When you’re writing your life story, don’t forget to put yourself into it. I’m not joking here. Too often people like to describe events that occurred during their lives, but they don’t explain how they felt about those incidents and how they shaped who they are. Revealing how you feel about things means writing about vulnerability, guilt, regret, and other kinds of human weaknesses. This is hard for some people, particularly older folks who were raised in an era of stoicism. And yet I’ve noticed in my classes that the student stories that receive the best response are those where writers are open and honest about their feelings.
The story below from Bob Stumph resonated with his classmates. We’ve all experienced the kind of embarrassment he describes here, but most of us are afraid to admit it, let alone write about it. When I commended Bob for his honesty, he said, “My goal is to let my children know the real me. All they’ve seen is my success, since I was already a college professor when they were born. They, as well as the grandchildren I might have someday, must know that my success did not come easily.”
Here’s his story…
He is an Athlete
“Okay, Tom and Doug, you are the team captains for today. Each one of you gets to choose your softball team. Doug, you choose first, and then Tom chooses. Alternate until each of you has nine players,” instructed Coach Flannigan while we were standing outside the gymnasium on a spring afternoon in 1950.
I listen for my name, but it never comes. There are two others besides me still standing.
“You must choose alternates until all are chosen,” the coach repeats.
Doug yells, “I get Bill.”
Tom says, “I get Raleigh.”
“Doug, you must choose the last boy, the coach says, nodding his head in my direction.
“I don’t want him,” he replies.
Tears stream from my eyes. I have gotten the message. I know I am not an athlete.
Unfortunately, this story repeated many times while I was in seventh grade at Fontana Junior High. I was like the 97-pound weakling featured in many cartoons at that time.
Later my family moved to Yucaipa for my ninth grade in school. The physical education teacher, Coach Murray, had sensitivity for students like me. He always had us take a number, then read off the team captains by pulling the numbers out of a hat. Then he had the team captains draw numbers until everyone was chosen. Finally, we each drew a ticket with our position on it. During my first game of softball, I drew the pitcher position.
I throw the ball as hard as I can. It hits the ground. “Ball one,” calls the umpire.
The coach comes over to me and shows me how to throw underhanded. I try again.
“Ball two,” calls the umpire.
The coach yells, “Throw it as hard as you can.”
I throw it, and it makes it to the batter. I hear the bat hit the ball. I made it!
I don’t see the ball coming and it smacks me in the mouth. The coach calls me to the sidelines and hurriedly looks at my teeth. I feel blood dripping down my face.
“Let me look at it,” he says nicely, putting his hands on my face. “It looks like the blood is from your nose. I think you will be okay, but why not rest for the remainder of the game. Better tell your parents to take you to a dentist.”
My front teeth are loose for a couple of weeks. My parents can’t afford a dentist but, fortunately, the gums heel.
The next game I find myself playing right field. This is good for me, since most batters are right-handed, and I seldom have a ball come my way. But it happens. A left-handed batter hits a ball right toward me. I run toward it, looking up. I feel my head crashing into someone else’s head. We are both knocked to the ground. It turns out the center fielder assumed I couldn’t catch it, so he ran over to my territory.
“Bob and John, you better take the rest of the period off,” says the coach, as we both walk off the baseball field.
I was not only bad at baseball; I couldn’t swim either. During high school, we were required to take a six-week course in swimming each year.
On the last day of swimming class we are all lined up beside the pool dressed in our swim trunks in the freezing cold. Coach Anderson announces, “Okay, now we will test all of you. As mentioned before, you must swim eight laps for an A grade, four laps for a B grade, two laps for a C grade, one lap for a D grade. Otherwise you will fail. All whose name begins with A through E line up now.” When the first group completes their test, the coach yells, “You may go to the dressing room when done.”
What a break. Almost everyone will be gone when my turn comes because my name begins with S. Few of my friends will see me fail. When my turn comes, there are only five of us left. The coach lines us up by the deep end of the pool. I quickly pick the spot closest to the shallow end. Darn, it’s still over my head. When I dive in, I do a real loud belly flop. Since the others are already halfway across the pool, no one except the coach hears it. I soon realize the others are already returning on their second lap, and I’m still not across. The good part is, none of the other students are counting my laps. Finally I make it. I pull myself up and tell the coach, this is all I can do. All of the other students are on their way to the dressing room. I can hear one student saying, “This was the easy A.”
When I looked at my grade report recently, I noticed I had earned a C+ grade. I remember my attendance was almost perfect. I believe that counted for a lot.
In 1962 while I was in the Army stationed at White Sands Missile Range, President Kennedy encouraged the whole nation to become physically fit. The Army decided to test everyone in many basic events. The hardest event was to run a mile in eight minutes or less. The entire 10 decathlon events were also included. Every weekend, we were to train for these events. On the day of the test, I came in last place on most events.
“The scores are posted,” yells one of my roommates from the hallway. We all run down to see how well we did. Actually, I don’t run, since I know I will be embarrassed.
“Stumpf, you got third place on the high jump. I don’t remember you doing that well,” says one of my roommates.
“Oh, er, ah, I didn’t realize I did that good,” I reply softly.
When everyone is finished checking their scores, I look at the bulletin board alone. None of my scores are correct. All of them are raised. Someone has forged my scores.
I wonder, do I go to the captain and confess that the scores are wrong? I decide to keep quiet, since confronting the captain is not recommended, especially since our platoon has won and the captained is to receive a trophy.
As I entered the work force, I avoided entering athletic events. I also never went to functions that included swimming. When my boys were born, I encouraged them to excel in music instead of athletics. I just knew I had bad athletic genes. However, I did put in a swimming pool, so they would have an opportunity to learn to swim and not be embarrassed.
In 1995 my life changed. My friend Fred Roth challenged me to join his biking group for the annual Coast Tour of California. The first year was difficult, but I successfully completed 370 miles in eight days, riding from Napa to Lompoc. During the years 1996 to 2000, I continued riding from San Francisco to such Southern California cities as Santa Barbara, Ventura, and Santa Monica. Then in 2001, I did a round trip to San Francisco in two weeks, a distance of 900 miles. I also did my first “Century Ride” (100 miles) from the Anaheim train station to the San Diego train station in less than nine hours. I was now considered a real cyclist by my peers. In 2002, I cycled the Washington coast, and in 2003 the Oregon coast. Then in 2004, I did the best trip of my cycling career, a 900-mile trip from Oregon to Santa Monica.
Two days after this trip, I had cataract surgery. During the surgery, I was semi-conscious, but heard the anesthesiologist ask the surgeon to stop the procedure because my blood pressure and heart rate were low. I will never forget her words, “Don’t worry, he is an athlete.”