A Eulogy for Hermann
Sport Literate magazine
In August, Hermann Court’s unairconditioned squash courts resembled a Turkish bath where the players paused occasionally to mop the floors. The court on the outside wall—hotter in summer, colder in winter—bore passing resemblance to the punishment hut in the old classic, Bridge on the River Kwai. It was therefore known as “the loser’s court,” a kind of Siberia for the player disenfranchised by loss. I have personally spent so much time there that I often thought of furnishing it with a small refrigerator and an air mattress.
I loved the heat and most of us became accustomed to it, although there were arguments at home over the thermostat settings. (The players were heat-tempered from their exertions, even if their partners were not.) In the deeps of summer, we seemed to play for the notion that our steamy rigors kept us nimble and indestructible. And we loved Hermann, Wilmington College’s hulking gym, a seemingly indestructible pile of concrete with elements of Brutalist architecture—fitting, surely, for its habitués. Its unadorned practicality complimented perfectly the athletes who saw Hermann Court as mere backdrop for themselves, the proper campus ornamentation.
If there was any embellishment to the place at all, it was the two airless courts tucked obscurely away at the end of a labyrinthine, seldom-traveled corridor. Squash was as unlikely in our Southwestern Ohio agricultural county as curling or quoits. It was seen, when seen at all, as something inessential or even slightly daft, and in the popular mind associated with Ivy League guys who drove roadsters, had middle initials, and wore bowties and arch expressions.
The massive amount of concrete in Hermann Court was still curing in 1972 when I arrived in Wilmington to research my first book, and a part-time berth at the local newspaper sent me off to write about the college football team. There I met John Petty, a former coach who’d taken up residence on the squash courts, chasing the racquetball players away with a disdain customarily reserved for, say, dock workers wearing French cuffs. When he invited me onto the court and handed me a squash racquet, I understood it was no gesture of camaraderie but rather a dearth of available victims.
I had never seen a squash racquet before; it resembled an overly large tea strainer with a long handle. But I immediately liked the antic nature of the game in which the ball was a kind of oversized molecule, caroming almost cartoon-like off the walls. I liked the confined court, too, because it kept me from the egregious errors I’d made trying to play tennis, a game that seemed to involve too much open space and the lack of a proper ceiling.
Petty was a bronze obelisk with feet, a former Chicago Bear fullback with an uncanny eye for placing the ball exactly where he wanted—and a reputation that preceded him. His former players at the college recalled him bringing his bulldog to practice whereupon the dog nipped at the waddling tackles’ ankles as they ran their sprints. Similarly, I remembered him driving me all over the court, a little smile on his face like the smile—in S.J. Perelman’s felicitous phrase—“of a motherly barracuda.”
I survived Petty, in time even beat him occasionally, but given his unsparing demeanor, I always kept one eye out for the bulldog. It was a good metaphor for a game in which reversals were sudden and unpredictable, and it was quickly adopted. Players who began with large leads, then faltered, had been “bitten by the bulldog.” The ’dog was such a frequent visitor in the old hardball game, played to fifteen points, that someone brought a plastic watering dish labeled “Bulldog,” which remained in the hallway for months before a nameless player, having just been chased down, tossed it against the wall and broke it.
By the early 1980s, there were some twenty players, enough for reserved court times and a club championship, but when guys dropped off the edge of their youth and plunged into their forties, they retreated sedately into golf and poker. At one point, I had to recruit someone just to be able to play. Happily, I found Michael Graham, a former Denison running back reduced to racquetball. By appealing to his enormous competitive nature—and the dearth of racquetball opponents—I inveigled him onto the squash courts. There, I coached him through his unhappy rookie months as he marveled at the puzzling behavior of the squash ball, reading with glum approval an old article in a lawn tennis magazine that I passed along which described the ball this way: “Sometimes it will inch and sputtle across the floor like a sixty-horsepower mouse, sometimes dart out from a corner in quite another direction from that which one might reasonably expect, and again, it will die away softly in the same corner as though it had no more resiliency than a potato.”
By this time, the game had evolved from hardball squash to a softer ball and courts that were two-and-half feet wider. When Bobby Lambcke bought his first squash balls, he took them onto the court and discovered they didn’t bounce, which they didn’t, at least until they were warmed up. “Those bastards,” Bobby muttered. “They sold me some old balls … ”
Lambcke recovered to become one of our best players, working the competitive Dayton leagues in Dayton, at one time a regional squash hothouse that turned out Mark Talbot, the most dominant hardball player in U. S. history (his grandfather, Nelson Talbott, had a squash court in his Dayton basement.) The hardball game was intransigently American, “a WASP birthright,” writer Tad Friend called it, but this time Manifest Destiny was denied.
We made the change to the new ball, but Hermann Court was what we had, perfect for my aging athletic instincts, and its wooden walls and inlaid floors always felt somewhat luxurious, if outdated (even as we cleaned up the tobacco juice baseball players spit in the corners each spring). By the early 2000s, a tiny band of stalwarts played several times a week, with the occasional itinerate who might show up for a few weeks before disappearing.
We were an unseemly lot; players wore most anything and, in the aggregate, looked like a team sponsored by Goodwill. My perfectly attired friend Michael was the sole member of our odd fraternity who looked as though he’d actually played squash out of town. But then he was a Denison University man, which probably explained it. Michael was fastidious, both on and off the court. He might have been able to play in the Ivy League. Surely he could have dressed in the Ivy League. He was the only one among us who might have a middle initial, and once he complained that my racquet handle was frayed, which bothered him so much he brought in a roll of tape and wrapped it for me. He wore fresh clothes before all matches, and we suspected that he showered before his games.
He was magnificently offset by Dan Brady, a martial arts expert and construction guy who trailed onto the court bouquets of sawdust, mulch, and kerosene. As unorthodox as an Amish pole dancer, Brady was Hermann Court’s most unlikely squash player. He brought a large bag that seemed to hold enough clothes for the county’s homeless population, and one of his tennis shoes had been razored on the side to ease a bunion. His cell phone rang constantly, and sometimes his wife showed up to watch and yell either encouragement or deprecation, depending upon how he was playing. Through it all, he remained cheerfully unflappable. No one had ever seen him angry, although upon occasion he might in exasperation toss his racquet toward the ceiling.
His game was sly and frustrating: he often slid on the court to get to a distant shot, as though he were playing softball, leaving an imprint of sweat on the floor, the Valdez after striking its reef. Dan flicked the racquet with a quick, overhand turn of the wrist, so odd in execution it was almost impossible to return. When his eye was on, the shots were unerring, thus one must either drive him into the back court or face a bewildering array of shots in which the ball reached the front wall in a variety of ways seldom seen before.
When Michael played Dan, a certain percentage of their games was taken up in debate over the rules. Michael, as befitting his measured personality, was knowledgeable about the rules. Dan asserted the rules as he thought they should be, as opposed to what they actually were. After Dan left early one Friday to officiate a mud-wrestling contest organized by his friends, Michael complained that Dan had confused the squash rules with whatever might have existed for mud-wrestling.
Michael loved the World Squash Federation rules of engagement (which sounded like the directives for taking over some noncompliant country), and he was insistent that he have “a fair view of the ball, unobstructed direct access, and the space to make a reasonable swing.” Of course, he did not always get these from Dan or, for that matter, myself.
Once, when I was inadvertently blocking his access, Michael did not call a let to play the point over; he scored by sending the ball between my legs.
“Is that how you do that?” said Tripp, the college swim coach who happened to be watching.
“Yep,” Michael said. “It’s part of the handicap system attached to his game.”
“I didn’t know squash had a handicap system,” said Tripp.
“Oh, it doesn’t,” Michael said. “This is his system.”
Despite the fact that the oldest among them was still a dozen years my junior—they frequently complained about me hogging the center, not moving for their shots, elbowing them out of position, or lulling them with fake injuries. These were all tactics, I said, that were perfectly within my right as their patriarch. Hogging the center had its disadvantages, though, for Timbo Wilson, one of the area’s stellar athletes, then playing professional basketball in France, would return to play each summer where he told me, “Move or I’ma smoke yo drawers.” (Getting hit with the hardball was a spectator event; it caused a slow bruised flowering, usually on the back of the upper leg, while the other players looked on in fascination, as if they were seeing a fast-action reveal of a plant blooming.)
In games when the point spread seemed entirely too wide for me to overcome, I liked to call a forfeit and begin again. Michael complained that I was interrupting his momentum, which was, of course, precisely my point. I explained that it made for a more competitive match.
“How much momentum do you need?” I asked him.
Finally, he agreed.
“Courtus interruptus,” we called it.
He said that since I was always limping or rubbing my shoulder and because he felt sorry for me, he would now play me without looking at me. Sometimes, just before his serve, I might lean toward him and whisper, “Meniscus tear, with collateral damage.” Or: “Enlarged prostate.” He had an excellent drop shot, which he placed adroitly, particularly when he caught me behind him. I was unable to get to it, of course.
“That isn’t a manly shot,” I told him, which actually caused him to avoid drop shots for a time, at least until I won again. (Jim, a visiting Brit, after getting beat by Michael’s little boast shots into the corners, called them in disgust, “puffies and dainties,” which sounded like a kind of upscale pastry.)
“Respect for my position as your senior statesman,” I explained to Matt and Michael, “will serve you well should I decide to write about you.”
As an athlete, I was what the Brits called “bog standard.” I had an instinctive aversion to athletic clichés and as the cliché was the profession’s lingua franca, I never heard much of what my coaches said. Thankfully, the perils of the playing field seemed to render the language of players themselves in taut, often amusing specifics. (Running off tackle, a Fordham transfer named Hoots slammed into our line, breaking tackles and yelling “EXCUSE! EXCUSE!” until he went down under a ton of defense.) My memory was not of game-day heroics and statistics but of light, color, temperature, and the various sardonic moments. For instance, my friend Hunky and I stood on the practice sidelines after our history class, musing about the war we’d been studying, when he said, “Home team reserve strength in the fourth quarter. Hitler was no good when flushed out of the pocket.” And thus the conflict was laid to rest.
My head was filled with language rather than tactics, and I recalled opponents by their repartee for which, surely, points should have been awarded. When I think of my friend Michael, I do not see him delivering upon me his familiar coups de grâce, but rather I hear his riposte from the afternoon I discovered a great snail track down the hallway outside our courts.
“Did you see that?” I asked him.
“Yeah,” he said. “It was how I knew you were here.”
For most of a decade, our main adversary was a rangy IT expert, Matt Haines, another former racquetball player who seemed to be in perpetual training for contests involving kayaks, mountain bikes, and various unspecified events. When I asked him what an “unspecified event” was, he said, “It’s like where you take a small bear in a basket and run across a field ahead of its mother.”
He was a good player but often lackadaisical, which he passed off by saying, “My head wasn’t in it.” This irritated Michael because the inference was that losing only had to do with the condition of Matt’s head.
Matt loved tweaking his progressive opponents with his thoughts about the origins of the universe, which he maintained was created only a few thousand years ago. He might pause before serving and say to his opponent, “Carbon-dating is based upon seventeen different fallacies.” According to Matt, God created the world in a week, then took a day off and played some squash, which he had also just invented. We were certain that the last president Matt had really embraced had been Grover Cleveland, who believed in the Gold Standard and spent much time making sure there was no fraud in the granting of Civil War pensions.
Most of the time, our exchanges were simply of the serve-and-return variety. Bobby Lambcke came in early one afternoon and found two students having sex in one of the courts.
“Did he have that little front court stroke Mike has,” someone asked, “or that backcourt one like Matt’s?”
Sometimes, there were small riffs, other times a casual rejoinder tossed over the ramparts of language. We were fond of Kay Frances, a former stand-up comedian turned motivational speaker. One day in the weight room, she showed Michael her recent bone scan. “I have the bones of a 26-year-old,” she said. “This is hot. Do you want to take this with you?” Michael mused only briefly about the consequences of his wife, Linda, finding an X-ray of another woman in his wallet.
“I can hear you guys when I walk down the street,” she said. “‘Look at the bones on that babe.’ You’re all pigs, you know that, don’t you?”
“Hey,” we pointed out. “You’re the one with the dirty pictures...”
We liked Larry Lesick, too, a college administrator and gym rat, who heard Michael use the word “rue” and instructed him on words inappropriate for gymnasiums, of which “rue” was one. “Remember where you are,” he told Michael. “This is a locker room. You just don’t use a word like that in here.”
Trash-talking in Hermann Court was rampant, of course, for all but Michael. For some inexplicable reason, he almost always lost his match when he attempted it. “There is no way you can win this,” he liked to tell his opponent in a close game, which usually guaranteed that he, Michael, was about to lose. Being the stellar athlete that he had been all of his life—and in many sports—this made no sense, but there it was.
“What I like about squash is that there is this little room,” Michael said to me, quite seriously. “Two people go into this little room, and only one comes out.”
“Michael, you have just described marriage,” I say. “Two people go into a small room, which soon fills up with unwashed dishes. Only one person is going to walk out. The other person has to stay and do the dishes ... ”
One season, Michael consistently ran sprints on the track where he felt fast enough to locate his old stopwatch and time himself on the 400 meters. His time was more than twenty seconds slower than he ran in high school.
“What’s the matter with this watch?” he asked.
At the time, he still held the local high school record for the 880, which had been his for forty years. In keeping with the propensity of aging athletes to ignore the inevitable, he was thinking it might not be inevitable. He entered the Yellow Springs Invitational and, passing the bleachers on the backstretch, heard cheering. This reminded him of his golden years when there was also cheering, and he was heartened. Then he understood the truth: the spectators were applauding a twelve-year-old boy who was about to pass him.
“What did you do?” I asked.
“I did the only thing I could do—I moved over a lane and blocked him.”
“Well put,” I said.
Fighting back gamely against mortality, Michael said things such as, “I don’t feel like I have lost anything.”
Someone in his audience would then reply, “Maybe you haven’t lost it. Maybe you just still have it, only you forgot where you put it. Maybe you just MISPLACED it ... ”
“Shut up,” Mike said, ever the trash-talker.
Squash was the most abused game around, for it had few adherents, even fewer who understood anything about it, and its stout-hearted practitioners had no spectators and little standing. We constantly recruited but seldom found converts. Michael and I approached one of the weight room’s more imposing specimens, a young guy named Bill, and he said, “I have been thinking about what kind of sport I should play when I get old.”
He was so serious we immediately lost interest in him. By this time, I was measuring any prospective player for an ability to deliver a keen verbal impertinence, as well as play the court. Michael, ever the competitive athlete, thought I’d sacrifice the game for a good aphorism and probably he was right. A win is nice, but a good quote might get you into Bartlett’s.
Our friend Art Brooks, the college’s director of multicultural affairs and a good athlete, was always around (no one who knew him ever willingly took him on in a game of horse), and he often came by to watch, but our best efforts at getting him on the squash courts went unrewarded. When we asked him why not, he said, “Ain’t no brother go into no room with a white man carrying a stick and shut the door behind ’im.”
That was a great personal loss, because, as noted, Art could play for language with its best practitioners. His riffs were spontaneous and stand-up good. He liked to kid us about what he called “white folks’ sports,” which he said were things Black people almost never did. “You know, like sky diving, bungee jumping, going down mountains on sticks. Black people want excitement, they jus walk through the ’hood. Sometimes jus getting home is an adventure. Man, it exciting jus being BLACK.”
We were always happy to see Art because he was a presence; when you imagined ideal teammates, Art was one of them. As far as Michael and I were concerned, all Art had to do was stand around and kibitz—and that he could do. He was particularly good at dismantling sport clichés: “Coach say give a hundred and ten percent. I say, ‘Where that ten percent come from, Coach? Maybe I take it off Homer there. Then Homer, he playin at ninety percent and you be on his ass.’ I say to myself, ‘Where this fool think that other ten percent be comin from?’”
At some point past sixty, language was what was left after other attributes had departed. I had now begun playing for the random exultant moments, and while they did not always add up to a victory, they sufficed. I was at that place where, when I implored the heavens, no one was home. I was left simply taking pleasure in my environment. I enjoyed, for instance, that someone in Hermann Court had taped a Red Cross donation poster to one of our doors. GIVE BLOOD, it said, its message undeniable; our little band of survivors had contributed gallons but unfortunately, it was of little help to the Red Cross.
In more than a decade, we had secured only one new player, James Lynch, a former basketball player who had the wingspan of a pelican. His inexperience was offset by his relative youth—he was in his forties—and my favorite story of him was a scene that occurred in the Lynch manse one night as James’s wife, Julie, walked into their darkened bedroom and was startled to hear what sounded like a tennis ball bouncing off a wall. When her eyes became accustomed to the dark, she saw her husband, asleep, his smartphone on his chest playing an instructional squash video. We assured him that his position—asleep in the dark—was familiar to most squash players.
Thus I was left enjoying the occasional win and Michael’s athletic anxiety, which caused him to dream that the squash courts had become a large clothes closet. Once, I managed to eke out a win largely because he was playing with a bad cold. “The advantage to playing squash is that when you’re feeling so bad that you’d like to be put out of your misery,” he said, “there’s always someone out here willing to help you.”
At one point, I lost three straight games to Mike by increasingly lopsided scores. I thought of leaving and going home, but I seemed to have forgotten where I lived. I was like Pokey Reese, who, making his debut at shortstop for the Reds in 1998, made four errors. It was opening day and Marge Schott had brought elephants onto the field, complete with roustabouts walking behind to catch the droppings. After the 10-2 loss, Reese said glumly, “Instead of playing shortstop, I should have been walking behind the elephants with a trash bag. But I probably would have missed.” I, too, was now following the elephants.
I was used to winning; in all my time at Hermann Court, there was never anyone I couldn’t win at least a few games from. Of late, though, I found myself saying, I could use a nice tie here, for tomorrow that tie would be a victory. I was playing to get into the double figures. I would say to Michael after losing by a point or two, “Were you nervous?” I was a graying wolf, feeding off remains, circling farther out in search of habitat.
Then came the 2020 pandemic, which closed Hermann to all but college players and staff. The squash players were now immigrants without a country. The courts in August, where we had once toiled and sweated through the month, were abandoned, the building silent and mausoleum-like. The athletic staff came and went, wraith-like; without their teams they seemed sad and diminished.
Michael and I still met there, because we liked to jog on the soft replacement turf of the football field. At the back of Hermann, we passed within a few yards of what we’d always thought of as our courts. The blunt, unprepossessing old building was somehow instructive; unlike us, it didn’t seem to age, and its stately, enduring presence was a kind of rebuke to our fading skills. (“Your skills,” I could hear Michael say.)
Our exile continued on into 2021, even as I noted how the large events of our lives were celebrated in half-centuries: I was one year from my fifty-year anniversary with Hermann Court. Such events usually denoted pluck, perseverance, and—quite often—major mulishness. Mine carried elements of each (in truth, more of the last), and the fact that I might be denied my small celebration by a virus rather than the ravages of age lent the near-miss a certain poignancy, if only to me. The athletic department said stay tuned; perhaps the coming months would bring release and we’d soon be allowed back on the courts.
We’d been victimized by the pandemic but, given the larger picture, it was hardly worth mentioning. Michael had shoulder surgery, James gained weight, and I, well, I had already forfeited my own small anniversary. There did not seem to be in the offing a semicentennial mug, or perhaps a butter dish bearing my likeness. At long last, longer than any on record, actually, I seemed to have left the building.