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Oct 2003 / games :: email this story to a friend

Tubalo and the Playground Pecking Order
By Matt Shea

Two-below, or Tubalo, (we never saw it written down so it's anybody's guess), was a game invented by the students at St. Roch, an elementary school at the corner of Rosedale and Waterman a few blocks from Forest Park and Washington University. The game has since disappeared. At least that's what I've heard. Word was the pastor outlawed Tubalo long ago, said it was disruptive and a nuisance, invited horseplay or some such iniquity.

But for a decade or so through the late '60s to late '70s, Tubalo dominated the lunchtime play hours at our school like a saxophone dominates a jazz combo and did so just as seductively. The game was irresistible and the rules so simple that it wasn't even necessary to indoctrinate new players. Just watch a game of Tubalo for five minutes and you'd get it.

All you needed was a tennis ball — rubber ones bounce too high — and a wall, the bigger the better. The back wall of the church, built in 1912 with brick and granite and aspiring, as St. Louis architectural projects still did in that era, to recreate some sense of European splendor and scale, was plenty big enough. Just had to watch out for the chain link mesh protecting the stained glass. Tennis balls just plain die when they go up against chain link.

You'd throw it up against the brick wall and whoever caught it when it came down had to run as fast and elusively as they could to the end of the parking lot and touch the back fence without being tagged.

We were told the name Tubalo came from an earlier version that required the tag be made with two hands and below the waist. That rule had been tossed long before we inherited the game. The concrete lot was probably half as big as a football field, or at least it felt that way at the time.

Two-player Tubalo is a ridiculous thought. Three isn't much better. Ideal conditions were maybe seven or eight players. More than that and the area got too crowded with the competition, like Luke and Leia trying to dodge those forest trees on their hovercycle.

Not everyone played, of course. Not the kids who didn't like sports. Not the kids who wouldn't bother to show up for the afternoon classes until, it always seemed, five minutes after the bell had rung. And not the girls. Well, not the girls until Michelle decided to give it a try.

We, the Tubaloers, the guys, were reluctant at first to let her have a go but we, and nearly every guy in school, were madly in love with her so the idea didn't take long to grow on us.

"We get to touch Michelle? Chase her? Michelle's gonna be chasing ME?" This is what went through all our minds. She became a regular Tubalo player.

And she was good, among the best, which probably surprised as much as disappointed us. Catching Michelle was hard work. She had this spin move that was nearly impossible to predict or defend against. By the time she'd spun you were left in the dust and she flew past you in a flash of blond ponytail and green plaid skirt.

I was a slasher, some juking, but mostly slash and speed. Make the cut, slice through the empty spots, avoid a sweeping hand then dash to the goal line, my nose pressed into one of the diamond-shaped holes in the chain link. No time to slow up. Victory!

I was good enough to usually rack up three or four points in the twenty minutes or so that a Tubalo game took. Michelle was good for two or three. Another quick kid with short legs and a platinum-blond, bowl-cut hairdo was normally in the running. We didn't keep score though, not officially, just sort of knew who was ahead at the end.

There were a few guys who never made it to the fence. A few others that never got more than maybe 10 feet without getting caught. But they tried, never gave defeat a thought. Five, six years of Tubalo and never scored a point. I admired and pitied them at the same time.

Successful Tubaloers were popular and respected classmates. Those less adept were relegated to minor significance. It wasn't fair, of course, and we probably weren't even aware of what we doing, but Tubalo was the great equalizer. If you couldn't cut it in the classroom at least you could impress in the schoolyard. You had a chance if you could run like hell.

A kid's Tubalo behavior was also remarkably telling of character. Lazy kids who wouldn't bother to chase someone, help out, were usually poor students. The ball hogs, who would waste our time with endless juking, back and forth, back and forth, stop and go, until we'd have to surround him and put an end to it, were notoriously selfish types off the field as well.

Then, of course, were the cheaters, the guys who would claim they hadn't been touched when we all clearly saw that they had. Or would pretend to drop the ball just before you tagged them, or come down with a charley horse. The cheaters ended up getting caught for shoplifting or did horrible things to cats.

But while we were dashing and slicing and sweating what we did off the playground didn't matter. And after we were done we would go into class in our sweat-soaked, white polyester shirts and if we were lucky Sister Herbert, the nice nun, would let us put our heads down on the desks and cool off while she wheeled in a black and white TV so we could watch the World Series. Seemed like the Cincinnati Reds were always in it. The Reds were light gray.

I went back to that playground three years ago for the first time since graduating from St. Roch. The space was littered with alumni, all these former students with their kids and wives, a beer truck, a loud speaker playing music, smoke from the hamburger grills. One guy at the reunion, just as I always saw him 25 years earlier, was wearing his Boy Scout uniform shirt and proudly. His hair was the same too, long and dirty. He was a lousy Tubalo player. In the school building the TVs in the classrooms were tuned to the World Series, now in color.

As I made the rounds and shook the once tiny hands of my old school mates, hands that had since fattened and found wedding rings, I looked up at the church wall where we once bounced off tennis balls and chased Michelle and that hair like she was a wild, golden pony.

Michelle jumped from her seat when she saw me. No handshake. I got a hug.

And all I wanted to do was feel a tennis ball in my hand, throw it as hard as I could against that church wall and see how many of us would still chase it down.

Matt Shea is a freelance writer based in Japan, and a contributor to the Zeit-Gist column in the country's largest English-language daily, The Japan Times.

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