Bounding Ambition

Northwest Magazine
September 10, 1989
Edited by Barry Johnson
© Bill Donahue

MY BEST FRIEND ERIC—well, at least he was the kid I hung out with most—became the Slurpee-slurping champion of the neighborhood early that summer. His eyes bulging, he snatched the ice-cold paper cup from my hand, then sloshed the green slush down his gullet—in 14.3 seconds.

David Maloney, who’d just moved onto the street, was also a sort of champion. On a drizzly evening that June, he’d balanced on one foot for nearly two hours—and his picture appeared in The Farmington News for doing it.

And Eddy Fitzsimmons had notched the achievement that lingered most in our memory. On the eighth day of July that summer, Eddy sunk to his hands and knees and crawled three miles without stopping. And in doing this, he’d nearly made it into the book that Eric and I read through every day, the fascinating book whose pages we had dogeared and annotated in orange felt-tip pen—and almost memorized: The world’s record for crawling, as chronicled in Guinness Book of World Records, was 5.53 miles.

Eddy, in short, had nearly become famous. And we all wanted to become famous—because being a neighborhood champion was not really enough. You were still a kid, and you still had to take out the trash.

People who were famous seemed immune to problems and to uncertainty. “We came here to play baseball,” my Red Sox heroes would intone as they were interviewed in the locker, “and that’s what we did out there today. We played good baseball.”

My own forte, as a skittish, skinny 10-year old growing up in the suburbs outside Hartford, Conn., was obscure. I could pogo stick. No one else on the street (except maybe Eric) really cared about pogo sticking; certainly, no one else owned a pogo stick. But I did—and I could make the thing work.

I could lunge over a puddle or a hole in the pavement. I could clench the shaft between my thighs, tense my abdomen, and bounce 17 times with no hands and only one foot touching the stick. And I could execute perfectly those tiny, one-inch-off-the-ground sewing machine hops you needed to do if you wanted to conserve your energy and pogo for a long time.

Even Eric—a sly, manipulative kid who usually wrote the rules to fit game and then beat you (and then made you remember that he had beaten you)—could not do these things. I was the best pogo sticker in the neighborhood, in the whole town, perhaps. But I was silent about my prowess. I never pogoed in public, and I never told anyone of my skills. I was a closet champion.

Until, that is, the muggy August morning I stepped into our garage, pulled my pogo stick down from the wall, and started in on those sewing-machine hops. And kept going—past Eric’s consecutive jump best, 478 pogos, then past my own record, 862, then past 1,000, past 2,000, past 3,000, and on up toward the exhausting, exhilarating heights of five-digit pogo stick jumping.

When I hit 1,000, my legs felt springy and strong, and the staccato beat of the pogos—the jolt! jolt! jolt! that thuds through your thighs each time you land—was smoothing out. The jumps were flowing together into a slinky rhythm that echoed against the walls, and the coal-black spring was compressing and expanding, compressing and expanding, over and over, dancing on the shaft of the stick.

I pulled over to the corner and pulled open the overhead door. I stripped off my shirt, and lofted it onto the driveway. A few minutes later, my mother squinted into the garage, and peered at me with one of those “Well, at least it’s keeping you busy” looks.

Eric sauntered into the garage just after I reached 8,000.

Eight-thousand three hundred and fifty-one, 52,” I said. I looked at the floor, then out through the spider webs that encrusted the windows. I did not look at him. “Fifty-three, 54, 55….”

“Fifty-six,” he said, his voice a bit fresher and sharper than mine, “57, 58….”

He stood there counting for maybe two minutes. Then he ran inside to get a clipboard and pencil. I was, you see, halfway there. The world’s record for consecutive pogo stick jumps was 17,323. Danny Kloster, of Clinton, Mich., had set this record, in two hours and fifty minutes.

“IF ANYTHING HAPPENS,” Eric said a while after I passed 12,000, “if you have to go on TV or anything, I’m your manager, all right?”

A thousand or so pogos after that, he was peeling his bike across the Fitzsimmons’ lawn and heading toward his house. He wanted to get some decent clothes on. He wanted to look nice just in case the press did cover this.

My mother was in the garage with her camera when I hit 16,000. She was fiddling with the light meter and, every so often, pressing her hand down on Eric’s head—as though he were in danger of floating away. “No,” she was saying to him, “you can’t call the TV stations yet. Wait until he gets the record.”

Once she’d fixed her camera, she crouched to the floor, snapped two quick pictures and then shuffled to the trash barrels at the back of the garage.

I could tell that she was terrified of rattling me, that she knew I would hate her forever (or at least a week) if she caused me to fall off. But I was only vaguely concerned with her and Eric and what they were doing and thinking. They didn’t seem to matter.

The only thing in the world that did matter, really, was that I stayed on that pogo stick until 17, 323. I was on the verge of making history—and I also was on the verge of crashing to the garage floor. The shaft of my stick was squeaking for lack of oil. The muscles in my thighs were shaking, and knees, which had been wrapped around the stick for two hours now, were red and swollen. And I knew this: Anyone who made it all the way to 16,000, and then fell off, was a loser.

“SEVENTEEN THOUSAND, THREE HUNDRED AND NINETEEN, 20, 21.” Eric was squatting on the driveway, his hands pressed before him in a prayerlike pose as he counted the jumps. Twenty-two, 23, 17,324!” He burst from the asphalt, his arms thrust high over his head, and then bounded up and down, keeping pacing with me as I eked out a few insurance pogos.

For a moment, the sight of Eric hopping all over the place, in the bright white shirt and pants he’d donned for the press, was hilarious. But even after I got down off the stick at 17,354 and limped to our porch, Eric kept going. He kept tearing around our driveway, prancing first toward the basketball rim, then toward the brown and yellow grass at the edge of our lawn—and I became frightened somehow that I would get no credit for what I had done, that Eric would hog all the glory.

We sat on our porch, Eric in his resplendent white suit and I in an undershirt that he had emblazoned with “17,354,” and waited for the TV trucks to pull into the driveway.

The first reporter to arrive—and it took her two hours to get there—was a woman who wore sandals and was a friend of my mother’s. We went into the backyard. She sipped root beer and chatted about her son (I knew this kid; he was a jerk). Occasionally, she tossed me a question.

It was even worse when the TV trucks came. Two young men, hulking fellows with mustaches, emerged and loped across our lawn. One of them was still sucking the remnants of some drink he’d bought at McDonalds.

They told me to pogo on the driveway—it didn’t matter to them that I’d actually set the record inside the garage—and then the taller of the two men panned his camera over me as I thudded through 100 or so painful, wobbly hops.

After that, they talked with Eric. They spent two or three minutes filming him, asking him questions, and penciling his responses into skinny notebooks. And then they said goodbye and started up the driveway toward their truck.

My mother seemed confused. She stepped toward them, then asked if this was going to be on the evening news.

“Sorry,” said the man with the camera, “But we can’t promise anything. We don’t make those decisions.”

That night, after watching the evening news for nearly an hour, all they’d talked about, really, was President Nixon. My father, who sat beside me in the gray suit he’d worn to the office, was dozing off. My mother, giving up, had gone to the kitchen to carve up the pot roast. “But then the anchor man said, “A 10-year-old boy….”

Hey, that’s you,” said my father. And sure enough, the guy in the white T-shirt, the one flying all over the TV screen, was me.

“Mom! C’mere! Quick! Check it out: I’m on TV!”

I AM 25 YEARS OLD NOW, and of course, I never have been famous—and invulnerable and larger-than-life—in the way I hoped I would be. Actually, I wasn’t famous that night I got on television; my mother still made me dry the dishes after dinner. I didn’t make it into the “Guinness Book of World Records”—Guinness, we learned, only acknowledges feats witnessed by two impartial adults. And the only person who’s curious about every detail of my life is the bill collector who keeps calling to say he’ll cut off my electricity if I don’t mail him $42.37.

But I’m not entirely jaded.

The other day, as I sat in my apartment trying to write, there was this kid pelting a tennis ball at the brick wall just across the street—throwing, catching it on the bounce, throwing it, and so on. This kid had been out there for several hours, or at least it seemed that way. And the noise that he was making was incredibly distracting.

I decided to go out into the street; I figured that, if the kid saw me, and I looked adequately annoyed, he would go away. But when I got out there, he was shuffling all over the street and pulling quickly at the bill of his cap after each throw—and he didn’t notice me.

I changed my tactic: I would reason with him.

As I paced back and forth in the street, I was not quite sure really what was running through his mind. Maybe he was angry at someone, and just venting steam. Maybe he was trying to break a neighborhood record. And maybe (who knows?) this kid was driven by some vague and blind hope that, by tossing a ball against a wall, he could launch himself out of kid world, out of the world of chores and broken tops and become a world champion, famous.

So I decided, finally, not to say anything. And I just stood there beside him, watching the ball now spinning smoothly off the bricks, now ricocheting off the mortar in the wall, now dancing madly, dangerously, off some crack in the sidewalk—watching, glad each time the kid caught the ball.