As someone born a few years before the United States entered World War Two, I'm aware an appropriate rebuttal to my opinions is a simple reminder I grew up in a world that no longer exists. I've spent half my life in the "When I was your age" zone, so when I speak, I'm used to people rolling their eyes.
Well, I do my own share of eye-rolling, and one thing that sets my eyeballs spinning are movie and TV scenes where a youngster — more often a boy than a girl — has a breakdown because his father is unable to attend a soccer game or swim meet or some other event scheduled at a time inconvenient for a working adult.
I'm not sure when a parent's absence from a during-school or after-school event became traumatic for children, but adults of a certain age view this as a "C'mon, kid, grow up!" situation, an annoying reminder we've become a nation of little princes and princesses who believe they're the centers of the universe. Working parents can't be expected to leave their jobs early to attend every game in a league for sixth graders.
You'd think it would be easy to have events video taped so parents and children could watch during evenings in the comfort of their own home, and fast-forward though moments said child isn't playing or performing.
Yes, I realize I'm reacting to fictional melodrama. Maybe real children aren't like that ... or maybe they are. I recently watched a "Dateline" mystery and the reporter asked a young man to evaluate his father, an accused murderer, and the son replied, "I played a lot of sports, and he never came to any of my games ..." This was only a single incident, and could have reflected the unhealthy influence of movies and television, but it raised the possibility that attendance at relatively inconsequential events is the new yardstick for evaluating parents. (Okay, a league championship game is a different matter.)
I don't think a child should play a sport primarily to impress his parents. My son played one season of Little League baseball only because he knew I wanted him to give it a try. He did not enjoy it one bit. (I suggested he find another way to spend his spare time. Unfortunately, he wanted to play the drums, something we managed to postpone for awhile.)
MY FEELINGS about children who need frequent assurance of parental love may seem too harsh, but they reflect my upbringing a world far different from today's. Not only that, but my parents grew up in a world far different from mine. Because of that, I couldn't expect a pat on the head from my father and assurance that I'd played a terrific game. My parents weren't touchy feely, and my father never called me his little buddy. (I think that's something that began after "Gilligan's Island.") More often my father would respond the way Agent Gibbs did with DiNozzo on "NCIS," not with a head pat, but more of a whack.
My father was an outstanding football and baseball player when he was young, and also was born without the bullshit gene, which meant he had a tendency to speak his mind. While mayor of our village, his first words when introduced to a recently arrived priest were, "Father, your masses tend to run a little long." For Buster Major, that was being tactful. (Oddly, he had an impish sense of humor, which sometimes went too far, but served him well when he went into politics.)
My mother didn't believe in false flattery either, but, at least, she managed to control her tongue, though her eyes always revealed her true feelings. Our whole family was good at recognizing malarkey, and I would've been resentful if my father said nice things I knew weren't true. (His constant comment after a high school basketball game was, "Why didn't you take more shots?" At 14, I was already a professional basketball player because my father paid me a dime — later a quarter — for every point I scored. Had I made a decent percentage of my free throws, I'd be a millionaire.)
While I shrugged off his comments, I could have done without them, which is one reason I didn't care if he attended my baseball or basketball games. It was probably not coincidental that my best performances were in games he couldn't attend.
BUT THERE were no such games until I was in eighth grade and played in the first Solvay Tigers youth baseball league. Until then, children played their games on sandlots, in streets and driveways. Four families on our one-block, dead-end street had baskets mounted on the garage. The most popular set-up was next door at the home of my cousins, the Smolinski brothers. There were days about 20 boys would show up, most forced to wait their turn to pick a team to challenge the winners of the game in progress.
On a typical day we'd play at least three games (first team to score 20 points was the winner), and the idea of inviting a parent to watch never occurred to us. That began after sports were organized by adults into such things as Little League, Biddy League Basketball, Pop Warner Football, etc.
When I was 16, I was asked to coach a baseball team when the Tigers started a league for boys 12 years old and younger. Games were played on weekdays, and seldom drew any spectators. None of my players expected a parent to be presents.
A FEW YEARS later there was a big change in youth sports. "What about us?" asked millions of American girls and pretty soon there were leagues for them, too, though some girls, including one who lived a couple of houses away when I lived in Warwick, Rhode Island, played Little League baseball with the boys and did quite well.
ESPN came along and needed all kinds of sports to fill the once-gaping holes in its 24-hour schedule, and within a few years sports were bigger and more important than ever, with soccer being shoved down our throats and lacrosse becoming very popular without much fanfare. Particularly successful were our women's soccer teams. Youth leagues became the first stop in the feeder process.
Organized leagues also took over the facilities once available for pick-up games, but, in general, interest in sandlot sports lagged, for several reasons, including the unintentional, but insidious influence of television. What do I mean by that? Let me give you two ridiculous examples that go back more than 40 years.
A bunch of us from the Providence Journal somehow gained access to a gymnasium for pick-up basketball games ... until one night a player complained an opponent was guilty of goal-tending. The offender, on his best jump, could barely touch the net, yet our whiner wanted us to believe he missed a shot because the man guarding him swiped it away just as it was about to go through the basket.
We thought he had to be kidding, but he wasn't, and the resulting argument broke up the game. Incredible. So was the incident that broke up the last in-street touch football game I witnessed. Six boys from our Cranston, Rhode Island, neighborhood started a three-on-three game that lasted for one play — an incomplete pass. The intended 12-year-old receiver complained there had been pass interference. The other boys threw up their hands and walked away.
LOOKING BACK on my childhood on Russet Lane I must have played almost a thousand games of driveway basketball and cannot recall one serious argument over a foul ... because there was no such thing as a foul in our games. There were frequent disputes over who last touched a ball before it went out of bounds, but we settled those the way the NCAA handles what used to result in jump balls. We alternated which team got possession of the ball. We had no time for arguments, though our games sometimes were interrupted by fights between the Mathews brothers, Red and Jimmy, which years later seemed amusing because Red became a lawyer, Jimmy a priest.
Another change that has resulted from all the youth leagues that popped up since I graduated from high school in 1955 is that boys and girls now expect uniforms, top of the line equipment, and big league facilities. (We didn't often go to the baseball field at the end of our street, but for a few of our games we had to use a baseball that had lost its cover, so we wrapped it in black electrical tape.)
My friends and I spent many hours every fall playing touch football in the street. Our "field" included both pavement and sidewalks, which presented elevation obstacles that increased the danger of stumbling. There were tree branches overhead, which often interfered with passes. And occasionally we had to play around parked cars, often using them to set picks to get rid of the boy or girl who was guarding us. (Yes, there were two girls on our street who sometimes played football with us.)
OWNERS of those cars probably weren't pleased to discover their vehicles were parked in the middle of a football game, but most of the time they left them there. Which rings up another reason to take what I say with a grain of salt. Today's adults would not tolerate what my friends and I did and the noise we made back in the late 1940s and early '50s. Yet our neighbors, some of whom had no children, never complained.
Can you picture today's teenagers playing touch football in the street? There'd be a cellphone-recorded incident of road rage from the first driver to come along, and it would be posted on YouTube, as would the visit from a policeman in response to a complaint from a neighbor who didn't want kids having fun in front of the house.
And heaven help the person who still dares put up a basketball hoop in his driveway and encourages his children to use it.
As an old fart, I can understand how annoying it is to listen to the THUMP! THUMP! THUMP! of a bouncing basketball outside your house, but I don't like knowing the only way children can play sports on their own time is via a video game.
BUT I DIGRESS. My point is it was a lot of fun playing football, basketball and softball with no coaches or officials telling us what to do. Also, unlike what I have noticed over the past four decades, we weren't segregated by age or grade. At seven years old I played basketball with high school boys, and with all grades in between. If I wanted approval from anyone, it was my cousin Bimby, one of the stars of the high school basketball team.
Eventually I joined organized baseball and basketball teams and played in front of spectators, though I don't recall any teammate saying, "Gee, I hope my father comes to the game."
I played in one baseball league, sponsored by the aforementioned local organization called the Solvay Tigers, which had a sensible rule — no coach could have his son of his team. The first time my father watched me play, he was coaching our opposition. It was opening day of the first season, and I hit the first home run in league history, which greatly pleased my father, though it helped beat his team, and gave him the mistaken impression I'd be a major league player some day. He loved baseball; I didn't, and when I became too old for that league, I retired from the sport and didn't try out for the high school team.
I DID PLAY three seasons for the high school basketball team, but I had the wrong attitude, which became obvious early on during my season with the junior varsity. The occasion was a game against Baldwinsville, whose varsity team featured one of the area's best players, Art Peters. It was because of Peters that the Syracuse University coach, Marc Guley, was in attendance that night. (Yes, believe it or not, Syracuse had other coaches before Jim Boeheim.)
One of my junior varsity teammates, Joe Cichocki, wanted to impress Guley, and bragged he could score 30 points against the Baldwinsville jayvees. That would be quite an accomplishment in a 24-minute game. Rather than remind Cichocki that basketball was a team sport, I decided to help him reach his goal.
Late in the third quarter Joe had already scored 21 points, and we were ahead by a big margin. The game had turned sloppy and after a turnover, followed by a missed shot at the other end of the court, I found myself all alone about six feet from our basket. A teammate had rebounded the miss, noticed me down court and threw me the ball. But instead of taking the easy shot, I looked for Cichocki, who came racing toward me, arms extended like a starving man who thought the basketball was a giant meatball.
With a flourish, I put one foot forward and handed the ball to Joe, defying my father, whose booming voice shook the gymnasium, urging me to "SHOOT! SHOOT!" Instead, Cichocki made a layup, boosting his point total to 23.
Our coach, usually oblivious to our antics, sensed something was afoot, and took Cichocki and me out of the game.
When we spoke afterward, my father did not appreciate my explanation, and continued to encourage me to take more shots, though I think he realized that evening I was a lost cause, which brings me to another difference between my world and the one that exists today. I was not playing high school basketball in hopes of receiving a college scholarship. Such an offer was beyond my ability, though today my senior season credentials might get me a scholarship to WTAU (We'll Take Anyone University). After all, I read about a high school student who recently received a bass fishing scholarship to a South Carolina college.
A WELL-DOCUMENTED drawback to having parents attend their children's games is that many of these adults misbehave in a variety of ways. I had a preview of this while I was in eighth grade when our middle school basketball team played a game against a nearby school whose students would move on to our high school in ninth grade. Naturally, that made this school, called Cherry Road, our biggest rival in the middle school league.
Our games were played in the afternoon, so we usually had only a handful of spectators, but this particular school was located in an area that made it convenient for parents, mostly mothers, to attend. I can't remember who drove my mother to the game — she never had a driver's license — but she was there, sitting next to a mother from the other school.
My mother knew nothing about basketball. I'm not sure why she went to the game; perhaps my Aunt Sally drove her, because Sally's son, my cousin Tom Smolinski, may also have been on the team.
During the game, a foul was called on the boy who was guarding me. This prompted the Cherry Road mother to stand, point at me and scream that the official had made a bad call. My mother took this as a derogatory comment about her son. Suddenly, a loud argument erupted in the stands, and in the middle of that argument was my mother, who was certain her perfect Jackie couldn’t have done anything wrong.
It took awhile for my mother to get over the embarrassment, but for years afterward that incident was the source of many laughs.
BUT LIFE isn't all sports. Some of those children in movies and TV shows are pouting because a parents can't attend a play or a concert or a spelling bee. Again, my take on this is quite the opposite because of my life experience, which includes taking piano lessons for five years, and performing in at least four recitals, which required my parents' attendance.
Playing in front of my parents wasn't an issue — like it or not, my mother was punished by my practicing every day, my father usually escaping because I practice before he'd come home from work. But playing in front of other parents rattled me. And it seemed the longer I took lessons, the worse I became. You could chart my regression by the recital programs. Each year my name and selection appeared earlier in the program than the year before, and the students who followed me were younger and younger. Finally, I convinced my mother to put a merciful end to her Frédéric Chopin experiment.
In high school, I joined friends in comedy skits for an annual variety show, but I don't recall parents being invited to attend. The certainly wasn't the case when my children went to school. From kindergarten through high school, every event that featured student performances was open to parents who were encouraged to attend. These events included annual concerts at the elementary school.
These concerts included students learning to play the violin via a method created by Japan's Shinichi Suzuki. I think he modeled his method after the Infinite Monkey Theorem; you know, an infinite number of monkeys given an infinite number of typewriters and an infinite amount of time eventually will produce all the works of Shakespeare.
As far as I could determine, Suzuki believed if a child ran a bow over the strings long enough, a song would emerge. But the result at my children' school was a few minutes of discordant noise. The program always had the young violinists playing four or five songs, all of them sounding like "Baa Baa Black Sheep."
And if my children wanted me there, I'm sure the only reason was the satisfaction of knowing the torture of another Suzuki performance was a shared experience.