BY DAVID GARDNER
In June of 1956, eight months after my father’s death, Mom moved the family – me, my little sister, and our cat – to Guadalajara, Mexico, where we would live for the next five years. During that time I attended Colegio Cervantes, a Catholic secondary school. There was a game played at school called espirobol, which quickly became my favorite recess activity. It’s still played at Mexican schools today.
Here’s how I remember it: The large blacktop playground had half a dozen basketball courts and perhaps a dozen poles for espirobol, literally, “spiralball,” the tetherball-like game I had seen when Mom and I came to register me for school. I was fascinated by espirobol. It resembles tetherball, but only because there is a ball at the end of a rope attached to the top of a pole. The pole is shorter than in tetherball, and the ball larger and pear-shaped with the smaller end affixed to the rope, which was never more more than six or seven feet long. The ball was also much softer than a tetherball because it was meant to be hit hard with fist or forearm. As in tetherball, the winner is the first person to wrap the rope completely around the pole.
While it’s true that tetherball can be a fast game, it’s not played with the kind of intensity and lightning speed that characterizes espirobol. The ball, constantly in motion, is never caught and held. Your opponent slams the ball. It comes at you fast. You, in turn, slam it back as hard as you can.Most boys (at least, the right-handed ones) play from the right side of the circle. This allows them to hit the ball with more power, their forearm coming from over their head in much the same motion a cricket bowler uses. If your opponent is good, he anticipates your return and is ready to blast it back before it can make even one turn around the pole. And because the rope is short, the ball is moving very fast.
If you’re good, you do the same. If you’re both good, you establish a rhythm that picks up in tempo as the game progresses, neither of you allowing even one revolution around the pole, and each of you hitting the ball harder and harder. Eventually (and rarely does a game last more than a minute or two), one of you emerges the winner, ready to take on the next person. Some kids were good enough to occasionally take on, and beat, all comers during a recess.
My first try at the game came a week after I’d started at Cervantes. I was new and spoke no Spanish, so I spent most recesses hanging around the edge of the knot of boys watching one of the espirobol games or waiting in line to play. I wanted to play but didn’t have the nerve to get in line.
Then one recess a boy named Jaime motioned me in to play, ahead of other boys in line. Curious to see how the gringo would do, no one objected. I was the challenger, so Jaime took the preferred position on the right. The boy next in line to play took the espirobol, held it briefly, then dropped it softly against the pole. Immediately, Jaime launched his attack, punching it hard and sending it sailing over my head. My arm punched air as my awkward leap to hit the ball was badly mistimed.
As it came around, Jaime hit it again, sending it flying around the pole even faster. Before I could react it was entirely wrapped around the pole and slowly unwinding. He had won touching the ball only twice. I was eliminated in less than 10 seconds and without ever touching the ball. I felt really stupid.
Then some of the kids smiled and slapped me on the back. Even though I didn’t know what they were saying, their words sounded encouraging. All of a sudden I felt good, like I’d passed a test or met a challenge. I knew that I’d be in line regularly from now on to play espirobol even though it meant going back into the classroom with my arm red and shaking so hard I couldn’t write. But I was no longer the gringo outsider; I was just the gringo.
David Gardner lived five years in Mexico as a teen, attending a Mexican school. He’s writing a memoir, “Double Exposure: Coming of Age in Two Cultures.” He lives in West Seattle.
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