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The Fix That Failed

It was only a meaningless touch-tackle game in Caldwell, Idaho, but a gambler had a scheme to make money on it

Whenever I read of professional football or college basketball players getting into trouble as a result of association with gamblers, I am reminded of the time when I was 11 years old and accepted a gambler's bribe. The results were quite pleasant as far as I was concerned and not the least unpleasant for anyone else, with the possible exception of the gambler. That was in the 1920s, when I was growing up and peddling papers in Caldwell, Idaho.

Unlike today's youngsters, whose playing fields usually seem to be engulfed by hordes of parents and others old enough to know better, my fellow paper boys and I seldom had much truck with adults except as customers. Our feelings about adults were epitomized by our mispronunciation of the very word. We called them "alditutes." How this missaying became current among us I never knew, but it was years before I realized that it was incorrect. It sounded to us quite natural, because it seemed related to the word altitude and thus a reference to their obvious edge over us in height. We could not deny that they held that advantage, along with many others, but we saw none of those advantages as reasons for our surrender.

The kinds of adult influences that occasionally did get through to us were able to do so only because most of the time we were spared supervision and thus could take a healthy interest in the old folks. Around the business district we were accepted as part of the scenery and observed people being themselves, not good examples. This was instructive. It did, however, mean that an adult who really fascinated us and knew how to take advantage of this could use us for his own ends. Or try to. I do not think anyone ever fully succeeded in such an enterprise. The one who came closest may have been the gambler who took an interest in our version of touch football.

The Kennedy family's enthusiasm for this game, together with its popularity among young suburban fathers who have not given up the struggle to keep their stomachs flat, has made it respectable. This development would have seemed unlikely to us had we ever contemplated it. Although we were under the impression that our version of the game was our invention, we had little respect for it. The reason we adopted it was that our usual place for playing was the street in front of the creamery. As far as traffic was concerned, this was all right; the creamery truck might pass once or twice in an afternoon, but the only other likely vehicles were occasional horse-drawn wagons and buggies. The drawback was that the unpaved, deeply rutted roadway was strewn with rocks that frequently rent the clothing, and occasionally the hides, of the players. This made the game more efficacious as a test of manhood, but we were able to persuade ourselves that loud parental objections to the incidence of holes in pants and skins made it necessary for us to abandon what we called tackle.

Our version of touch had none of the sophisticated rules I recently have encountered, such as that the touch must be made with both hands or on some specific part of the ballcarrier's anatomy. You could touch him anywhere, and with either hand or with a foot if that was more convenient. Since we never had anything in the way of an official, it was important to touch hard, so that the other side could not argue that you had missed. This led to the ballcarrier's objecting sometimes that he had not been touched but slugged. He might attempt to avenge himself immediately or wait until he caught the slugger with the ball. There were a few name-calling matches and one or two brief but noisy exchanges of blows nearly every time we played the game.

It was unusual for adults to stop and watch us play, but on one occasion we had four onlookers in attendance two days in a row. They were habitués of a pool hall a block up the street—or rather, three of them were regular patrons of the pool hall, the fourth being a stranger to us—and we were flattered by their interest. That particular pool hall was especially dingy and dangerous-looking. I often wandered through it trying to sell papers, though seldom with any luck, and always felt a bit daring in doing so, because of the stench of stale home brew and tobacco smoke and the intensity of the card players huddled over the two or three tables in the rear.

The first afternoon that audience of four was on hand my friend, Heber, and I were in good form. We two had played together since infancy and had started selling papers at the same time, and with time out for occasional periods of feuding we were best friends. Like most games of touch football ours leaned heavily on passing plays. Heber, a good passer at any time, was at his best that day, and I was doing unusually well as his principal receiver. I was not greatly surprised when the fourth member of the group of spectators, the stranger, stopped me later as I was pedaling through an alley with my papers and complimented me on my pass catching. When he went on to offer me a dollar for the rest of my papers—four times their value—if I would do him a favor, I hastened to agree. The favor was that I should undertake to drop every pass thrown to me the next afternoon. He explained that he was playing a joke on his friends, that it was also important that I say nothing to anyone about our conversation and that if all went well he would meet me again the following afternoon and again buy all my papers for four times their value.

I had never heard of a fix and felt not the faintest compunction about agreeing to all he proposed. I rushed right off with that dollar—a huge sum—to the best soda fountain in town and ordered a banana split, the most splendid luxury I could conceive of. As I was about to plunge into it Heber entered, took the stool next to mine and ordered one of the same. We both guessed that we shared the same source of bounty, smiled knowingly at each other but, true to our pledges, said not a word.

At the game the next day we worked hard to fulfill our bargains. Heber failed to hit a receiver, and I caught not a pass. We were proud of the way we had delivered, and when the game ended we asked our benefactor whether we had done all right. To our amazement one of his companions chased me halfway around the creamery calling me names and threatening to beat the daylights out of me when he caught me. He soon abandoned pursuit of me to join the other men, who were moving off up the street in noisy dispute.

Neither Heber nor I fully understood what had happened until years later when we learned about fixes, but we grasped that money was involved. The affair was a demonstration of the tendency adults had to outsmart themselves in their dealings with us. Although we never saw the stranger again, it is less likely that his companions ran him out of town than that they laughed him out. He could not have reaped any profit from his fix. His bribes were based on the assumption that Heber and I always played on the same side. Instead, we chose sides every afternoon on our way to the creamery from school. That afternoon Heber and I, chiefly because we had played so well the day before, were delegated to do the choosing and lead the opposing teams. As a result of our hard-working bad play the game ended in a scoreless tie.