As the warmer months have finally arrived, I’ve noticed that all the Foundation programs here in the Canyon inspire youthfulness and creativity. It doesn’t matter if it’s Laity Lodge, the Youth Camp, the Family Camp, or my program (Foundation Camps). There is something here that allows us to be kids again. This hallowed ground is a place where we can let our guards down, a place where youthfulness is celebrated. For example, the other day I was restocking the lifejackets at Echo Valley, the Foundation’s largest campsite, when I noticed a heated game going on in the river below the dam. On further investigation, I found about a dozen teenagers who had created a random version of “keep away” with a Frisbee. As near as I could tell, the object of the game was to keep the Frisbee away from the other team without getting mauled! If a player dropped the Frisbee or was tackled while holding it, he had to turn it over to the other team. Add to this drama the fact that the game was being played in knee-deep water with a slippery river bottom. It was quite comical, to say the least; and as I watched the show with a small group of laughing spectators, I began to drift into the mists of time.
The mists cleared, and I was a boy again. Somehow, I had managed to emerge from the pile with the ball still in my hands. Seeing my chance, I darted to the short side of the field. Heading for the sideline, I gained speed, faking out a defender with a stutter step and a juke to the right. Now I was no star athlete in my youth. For those of you who have only known me in my later years, I realize that may be hard to believe, but I was not the sleek specimen that you see today. As my brother would point out as often as he could, I had hardly a speck of athletic talent, but I made up for it by being really slow! However, this was my day, and as I turned the corner and smashed through waves of would-be tacklers with my knees pumping and churning up yardage, I was overcome with an exhilarating wave of killer instinct. Finally, dragging my opponents, I was brought down with a crash to the mud. It was my finest athletic hour (I mean six seconds), and as I stood up with my jersey soaked in blood, sweat, and tears from envious foes, it was hard to be humble.
Of course, this was no battle in the Friday night lights of the Texas high school gridiron. Although we all played that game as well, organized football was just a warmup for the real test of intestinal fortitude. This was a game sanctioned only in the country neighborhood where I grew up. We chose the rules, we picked the ball, and we created the name, “A Piece of the Yella.” Even though it has been nearly 40 years, the mere mention of that name brings a smile to my face, and fond memories . . . as it would for all of my childhood friends.
The rules of the game were simple. Find the person with the ball and try to end his life! If you happened to obtain possession of the ball, you ran like a screaming meemie, and tried to avoid being killed! Lesser individuals in tamer parts of the country called the game “kill the man with the ball,” or another name that is not exactly politically correct, but our game had a couple of extra elements that added to the intensity. First, the playing field was actually a shallow pond down the road from our house. The water was only about a foot deep, and after about five minutes, it looked, though it didn’t taste, like chocolate milk. The ball was a yellow Nerf football. Remember when the only product Nerf made was a medium-size football?
Over the summer, the spongy material in the wet Nerf ball became moldy and rotten. On occasion, if you tried to grab the ball from an opponent, you might actually pull a piece of the ball apart. In this situation, even a piece of the ball constituted a possession which meant that more than one player might retain the ball at any given time. This feature earned the name that its players so affectionately revered.
In the summer of 1980, we played the game almost every day, and by the time school started, our once new yellow Nerf ball had been reduced to a chunk of dirty yellow foam about the size of an apple. My brother and both my neighbors went on to play college football. I like to think that it was not natural talent or athleticism that propelled them to a higher level of play, but the days we spent honing our skills in the pond playing “A Piece of the Yella.”
As I bring my wandering mind back to the present, I take great delight in knowing that our camps and programs are used to make those kinds of random, yet unforgettable memories. The silly games that I see played by groups out here for retreats, the light-hearted poems read at Laity Lodge, the goofy skits performed at Youth Camp and Family Camp- these experiences allow us to return to the exuberance of childhood. They free us from the artificial behavioral restrictions that we place on each other as adults, and they make memories that will last a lifetime for many of our guests.
You want to play “A Piece of the Yella”? Me too, but I don’t think my old body can take the abuse.