The summer between third and fourth grade my cousin, Jay, and I went to Maryville College to attend the Ernie & Bernie basketball camp. Ernie Grunfeld and Bernard King were two of the University of Tennessee’s best, one could knock the eyes out of the bucket and one had legs the size of tree trunks. While the opportunity to meet future hall-of-famers might seem like enough of a draw to this camp, every kid knows you have one priority at basketball camp; do everything in your power to ensure that the inevitable gift of free shoes will fit. At the very least get a size you might expect to grow into in the course of your lifetime.
Camp went reasonably well. My cousin and I always enjoyed spending time together. We loved the defensive drills led by a young, bald guy I assume played for Maryville College. He taught us to squat low for proper defensive posture. Then, as though testing a cow’s teat for milk, he would extend his arms and pinch his fingers together rapidly all while enthusiastically yelling, “You gotta stay low, fellas! You gotta stay low!”
Personally, I was merely biding the time until Bernard King (Bernie of the Ernie & Bernie camp) would reveal that his sponsor, Converse, had generously donated enough shoes for everyone to have a pair. Alas, Friday came and stacks of Converse boxes appeared in the corner of the gym. All day we were like hounds eyeballing the Thanksgiving turkey. Drone-like we performed our drills, our ears attuned for the sound of the whistle even touching the coach’s lips.
Finally, like church bells calling us to worship, the whistle blew, and suddenly a fire and a vigor like nothing the coaches had witnessed erupted in a sprint for the wall. Where the toil of a week’s worth of clutching at imaginary teats seemed to way down every move just seconds before, somehow we had discovered a reservoir of enthusiasm and energy.
I felt good about my place in line. About 25 other boys were in front of me. Of course, also working to our advantage was the fact that we were dealing with professionals. Surely Converse had consulted Ernie & Bernie beforehand to get an approximate head count. I was also certain that they had taken the time to get a close approximation of the sizes all of us wore. Given my placement I was sure to get a pair of shoes I might even be able to wear now, and if not, definitely within a couple of years. That was sufficient. One way or another I was getting a free pair of shoes.
My cousin and I chatted while we waited in line when, to my shock, another boy about my age came from nowhere and started talking to a boy two places ahead of me. My cousin’s voice became a mumble. I stared and waited, sure that this boy was simply passing along an emergency message to the boy two places ahead of me. I felt compassion. Perhaps this boy’s mother had been in a terrible accident on the way here. Maybe his father had suddenly contracted a life-threatening illness. I watched his eyes shift back and forth as he faked a conversation. Eventually, he eased into line behind the other boy.
Without thinking I left line. I vaguely remember the background noise, that was my cousin talking, coming to an abrupt halt. I approached the boy who had cut line and stared a hole through the corner of his left eye. With determination he stared forward as if I wasn’t there. “What are you doing?” I asked. “What?” he responded. “What do you think you’re doing?” I asked again. “Back off, man,” he said still not looking at me. A fire welled up within me, and I pushed him against the wall. Before I could move in to inflict more punishment both of our arms were grabbed from behind by hands that had been grasping at imaginary teets all week. We were both taken outside the gym, sat in a chair and asked what was going on.
My eyes welled up with a mixture of fury and sadness. I explained my case but kept it brief. I didn’t want to delay any more than was necessary. My free shoes were slipping away. Quickly I took responsibility for my rash actions, and took my place at the back of the line. By the time it was our turn to receive a pair of shoes, what was once a mountain of shoe boxes had been reduced to mere rubble. I felt like I was looking at a man grinning proudly despite only having four teeth.
“Not much left, fellas. You want a size 13 or 14?” said a voice from nowhere. “What difference does it make?” I thought. “13, I guess,” I said. I looked inside at my red and white high top boats. “Who knows? Maybe I will grow into these some day,” I thought as I walked toward my cousin.
That Fall, the bus pulled up to the corner of Wikle and Plantation Drive for my first day of fourth grade at Scales Elementary. Proudly, I walked out of 1401 Plantation Drive dawning my brand new, free pair of size 13 Converse. I wore an extra pair of socks that day. I’m currently 30-years-old, and I wear a size 11.