By Nick Holman
From grade school through high school I’m the smallest boy in our class. Admittedly, there are only about 30 guys in the class, but still…..the smallest? In fact, until mid-way through high school there’s only one girl smaller than me, until I finally have what could be generously christened a growth spurt. I’m also slight, to the point of often being called scrawny. It’s an accurate description. I eventually graduate high school weighing a puny 117 pounds.
Being short and scrawny in a farm-town school system is NOT an asset. Iowa country boys are supposed to be big and brawny. Even city lads are expected to somehow acquire those attributes. No matter what I do, I’m not going to be big and brawny.
One of the other boys on The Farm casually mentioned that hanging by your arms could stretch you out a couple of inches. I tried…., he was wrong. To my credit, arduous work baling hay, milking cows and so forth, has put some muscle on me, but only to the point of being able to say I’m wiry – certainly not brawny.
Being the smallest boy leads to trials during recess on the playground. I’m an easy kid to like and get along with, but there are a few class bullies that just like to intimidate and get into fights. One of those is Jerrod. He seems to think his reputation, and certainly his ego, grows with each playground altercation, and many of those are with me. I seldom back down from a fight, but also seldom win. So, Jerrod specifically searches me out on the playground. This all came to a complete stop with one incident in fourth grade. Jerrod is again badgering me and has me in a corner of the playground trying to egg me into pushing my way around him.
And then Dave appears.
Dave is huge, by far the tallest, biggest and likely the fattest kid in our class, and perhaps the next couple of classes ahead of us too. He’s very mild mannered, never looking for trouble. Some of my classmates will call him fatso occasionally, but they never want to get in a fight with Dave. He’s just too large to take down.
So, anyway… Dave just suddenly appears over where I’m cornered. He approaches Jerrod from behind, places a large hand firmly on Jerrod’s shoulder, spins him around and stares steadily and firmly into his eyes. In a very calm, even tone he says “I don’t ever want to see you picking on Rich again. If you have the urge to pick on someone, come pick on me. And tell your friends that, too.”
From that day forward, all the way through high school, I’m never again picked on, hassled or badgered. The ironic thing is, at the time, I barely knew Dave, and don’t even say thank you. However, I have made it a point to personally thank him several times later at class reunions.
Epilogue: Dave passed away a few years back from a stroke and heart attack. I guess all the weight he’d been carrying around since childhood finally took its toll. I didn’t get to Iowa for the eulogy or funeral. However, I sent a note to a close friend of Dave’s, reiterating the above and asked her to relate this story to Dave’s friends and relatives in attendance. I wanted them to know he was, and always will be, my friend and protector.
I’ll be up-front and honest here. I’m not very good at sports. It’s not that I’m uncoordinated. In fact, just the opposite. I’m quite coordinated, or I think I am. But I have some issues that negate that trait. Nonetheless, I’m on a mission to find a high school sport in which to compete. Why? Let me explain.
There are always chores on The Farm, morning and evening. Cows need to be milked, cattle and hogs fed and watered, chickens fed, eggs collected, and all of the livestock continually need their pens cleaned out. That’s just the outside tasks. There’s also inside jobs: beds made, washing done, floors swept, meals prepared and so on. Generally, The Farm is no different than any other farm, but with one exception. To ensure there is fairness with distribution of work, each of us can only go out for one sport each school year. The reason for that rule is, if everyone stays after school for sports, there’s no one to do the chores. That’s not an issue with the girls, because no sports opportunities are available. Basketball is the only high school girls sport offered in Iowa, and La Porte City doesn’t have a girls’ team. Most of the time the one-sport limitation isn’t an issue for the guys. Because of our backgrounds, most of the us aren’t good enough to realistically compete in even one sport, let alone more than one. My brother, Lennie, might be the exception. He’s agile, athletic and talented enough to compete in several sports, choosing basketball.
But our lack of athletic prowess isn’t going to get in the way of avoiding chores. Hence, many of us find something in which to participate, though there’s no expectation of excelling. In fact, Lennie’s the only one from The Farm who’s ever lettered in a sport at school.
My sport is track. I’ve arrived at that selection through a process of elimination. I’m the smallest guy in my class, so football and basketball are quickly ruled out. My size is less of an issue with baseball, but La Porte City has a pretty good team and I’d be cut from the team.
Iowa high school sports participation is not a right. Trying out for the team is a right but being a member of the team is a privilege determined by the coach. Those not good enough to make either varsity or junior varsity are cut and sent home. That could present a problem for me, but track has come to my rescue.
Track offers several advantages for me. First, size doesn’t necessarily interfere with success. Second, there are many events in track in which I can potentially succeed. Big, heavy-set guys are good at shot put and not much else. Thinner, lithe-like individuals are better at running events, specifically long-distance running, and there are many running events like that. Third, and most important, a small school like La Porte City has a difficult time filling out the roster for a track team. They need me…, kind of. After the spring baseball roster is filled, there aren’t enough guys interested in track to flesh out the team. I’m not particularly interested in track either, but I won’t let that prevent me from avoiding evening chores. So, I sign up for the track team.
My initial fruitless labors in track are with longer distance running. I don’t particularly like running, but the coach believes someone with my slight body will make a good long-distance runner. And perhaps there’s a modicum of truth to that logic if I wasn’t a smoker. Anyone who has yielded to the urge of smoking knows how winded one gets when running, no matter how slight or lithe the body. The coach initially enlists me at the two-mile run. Wrong idea! I stop mid-way through to throw up.
Next, he gives me a shot at a mile. I’m not good at pacing myself, primarily because no one has ever explained the concept. I’ll lead for the first few hundred yards, getting a heady rush from being at the front of the pack. The euphoria is short lived when my legs and lungs give out, and the other runners knowingly pass on by. I slow to a speed approaching that of a casual walk and finish dead last by at least two hundred yards.
By this point the coach has surmised my small, lithe body has yielded to the temptation of smoking, and my lungs will never support a long-distance run. So, he tries me at the four-hundred-yard dash. I still don’t know why it’s called a dash. It isn’t for me. After 200 yards, my legs are on fire because my smoke-coated lungs aren’t providing sufficient oxygen for the sudden surge in demand. I at least complete the event, but not in a competitive sense.
However, my brother, Howard, has put me on to something – pole vaulting. He’s done it before and is respectable at it. I’m built kind of like him and come from the same gene stock, so I give it a try.
Okay…, so, the gift of pole vaulting isn’t in the genes. I’m terrible at it. I just don’t have whatever it takes to get up and over the bar. Some of the guys can high-jump higher than I can pole vault, and they aren’t particularly outstanding high jumpers. But, because of where the pole vault pit and ramp are located, up on a hill far from the oval track, it keeps me away from the eyes of the coach. So that’s where I’m staying in seclusion and safety. I know I’ll never be good at pole vaulting, but it allows me to remain part of the team, hang out with classmates, avoid evening chores during track season, and secure a grade of B in Phys Ed, helping my GPA. Mission accomplished.
Next Week: In 1919, at the time Nick Holman’s foster father attended school, there were still more than 10,000 country schoolhouses in the state of Iowa. Read about how that educational experience would impact his life and, ultimately, the foster children he helped raise in “His Heart’s in the Right Place.”