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Monday, December 29, 2003
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GRECO-ROMAN SCHOOL SPORT MEMORIES: I started elementary school right about the time when the technical rivalry between the US and the Soviet Union was reaching fever pitch. By 1958, Krushchev had the H-bomb and had put the first satellite in orbit. Schools throughout the nation responded by dropping most of their “classical” curriculum and substituting massive doses of math and science. If the western world was to remain free, it needed an army of technocrats. By contrast, before the Cold War had heated up, elementary and high school teachers sought to produce literate and historically aware citizens. There was much more emphasis on ancient literature and history, especially that from the Roman Empire and Classical Greece. By the mid 60s, you could graduate from high school knowing almost nothing about Socraties and the Illiad and the great Emperors (but you knew what a differential equation was and how nuclear fission worked).

Still, one remnant of classical schooling remained — in gym class. As with the Greeks and Romans, it was seen to be important to develop the bodies and character of youth through physical activity, especially for the boys (sexism intended – this was the mid 60s, remember). One of the great character-building games from those days was called “Bombardment“. It was a rather easy game to manage for the phys. ed. instructor, and thus was quite popular. You simply divided the boys up into two groups, told one group to stand on one side of the gymnasium, put the other on the opposite end, handed out some volleyballs, and told the kids to start throwing the balls at each other. Well, not quite as a free-for-all; you had to throw the ball at the opposite team. If you hit someone, they left the game. If a kid on the other team caught your throw, you were out. The objective was to see who would be the last kid standing. Shades of the Roman Gladiators.

Third or fourth graders really couldn’t do too much harm to each other that way, but by seventh and eighth grade those balls would zoom across the gym and could really pack a wallop. Weak kids like me usually stayed way in the back and let the bigger, more aggressive kids have all the fun. Unfortunately, such a strategy would just about always come back to haunt us. After 10 minutes or so, most of the big guys were “out”, and you had no one to hide behind. Unfortunately, there were usually one or two kids with railgun arms left on the other side, and you were now their sole target. Just to make their victory complete, they were going to try to nail you with the fastest throws they could muster. As with the Romans, there was no surrender. You had to fight to the end, even though your own throws were futile (the guys on the other side would intentionally fail to catch your soft tosses so as not to be deprived of the glory of watching the ball bounce off your shoulder or maybe your head at high speed and ricochet off into the bleachers while you stagger from the blow).

I finally got smart and found ways to get out of the game early. Instead of cowering by the mats way in the back of the gym, I’d run up front and pretend to try to catch a high-speed missile, in reality just letting it slap the palm of my hand. Hey, good enough, I’m out – that’s the rules. Sometimes the true gladiator-types would razz me for doing this, but hey, too bad. If you learn one thing from bombardment, it’s that it’s all about survival. Standing on the sidelines watching the remainder of the game was a rather pleasant means of survival for me.

I suppose that they don’t play bombardment anymore in school gym class; I’m sure there were some lawsuits about it. Kids these days can still develop their aggressive spirit in other ways, e.g. by playing video games, or by studying politics and business. But for us more pacific types, perhaps bombardment afforded a valuable lesson in how to survive in a world such as the Romans knew and that America inherited, i.e. a world of nominal concern for rules and laws but ultimate fealty to fighting and aggression. Yes, looking back, maybe there was some value to such a crude sport after all (other than giving the phys ed coach a rest).

Oh, by the way, here’s an address for an article saved from the Washington Post about it. It reminds me that bombardment had an official name: dodge ball.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:03 pm      

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