Relative Something

*this* John W. Hays' take on things and experiences

A Summertime Story

with 4 comments

This is a true story about a boy and a dunk tank. You can trust me on this one. I was there. It all played out under the friendly sunshine of a Midwestern 4th of July celebration, back before the turn of the millennium, at an annual gathering held by the collective families that make up the Wildwood Lodge Club, a private association of seven clans that have joined forces to create a vacation-home getaway in Northwestern Wisconsin.

Our tradition for celebrating Independence Day includes plenty of the classics: a parade (kids ride on hay bales in a red, white, and blue decorated trailer behind the old Ford tractor); competitions of three-legged races, water balloon toss, a scavenger hunt (among many others); a pot-luck dinner; and a dramatic finish of fireworks over the lake.

What began decades earlier as primarily an event focused on one generation of children, had now evolved to incorporate the development of quite a number of third-generation kids and cousins. As a result, organizers were always looking to include new and innovative improvements to traditional entertainment. The dunk tank was a natural addition. Butch, the caretaker, was a local resident and member of the Lion’s Club who had access to a tank, which, amazingly, had no other commitments for the occasion.

This being a new game on our regular itinerary, a lot of questions began to surface regarding the actual process of whom, how, and when. My son, Julian, was six or seven years old, one of the younger members of that second generation of kids at that time. He surprised me with what appeared to be an unnatural level of apprehension about how the rules of this game might develop. In my mind, it didn’t really matter, because I figured he would be more likely to participate in the fish pond event than this new dunk tank.

One popular suggestion was to have the ‘thrower’ who successfully drops a heckling ‘sitter’ into the tank, be awarded the dubious honor of claiming the seat themselves, for the next round. In the end, majority rule decided the watered-down ‘sitter’ who got dunked would earn the right to pick the next victim from the crowd. This rankled my son quite a bit; sincerely fearful of facing the fate of this tank that was easily over his head in-depth, not to mention quite a drop from a perch that was about three times as high as he was tall. I worked to assure him that no one would put him in such peril. Worst case, I assured him I would volunteer to take his turn if someone picked him. He seemed less than convinced of his safety.

It wasn’t difficult to find a volunteer for first ‘sitter’ out of the crowd of 20-year-olds that made up the trailing number of first-generation kids in the group. The challenge was maintaining order in the crowd of willing ‘throwers’ that jostled for position to get their hands on the tennis balls waiting to be launched. With the variety of ages participating, two lines to throw from were drawn, allowing the youngest arms better odds of success. Julian took a position toward the end of the little kids’ line to give him a chance to observe the proceedings a bit before getting himself too involved.

We took turns between the younger throwers and the bigger ‘kids’ (of all ages). The perpetual battle of accuracy versus velocity played out over and over. The still-dry heckler began to hone his craft with the protracted practice he was enjoying. Then, without the slightest warning of what was about to unfold, my son reached the front of his line. He was one of the smaller kids there. I’m sure many allowed themselves to be distracted for the moment, reaching for their pop can, laughing with a friend, getting the sucker out of their daughter’s hair.

Julian reached back, lifted his leg, turned, and fired a frozen-rope line-drive throw that nailed that battered metal disc of a target. Without hesitation, that big guy who had moments earlier been heckling boldly, dropped like a limp doll into the waiting chill of the waters of our great new attraction at the Wildwood 4th of July celebration. Oh, the revelry that ensued! Oh, the look on Julian’s face; half pride, half fear. What had he done? What was everybody freaking out about? What was going to happen to him now? Suddenly, I felt the rush of everything he had been hinting toward earlier. I grew apprehensive. Was I going to have to protect him from somebody’s well-intentioned revenge? I also wondered, “Did he have an intuition that this might actually happen?!”

Fortunately for me, it was all too funny to get caught up in seeking reparations, and some other guy was rallied to the seat. Much of the residual trash talking was targeted at the group of throwers for their letting little Julian be the one to dunk the first person. The line of well-capable throwers was about twice as long as the number of little ones half-again closer. It served to amplify the appearance of disparity that it was Julian who first achieved success.

Do you know the phenomenon that happens as a stand-up comedian gets on a roll? That initial laughter loosens things up to allow for greater laughs to follow, and then each subsequent punch line brings greater and greater laughter? Imagine our reaction if, as people cycle through the line taking turns throwing, Julian ended up being the one to dunk the next guy. Well, he did. Our laughter was all-encompassing. This was just the half of it.

After this scene played out a third time, and the laughter began to mix with increasing wonder and amazement, I negotiated with my son to get him to move back from the little kids’ line.

“Why?” he asked, with genuine innocence and a measure of disappointment.

“Because you can!” I implored.

I had people coming to me to marvel over my little pitching prodigy. I think one of them wanted to negotiate rights to his contract. Sure I’d played catch with him in the driveway, but I didn’t know he could do this!

Finally, it became apparent that the crowd was interested in some compensation for the success he had been enjoying at their expense. I dutifully took my position on the perch. This was not a comfortable place for me. It seemed much higher from this vantage point and proved to be dramatically more stressful than I imagined, waiting for the clank of the mechanism to send me to my doom. “This must be the apprehension Julian was experiencing,” I thought to myself. “I see where he gets it.” I never got around to plying the craft of the heckle. I must admit, even I enjoyed the poignancy of the moment Julian stepped to the front of the line.

He dropped me into the water with aplomb. I immediately picked his mother to replace me.

“You’re half responsible for this!” I sprayed from the ladder.

I think someone may have helped Julian sneak back to the front of the line before his rightful turn. He dunked her with identical ease.

In all, Julian dropped seven people into the bath that afternoon; more than all other successful throwers combined. No other individual throwers accomplished more than a single dunking. The dunk-tank event won a spot in the 4th of July games for several more years, eventually fading from popularity. The memories of that first time have earned a spot alongside some of the greatest in the annals of WWLC lore.

Julian did go on to play some baseball. Batted left and threw right. He rose through the ranks from tee-ball to machine pitch and then kid pitch. His last team even made it to a championship game, facing a team outside his regular league. He had a problem with that. Another one of those premonitions. His anxiety over getting hit by this pitcher seemed illogically out of proportion to me, and to my wife, as well.

As we examined the redness on his skin at the site of impact, marveling at the detail of the stitches of the ball becoming more apparent with time, he informed us that he would never be participating in this sport of baseball again.




Written by johnwhays

June 30, 2009 at 7:30 am

4 Responses

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  1. I do sometimes wonder what could have been, if I did not quit playing baseball…


    July 6, 2012 at 12:49 pm

    • Other than the bruises, oh… maybe a few million dollars! And lots of travel. That is, after all those years in the minors. 🙂


      July 6, 2012 at 1:08 pm

  2. i love this story. =)


    July 1, 2009 at 2:48 pm

    • I’d love to hear what you remember about that day…


      July 1, 2009 at 2:52 pm

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