Game of Cronies

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I work in the office of a certified financial planner in Wilmington, Ohio, where, three afternoons a week, at precisely 4 o’clock, I make a brisk exit out the back door to my car and drive across town to the Clinton County Family YMCA for the only recurring appointment on my Outlook business calendar: squash. It’s been there, shaded in “personal” green, for more than a decade, years I seem to have passed without noticing my athletic mortality creeping up on me.

The Y is located adjacent to the Hermann Court athletic facility on the campus of Wilmington College. A rear corridor connects the buildings, leading to the college’s two old, largely neglected North American hardball squash courts. They haven’t been on the regular maintenance rounds for years.

I was 50 when John Baskin of the Wilmington-based book publishing company Orange Frazer Press introduced me to the game played by prep-schoolers, Ivy Leaguers, and five of my wall-banging friends at the Y. Baskin, who took up squash in the 1970s, has become my de facto coach and sports psychologist as I struggle with the insults of advancing age and the challenge of a young newcomer who runs down all my shots and hits the ball with such force that, according to John, I should be wearing a chest protector and catcher’s mask.

In the beginning, squash didn’t seem at all related to its “cousin,” racquetball, which I’d been playing since my college days at Denison University. The double yellow-dot Dunlop Pro, official ball of the World Squash Federation, is smaller than a racquetball ball and dead by comparison. I chased it around the court like a pet dog, tongue wagging, all hustle and reaction, while John parked himself on the “T” formed by the red service lines in the center of the floor and regarded as the best position from which to volley and attack.

I had been forewarned about the old English game. “You may well become hooked for life,” says my used 1991 edition of the Crowood Sports Guides: Squash. The Crowood Press series of handbooks is published in the U.K., where, according to historical accounts, squash was invented in the mid-19th century at Harrow, the prestigious boys’ school that has prepped poets (Byron), writers (Trollope), and eight British prime ministers, including Churchill.

I don’t know if the courts of Harrow prepared Churchill and his generation for The Blitz. But here at the Clinton County Y, my fellow Golden Buckeyes and I spend a lot of time in the corridor, resting between games—our backs, you could say, up against the wall as we play out our days on the bygone squash courts of Wilmington College.  

The first courts in the U.S. were built in 1884 on the campus of St. Paul’s, a prep school in Concord, New Hampshire. Americans, however, have never been world-beaters in the sport. The last time I checked, five of the top 10 players in the Professional Squash Association men’s rankings were Egyptians—I had to scroll down to No. 48 to find the lone American in the top 50. Trinity College, the small Connecticut school that won 13 consecutive national collegiate titles from 1998 through 2011, has accumulated a steady roster of foreign recruits: Johan from Sweden, Reinhold from South Africa, Miled from Mexico, Vrishab and Pranay from India, a pair of Juans, one from Colombia and the other from El Salvador, just to name a few.

My old handbook has another warning: “Don’t play squash to get fit. Get fit to play squash.” There are sports addictions with lower calorie burn rates. Golf, with a cart, immediately comes to mind. But this old ball, you might say, has some bounce left in it. As I became more comfortable on the court, Baskin, who is 10 years my senior, began taking age-appropriate countermeasures to keep things interesting, including blocking my path to the ball. In John’s younger days, he and Reinhold Finkes, an All-American running back at Wilmington College, would ratchet up their competition by blocking, bumping, holding, even throwing forearm shivers. “Full contact squash,” they called it. Timbo Wilson, who played pro basketball in Europe after his Wilmington College career, warned his squash opponents not to stand in front of him or he would “smoke” their “drawers,” a threat no one took lightly given Wilson’s imposing power forward stature.

A friendly rivalry developed between me and my high school classmate, Kevin Sullivan, a.k.a. “The Captain.” A pilot for ABX Air, Kevin once won, by my count, 17 consecutive games in our pitched battles, at which point I found myself deep in the throes of “madness in an unpadded cell,” as the famed tennis commentator Bud Collins described the game of squash. After Kevin recounted the night his 727 suddenly lost air pressure in the dark skies over America, with red lights flashing and sirens blaring in the cockpit and a trainee in the captain’s seat beside him, I knew there was no rattling him. Nothing seems to disrupt his internal guidance system except jet lag. When he returned from Southeast Asia following 10 days of overnight deliveries between Japan, China, and Thailand, I won three straight games. After the third game, he went for a walk outside to cool off (and possibly to figure out what day it was).

“Hmmm,” mused Baskin. “It’s not like The Captain to leave the cockpit.”

Dan Brady just showed up one day, unannounced, looking like a character out of a Steinbeck novel. He could have passed for a drifter in his dirty work clothes with a slimy gray leather duffel bag slung over his shoulder, except he had his own transportation (a rusted-out pickup), a cell phone (with the Andy Griffith Show theme for a ringtone), and a cheap starter racquet (off the wall at Dick’s Sporting Goods).

The rest of us complain about Brady’s unorthodox playing style, as if there’s something unfair about juggling your racquet from one hand to the other during rallies, diving across the floor on your belly, and attempting outrageous low-percentage drop shots from the back court that leave us flat-footed and flabbergasted. “Dan could play just as well with a tea strainer as a racquet,” cracks Baskin.

Dan also could have written the Crowood chapter on the “admirable crime” of deception. The acceptable maneuver of “masking”—positioning your body so that your opponent is unable to see you hit the ball—comes as naturally to Brady as hustling to a pool room shark. So, too, does standing on his shots, or lingering in front of the ball, which is not acceptable.

We all struggle with interference and what squash players refer to as “crowding.” Bob Lambcke, who moonlighted for many years in the Dayton leagues, once hit my crazy bone so hard on a follow-through that my hand quivered like a man who had forgotten to take his daily blood pressure meds. Another time, Baskin caught Brady across the forehead with his racquet, opening a gash that required stitches. There were several contentious months when Dan and I could have used the services of a U.S. Squash club-level certified referee. Our re-enactments were futile. I would pull him close to me—“You were here!” He would step away—“No, I was HERE and you were THERE!”

The rules are no help. Baskin likens the World Squash Federation’s rules of engagement to the Chicago Manual of Style’s editorial guidelines: equivocal and exasperating. We’re probably all better served settling our grievances like Lambcke, who taps your tush with his racquet and politely asks to replay the point. The next time you stand in front of him, though, you just might get your drawers smoked.

We endure less-than-ideal playing conditions. To begin with, there’s the enervating Ohio Valley summer heat and humidity, trapped inside the un-air-conditioned courts. I wipe down my car with faded T-shirts soured by sweat. I mow the lawn in old court shoes that carry the faintly malodorous scent of ammonia.

The overhead lighting is bad, too. Blindingly bad. High-wattage bulbs glow through clear glass covers, so looking up at a ball hit high off the front wall is like staring directly into the sun. It’s the floors, though, that really get us worked up. They’re coated with white paint,  a surface now worn and dust-covered, slick as black ice in spots. Sometimes we look like clay court tennis players sliding to our shots.

Small, wispy clumps of dirt and hair and lint collected in the corners after the push-broom we borrowed from the Y disappeared from its resting place against the double doors at the end of the hallway. Once, when I referred to these as “dust bunnies,” Baskin objected. He has an aversion to certain expressions, even if they can be found in his New Oxford American Dictionary. “Dust bunny,” he insisted, “is perfectly respectable, but only when used by folks who are also comfortable with preggers, chortle, veggies, hubby, and eatery. Perhaps having steeped yourself in the manners and mores of that elevated status of Eastern blue-bloods who carry on the game, could you have inadvertently slipped over into their language?”

Of course. I should choose my words, like my shots, more carefully. But to his point: Our courts are not the Harvard Club of Boston or the Field Club of Greenwich, where a dust bunny, were one to be found lurking in the corner, presumably is taken care of by staff. The wall-bangers of the Clinton County Y—all six of us—are not so privileged. John and I have gotten down on our hands and knees, like deckhands on a ship, scrubbing the grime off the courts.

We don’t expect our conditions to  improve, given what has been an increasingly tenuous relationship between the Y and the college. The most recent negotiations over their facilities-sharing agreement left us feeling anxious. An alarm was installed, and doors locked, in the corridor between the buildings. There are restrictions on our court time. Could an  eviction notice be next?

Time is running out, in more ways than one. Brady is hobbled by bunions as big as golf balls on both feet. Lambcke is deeply tanned, rested, and retired, but drags around a bad hip and knee after standing on a factory floor for 38 years. Baskin is sitting out on a recumbent bike, reading Lee Child paperbacks, after getting therapy on his elbow and back. This past year I bookmarked mayoclinic.com, acquired a cardiologist and sleep doctor, and blew through my deductible before March Madness.

It’s probably time for all of us to start taking leisurely constitutionals around the neighborhood. Our average age is pushing 60, and would be even higher had John not persuaded Vance Hummelgard, a 41-year-old self-employed laborer, to give the game a try.

Others have joined us for a time. Andy, a young state trooper, was just beginning to pick up the game (and his lead feet) when he was re-assigned to Cincinnati to patrol the interstate highways on a motorcycle—an assignment that would be only slightly more hazardous, we predicted, than the narrow right-of-way on our courts. We cleaned up our language whenever the former president of Wilmington College stopped by with his racquet and good manners. “You dick!” didn’t seem to be the appropriate response to his winning shots. Eddie, an old-timer, wore embarrassingly short shorts and polo shirts with turned-up collars. Vance, though, may be the last best hope for survival of the species out here “past the corn,” as a Wilmington College student describes the hour’s drive north from Cincinnati.

We won’t admit it, of course, but we welcome novices if for no other reason than, to put it crudely, they’re fresh meat. Hummelgard, however, was a surprise, a reminder that the idiomatic expression “Be careful what you wish for” is not just a cliché. We didn’t expect him to stay with us. Who wants to hang out with geezer ex-jocks commiserating over their tendonitis, hypertension, insomnia, arthritis, herniated discs, and in my case, all of the above? We certainly didn’t expect him to be nearly unbeatable after just a few months on the court, even if he is still young enough to wear cargo shorts. He shut me out—using a racquet with a broken handle—24 hours after running the Flying Pig Marathon.

Baskin has been an interested observer in the increasingly one-sided competition between Hummelgard and me. John sits on a folding chair in the doorway. The heavy wooden door to each court was removed so that we could watch each other play after the college closed the second-floor observation deck. In the midst of one mauling, I turned to my good friend and joked, “Look away. I don’t want you see me like this.” To which he replied, “Maybe we should start calling him ‘Humble’gard.”

Maybe. I’m not ready, though, to delete my recurring appointment. Not yet. “Your last shot is history,” says Crowood, “so concentrate on the next.”

Originally published in the December 2013 issue

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