyone seemed to have wealth that he hoped to leverage into a decent living. Something to fuel his quest to play tennis on a professional level as he and Bobby had talked about once the war had ended.
Soon though, the elegant gentleman stepped out of the comfort of the air conditioned guard shack and walked briskly across the coral encrusted road and stopped near the boy’s car, smiling. “Sir”, he started, “If you would like to proceed, you may enter Turtle Cove, using Ocean Drive to the right…” He pointed towards the sign that Matty had noticed from across the road. “Follow Ocean Drive until you reach the stand of three royal palms at the rotary … You’ll see a road that continues towards the beach. Uh… East at that point, but instead , bear to the right on the road we call ‘Sandy Shoal Drive… There’s a sign that you can’t miss. Well, if you follow Sandy Shoal for about 100 yards, you’ll come to a small out- building with glass doors. There will be a sign to the right of the doors that says, ‘Turtle Cove Racquet Association’. You’ll see a four or five parking spaces to the right side, near a larger building. You can park there. Mr. Delaney, our head teaching professional, will be waiting for you in the smaller building. He has his office inside and he’s expecting you…” He smiled gently and placed his right hand on Matty’s shoulder. “Good luck, son! I hope you find what you’re looking for!”
Matty smiled sheepishly. “Thank you, sir. I hope so too! Thanks for making the phone call for me… Maybe you’ll see me around here again, if things work out!”
With that, the 21 year old youngster, turned the ignition key and the Firebird roared to life. The older man stepped back, and waved as Matty turned the shiny car towards the south and slowly throttled it up, as the pathway crunched under the wide tires with the shiny Cragar SS rims… That day would mark the beginning of a young man’s dream, as he struggled for recognition in this strange new world…
”Yeah… what? “
”If you get the rebound, check up court… I’ll make a cut as soon as you get the ball and head up the right side! I know I can beat the big galook to the rim! He’s big, but I can outrun him… Look for me and heave the ball a little ahead of me. I’ll catch up with it and probably get a layup out of it!”
Matty glanced at the other boys in the huddle. Timmy was rolling his eyes, and Pete was white- faced and breathing heavily, the red mark on the side of his face still visible, where the ‘big galook’, a guy named Dennis, had landed a hard elbow. He looked at Cousin Mike and nodded… “OK, if I get the rebound. His buddy has been shoving me pretty good. I can’t seem to get a good position under the basket, and when I do, he’s either shoving me or trying to take my head off with his flying elbows… If the ref doesn’t start calling some fouls, we’re going to end up with stitches yet!”
”He don’t give a darn,” Pete mumbled. “I think Dennis is his nephew…”
“His nephew?? Really? Goddamit! ” Andy retorted.
The boys looked back and forth at each other, and then at him, startled at the profanity.
“What?”… The 12- year- old boy reddened. “Well, he got me too, only in the ribs! Like you guys never swore before…”
Matty shook his head and glanced at the sidelines, where his uncle stood, holding the clipboard he always had. Their eyes met, and the 45- year- old man motioned to him to come over to talk for a minute. “Time out, ref…” Matty shouted. He jogged to the line of metal, folding chairs and stopped in front of his uncle. The tall man put his bony hand on his neck and guided him to an area out of earshot of the rest of the boys, who were warming the bench, and not paying attention anyways…
“Matthew”, the man begin, “I want you to tell all the guys to take the gloves off! I’m, tired of watching those cavemen beating up on you guys! How about dishing some out yourselves? The ref isn’t calling them for all the fouls, so you gotta take things into your hands! “
“But coach… They’re playing dirty! We shouldn’t do the same thing, just because they’re getting away with it! Maybe… “
”Maybe nothing! ” Uncle Ed interrupted. “Goddammit… Those guys don’t belong on the court with you guys! We all know they’re too old. Why do you think Stein put them on the team? … I’ll tell you- he got tired of losing to us! After losing the championship to us last year, he found those giants and stuck them out there to scare the hell out of you guys, and it seems to be working! We’re champs! We’re the team to beat! You’re not gonna let him take that trophy from us, just because he knows the ref, are you?”
“No sir”, Matty replied haltingly.
“Well then, get back there and tell Mike and the other guys that I want to see some action, and if that big kid… what’s his name…”
“Dennis”, the blond boy offered…
“Yeah, Dennis… if that monster takes another shot at one of you, I want the lot of you on his ass! Right away! I don’t care if you get called for it! You have to show him you’re not afraid!”
”But, NOTHING! I’m calling the shots here, not that goddamned ref or his goddamned jew buddy!”
Matty glanced at his uncle, startled. He had never heard him use religion as an insult before. The man towered over him and it was apparent that he was becoming unhinged. His face was scarlet red and his left hand clenched into a fist as the clipboard in his right hand trembled near the young boy’s face. This was a side of the man that he had heard about in stories, but had never witnessed. Blood- drawing fist fights between brothers many decades prior while Matty’s aunts screamed in terror… On some level, the 12- year- old boy had filed those stories as exaggerations or even fabrications, because they supposedly happened so long ago, and his experiences with Uncle Ed had never exposed him to that kind of behavior.
Now though, something was amiss, and it was unnerving. He hesitated, and turned to head back to his teammates, but took one last glance at his tall uncle. The man was now glaring across the court at the other coach who was chatting up the ref, smiling and laughing, his arms crossed in a relaxed fashion. He looked more like a businessman in the tweed suit jacket. Matty nervously shuffled back to the group of sweating adolescent boys, feeling slightly sick…
”Boy. He sure looks pissed”, were the first words he heard, and they came from Andy, who had captured the moment accurately. “So, what’s the goddamned plan?”
“Shut up, Andy!” Matty retorted. “We got enough problems without listening to your big mouth!”
”Cripes! I was just joking, Matty”, the boy muttered. ” Besides, I could hear Coach Ed all the way from here! It’s not like I invented the word!”
“Yeah, great… Well, thanks for repeating it then… That makes us all feel better. ” Matty countered. The other boys fidgeted and seemed completely demoralized, pretty much like Matty was feeling.
Mike broke the silence. “So, what did my dad give you for a play?”
”Play? No play… More like a battle plan. We’re supposed to jump the next guy that throws an elbow to show him we mean business…”
“Oh my God,” Pete groaned. “You gotta be kidding! Look at the size of that guy! He could probably pretzel me like Superman does that gun every show…”
”Superman! How about the Hulk! ” Andy chimed in. “If I jump him, he’ll just crush me like I’m dog meat! “
”Dog meat? What the heck is that supposed to mean?” Will cackled.
Matty interrupted the banter, his hand clutching his forehead. “OK.. OK… Everybody just shut up. We’re gonna have to… ” At that moment, the whistle blared as the referee motioned for both teams to begin play again…
”Look, just stay away from his elbows and try to keep the ball out of his hands..” Matty hastily added. “No war. We’re not jumping anybody…” He looked towards the sidelines quickly, feeling like a betrayer, as the boys took up defensive positions once more…
Within seconds, the echo of the rubber ball being inbounded ricocheted off the gymnasium walls and the screeching sounds of Converse sneakers and the grunting and gasping sounds of the battle once more filled the brightly lit battleground. Matty took up a defensive position about an arms length away from the much larger boy and tried to use his long arms to deny him the ball, and his superior speed to weave in and out of Dennis’ wheelhouse. Petey had taken up a position on the opposite side, despite the recent injury to his still reddened cheekbone. But this time, he was more tentative, and the double- team that had been a strategy from the beginning, had gaps in it, and Dennis seemed quite aware. He started motioning for the ball, waving his arms wildly, while Matty desperately tried to cut off the inevitable pass.
It came after only a few seconds and one or two fakes, as Petey avoided one elbow and then another. Matty tightened his position, but the pass came to Dennis’ other side, where his flying appendages had created the space. So, there he was, only ten feet from the rim, and vying for better position, against the blond boy who weighed probably 40 pounds less.
Matty rotated to cut off his direct lane to the hoop and now had his long arms extended, as the larger boy held the ball at chin height and glanced over his shoulder to assess his options. He violently rotated his elbows as he looked, in an obvious attempt to land one on the blond boy’s noggin, but Matty was acutely aware of his tactics and avoided one and then the second try, but in doing so, was now ducking below the flying elbows.
The boy could see Will tentatively close from the other side, in an attempt to box the larger boy in. To create almost a triple team. Dennis saw him immediately, After all, he was facing him, with his back to the basket. His answer was more the instinct of a trapped animal, in that he did what he could to escape… And, that entailed going THROUGH Matty who was mirroring his moves and only inches way.
Matty felt the shift in momentum and stood his ground, perfectly aware that the rules allowed him that position, but on that night, it meant nothing…
Dennis dropped the ball to waist level and spun around at the same time, apparently intent on dribbling the ball towards the basket, but looking for a clear lane to do so… That, he achieved by throwing his right shoulder into the blond boy’s chest and his crooked elbow into Matty’s midsection.
It was like being hit by a train, and Matty flew backwards, caught completely off balance because of his wide, defensive stance. The elbow took the wind out of him and the shoulder drove him backwards, until he was lying on the court gasping for air as a large body stepped partially on him and completed the move to the hoop.
The blond boy lay there on the cold maple floor, in a fetal position, trying NOT to get stepped on again, as all hell broke loose…
He could hear the commotion as his uncle yelled at the top of his lungs, “FOUL! FOUL!” There was the squeaking of sneakers and the closeness of teammates. A hand on his back, one on his waist, as the other boys crouched down to check on his ‘vitals’… Petey was breathing heavily, and muttering profanities, as the din increased and Matty tried to focus his eyes. He had hit his head on the floor at the same time, so the ‘fog’ had momentarily muddled his perception, but he was aware of the loud and increasing level of discourse, as the boys yelled for the ref to call the obvious foul and his uncle did the same… There was the violent sound of a clipboard as it was thrown to the floor, and then his uncle was standing over him, but not for long, as he pivoted to face the referee and the other coach who had made his way onto the court.
Somewhere in that confusion, Dennis had been ‘corralled’ by the arm, and Coach Ed was reading him the ‘riot act’ about sportsmanship and playing by the rules… It was then, and only then, that the whistle finally sounded, as Matty struggled to get off the floor with the help of his teammates, still trying to find his breath and clutching his bruised ribs…
He reached his feet in time to see the struggle as Coach Stein and the referee tried to step between his uncle and the now scared ‘galook’. There were a lot of commands being thrown around, and now both teams quieted as the incident escalated towards violence.
Dennis was now free, but Coach Ed was face to face with both Coach Stein and the ref, and he was looking livid! He demanded to know what constituted fair play… when or IF the ref ever intended to call another foul on the obviously overaged Dennis… How things had ever been allowed to reach this point, where a game was perverted into warfare… Something he knew PLENTY about, having served, UNLIKE the two of ‘them’…
Matty and his teammates stood there in a tight group until Mike tried to pull his dad away from the worsening confrontation. Then, they joined him, instinctively, as the situation reached ‘critical mass’, but it was too late.
Coach Stein seemed to be smiling, and the ref was walking away, as though the basket would count, and nothing inordinate had happened!
It was too much to comprehend, but there it was… And, we’ll never know how the game might have ended, because of the next two words that echoed through that boy packed gym on that Friday night…
For a moment, Matty could hear the sound of his own breathing as everything went quiet and 20 boys looked on in horror…
What had become of us? This was supposed to be a game. But now, it had taken on the most ugly ramifications. Some that I feel to this day.
I did not understand the viciousness of Dennis, or the patronizing sneer of the other coach, or the demands placed on 12- year- old boys to ‘go to war’. Or, the agonizing complacency of the referee who allowed everything to escalate.
I will never understand any of that, but I will also never forget the look of shame, on the faces of my teammates and friends, at that one moment, before my uncle was thrown out of the league, and our days of glory ended in a pile of adult manure that had been disgorged from some unknown past origins.
We were children, deserving of better. Better guidance, better justice… better love.
Matty never picked up a basketball again to play in an organized league, until high school, when he was in his junior year and decided to try out for the team. Coach Reisner watched him scrimmage with the other boys and finally called him to the sidelines. He seemed astonished at the raw ability of the tall 16 year old boy he had never seen on his court before…
“Where have you been, son.” was all he could manage at first…
“Around… playing tennis mostly…” Matty had replied.
I never answered that question, because the tears started to well in my eyes. I asked Coach to excuse me, and went to the locker room to change. I never returned even tho he sent word I had made the squad. It brought back too many bad memories…