Pummel Ball

The rain would hit the windows in great waves, bursts of wind throwing buckets at the side of the house while the dark horizon threatened lightning. The streets would become rivers, waterfalls into storm drains while the lakes and creeks rose to meet them, washing out the clear lines of demarcation that we’d built between us and nature.

I would stare out into it, my boots already on, my rattiest jeans and most ancient hoodie. Pockets empty, hand twitching over the phone. It would ring, like phones used to do, telling me that it was carrying a voice through wires from another window looking out at the same storm. I snatched it up before the first ring had ended. Hello?

Pummel ball. It’s on, Miller’s Park, see you in ten.”

And I was out the door and into the rain.

We’d play every time it rained. “Pummel Ball” was basically kill-the-man-with-the-ball, but with points. My high school mates and I invented it as an alternative to the organized sports we didn’t like to play. We liked play, but we had a strong distaste for tradition – everything we did, we liked to build ourselves.

Pummel Ball was played exclusively in the worst weather imaginable – a non-negotiable rule. We needed the mud and the soft grass to combat the violence of the sport. We’d pick some park or playground and someone would bring a ball – usually a football, but often a “Nerf” one or something similar. We’d arbitrarily pick a “goal,” which could be a nearby set of monkey bars or the hood of a junker car – all that mattered was that you could spike the ball into it with a resounding finality, as was the point.

There were no teams. Every man for himself. We’d crouch in a circle maybe 20 yards from the goal, and one person would throw the ball into the air. The goal was then to be the person who took control of the ball and spiked it onto or through the goal. It had to be spiked, not thrown. Everyone else’s goal was to keep you from doing that, by any violent means. It was savage. The play ended if you hit the ground still in possession of the ball, and we’d throw it again from the starting point.

By the time the game was over, with scores like 8-6-4-4-4-2-1-0-0-0, we were monsters. Blood and mud covering shredded clothes, sometimes but not always returning with all the shoes we came with, we would laugh and limp our way out of the park and back to our homes.

Another reason for the weather – no one else in their right mind would be there. We couldn’t play this game with kids around or nice families out for a stroll in the park. Only once did our game get busted up by the cops, but we had no fear of arrest or anything like that – after all, they no more wanted us in their cars in our state than we would want to be there.

There was no set number of plays or minutes. We played until our bodies gave out.

The point of all play is to test. To push. Clever strategy board games push your mind into new pathways, ways of thinking that you don’t use otherwise. Poker pushes your social skills, makes you read and scan and monitor (both others and yourself) in ways you’ve forgotten how to do. Athletic games make you strain and challenge. Betting games test your ability to think about money and odds and statistics and probability. Some social games just give you the freedom to push the boundaries of polite interaction and social mores. But good play always tests.

We must test, we must push. From the day you’re born, the world starts to shrink around you. There are invisible bonds all around you, and they tighten a little more every day. Push at those walls with all your might, test their weak points and seams, and so you can break them when you really need to.

Don’t always hide from the storm. Sometimes you need to match its strength and show it what you’re made of.

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