It occurred to me the other night while driving through a blizzard to my sons basketball game how formative and memorable our high school sports experiences are. And how they shape our perception of communal space and place making.
As I peered through the windshield heavily obscured by the sticky snow, crusty wipers leaving the central drivers portion unswept and incorrectly designed sweep direction depositing a line of slush swept from the passenger side to the center of drivers vision, my memory jumped to my bus rides through the Maine countryside to high school basketball games in dead winter. Orono High School played up in class B back then and we travelled all the way to MDI (Mount Desert Island for you folks from away) to the east, Schenck and Stearns to the north (the Millinockets) and Dover-Foxcroft, Lincoln, etc. Quiet snow-filled rides home stopping at McDonalds for as many Big Macs as we could afford. If you were lucky and your girlfriend was a cheerleader you could sneak a little making out in.
Contrary to the suburban experience of moving from one heavily populated area to another, the Maine experience moves from one small town to another (even our "cities" are really small towns in disguise) through vast stretches of countryside, silent in the white winter nights. We had no electronic devices to pass the time so we looked, talked and slept on the bus. Being funny was a prized asset. The land opened up to pastoral sweeps and closed deep inside coniferous forests. Winding paths slowly climbing along rivers and bridges hung over the rocky ocean.
Many times the bus road along a rivers edge and you knew we were arriving because the houses got close together and an old big brick mill might appear before what passed as a Main Street with at least two businesses or much more came into view. Then we would turn off this spine and go behind this strip, off to the side and pull up to the local high school- often an old pseudo Georgian block- and enter a plain brick box gym through a side door with nothing but a parking lot and fields there covered in white.
Who were these people who lived here? What did their dad's do? Did they like their school? Would the crowd yell at us? And of course we would have heard about a special player or two, having been instructed by the coach to pay particular attention to them, and that stopping them would be key to victory. Coming out of the locker room, stepping on to the hardwood floor we would immediately spy the good player(s) and begin to estimate his talent. Is he too good for us? Of course he knew we knew about him and this gave him even more confidence especially in his "house". He would execute their warmup drills with as much nonchalance as possible and we would try our best to do the same.
Every gym is different and these spaces could arguably be considered the most important or having the greatest impact from a memory standpoint on us Mainers. Case in point, when our 8th grade team played Veazie (kids from Veazie can choose Orono or Bangor High), the gym was on the top floor of the police-fire-townhall-gym. That alone creates a nice Yankee sense of multi-use buildings and frugality. So there we were playing a game on the bouncing wood floor watching their top player, Lenny, warming up. First thing to notice was his shot was very accurate and curiously very flat- with almost no arc. The game began and one of our players with the most beautiful shooting forms, Charlie, jumps up and fires a perfectly arcing, back rotating, shot and- THUNK! The ball hit the ceiling only about a third of the way up it's projected journey. Guess whose shot did not have that problem?