Wednesday, May 2, 2007

The Baggataway

He looked down and around at the dead brown grass. The cold wind blew against John’s tall lean frame. The empty space looked like an empty meadow where the grass had been cut before the first snow. The breath John exhaled came out in a white mist.

John moved his head to the left and to the right. He could picture the old lacrosse goals on each end of this field.

From the looks of the field, no one had used this place for really anything. Maybe the local kids used it on the weekends as a football field or to play softball, he thought.

He looked again at both ends of the field. This was where they made a bald spot on the field and where a mud puddle would appear after a rain. John smiled. How many years had it been since the last combat between two teams running up and down this field, trying to project and fling a small hard rubber ball into their opponent’s goals. How many bones had been broken, how many knees and elbows were made bloody by a dive to secure or throw a small hard rubber object into the clutches of a friendly player’s possession or out of the reach of a foe wanting this object at any cost.

John could still imagine the weight of the seasoned oak stick in the grasp of his left hand. He could toss the ball over sixty feet with one swift motion of his hand. Yet his players could only manage a control pitch of twenty feet. At times when luck was with them, they could achieve a pitch and catch of thirty-five feet.

A smile appeared on John’s face. He was someone who had seen manhood emerge in a simple youth to become a real man in the world. John looked toward the building where he had had his office and where the players had dressed before each game.

John wondered where the man was who had written him to visit this place one more time. He was intrigued by the man’s letter, which was simple and to the point. The man had requested his presence on this date of Dec 7. This letter had informed him that he would receive an item, which would be most precious to him, and he would cherish it every day of his life. John could not understand the momentous importance of this date. All he could remember was that he had spent one year of his life here at this Ivy League prep school. Now, it had been taken over by a local church for the instruction of inner city kids who were bused in to attend a highly intensive instruction in science and mathematics. World War II had ended the sport of lacrosse for the duration of the war and the sport had never really come back as far as he knew. He moved that spring to Canada to teach Chemistry in Montreal, and coached track and field on the side to earn a little extra money. The following summer, he found a coaching position at Ashland College where he stayed until a year ago when he retired. He cherished the fall and the spring on the Ashland campus. It was a beautiful region with their rolling hills and numerous trees and flower gardens. There was something poetic about the leaves falling off the trees, the disappearance of the greenery in the fall on the campus and the rebirth of the flowers and the trees forming their leaves again in the spring. There were times during these two seasons he would just walk the campus to feel the change that was occurring.

Wet cold weather was starting to penetrate his heavy brown coat. He had heard on the radio that there was a high probability of snow flurries. He turned and started to move toward the car, when he heard a cry in the distance.

“Sir!” There was a short pause from the voice he heard in the distance. John turned around and saw a short man moving quickly toward him.

“Please wait!” came another cry from the man.

“I’m so glad you came. I wasn’t sure what time I told you to be here.” The young man’s voice said in a softer voice.

“I’ve just come from practice.” The man said trying to grasp a breath between each word. John stood motionless. He could not understand what this young person wanted from him or what he could give that he would cherish. John could see that the face of the person he was speaking to have been brutally hit on more than one occasion. The boy’s nose had obviously been broken, possibly several times. There was a long scar just above his left eyebrow, and a longer scar on the boy’s right lower jaw. John thought fast about what kind of practice this young man was talking about. Perhaps, he had been playing ice hockey for one of the local schools around here. John remembered the Harvard prep school down the road about a mile. The school was still running at full blast. Money does that. John had seen this at Ashland.

The young boy just stood there in front of him. John was still trying to gain his composure. John looked at this boy. He was barely over five foot tall. His body was stocky. From the look of his thick muscled neck, John could assume the boy’s body was solid and had no fat. The thought entered his mind that this kid could be a varsity lineman for one of the prep school football teams in the area.

Still examining this youth, John suddenly became irritated. Why had he come over two hundred miles to this strange place, where he had not been for over four decades. Granted, his time was abundant since his retirement, but this was his time and especially his money he had spent on gas for the trip.

“I’ve got to go now! I’m getting cold! It’s starting to snow.” John spoke rudely directly leaning into the boy’s face.

“Hey! Wait! Please!” The boy pleaded. John could see the boy’s large brown eyes. They seemed to beg for him to stay. This did not change John’s mindset. He was tired from the journey in his old car and he could start to feel the cold wind penetrate his old wool coat. He would probably catch his death of cold and have to spend money on a doctor’s visit if he came down with one. On his limited income he didn’t need this or the aggravation that this young boy was giving him.

“I know you don’t know me!” The youth exclaimed while John turned and started to walk away from this meeting.

“You knew my father!” The boy exclaimed louder. John stopped, and wondered who his father could have been. He had been caught off guard. He was cold, tired, frustrated, and now hungry. He should have stopped at one of the fast food places along the road. It was too late now to do anything about his growling stomach.

John immediately took four steps forward. This placed him inches away and squarely in front of the stocky youth. John looked at the boy.

Both individuals were motionless and speechless. The boy looked directly into John’s face. John looked at this boy who had aroused his curiosity and wondered what connection he had with him.

Who in the hell could he be a descendant of? He had never coached football. This was the only connection this boy could have with him. John thought to himself while he silently examined the person in front of him. He had seen thousands of faces and bodies like this during his coaching career. Anyone could have been this boy’s father. The only players with scars were the lacrosse players he had coached here years ago. After the first month of play they seemed to be immersed in the game. The only purpose in their existence was to play this crazy torturous game. Not injury, the length of the game nor the intensity mattered to these young players.

John noticed the boy was slowly moving his right hand from the heavy coat he was wearing. John took a step back. A range of thoughts ran through his mind. Did the kid have a weapon? What was going to happen next?

John fixed his eyes on the boy’s right side while he took another step backwards. He had not expected these events.

The boy’s hand emerged from his pocket with his right palm open flat. John could see he held a colored necklace. Intrigued, he took a step forward. John could see the necklace better now. The necklace was woven with crudely shaped alternating black and red beads.

Instantly, he recognized and remembered the time, the place and whom he had given the crude Indian necklace to. He had personally made each necklace from some beads he had bought at an art shop in a nearby town. He had made these necklaces for his lacrosse team that had played on this field where he and this boy now stood. John had never seen such an odd ball group of boys wanting to play the game of lacrosse. All were seniors except one. They were so awkward, thin, and out of shape. The boy interrupted his thoughts.

“You gave this to my father years ago. He gave it to me last year just before he died. He asked me to give it to you.” The boy spoke boldly.

“He told me the story that you told the team. He said, you told the team at least once a week when I visited him at the nursing home. He wore the necklace all the time.” The boy stopped speaking.

John looked directly into the boy’s eyes. He could see his eyes begin to water. Doing this was important to this boy. John stood motionless in front him. He knew this was the boy’s duty to his father and had to be accomplished.

“He was the tenth man on your team. He told me, you only used him when you had no choice.” The boy stopped speaking again and bowed his head indicating he was ashamed that his father had been only a substitute player. Raising his head, the boy started to speak again. “He was built like me - short and stocky. But he was heavier than I am. You probably would called him a “fat boy” back then. I’m all muscle.” There was another pause from the boy standing in front of him. John could see the pride being re-established in the boy’s face and his whole posture change when he spoke his last sentence.

John stared in amazement at this youth. He was speechless.

“I’m like him. I play Baggataway. The other players I play with make fun of me, when I tell them the story you would tell the players and my father; of how the medicine man would take the young warriors down to the river to hold the ritual before the game of Baggataway with a neighboring tribe. This was one way a young man could prove himself as a man and a proud warrior of their tribe. I told them an Iroquois warrior would play Baggataway for days on end. The field of play could be over several acres of forest, not a field of a 110 yards by 60 yards. A ball was made of deerskin and a heavy stick made of a sturdy maple or oak limb with a narrow fork at the end of the stick. The cup was covered with strands of hardened deerskin to catch the ball. There was no formed cup to rest the ball like we use today. The warrior wore only his loincloth. He had no protective gear to protect his body from the blows of his opponents.” The boy paused breathing deeply, reliving the intense tension his mind and body possessed. John still stood in silence. He was astonished at the boy’s approach to the game. He had the same emotion as the boys he had once instructed.

“My father wanted me to give you this.” The boy said. Both of their eyes looked at the strand of beads.

“He told me that you told the tale of the medicine man taking the tribe’s team before each game. To tell you the truth, everyone, even my father thought you had lost your mind. But after the third time, nearly everyone realized this was not an American game. The French had taken the game from the American Indians and some forgotten missionary put the label of lacrosse on the game. This was a warrior’s game to establish dominance over another tribe. Baggattaway was a game for the chosen few who could endure and rise to the cause of the team and not of individual desires. This game taught pride in one’s actions on or off the playing field. Only the true leader could withstand and rise above whatever he faced in his world.” The boy stopped speaking and each looked into each other’s eyes. John finally remembered the change in the individuals on his team. They had changed mentally, physically and developed a fire of desire in their spirit to perform beyond their physical capabilities. Before him, he saw the same fire he had created in those youth’s years ago.

“He told me about the match that was held on this day some forty years ago. You took the team down to the creek the evening at dusk before the last game. Over there.” The boy paused, pointing with his clutched fist over to the right. In the far distance they could both see where the little creek still flowed. They first thought it a little crazy when you dressed up in only a piece of loin skin around your waist. You told them the story, but you had a green and black necklace that you threw on the creek’s rocks shattering the strand of beads with the bottom of your bare foot. You claimed this was a sign that the team would crush their foe in the coming match. The team understood later the match that they would play next was not just another match. This was a spiritual and personal issue for each player to deal with themselves and as a team as a whole. Win or Lose. This game would affect them the rest of their lives.

You and the Harvard prep team thought your team members were crazy when they saw the players with their painted faces. My father told me that the team got together and decided to decorate their faces and arms like Huron Indians going to war. They figured that this might give them a slight advantage in the first quarter.

Remember, they yelled and screamed like idiots. At least this is what my father told me.” A smile appeared on John’s face. He could see and hear his players that day.

“It worked. We out scored them two to one the first quarter. They came back and by the second quarter the score was tied. In the second half, each team developed a desire to win at any cost. Players started to get hurt. At first there were only bruises. As the game went on the intensity increased, several players lost teeth and blood began to appear on every player.

My father claims, it was his team’s stubbornness not to accept defeat at the hands of their opponent. Pride has its place, he would always tell me.

Just before the end of the fourth quarter. Jerome, our goalie, was hit on the right forearm. The break was clean and another person had to take his place. The only person left was my father. The “fat boy”.

The Harvard prep team had at least ten more people to give their players a break, but we had only my father to relieve his teammates.”

The game ended in a tie. 8 to 8.

At the end something strange happen. The players would not leave the field. Each team wanted a decisive victory. Suddenly, my father screamed a loud war cry followed by the words “Victory!” “Let’s play Baggataway.” The rest of his teammates followed his chant. The Harvard team started to yell. “Let’s Play!” You and the other coach talked and decided to let the teams play until there was a Victor.” The young boy was quiet. John looked at this individual standing in front of him. There were no words he could say. The boy had said everything. John could not tell how many minutes had passed before the boy spoke again. From the tone of his voice, John could tell the boy was nearly finished.

“I wish that I could say that my father won, but they lost. Only by a goal, and only five goals were scored. Three for the other team and two for my father’s team. They played for two more hours. More blood was spilled and more teeth were lost. My father’s team left their mark on each member of the opposite team. My father swore no injury was inflicted on purpose but only in combat to score, to protect or secure the ball.”

When I was young, I would sit after dinner on Sunday and listen to him tell of his exploits in the military and his life. I guess you are wondering why I am so young. I’m eighteen. I go to Harvard in the fall to study medicine. My father finally married after Korea. After he died I went through his personal effects. I never saw so many medals.

Funny, he hated war. Especially the killing. After he married my mother, he started a small business to keep himself busy I think, to teach me about the business world. He would comment later on how he wished that I did not have to go to war and experience the Hell of killing another person.

After he opened the business, I was amazed at how people respected him and I guess feared him. He learned that from you that season.

“This was the way to live life. One must give everything to what you do no matter what the task; one must over come the obstacles life puts in front of you. There must be Honor; Duty and one must go beyond what you think you can do. I’m the only one to care about my grades or about my future on my team. The other guys, they like to drink and party. I know if I am to meet the task I must approach everything like the game of Baggattaway.” The boy stopped speaking. Both men stood facing each other. John knew now the individual was not a boy but a man among men even at his young age.

The young man broke the silence again.

“I am sorry. I have kept you too long in this cold weather. Here is the necklace. He wanted you to have it,” the young man said, lifting his hand upward extending his open palm with the exposed Indian necklace toward John.

“I can’t take it.” John replied.

“Yes. You can.” The young man said.

“No. It’s yours and the necklace is in your blood and life. You must keep it. I’m old and I’ll die within a couple of years.” John said, motioning a refusal by pushing the young man’s palm closed.

“No.” The young man said sternly.

“Why?” asked John.

“Before he died my father told me that I would find seven more necklaces in his safe-deposit box. Most came from the Pacific in the war.

I expect that I will get the rest when they died. They all kept track of each other. My father was the goalie. They all looked up to him after the match that day. They figured that the “fat boy” would lose the game for them in the last quarter of regulation time. He didn’t. He became a leader then.

After he finished telling me the tale one-day of that day when he was in the nursing home, he told me how he lost the game. Three of them ganged up on him. Two of the opponents ran full force into him sandwiching his body between their two bodies making him unable to move while the third opponent tossed the ball toward the goal. Yet, he would make the final comment to me. “That’s life. You do the best that you can and a little more.”

A year ago I met the forward on his team. He told me why my father missed blocking the ball by inches.

“No. This is yours.” The young man said, emphatically giving the necklace to John.

“All I can say is “Thanks”. No words or trophy can replace this necklace.” John replied.

“I am the one to give you the thanks. You have given my father and me the experience of the Baggataway.

Without speaking both individuals turned around in opposite directions.

John quickly cranked his old Ford station wagon, turning on the heater. His body was cold but not his soul. He stayed there in the station wagon looking at the deserted playing field watching the snow gently fall.

Written by Franklin P. Smith