Can I Sit with You?

May 19, 2008, 6:26 pm
Filed under: athletics | Tags: , , , , ,

Charles Ries

Age 14 at the time

I was a mediocre basketball player in grade school. If it weren’t for the fact that I reached my current height of 5’11” at 14, I would never have played at all. After my first season of seventh grade basketball and, despite my failings at baseball, I was determined to remake myself into a great athlete. I shot hoops all summer. I ran laps around the mink yard. I lifted the weights Jim used to prepare himself for high school football. When my farm chores ended, my training regimen began. As always, I was tireless in my pursuit of perfection.

But despite long hours spent in athletic self-improvement, I seemed to get no better. I didn’t get a lot of help from my parents. Sport camps were out of the question. I didn’t know there were such things, and even if I did, I would have had to overcome my parents’ long-standing self-improvement philosophy, which said, “If you’re not good at something, you weren’t meant to do it.” They believed that real basketball players just hopped out of the womb hitting jump shots. So the chances of my getting them to spend money for someone to teach me how to play a sport were pretty slim. When it came to athletics, I was on my own.
I don’t know many farm kids who have gone on to become great athletes. Those who do most often do it in the brawn-over-brain sports of football, wrestling, pig throwing, or cow pie tossing. Those big-hearted, thick-headed plow jockeys make great linemen, but when it comes to finesse sports like basketball, golf, tennis, or soccer, forget it. That’s not to say a farm kid couldn’t become a great golfer, but who has time to practice? Most farmers believed as my father did—that chores and schoolwork came first. Athletics were for city kids who had nothing to do. However, practice time notwithstanding, I just didn’t come into this world with natural athletic grace and nerves of steel. And to top it all off, I suffered from a chronically busy mind.

My city friends didn’t seem to have this problem. They didn’t worry about good versus evil or why God made them or how to serve the Lord in this world. They didn’t spend time wondering whether they’d just committed a venial sin or not. They just lived and shot buckets, read Mad magazine, farted, and enjoyed life. So even if my physical attributes had been better developed, I was not psychologically designed for the pressure of competitive sports. As I stood on the free throw line with ten seconds left to play, the crowd screaming and the score tied 34 to 34, my veins did not pump ice water, nor was my mind a tranquil sea. On the contrary, my mind told me to flee and run for cover. It told me I was a pretender and would fail. On cue, I would choke and crumble under the pressure. My hands would tremble, and my mind would become a symphony of self-doubt. But, as I said, I was tall and I played. It didn’t matter to me that I never scored. I enjoyed playing with my friends. It got me off the farm.

As a team, we were good. Not because we had the best players in our league, but because we had the oldest. Most of the guys on my team were the same academic underachievers who welcomed me in first grade. Some of us had already begun to grow facial hair. We had a steely competitive edge that most of our adversaries lacked. We were, after all, almost men.

Most of our games were played in Sheboygan against other local Catholic grade school teams. My mother or father would usually drop me off at these games, and I would find a ride home with one of my buddies’ parents or just walk the three or four miles back to our farm. Out-of-town games demanded carpooling, however. For each of these games, there were always a few fathers who would volunteer to drive. I remember these road trips fondly—the roughhousing in the car, stopping for a hamburger and shake, and generally having a great time bonding with my fellow teammates.

Throughout my limited athletic career, I don’t recall my father ever coming to a game or offering to drive as part of the car pool. He was usually too busy with farm or church work. I didn’t find his absence odd. For the most part, I was coming to believe that my father didn’t really exist. So I was shocked the day he volunteered to drive a bunch of my teammates to a game twenty miles from Sheboygan in Plymouth.
Being a perennial optimist, I thought this was a wonderful gesture and a great opportunity for me to show my buddies that my father wasn’t the dull Holy Roller they all thought him to be, but actually fun-loving guy. Of course, I had no actual proof of this, but I still carried a glimmer of hope that given the right opportunity, his mischievous inner child would shine through, and the entire world would see that my father was not just a Type-A workaholic, but one hell of a lot of fun. He just needed a chance to prove it.

When we pulled up onto the asphalt playground that was next to the grade school, I was in high spirits. It was mid-afternoon on a Sunday in early January. The other two dads had already arrived and were seated in their cars with four of my eleven teammates in each. The remaining three hopped into the backseat of our car, and in no time we were off to Plymouth. We were optimistic about our chances of winning the game that day since we were going to be playing against a bunch of farm boys. It never occurred to me, as I joined in the taunts and laughs about the other team, that I too was just a farm boy. Maybe I thought mink farmers were a breed apart. We put fur on the backs of the fashion elite, not just chunks of cheddar cheese on the table.

The usual jousting, kidding, and punching started as soon as everyone was in the car. In a preteen reflex action, I turned the radio dial to WOKY, the local rock ’n roll and away from my father’s preferred polka show. A sense of foreboding flooded over me when a few miles into our journey, my father turned the radio off. And then he did the unthinkable. He asked the assembled group, “Who’d like to say the rosary?”
Of course, no one answered. Not even Steve Mauer who later did a short stint in the seminary. I mean, say the rosary on the way to a basketball game?! What planet was he from?! My father took our stunned silence as a vote of confidence and said, “Okay, men. Use your fingers to keep count of the Hail Marys and Holy Marys and I’ll do the rest.”
I could feel three sets of eyes begin to burn holes in me from the backseat. My embarrassment made me break out into a sweat as the rosary began. Radio silence. Sitting still. Counting with our fingers while making our way to the basketball game.

I was mortified and humiliated. This was the last straw. I would disown him. How could he do this to me? I thought. This can’t be my real father. He can’t be anyone’s father; I contemplated between Hail Marys and Holy Marys. Please make this man disappear. Send me my real father. Oh God, if You truly exist, please save me! But it was to no avail. Once again, God had chosen to ignore my prayer for help—a pattern I was beginning to have serious theological suspicions about. The rosary went on for the next fifteen minutes and ended mercifully when we arrived at St. Joseph’s gym in Plymouth.

My friends could not get out of the car fast enough. In fact the car had not come to a complete stop when the mass exodus began. They left me sitting alone next to my father, the rear car doors wide open and a winter breeze blowing through the wind tunnel created by their rapid departure. My father placed his rosary back in its leather carrying pouch and said, “So there. That was good. Now let’s get going.”

Good? Yes, I guess the rosary was good for my father, but for me, on this day of days, it was just another thorn in my crown. I was defeated. I would never rise from the dead. But what could I do? I was convicted as charged of being Carl Ries’s son. I accompanied his holiness into the gym and our scheduled game against the St. Joe’s Panthers. I sucked it up. I focused on the game and tried to take my frustrations out on the team we called the Cheese Puffs.

We played valiantly. We should have won. We always did. Yet despite the blessings and angelic rewards our rosary should have showered upon us, we were barely beaten by a bunch of guys who knew more about milking cows than handling basketballs. Maybe all those Blessed is the Fruit of Thy Womb, Jesus’s and Glory Be to the Fathers had thrown our concentration off, softened our aggressive competitive edge. Whatever it was, we lost, and the Blessed Virgin Mary didn’t come to our rescue.

After the game was over, we put our heavy jackets, gloves, and galoshes back on and headed out the door to the cars that would take us home. However, unlike the excitement that marked our departure, there was now a sense of foreboding. The teammates who’d flown into my father’s car before heading to Plymouth were now avoiding it. It had become infected with sanctifying grace. They were not about to re-enter my father’s car or the church on wheels as it came to be known. Instead they packed themselves shoulder to shoulder in the other two cars. They didn’t seem to care about bodily injury or lack of oxygen. They just wanted to be free to sing and yell and talk about the game. As for me, my fate was sealed. I crawled into the front seat of my father’s car and we commenced the long silent ride home.

As I look back on that day, I marvel at how oblivious my father was to the world around him. He didn’t notice feelings or the looks in people’s faces. Unless his wife or children hit him over the head with a two-by-four-sized emotional crisis, he floated in a perfectly ordered world of work and routines. It didn’t bother him that no one wanted to ride home with us that day. Nor did he sense my utter disappointment and embarrassment. He had no clue what had just taken place, and he didn’t care. He just opened his little leather rosary case and we began another round for the salvation of saints and the forgiveness of sinners.


Leave a Comment so far
Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: