A Remembrance: Two Tales of Tennis Friends and Booze
In my junior year in high school, I was number two on the tennis team and a senior named Bill Bailey was number four. It was a military high school in San Antonio, Texas, and at the beginning of the year Bill had been favorite to make battalion commander, highest-ranking student officer. But the military passed Bill Bailey by, basically for excessive individuality and strangeness. In reaction Bill grew his left thumbnail the rest of the year.
In the spring, the team's coach and first four players all drove down to south Texas for a statewide schools tournament. Bill played his first match Saturday morning and won. Then in the afternoon in his second match Bill got mad about something and wouldn't stop arguing, so his opponent called over a tournament official. The ensuing intense discussion between Bill and the official ended when Bill proposed the official perform the famous physical impossibility, turned, and stomped off toward the baseline to resume play. By about the third stomp, our team was disqualified from the tournament.
Since there wasn't time to drive back to San Antonio before dark, the coach decided we'd spend the night as planned. Late in the afternoon, Bill and I and a third player from the team got together for sympathy over beers with some players from the local high school hosting the tournament. Afterwards the three of us ate woozy suppers at the homes where we were staying. Then we met up again with the local guys for more beers and some Saturday night pool-shooting. Two or three hours later, we were cruising town and feeling much better about everything. To arrive by fate in front of the host high school's deserted and dark main building. There we parked drinking, clowning, casing the situation. Until unnoticed by anyone, our anger and self-pity had dissipated in a haze of besotted well-being. I lobbed my empty beer can at the flag pole in front of the school. Clanking on the concrete walkway, it fell about twenty feet short. We drove off.
We'd been back at school in San Antonio for a couple of days when the four of us who'd gone to the tournament were called into the headmaster's office. No one was very apprehensive. Bill didn't seem much concerned -- more like, by now he expected to be punished for following his own honorable code of behavior. The rest of us of course were just innocent victims. Innocent, and if we'd had time to think about it, a little curious. What were we there for? Certainly not to be vindicated by witnessing the inquisition. But anyway, I figured, it was a team thing. After some preliminaries, the headmaster asked Bill his version of the incident. Doubtless Bill's version was factually virtually identical to the tournament official's. The headmaster having heard him out asked, simply, "Why, Bill?" Bill helpfully provided the usual military explanation – "No excuse, Sir." After which, a silence. Then the headmaster said, "OK, Bill." And he asked all of us, "So who threw the beer can into the school yard?"
The thing about our school at just that time was that after years of trying, it had almost succeeded in re-creating itself. A military correctional facility for well-off delinquents was being reborn as an academically respectable, college preparatory school. And in fact out of the thirty-five students in my senior class the next year, six were admitted to Ivy League colleges, probably not a great many fewer than in the school's preceding fifty-year history: one to Harvard, one to Columbia, one to Yale, two to Princeton, and one to Dartmouth. I was the one to Harvard....as a result, I think, of the fact that in total disregard of the school's least flexible and most draconian disciplinary policy – regarding students and alcohol -- no official punishment whatsoever befell me as a result of my tossed beer can.
I took the game and changed courts without a thought. Worse, it was years before it occurred to me that the match was even close, and that if Bill Bailey had thrown the beer can – and his family hadn’t reputedly owned half of West Texas – he likely would have been expelled.
THE YEAR GEORGE WON NORTHERN CALIFORNIA
I was thirty-nine in the summer of 1981, the summer George won northern California, and deeper into the vodka than I’d ever been before. Really deep, and out of desperation I’d started spending weekends at Boyle Park Courts, in Mill Valley, in Marin County across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. So I wouldn't be drinking all day and night Saturday and Sunday in addition to five nights a week after work. I hadn't played in years, but there I'd be at the courts early in the morning, banging away at the wall before the crowd showed up. Eventually, I'd hack out a couple of sets, watch play a while, hit the wall again, watch some more and maybe play again. Then I'd eat lunch, come back and do it all again.
George was in his middle twenties and the best regular player at the courts, which had a reputation for the best "pickup" games in the San Francisco Bay area. Already a couple of weeks before I met him, George had won a Northern California "A" tournament. “Northern California” was an organization within the U.S. Tennis Association and ranked players every year based on the results of tournaments it sanctioned in northern California. Professionals all competed together, but because the amateurs were so numerous, their rankings were based on their results in tournaments for different groups based on different levels of play. The summer George won, the amateurs played in four groups -- from strongest to weakest – "A" to "D." A lot of the younger players at the Blythdale courts were B, or strong C, players and several regulars in addition to George were legitimate A's.
Pretty soon George and I got to be friends, and I went with him to an “A” tournament he was playing. I was almost the only fan there. Amateur tournaments usually had very few fans, and usually only in later rounds or the finals. But George won the tournament. And then he won every one of the five or six subsequent “A” tournaments he played that summer; I'm sure of that, because beginning with that first win I went to, I was George's fan-in-the-stands and companion at all of them. As a result of his string of tournament victories, George won the northern California “A’s” going away. And I felt like, if not his manager, at least and indubitably his one truly constant friend and fan.
The high point of the summer for George was probably winning the San Francisco “A” Tournament toward the end of the season. But the tournament I remembered best was sponsored by Beringer Wines in the town of St. Helena about 60 miles north of Mill Valley. It was a popular tournament with players not only because it was sponsored by a winery, but because Beringer gave prizes to the semi-final winners – free bottles of its excellent wine! George and I finished off his bottle early Saturday afternoon and we just kept drinking. We shot pool and partied for a couple of hours, and before we got back to Mill Valley George was totally smashed. It was the only time I ever saw him drinking, much less drunk.
Very hung over the next morning, we got together again and drove back up to St. Helena for the final. George was not unimpaired, but he won in straight sets.
Soon afterward, I moved to another part of the Bay Area and lost touch with George completely. I heard he’d played a season on the professional tour in Asia and was world-ranked in the three hundreds. A couple of years later I heard he’d come back to Marin County and was a teaching pro somewhere. Somehow I got out of the bottle. And as the years drifted past, I gloried in the memories of those tournaments and the summer of my wonderful vicarious championship tennis.
Then one day, I decided to stop just thinking about it and actually look George up. So I went back to the old courts on Blythdale in Mill Valley and found out a couple of places he might be. And the first place I looked....there he was! The consummate personable tennis professional running the municipal tennis program of Larkspur, a town adjoining Mill Valley, and giving a most attractive lady a late-morning lesson on serves. He was obviously surprised and happy to see his biggest fan again after all those years.
The real reason I'd finally looked George up was that I'd been mulling over writing a story about our glorious summer. A story of winning like you'll never lose, but also the story of a price. Because I thought I remembered that while we were headed home that late Saturday afternoon after the Beringer Tournament semi-finals, George in his drunkenness had revealed a very true and personal truth about a price. About a toll for winning sometimes taken from the human soul by the gods of tournament tennis. Or in my own enormous inebriation, had I interpreted some blubbered banality that way? Like now, I think I pretty surely had.
But I didn’t think that then, standing in the bright morning sun by the court in Larkspur. And trying to ease George toward that remote revelatory episode I hoped would be the center of my story, I asked him if he remembered the prize bottle of wine and how drunk we got after he won his semi-final at the Beringer Tournament. George said yes of course, he remembered very well. How could he forget? He still hadn't forgiven me for getting him so smashed. And so hung over the next day in the final, he got beat for almost the only time that summer.
Last edited by Gentry Rowsey; 04-23-2008 at 03:05 PM.