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The rules were basic: You threw the tennis ball at the wall (without hitting the ground first), and after it bounced off the wall the other players had an opportunity to catch it before it hit the ground. If caught, the original thrower had to run and touch the wall before the ball was thrown back. If the runner didn’t make it in time, the player was out. If someone attempted to catch the ball but couldn’t hold it, that kid had to run to the wall before being out. And so on and so forth until only one person remained. I don’t know any kid over the age of 5 that would play with the large rubber kick-ball. It seemed so infantile; like if you saw a kid in 5th grade who was still playing with Lego Duplos in class. You’d think the kid was not right in the head, right? Same goes for the kick ball in a game of wall ball. No, at Glenside Weldon Elementary School, we used a tennis ball.

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The game was elegant in its simplicity, much like Tag. Only with Wall-Ball, there was a bit of cleverness necessitated from its rules. At our school, we had a very wide expanse of black top that only gave way to an even larger field behind us, so if someone threw a high ball against the wall and it went over all of our heads, it was a test of bravery to go forth and get it. Why, you ask? Because if you were the one who went for the ball, the moment you picked it up, you would hear the rest of the kids yell, “Challenge!” meaning you had to stand where you were and throw it against the wall no matter how far. If you were lucky and had a friend you trusted, that friend would go to the halfway point between you and the wall and say, “Relay!” which meant you could throw it to your friend who would in turn throw it against the wall without you having to run to the wall.

And I say, “A friend you trusted,” because even though he says, “relay,” he doesn’t have to catch the ball if he doesn’t want to. He didn’t sign a contract. He didn’t make a promissory note. This was all verbal and he was not legally obligated to help you. He could easily just step aside like in a Roadrunner cartoon while you threw the ball. Sometimes the ball would go far enough into the field to warrant a “double relay,” which really tested your trust in your fellow classmates.

There would be a lot of convincing on the relayer’s part to get you to throw the ball to him. You had to learn whom to trust and when to trust him. Did you have any outs to spare? What would he get out of it if he helped you? What were his motives? Why was he so eager to help you? Did you betray him earlier in the day and he was seeking payback? Is he doing this because he owes you a favor of some kind? Where exactly could you throw it to give yourself a chance? All these questions swirled about you while you stood in no man’s land without a goddamn prayer to reach the wall. I always found it best that if you didn’t trust the relayer, you would throw the ball as high as you could to him. As soon as you released the ball, just run. Don’t look; run. Run to the wall whether or not you think he will catch it. After all, you have to look out for number 1 because the real world can be a mean, cold, and scary place. Which brings us to….

 

Sewie-When Recess Gets Real

Wall-ball was always good, clean, wholesome fun. You throw, you run, you jump, and you laugh with your chums. But every once in a while…every once in a while on a usually dark, sad, day of destiny, a kid would bring from home a racquetball. As we all marveled at the racquetball and its hard, reinforced rubber exterior, the playing field would immediately be cut in half. Some feigned an illness, others decided they were bored with this game and would venture off to the swings or the jungle gym. They all knew. We all knew what was about to happen: Sewie was about to happen.

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“Sewie” is playground slang for “Suicide,” meaning that instead of throwing a ball against the wall to get a player out, one had to peg the offender with the ball. Whereas the name “Wall-Ball” was always said with an uplifting tone of optimism, “Sewie” was always pronounced low with an air of doom about it. It was fascinating that this game was only really offered when a racquetball was introduced to the game. We never played Sewie with a tennis ball because you couldn’t really inflict any damage that way. But with a racquetball, you better be sure of what the hell you were doing otherwise it was going to cause you some real physical discomfort.

As a means of intimidation, the racquetball was usually thrown around to each of the players before the start of the game so they could hold the ball and imagine the pain that could be felt if they were to become the prey. The ball was slightly smaller and denser than a tennis ball, meaning it could garner more momentum and velocity when thrown at you.

The most satisfying hits came when the racquetball landed square in someone’s back as they ran for the wall. There is no sound more enriching, more terribly infatuating to a ten-year-old boy than the hollow plunk of a racquetball against the square of another kid’s back at speed. The kid’s shoulders would fly back and there would be the collective, sympathetic groan by the gallery of players as the sound echoed off the wall.

Hitting a kid in the back of the head was a real wild card as well, since the back of the head is rounder in shape, the racquetball can ricochet in any number of directions, usually high in the air and off to the right or left. If you’re able to get the ball to bounce straight up in the air upon impact it was as satisfying as nailing a bull’s eye in darts.

If you did get pegged, you did not have the option to tend to your wounds immediately. After all, you still haven’t touched the wall yet, have you? Until you touched that wall you could be pegged any number of times. Mercy was not a prerequisite for playing Sewie and it was never encouraged.

On returning to the instance of a high-fly out to no man’s land, you could go for the ball and there would be really no chance of reaching that wall since the racquetball travels much, much farther off the wall. And if you did walk out there to get that ball, you would hear the “Challenge!” followed quickly by the dreaded, “No Relay!”

Now you’re in a spot. Depending on the amount of welts on your person, you had to decide if you could brave the throw or if you could throw it high enough in the air to run underneath the ball and make it back to the wall in time. Throwing the ball far to the left or the right or farther back into no man’s land would be seen as an act of cowardice and you would be excommunicated from the game. Or worse yet, you would be held to trial by fire where you would face against the wall and behind you would be a line of players standing at a predetermined distance who would each take turns to peg your defenseless body as hard as they pleased. If you survived, you would be allowed back into the game.

Hey, I don’t make the rules.

Now, back to the “Challenge no relay” situation: In an effort to be innovative and kind of dick-ish, you could simply pick up the ball and drop it, leaving another kid to run over and pick it up and attempt to peg you as you ran in a panic. You could zig, you could zag as if you were avoiding fire from a sniper in a clock tower. Some would even run backwards thinking they could dodge the ball if they saw it coming from a distance (watch out for trippers).

But simply dropping the ball was not a technique used for long because a quick defense measure against it was prepared. If the ball was out in the field, a team of kids would go out to the ball and surround it, daring one another to pick it up. If a kid were to pick it up and drop it, he would surely be pegged and things would spiral out of control at a dementedly rapid pace. The one who pegged the first kid, his ball obviously didn’t hit the wall, so he was subject to pegs as well, and before you know it, the game would devolve into a sadomasochistic version of the Lord of the Flies, with kids shrieking in pain, running for their lives, a chubby kid with broken glasses would lie prostrate in the grass…no man’s land would become an active battlefield.

The game never truly ended. The bell could ring for the end of recess, a recess aid (usually a volunteer room-mother) could blow her whistle at us, but it would only delay the game until the next opportunity to play. No, the only way the game could officially end was when somebody finally wised up and roofed the ball. That was the only way, and it was more often than not thrown by the kid with the most welts on his body. He would claim innocence, saying it was a simple mistake and we didn’t chastise him too harshly, for we were all secretly thankful.

Eventually, a tennis ball would be brought back into the equation and civility would reign again as the basic game of Wall-Ball was played once more. Kids would come out of hiding and rejoin the group, but you and the other kids who had played Sewie felt a little stronger, a little tougher. You’ve seen things. You’ve done things you weren’t too proud of, but you also learned a lot about yourself. And you didn’t really have a choice, did you? I mean, what could you do? Not play? That’s childish.

 

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