No one knew the insides of the West Stands of Stagg Field as well as he did. There he was at home like the storied Hunchback beneath the flying buttresses of Notre Dame de Paris. No one, unless it was Roy the truckdriver for Buildings and Grounds who came and went in the course of the year, transporting boards and benches, instruments and music stands, radiators, junk for storage: he was slightly hunched over, come to think of it, and a coca-cola addict, also wore an obliging rather daffy smile, too. He was usually gone, though, when the Student was prowling.
The Student's regular beat was between the West Stands and Stagg Field, the time, about four-thirty of a glowering fall afternoon, when all was grey and now darkening and perhaps a lonely track man was out running the half-mile around in the gloom. Often, a drizzle, freezing, put a dull glistening upon the scene
. The towers reared stocky at the Ellis Street corners, Bartlett Gym loomed up opposite. An empty stadium felt spooky, dreary, more than sad, tragic --- because of the pretensions of athletes, to exceed themselves, stretching and banging their bodies, and of the spectators, to throw themselves into an activity that was well beyond their reach, to grow young and strong, to be a mensch. Then they would all go away and the immobile stone would command the atmosphere once more. One thing he liked to have happen: a snowfall, so that he could walk across in the white against the grey to the dim lights of the Fieldhouse, leaving his footprints trailing far behind, inducing an instant exquisite nostalgia.
His usual destination was the swimming pool, but in his season he quit the swimmers for awhile to go out for track. Red McElroy was a distance runner, and, as you might expect, like Hugh Cannon and the discus, he was pleased to work out with somebody. He was an Aristotelian, a Beta, the intellectual fraternity, mentioned by students from other fraternities as if it were the castle of the Marquis de Sade at La Coste. So they ran together. I am slow, said the student, which was fairly obvious, but I have good wind; all the better, said Red. What's the longest race? The Three-mile. I can try. Off they went at what seemed to the Student an incredibly rapid pace to maintain for three miles. You have to run it on your toes, said Red, who himself was a miler. So he tried that too. It didn't help much. But he had a long leaping stride and did have the lungs that he promised, and did complete the three miles the first time out, much to the surprise and the pleasure of Red and Coach Ned Merriam, who by now had ventured upon the scene. He had an early twinge of regret and wondered whether he would rather expire on the turf of Stagg Field or under water while swimming. He showered and staggered out into the night. He came again and repeated the performance, and again and again; there was some feeling about a certain limited circle that the University had found a long distance runner, but then suddenly he learned what arches were, for they collapsed, leaving him hobbling in pain. The Coach expressed concern, suggested hot water baths and salts. Days went by and with the passage of the pain there passed the ambitions of a long-distance runner. He would take to the water again.
Coach MacGillavray welcomed him back to the team room, heard the track team story, chuckled out of 350 pounds of blubber, and gave him his locker. Relaxingly he stripped down, showered, walked up the several steps onto poolside, looked about, and plunged in, it felt fine. I think that I shall not try to compete in swimming, he said, but will stick to water polo. That was alright with Mac. His swimming teams were not tops in the Big Ten but his Water Polo Team was.
Hence it was back to the team room and its vacuous yak. If there were some evidence of the presence in the neighborhood of the World's Greatest University, it was drowned in the sizzling showers, farting toilet stalls and hearty ho-ho-ho's of the denizens. Most of the guys were congenial, but the locker room brought out inferior qualities. The best that might happen was silence, healthy exhaustion, the good hot stinging shower, the cold rinse, the fresh-smelling towels, the quiet dressing, and "So long, fellows." The worse would be suffering the blustering loud haranguing of Joe Baer, his beaked face and harried lustrous brown eyes pleading for recognition of his goyim half, and/or the truly confident and deadly dumb pronunciamentos of Nye McLaury, like "Just remember, she sits and shits just like everybody else," this to a swimmer regretting a failure at love. The occasional intelligent remarks coming from gentleman Bob Bethke, Chuck Percy serious and proper, Johnny Van de Water mucho simpatico, and even Phil Schnering, sitting there looking like an Olmec idol, eased the effect of the crashing bores. But really, he could and did like most of his teammates and they played well together, Cecil Bothwell, daring for such a sweet fellow, the two big lug Anderson brothers, steady and enduring, and Goalie Ferguson peering nearsightedly through the wild spray as if searching the stacks for a book. There's just something about a locker room... Perhaps it should be co-ed.
Whatever else happened with them, Chicago teams did not exemplify the training horrors that could be pictured elsewhere, nor were they even bound to Alonzo Stagg's firm discipline of yore. If you wanted to swim ten laps, you could -- fifty? sure thing. You could have yourself timed for whatever race you thought might suit you. Mac or one of the team would hold the stop watch on you. If you came within seconds of the average competition time, you could push your training harder, ask for more advice from Mac, try your time again and again. With the records of your competitors often known from previous races, and the general standards carried in the books, you were not going to spring much of a surprise upon yourself or others.
The absurdity of tenth-of-a-second record-snatching had begun immediately to weigh upon the Student. He came to hate lapping the pool more than several times. It was not at all like the wonderful free swimming off the rocks of Addison Street or Jackson Park, seeing the tall buildings' skyline shoreside and the infinite water and incoming waves seaside, not at all the wooded shores of Moen's Lake. Slogging soggy dullness, chlorinated waterloggedness, painful silly turnabouts at the ends of the pool, steaming ugly dimness hanging upon the pool and locker room, how do you explain the stupefying grind, justify it? Physical fitness, athletic supremacy, the fierce competitive urge to win a game, but this is no longer a game; sports now (perhaps ever since the crowd entered upon the scene ten years ago) are brutal sieges of the mind and body and it is well that they earn large sums of money for their performers. The gay blade who started up the Olympics knew what he was after when he began this particular wretched history of joy through suffering: why go farther than the next town or block to win a game, certainly not to Moscow or Seoul? Only a dolphin can justify swimming up and down the length of a pool an hour a day for most of four years, and actually a dolphin goes in circles and ellipses, hardly ever back and forth, moreover she swims better, further she has nowhere else to go, further her friends are there, further she plays, further she gets praise and a fish. Mainly she is a captive and has nowhere else to go.
Water polo was something better than mere racing. It was a game, a highly competitive team sport, seven against seven, where you had the joys of teamplay and the intense feelings of controlled aggressiveness against a foe. A true battle with rarely a rare injury. Also there was the ball, a substantial fully inflated seamed leather ball, the size and looks of a soccer ball, that had to be picked up from below and that could be skipped on the water, passed near or far through the air, and dribbled in a special fashion, floating between your churning arms and moving as fast as you can swim, all with the ultimate aim of hurling or tipping it past the goal-tender into the net. At any time in your onrushing you may be bodily blocked and, should your hand be on the ball, tackled, that is, physically restrained and submerged so long as you are holding the ball. So that a good team keeps the ball in motion by passing and dribbling it from whatever possession was gained until it has a man who can tip or slam or bloop the ball into the wide net past the goalie.
Your dress is a breechclout and a colored cap of your team that ties beneath your chin. And with fourteen men thrashing about you can get hurt. Tackling the diver Bob Stouffer onetime, he got kicked and felt his head explode; there was even a flash of light from inside his skull. He stopped dead in the water, then dragged himself out, perhaps, his ear ringing, its drum burst. In a few days it had drained and thereafter healed. Most commonly you get hurt when an opponent kicks you as you climb upon him to get the ball he is carrying, whether you catch up and crawl over him from behind or block him frontally, or he is backing up or backstroking from you and you have to get over his body to get at the ball. When you mount him from behind (excuse the expression), the worst can happen, jabs of the elbow are most painful, especially in the eye. Gory stories were told of an eye popping out from just such a back jab of the elbow against a tackler from behind; he had an eye pushed into his head many years later, in a typical way, while teaching a novice to play, in the Stanford University pool, and he wore a dashing black eye-patch for awhile to the amusement of his students: . A simple submersion in a stomping or pull-down tackle is actually not hurtful; choking on water doesn't last but for a few moments; there is, of course, always too much of it.
What are the decisions and ethics of the game? Have they any value, are they useless once you climb out of the pool, do you learn them anywhere else in college, will they get you to heaven? The decisions, when you cogitate over the question, are whether you should pass the ball or try a goal shot; should you pass the ball or dramatically dribble it; should you play back as guard or speed up forward; should you throw the ball back defensively or forward offensively; should you pass to Johnny or Percy or Cecil?? And a few others. One thing is certain: you gain a fair knowledge of the character of your teammates in scrimmage and in formal games; and this kind of knowledge is not to be obtained in the classroom, where you gain a different means of judging people. Also, granted that good players are often unabashedly egotistical, you ordinarily gain some insight into and even control of yourself for the good of the team. (Of course, this is nice, but does it "help in life"? In military academy, Napoleon Buonaparte received a patch of garden to tend, and the other boys the same; he became notorious for trespassing and appropriating what wasn't his.) Again, it does seem that you gain a quality of quick determination and decision: "Shoot!" "Pass!" etc. But does this quality transfer from the pool to the Governor's Office, the Executive Suite, the Research Laboratory?
No more of a help than the tricks that the Student also laboriously developed: how to pop the ball into the air and bat it into the goal net; how to come in on the left of the goalie facing him, then at the last minute swing completely around on his right-arm stroke, pulling the ball back with the right hand, and smashing it in from the other side of the goalie: a rush of excitement and exhilaration! But these tricks could hardly be transferred into office, lab or forum.
Then the direct ethical challenges: Should you kick your opponent underwater when the referee is not looking your way? Should you shove off from him when the ball is put into play, setting him aback and you forward faster? Should you stomp hard on your opponent when pushing him under, or just enough to put him out of play? Should you feign being fouled, by sinking yourself while seeming to be tackled illegally or by exhibiting an agonized expression as if you had been kicked in the balls? Should you edge surreptitiously and sneakily for an advantageous few inches or yard after the whistle blows to freeze the game? (He taught himself to improve position, whether horizontal space or bodily posture, with practically undiscernible bodily effort.) Judge him as you will, he was often guilty of this last foul of "drifting," never of a mimicked injury, and almost never of committing the dirtiest aggressive fouls. Perhaps partly out of fear of reprisal; perhaps because the game was normally so aggressive, there was little urge to exert oneself to make it more so, and perhaps mainly because he did not wish, whether consciously or unconsciously, to harm his opponents. He felt the ambivalent camaraderie of the trenches, of the competing fishing boats: we are alone together in the water; all the rest are mere spectators.
For the first time, a match was arranged between the Champions of the Chicago City Park System Water Polo League and the University of Chicago team. It was the roughest game that he ever experienced. You could sense right away that a different ethic was being brought into play, that to commit mayhem was a legitimate object of the game to the Park Players, and soon the Student was out on a foul, and he was enraged and chafing to get into the game again. Two players began to slug each other in the water, and hearing Mac say "Sock him!" he jumped from the poolside on top of the Park player and dunked him deep, on the way up getting struck in the mouth from somewhere in the melee. Referee Mr. Herbert Blumer, Professor of Sociology and lately footballer with the Chicago Bears, his whistle drooping from his generous lips, swivelled silently his ursine head from upwater to downwater, from this guy to that guy. The Student took another foul call when order was restored, so had to wait out the quarter, sucking a bloody gum, but in the end the University won. Afterwards Mac told him smiling, "I said `Stop em!'not `Sock em!" and went around telling people the big joke.
Mac preached ball handling as the key to success, pass often and fast, and finally, plunk,in it goes. That's why the Hungarians win the world championships, he favored saying, and they are old men. The Student accepted the advice readily, though he was naturally highly aggressive and would smash his way in a blind spuming fury to undo a ball handler. For this reason and others, a new position was created for him, as a Forward-Guard, which entitled him to play both roles of guard and forward and go up and down the pool as the occasion demanded, to be there to tackle as the offensive came down, and to move up to shoot when taking the initiative. His light weight was less a handicap than his suppleness an advantage in the watery milieu and melees. But, too, he had been raised with a large softball in his hands on the streets and playgrounds of Chicago, so that while his light weight and over-enthusiastic timing diminished his batting power, he could catch and throw extraordinarily well.
Specialization pays off and wreaks havoc in athletics, yet the amateur athlete is usually good at any game to which he puts his hand. Good, not great; there were respectable swimmers on the Chicago football team and from time to time, since the water polo season succeeded the football season, a couple of them would venture into the pool to play water polo. Their physiques were impressive and it hurt to be stepped down under by them but they were not especially agile nor fast in the aquatic medium and no football regular won his water polo big "C". Joe Kreuger did try for a while but relapsed into a team booster, of which there were not many, whether because water polo is a sport best seen from a submarine -- glug, glug -- or because the boosters were often splashed from the pool in the narrow quarters upon which bleachers were set up for the game, or because it was not a popular American sport and few knew the rules, and so on, but why do Europe and South America go mad over soccer and Americans and Japanese over baseball? When footballer Joe Kreuger became a spectator, being a big and loud, enthusiastic hulk, who was proud to know the game, he set himself behind the opponents' goal net from where he shouted and waved so that the Student, with one of the best shots of his life, racing in to the goal and needing only to do what he could do so well -- reach up and over the ball, to fix it in the crook of his arm and slam it past the goalie -- was distracted by Joe's yelling "Shoot, Al shoot!!" sticking his face just above the net, so he bobbled the ball when he began to draw it back to shoot, letting the goalie leap forward to grab it and hurl it away. He was not one to project blame, so he took Joe for the friend he was and explained nothing to him or to Mac -- anyhow the game,it was against Northwestern University -- was won.
On March 7, 1939, the Daily Maroon reported that they had beat the Illini 4-3 to win the Big Ten Title. It was the day that poor Premier Eduard Benes of Czechoslovakia was on campus denouncing the Nazis for invading his country and the Western Democracies for letting them do so. Another item of the news described the launching of a Refugee Aid Committee with messages conveying best wishes from Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt and the German refugee author Thomas Mann. A decline in scholarship funds especially ticketed for women was announced. The Chinese Cultural Theatre was presenting a benefit performance for the University Committee for Refugee Aid and War Relief. Walter Lippmann was lecturing on the state of the nation. And a grant of $3500 was received cancer research, in which it was explained that the causes of lung cancer were now known to be asbestos, radioactive dust, chrome dust, and tars and soots; tobacco was also suspected of causing the disease. Movies by Thomas Poulter of "Little America," the U.S.A. camp in Antarctica were shown. Scott Buchanan spoke upon the organization of St. John's College, in Annapolis, describing the importance attributed to lectures there, and the care with which they were prepared, stressing, too, that the student heard only two lectures a week. (He was actually in hopes of getting Mr. Hutchins to resign from the University to come join the teaching faculty of the small college given over to the Great Books.) An advertisement of Intourist offered to show you the Soviet Union for only $5.00 a day all-inclusive. And, as I said above, the Water Polo Team won the Big Ten Championship.
Now it came time to play in the National Collegiate Athletic Association championship games to be held at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. The Chicago team had won the Big Ten Conference Championship handily, even while the football and basketball teams had finished their seasons dispiritedly. The Student was granted a place on the hypothetical All Big Ten Water Polo Team through the good offices of Coach MacGillavray. The team packed itself into a couple of large sedans and drove South. The next morning they found their way to the swimming pool of the University, where they were to meet their quarter-finals opponents, and not without some dismay discovered that it was of something called "Olympic size," to wit, twice the size of the University of Chicago pool and all the other pools in which they had played. They walked up and down, they wondered and pondered: it was huge, it was magnificent; but what would happen to the ball? Could we throw it so far? Conceivably a pass could be thrown twice the distance it had ever been thrown by a Chicago player! Would Johnny Van de Water, whose great length and considerable speed at center usually let him flip the first ball from the center line back to the Chicago forwards, find himself in trouble getting to the ball first now, the advantage of his length being cancelled out largely by the doubled distance of the rush? How in the world would the Student play his double role as Forward and Guard in a pool twice the normal size? It would be a completely new ballgame. Worse, should the Chicago team win the game of the morning, it would have to return on the afternoon of the same day to play the last surviving team for the national Championship, most likely the team of Texas Agricultural and Mechanical University, the Texas Aggies. It also possessed an Olympic-sized pool on its home grounds.
The games began. The Chicago team moved relentlessly forward passing the ball in short hops and slammed the ball in. It appeared that they might master the art of the large pool. The Washington University team was defeated. The afternoon came and with it the Texas Aggies. Their game was different, long passes, spread-out formation, it was tiring. The Student who ordinarily played the full game without substitution could feel this one getting to him physically. He even climbed a ladder to get out of the water at half time. He was conserving energy. The team was playing well. They could not, however, sink the winning goal, but neither could Texas. The score was tied. The game went into overtime. Texas scored. Seconds before the overtime was due to end, once the ball came to them, the full Chicago team went charging down: the Student swam as furiously as he could toward the Texas goal. Just as he arrived at the right end of the goal he looked up and saw a pass hurtling through the air toward the goal. He reached far up and managed to just tip the ball as it flew by; it deflected into the net, and the score was tied. A second overtime was played. Texas scored its point, Chicago not. It was runner-up for the title. There were too many excuses even to discuss the defeat during the drive home. The talk was of joining up with the Chicago Athletic Club who were aiming to compete in the Olympics. But this was his last game. In the summertime as he was exulting in great flying breast strokes in a steamship's pool, a wave from a dying hurricane buffeted the boat and dislocated his shoulder. It might be wrenched out of joint repeatedly in the wrestling encounters that typified water polo.