My Army-supply-store sneakers squeaked against the lacquered wood floor as I sunk into the locker room. I hid inside a stall until everyone was gone and hoped by the time I emerged I’d be at the end of the line of 5th grade girls preparing to climb the ropes. Maybe the bell would ring before it was my turn.
In the entire Permian Basin, rife with tumbleweeds, fried burritos and grasshopper oil pumps, I was the biggest loser when it came to climbing ropes in gym class. I’d have rather given up a month of recess or found a razor in my apple. The stains and stings of mercurochrome were kinder.
Most of the time the long ropes stayed wound in their apparatus, but at least once or twice a year they uncoiled like snakes ready to strangle me. And, of course, the bell never rang. Not on time anyway. Even when I was lucky and the boy I had to race was fatter than me, he still climbed higher. The noose of mortification tightened, my inferiority compounded. No escape.
But, the day I ran a fast 440, the buttons on my little white blouse worked loose by the West Texas wind, the boys were all so nice. For more than 30 years I’ve wondered, was it because I ran so well or because they got a peek at my little white 32AA complete with a yellow flower?
I never touched the tambourine at the top, but what about you?
The year I could not climb the ropes in P.E. was the same year I rode the suicide swings at the Winkler County Fair, and the same year I skated hand-in-hand at the roller rink with Sandy Walker, the cutest boy in 5th grade. Once, while I was riding my bike he stopped me to ask why I was so fat. I told him I didn’t know and I pedaled away and I never saw him again.
But, I heard he flunked the 5th grade, so I got over him very quickly because I could never have a crush on a flunky.
That same year I crossed busy Highway 115 with my best friend Cynthia Williams. We were on our way to the convenient store to buy a pack of cigarettes for her mother. Cindy, who made it all the way to the top of the rope in her blue polyester dress, felt the same way about buying those cigarettes as I felt about failing at rope climbing.
Cindy was long and sinewy and her legs moved in braid-like fashion as she climbed the rope. When she was done and so happy I whispered in her freckled ear, “I could see your underwear.” My words crushed her, and the feeling was so awful, I hoped I would never crush anyone again. I hadn’t intended to steal her joy, but I could not put the happy back on her face.
The last time I remember seeing ropes in P.E. it was 1982, and we were living in Kansas, but kids weren’t allowed to climb ropes anymore. I guess somebody figured out having kids scale 25 feet in the air was dangerous.
When I was little and got skinned up my father always reached for the bottle of Mercurochrome. He swathed it on me, and the pink-orange cure was worse than the cut. Then in 1998, the FDA halted the distribution of Mercurochrome in the United States over fears of potential mercury poisoning. And, I read somewhere that West Texas town wanted to turn the school with the ropes I couldn’t climb into a community center, but they couldn’t afford the expensive asbestos removal. Carcinogens were floating above the tambourines.