Taking after Mom and winning the lawn-chair toss

Taking after Mom and winning the lawn-chair toss

The teacher picked up a piece of chalk and printed "Happy Thanksgiving."

We were then told to make as many words as possible using only the letters on the blackboard.

It was a time-killing exercise meant to lighten the students' load as a long holiday weekend loomed, and it probably wouldn't have stayed with me all these years if I'd been in kindergarten.

Or the third grade.

But when you're 16 and a junior in high school, well, you'd imagine I'd have been pretty insulted by whole thing.

And you'd be wrong.

You see I like games, but I absolutely love winning.

Someone very smart once said, "As long as they're keeping score, the object is to win."

It might have been my mother, now that I think about it.

She was an Irish-Catholic FDR Democrat who had survived the Depression mainly out of spite, relying on a tenacious spirit equal parts spit and vinegar. Her favorites — the indomitable Scarlett O'Hara, the inspirational John L. Lewis and the lowly Cleveland Indians — were linked by a kindred attitude, one that said, "You might have me down, but I'm not licked yet."

Mom was a demon game player who was especially fond of bridge, a complicated card game that formed the spine of what little social life there was to be enjoyed in my hometown. Couples from the college took turns hosting the monthly get-togethers, and to most of them, I'd imagine those Friday nights were little more than a nice diversion, a chance to gossip and sip cocktails as the FM radio was tuned to the easy-listening station and a blue-gray haze drifted toward the ceiling.

This was not my mother's idea of fun.

What she wanted was a partner who would help her win, and anything less than that was a waste of her time.

I can't say this for sure because I wasn't seated at the card table, but I have a feeling she and Dad didn't always make the best bridge combo. Whereas my father would usually go along to get along and take losing in stride, Mom and defeat were like a vampire and sunlight.

Altogether antithetical.

As her three children grew older, though, I suspect she mellowed a bit; in fact I know she did.

And I think the main reason might have been seeing how her eldest child played games.

It's not that I was a sore loser, though I do seem to recall a game of musical chairs that didn't bathe me in glory when I stormed out of a friend's seventh birthday party.

And then there was the time in sixth grade when I may — or may not — have cheated just the least little bit in the school-wide spelling bee, but the room was buzzing with nuns and priests, so if they were OK with my second-chance answer, who could complain?

It's not like I won all the time.

That wouldn't have been possible.

Take my Little League/Pony League baseball career. I happened to play for teams that won only three championships in five years, so that illustrates my point.

Oh, wait.

It doesn't, does it?

That's a lot of not losing.

I suppose the same thing could be said for the four seasons I played slow-pitch softball with my high school friends when we came home for the summer. That was a fine team, and we won way more often than we lost, running up the score when we had the chance and having our way against guys much older than we were, including a few former teachers.

In all honesty, though, I ought to confess that for the key hits I may have contributed and my occasional defensive prowess, my legacy revolves around an incident that never fails to come up whenever two or more of us are gathered in one place.

We were playing an arch rival in their home park, and the place was pretty packed. Their fans were a mouthy bunch, but then again, with our long hair, obvious attitude and an average SAT score somewhere in the high 1300s, we weren't exactly shrinking violets.

Both teams had talent; we just knew we had more.

Anyway, I'm playing first base and the batter hits a pop fly that I know I can catch, so I begin back-pedaling, shading the sun's glare with my glove and tracking the ball's path as it drops from the sky. Just as I'm getting ready to settle under it, I trip over something and go sprawling across the foul line, the ball bouncing away harmlessly.

Jumping to my feet, I see an old man on all fours, gasping for air next to an overturned lawn chair. Now the sporting thing for me to do would be to pick up his chair, place it back in foul territory, shake his hand and return to my position, smiling.

This is not, of course, what happened.

What I did was pick up that lawn chair and throw it as far as I possibly could — a teammate told me that it came to rest between a pickup truck and a Harley in a parking lot some 80 feet away — swearing a blue streak and stomping around like Captain Ahab on the deck of the storm-lashed Pequod or Neil Young slashing killer guitar chords during "Like a Hurricane."

Ah, youth and those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer.

In the early '80s, a board game named Trivial Pursuit became a nationwide phenomenon, and as you might expect, I was not bad at it. Actually, when the family gathered for a bit of innocent fun, either my brother or I usually won.

It was a zero sum game.

Mutually assured destruction.

Eat or be eaten.

And that was fine, him and me, mano y mano, but when the idea of two-person teams was proposed so as to share the wealth — and the winning — I could see a bad moon on the rise.

One evening I was paired with my brother-in-law-to-be, and we were cruising along when the following question came up in the category of Sports and Leisure: "What NFL quarterback was nicknamed 'The Mad Bomber?'"

Now since he was not only a sports fan but a high school football coach in the bargain, I let him field it on his own.

But when he offered up Ken Stabler instead of Daryle Lamonica, family legend has it that I became so incensed I threw a bottle through the kitchen window. Let history record it didn't shatter the glass, merely banged off it and landed with a clink in the sink.

Am I proud of such outbursts?

Certainly not, but I'm not ashamed of them either.

As I've said, I like to play, but it's winning that I love.

And people who know me know this.

Several summers back, in the midst of a family reunion, we had the occasion to play a round of miniature golf as we vacationed on the Crystal Coast. It was a challenging layout with lots of obstacles, and in the end my wife's middle son emerged with the lowest score among the 10 of us, with mine only good enough for second place.

But when I walked over to congratulate him, he had a kind of sheepish grin on his face.

"You should tell him," his best friend said.

"Tell me what?" I asked.

"Well," he said, staring at his sneakers, "we played a round this afternoon."

"Here?" I asked, stunned. "Why would you do that?"

"Well, we just wanted to beat you," he said. "That's why."

I took that as a supreme compliment.

Trying to win is a good thing.

Which brings us back to my 11th-grade American history teacher, the one who wanted us to make words from the letters in "Happy Thanksgiving."

Would it surprise you to learn that I came up with 47 of them?

Or that I expected some sort of reward for my winning entry?

Of course not.

But he didn't even collect our papers, just sent us on our way with warm holiday wishes after consuming 40 minutes of my life I’d never get back.

I heard he left the profession soon after and went into another line of work, selling insurance, I believe it was.

That was probably a better fit.

He may not have been the most effective educator, but at least he left me with an entertaining story.

I wonder if he has a lawn chair.

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