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The Bell Curve

JOSEPH N. BELL --

July 13, 2000

Some years ago, my grandson came visiting from Colorado and wanted to

show me his high-jumping skill. So I built some makeshift standards and

put a bar across them, which he promptly jumped. Then he said, "Now you

do it."

He had heard my tales -- mostly true -- of once holding the Fort

Wayne, Indiana, record in the 120-yard high hurdles and wanted a

demonstration. The bar was about as high as our family dachshund. Piece

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of cake. I could have stepped over it, but I jumped instead. And fell

flat on my face. What I projected was not what happened.

I thought of that incident last Saturday as I hobbled off the tennis

court. My game doesn't exactly match that of Pete Sampras, but I've

always had two strengths that kept me reasonably competitive in good

company: a strong forehand and speed. Saturday I just had the strong

forehand. Lobs and drop shots that I used to run down routinely were out

of my reach, even though I strove mightily to get to them.

I've been weighing this performance ever since while I nursed the

aches and pains in its aftermath. I could scale down my expectations,

look for a slower game or turn to some other form of exercise. None of

these options have any appeal to me. The first two turn a form of intense

competition into exercise -- a change of which I suspect I'm incapable.

The third is a kind of discipline I've always rejected and have no

stomach for now.

Maybe this dilemma grows out of my Midwestern upbringing. From the

time I was a scrawny kid in elementary school, I've hung out with friends

who were highly competitive in a social environment rewarding to that

frame of mind.

I knew the pain of reading a list outside the coach's office that told

me I had been cut from the basketball team -- and the joy of seeing my

name there another time. My high school friends and I played poker for

pennies and nickels that didn't come easy and competed fiercely for prom

dates with the beauty queen.

There was a strong bond between us, but we only played keepers. No

soft touches. We neither gave nor asked concessions.

It was a lesson that helped me through four years of military service

in World War II. Navy Preflight, designed by Gene Tunney to make supermen

out of soft college kids, was a case in point.

This was accomplished by playing highly physical games with a kind of

competitive intensity that sometimes approached life and death. If we

lost that competitive edge, we might find ourselves in some other branch

of service -- a specter that hung over us constantly.

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