When most people wake up on a rainy morning, they think nothing of it. It may mean a little inconvenience: wearing a raincoat, taking an umbrella, allowing extra time to get to work. For me, however, waking up to the sound of rain brings back bitter memories of junior high school. From the time I was 12, rain in the morning has meant humiliation, embarrassment and the threat of permanent injury. How could this be? The answer is dodgeball.
Dodgeball is a game based on one man's ability to hit another with a thrown ball; the throwee attempts to dodge the ball.
Whenever our gym class was forced indoors by poor weather, dodgeball was what we played. The exact origin of the game is obscure, but I suspect that dodgeball was born at a meeting of gym teachers during a rain-provoked brainstorming session.
"We need something that'll teach 'em teamwork and discipline," said one gym teacher. "Something that'll improve their cardiovascular fitness, that'll build the kind of camaraderie they'll need to succeed in life."
"I've got it! I've got it!" said another. "I'll get a bunch of balls and toss them out into the gym and tell the kids to throw them as hard as they can at each other and see how often they can hit someone...." And dodgeball was born.
The 1949 edition of the Dictionary of Sports defines dodgeball as "a game played between two groups [in which] one attempts to hit the [other] with a volleyball, soccer ball, codeball [a 6-inch inflatable ball] or similar ball. Victory goes to the group eliminating the other group in the shortest time."
Being hit and being eliminated were two of the things I feared about dodgeball. Of course, I was only too happy to hit someone else—like any kid, I guess.
The other thing I feared about dodgeball was—let's call him John Doe. At 13, John played hardball—he was in complete command of a slider, a knuckleball and a forkball and had already thrown his share of knockdown pitches. John could hurl a red Voit—a ball the size of a full-grown Pekingese—so fast that it curved. I would make for a corner of the gym, where I thought I'd be hard to hit, but his ball always seemed to possess a fear sensor that guided it to its target, and it invariably homed in on me precisely where I was cowering. This is not an exaggeration. You don't quickly forget a ball slicing the air at high speed and aimed at your head.
There are many variations on the theme of dodgeball. The game we played most often was called Darwinian dodgeball, and it included a biology lesson: Every man for himself. But there were other variations.
•Crown the king—The target, "the king," stands on a chair in the center of a 30-foot circle. The object is to lead a coup, assassinate the monarch and usurp his throne—in other words, hit the king with the ball.
•Hot rice—A batter fungoes a Softball, and whoever catches it throws it back and tries to hit the batter.
•Machine-gun fire, hotball and battleball—These are versions whose names make the game's beligerent roots only too obvious.
•Water dodgeball—This is—surprise!—dodgeball played in the water.
•Pom-pom-pullaway—The player who is "it" has the ball. "It" shouts, "Pom-pom-pullaway, come away or I'll pull you away." The players must try to run to the opposite wall without being hit by the ball—difficult when you're doubled over with laughter at what the other player has just said. Snowball pom-pom-pullaway can be played in really frightful weather.
•Spud—"It" throws the ball up and everybody runs. When "it" catches the ball, he yells, "Halt!" Everyone stops, and "it" tries to hit the closest person. In dodgeball, there are variations on the variations. If plain spud gets too boring for you—or the gym teacher—there are poison spud, dribble spud or pickaback spud, to name but a few.
As far as I know, dodgeball is played primarily in physical education classes. The qualities that make dodgeball physically educational escape me. This is not to say it isn't educational in other ways, for example in motivating a child to learn the intricacies of forging a doctor's or parent's handwriting and familiarizing himself with the symptoms of beriberi and other disabling diseases that are likely to get you excused from gym class. But dodgeball may have deleterious effects on the mind. For example, merely contemplating the game seems to afflict the part of the brain that controls short-term memory. In my gym class alone, scores of boys had to be excused from participating because of an epidemic of I-forgot-my-athletic-supporteritis.
When I left secondary school, I left behind John Doe and dodgeball. But even now, when I wake up in the morning to the sound of rain, my first instinct is to take out a sheet of paper and begin to write in my mother's hand: "Richard is a little under the weather today. His beriberi is acting up again."
Richard Demak is a reporter for Discover magazine.