Hoops and Haybales

This is not really a "revenge of the nerds" or "geeks versus jocks" sort of story. After all, during the time that I was growing up, a geek was someone who worked at a carnival and bit the heads off of chickens to entertain the customers. 
 
I was 14 years old in early 1964 and I had discovered girls. However, it seemed as if girls had not yet discovered me. I was kind of a egghead, but when I was put in water, I sank like a stone. My school ,Turtle Lake High School in central North Dakota (population 800), had won the county basketball tournament . All students were gathered in the gym. Local dignitaries were there.  Speeches were made. Players were the subject of adulation. Then the team separated into two and had a demonstration game.
 
I had never seen a “real” basketball game before. My family did not have a television at the time, and we didn't get into town for games. Although I had played basketball in Physical Education class, I dreaded “phyed” because I couldn't shoot,  couldn't dribble and was always the last to be picked for scrimmage.   I was equally bad at baseball. I can only remember hitting the ball twice. In either case I was told that I should run around the bases to score. I don't recall seeing any reason to run since the fielders were out in tall prairie grass beyond the centerfield with baffled looks on their faces.
 
We lived on a farm. I was the eldest and there were many demands on my time. I did not go out for sports. I know that if I had really expressed a desire my folks would have let me go, but obligation diverted me. 
 
There were no cheerleaders at phyed. The cheerleaders at the celebratory game were a revelation. Here were some of the prettiest girls in school. They were jumping into the air in short dresses with their legs apart and their skirts flying up. It seemed if I was witnessing a fertility rite like something in National Geographic.  
 
Two years later, Bruce Imsdahl and I, with Lui Ravnaas, our science teacher were driving east to East Lansing Michigan for the Multi-State JETS Science Fair.  Mr. Ravnaas required that all of his students have a Science Project.  He had formed a JETS chapter. JETS stands for "Junior Engineering Technical Society". 
 
Bruce and I had qualified for that fair because of awards in local Science Fairs. I ended up getting more sleep on the trip than I had in the previous week, as my mother and I were up past Johnny Carson time every night putting the project together. My project was named "The Effects of Group I and II ions on Plant Growth and Regeneration." I had conducted experiments by growing  plants in multiple test plots where the variables were solutions of different salts. Ions are found in salt solutions which are compounds containing members of Group I and II of the Periodic Table. At that time, I knew more about the Periodic Table than I did of sports statistics. I still do, for that matter.
 
Bruce's project was on geothermal energy and he had put together a series of thermocouples to make a thermopile. At that time we were in the middle of the space race, trying to catch up to the Russians after the disturbing wake-up call the nation got when the Soviets launched Sputnik.  On the way, we picked up Oscar Mantz, another teacher and another young guy from Wishek, North Dakota. Neither Bruce nor I can remember his name. If any one reading this knows the identity of this person, please let me know.
 
The trip was a culture shock. It took the better part of a day to drive past Chicago.  Bruce and I both lived on farms. We were next-door neighbors, about a mile and a half apart. Turtle Lake had a population of 800.  There was a total of 140  in our high school.  About twice a year, I went to the Big City of Bismarck which was 50 miles away and then had a population of about 25,000.  The host for the science fair, Michigan State University, had an enrollment of 40,000 or more. That made it over 50% larger than the capital city of my home state.
 
We did well at the fair. I got fifth place in the Technical Paper presentation.  Bruce doesn't remember how he placed, but he walked a way with a state of the art slide rule.  Bruce says that slide rule is still good as new. As far as I knew at the time or know now, no one had gone further to represent our high school or placed higher.  It was quiet when we got back. No welcoming committee. No cheerleaders! No mention in the Student Yearbook.  Didn't I just say that our nation was in the Space Race? That there was much publication of the need to advance science studies? The next year, I went to the JETS fair again. This time, I place third. There is one photo in the 1967 yearbook of me in front of a Science Fair poster, a passing mention of my achievements in Science Fairs, but no particulars and no congratulations.
 
Let me tell you a bit about life on the farm. Every evening and morning we did chores. I will describe just one of those chores. Hay was stored as bales and fed to cattle. To feed cattle, one had to distribute that hay and make it easy for the cattle to eat. A bale of hay was tied together with two sets of twine, was about three feet long and weighed on the average 40 to 60 lbs. To feed cattle, I would take a hay bale and turn it over if the knots of the twine were on the top. Then with my knees bent into a squat, I would snatch the bale aloft by the twines.  As I lifted the bale to the level of my knees, I would quickly use one knee to boost the bale, giving it momentum.   As the bale reached the height of my shoulders, I made as if to throw the bale, yet keeping a grip on the twines, and at the same time, throwing my upper body back.  The result was that the twines broke and the bale exploded, throwing the hay in an arc towards the cattle. It was not unusual to do this thirty times in an average day. I was 5 foot 6 and I weighed 140 pounds. Like many farm kids, my strength and endurance differed from the sort of conditioning needed for sports.
 
Putting up hay was a major enterprise on our farm. Hay was baled and stacked in the field. The bales were hauled with a flatbed pulled by a tractor. Bales were picked up and lifted onto the flatbed, where they were stacked. As the load grew, we would lift the bales above our heads, sometimes driving a pitchfork into the bale to lift the hay 10 feet or more. The flatbed would then be driven to the farmstead where it was unloaded with similar degrees of effort. An average day would find two of us bringing in 1,000 to 1,500 bales.
 
In addition to putting up 10,000 to 15,000 of our own bales, my brothers and I began working for other farmers, hauling bales for pay. The going rate was 4 cents a bale. Two kids working together could make $20.00 to $30.00 per day in those days, which was 3 to 5 times greater than the going daily rate for a general-purpose farm hand.  In the summer of 1967, my brother Dave and I were making a pretty good killing at this.  Dave was two years younger than I, but taller and heavier and he sunk just as fast as I did. Dave went on a  motorcycle trip and I got my brother Roger, who was 4 years younger than I and already my size and he tended to work so hard it was scary.  But then Roger was called back to the family farm.
 
I made inquiries in town for helpers. I went through the entire starting five of the basketball team. There seem to be a bug going around. Each one called in sick on the second day. Then I got Marshall Maxwell. Marshall had graduated the previous year. He was 6 feet tall, about 180 lbs. His Mom was the school administrative assistant, his Dad carried our mail and Marshall carried his own weight. He worked with me until Dave got back. I saw Marshall in 2009. The first thing he said when we met was , "Been hauling bales lately?" I just groaned, and we both laughed.
 
I went on to live in Alaska and worked many hard jobs in the out-of-doors.  Eventually, I became a freelance computer programmer. I use the scientific method every day. I bear no bitterness about the dominance of sports over academia and technology in my High School.  Yet, it seems as if the same skewed priorities exist in our school system today. 
 
The most entertaining basketball game I ever saw was in a quonset hut gymnasium in Adams North Dakota in 1993.  One of my sisters was the school coach at Adams. Adams has a population of less than 200 and there is probably less than half that many in High School. I was so entertained because of the connection I had with the school.
 
Nowadays I sink more slowly. Girls finally did discover me. One, anyway, and we have 6 children - all grown - and grandkids too. Still, every morning, I do the equivalent of marching rapidly up a steep hill for an hour, and I try to get away from my inside work and work hard outside for a couple of hours every day. 
 
Bruce became an engineer and recently retired as the CEO of the largest public utility in North Dakota.  Lui Ravnaas who taught for decades brought much recognition to the school for the science curriculum. In later years, the JETS club was featured in yearbooks.  Mr. Ravnaas was the best teacher I ever had. Marshall taught for a while, then went into the insurance business. He sells Farmer's Union Insurance out of a converted garage on Main Street in Turtle Lake. The last time I was at his office, it reminded me of the Chatter Box Cafe of Prairie Home Companion - a warm place where everyone knew everyone else.
 
Remember that I said this was not a “geeks versus jocks” story. Despite my concern that sports get too much emphasis, sports is important in Rural America.
 

School basketball games in small towns are not just sports. They are meeting places. And I have seen high school sports mold many a person for adulthood. After all, where is there a better place to learn to "leave it on the field", and isn't that one of the best lessons in life?