Poet's Notebook: For the love of tennis

A social tradition half a century in the making.

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click to enlarge Poet's Notebook: For the love of tennis
Jeanne Meinke

Take a deep breath then, sigh, relax, continue.

The world is a solemn place, with room for tennis...

I speak a mystery, only to you.

                                  (from “Dream Song #175”)

Unlike John Berryman, whose lines frame this column, we were latecomers to tennis. Berryman was what we called a “preppie,” attending South Kent Preparatory School in Connecticut, playing tennis with his friends, then later on with writers like James Agee and Randall Jarrell. Growing up in blue-collar Brooklyn, I played stickball and stoopball; my dad also bought me an upright pedestal punching bag, so I could learn to box and bash the bullies who occasionally stole my lunch money on the walk to school. I was OK on the punching bag, but in a regular fight my glasses would fall off and then I was blind, so I soon learned to take off like a rabbit when someone threatening loomed on the horizon. Thus I trained to be a speedy little kid, racing down the blocks with my corduroy knickers whistling like small pigeons.

We moved to New Jersey in 1945, and there my friends and I played with youthful intensity football, basketball, and baseball (it was a small high school). Jeanne grew up nearby, swimming, running, and playing volleyball, eventually going to the same school, where she played basketball and ran track. But no tennis.

Around 15 years later, after college, the Army, marriage, and four children, we came down to St. Petersburg in 1966. The children turned pale when they saw the people, old as we are now, motionless on their green benches. “Don’t worry,” we told them, “we’ll warm up for three years, and then go back to civilization.”

We stayed here at least partly because of tennis. On my first day teaching at Florida Presbyterian College, a new friend asked, “Do you play tennis?” and I said, “Why not?” Jeanne remembers buying our rackets with those wrinkly little books of S & H green stamps, wildly popular in the 1960s, their catalog reputed to be the largest publication in America. We played for free on the hard courts at Eckerd and at the public courts on 62nd Ave. S. near Lakewood High School. The rackets were chintzy and we’d use the same balls until they hardly bounced, but it didn’t matter, as we smuggled 6-packs of beer to the courts, keeping them under the benches. We were happy warriors, playing mixed doubles with fierce energy; but in those days enjoyment was the name of the game, and once we began, we never stopped.

Over the years the group morphed from four to eight to 12, and our schedule settled into twice a week: Tuesday evenings and Sunday mornings (we were a mixed secular group, with Protestant, Catholic, Jewish and Muslim backgrounds). The quality of our tennis steadily improved, partially because of new players, and because we eventually dropped the beer (though occasionally, to celebrate something, we’d bring Champagne). But to keep it a social outing, we’d go to dinner afterwards on Tuesdays, and to brunch and Bloody Marys on Sundays. Decades went by without missing a date, unless we were out of town (or the country). With the usual vicissitudes of life, the group changed, of course, but not much: This tennis group had legs.

Last month, against doctor’s orders (“Don’t run around like a chicken, and especially, don’t fall”), I fell again; so that’s it. But I’m OK with it: 50 years of good memories, and buckets of laughter — a lot luckier than Berryman, whom I met a few times in Minnesota before we came to Florida. His father killed himself in Clearwater Beach when Berryman was 11; and in 1972, the brilliant 57-year-old tennis-loving poet jumped off the Washington Bridge in Minneapolis, onto the frozen Mississippi River. He apparently waved goodbye.

Where the smother clusters pinpoint insights clear.

The tennis is over. The last words are here?

What, in the world, will they be?

                                    (from “Dream Song #224”)

—both quotes from His Toy, His Dream, His Rest by John Berryman (1972), Farrar, Straus & Giroux. NY 1969 

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