I grew up in a small town. The kind of town where everybody knows everybody; where everybody knows everybody’s business. It was the 70s and the 80s, but gossip spread faster than Trump on Twitter.
You have to understand, that there was almost ZERO to do in my hometown of Wilber, Nebraska.
There was no movie theater.
There was no miniature golf.
There was no rollerskating rink.
There was no arcade, other than one or two stand up games in the local bars, which I dumped my fair share of quarters into. Thank you Donkey Kong, Pac-Man, Gallaga and Centipede for giving me those skills and imprinting those memories.
In the winter, the entertainment was tying a rope onto the back of somebody’s four-wheel-drive vehicle and on the other end……people……on a sled……. who learned about inertia firsthand! Yes, “an object in motion tends to stay in motion.” Yes, country roads were the classrooms back then in so many ways.
Let me stay on track.
Those winter road boredom busters would never, ever be attempted in today’s overprotective-in-all-the-wrong-ways society. Thank God I was born when I was born.
We were creative. With a ball and a bat, a front yard, a rock, a tree, and a car bumper assigned as bases of our infield, we created our own Field of Dreams.
Then, one day in sixth grade, word got out that Doctor Travnicek, who we knew as “Doc Trav”, or simply “Doc”, was going to be at the tennis courts.
Doc was a legend in our town. It didn’t matter if you nearly ripped your finger off, getting your wedding ring caught on farm equipment or if you shredded your ankle running stairs in the gym for conditioning, or if you broke your eardrum trying to do a flip off the high dive; Doc was always there. After all, he was the only doctor in town. To many people, including my own mom, his word was gospel.
My mom had such high regard for Doc and his approach to knocking out what ails a person, that if he would’ve said tie a purple piece of yarn around your ring finger and jump up and down for a minute while blindfolded to make such and such go away, she would’ve done it. She had to have had a part in getting me to the courts that day, I’m guessing.
Implied Expectations are a Great Thing
Somehow, I showed up at the right place and time. When I picked up someone else’s racket that day and started hitting ball after ball, I remember him watching.
I amazed myself.
I was pretty decent.
He took more than his typical ADD nano-second approach to observing my skills. He told my parents something to the effect of “get that girl a racket” and my ever-complying mom did just that. Both of my parents were supportive and bought me a Wilson oversized head racket and the tennis part of my story launched.
With that racket in my hand, I experienced purpose for the first time in my life. It was like my new addiction. Hours upon hours were spent honing my newfound skills. I had a couple of close friends that also took up this new found wonderland in our tiny town and so we headed to the courts come rain or shine or snow. Yes, snow. We would shovel them in the morning, and by afternoon sun they would be ready to go in no time. There were four courts, arranged in a square, surrounded by green on the edge of town. The surface was faded and the cracks were obvious because of the weeds sprouted up between the cracks.
When we’d play a point and the ball would hit a crack and take an unexpected tangent, we’d “do-over”. Back in the day, people went cruisin’ and the park was one of the places teenagers wasted their gas, therefore, you had better display your best skills.
Tennis was an official school sport and so after Doc was done with his medicine practice, he would come and spend an hour or two with the team down at the courts every day.
When no one was available to practice, us girls would “hit” on the outside wall of Doc’s office.
Made of brick, we learned even more about Science and Math with speed and angles. And of course, the windows up high…. yeah, they were broken a handful of times over the years.
Then he’d finish up at the office, we’d hop in his car and head the ten blocks to the courts where he’d spend time with us.
My parents’ home was literally three blocks from his office. It felt like an honor when the wall phone rang and I picked it up to find Doc on the other end.
“Pick you up in five” – click.
He pulled up…barely stopping, I hopped in and we headed to our second home. We played until the sun went down and then by the glow of quarter-operated lights.
Hard to believe it now, 35 years later, but I was a natural hustler.
Whether anyone was looking or not, I gave my all to that sport.
I’d hit one over the fence…….. again. And I’d run to get it. Walking was slacking in my book.
It was Varsity Tennis and my work ethic sprouted during those years.
Up until that point in time, I had ridden my bike by those courts, and played in the park across from the courts, and even roller-skated on the courts, but didn’t pursue them for their intended purpose. After all, I didn’t own a racket and in my pea-brained little mind, did not think my parents would buy me one, simply for the asking.
Somehow, I did go with all the other kids that day and borrowed a racket and took my chances. I found such power in it. That sweet spot is like heaven on Earth.
My addiction began.
You Will Never Regret Working Hard
Imagine. A 1980s ten-speed bike with a double metal basket hanging on either side of the rear wheel. A ghetto box in one side and a racket and tennis balls in the other.
Of course, tennis is a sport meant for two. I was very fortunate because my two best friends in the whole world also found this new sport. Day after day, year after year from sixth grade until graduation, those courts truly were our second home.
Michelle live on the West edge of town atop a huge hill. She was an only child, and since my brother didn’t claim me, essentially, I was too. We had always hit it off, but this gave us something to actually aim our time at together in our tiny town.
Melissa lived smack dab in the middle of town, and by any measure, neither one of them were over a mile away. In a town of just over 1.000, no one is too far away. She and I always had tennis on our minds, well, almost always.
Makes me wish I would have started my journaling back in those super early years. I wonder what I would have written……
……played tennis with Michelle today……
……played tennis with Missy (what we used to call her) today…..
As time went on, we got better and better. We hustled, we listened to Doc and his blatant
“What AAAARRREEEE you doing?!!!!!!!”
when we’d get lazy.
He’d take his tan wide-brimmed hat off his head and throw it on the ground. I so wish I could make a GIF of that!
“This is not recreational tennis for fat girls, this is varsity tennis!”
Some days, we couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn – or the Legion building… you get the idea.
Other times, we were on fire!
People began to notice that Wilber-Clatonia High School has a pretty darn good tennis team. Many of us got our picture in the newspaper from time to time. To get a write-up in the Wilber Republican was quite an honor.
Our group of up and coming athletes made our way around the state battling for win after win. We went up against bigger towns. Towns like Kearney, Lincoln, Grand Island, Beatrice and even the different schools in Omaha. We knew NOTHING about Omaha, which turned out to be a good thing.
Why was this a good thing……? Well……
We had a home meet and I went up against a girl named Shelly. She looked pretty tough, but I knew my work ethic and pure desire could give her a pretty good run, so let’s have a go!
I ended up winning in two sets, I believe it was 6-3, 6-3. Dang! Let me cool down by stretching and patting myself on the back!
The next time I met up with Shelly, it was on their turf. In Omaha. And….. I learned that she goes to a private school, which means she had money, and word also got around that she had a court in her back yard with a private coach.
You guessed it. Those little tidbits of information got into my head and I BLEW IT. She flipped the tables on me.
I could tell that Doc was disappointed, but I don’t think he was disappointed in me. I remember him walking with me and putting his hand on my shoulder and with his presence, he still accepted me and in his own Doc-way, proud of me.
When I was 16, I got an unexpected package in the mail. It was the regional tennis magazine for Nebraska. O…k…… why did I get this? As I glanced through, I realized that it was the rankings for the State and the different age groups were in there.
I found the “16 and Under” category…….
Starting at number one and moving on down the list, I recognized all of these girls’ names; girls I’d played, struggled against, and sometimes beat. Next to them was the CITY they were from. As I went down, I found my own name at number 12.
I couldn’t believe it. Well, I actually could believe it in the sense that I was good enough to be ranked twelfth. The part that I couldn’t believe was that I was from a map dot, stop sign on a blacktop, Nowhere, Nebraska. Yet I was among all these other girls from places that seemed to be more………..
Nothing about these girls or the cities that they are from or the privilege they had were MORE anything. I worked hard to inadvertently get that ranking and it is one of the things in my life that I’m most proud of. It was the first thing I proved to myself. There have been many more since then.
Time marched on and after the Class of 1989 graduated in May, Doc uprooted his practice and his family and moved to Mississippi. Like that, he was gone. Many years passed with zero contact, but then we connected again. I had gone to a conference in New Orleans, contacted him that I’d be in the area. This was during the winds of Hurricane Dennis, six weeks before Katrina. He took me out to a FANCY restaurant called Bayona. It was posh. He took me through the courses, explaining so much behind all the details, and even tried to flag down the owner, Susan Spicer, to meet me, to no avail. After all, she was a busy chef. It was a phenomenal meal, but what made it so memorable was that I was once again worthy of Doc’s time. That meant a lot to me.
Back in 2012, my husband’s family reunion was held near Gulfport, MS, so I once again let him know I’d be in the area. He and Lora opened their home up to my family and I. We spent hours going down memory lane, refreshing old experiences, from tennis to babysitting their girls Lindsay and Kathy who were all grown up now, to how my mom and I were hired to clean their home every Saturday morning. My mom had been a custodian most all of her life. Naturally, Lora offered the job to her and my mom graciously accepted. Side hustle money. Alone, cleaning the home took her four hours, but if I helped her, we knocked it out in two hours. Again, work ethic drills itself deep down in my mind.
Lora and my mom were the same size.
Shoes and clothes. When Lora would clean out her closet, my mom and I got first pick of the goodies. I think my mom still has a pair of beige pumps from Lora. One lady’s junk is another lady’s treasure. My mom and I still have that mentality today.
For me, I chose a half-empty bottle of a product that had the White Linen brand by Estee Lauder. I loved how it smelled. Keep in mind that I came from pretty meager means. There was no fluff in our house. I can remember us coming home to bags of stuff on our porch that people thought we could use. Yeah, times were tight.
Putting on that White Linen perfume made me feel “rich”.
I don’t mean snobby rich, but like I now own something of value. I knew that it was not cheap. I made that bottle last as long as I could. I remember packing it with me when I left for college at UNL.
A few years ago, once my husband and I really got our act together financially, and having heard that story over and over, out of the blue, he bought me a bottle of White Linen perfume. He knew how much it meant to my inner little girl, and what a great memory it aroused in me. Thank you Lora. I wanted you to know how such a small gesture meant so much to me and my mom. She and I got to work together, and I learned even more lessons with her by my side.
During our stay in 2012 with Doc and Lora, my husband Alan had a 24 hour immersion of what I’d been referencing all these years. Now, when my references surface, he has a whole new understanding of the people and what they meant. Doc even cooked us a “Traditional Czech Breakfast”. Lora had made “Um Pan Ka Ka” which means “One Pancake”. It was delicious, so I ended up making it for the entire reunion. I still make it several times a year.
During that visit, my daughter, Rebeccalynn and I swam in their pool and made such good memories. I’m so glad when I can expose her to other people, thoughts, beliefs an experiences. Those are where life happens! Because of his African safaris he’d gone on over the years, this home, just like the one in Wilber, was sprinkled with large game trophies. A baboon, giraffe neck and head, zebra skin rug, and other assorted man cave decor trophies donned this house, just like they had in the house in Wilber. Rebeccalynn had never seen anything like it. In fact, I remember giving my ten year old a briefing as to what she might see upon entering.
During that Mississippi visit, it happened to be my 41st birthday. As I showered in their guest bath, I realized how far I’d come. I savored the whole new flavor of adult-to-adult that had happened, not only because time had passed, but because that little girl in me let opportunities blossom and I was in a place that I’d never been before. I felt like I’d come a long, long way.
The neatest part of the trip was when Lora pulled out an old hand-drawn picture. A pencil sketch that had some age to it. It took me a LONG minute to clear the cobwebs of my mind to realize it was my very own artwork……
…..it was an Art Class assignment from Junior High, maybe High School that I had drawn for Doc an given to him back in the 1980s.
He kept it all of these years.
I had used a comic in a Tennis magazine to make my own version, with Doc being the character eyeing the calendar with “tennis today” circled on it. The added stethoscope reflected him to the best of my ability. I had given it to the man who had influenced me in so many ways during those school years.
Here I sit, a 47 year old little girl. The adults in my life shot strobes of hope and encouragement my way and I grew from them. I needed someone, anyone, to point me in any direction that gave me purpose. My parents gave me the racket and Doc showed me how to use it.
Now being well into his seventies, Doc and Lora downsized recently and as a complete surprise, she mailed the “Doc-inspired” pencil sketch back to me. They both know that the smallest gestures are actually seeds of goodness, planted in the hearts and minds of others.