In 1951 the country was in the midst of the Korean war and anxious to cuddle down into the Miltown-Eisenhower years. As a 10-year-old growing up in Jackson, Mich., what possessed me was not war or politics, but the yo-yo.
I was always obsessive about sports, and like my second-favorite pastime—bouncing a tennis ball against the garage wall until my mother's migraine became critical—the yo-yo would turn me into a subnormal mouth-breather for hours at a time. Merely thinking about Walking the Dog, Eating Spaghetti, Around the World, Rocking the Baby, Sleeping and all the other yo-yo tricks that I could—and couldn't—do would make my palms sweat.
I think the yo-yo was my love because it always returned to me and I never had to share it with anyone. In a softball game after school you had to take turns; you had to hit a ball that was not immediately given back to you. Even playing catch with a football, you had to release the ball and throw it to another kid. If he felt like it, he'd throw it back. I still don't like library books, because someone else has read them first.
The yo-yo, however, was attached to your very own finger, and every 1½ seconds or so you got another chance to make it do something classy. It was also portable. In a boring geography class, when I felt that the whole school building might sink into the ground, I'd raise my hand, go to the boys' room and do a few Walking the Dogs to restore a sense of balance to my pre-adolescent life.
The Duncan company, the biggie in yo-yodom, has what one would call in adult sports touring pros. They are men who travel around to quiet and isolated towns, helping to increase the sale of yoyos in candy and hardware stores by performing impossible feats and giving instructions and a fast pitch. These guys became larger than life for me. While other kids went home after school to pound neat's-foot oil into their Jim Hegan-model catcher's mitts, I would stand around for hours watching one of the touring pros go through a stunning variety of complex yo-yo tricks, such as going Around the World with two yoyos at once.
Although an occasional Filipino would ease through town, Duncan's yo-yo pros in those days were usually Hawaiian. Apparently the company's talent scouts combed the beaches of Waikiki for young men who had nothing better to do than stand around all day like us fifth-graders, playing with a yo-yo until the impossible became second nature.
I particularly remember one of these Hawaiians, for he became part of my growing up. He appeared one autumn day at recess, and while we clung to the playground fence, he turned the simple yo-yo into a concert violin, all the while smiling a dazzling coconut-white grin. A teacher called us rudely back to our volleyball game.
After school he leaned against the wall of the corner drugstore, playing with the yo-yo, mysterious as a gun-fighter who had ridden into a peaceful town in the Old West. His dark skin made him an exotic presence among the wind-burned red faces of Jackson's retired farmers and the pale complexion of its women. His clothing was odd, too. He wore a shirt of a shade of turquoise so deep and rich that otherwise is found only on certain jawbreakers, and his black pants had a seam on the side that opened when he walked, revealing the same shade of turquoise down to his pointed black shoes. To a youngster in the Midwest he seemed mythical, as if an Aztec had escaped Cortez' slaughter and come to us bearing yoyos as a gift.
The yo-yo was not the only art this man had mastered. Part of Duncan's come-on was that if you bought the top-of-the-line Pro model, the touring pro would do a free carving job on it. In the drugstore, which my mother had declared off-limits because the soda jerk there once had shortchanged her on a cherry Coke, I bought the beautiful, black wood Pro model with rhinestones glittering on one side. Then I went all the way and bought two special strings individually wrapped in crinkly cellophane packages. The strings were carefully waxed so that they were perfect for yo-yoing.
When presented with my yo-yo, the Hawaiian pulled an immense switchblade from his pocket, flicked it open and carved what seemed to me to be the most perfect palm tree in the history of art. It had a checkered trunk, and as it leaned back from the wind, you could almost hear the sharp-edged limbs rustle. Below the tree he carved my initials.
A few days later the touring pro moved on to the junior high across town, carrying a cheap locker-room bag and wearing that turquoise shirt like a battle flag against the cold Michigan fall. I saw him only once more. He was handcuffed to the door of a sheriffs car, the big officers frisking him and searching his bag. He blandly stared out over the top of the cruiser at the wide fields between the low factories then springing up in Jackson. It was as if he were an Easter Island statue calmly facing the Pacific.
A few nights later at dinner my parents talked about the "Chink" who had been caught using yo-yos as a front for selling dirty pictures at the junior high and how the deputies worked him over and put him out on the road to Detroit to peddle his filth somewhere else.
As I played with the yo-yo that year, it became obvious that the side of it with the rhinestones outweighed the other, which had been further reduced in weight by the palm-tree carving. The whole thing was off balance. I remember being relieved when I put it away in my sock drawer and bought a more serviceable model, one with which I could do Walking the Dog without it wobbling over on its side.
Now I live in New York City, and I sometimes see men who would have been described as "foreign-looking" in Jackson caged in the rear seats of police cars. I think back to that Hawaiian, who could make the yo-yo perform with a precision that few things in my life have ever matched. I have no idea what happened to my carved yo-yo, but that's unimportant, because the memory of that exotic man's ill-fated visit to Jackson is still tethered to my life like a good yoyo. All the joy and novelty and betrayal that he brought to a 10-year-old's life are still there, as if he came to town only yesterday.