The old gym in Hampton was more like a barn than a gymnasium by any modern standards. Large wooden structure with a tin roof. I just watched “Hoosiers” the other day while enjoying being sick on the couch, and that little gym they had in 1959 reminded me of Hampton.
The entire structure was built up on brick piers all along the underside of the gym. When you bounced a ball on the gym floor, the whole room was like the inside of a guitar, and the sound resonated forever. The bleachers were like huge steps. Wide enough to sit on and still have room to walk behind. Probably no more than 5 rows on either side of the floor.
The back boards were attached to the walls at either end of the gym. By the time I got to 8th graded there were large pads fastened to the walls underneath the goals to help keep guys from getting busted up slamming into the wall on a layup.
The locker rooms were under the bleachers, down a set of steps and wreaked of odors that need no explanation. Large posts flanked either side of the court along the front of the bleachers. Posts that held up the roof and that broke several noses on guys diving for an out of bounds ball.
This was home to the Hampton Hornets.
Hampton didn’t have a high school in my day. My Dad graduated from Hampton High when it was just 11 grades. I have my Aunt Mary Liza’s diploma from Hampton High. By the time I came along, the four-room building was still standing. George Washington still framed and hanging over the chalk board. Wooden floors and desks that bore the marks of others before me. But the Hornets had played their last games and the gym was used for PE.
Coach Orr ran a tight ship. Military haircut. Pipe. Those black coaches’ shoes. During the Olympics, he put us through the paces. Parallel bars. Rings. Pummel Horse. Tumbling mats. I can still smell the leather. And I can still feel the goose-egg I got falling off the Pummel Horse.
It’s funny what you remember once you start thinking about things. I remember how far Troy Bridges could jump. We’d spread out the mats. Get a few guys to curl up on their knees side by side, heads down. The challenge was to get a running start and dive over the guys on the mat. Like Superman but without the cape. If you cleared them, you hit the mat with your hands, tucked and did a forward roll.
Just thinking of doing this now I’m pretty sure I pulled a muscle or broke a bone.
The game keeps going, right? All the guys take a run at it. If everybody clears 4 guys on the mat, you add #5. They clear all 5, and you add another one. By the time you get to about 8 guys folded up on the mat, there are not many willing or able to make a run at it anymore.
Every guy in the gym is lined up either side of the tumbling mats. We’re yelling and clapping in rhythm like it’s a street fight and there’s money on the line. Coach Orr taught us how to do this. To stretch us. To build courage. To show us what could be possible. These days he would lose his job over something like this. Which is a crying shame.
I don’t remember how many Troy could jump over, but he and his brother, Mike, were always the last two. They pushed each other. I just remember admiring how he could fly over those guys crouched down on the mat and roll off at the end like there was nothing to it. No cape necessary.
One day at PE, Coach Orr wasn’t there. We were kind of left on our own, which is not the best idea for a bunch of 7th grade boys. Ronnie Hensley got the idea that he owned the basketball court and dared anyone to come off the bleachers onto the court. He had all the basketballs at center court and used them like a dodge ball if anyone “went for it”. He was accurate and he was quick. And he was bigger than your average 12-year-old.
There are so many memories in that old gym. A new locker room was added on. I guess they felt bad about the odor under the bleachers. But that locker room was the House of Horrors during the fall festival at school. You could go out on the gym floor and “go fish” or do the ring toss, and then step into the locker room to see a head cut off, which was just a manikin with ketchup on it.
In 1969, first part of 8th grade, we had a sock hop in the old gym. I remember we cleaned and polished the old floor until it really shinned. And I swear we had ZZ Top play that night. If it wasn’t them, they looked like them and played their music. Piles of shoes by the entrance door and almost no way to find a matching pair when you got ready to leave.
The Scout room was attached to the gym down one side of the building. For years BSA Troop 60 met there working on merit badges, tying knots, and goofing around in the gym when the meetings were over.
The craziest thing I ever did was to climb the rope up and touch the rafter. Coach Orr always had the rope out. No matter the season. Tumbling. Basketball. Flag Football. If you decided you wanted to climb the rope, all you had to do was ask Coach. Floor mats. Spotters. You and the rope. If you made it to the top and tagged the rafter, it was like a badge of honor.
The gym is gone now. I rode through by the old elementary school not too many years ago and realized it had been torn down. I guess the kids play in some well-lit, climate controlled building now. A hard, rubberized floor surface that goes “clunk” when a ball bounces on it. No echo. No music. The locker rooms probably smell okay. The basketballs are not leather. And nobody tumbles any more. And, for sure, no rope tied up in the rafters. Does PE even challenge these kids at all? I wonder.
Dang. I miss that gym and everything it stood for. Every kid it ever made grow up. They don’t make ‘em like that anymore.