Ashe somehow served thunderbolts to the heavens and Oregon City switched leagues, out of the powerful old Wilco League and into the newly-established Timber Valley League. The Timber Valley League was comprised of rural Clackamas County timber and farming towns such as Molalla, Silverton, Estacada, Sandy and Sweet Home.
Just like that, Oregon City was the best team in the league. We started kicking ass and reveling in that power with a real swagger that we often made up on the spot because, well, we were winning and previously had no idea how it felt.
I recall as if were yesterday, the indelible moving images from those away matches in the Timber Valley League against the logging and farm boys, total hicks and hayseeds. Why they were on tennis teams is still a complete mystery to me.
There were the players who played in boots and Levi’s and Wranglers with cans of chew in their back pockets and took subtle dips during changeovers. Some of them didn’t know how to keep score. Some refused to hit backhands. They often used wooden rackets with little photographs of Pancho Segura and Pancho Gonzales advertising their star 1950s status. There was the match at Molalla, in front of log yard, with Mollala students hanging out in pickups behind the fence, smoking and drinking beer, listening to Molly Hatchet (LOUD), watching their friends play, and threatening to punch out my teammates if the line calls didn’t improve. One player rode his horse to a match and tethered it to the fence like it was a scene from a Western, had there been tennis matches in Westerns. I beat him handily and he road away into the sunset and diesel fumes of the log yard.
I am not making this up. Even then I knew it was preposterous and probably wasn’t happening anywhere in the country except rural Clackamas County, the place where tennis met logging!
As for my team, the varsity tennis team of Oregon City High School, circa 1979-82, the Pioneers…we were a strange crew indeed.
There was sneaking into a tennis club in the early mornings before school and using their courts, ball machines and saunas and never getting caught. Who exactly set that up I do not remember. I think it might have been our coach, who was a member, and left the back door open!
This was the same coach who hailed from Nebraska and played collegiality, who was well out of his intellectual depth with us but knew his tennis stuff and almost duked it out with Molalla’s coach one time over a stacked lineup. We wanted that fight so bad. It would have fomented an all-out brawl.
There was playing tennis during the spring in Western Oregon and having it rain during at least half our matches. We were masters of tennis in the rain.
There was calling lines in high school tennis, which meant players were their own referees and sometimes players cheated. I recall the time my doubles partner from my junior year got into a fight over a line call. He jumped over the net and it was on.
There was our number one player who was obviously gay (clues: thespian, bringing his pressed uniform on a hanger and blow drying his hair before matches) and we never talked shit about him because he could beat every one of us 6-0, 6-0. We also had homophobic teammates who would have kicked the hell out of any opposing player who insulted our number one. We were brothers.
There was an African American player on our team, the only one in the league, with rapier-like slashing strokes and a huge afro, who called his penis “The Snake” and would occasionally pull it out during his doubles matches and dangle it through the net during an opponent’s serve in hope of encouraging a double fault. Not one opposing player ever said a thing. The Snake was a cryptic legend around the league and probably still discussed in a log yard in Silverton if there is a log yard left in Silverton that hasn’t become a wine complex.
I want to repeat that story: a black kid put his penis through the net during matches against schools like Estacada and Molalla. He not only charmed The Snake through, he dangled it, whipped it around from side to side and held conversations with it and the opposing players.
“You like my Snake? Look at my Snake. Good Snake. Goin’ to win us a match today.”
How our coach never saw this is beyond me.
There was playing a singles match where I was behind 0-6, 0-5, 0-40 and came all the way back and won. I’m trying to do exactly the same thing in life right now. I did it once, I can do it again.
There was a quarter of the team stoned during their matches (not me).
There was my girlfriend coming to matches and bringing me orange juice and homemade cookies. She didn’t really understand tennis but was there for me, like I was there for her at swim meets.
There were long bus rides with the girls team without coaches because the coaches drove to the away matches. No adults except the driver. There were plenty of things that happened during those long unchaperoned rides through logging and farming country. The Snake was often on the loose. The Snake had handlers, too.
Tennis was a grand time in high school. But it ended very badly for me at the state tournament, in the first round.
From my senior year journal:
There was no fire, no emotion in me. Many times we had the chance to break the match open but we couldn’t—or should I say we could have but didn’t, There is a difference. I feel so useless as far as tennis is concerned. The guys who play all their life are so good and take it so seriously that you’re beaten before you go on the court. It is not a great feeling. Tennis is over. I’ve played my last high school match. I was sick of tennis but this was not the way I wanted to end. If only I had played well or put forth a decent effort then it would have been worth it. My final match total for four years— including everything: 50 wins 23 losses (I’m not sure if that is accurate but it is close).
I didn’t pick up a racket for several years after the tournament debacle. Much later I would return to tennis as an instructor and coach and renew my love for the game.
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