Out there in the back country of America, in the land of chicken-fried steak, 18-wheelers and white vinyl belts, there is a game unknown to the cities and suburbs—rural tennis. Rural tennis is a rustic half sister to the game most of us know, but few of us are privileged to play it, strong enough to endure it or mad enough to pursue it. While not exactly a blood sport, rural tennis calls on one's reserve of courage in ways that transcend the more civilized game, and provides a dramatic setting for discovering the true nature of the self in ways that tennis psychologists can only hint at. Rural tennis is war.
How do I know? Well, I once played two weeks of it in the otherwise lovely Leelanau Peninsula in Michigan, the so-called "little finger" of the state, which runs north-northwest of Traverse City out into Lake Michigan like a demented exclamation point. The peninsula is a mèlange of decaying farms, prosperous cherry orchards, humid motels and agreeable taverns. In the late spring and throughout the summer, the population ranges from the affluent hip of Chicago, playing house in their Design Research "cottages," to platoons of uncivilized and generally uncivil artists, who shout insults at tourists, to the locals, who resemble a casting call for Deliverance.
And out there, dotting the pucker-brush and the Christmas tree farms, are tennis courts. Why, no one is sure. Like Roman ruins in Wales, these courts are the rubble of a previous civilization. Now the prime summer sport is hauling Coho salmon out of Lake Michigan with Bunyanesque tackle, but somewhere in the glorious past tennis was played here, the courts tell us. And once again the hearty "pock" of the ball is beginning to be heard across the stretches of scrub pine and hardwood. The cry of "let!" echoes through gun shops and boat yards, and men stand in table-stakes taverns, quaffing Stroh's fire-brewed beer and wearing tennis shorts, elbow-to-elbow with farmers in Sweet-Orr bib overalls without getting belted just for appearing in such outlandish, sissyfied outfits.
In fact, it is in taverns that one begins to be a rural tennis player. It was to Dick's Pour House, the local pub, that on a lovely afternoon I accompanied my friend Jim Harrison, a Lake Leelanau resident, novelist, poet and diesel authority, to "sign up" for rural tennis. Over several Stroh's fire-breweds we awaited the appearance of Boobs Bovian, a dairy farmer who owns a tennis court. Dick's Pour House is a fine example of Northern Michigan tavern life. The back bar is covered with Hav-a-Hank cards, pickled eggs in jars (with and without beet juice), Slim Jims, small out-of-focus snapshots of the owner standing with a string of lake trout near an ice-fishing shack, a machine that irradiates frozen sandwiches, a Jiggle-Corn machine, Rolaids, Certs, peanuts, a stack of unopened bills and a late-model cash register with digital printout readings—stock control and tax done automatically—one of those registers that click like a binary computer when the barkeep enters your 35¬¨¬®¬¨¢ draft beer.
May 7, 1978
We had to wait quite a while because Boobs Bovian was over in Cedar buying Polish sausage. My friend Harrison, a fortyish, dark-skinned Swede who has only one eye and is therefore known in the peculiar humor of the place as "the one-eyed Jap," gave me my first lesson in rural tennis over our seventh draft and a plastic sack of Blind Robins. "You have to pace yourself," he warned thickly. "Waiting for Boobs is part of the game, as important as warming up. It won't do to get drunk before he gets here." I paced myself.
Before Boobs arrived, I had my second lesson. Harrison weaved purposefully out to his pickup truck and returned with a can of tennis balls. He set it on the bar. "We open the ball can here," he said. "There are tennis bums around here who can actually hear a new can of balls opening. They can detect that little hiss for miles, and since they're too poor to buy new balls, they come out of the woods demanding to play some doubles. In rural tennis you never admit that you've got new balls. We'll dirty these up in the parking lot before we go to the court."
Harrison pulled the tab and the can hissed open. A group of men working on a snowmobile engine in the corner of the tavern gave a cheer at the sound and bought us another round of Stroh's.
Bovian arrived just as Harrison and I had almost decided to give up and go after bass with handguns, one of Leelanau's more exacting sports. Boobs was a very fat man in bib overalls and a billed cap that said "Wayne Feeds" on it. The veins on his nose looked like a road map of Rhode Island, but there was a twinkle in his eye as he produced a worn copy of the Farmer's Almanac from his pocket and thumbed through to the date. "Let's see here," croaked Boobs, "you can have the court from 2 till 2:15, and then again from 2:30 till dark." That seemed confusing to me until Harrison explained that Boobs usually drove his herd of dairy cattle to another pasture in the middle of the afternoon, and they crossed the court, necessitating not only a brief delay for the passage but also a slightly longer one for the cleanup. We decided to take the court from 2:30 to 4 and paid 75¬¨¬®¬¨¢ in advance. The going rate in Leelanau County is 50¬¨¬®¬¨¢ an hour, but before you go crazy and move there, remember that although one can buy a round in Dick's Pour House—buy the entire town a round—for about $2.65 plus tax, there is no practical way to make a living in the North Country.
After dirtying our new tennis balls in the dusty parking lot, we rattled off in Harrison's geriatric pickup with a dozen cans of Stroh's, a few packs of Slim Jims and an old Holiday Inn towel. Waylon Jennings was singing "Luckenbach, Texas" on the radio. As we bucked down the county road through stands of scrub pine and farms where the fences were made of pine stumps, I began to long for my own tennis club in the sophisticated enclave of Brooklyn Heights, with its changing rooms, sauna, restaurant and bar. In the bar I could stand at the plate glass window, iced Gatorade in hand, and watch crisp ground shots traveling low over the net, hear the comforting squeak of new Stan Smiths, listen to the Haavaad accents of the squash players, and shout, politely, "Oh, well-placed, that!" to a good passing shot. I wanted freshly laundered whites, the poached trout for dinner and a club appointment director who called me "sir" and was not named Boobs Bovian. Perhaps it was merely the effects of eight Stroh's that produced such feverish longing. However, the reality was Leelanau County and the game of rural tennis.
Harrison made a sharp turn off the county road onto a sandy double-track out through a stand of small Christmas trees and finally jerked to a halt, barely out of sight of the road. In fact, I thought we'd merely taken a shortcut to another road, for ahead of us lay a stretch of turtle-backed macadam exactly like the one we'd just left. "What's that road up ahead?" I inquired. Harrison snapped open a Stroh's, handed it to me and, staring through the windshield, replied, "That's the court."
"But it looks like macadam."
"It is. So?" He was getting irritated at my snobbishness.
"So nothing." I pulled at the beer, beginning to regret the whole venture.
The court was indeed made of the stuff of most county roads, but the lines seemed accurate enough, although there were only four feet of clearance between baseline and fence. This would hardly be acceptable even on clay or Har-Tru; on macadam one was in constant contact with the fence. Go bounce a tennis ball on a Michigan county road sometime. It lifts an amazing distance off the surface, and this is true for flat serves and ground strokes of the most ordinary kind, to say nothing of lobs and smashes.
The fence itself was another wondrous work to behold. I examined it while Harrison lit a cigarette, found a shady spot for the beer and settled into his meditation exercise, "B.P." (before playing). The fence was Red Rooster Brand chicken wire stapled to creosoted two-by-fours. The chicken wire had come in a three-foot width, and it had been overlapped half way up. This, I was to find out, presented a problem. When a bouncing ball hit the fence behind the baseline, it invariably found the overlap and squirted outside the fence, trickling off into the puckerbrush and Christmas trees. Christmas tree ranches are big business in Leelanau country; one doesn't say "Christmas tree" merely because he doesn't know the right name of the tree. I found the fence weird, to say the least. Almost as weird as Harrison's meditation, which was done in a half-lotus that resembled a self-administered half nelson, while smoking a cigarette and pausing for pulls at the Stroh's.
Finally ready, we began warming up.
Harrison's outfit that day is de rigueur for the game: a padded snowmobile outfit as a warmup suit, which when removed reveals backpackers' shorts, with those extra pockets on the front that can hold nothing but your Sierra Club card, and a Norwegian fishnet undershirt—the kind you can see through but don't want to. At various times during play, Harrison also showed a flair for originality by soaking the Holiday Inn towel in a nearby creek and wearing the thing over his head, yelling, "Lawrence of Poland—add in!" As Harrison did that day, many men in rural tennis wear Peds, those half-socks for women with the fuzzy ball on the heel to keep the sock from slipping into the shoe. This is not some odd, transsexual dress code of the North Woods, but comes from the fact that, for some years, rural tennis was considered less than manly; hence girl friends and wives have the best equipment and more of it, with the result that their clothing and equipment are often borrowed by the men. But it's not wise to snicker at a 200-pound ex-farmer in Peds.
As for the game itself, I discovered that nine beers prevent certain nerve synapses, like the ones for judging distances, from operating properly. Within minutes all our balls were somewhere outside the chicken wire, lost to the incredibly high bounce. Then began the big ball hunt.
In rural tennis the big ball hunt is at once one of the most terrifying and rewarding aspects of the game. It is terrifying because nameless things await one out there in the puckerbrush, rewarding because living through it will make you a better man, or at least a wiser one.
Harrison stood with his fingers clawed into his fishnet undershirt.
"Take your racket," he said.
"What for, no one's going to steal it when I'm out hunting for balls, are they? I don't think there's anyone for miles..."
"You'll need the racket," explained Harrison. "Blue racers."
As a Michigan lad, I knew about blue racers. Long, fat snakes as blue and quick as their name.
"And carry it in a serving grip," warned Harrison, opening a Stroh's for the big ball hunt. "There won't be time for any of that fancy Vic Braden stuff like changing grips. A quick slash is all there's time for with blue racers."
Two hundred yards from the court, after an elusive sighting of a yellow ball deep in the Christmas trees where Harrison, yelling "Fenway Park," had slugged it in practice, I met my first and last blue racer. It was headed lazily toward my ball. I know I'm not supposed to be afraid. After all, I've read National Geographic for years, and I've seen those pictures of gentle-looking biologists with wispy beards and pockets full of felt-tipped pens handling cobras and fer-de-lances and such. But reason stands no chance against plain, old-fashioned hysteria. I screamed and whacked out with a shoelace-level half volley at the snake. It didn't even look back. I retreated, backing up over the small trees, keeping up a high-pitched keening noise, like a puppy overpowered by a berserk dowager.
After I regained the safety of the court, I began to think of Ernest Hemingway. It was not far from where we played that Hemingway had come as a boy to fish and hunt with his father, and it was about this country that he wrote the Nick Adams stories, those precise tales of manhood, courage and responsibility. I tried to think of that as Harrison eyed me suspiciously. Then it occurred to me that Nick Adams had never faced a blue racer. Say what you want about World War I and bullfighting, I'll bet old Nick would have cheeped like a fledgling if he'd faced a five-foot blue racer. The thought gave me courage to begin the game.
I won the spin of the racket and prepared to serve.
"Don't serve," Harrison said calmly.
"Because we don't serve up here," he explained, grinding out his cigarette on the baseline. "It just makes it too complicated when you have to make the ball go in the right service court and it takes too much energy, which we like to save in case something unexpected happens. You might need every ounce of strength you can get."
I was struck by an assault wave of terror. "What kinds of things?" I asked.
"Let's not go into it. Maybe nothing will happen..."
On that tremulous note the game of rural tennis began. In rural tennis, the player "serving" merely hits a forehand shot to his opponent, anything between the service line and the baseline being acceptable.
After a sustained rally with a decent pace, I sliced a backhand gently over the net, dropping it neatly, I thought. Harrison made no move from his statuesque pose at the baseline.
"Drop shots aren't allowed. Or dinks, either," he said.
"To save energy?" I asked, beginning to catch on. "Might need the legs to run," he said. And as he did so, he looked over my shoulder. It's always a good trick to look over your opponent's shoulder occasionally in the game of rural tennis: makes him nervous. But Harrison has only one good eye and you can't be sure where he's looking when he attempts a passing shot.
"Like, I'm trying to decide whether we should run right now," he said, backing up slowly.
"Come on, Harrison," I scoffed, like a movie detective, "that's the oldest trick in the book." Then I heard the snuffling. It was that particular wet, hot breathing that means only one thing on a Michigan farm—a bull. My spine turned to pond water.
I wheeled and confronted the beast, raising my racket like a crucifix at a werewolf. He was one of those long, low-model Herefords. He rolled a curious eye along the fence, hooked a horn in the chicken wire and pulled a section away from the posts, the staples flying out like bird shot. He snorted, licked his drizzly nose, and headed slowly onto the court, dragging several feet of wire on his horn tip. His wide hooves made a frightening noise on the macadam. I backed toward the net, trying to decide if it would be better to wheel and run, or to stand my ground and be gored, brave and true, while waving my tennis towel in a Veronica and yelling "Ho, Toro!" But Michigan bulls probably don't understand Spanish. I wondered if he'd go for something like "Please leave me alone," or "Pick on someone your own size."
Suddenly Boobs Bovian appeared through the brush carrying a pitchfork. He confronted the bull. "Damn it all, Junior, I've told you not to come over here when they're playing at the tennis games. Keep your fat butt over in the south pasture." Boobs gave Junior a hearty stab in the flank with the pitchfork, and Junior bellowed and lumbered away, flattening Christmas trees.
"Sorry about that, boys," said Boobs. "Fool creature is curious. I guess he can't figure out what you fellows are doing out here in short pants hitting a ball back and forth." He scratched his head. "Damned if I can, either." Boobs followed Junior over a hill and disappeared.
"Were we at love-40?" asked Harrison, used to these interruptions. I had no idea if we were even on earth.
We decided to try again the next day, and for a while everything was somewhat better. The game proceeded smoothly for a set and a half; the Stroh's were cool and the wind fresh and light. But once again there were surprises in store for the urban player.
As I rushed the net on a short return of Harrison's, a huge shadow passed over the court, soundless, black and threatening. I dropped my racket and covered my head. Harrison's forehand shot caught me painfully in the shoulder.
"Why did you stop?" he wondered.
"Was that a bird? A big one?"
"Red-tailed hawk," said bird-watcher Harrison. "The light plays funny tricks. The shadows look real big, don't they?"
A few days later I felt ready for anything rural tennis could throw at me. It wasn't just that I'd been losing consistently, or that Boobs Bovian's German shepherd Revenge had snapped a ball out of midair near my racket and ripped it to shreds. It wasn't the thunderstorm with lightning that hit the net post, or the wolverine with rabies that died at the service line one day. No, it was the fact that I could now anticipate. As Chris Evert can move unerringly to the right place to return an overhead smash, now I could steel myself to deal-with what rural tennis could throw up at me. At least that's what I thought.
On my last afternoon in Northern Michigan, we had a farewell game. The distinctive Leelanau light played on the Christmas trees and made a nearby field of pigs stand out like a painting, so still and perfect and grandly swinish. The clouds were Johnson & Johnson cotton balls; the Polish sausage and Stroh's were a delight. Such simple pleasures to counterpoint the complex and demanding game of rural tennis.
In game six (I was up five), I was backpedaling furiously to get to a Harrison lob, and as I bent back to find it against the ultramarine of the sky, the ball simply disintegrated. The report of what could only be a 12-gauge shotgun closely followed the vaporization. Bits of yellow fluff" floated down, as if a crate of chicks had been dispatched with a laser beam.
As the sound of the shot rolled away over the low hills, I realized I couldn't take it any longer.
"Goddam it, Harrison," I yelled, "that's the last straw. You get me out here to play tennis and it's anything but. Bulls, dogs, a wolverine. Boobs Bovian, drinking at 10 a.m.—that's all right. That's maybe part of your game. But guns..."
My sympathies, which were never of the knee-jerk, Eastern liberal variety in the first place, running more to arming English professors with Magnums and shopkeepers with grenades, were suddenly inflamed. It was simply too much to be shot at while playing tennis.
"New tennis balls," Harrison calmly explained.
"New balls. That was Nick Reems, a big-time shotgun freak, and a rural tennis player. He must have heard that we were using new balls and we didn't invite him to play. That's just Nick's way of telling me that his feelings are hurt. Also, I suppose Nick feels that it saves money on clay pigeons, so it's a double treat to blow our ball out of the air. He's a hell of a wing shot."
Nick never appeared. I cringed on lobs the rest of the day, but there was no more gunfire.
Boarding my flight that evening in Traverse City, I was seated next to a young man who was impeccable in white tennis shorts and shirt. He noticed the racket handle sticking out of my flight bag.
"Been playing up here?" he asked.
"Yep, up in Lake Leelanau."
"Really? I didn't know there were courts up there. Any good games?"
"Oh, you might say so," I smugly replied. For it suddenly occurred to me that this guy, who was probably on the top rung of the "A" ladder at Chicago's North Side Racket Club, couldn't possibly understand what I'd been through. He would never appreciate the game of rural tennis until he, too, had played it. And I began to think what a marvelous experience it had been. At the Heights Casino in Brooklyn, I would never have to be wary of a rabid wolverine. I would never hear the snort of a bull behind me. Rural tennis had improved my concentration for the regular game immensely. You can lob and drop-shot me all day and I won't complain. Groin pulls mean nothing to a man who's played tennis on Mars, and Stan Smith outfits hardly impress a fellow who's seen a Swede in Peds. Nothing will throw my game off—except maybe a shotgun; I still can't stand that part. But in Brooklyn the innocent bark of a Saturday Night Special won't ruffle my serve.
The athletic young man and I had nothing to discuss except graphite rackets, which we did until the plane landed in Chicago.