Before there were iPods and iPads and computer games, there was the back yard tetherball pole and high jump pit.
Back in 1968, when I was 12 years old, I spent hours and hours and hours playing tetherball — trying to develop the perfect serve.
But the really serious athletic training involved the high jump.
That’s because I was inspired by Olympics high jumper Dick Fosbury and his Fosbury Flop.
That summer, I stood 4-ft-4 tall, on a stretch, and I was determined to jump that high.
But before the real Olympics training could begin, great effort had to go into construction of the Official Olympics High Jump Pit.
As you can see in the photo above, a worn white rope that stretched between the tether ball pole and the nearest tree was the “bar”.
It could be adjusted by using Dad’s favorite screwdriver to shimmy the tightly knotted rope up and down the pole.
The other critical design element of the Official Olympics High Jump was the U.S.O.C. approved “super cushion” in the pit.
It consisted of the mattress from the cot Dad used when he was in the Navy in World War II.
Because the “mat” was, technically, not regulation size for an Olympics event, you had to get your approach and lift-off exactly right or you tended to land on the ground, butt first.
And, since regulation Oklahoma Back Yard Dirt was only slightly harder that concrete, this was to be avoided.
To get the best angle for your approach, you had to stand with your bare back against the fence, equal distance between the two Mimosa trees.
This was slightly tricky because, the cyclone wire fence was galvanized and had sharp-edged lumps that would grab your cut-offs or, occasionally, your flesh.
And because our dogs, Lady and Blondie, had worn a rut right next to the fence, your first two steps were sort of uphill.
Nevertheless, with countless practice runs, I develop the perfect approach and technique.
You leaned back really, really hard against the fence, trying to avoid getting snagged, then you sort of “shot off” like a rocket.
You took two-piston-like short steps to get out of the dog rut, then switched on the afterburners for real speed.
Your approach was initially aimed just to the right of my bedroom window, which is out of sight in this photo.
After three longer strides, you slowly started a slight arc toward the middle of the rope.
Technique was more important in my back yard Olympics High Jump Pit than at the actual Olympics.
If you missed while competing in the Olympics, you would simply knock the aluminum bar off the stands.
But if you missed in my back yard, the best outcome was a rope burn. The worst outcome was basically getting cut in half.
Which, of course, made this all the better for a young boy on an impossible and dangerous mission — high jumping 4-ft-4.
In truth, I had already jumped that high, across the street at Mike Foster’s house.
But I had used the “dive” technique, which was illegal in grade school, because it frequently caused broken necks.
It was totally safe to “dive” in Mike’s backyard because of all the bags of “regulation foam” in his pit.
Except for the time I came straight down into the ground, head first, right between two bags of cushy foam rubber.
Probably because I had broken my neck in Mike’s back yard, and because Dad’s Navy mattress was very narrow and pretty lumpy after 20 years in our attic, I used the “scissor jump” in my back yard Olympic training.
This technique let you jump and then come down on one foot, right onto the mat, on a *good jump.
On a bad jump, if you weren’t cut in half by the rope, your butt would at least partially land on the mat before you bounced out into the grass and the occasional goat head.
If you bled, Lady the beagle would immediately be on the scene to provide first aid by licking your wound.
Over the course of that long, hot, summer — in between 10 billion hours, spent OUTSIDE, biking and playing baseball and wiffle ball and battle ball and football and water balloon fights and “skateboards of death” and conspiring with my neighbor to make his little sister **cry — I worked as hard as I’d ever worked trying to clear 4-ft-4.
Tragically, at summer’s end, I had failed — the first real failure of my budding athletic career.
But Mom took the above photo and used it to convince me that I had reached my goal.
If you look closely, my butt is sitting right on top of our fence, which, Mom assured me, was exactly 4-ft-4.
And that made me feel like I was Dick Fosbury and had won Olympics Gold.
It wasn’t until years later that I realized the fence was actually built in the dog rut, so it was lower than the rest of the yard.
I probably only jumped 4-ft-2.
But at the time, Mom’s little white lie was a very, very good thing to hear.
* We note that our attempt to leap from the speeding old bicycle over the rope did not turn out well, at all.
** Click HERE to see how my neighbor and I made his annoying little sister cry by mocking her favorite doll, Baby Boo.
Or click HERE to read about back yard wiffle ball and Cyrano, the neighbor’s stupid, horny Giant Black Poodle.