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THEN MY ARM GLASSED UP
John Steinbeck
December 20, 1965
Long before he became one of America's foremost authors, John Steinbeck worked for a fish and game commission. The job, perhaps, trained him to see with a naturalist's eye, for his novels have been notably filed with simple, moving descriptions of nature and man's relationship to it. In his most recent book, "Travels with Charley," Steinbeck used the essay form to make succinct observations about his country and its people. It turned out, as he now says, that "sports get into everything." He fished with a stranger. He raised his rifle on a coyote and could not shoot it. He found that "when a Texas football team takes the field against a foreign state, it is an army with banners." With this in mind, Senior Editor Ray Cave asked Mr. Steinbeck to write an essay on sport. His answer was no. It follows.
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December 20, 1965

Then My Arm Glassed Up

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Long before he became one of America's foremost authors, John Steinbeck worked for a fish and game commission. The job, perhaps, trained him to see with a naturalist's eye, for his novels have been notably filed with simple, moving descriptions of nature and man's relationship to it. In his most recent book, "Travels with Charley," Steinbeck used the essay form to make succinct observations about his country and its people. It turned out, as he now says, that "sports get into everything." He fished with a stranger. He raised his rifle on a coyote and could not shoot it. He found that "when a Texas football team takes the field against a foreign state, it is an army with banners." With this in mind, Senior Editor Ray Cave asked Mr. Steinbeck to write an essay on sport. His answer was no. It follows.

Dear Ray Cave:
I have your letter of August 29, and it pleased me to know that you think of me as a sportsman, albeit perhaps an unorthodox one. As you must know, I get many requests for articles, such as, "You got to rite my term paper for my second yer english or they wun't leave me play on the teem." Here is a crisis. If I don't rite his term paper I may set sports back irreparably. On the other hand, I don't think I am a good enough writer to rite his term paper in his stile well enough to get by his teacher. I remember one time when a professor in one of our sports-oriented colleges had in his English composition class a football player whose excellence on the playing field exhausted his capabilities, and yet a tyrannical scholasticism demanded that he write an essay. Well, he did, and the professor, who was a friend of mine, was utterly charmed by it. It was one of Emerson's best, and such was the purity of approach on the part of the football player that he had even spelled the words correctly. And he was astounded that the professor could tell that it was not all his own work.

Early on I had a shattering experience in ghost-writing that has left its mark on me. In the fourth grade in Salinas, Calif. my best friend was a boy named Pickles Moffet. He was an almost perfect little boy, for he could throw rocks harder and more accurately than anyone, he was brave beyond belief in stealing apples or raiding the cake section in the basement of the Episcopal church, a gifted boy at marbles and tops and sublimely endowed at infighting. Pickles had only one worm in him. The writing of a simple English sentence could put him in a state of shock very like that condition which we now call battle fatigue. Imagine to yourself, as the French say, a burgeoning spring in Salinas, the streets glorious with puddles, grass and wild flowers and toadstools in full chorus, and the dense adobe mud of just the proper consistency to be molded into balls and flung against white walls—an activity at which Pickles Moffet excelled. It was a time of ecstasy, like the birth of a sweet and sinless world.

And just at this time our fourth-grade teacher hurled the lightning. She assigned us our homework. We were to write a quatrain in iambic pentameter with an a b a b rhyme scheme.

Well, I thought Pickles was done for. His eyes rolled up. His palms grew sweaty, and a series of jerky spasms went through his rigid body. I soothed him and gentled him, but to show you the state Pickles was in—he threw a mud ball at Mrs. Warnock's newly painted white residence. And he missed the whole house.

I think I saved Pickles' life. I promised to write two quatrains and give one to him. I'm sure there is a moral in this story somewhere, but where? The verse I gave to Pickles got him an A while the one I turned in for myself brought a C.

You will understand that the injustice of this bugged me pretty badly. Neither poem was any great shucks, but at least they were equally bad. And I guess my sense of injustice outweighed my caution, for I went to the teacher and complained: "How come Pickles got an A and I only got a C?"

Her answer has stayed with me all my life. She said, "What Pickles wrote was remarkable for Pickles. What you wrote was inferior for you." You see? Sports get into everything, even into verse-writing, and I tell this story to myself every time I think I am getting away with something.

As I started to say, I get many requests for articles, and sometimes the letter of refusal is longer than the article would have been. I have always been interested in sports, but more as an observer than as a participant. It seems to me that any sport is a kind of practice, perhaps unconscious, for the life-and-death struggle for survival. Our team sports simulate war, with its strategy, tactics, logistics, heroism and/or cowardice. Individual competition of all kinds has surely ingredients of single combat, which was for x millions of years the means of going on living. The Greeks, who invented realism and pretty much cornered the market, began the training of a soldier by teaching him dancing. The rhythm, precision and coordination of the dance made the hoplite one hell of a lot better trooper. In this connection, it is interesting that the hill men of Crete in their all-male dancing go through the motions of using shield and spear, of defense and dodge and parry, of attack, thrust and retreat. I don't imagine they know this, but it is what they do.

The very word "sport" is interesting. It is a shortening of "disport" (OED: "disportare, to carry away, hence to amuse or to entertain"). From earliest times people played lightly at the deadly and serious things so that they could stand them at all—all, that is, except the Greeks, who in their competitions were offering the gift of their endurance, their strength and their spirits to the gods. Perhaps our values and our gods have changed.

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