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Me and the Babe

by Laura W. Haywood


My father, an otherwise intelligent and reasonable man, spent a number of years convinced that, if he only spent enough money on lessons, he could turn me into the next Babe Didrikson.

He must have been looking at me through the eyes of love (or without his glasses), for it was obvious to everyone else (including me) that athletics were not my forte. I was a pudgy kid and about as graceful as an elephant skiing. Hell, I couldn't even run right. I was pigeon-toed and was forever tripping myself, with the result that no outfit was complete without Band-Aids on my knees. I was always the last one picked for any team, and every year, at the school sports assembly, I won the "good sportsmanship" award -- meaning I'd lost everything else. My school blazer was covered with "good sportsmanship" badges.

There was a tree on our next-door neighbor's property that every kid I knew had climbed by age three. Every kid but me, of course. One day, Mr. Corbett decided I was going to climb that tree and he picked me up and put me in the tree. The inevitable happened, of course. I fell out of the tree.

I never learned to ride a bicycle, roller skate, or jump rope. I couldn't catch, throw, or hit a ball. I was always "it" in tag.

But my father didn't lose hope. He decided to start me off easily. I would learn grace through ballet lessons. There was a woman in the neighborhood named Bessie O'Higgins who taught ballet in her basement, where she had a barre that ran along one wall. There were two schools of thought about Mrs. O'Higgins among our neighbors. One said, "Poor Bessie. Joe drinks, you know." The other replied, "If I were married to Bessie, I'd drink, too."

At the barre, we were supposed to learn what, I think, in ballet is called "eleve." It's the maneuver where you hold onto the barre with one hand, hold the other out gracefully, and slowly sink down, then gracefully rise again. At Mrs. O'Higgins', we didn't do "eleve." We did "elevator." That's what she called it. No wonder Joe drank. My elevator went down to the basement just fine, but it stayed there until I put both hands on the barre and hauled myself back up. Ballet didn't last long.

My poor father, no doubt with pictures of Sonja Henie in his mind, next arranged for ice skating lessons. For one solid year, every Saturday morning, I went to the rink and took lessons. At the end of the year, I still hadn't learned to let go of the rail. The minute I did, I made a three-point landing, the third point being my rear end. It's a good thing my father never bought me the skating skirt I wanted. My mother made me take lessons in a snowsuit, and the padding may have saved my life. Or at least my rear end.

Dad still wasn't ready to give up. Swimming was next and Dad hired a lifeguard to teach me. I didn't object to that. There was a woman at the pool we went to known as "Calamity Jane" (because she was married to a guy named Bill Hickcock), who was a terrific swimmer and who always wore white bathing suits splashed with bright blue flowers. The white showed off her tan, the blue matched her eyes, and the suit showed off a figure that made her the center of attention. My only ambition in life was to look like Calamity Jane standing on a diving board.

The trouble was, Calamity Jane was there while I was taking lessons, and the lifeguard who was supposed to be teaching me was far more interested in watching her. As a result, he never taught me how swimmers breathe. Oh, I learned to swim, but in the way a dog swims -- with my chin resting on the water, panting for air. I figure, if shipwrecked, I could manage to stay afloat long enough to yell "Help!" three times before drowning.

At that point, my father gave up, a broken man. I now limit my activities to walking. Would someone please help me up?


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