Saturday, January 30, 2010

"The Pit"....Knockout

(I've been asked, "Where did you get the pictures?" When I write, I visualize the story unfolding in illustrations... Over the past several months, sometimes my inspiration for a chapter unfolds on canvas. In KNOCKOUT, I have painted four 24" x 36" oils on canvas.)

I still have fond memories of putting on my black rubber snow boots, over my high top black Chuck Taylors [sneakers]; and heading over to the Longview Middle School in Ellington on a Saturday morning. If you weren't playing, you were watching your friends from high atop the stage. As the scoreboard glowed and quarters spun round and round, you wished the games would last for ever. Coaches like Goldie Spielman, Dick Gunn, Lenny Johnson, and Al Bemont...faced off like today's top college coaches. And if you were lucky, your team had a secret weapon..."the medicine ball." Ready to pump you up! Half time, which seemed like all of three minutes, usually consisted of letting every kid in the gym play a quick game of Knockout... It seems like yesterday. I hope you enjoy reading how I've incorporated these memories into Chapter 4.

KNOCKOUT, Chapter 4 "The Pit..."

The 3:15 bell echoed as I stuffed my planner into my backpack and raced out the door. I slid down the oak banister and headed straight for the pit. The hallway leading to the all-purpose room was lined with duffel bags, mismatched boots and tossed overcoats.
Everyone thought it was easy being the manager, but they didn't have put up with Coach.
“Why's the new kid got his scrimmage jersey on backwards?”
“What happened to the ice in the water jug?”
Just when you solved one problem, Coach had you thinking about something else.
Hopping off the last railing, my high tops sang as I pushed open the paneled door covered with wire fence. Legend has it, Coach actually mounted a section of fence to the door following an inadvertent pass thrown during his famous star drill. It wasn't so much the drill itself, but Coach always added his own twist to everything.
“Snap the ball!” Coach had shouted, as the five-line drill soon moved like a well-oiled machine. Coach loved to tell stories of how it used to be and everyone loved the classic star drill story the best.
“When the ball began to pop, that's when I decided to remove the basketball and replace it with a medicine ball!” No one knows where Coach ever discovered the lead-like ball for sure, but some say it felt like a cannon ball left over from the Civil War.
“What do you say?” Coach pleaded, trying to move the leather sphere faster and faster. I think Coach always leaves out the part when he should have warned the team of the super powers they were about to show. Around and around the ball went, building muscles with each grunt.
Coach said players began dropping like plants wilted in the sun; as Grandpa reached out and made believe he caught the imaginary medicine ball with one hand.
“That's when I took out the new red white and blue ball,” Coach said. “The players looked like they had just eaten three cans of spinach. The ball flew across the circle like it was shot out of a cannon.”
Grandpa said, “The medicine ball gave' m so much power they didn't know what to do with it. Sent' m right into orbit—just like a spaceship.”
Unfortunately for Coach, the ball and the player crashed into the door—just as Sister Mary Catherine was making her daily rounds.
And that's why the medicine ball is still up on the shelf—collecting cobwebs.
And that's why a piece of fence is covering the pit door.
Grandpa used to spend time teaching me ways of handling kids, like he was
getting me ready to be a coach someday.
“I wanna play!” I told him, following him around the pit.
And it didn't matter how much I brought it up or how big of a stink I made, the conversation always came back to me being the team's manager.
“Being the manager doesn't mean you do everything to get ready, but making sure everything is ready.” he'd say.
“What if I hurry up and get everything ready myself,” I suggested. “Then I can still have time to practice with the team.”
“Gotta learn how to delegate,” Coach insisted. “That's a word to get everyone to work together to get things done, It's like running a ship.”
I knew I didn't have a chance.
“If the captain did all the work,” Coach said. “The ship would never leave the port!”
I don't know why, but it's been a long time since I heard Grandpa use words like “delegate.” Words that went right over my head and out the door. Teaching me things that made me stop right in my tracks and think. Maybe it is time for me to start using some of the things Grandpa been teaching me.
“Alright Leon,” I said. “Since you're the first one into the pit, I've got a special job just for you!” Coach says I should always reward kids for hustling to practice.
“Gimme a hand folding up these tables,” I said, kicking the center rod with my heel, as the table snapped, like a soldier at attention.
Within minutes, Leon and I had all the tables cleared, just as Wesley and Elmer poked their heads through the wire mesh. Even with all the shades open, sunlight seldom made it all the way to the court, as the brick skyline blanked the sun's rays.
“Stack and roll!” I commanded. Wesley and Elmer shot into action. No one could make a higher pile of chairs.
I remember last fall when Elmer was trying to meet Wesley's challenge of pulling thirty-seven chairs across the pit. Little did Elmer know the chairs had been stacked like the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
“Big-Oooooooooooooooo!” I cried out, happy to see the six foot three, two hundred and thirty pound sixth grader. Odin Kamay just moved from across the river, and filled out every bit of his seventeen inch sneakers.
“Hey big guy! I need your muscle,” I said, assigning him the task of rolling down the backboards. Usually, cries and moans were followed by popped blisters, but Odin accomplish the feat in less time that it took the rest of the team working together. And you never heard the Big-O complain that his arm was going to fall off. Coach said rolling up and down the backboards builds character, and if you ask me—the new kids got it.
Before Coach arrived, I would always get the kids warmed up with a game of Knockout.
The rules are simple; a player takes a shot at the basket from the foul line, and if they miss, they try and get their ball into the hoop before the player behind them makes their shot. It sounds easy, but believe me, when the game gets going and kids start scrambling after missed balls and shots are being taken from all over the pit—things can get pretty heated up.
Weeks and months passed before I finally won my very first game of Knockout.
“Knockout!” I screamed, as my ball caromed off the backboard, then tip-toed around, before dropping through the net. Elmer and his buddies stood with their tongues nearly touching the ground.
“No way!” cried Elmer, finally breaking the silence.
“Yes way,” I answered, raising my hands up—like the boys do—every time they win.
My success was short lived, the next time up I fired the ball too long and it went over everything—including the backboard. I was lucky it didn't go out the window and across the river.
“Knockout!” Wally said, easily putting the ball through the net after his shot rolled off the rim and right into his hands.
I was out, but vowed to get better from that day on. As weeks and months passed, I soon found myself going head to head with the best. Some boys took this as a threat, and refused to play, but one glance from Coach Buck and they found themselves watching from the sideline. And that is why I know I'm ready to be playing on the team, not just watching.
I was so good at Knockout, everyone started calling me Knockout. But it's not the same as playing in a real game.
Most the time the guys were pretty good about having “a girl” around. And some of them even went so far as to try and help me with my game. Sometimes I would try and get in a quick game of Horse before practice. That's a game where one player calls out the shot he's going to make—even before he shoots it. Then if he makes it, the next player has to make the same shot. Exactly!
My foul shot's my bread and butter.
Coach always says, “Save your bread and butter for the end—that's how you knock' m out.”
“Dribble the ball with two hands,” I shouted. “And then spin the ball into the air.”
I let the ball bounce a few feet ahead of me and the spin pulled it right back up into my hands—like a yo-yo on a string.
“Two steps, jump off the floor, follow through.” I add, as I took a peek at my competition. The ball banged off the little square just above the rim and into the hoop.
“Off the square!” I called, almost forgetting to make sure the next shooter banks their shot off the backboard.
Coach entered the gym and gave an ear-piercing, window-rattling, bone-chilling whistle. The whistle popped out of his mouth and rested comfortable, atop his shapely waistline. That tarnished whistle had seen it all—both the good times and the bad. Coach says the whistle was a gift from my grandma the day he received his first coaching job.
“Here, Coach!”
“Odin?” Coach called, looking over his glasses at the new face.
“Here, Coach!” Odin said, leaning over the clipboard.
Grandpa checked off each hopeful's name—one by one.
I knew I wasn't on that list, but I still waited. Waited to hear it right from my Grandpa's own lips. And of course I knew deep down, even if Grandpa called out names for days, I wasn't gonna hear the name, Alexandra Walkowitz. But it didn't stop me from waiting like everyone else.

Monday, January 25, 2010

"Passion...when you believe in something, with all your heart."

A few years back, our Saint Catherine's Parish of Broad Brook was in the middle of an inevitable decision. Our Priest broke the news, "They've [the Arch Bishop's office] asked if we could join in with Saint Phillips of East Windsor." I can still recall the hush that went up and over the pews that morning. "Their priest is retiring and I will be responsible for both parishes..." The thought stayed with me for some time. Since that day, over three years ago, we have become "one" family. However, you will see how this has played out in Chapter 3, as Alexandra's fears of closing Saint Anthony's...bring back memories of losing her mom.

Chapter 3

Friends think living in a trailer park is cool.
“You got everything you need at your finger tips.”
They don't have to live in three rooms at one time. I mean, how many kids can have one leg in their bedroom, another in a family room—and stretch all the way to the kitchen? Me!
Grandpa thinks he gives me my own space, but for the longest time it felt like I was under a microscope, like the gray, double lens ones in his Science class. “You need anything, Alexandra?” or “How ya feeling, Alexandra?” The questions never stopped, all day, every day. Grandpa worried about me so much it was driving me crazy. Now I wait, wait for Grandpa to do some of the things he use do without thinking. He use to be worrying about me, and now I think it's the other way around.
And I think it's because everything my Grandpa's gone through. Wearing him out like leather on an old basketball. But somehow he keeps going, even after becoming a widower years ago, when my grandmother passed away. Grandpa says he's got a big hole in his heart. That's why it's hard for me to figure out what to call him. I mean, Coach spent so much time taking care of my mother when she was little—all by himself. And now he's taking care of me. It's kind of like having a mother, father, and grandpa wrapped in one.
One thing I'm good at, is thinking. Thinking about how stupid Coach's rules are: Lights out by 9:00, no television and my personal favorite, “You should have a book in your hands at least once a day—every day—for your whole life.” Give me a break! How about a book that can teach us how to win a game?
From here to Renishski's, everyones talking, news is spreading throughout Saint Anthony's that the Diocese of Harweckton is closing our school and our 126-year-old-parish.
I overheard everything at the P.T.A. meeting. That's a meeting where parents squeeze into our basement—like sardines in a can, and talk into a microphone. Sometimes things can get heated. Coach just calls it, “Passion.”
“What's passion?” I asked.
“When you believe in something with all your heart.” Grandpa answered, side-stepping and tipping his hat. Coach says the problem is sometimes the other person has a heart that has a whole different passion. And that's how it sounded when the meeting began.
“If the Bishop thinks I'm traveling clear across town to put my envelope in a Saint Catherine basket, he's got another thing coming!” one mother insisted.
“I still don't know what they're taking about,” I shrugged. “Passion's confusing!”
“Don't worry,”Coach nodded. “Some day you'll have it, and won't even know
it—until the time is right!”
Father Luciano turned everyone's attention to his own passion: bringing two parish communities together as one.
“Our decision isn't based on school spirit,” Father Luciano insisted, taking off his glasses and pushing his head up his collar. “We're trying to reunite two families,” he added. “Saint Catherine's and Saint Anthony's.”
A groan went up and down the isle, like Father Luciano had just asked us to give up eating ice cream for Lent. “What's the big deal?” I whispered to Grandpa, who sat covering his face with the palm of his hand.
But before Grandpa could tell me what all the moaning was about, the subject changed from making one large parish, to having one less coach—Grandpa.
Some people at the meeting thought Coach should have quit years ago, “Seventeen losing seasons in a row!” one parent said, talking like he'd played in every game. Coach didn't look up at the man, even though Grandpa had always had a way of letting negative comments drip—like water off a duck's back. But tonight, I couldn't tell if the water was rolling off or getting ready to drown him.
Some people were impossible to understand.
I mean, really hard to figure out.
One read a statement on the back of a grocery list, “Coach Buck has the inability to strategically maneuver players during vulnerable points in a game...”
“What?” I shrugged.
I had no idea what he was saying and Father Louie even asked him what he was talking about.
“Mr. Buckowinski doesn't care if our team wins the game at the expense of allowing all kids to play!” Not every kid, I thought.
I felt like grabbing the microphone and telling everyone what it was like living in a trailer. No car, no T.V., talk about cutting expenses.
“Everybody knows,” another parent shouted. “Coach Buck spends more time talking to himself then talking to--”
“Let's focus,” Sister Mary Catherine interrupted. “On Father's desire to bring our two—”
“Personalities together?” one parent chuckled.
I pulled Grandpa's coat up over his shoulders. “Let's go,” I whispered.
“Looking forward to seeing you all at the next home game!” I said, as the two of us marched out the basement door and into the night. The fresh air felt good.
“Don't get worked up over things you can't change,” Grandpa said.
Although Coach was getting old, I didn't think he was ready for retirement.
“You ready to call it quits?” I asked.
“What would I do if I retired?” he said, waiting for me like I had the answer in my back pocket. I think Grandpa needs to stay busy, just like the man who sells hot dogs on the corner of South and Main. When the man is slow—he's grumpier than a room full of kids not getting recess. And when he's busy—he forgets all the worries stored inside.
I think teaching and coaching helps Grandpa keep his mind off of losing my grandma. Sister Mary Catherine said Grandma was just the opposite of Grandpa, “Tasteful, eloquent and even-tempered.” That's what they say about my mom too. Only they don't talk about her as much. Whenever I ask questions, everyone gets so they can't even put a whole sentence together; and before you know it, tissues are passed around the room so fast, it's like the usual in Renishi's Barber Shop all over again.
I know Grandpa always had a rough side, a side that was hard to figure out. But now his tough side is changing, both at home and at school—and I don't know why.
“Hold the beaker away from your body and try not to pour the mystery substance onto the knuckle-head in front of you!” Kids were always glued to every word. Even the teachers who were half way up the staircase stood still and listened to Leo Buckowinski.
“Take your iodine droppers and put five drops into the solution...just like putting ketchup on a hot dog!”
“What if we don't like hot dogs?” Someone would always crack. And then the room would be filled to the brim with laughter.
I just wish now—I could be one of the kids laughing.

Monday, January 18, 2010

We All Have Cracks...

We All Have Cracks...

Over the weekend there was another historic day for women's basketball at my Alma Mater, the University of Connecticut. The number one Huskies played host to the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame. Unfortunately for the third ranked women from South Bend, it was no contest. The game however was broadcast as the week's "Game Day" by ESPN (a first). Following the game I conducted a little research of my own and learned that both Geno Auriemma and Muffet McGraw coached under legendary coach Jim Foster, at Saint Joseph's College in Pennsylvania. That information led me to another great player/coach, Theresa Grentz (who also worked with J.F.). However, Theresa's story led me back in time to the beginning of the women's college tournament; and the incredible success of Coach Cathy Rush at Immaculata College in the early 1970's. It's a small world...soon I found myself totally engaged in the story of the Might Macs. I soon realized I had stumbled upon something very special, "OUR LADY OF VICTORY...almost the perfect ending for my heroine Alexandra, should you wonder what happens to her following KNOCKOUT. OUR LADY OF VICTORY is a full length film, written and directed by Tim Chambers and due out in April of 2010. The film is based on a true story and shows how young athletes can do anything if they put their minds to it. Check out their link and keep your eyes peeled for its grand opening.

Chapter 2, KNOCKOUT

Nine months had passed since our basketball season came to an end. And no one was surprised when the final game was a lopsided 32 point defeat.
We were awful!
“Chalk another one up for the other team!” I heard one fan quip, as she stuffed her crochet needles into an oversized stenciled bag.
“Oh, but they're entertaining to watch,” Sister Mary Catherine chimed in. “You have to admit that!” Pushing her lower back forward, Sister Mary Catherine seemed to grow another three inches. “It's not all about winning, now,” she reminded the fans.
Over the past three years we had had a one and forty-three record.
That's one win and forty-three losses.
That's not good.
And to make it worse, our only win came by forfeit when the other team failed to show up. At least the “win” stopped a state record of 89 losses in a row. People still wonder why the other team was absent that day but Sister Mary Catherine insists, “It was a miracle,” tilting her head up to the sky.
Many believe Coach Buck should have thrown in the towel years ago, including me; but every year when Thanksgiving rolls around, Grandpa pulls out the worn, “Try-Out For-Basketball” sign from his dented gray desk and asks me to go post it up. I've been pushing the same red tacks, through the same holes for years. And if I have anything to do with it—this was going to be the last year.
TRY-OUTS....MONDAY 3:30- 5:00 Gym (Must Wear Sneakers! No Shoes)
I added the sneaker rule following last year's worst recruiting season ever! It was hard to imagine anyone showing up for practice without sneakers, but during the first day of tryouts, Arthur Mc Cleary took the court with his rolled up dress slacks, tan knee socks, a white tee-shirt and black oxford shoes.
“McCleary!” Coach screamed, readjusting his glasses and re-centering his sweat-shirt. “Are you planning on going to Mass or are you trying out for a basketball team?”
Coach snorted, shaking his head in disbelief.
“What happened to your sneakers?” I asked, raising my shoulders to my ears and holding both hands like I was checking for rain. Arthur took one look at me and didn't know where to begin, so I gave him the stinky-eye.
“Just don't kick someone with those soles!” I said. That was the last time Arthur came to practice without his high tops. Although he did forget his sneakers for opening game.
Grandpa always says you gotta learn how to deal with everyone differently. “Some with kid gloves and some with an iron fist!” I think Coach always asks me to deal with the ones that need a heavy hand.
Our whole school had kids just like Arthur McCleary. Filled with fun off the court, but half couldn't put the ball in the hoop—not to mention dribble, pass, or play defense on the court. And there was nothing I could say that would convince Grandpa to let me play on the team, even though I knew I was better than any of them.
I think if it wasn't for our Saint Anthony mission statement that declared, all students are considered equals, along with Sister Mary Catherine reminding Coach, “All children will shine,” half the kids wouldn't make the team. And the part about being created equal—I call it baloney, with a capital B.
I used to read the statement over and over, searching for the part that mentioned kids losing their mother or never knowing their father, but that was all left out.
No sooner had I put up the notice, and headed back to Coach's office, then the hallway began cackling like roosters in a hen house. I spun around and students were squeezing and jostling their way to the bulletin-board.
“It's like a bee hive,” I said, as Coach shook his head up and down with one ear pressed to the phone. “Uh-hah, uh-hah,” I could tell when Coach was in a serious conversation, his head bobbled up and down and he'd say nothing more than a few,
“Bumble bee. They don't realize they're all not gonna make the team. Some of them are awful.” I said. Coach gave me the look. “Wait until we put them through the first round of drills,” I added. “They won't be cackling after that!”
Coach shoo' d me out of his office, motioning for me to close the door. Spinning around in his oak chair, he coaxed his finger-tips through his hairs.
“Hey Knockout!” a sixth grader called out. “Wait until you see my shot! Nobody got a shot like the one I'm gonna show Coach!”
“Yeah, right!” I answered, pressing my face to the frosted glass window. I could see Coach pacing back and forth, paying no mind to me outside.
“Nobody got a shot like mine,” the new kid continued. “My old man says---”
I wheeled around.
“Don't tell me what your old man says,” I shouted.
“Can you dribble?”
“Can I dribble? What kind of question is that? Of course I can dribble, what you think a point guard does?” he moaned, tugging on my warm-up.
“My dad says, I'm like Curly Neil.”
This was worse than a beehive.
“What am I supposed to tell my dad when he asks me what position---”
“That's it,” I cried, pushing to my locker.
“Why ain't you answering me?”
“ I ain't answering you, cuz your an idiot.” I screamed. “And another thing, NO SHOES ON THE COURT!”
As the new kid drops to the floor, to take off his shoes, I wonder why I'm on the out side of of Coach's door—looking in.

Two, four, six, I race up the stairs and skip around the Dobrowski sisters. I was halfway up the second railing when Miss Rivers decided to take her class out for shadow drawing. If I was late for another one of Sister Angelica's history classes, I'd be staying after school and washing her chalkboard for a month.
I squeezed through the bottleneck, took a deep breath, then Sister Angelica gave me a frown that thrust-out her lower chin. Sister was a lot like Coach, nice on the inside, but ready to give a lesson you wouldn't forget. Sister closed the door in my face, just as the bell rang, pressing her watch up to her nose—I was sunk.
I stood outside her door and watched as Sister Angelica strolled to her podium. That witch, I thought. I gave her a sneer to rattle her cage.
Today was the first day of tryouts and I couldn't be late, and cleaning blackboards for Sister Angelica would mean—“Ahhh crap,” I said.
“Ahhh what?” A familiar voice echoed.
I didn't want to turn around. Threes—Coach always said—bad things happen in threes. First, Grandpa chases me out of his office, then I'm late for class, and now c-r-a-p, Sister Mary Catherine hears me saying something that's not supposed to be in a kid's vocabulary.
“Dear Miss Walkowitz,” Sister Mary Catherine said, leaning forward and peering over her glasses. “I do believe your choice of words leaves me wondering what is going on in your head?”
Sister always had a way of putting the obvious into phrases that made you wonder if she actually heard what you said—or hadn't a clue.
I played it safe, praying Sister not only didn't hear me, but couldn't read my mind.
“As a matter of fact, I was just on my way to see you.” I said, offering a glimmer of sunshine with a big smile.
“You were late for class again, weren't you?” Sister Mary Catherine said, her voice catching up with her mind. “I should have known.”
“Today's the first day of tryouts and Coach has problems on the phone.” I knew I had to think quick, because Sister Mary Catherine didn't have any patience for kids on their own clock. “Everyone's asking me about positions and Sister Angelica couldn't wait three more seconds---”
“I think you and I need a talk,” Sister Mary Catherine said, brushing by me and entering Sister Angelica's room. Sister Mary Catherine whispered something in Sister's ear, then Sister Angelica turned and nodded. I nodded back.
“Come now,” Sister Mary Catherine said, gathering her black tunic and adjusting her habit before skipping the staircase. “You need a re-adjustment.”
“A what?” I said, knowing what was in store for me. A half hour talk on listening for God's call. But when you reached sixth grade, girls realized, it was a convent conversation.
I followed Sister Mary Catherine down the stairs and out the front door, and knew I had another lesson coming my way. Nothing seemed to be going right and nothing I did seemed to matter.
“None of us are perfect!” I cried, pulling Sister Mary Catherine to a stop.
Sister raised her head up to the sky, then turned and let out a sigh.
“We all have cracks, Alexandra. Every one of us.”

Monday, January 4, 2010

RAKER, Middle Grade Novel

As I continue to work on revising KNOCKOUT, I've recently been "inspired" to begin a new project. Over our winter break I was doing a little research on the Internet, and before I knew it, I was knee deep in everything from honeybees to blueberries. If you have had the opportunity to read the first chapter of KNOCKOUT, you know that it is told in the first person narrative. Originally this was not the case, having written it first in third person narrative. It is hard to imagine (once you read on...) that the character Alexandra "Knockout" Walkowitz was, at one time, only mentioned briefly in the first draft. I really fell in love with Alex's "voice," and soon enjoyed creating a story that would show how life can change, when you put your mind to something. Crawford Jackson Potts is no "Knockout," but they have much in common. Here's a taste of what I've been working on over the vacation.

RAKER, Middle Grade Novel

Crawford Jackson Potts lost everything he ever owned. Beginning at age two, Crawford flushed his great-grandmothers sterling silver rattle down the toilet in a single flush; then for dinner, he fed his oversize rubber binkie to his dog Rutter. The dog sputtered and spate like an overstuffed garbage disposal, before swallowing it in one final, hair-raising gulp—gone. Twelve months later, Crawford managed to unlocked the screen door and stroll unattended onto the front porch. While Crawford peeled paint on the steps, Rutter wandered off and was thumbed by a school bus—dead. On his fourth birthday, Crawford gotta taste of how much he was loved, losing his very own bedroom. Starring hollow jawed, the boy watched as his momma rolled petunia pink paint over midnight blue. Two weeks later—to Crawford's dismay—his momma brought home a little baby sister.
“Thank God it's a girl,” she said.
At five, C.J. Potts not only surrendered his very first library card, but the privilege of going to the library. “Banned,” his momma was told. Crawford had removed books from the shelves and stacked them in piles like a ladder to the sky. A heap of five grew, like a pyramid, all the way to the top of the grandfather clock.
Sitting bow legged, Crawford cooed, “Ya-hoooooooooo,” as he swung his leather belt, like roping a steer.
“First time in all my years,” moaned the librarian.
However the worst loss, by far, came at age 10, when Crawford climbed into the family's broken down 1949 Woody, disengaged the clutch, sending it hoping off the jacks and onto his poppa. The car rolled down the driveway and across the dirt road, before coming to rest 25 five rows deep in a corn field. Crawford not only followed the run-away-wagon, but miraculously got it to start.
Crawford Jackson Potts never looked back and never saw his momma, little baby sister, or poppa again.