Fold a sheet of notepaper in half lengthwise, then again in half lengthwise. Now fold it up like an American flag, and tuck in the end. This paper triangle is the football. Two boys sit at opposite ends of a cafeteria table. One player kicks off by holding the football on end and flicking it with a finger. Wherever it lands, the other player then taps it some number of times, sliding the football toward his opponent. You get typically two or three downs to score, the exact number depending on the length of the table. You score a touchdown if you can push the football so that it stops with part hanging over the edge of the table. Then you get to kick for the extra point. The defender makes a set of goal posts: fists on table, extended index fingers touching, and thumbs vertical. Flick the football between these uprights for a field goal. Extra points (at least in a social sense) if you manage to hit the guy in the face.
In junior high, the bus brought us to school early. The school wasn’t really open yet, so as we arrived we were to wait in the cafeteria. This is where we played Polish Football.
This was pretty much exclusively a guy’s game. Not that girls wouldn’t have been welcome, in the complex sense in which girls are welcome among boys of a certain age. The girls sat at tables across the cafeteria doing who knows what. Not playing Polish football, anyway.
For some reason, this game caused the Principal no end of aggravation. Unwilling to just ban it, he was always issuing some bizarre edict about it. Though this was well before the heyday of political correctness, he couldn’t really call it by name in an official document. Every week or so, we’d get an announcement: “No Table Football on Tuesdays; The janitors have a meeting,” or “Due to the construction across the parking lot, students may not play table-top football before 10:00 AM on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays until further notice.”
Years later I wondered if our principal had in fact been a genius; Could he have used these pronouncements to subtly undermine our respect for authority? Maybe it was all a sophisticated strategy of double-reverse psychology; kind of an Ender’s Game thing. Or maybe contempt for authority was an unintended by-product. Maybe he was just a run-of-the-mill junior high school principal. Certainly we were unexceptional boys. When we couldn’t play Polish football, we thumb-wrestled.
When the janitor unlocked the connecting doors, we took our stuff to our lockers, then went to the library to play chess. Certainly not everyone played chess, but it was a diverse mix; Geeks, Jocks, Shop guys, Grubs. Rarely did any girls play. Occasionally they would watch. Mostly they sat at different tables, talking about us.
Typically there were half a dozen chess games in progress, with four or five people watching each one. I took this for granted; it was just what we did. I now think our librarian was a remarkable woman. One day she suggested I might enjoy a novel called “The Hobbit.” Another time, she gave me a collection of short stories by Robert Heinlein. The library was for many of us the social center of the school, and remained so into high school. Of course I had no idea then how rare that was. I hadn’t met Smaug the librarian, who sees her books as a hoard to be guarded, and the children as thieves. It never occurred to me that students would be glared at suspiciously as they entered, or told they could only check out books from an approved list, or couldn’t check out books above their level. But I digress.
Chess is a game for which I have zero aptitude. I was never any good, and didn’t really improve. I played because my friends did. When the bell rang, we went to class.
After lunch, we went outside or into the gym, and milled around for ten minutes until our class was called. While we waited, we played a series of improvised games that mostly involved slapping each other’s knuckles. The girls didn’t play these games either. Of course they were impressed by our bravery, or at least our pain tolerance. Not that impressing the girls was our goal. There was no goal. Hitting each other was an end in itself. I don’t believe we had conscious goals, except in the very short term.
After the last class, the girls went home or waited for their buses in the library. We played ping-pong in the shop room until our buses arrived. Often I stayed late to keep playing, and then walked home. We were really into ping-pong one year. This was probably part of the larger national obsession that followed Nixon’s trip to China, and the resulting fascination with everything Chinese. We could talk learnedly about different grips, top and back spins, slams; I had a particularly effective back-spin serve, that I’ve since learned is completely illegal. Guys bought balls of different weights, and special paddles. It was a big deal. Then it was over.
After supper, we got together at a friend’s house for Risk. I remember this as a horribly tedious game. Even after thirty years, I never again want to hear the phrase ‘Attacking Irkutsk.’
It started off well enough. My friend said, “Come over; we’re playing Risk.” “What’s Risk?” I asked. “Oh, humma humma, strategy, wargames, cards, dice; It’s not like chess.”
So, I learned the rules, and played several times a week one winter. Sometimes we had two games going at separate tables. There were certainly no girls here. Presumably they were at home doing their homework. We played in the basement, and lived like pigs. We kept soda in the window well, and threw the empties in the corner. Not just any corner; We weren’t slobs; the designated Trash Corner. It was great. By the end of the winter, we were at each other’s throats. We switched to Rook.
Rook is a card game involving bidding, tricks and trumps. I was, and am, far better at cards than board games of any kind. I can play a casual game of cards without embarrassment. Rook was the first card game I learned well and systematically. It’s a fine game that I could still enjoy playing, but after a few months we tired of Rook. Somehow, we started playing bridge, and moved out of the basement. I think this, all along, may have been the goal of my friend’s father.
Rook was a great introduction, but we found bridge a far different game. No soda drinking contests, either for speed or quantity; Snacks only between games; Trash in the trash can. We were willing to put up with this because the game was far more challenging and rewarding. Some of the girls we knew would occasionally join us for bridge. I think now that my friend’s parents were, like the librarian, exceptionally decent people. They were generous with their time, willing to talk with us, able to teach us a lot about bridge, and at least something about civilized behavior. I can’t say I was a great student of either discipline, but actually learning to play bridge with even minimal skill was as educational as anything I did in high school.