Why was I here? What was the connection? It was early afternoon on January 26, 1996, Superbowl Saturday, the day of the Santa Barbara Polar Bear. Here was East Beach, Santa Barbara, generally one of the most spectacular beach volleyball locales on the planet. But today, for the Polar Bear, it was wet – not overcast, or drizzly, or misty like a summer fog. It was raining, steady and cold, and I was one of the fortunate 78 to make it out of pool play. Lucky me.
I looked over at my partner, Chris, at 28 years old a solid double A player. We had just met; I knew little about him, but liked him. He worked as a urchin dive tender, was hoping to break into nature cinematography. That’s what I do. It seemed a bizarre coincidence – there just aren’t a lot of nature-cinematographer-volleyball enthusiasts around who are willing to play in the rain in January.
“Is this fun?” I asked myself when we started our quarterfinal match against triple-A Steve Byrd and Bruce Jaffee, a seasoned player from Santa Cruz. Then I remembered the previous December, watching Steve and Jung play Bruce and Ilga in the finals of the Las Palmas Helados Polar Bear, another winter tournament. What a day that had been! Crystal clear, in the 70’s, not a breeze on Carmel Beach, another one of the world’s most spectacular beaches. Their final had been long and hard-fought, the first ever between two coed teams. On that first weekend in December,with 40 committed friends cheering and jeering, solid B Bruce and triple A Ilga held on to defeat Steve and Jung, 15-13.
But today, whose day is it, I wondered, as our game against Bryd-Jaffee began and the rain poured. They served me, we served Bruce. It only seemed fair. He was 40-something, I was 39 looking real close at 40. The new decade was only weeks away. A party was being planned for 200 of my closest friends, many of them volleyball players. As I served Bruce, I knew he would be coming, since there was a volleyball tournament beforehand. And Steve might too. My attention wandered, from the rain, to the game, to the Helados tournament, to my birthday tournament and the party, to the rain again. Was there a pattern?
By the time I regained focus, it was 8 zip, and it looked as though it wasn’t our day. The rain changed the game – everything was heavy and wet, the ball, our clothes, the air, the sand. It seemed like slow motion up until the approach, a quick leap out of wet, hard-packed sand, and then, boom, a slow heavy ball to dig. We started playing better, I’m not sure why. Our side outs were steady, they started making mistakes. We crawled back into it, through the quiet rain, and won 16-14.
It was a long game, but we had a little breather – time under an umbrella. There was nothing comfortable about being here. My clothes stuck to me, my beard held the rain like a sponge and when I shook my head, I felt the water fly off. It reminded me of Oregon, my three years there after college. I coached an men’s indoor team, average age in the late 30’s. I was in my early twenties. Our team started a beach volleyball tournament in 1981 that now attracts 2000 people – the largest in the Pacific Northwest. I remembered this same sensation, playing there in the rain, during the summer, spending time huddled beneath umbrellas. I looked around.
There was John Katnic, who organizes the Santa Barbara Polar Bear. I’d known him for 11 years. And Alan Jones and Mike Everman and Steve Lough. I’d known them just as long. And Ilga, I had known her 9 years. Digger, who I drove down with, I had known 6. And crazy Jackie, I had just met her last summer in Oregon – what a hoot she was, a wit to break the strongest of youthful egos, an artist in verbal harassment. How many games of volleyball had I played with these people? Hundreds? Thousands? How many insults had we shared? What was it I enjoyed? And why did I choose to continue, today, in these conditions? I talked with my friends and watched the rain and wondered what it was.
The next game was quick and painless, for Chris and me at least. Not so painless for John Katnic and his partner who we bageled. I didn’t take much pleasure in the win, we were clearly the stronger team, and John’s partner folded like a tent. What did John once say to me about having an offense like Kuwait? I smiled through the drips of sweat and rain as we left the court to the umbrellas.
It was late afternoon. I was tired and physically miserable, and yet I wasn’t miserable. John and Alan and Steve and I talked about Santa Barbara. Digger and I talked about Monterey. Ilga and I talked about Santa Cruz. Chris asked me about getting into the film business. Jackie had me laughing with her commentary during another semifinal match. There were two teams left and thirty people on the beach and it was still raining hard.
I looked at the team we would face in the finals: triple A Andrew Cavanaugh and a fellow they called Maui John. More connections, the neurons in my mind racing to keep them straight, make sense of them. I had known Andrew when he was a snot-nosed tennis player at UCSB, number 2 in the state I think. Couldn’t play a lick of volleyball. But he started at Goleta Beach, where I first learned to play, and one summer 8 years ago or so went from being unrated to triple A. That surprised those of us who knew him, because he wasn’t all that impressive physically. But mentally he is steel, one the toughest competitor I’ve known. Four years ago, we played in the Oregon Tournament together, and in the middle of a match, right after I hit a ball out, he pulled down on the net and brought it down along the volleyball posts. A hundred spectators sat stunned, they had never seen that kind of intensity. I had. That was why I had asked him to play with me. Andrew was my favorite kind of partner or competitor. They still tell his story every summer in Oregon.
Until today, I had only met Maui John on the phone. As his nickname suggested, he was a resident of Maui, friends of my friends Bill and Sally Worcester, who I had met in Oregon in 1980. Bill and I had played volleyball together for 16 years. John was at the tournament because, as Bill’s friend, I invited him. At 50 something, Bill had had to stop playing volleyball several months ago – his knees were swelling, not clear why. So when the match started, I looked across the drizzle at John and Andrew and saw in that rain 20 years of friends and places and games and emotions and life. I looked at the sidelines and there, crowded under a parade of umbrellas, were friends from Santa Barbara and Monterey, San Jose and Santa Cruz, some I had known more than 10 years, some for only a day. It startled me. There were connections to my twenties in Oregon, my years in Santa Barbara, my home in Monterey. Here, on this rainy day in January, on this beach where I had learned to play volleyball, I was blessed to have a picture of my life painted in sand and faces and memories. Rain or no rain, I was blessed to be playing.
Playing. Isn’t that what we do as children. Hide and seek. Football in the street. Volleyball in a gym with 20 people on a side. Then things get more organized. Practice. Formations. Learn the fundamentals. Team play. High school competition. Intramurals in college. And then, what? For me, it had never stopped. Being an athlete, being athletic, is just a part of who I am. Play and life are integrated like sleep and wake, part of the cycle of the day.
The rain fell, harder now. As we served, it was an effort to get the ball over the net. We changed balls constantly, substituting a moist one under an umbrella for one that was thoroughly soaked. Everything went to Maui John, but he played steady. I saw a lot of balls, too, but not every one. The score went back and forth, long rallies, side-out after side-out. The crowd was relentless. They focused on Andrew, his serious demeanor being an easy target. He was everywhere, covering 70% of the court and more. “Let your partner take a ball,” Jackie yelled at him. “It’s not coed until you’re over 50.”
We were up 14 to 13, but then I hit a ball out and Chris made a poor shot. Then they made a couple mistakes. Fifteen all, change sides. We go to the bad side. (But is there really a good side?). First ball comes to me, I go up, crank on it, water goes flying, the ball goes inches long. Shoot, a bit too excited I tell myself. No big deal. Andrew jumps the next one, right at Chris. I see it skid up his arms, water flying. Double contact. Game over. That’s it.
The crowd erupts in applause and heckles. No good deed goes unpunished, so the saying goes. Ilga leads a final cheer as the winners and losers meet under the net, exchange tired handshakes, and talk about meeting at the awards party. Game over, we gather our waterlogged belongings and leave the beach.
I return to my father’s home, shower, and think about the day in that kind of dehydrated haze that often follows a long day at the beach. Exhausted and a bit sore, I don’t know what to make of it except that it was special, fun, enlivening. I think about all American ceremonies – those of worship, of introspection, of celebration – and am thankful to have volleyball as my own.
On the way to the party, I stop to see my Uncle Peter. He’s been my closest uncle since I moved to Santa Barbara – egads, that’s 26 years ago. We have spent who knows how much time talking and laughing and eating and sharing the things that close families share. My friends tell me he is a character out of a movie: an opera-singing, card-playing, wine-drinking Italian house painter with a flair for comedy and performance. And now, at 76, he’s dying.
I enter his bed room, see him in bed. He smiles and graciously offers me a Percadan or morphine – he has always had an irreverent sense of humor. Have I heard the one about the three nuns who went to heaven? Yes, another dirty joke. At least I haven’t heard it before. He asks me what I’ve been up to. I tell him about my day, that I’m exhausted from playing eight long games of volleyball in the rain. He says I’m crazy, I should go home and rest. I tell him I’m going dancing. He asks if I’m nuts, using an expletive adjective that conjures up old memories of his indecorous humor. I look at him and remember how he lived, how my father at 81 lives: they never stop. Now, as he lays dying, he’s worried about me being tired. What am I worried about? That he’ll die? No, I accept that. That I’ll miss him? Yes, that I know. But knowing is accepting, not a worry just a pain, something as an adult you learn to endure. What more? That as I quickly approach 40 my mortality is more apparent, that his impending death makes me reexamine what is important and what is trivial?
The rain is trivial, but it persists. I can hear it outside now. It reminds me of the day at the beach. I look at my Uncle, from 180 pounds down to 139. His life is receding. I recall for him a poem of Dylan Thomas
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rage at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
but he doesn’t understand. What does it mean, he asks, to rage against the dying of the light. I try to explain, but realize it is senseless – he has raged his entire life. Until this week he golfed as much as he could, played cards to all hours of the night, leered at young women, sang beautiful opera, and enjoyed his wine with a passion. For 76 years he celebrated life with friends and laughter, in rain and sunshine, in his own way, with all his own connections. And today, at the Santa Barbara Polar Bear, I celebrated it in mine. I touched his hand as I left for the party, to find my friends and connections, to dance.