Thursday, March 19, 2009

Lifelong Sport

Every year I vacation on Hilton Head Island with Pete's family, and every morning on the Island we take a tennis class with a bunch of retirees. I can't think of any group more fun than old people with health and money. This year my favorite was Jim.

Jim is in his early 80's. He pumps his arms at a 90 degree angle, as if running a great speed, while shuffling his feet with a good-natured smile. Jim's hearing aid was out of whack this week; often the entire class had to join forces in getting his attention. Jim would forget about a fly ball long before it hit the ground, inevitably two inches from his feet. When it did hit the ground, his entire body would jerk in shock. Then he'd toss his hand and walk away as if to say, "Ah, I've made it this far."

Yesterday we practiced signals. I played opposite of Dick and Lennie. Our instructor, Rem, was on my team.

"Make the signal, acknowledge the signal, serve the ball," Rem told our opponents. Lennie made the signal behind his back to Dick, who acknowledged the signal and wound up to serve. "Wait!" said Lennie, who turned around to ask Dick a question, while keeping his "fake" signal in tact. Rem and I shared smiles at this senile moment, pretending to be oblivious. It was all the same because Lennie didn't fake once the ball was served. (a) Lennie didn't know what the "fake" sign meant, (b) Lennie forgot to fake, (c) Lennie is very clever.

At the end of class Rem reviewed signals. "This is stay," said Rem, making a fist. "This is move." He opened his palm flat. "And this," he said, making devil horns out of his pointer and pinkie, "Is fake."

"What's this?" Asked Jim, pointing his middle finger to the sky with a grin.

I have always heard that tennis is a game for life, but until I mentioned the sentiment to Dick, I didn't quite grasp its totality. We were sitting on a bench, me watching and him waiting to rotate in.

"Oh yeah," Dick said. "My wife and I have several friends whose spouses died on the court." He chuckled a little.

"Seriously? On the court? How?"

"Heart attacks, that sort of thing. One hit a return and then just fell over right there. Right there in the middle of a match." Dick seemed to think this was nearly hysterical, his friend hitting a ball and dropping dead before its return.

I don't understand how I'll play the same game at 80 that takes the breath out of my 22 year old lungs, but I like the thought. I'll play it differently, of course. Right now I swing my racket every which way and run cross-court to return. The old people I played with this week mostly hit what comes in their direction, strategically. They also mostly beat me.

Dick and I were still laughing over his friend. "I hope he made the point!" I said, and Dick slapped his knee a little in response, which I found charming. On the court, Jim's first serve his the net. He drew another ball from his pocket and tossed it above his head, his racket back and ready.

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