Dodge This, Dave Ringo!

When I was in middle and high school, there was a kid in my class named Dave Ringo, who, thanks to an unjust genetic mutation, was a gifted athlete in spite of himself. He spent the entire weekend and most of the week drinking and smoking in bad company. Yet he could still stagger onto a field or gym floor and dominate whatever sport he felt like playing.

Dave wasn't big on organized sports. Football was too time-consuming and disciplined. And even though he could dunk easily, basketball was way too uncool for him. That isn't to say that he didn't have a specialty, though.

Dave had giant legs that lifted him off the ground like bionic pogo sticks. His arms, roped with muscles, seemed to stretch to his shins. He possessed a long swimmer's torso, and he moved with the agility of an Airedale ripping into a woodchuck. And despite what we'd heard about the mellowing effects of marijuana, he had a mean streak that bordered on the sadistic.

In short, Dave was designed by God to play dodgeball. This was the one gift that Dave seemed determined not to waste, either, and on some level, he'd made the decision that instead of leading our football team to glory, he would settle for terrorizing gym classes.

Looking back, it is now clear that our phys ed teacher was in on this. Dodgeball in its basic form was already a painful place where self-esteem simply tried to disappear into a corner. But Coach "Pep" Johnson also liked to add a few of his own personal touches.

As the game wore on, for instance, he would roll more of the hard, red rubber playground balls onto the floor. The balls he inserted got progressively smaller and easier to palm; as the number of players remaining on the floor dwindled, he would also advance the boundary line separating the two teams. Not only did the closer lines make it difficult to actually avoid a missile, but they allowed the thrower to take a long, running approach, adding more velocity to the by-now softball-sized projectile. I still remember being pinned against the gym wall as Dave, starting at the far side of the floor, came sprinting toward us, screaming like a madman.

I -- along with every other mediocre athlete in my school -- hated Dave Ringo. Even now, a quarter-century later, I find myself daydreaming that things have worked out justly: He weighs 300 pounds and, what with his two artificial knees and bloated liver, finds it nearly impossible to walk up a flight of stairs without hacking up chunks of his blackened lungs.

If I am honest with myself, I know that one reason I've kept myself in reasonably good physical condition all these years is the hope that someday I'll get revenge. It has finally come to pass. In the process, an important truth has revealed itself: When it comes to dodgeball, it's less gratifying to eventually beat the Dave Ringos of the world than it is to become them.

For many people, every dodgeball game was like a tiny tour of Vietnam. The best they could hope for was to come out of the jungle with a very slight injury that would cut short their duty and send them packing home -- limping, perhaps, but only slightly impaired compared with what might have happened. With the appropriate stimulus, these people can still suffer flashbacks. Generally speaking, they are known as "girls."

"Dodgeball was one big welt," remembers Kat, normally a successful and self-possessed graphic artist. "Everything was going right with the world until it came to dodgeball. All adult supervision disappeared, and it was every kid for herself. Suddenly, everybody was my nemesis. That ball was coming 200 miles an hour at my little thigh. I felt like a veal."

My father-in-law, Blair, remembers more or less the same thing, though from the opposite perspective. "We used to play in a big iron cage," he says wistfully. Blair, now 76 years old, is often ill, and there are many days when he feels bad. But the subject of dodgeball brings a dreamy, far-away look to his eyes. "I still remember the girls squealing," he says, smiling nostalgically.

For others, dodgeball informed childhood to such a degree that even now, the game remains a touchstone, a subject that can resuscitate more vivid physical memories than a first kiss. We call these people "boys." The blood, screaming and humiliation have faded with time until only beautiful memories remain.

"We had guys in our class who could throw the ball so hard that it would actually knock a person's legs out from under him when he jumped in the air," recalls Gary, an artist. "It was a fake sort of thing: You pump, the guy jumps in the air, and you throw into his legs and just take them right out and he falls on his head."

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Eric Dexheimer
Contact: Eric Dexheimer