Rafer Reminder

I’ve just started listening to David Maraniss’ book about the 1960 Olympics. It reminded me of what a big fan I was of the great decathlete Rafer Johnson when I was a boy. I followed his battles with UCLA teammate C.K. Yang and with the Russian Vasili Kuznetsov, and had absolute confidence he’d win that Olympic title.

That in turn reminded me that when our 8th Grade class graduated from Woodbury Elementary School in 1961, I was assigned a brief oration based on the class’s favorite things. One was our favorite athlete. Despite my allegiance to baseball as the only thing in the world actually worth doing, I had voted for Rafer, and had lobbied all my friends to do the same, so I was stunned and embarrassed to learn I was going to have to announce Babe Ruth as our collective choice. This, in my mind, displayed the utter ignorance of at least a plurality of the class—probably those dopey girls. The Babe was the great transcendent name of American sports, for sure, but he had played his last baseball game in 1935. Ancient history! Come on!

I entered a dissent with my teacher.


So there I stood in my brand new suit on a set of risers in the Woodbury Elementary School auditorium one late spring evening in 1961, reporting in my brand new unreliable voice this utterly nonsensical result. I tried to roll it out in a tone that I hoped registered as ironic or incredulous or at least not my fault, but nobody noticed (who would…it was an 8th grade graduation speech).

Ah, but we also recited Kipling’s If.  (Yes, it was a long time ago in a world far away.) And I remember that when we got to

If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run (…)

I felt as if I’d personally snuck something over.

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