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BEWARE, JOE TENNIS

By Joseph Ferguson (Originally appeared in a slightly different form in Climbing Magazine)


In the early days of my rock climbing career, when EB's were state-of-the-art and no one in their right mind referred to 5'10 as "moderate climbing," we were rebels with neither cause nor effect.  Gravitating from equally erstwhile pursuits like surfing, majoring in philosophy, or drinking sterno, we were the guys unpicked for basketball, the girls not asked to dance, a motley assemblage of ex-hippies, one-time nerds, and Nam vets hoping to match the adrenal fix of battle.  Reveling in our outcast status we made fashion statements that said things like, "Tom Waits," "Gabby Hayes," "Tet Offensive."

Redirect ChinmanToday, rock climbing has grown mainstream.  We're on TV, in the movies, and featured in credit card ads.  We wait for climbs at popular crags like they were rides at Disneyland, assuming we get there early enough to park.  We pay admission to climb on artificial walls in cities and flatlands.  Risk is no longer intrinsic but a lifestyle choice, and the professional climber is not the chimerical beast he once was.

It's even fashionable to climb.  There are ads and catalogues of expensive clothes and accessories.  The madras shorts that were once your father's bathing suit in 1947, have been replaced by $200 lycra Spiderman body suits as the de rigueur accoutrement                              

ensemble.  Chic climbers motor up routes with the names of manufacturers inscribed across their backs and chests like racing decals on stock cars. 

Yes, I dread speaking the words aloud, but Joe Tennis has arrived.  Let me explain.

When I was a kid, somewhere before drinking replaced scaffold tag as the sport of choice, my friend Rory and I would invest the wealth of our daylight savings time in long and preposterous tennis matches.

We would arrive at the courts in cut-offs, ripped t-shirts and Keds, wielding E.J. Korvettes rackets (K-Mart having not reached our corner of the universe yet), just about the time the guy who checked permits went home.

Eschewing the gate for the more glamorous West Side

Story eight-foot fence climb, we took the playing surface with the decorum of Visigoths.  We hopped nets, balanced rackets on noses, launched them spaceward, screaming in pain when they caught our hands instead of vise versa.  We twirled them like sewer cleaning devices featured in Roto Router commercials, spun them like the Young Rascals' drummer spun his sticks, or held them to our faces like catcher's masks.  We swung them like baseball bats and golf clubs, occasionally slicing up divots of clay, and spoke in tones more appropriate to airline baggage handlers of such un-tennis like things as books, movies or "the jugs on that one."

Inevitably HE would be there, adorned in virgin-white raiment certain as mortality, sure as that third of the paycheck you'll never see... Joe Tennis.

Gleaming in hoary splendor, his pressed white tennis shirt, tucked flawlessly into impeccable white tennis shorts, he looked down a perfectly sculpted tennis nose, tennis crew-cut bristling against the dusk-orange sky like the fuzz of a tennis ball. His feet were girt in sneakers designed specifically for the game, while close to his heart was inscribed the holy monogram of some tennis equipment manufacturer: Spalding, McGregor, Penn.  

Armed with cutting edge equipment, his arsenal of rackets, insurance against any terrestrial or atmospheric condition that might arise, was stacked in neat rows against the fence.  He never had less than six cans of brand new balls, some of which he would fill with water to slake his thirst during the heat of combat.

Joe Tennis was all business.  His shots were straight and low.  Each nearly kissed the net, before curving still further downward, striking up small clouds of gray earth with the authority of a meteorite.  He gave no quarter, and while not skewering whatever doomed soul had innocently agreed to play him (for Joe Tennis had no equals, and therefore no friends with which to play), he was not shy about upbraiding us, or anyone else foolish enough to offend his proprieties.

Braver, cleaner and more reverent or prepared than any Boy Scout, Joe Tennis was straight and true.  He was mom, and apple pie, truth, justice, the American way.

He was, in short, Joe Tennis.  And we despised him. 

We despised him more than the Joe Golfs we caddied for in their bright orange pants and Scottish beanies.  They were rich and our parents' age.  We hated him more than the Christian Brothers, who beat us daily for the love of Christ.  You expected as much from virginal men in dresses.  We hated him more even than the starched drab-green military recruiters whose excessive neatness reminded us more of homosexuals than John Wayne.  After all, they were only trying to lure us into the same mistake they'd already made themselves.  Misery is indeed in great need of company.

No.  There was something intrinsically wrong with Joe Tennis.  With the idea of Joe Tennis.  Not much more than our age, he should have known better.  Should have been one of us.

After all, what kid didn't know that only suckers pay to buy clothes advertising a company's name?  Or that sneakers were sneakers, and special ones for each sport was a money-making scam, thought up by overweight, unathletic sneaker barons?  Or that taking anything, particularly yourself, too seriously was treading on extremely thin existential ice?

Our mutual realities offended each other.  Every perfect serve, every impeccably laundered outfit, the mere glimpse of his little white socks glowing spotlessly above his polished sneakers, filled us with disdain.  The sound of his voice, inflating the warm air with tennis jargon, grated like fingernails on a blackboard.  In turn, each of our cockeyed shots, our un-tennis like chatter, every time one of our lifeless, should-have-been-retired-two-years-ago balls dribbled limply about his feet his tennis ball head would go crimson with rage.

Once, either my or Rory's exquisite lack of control sent a slice careening off the side of Joe Tennis' head.  The combination of grime and English painted a smudged orb upon the fuzz that was his haircut, and we rolled in paroxysms of laughter on the damp clay as he railed against us and the cruel fate that had dropped him willy nilly on the same plane of existence with our sort.

He retaliated by reporting us to the permit checker, whose job was basically to sit on the same park bench he would be sitting on anyway and bullshit with the same people he would be bullshitting with anyway.  Needless to say this was a situation he was loathe to part with, so in order to safeguard his sinecure, hung around a little later for a few nights, forcing us to find other amusements, namely joining the crowd of cronies he bullshitted with.

In the wisdom, or blindness of age, I see now that Joe Tennis was just another poor schmuck like the rest of us, making his way through the uncharted world as best he could.  Though I never expected to see him climbing, he is arrived in spades and to protest would be pointless, ungracious and hypocritical.  Things change. Things change.

Of course, in changing they remain stable.  I suspect right now some young Rory and Joe Doppelgangers are buzzing like merry gadflies about the lycra-clad likes of Joe Climber, and he in turn, will report them to the ranger, or harangue them with a long boring speech on political correctness, patriotism, or supply-side economics.  And this is as it should be.

Still, I'm wary of the dark side of Joe Tennis.  Perhaps I'm just becoming an old coot ruing change for the same reason young coots embrace it, but it seems to me the danger Joe Tennis poses to rock climbing is his solemnity.  He took himself and what should have been a game far too seriously.  When that happens all perspective is lost.

Like Joe Tennis we have inflated our importance.  In a recentRedirect Chinman 1 letter to the editor of Climbing someone was absolutely baffled by the objections of Native Americans to climbing on their sacred grounds.  The author could not comprehend that people who were at the receiving end of the most successful genocide ever waged, might get a little miffed at a bunch of white guys crawling all over their holy places.  Even a die-hard cynic like me, who regards any form of religion as superstitious nonsense, can see the comparison is one of apples to Jovian size planets.

If Joe Tennis had lightened up a little he would have had a lot more fun, and guys like me and Rory would have left him alone.  The rock has been here for geologic time before us, and will remain long after the human race is but genetic memory.  Even the most ardent rock aficionado should remember climbing is something personal and ultimately irrelevant to the larger scheme of things.

    I think maybe we all need to lighten up a bit.

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