pj-ballDon’t remember the first ball in my life. Soft ball? Tennis ball? Ping Pong? It was likely a ball of yarn. My mother Ruth used to knit household items, make mittens, sweaters, and baby clothes, fix collars, make doilies, mend things. Most mothers of war babies knew how to do that. We were pre-automatic washers, before the tags on our cotton-rayon shirts said Made in Pakistan or Hecho en Mexico. Mothers in many parts of the world today still knit and darn and weave and crochet. So there are modern boys and girls rolling the balls of yarn around the carpet, dropping them off chairs, tugging on them with the cat. Learning how the spheroids work in nature. A ball can be a great teacher.

PJ got a new ball yesterday. He was sleeping in the grocery cart, nodding back and forth, wouldn’t wake up as we snaked up and down the wide aisles all around the newest supermarket in Nairobi. I had to hold his head in my hands and push the cart with my forearms. Underground parking, shops and chain stores just opened in a mall that could be a clone of a new one in Atlanta or Dubai, escalators, glass walled lifts, indoor fountains, waterfalls pouring down, rushing water sounds, down to the tropical garden on the base bottom floor. We chose a green UEFA-branded full size soccer ball, pumped full of pressure and bouncy. PJ woke up from one dream to another as we left the display bin of balls. I showed him the new ball and he wrapped his arms around it and said, “Ball.”

As a kid, I loved to roll a ball on the shag carpet, estimate where it would stop. I could play catch with myself by throwing a hardball against our concrete stairs in 1953 Tulsa. I learned how to put a spin on it, make it jump, and I became part of the change in direction when the spin took. We anticipated the physical results, we became part of the world of the ball. Balls teach us physics. Gravity, friction, momentum. Force, mass and acceleration. Later in the teen years, the arcs and curves we learned about, by feel, in games we played as toddlers and children, catch, baseball or cricket, football or soccer, tennis or bowling or volleyball, we learn again when we study conical segments in analytic calculus. So in a way, playing ball helps in advanced mathematics. I made that connection in a calculus class looking out the window at the school baseball diamond, wishing the game had started. In baseball, long flies and pop foul balls travel in parabolas, slightly altered by the friction between the spinning baseball and the air around it, maybe the night air under the floodlights, maybe the dusty air blowing across the field before a summer storm. The stitching in the spinning baseball catches more air on one side than the other, and the ball curves in accordance. They say it wouldn’t curve in a vacuum. They say in a vacuum the parabola of a throw would be perfect. They also say there is no such thing as a straight line in nature, but then we grew up with straight lines from home plate to the outfield fence, a line to divide fair and foul balls. We thought the foul lines as part of nature back then. We lived in a world of lines and curves when we played ball. Natural Law ruled.

PJ held his ball in his arms, sitting in the baby seat of the grocery cart, all through the remainder of the shopping trip. We were topping off our supplies for surviving the Kenyan government-versus-the-Opposition confrontation, picking up extra butter, juices, more milk, dried fruit, and bubble bath. Things I had forgotten the day before when I went to stock up. PJ showed his prize ball to other shoppers as we passed them on the way to checkout, holding it up and saying “ball.” He was beaming, causing the others to laugh and smile back at him, Mhindi Asians, Africa men and women, Mzungu ladies with blue hair, and some nice brown mixtures like he is noticed him and his ball. He was making us all happy. I didn’t have to hold his head steady and push the cart with my forearms now. He was very alive and under his own control, and he had a grip on that ball.

We had one stop to make on the way home from the mall. We were to pay the light bill to avoid a disconnection. Mama PJ went into the Kenya Power and Light Company outlet to pay up while PJ and I stayed in the car. He wanted to play with the ball. First, he juggled it in his hands, just to get a feel for the weight and size. He tossed it an inch or two upwards, caught it, did it again, squeezed it, turned it in his hands, got the feel for the new toy. He trusts me enough to show me the ball in outstretched hands, but not enough yet to let go of the ball. He calls out a long string of baby talk in an ascending voice, getting near ecstasy, and ends the thought with “ball.” I wondered if “ball” was a universal phonemic sequence, even intelligible in tongues and baby talk. A woman parked in the next car in the parking lot turned toward PJ and smiled and he held up his ball to let her see it. “Ball,” he said.

“Ball,” she echoed.

As a primary schooler, there was little I remember but the highlights of playing some kind of ball. We played before school, sometimes softball, sometimes playground soccer, sometimes unruly forms of “keepaway” or “kill the man with the ball.” We made our own rules, we improvised partnerships, we chose teams quickly so not to waste time that we should be using to play ball. We learned to throw and catch and kick and dribble, to bounce and shovel and toss and snatch various shapes and kinds of balls. We went through the same routines at recess and lunch time at school, all of us waiting anxiously for the freedom that “ball time” gave us from the hard cruel classroom, the ordered discipline of the educational conveyor belt. Would that I had had a handball to squeeze quietly in my alphabetical rows-and-columns seating, during the lectures on The Five Civilized Tribes or the major river systems of the world or the exercises drilling us on diagramming sentences. Can anyone give an example of a homonym? Bawl and Ball. A synonym, Jimmy, give us a synonym! Ball had no synonym. Is that true in every language?

By now PJ was dropping the new ball on the passenger side feet-rest area, saying “ball,” then climbing down to retrieve it, repeating “ball,” putting it back on the seat and climbing back up, and telling me seriously at each step, “ball.” He must have done that two dozen times, showing the ball now and then to shoppers carrying their own goods back to their parked cars, naming his ball and getting smiles and reinforcement from everyone. He threw the ball up to the ceiling of the car, bounced it off the steering wheel, spun one off the gear shift, and he even shared his green wonder with me now and then. I think I know how he was feeling. This was his ball.

I eventually learned a lot about life and social interaction, about team play, about minor fleeting fame by playing ball as I grew up in Oklahoma. I was good at catching a football, the ovaloid kind, so I was made a wide receiver. What I eventually learned there was that football coaches are a strange breed, and when the adrenalin hit them at the opening kickoff, they shouted above the roar for everyone “to find someone to hit.” I didn’t take to that as well as I did to diving for a low throw from our quarterback, or leaping in the air in the end zone, catching a touchdown, just waiting for the crunch from someone just looking for me to hit. I could catch it and hold it. How could anyone drop it? It was The Ball.

We played and practiced baseball day and night when it was the season. The ball is the game, in a sense, so we chased and shagged fly balls, scooped up hot grounders, flipped and tossed the ball to team mates or tried to burn fast balls by the opposing batters. We threw one hoppers to the base ahead of the runner, we bunted, slapped and slugged balls depending on the game situations, we had a system of communications to agree what kind of spin to put on the next throw, how to make it curve, whether it would be a fast ball or a slow ball, a high or low one, who would cover second base and catch the ball thrown from the catcher on an attempted steal. A new baseball is a near perfect thing. It will follow the rules of nature. It smells so sweet. It feels good in your hands. It looks good to the crowd, in sunlight or under the lights. It makes a sizzling sound just before it pops a leather glove, and when you hear that, you know you are playing hardball.

We are in the jam going home now. Bumper to bumper in front and back of us. Cutting the engine to save fuel until we are ready to move twenty meters again. Everyone talking on cell phones. “It’s bad downtown.” “Don’t go there.” “I’ll be at least an hour late.”

We are taking a shortcut on a two lane road through a beautiful old forest, a forest preserved by the government, adjacent to the Presidential State House. We have moved five hundred meters in the last 45 minutes. The traffic going the other way is equally slow, people cutting their engines, too, and reading the Daily Nation newspaper. PJ is showing his ball to the drivers of the cars in the adjacent lane. He would normally be itching to get out of the car by now, but he has his ball. “Ball,” he tells a driver stopped beside us in a government Mercedes Benz. The guy smiles and forgets about the jam and the confrontations he just left in town. He nods his head to PJ. “Ball.” We should all be outside kicking it around.

I am thinking that PJ is lucky. “He has the Spirit of The Ball in him,” Mama PJ has mentioned to me before. She has seen his intensity when he plays with a ball. He has several small balls at home, a little white leather soccer ball, kid size, one that he can palm with one hand, toss over his head or lag to a shag carpet near the door. He knows how to get some lift on that one, too, kicking it against the sitting room wall, and he has learned to punt it like a Goal Keeper from Manchester United would. He watches football on TV and shouts out when he sees the green field and men in uniforms, “Ball.” He also has a multi-colored spiked rubber ball with the Buddha ying-yang design on one side. We bought it in Mombasa when we were almost dead broke, but it was so beautiful that we agreed it was worth it. The Buddha ying-yang ball was made in China. PJ lights up when it’s time to toss either one, kick them, chase them, even take a bath with them. I feel blessed that he has the Spirit of The Ball in him.

We arrive home and PJ plays with the ball all over the house, working up a sweat in the chasing it around, somehow in a new trance. I’m wishing he could see some of the passes that Bob Cousy used to make with a basketball for the Boston Celtics, or Larry Bird’s side-spin full court pass just inching by a defender for a spectacular assist. The Spirit of the Ball was in them both, those Celtics. How perfectly balanced was Warren Spahn, an Okie country boy, when he threw a pitch in major league baseball for the Braves, elegant, powerful, in time and in tune. How we boys used to watch the best pool hustlers on Route 66 stop in to shoot some pool down at Doc’s Pool Hall in Tulsa, watch them run racks and make a cue ball almost talk as it went about its mission on those green felt snooker tables or one-pocket tables, biting the rails with a little low-right English spin, or screeching to a stop at just the right spot, backspin reining it in. Those hustlers were playing for money, so they had to feel at one with the Laws of Balls or perish. The winners played like they were in Buddha ball trances themselves.

So PJ comes walking in here after his nap, says hello, wants to try a sip of my grapefruit juice, then he leaves for a minute and returns with the new green ball and wants me to play. He saw some neighbors dribbling a basketball at the Holiday Break and he is trying to dribble his green football on the carpet under my feet. He just hijacked me from my story. I gotta show him how you control it with your fingertips and you gotta keep it low and you can do it with both hands. We are having a ball. He will have his own heroes to mimic, so I’m sure he can learn the advanced levels without mine. There is an artist born every minute.

The news on TV is telling me there was a jam today, that tensions are running high. I escape into the highlight zone now, picturing Arnie Palmer’s driver turning a golf ball’s flight a little left on a dogleg, under perfect control, or San Francisco’s John Brody’s soft deliveries of an American football to a predetermined spot known intuitively to him and his wide receiver, in fully improvisational circumstances with animal noises and searing emotion all around, on national TV, in tune with a friend and team mate who has been working out with him every day for eight months, and they are completing a pass play that has become instinctual to them. I drift and daydream about the throw I made in American Legion baseball five decades ago to cut down a runner tagging up and trying to go to third on a fly ball to me in right field. Testing my arm. Aaahh. To be one and a half years old again, playing with a ball of yarn.

Copyright 2009 Jim Shanor