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Distance and Accuracy (Part II of Wide World of Winter Sports)

Could it be, as C. G. Jung has proposed, that we carry among our mortal baggage the collective memory of the species? Could it be that events experienced by proto-human creatures in fire-lit caves a thousand millennia ago linger in the dim recesses of our unconscious minds? Could it be that the Snoose Boulevard citizenry has inherited a measure of strength for its struggle against the frigid northern climate from its Viking forebears—those early vagabonds who peopled the frozen reaches of the European continent and whose very lives depended on the successful struggle against winter’s arctic fury?

Something in the cold, crisp air of a winter evening in Minnesota stimulates the primal juices of even the most flaccid reprobate on the West Bank. A hunger he cannot comprehend, as old as primordial ooze and as deeply felt as mother-love, stirs within the moist caverns of his soul. He is driven to rise from his bar stool, to forsake the comradery of friends, and, with hot buttered brandy in hand, to venture from the warm comfort of the bar into the great “Out-of-Doors.”

Most often, the feeling subsides once he’s out there, and he’s left standing under a lamp post with a steaming glass in his hand and wondering whatever possessed him to do a damned fool thing like that. Scratching his head with a mittened hand, he returns to the bar only to discover that a newcomer has appropriated his warm stool, and there is nothing for him to do but take a cold chair in the corner.

His face betrays the bewilderment that wracks his mind as he ponders the force that has so recently overwhelmed the equilibrium of his soul. Just below the surface of his consciousness, a ragged fragment of a memory lies, taunting him with songs of glorious victory and hymns of praise to long-forgotten gods. And, elusive though it may be, he has grabbed the concept by the tail, and he struggles to conquer it, to wrestle it to the ground, to grasp it in its essence and to give name to this nocturnal clarion.

After lengthy and thirsty labor, the mists of his fog bound eyes dissipate, and at last, he understands. In triumph, he announces to the assembled patrons, “Because it’s out there, by golly!” And, when he sees that no one has turned to listen—to gather the fruits of his contemplative efforts, he adds emphatically, “Ja. You betcha boots!” And he drains his glass, resolving never again to waste his thoughts on such philistines.

All of which has nothing whatever to do with the story we sat down to write, and we’re beginning to wonder how we can gracefully leap from our superficial musing to the concrete reality of athletic competition.

#

On the evening of October 30, the air hung warm and heavy with the moisture brought up from the Gulf of Mexico by prevailing southerly winds. But early on the evening of October 31, the wind shifted to the north, and the temperature dropped to well below freezing. In a type of storm known as a panhandle hooker, the first good snowfall of the season announced the arrival of winter on the West Bank. The newly-fallen snow softens the hard contours of the cityscape, snarling traffic and setting into motion a chain of events that would culminate in the sports extravaganza of the year—The Snoose Boulevard Peemanship Tournament and Greater Minnesota Piss-Off.

Big Alice, a veteran of many Minnesota winters, well knew the signs. Three days before Halloween, she had sensed the coming storm and had made all the necessary phone calls. She had informed the Finns on the Iron Range and ordered the printing and dispersal around the West Bank of the posters. The length of Snoose Boulevard was hurriedly but thoroughly festooned with banners and gaudy trappings befitting the occasion. Small boys suffered long overdue baths, and clean underwear became the uniform of the day for all West Bank residents. By Thursday, November 1, the contestants began to gather in area motels, and soon the snowbanks in the vicinity bore silent testimony to the quality of the talent there assembled. By Friday, only the foolhardy ventured into the neighborhood without water-repellent attire.

On the day of the games, the crowd began to congregate in the early morning darkness. Bottles were passed around, reputations were sullied, and wagers were placed on the favorites. Soon the journalists began to arrive. First, the television crews with their mountains of equipment and their miles of cables jostled for space on nearby rooftops. And finally, just as the first trays of hot lutfisk and aquavit began to circulate, the radio and print media arrived and began searching among the crowd for dignitaries or past champions to interview.

In addition to the local press corps, we were pleasantly surprised to notice representatives of several eastern papers as well as AP and UPI. We confess to mixed emotions, however, when we spotted the crew from Wonderful World of Winter Sports. Long before you read this, the highlights of the proceedings will have aired on national television. We had hoped to bring you exclusive coverage of the games. Nonetheless, in the hope that you may have got lucky or slept through the news that week, we will continue our coverage as though we were your only source of enlightenment.

Although our respectful efforts to speak to the governor and the mayors of St. Paul and Minneapolis were turned away with what we feel was totally unnecessary brusquerie, we were able to speak briefly with one of the genuinely great sportsmen of the past. Ninety-three-year-old Karl Oskar Bjornsson, perhaps the greatest marathon man ever to pursue the sport and still looking amazingly fit in his natty yellow jodhpurs, shared with us his many memories of tournaments long past. Although there isn’t sufficient room to repeat any of his stories here, he provided us with much background material, which we promise to bring you in subsequent correspondence.

Karl Oskar, always something of a purist, refused even to discuss the distance and accuracy competitions. “It’s them damned upstarts from Frog Town behind this.” he declared. “What’s distance got to do with it anyway? They’ve got no soul, these distance people.” he added, “They ain’t artists, they’re mechanics. What’s distance got to do with anything, for Christ’s sake?”

At that moment, one of the range town Finns, Aitti Entala, walked past on his way to the practice field. At six-foot-seven and two hundred forty pounds, Aitti was the very model of an athlete and the overwhelming favorite in the distance competition. He carried his tool cradled lovingly in his hand, and he cooed to it and coaxed it and stroked it tenderly. Karl Oskar averted his face in apparent disgust, and, in demonstration of his deep contempt, he rolled his eyes to heaven and solemnly wet his natty yellow jodhpurs.

At precisely ten o’clock, the back door of Big Alice’s Fine Wines and Burgers flew open, and Gwendolyn the Gorgeous Bag Lady carrying a flaming torch, the symbol of the games, burst through. The crowd made way, clearing a path from the door to the edge of the parking lot where a ladder had been secured to a lamp post. Applause, hesitant and scattered at first, grew in intensity and pitch as Gwendolyn climbed the ladder, and it reached a crescendo of Bacchanalian frenzy when she raised the torch and lit the eternal flame, five gallons of hundred-ninety-proof Everclear in a large brass spittoon secured to the top of the lamp post. Over the public address system, Big Alice herself proclaimed, “Let the games begin!”

It is a little-known fact that the Finns from the range towns are immune to the ravages of the common hangover. They are capable of rising early and functioning at full capacity after an evening of carousal that would render the average man prostrate for a week. It is a tribute to her wisdom that Big Alice had scheduled the distance and accuracy events—those favored by the range town Finns—early in the day, thereby allowing the competitors in the aesthetic contests to recover from the excesses of the night before.

The rules in the distance events are rather straightforward. On a level field, the athlete stands within a calibrated circle and attempts to project farther than any of his rivals. A proper “go” consists of three tries within fifteen minutes, and the score is the average distance of the three attempts. The ladies’ event is similar but is played on a smaller field.

There were no surprises and very little suspense in the distance events. Aitti Entala easily won the men’s title, and Liisa Kokkonen retained her crown in the ladies’ competition. The altitude events, obvious variations on the same theme, were like instant replays of the distance events, with the same winners.

The crowd began to warm up during the accuracy competition, in which the object is to fill a container from a distance. The target for the ladies is a beer bottle held at arm’s length, while the men aim at a mayonnaise jar from fifteen feet away. Weighing the deposited contents of the receptacle determines the winner.

Traditionally the distance and accuracy competitions, dominated by the range town Finns, are disdained by West Bank habitués, and these events don’t usually draw crowds as large as the aesthetic games later in the day. But this year, there had been persistent rumors of an exceptionally talented brother-sister team from Embarrass.

We watched the ladies’ games with some amusement but no great expectations while the first three markspersons, in turn, assumed their stances, squatted, took aim, and released. But there was something in the confident smile of the fourth contestant, something in her walk as she strode to the plate that gave us to know that, this year, we would witness a unique performance. Moving with that particular grace, of which only the most superbly trained athletes are capable, Tiiu Lusti raised her skirts and lowered her red satin bikini in what seemed a single motion. Balanced on the balls of her feet, knees precisely eleven inches apart and bent at sixty degrees, she grasped the bottle in both hands. And with elbows locked, she lowered her arms from the horizontal until they rested lightly on her thighs in the classic Kittola Crouch. Kitti Kittola, for whom this stance had been named, is the games’ only seven-time champion, having triumphed each year from 1953 through ‘59. She retired undefeated and is truly a legend in the annals of peemanship.

The crowd grew silent in breathless expectation. The smile faded from Miss Lusti’s lips as she gathered her concentration. Her shoulders quivered ever so slightly in anticipation, and her eyes glazed over for an instant. Then she relaxed and released, and, as the sun emerging from behind a cloud, her radiant smile reappeared. She knew this attempt was a winner.

As we watched in silent admiration, Ms Lusti finished her “go” and squeezed it off. Then rising in triumph to her full five foot seven, she raised the bottle high over her head and soared like a ballerina in seeming defiance of the law of gravity. And, landing lightly on her Reeboks, she offered her bottle to the judge for inspection.

Reverend Oral Do Goodly, the judge, scrutinized the bottle, then whispered a request to Miss Lusti. She held out both hands to him, turning them over slowly. After a brief inspection, the judge beckoned to Big Alice, the ultimate arbiter of the games. She wound her way through the crowd to Reverend Oral and Ms Lusti and, after conferring with them and examining the evidence, turned and addressed the audience, “Ladies and gentlemen, may I have your attention please?”

She knew very well, of course, that she had enjoyed our complete attention for some time, that no one had spoken above a whisper for several minutes, and that all eyes were fixed on the trio at the center of the crowd. But she felt that the suspense of the situation demanded a measure of drama.

“Ladies and gentlemen, may I have your attention, please?” she repeated. “You have just witnessed one of the greatest performances in the history of The Snoose Boulevard Peemanship Tournament and Greater Minnesota Piss-Off. Ms Tiiu Lusti from Embarrass has not only completely filled her bottle; she has done it without getting her fingers wet, a feat never achieved by even the great Kitti Kittola.”

If you remember the 1972 Summer Olympics, if you were watching on television when Olga Korbut first performed her remarkable backflip on the uneven parallel bars, you will have some understanding of the emotion that overwhelmed the crowd at that announcement. The chant of “Tiiu! Tiiu! Tiiu!” erupted simultaneously and unbidden in a chorus of hundreds of voices. In a tradition akin to New York’s ticker-tape parade, Tiiu, Big Alice, and the very reverent Mr. Do Goodly were showered with savory morsels of hot lutfisk. Aitti Entala hoisted our young champion to his shoulder and carried her three times around the arena, her red satin bikini panties dangling forgotten from her left foot. As they passed the press box for the second time, a hand darted out from the crowd and surreptitiously retrieved a souvenir of almost inestimable value.

It was some time before the audience regained its composure, and the games were allowed to continue. Three girls remained to compete, but they had been beaten before they began. They knew it. Their hopelessness showed in their faces, as they performed halfheartedly and resignedly lost.

The men’s competition promised to be anticlimactic compared to the momentous achievement we had just witnessed. We were familiar with most of the competitors and knew that there would be no surprises from them. We resolved that we would attempt to speak to Tiiu to kill time until her brother Aari came to the plate for his “go.”

It seemed that every journalist there had made the same resolution. They crowded shoulder-to-shoulder and three deep around her. However, being unencumbered with the paraphernalia of radio or TV journalism, we enjoyed some advantage.

By the time we reached the inner circle around her, she was relating for the cameras her training technique. “All my life, I take in my boat on summer days, a case of beer and a fishing pole,” she explained. “I do not have on my little boat what you sailors call a head.”

“Had you considered just dangling it over the side?” We were surprised to be able to get in our question in the company, as we were, of so many professional journalists.

She looked directly at us and smiled so sweetly that it brought tears to our eyes. “But my boat is little and very tippy. And I have so very much with which to dangle.”

#

The fourth competitor had just finished his “go,” and Aari Lusti was on deck when we returned to the gaming arena. In his manner, Aari exhibited that confidence that had characterized his sister. He carried a tumbler full of aquavit, with which he toasted the crowd as he walked.

Reaching the plate, he shaded his eyes and gazed at the jar fifteen feet away, his brow furrowed in concentration. With his right hand, he unbuttoned his fly, and he surveyed the distance to the target with his eyes. He mentally gauged the angles of deflection and elevation. Then with a final salute to the crowd, he brought the glass to his lips and, eyes closed, he released. He emptied his glass, shivered imperceptibly, and finished his “go.” The mayonnaise jar was half full.

It was easily a championship effort, and he raised his empty glass in triumph. Tiiu ran to him and embraced him, and Aari refilled his glass. Someone struck up the Embarrass High School fight song on an accordion and all the range town Finns joined in. Soon everyone was singing—most of us making up the words as we went along. Aari and Tiiu had become the darlings of the games, and there would be dancing in the road that night in the little village of Embarrass.

But Aari Lusti had not yet taken his final trick; he had one card left to play. At the awards ceremony, after he had received his gold medal and acknowledged his applause, little sister Tiiu suddenly stepped out from the sideline and hurled five quarters into the air. With feigned nonchalance, Aari drew and released, hosing all five quarters before they touched the ground.

The crowd, surprised and pleased by this unexpected exhibition, roared its approval. We assume, however, that the few unwary bystanders who had wandered into the line of fire were rather more surprised than they were pleased.

#

So ended the distance and accuracy events of The Snoose Boulevard Peemanship Tournament and Greater Minnesota Piss-Off. We were to break briefly for lunch, after which the tournament would resume. However, during the hiatus, a food fight broke out among some law students who may have imbibed too freely of the aquavit, as law students are wont to do. Food fights, as anyone who has participated in one will tell you, are a particularly infectious form of entertainment. An overthrown morsel will bring some unfortunate bystander and several of his companions into the fray. And it is an accepted fact that overthrown morsels and unfortunate bystanders are the central point of the game.

The fight spread like a virus from the small cafe where it began out onto the sidewalk and down the street. Trays of hot lutfisk provided ample ammunition as the free-for-all grew in scope and intensity until, at the height of the mayhem, lutfisk fell like snow throughout Snoose Boulevard and the immediate environs. Numerous splattered windshields brought traffic to a standstill. Panicked visitors from less quaint quarters of the city fled in all directions, stumbling and falling and running into each other and providing easy targets for the more active participants of the game.

Consider now that a dollop of lutfisk, having no soul of its own and no ability to react to circumstances, once launched into the air, is entirely dependent upon the forces of nature to guide its course. It cannot and will not distinguish among available targets. The dean of men is equally at risk with the failing student, the banker with the lowest beggar, and the innkeeper with his rowdiest patron. Thus it came to pass that Big Alice herself was narrowly missed by a man-sized serving of this, the most aromatic of gastronomic delights.

Had she been standing two inches to the right; had she not seen it out of the corner of her eye in time to gracefully evade; had she borne so foul an indignity here in the heart of her realm, heaven only knows the consequences. As it was, the great lady was mightily displeased.

A hush fell over the crowd in the vicinity. Arms already cocked and ready to launch their dripping missiles were paralyzed in mid-hurl. Ammunition fell limply to the ground from lifeless fingers. And a cease-fire silently spread through the neighborhood. The food fight ended as it had begun, and the good people of Snoose Boulevard commenced the cleanup.

But damage had been done. The clean and even snow of the playing arena had been trampled and desecrated, and much valuable daylight would be lost in repairing the field. The afternoon program had to be altered to schedule men’s and ladies’ events concurrently, and even then, the tournament would have to be rushed in order to finish before nightfall. Grandstanding, which had always been a significant part of the games, was discouraged.

Big Alice took this abandonment of traditional values as a personal affront. Aware that the problem had ensued from the adolescent horseplay of a few law students, she decreed that immediately henceforth and for all time, law students, lawyers, judges, and politicians of whatever persuasion were summarily barred from the warm and hospitable embrace of Big Alice’s Fine Wines and Burgers.

Concurrently running events forced the crowd and the media to make difficult choices. It would be impossible to witness the efforts of every contestant, many of whom were unknown to us. We were several times confronted with the same question, which contenders would bear watching, and which could we, without significant risk, ignore? Lacking any better criteria, we resolved to cover the ladies events except when a man, known to be a formidable contender, came to the plate. The rationale involved in our decision is complicated and esoteric, and we need not discuss it here.

Recommended1 Simily SnapPublished in Adventure, All Stories, Classic Literature, Contemporary Fiction, Culture and Current Events, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Humor, Sports

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