I hate Buddy Cauley.
At a time in America when life was simpler and in a place where living was slower, Buddy Cauley stood for me as a symbol of everything that was wrong in my life.
The basketball coach at Bath County High School, he was also the civics teacher in my hometown of Hot Springs, Virginia.
I was 15, tall for my age and uncoordinated. Not being athletically inclined, my idea of enjoying sports was watching the Saturday baseball game on television with my father and eating Lays Potato Chips out of the crinkly yellow bag.
While not very good, I had played baseball over the years and had recently developed a passion for golf thanks to the legendary Sam Snead being my next door neighbor.
I thought now that I was getting older, I needed to branch out and try some other sports. Well, that”s not entirely true. My parents thought that now I was getting older it would be good for me to participate in more team sports. And since it was basketball season, I signed up for tryouts to be held Friday afternoon in the gym.
It wasn’t much of a tryout. Any kid that could walk and chew gum at the same time was considered fit to play and given a uniform. Even with low standards like that, I barely made it.
With grandiose visions of leading my team to victory, I showed up at the gym with my black and white Ked’s sneakers and a towel.
Joining six other boys on the rust red bleachers, I waited for Coach Cauley to walk in. With seven of us on the bleachers it was almost guaranteed that two of us would not be starters. I knew I wouldn’t be a first-stringer and was fairly sure I would be occupying the bench for most of the season while others fulfilled my dreams of leading the team to greatness.
When he arrived, the nightmare that haunted my sleep had a basketball under one arm, a clipboard in one hand and a whistle hanging around his neck.
Standing in the center of the court, he surveyed this year’s crop of hopefuls. Shaking his head at us, he reminded me of the farmer looking over the harvest and feeling another year’s work has been wasted.
Coach Cauley”s vision was for a state championship and he was looking at players who would be lucky to win second place in a one school tournament.
After a fifteen minute lecture on what we could expect if we signed up for the team, he passed the clipboard around. With each signature, the paperwork came closer. My brain screamed for me to get the hell out of there, but my ego kept my butt and feet petrified and immobile. I signed my death warrant when the brown piece of particle board with a clip was pushed into my hands.
“Tomorrow, be here at 4 sharp,” said Coach Cauley. I could identify with the condemned when they are told “…your execution will be at midnight.”
The next day at “…4 sharp…” I wandered into the locker room. Pulling on the uniform that consisted of a jersey 4 sizes too small and shorts 3 sizes too big, I ran into that embarrassment that is only known by teenage boys.
When you are in a locker room with 8 other boys who also are dancing around the edges of puberty, where do you look.
Gaze too long at someone and accusations and fists will start to fly. So you do the only safe thing, stare at the shoe strings on your black and white Keds as you try to time your escape from the hormone and adrenaline soup that is filling the locker room.
Holding my shorts up with one hand and trying not make eye contact, I made my way into the gym.
Pushing through the sea green metal door leading into my version of purgatory, I saw him. Taller than yesterday and with more menace in his leer and words, Coach Cauley threw the ball at me. I didn´t want him to see what an uncoordinated, no talent bum I was, so I focused on catching the ball. At least there was something I could do right.
Catching the ball with both hands, I realized that my basketball career had hit an all time high in lows. As I stood there grinning with pride that I had actually caught the ball, my gym shorts which were 3 sizes too large fell into a heap around my ankles.
Wearing nothing but a smile, a jersey that was 4 sizes too small and an athletic supporter, I looked like Aunt Martha’s Thanksgiving turkey buttered up and ready for the oven.
The first drill that Coach Cauley had us work on was something called touch-and-go. If you know what touch-and-go is, you don’t need an explanation. If you have never experienced them, then no explanation will suffice. Just understand that according to the clock on the wall we did this exercise for thirty minutes. The Timex in my brain said the drill lasted for 3 days.
Next was shooting layups. Then dribbling. Then more running. Followed by more dribbling and layups.
Slowly the monster that was Coach Cauley was transforming. Gone were the imagined fangs and smile that sadistically appeared whenever one of his minions showed signs of giving up.
Instead, my nightmare was morphing into one of encouragement, private cheering, pep talks and words about facing life’s challenges. Words that didn’t mean much to a 15 year old boy but would come to mean everything to a man who would grow up ready to face life on life’s terms.
1970 was the only year that I was a member of the basketball team. Cars, work and golf started to take their places in my world. Like so many other things, the pain and sweat of those touch-and-go’s have drifted into the corners of my mind while the challenges that I endured, the small victories I had daily in the gym at “…4 sharp…” and the encouragement of Coach Cauley have stuck with me through life.
In the 40 some years since those days, I’ve been able to enjoy 1001 adventures that have taken me far beyond that little mountain town of Hot Springs. With me each step of the way were the challenges of that basketball court which existed as my own private purgatory and Coach Cauley who pushed and demanded more of me – and others – than we thought we could give.
Maybe I don´t hate him so much after all.
Jerry Nelson is a freelance photojournalist working to cover social justices issues and bring the message to people. Originally from Virginia, he currently lives in Argentina where the Kirchner administration is regularly a target for him. In a recent interview, Jerry listed some of those adventures he alludes to in this article.
Laying on a mountain with no noises but the wind rustling through the leaves and a stream flowing near by, the stars so bright and close you feel like you can reach out and touch them.
Setting by the fireplace in a house on a mountain in Alabama, listening to the roar of the river almost right outside the door and spending the entire night talking and laughing with a very special new friend.
Sending out an urgent last minute request for a couch to surf on and having a total strange say, “You can stay with me”.
Watching the sun set over Stone Mountain with two new friends.
Meeting the President of the United States IN the Oval Office.
Seeing the courage and grief on the face of a person in New Orleans who has been beaten down by the world, but refuses to give up.
Standing outside my tent in a pine forest in Georgia with a moon so full and bright it’s as though daylight never left.
Talking with “Mz Mamie” in Jackson as we shelled butter beans in her kitchen infront of her woodburning cookstove.
Flying 4500 feet in a powered parachute on my maiden flight…nothing around me…nothing under me…just me, the breeze and the sun…awesome experience…thanks so much Lionel for making it happen!
Playing stickball with Omar in Dallas and having him tell me again his dream of being the first kid in “the hood” to go to college.
Climbing up a hill in the French Riviera at 6am to have breakfast and watch the sun rise from a postcard perfect little town perched at the top while the locals still slept.
Falling asleep beside the Mississippi…listening to the noise of the river accompanied by a freight train far off in the distance.
Attending a wedding at a church in Rome with the Vatican in the background.
Helping (well actually more watching than helping) Habitat for Humanity in Altavista, VA do a blitz build on a home for folks…I got to the site and there was only a concrete slab in place…when I left 36 hours later there was a finished house!
Sitting out a rainstorm on top of the amazing Angkor Wat temple in Cambodia.
Add these to the list:
Pyramids, Stonehenge, Leaning Tower of Pisa, Eiffel Tower, London Bridge, Big Ben, Colosseum, Arc De Triomphe, Berlin Wall, Loch Ness, Trevi Fountain, Acropolis, Canals of Venice, Notre Dame, Trafalgar Square, Suez Canal, The Holy Land