On Tetherball

Not too long ago, my boss and I rescued an ancient tetherball pole lost in the grass on a construction site. It was one those set in concrete inside an old tire and it made me wonder so you bought the pole somewhere, it came with a rope and ball, but you provided the tire and poured the concrete yourself?

Millions of these quasi homemade jobs and more formally installed ones graced American backyards in the Great Era of Tetherball. Thousands of tetherball poles stood in elementary schools, parks, prison yards and Christian youth group summer camps.

A few still stand in the backyards, fields, but now abandoned, forgotten, forlorn, the rope and ball clinking against the rusty pole in the breeze. What a sad sound to hear because you know no one is ever playing tetherball on that pole again.

Once, mirth and pain emanated from the ground around that pole. Nothing now. One wonders if there is one tetherball pole left standing in a school or park in America that actually gets any use. Does anyone even play anymore? And what are the rules? Question: who invented tetherball? I’m not going to Google it.

Tether is such a great verb. It feels pejorative, but I can’t say anything pejorative about tetherball, unless of course, I dive deep into the pain inflicted upon the body when the game got intense, on the schoolyard, or in the backyard after too many gin and tonics and someone cranked up Black Sabbath on the tower speakers.

Did anyone ever die from playing tetherball. You know, when a player pounded the ball so hard, upward, that the rope whipped around the neck of the other player, lifted her off the ground, and hung her right there.

Yeah, it happened somewhere in America. I hope to God some mystery writer put a murder-by-tetherball scene in a book. You wanted the asshole or shrew dead, then you killed them playing tetherball! It’s the perfect crime! It was an accident!

As a sixth grader, I played tetherball at a Christian youth group summer camp along the Yamhill River. I think I won a championship. I earned it by beating a girl, my childhood crush, first girl I ever kissed and she had a black eye. I think I gave it to her during the game.

I also have memories of playing tetherball at Mt Pleasant Elementary in Oregon City. There were two or three poles and players lined up to participate. I vaguely recall a circle around the pole, perhaps dived into halves.

Interestingly enough, boys and girls played against one another. The girls were somewhat taller in elementary school, which is an advantage, and I remember one who seemingly never lost. I also remember trying to get into line to play against the girl I liked so that meant strategically losing to someone. Of course, I wanted to beat my crush and I did, but she took a few games off me. I never let her win.

Oh the pain of aggressive tetherball! Blocking the ball, pounding it, having it pound you, the rope stings and burns. You can also lose and never touch the ball! Is there another sport like that? Is tetherball even a sport?

I have no desire to Google to learn if Portland started an adult tetherball league inside some cavernous brew pub or pot shop.


We rolled the pole into my boss’ truck and he drove it to his place down the road. We unloaded the pole, wheeled it to a good level spot in the grass and then stood it up. Perfect! We couldn’t play yet. No ball or rope! But there was a promise of tetherball fun in the near future thanks to Amazon.

Is fun the right word?

A few days later, I squared off against my boss. In an earlier conversation, I had learned that he had suffered trauma at the hands of tetherball bullies as a young corpulent lad.

The game began. Thirty seconds in, I was winded, but holding my own against my boss, whose childhood trauma was obviously resurfacing. (The vodka probably helped with that, too.)

I was shocked at how my muscle memory for tetherball instantly returned. I mean, it had been 45 years! I had forgotten how much talking there is when playing tetherball. You can taunt your opponent! You can hurl profanities! You can try to hurt him and draw out the demons!

At some point, my boss took command, got the right angle, got the rope whipping around the pole, and kicked my ass. I sat down on the grass, exhausted. He wanted to go again, but I demurred. There would be a next time, maybe even a tournament.