Neighborhood Gold

Clearing the bar in the backyard

By Bill Fields

A few years ago, not long after I began freelancing as a booth researcher at golf tournaments broadcast by NBC Sports, someone pointed out a slim, silver-haired man walking into a trailer in the television compound. This particular camera operator, my colleague told me, had a distinct background. It was Ken Walsh, a former American Olympic swimmer who won three medals (two gold, one silver) in 1968 in Mexico City.

I hadn’t seen Walsh since I was 9 years old. Or at least I imagine I probably watched him on ABC during the ’68 Summer Games, because as a fourth-grader obsessed with sports, those Olympics were a very big deal when they flickered on our living room Zenith. (Portions of the Olympics were shown in color for the first time, but we still had a black-and-white set.)

Decades later, some of the competitors’ names from that year — the Summer Games were held in October — jump to mind more easily than those of childhood friends even though the television coverage of that period was a fraction of the airtime today.

There was Bob Beamon, shattering the world record in the men’s long jump with a leap of 29 feet, 2 1/4 inches that wasn’t bettered for 23 years and remains the Olympic mark. Bill Toomey won gold in the decathalon, Randy Matson the shot put and Al Oerter the discus throw (for the fourth straight Olympics). Kip Keino of Kenya ruled in the 1,500 meters and Bob Seagren in the pole vault. Dick Fosbury shook up things by winning the high jump with his novel backward style.

Walsh? As I discovered, he was on the winning 4×100 freestyle relay and 4×100 medley relay teams and finished second in the 100-meter freestyle behind Australian Mike Wenden and ahead of fellow American Mark Spitz, who would win seven gold medals four years later in Munich.

My neighborhood buddies and I ran our sprints up and down East New Jersey Avenue — there was little traffic, and it was slightly downhill to the chalk-drawn finish line heading toward May Street — but come Olympics time in ’68 we really were more interested in the field events.

Chuck, my best friend, and I constructed a high jump behind his house out of stray 2x4s for supports with an old broom handle resting on two nails as the bar to jump over. We improvised a landing pit out of dirt, pine straw and leaves. The long jump didn’t require as much preparation — just a couple of baseballs to mark the take-off spot and a yardstick to measure where our Converse tennis shoes made a mark in the sand. We made a few feeble attempts at the triple jump but couldn’t quite figure out when to hop and when to skip.

The real backyard drama came in an event the younger kids only watched.

One of Chuck’s older brothers, Ricky, was up for most anything. When he wasn’t roaring around on his minibike or tackling opposing players like Dick Butkus, he liked to pole vault — and not just in the Southern Pines school gym or at Memorial Field. Ricky pole-vaulted in his yard, using bamboo stalks he got from a nearby thicket and taped up for a better grip to go up and over. A pile of saw dust and a couple of cheap, inflated beach rafts cushioned the landing.

Ricky’s friends would join him, and so would one of the men who lived on our block, Mr. McNeill, a good athlete who had played on the town’s semi-pro baseball team. He probably was only in his late 30s, but that seemed ancient to a little kid. Clad in his work clothes on those late afternoon jumps, Mr. McNeill gave no quarter to the teenagers. The way those bamboo poles bent after being planted in the homemade box, it seemed like only a matter of time before the rescue squad would have to be summoned for broken bones, although bruises and sprains are the worst injuries I can recall.

I’m slated to go to my first Olympics this summer, the Tokyo 2020 Games that were delayed a year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. I’ll be working on the golf production, a long way from where the vaulters will be headed skyward on space-age poles and a long time from the fun and games of 1968.  PS

Southern Pines native Bill Fields, who writes about golf and other things, moved north in 1986 but hasn’t lost his accent.

His favorite book is North Toward Home by Willie Morris

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