Marketa and Dan, that’s me, two snot nosed, sniffling, stuffed up blue collar working class brats, became good friends before we even learned each other’s name probably because of being left together by ourselves when our mom’s got together to gossip over morning coffee, were often included in things each of our separate families did as if we were family, chose to do most things outside of our immediate families together during childhood whether it was a team activity like basketball, softball, or touch football that turned out to be a cross between tackle and touch, which with the close contact allowed me to learn and come to like how Marketa tasted and smelled, or expeditions we went on by ourselves that gave me some understanding of how she thought and felt, developing a tremendous amount of respect for her like a courageous, trusted fellow warrior, with the bravado to face down dangers encountered during our childhood years.
A lot of times a girl child develops faster than a boy child and in our childhood years Marketa was way more athletically capable than I was. She could run faster than I could, could throw a ball harder and farther than I could, and could shoot a basketball more accurately than I. The first time we played school yard football the opposing team figured they would easily dominate our team because Marketa and one other girl, Daisy, were on our team. I guess they figured the two girls would be weak links but they quickly found how terribly wrong that assumption was. Marketa could outrun and out maneuver any of the boys on either team so that the first two times she got the ball on offense she scored. When she went back to pass she showed that she could throw the football a long distance with great accuracy. And when she went out as a receiver the only times there wasn’t a score was when the thrower turned out to be incapable. On defense, she was similarly formidable showing itself with a couple of interceptions and the ability to run down any of the other teams running backs. For the second meeting involving our team and theirs they desperately wanted her on their team. I wasn’t such a great player but Marketa insisted that if they wanted her on their team they had to have me on their team as well. Things between us have always been like that with each of us taking care of the other. We make great team.
We began playing basketball in a vacant lot where our folks and some neighbors put up a goal to keep us occupied and burn off excess energy giving them some peace, moved on by the time we were almost 8 to play in a pee wee league at a city gym, and by the time the two of us were 9 years old after playing together for more almost 2 years we had become a great catch, pass, run, and shoot two person team, Marketa developing a reputation as a bit of a ball handling wizard along the way.
I don’t think it was out of strict necessity but my dad was a bit of a handyman and could fix practically anything having to do with major appliances, plumbing, electrical, or mechanical systems in the house. I didn’t know what MEP stood for until one day he told me it stood for mechanical, electrical, and plumbing, went on to give me examples of what was included under each of those classifications and went on further to tell me mechanical included anything that rotated like the air conditioner or the air handler on the heater. He had all types of tools and equipment for working: wrenches, sockets, screwdrivers, pliers, and a work bench with vise that he did a lot of the work on. The tools were always handy, either behind the bench or in a tool box and I watched and learned from him how to use them and how things worked or how to figure out how they worked. One of the very first times his influence on my mechanical skills development showed itself I was a little more than 10 years old and found an old beat-up, hard to look at bicycle that had been abandoned in the bottom of a drainage ditch that ran behind the neighborhood. It had most of its parts but some had been pretty much worn out, a couple others were missing completely, but the frame was in good shape although it was awfully dirty. I cleaned up the bike, took it apart, adjusted parts that I could, and put it back together using my dad’s tools and the workbench. The tires and chain were worn out but I had saved 15 dollars from chores and birthday money which was plenty to get a new chain and if I got a patching kit I could get by for some time with the old tires. The only problem was that the shop where I would have to go to get the new chain was close to the freeway six miles away. Distance wasn’t the issue especially since I now had a bicycle to ride to get there. But to make the trip I would have to pass through some neighborhoods where being a white child was not a benefit, culminating with passage through the toughest, most gang filled area in the city once you got to within a mile of the shop. Marketa was my best friend and she planned to accompany me on the trip to the shop the Saturday a month after I found the bicycle. Everything was going good until about a mile before we got to the shop the chain popped completely in two, leaving me with the choice to push the bike the rest of the way or abandon the entire trip which meant leaving the bike behind. Once we entered the territory of the toughest of the gangs we were being watched like a pair of mice in a field by hungry hawks.
It was almost 9:15, Marketa and I had been on our trip for about an hour and a half. We turned the corner to go down a street where some gang members, hanging out, desperately looking for something to relieve their boredom, chugging down beers, smoking funny smelling cigarettes, immediately confronted us.
The guy who spoke probably wasn’t the smartest but in this situation being biggest and toughest was what mattered even if the toughness was untested and he was the biggest and toughest looking. I doubt I will ever forget that trip. The big, tough guy started,
“What you two white kids doing out of your cribs?
“Don’t you know you ain’t supposed to be in this neighborhood.”
He seemed to have grown from when I first saw him and after he spoke looked more enormous and meaner. My voice was shaking,
“We’re just passing through to go to the bike shop.”
“Is that right? Well, I will let you pass if you pay me a toll.
“How much you got?”
“Barely enough to buy the chain.”
“I guess this just ain’t your lucky day.”
The change in the look on Marketa’s face from the happy glow of a child embarking on a new venture when we started out to one with a worried face drawn tight, pursed lips, eyes darting from me to the big guy then the others worried me, and I was mad at myself that our friendship had put her into such a spot bad but near the street there was a basketball court, some guys shooting hoops, and I had an idea. When I gave her a quick wink, she stood stony still as I went to her and whispered in her ear. Marketa gave my hand a hopeful, reassuring squeeze and listened as I made my proposition to the tough guy.
“I have 15 dollars. The chain will cost me 9 dollars. And once we get the chain I promised my friend that I would buy her a banana split on the way back which is 2 dollars. That leaves 4 dollars. Will you let us pass for 4 dollars?”
“Hell no, you little honky. Beer is 5 dollars for 2 six packs. So, I want 5 dollars.”
“How about a bet?
“Me and my friend will play you and someone else 2 on 2. First team to 20 points wins. If we win you let us pass for nothing. If you win I pay you 10 dollars and I have to go home without the chain I came to get.”
“You aren’t too smart are you boy to make a bet with someone who spends most of his time shooting hoops.
“But you got yourself a bet.
“You shoot for first to have the ball.
“Any shot you want to try from the manhole in the street. Your team gets three shots. If you make two you get the ball first. If not, my team gets the ball first.”
From the manhole cover to the basket was about 25 feet. I knew Marketa was nervous but I had seen her make two handed set shots from that distance many times although those were made with less pressure. From inside 20 feet she could make the same shot, a one-handed set shot, and a hook shot. From inside 10 feet she could make any shot including a jumper or lay-up.
I had the tough guy pass me the ball he wanted to use, dribbled a couple of times, and passed to Marketa hoping that by handling the ball a bit she would lose some of her nervousness.
“Why don’t you get comfortable with the ball?”
I watched her dribble for about 10 seconds, start a dribble with her left hand in front, move to dribble behind her back, and resume with her right hand on the other side. She followed that up with a couple of spin around moves, drove to 15 feet, turned right, and drilled a hook shot through the hoop with her right hand with the ball contacting nothing but net. She retrieved the ball and dribbled back out, passed the ball behind her back to me, got it back from me, dribbled a few times, turned to her left, and made a second hook shot but this time with her left hand although this time it hit the backboard first before going through the hoop.
The tough guy suddenly looked like he had become the mouse in the field.
“What you got? An ace? Are you a couple of hustlers?”
“No, we aren’t. We’re just a couple of working class kids trying to get bye.
“She and I are very good friends. We’ve been playing basketball together on the same team for over two years.
“Are you rethinking the bet?”
.... There is more of this story ...