© 2023 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.
I was raised near the town of Loxton in the Riverland region of South Australia, from 1953–1969. I then lived in the state capital, Adelaide, for 10 years. My father, my two brothers, one of my two sisters, and I were very much into sports, both as a player and a spectator. (My father and one brother were also part of team/club management.) The Riverland has produced—and still produces—some very talented sportsmen and women, who have competed at the state, national, and international level (including at the Commonwealth Games), and even won Olympic gold (see Alexander Hill and Grant Schubert).
Although a wide variety of Christian churches were long established in my home state, in reality, the main religion during my years there was sport! And I think it's fair to say that is still true today. And in every sporting household, Saturday—especially the afternoon—was reserved for sports.
Australian Rules Football
Down Under, winter is in the middle of the year, and the longest-played main winter sport for men and boys in most states is Aussie Rules Football. (In the past 15 years or so, women have started playing it as well.)
Regarding my time with this game, see my essay "Football, Aussie Style" from January 2020.
I remain an avid fan, and each weekend from April to September, I view the Australian national league game highlights online.
While I never played competition tennis at a young age, I did go to all the local club's games. In fact, that's where I learned to play. Before, after, and in-between official games, a friend and I would race out and hit the ball around. At that young age, I served from the halfway line as the base line was way too far back for a kid. A team was made up of 10 players, 6 men and 4 women, and included two of my brothers and one sister. Our club had two blacktop courts. The poles holding up the nets were old iron railway sleepers (US: ties). And the backstops were tall, metal frames covered with coarse wire netting (US: chicken wire). We played in summer, and summers in the semi-desert of Australia can get pretty darned hot, although back then there was no humidity. At the end of the game, we had afternoon tea. Years later, while in high school, I played several seasons in that league.
In the late 1970s', I played in a nighttime league formed by state government departments and agencies. Playing tennis at night was a whole other challenge, and as I'd had several lots of knee surgeries by then, I had to pace myself. I preferred doubles, as I didn't have to move around so much.
Although I was quite tall, my basketball career was short, and many games I was sent off with five fouls. (Apparently, tackling opponents like in football, is not permitted!)
For the last couple of years of high school, I played for the Zebras, a team whose colors were green and yellow. Yes, Australian zebras are indeed those colors! (Actually, being an older club, the Magpies had already taken black and white.) The A-Grade competition was pretty serious and there were some very talented players. B-Grade, which I played, was a whole other story; we had fun.
My good friend Peter was a fellow Zebra, and he introduced me to the game, and drove me to/from games, which were held on mid-week nights. Before I started playing, the league played indoors. Later, a pair of outdoor concrete courts with lighting were built on the edge of town.
Each year, the state capital hosted what was called a Country Carnival, with teams coming from all over the state. I recall playing in at least one. The team members slept in sleeping bags at a host sporting club's facility.
Each year, Loxton High School and Kadina High School met in "combat" for a week, with competitions mostly involving sports, but there was also a debating contest. And each year, the host alternated. In Year 12, we went to Kadina by bus where I was hosted by a family that just so happened to live in and run a large country pub. As such, I stayed in a guestroom and ate my meals in the dining room. My team was soundly defeated that year!
In my early years, I attended small schools. Each week, we had a Physical Education (PE) lesson. Then at some time during the year, we had a regional Sports Day, which was comprised of individual and team events. I participated in both. However, it wasn't until I got to high school that I really "showed my stuff."
Each week at high school, we had a PE lesson, separated by gender. Depending on the season, we played a number of things, from football, cricket, tennis, field hockey, and athletics (track and field in the U.S.). Each year, we had a Sports Day between the four school houses: Alpha, Beta, Gamma, and Delta. During my five years there, my house, Alpha, did very well in athletics, and I contributed significantly. Individual events were classified by age, as follows:
- Sub-Junior – Under 13 years-old
- Junior – Under 14 years-old
- Intermediate – Under 15 years-old
- Senior – 15 years-old and over
[School began with First Grade, at age 5, so most students were 16 going into Year 12. Grades 1–7 attended Primary School, and Grades 8–12 attended High School. There was no equivalent to the US's Junior High/Middle School.]
As I was 11 years and 2 months old when I started Year 8, I spent two years in the sub-junior ranks, and in Year 9, I won the Boy's Sub-Junior trophy. In Year 10, I placed second in the Boy's Junior competition, and in Year 11, I placed third in the Boy's Intermediate competition. [Do you see the pattern?] In Year 12, I was up against all those guys who were 16, 17, and some even 18 years old. My biggest event was high jump with triple jump and long jump not far behind. I was pretty good at flat races of 100 and 220 yards, but not very good at longer distances or hurdles. In later years, I threw the discus and javelin as well.
In the last few years of my time in high school, cross-country running was introduced, and I competed once, in Year 12. The best I can say in retrospect is, "It seemed like a good idea at the time!" The school was located on a main highway near high cliffs overlooking the river flats below, and to make it interesting, competitors walked down a dirt road to the bottom of the 500-foot cliffs, and we started the race there. Yes, we ran back up that damned hill, then for some three miles on a flat, packed dirt track, then down a cliff track, across several miles of muddy river flat/swamp land and then back up that damned hill again, to finish at school. As the old saying goes, "Nothing is a complete waste; it can always serve as a bad example!"
Walking and Hiking
In the mid-1960's, walkathons became very popular ways of raising money, and somehow, I managed to enter two of them. (It must have seemed a good idea at the time!)
The first was 13 miles (21 kms). Buses drove us to the river flats near Berri and unloaded us at the bottom of a very steep and long hill, called Bookpernong Hill. The biggest challenge was at the beginning. Once one got to the top of that hill, it was relatively flat all the way to Loxton, although we were walking/running on the edge of a busy two-lane highway with no breakdown lane.
The second was 20 miles (32 kms). Once again, we were bussed to the start, which was somewhere near Moorook, and we walked/ran from there. For the final few miles, I was with my cousin Tim, and we agreed that we'd run across the finish line together. But being young males, as we got to within a few hundred yards of the finish line, we both started sprinting, and I beat him by a nose to come in third.
[In May of 2005, I managed to walk the 187 miles (300 kms) of the Thames Path in England, with a full backpack. I can assure you that I was no longer a young male and there was no running! I walked 15 days over a 21-day period. See "A Walk along the River" from July 2011.]
I enjoyed squash, but unfortunately, didn't really start playing it until after I'd had my first serious knee injury. As such, whenever I really extended myself, I finished up twisting a knee. Court time was booked in 30-minute slots, and I can assure you that a half hour of serious squash gives one a very good workout.
The US pseudo-equivalent to squash is racquetball. I tried it a few times, but much preferred squash.
Swimming, Water Sports, and Fishing
For many years in my home state, each summer, the state Department of Education sponsored "Learn to Swim" campaigns, so that kids all around the state could earn certificates of many levels from beginners to lifesaving. Most instructors were schoolteachers, who like their swim students were on their summer break.
I was never a very good swimmer, as I swam with my head out of the water. [Hey! How else am I gonna see where I'm going?] In any event, at the start of Grade 7, I managed to complete the Beginner's Certificate program. Over the next year or so, I started the next level.
Towards the end of my high-school days, we started a swimming carnival, a team and individual competition between the four houses of the school. The only event I entered was the whistle grab, which involved a large number of students jumping into the pool at the sound of a whistle to retrieve tennis balls. Hardly an Olympic event!
Brother Terry had access to a speedboat, and from time to time, he would take me to the river to waterski. I never progressed beyond skiing on doubles, but I can clearly remember the buzz I got from racing along at 30 miles-per-hour (48 kph). And while water might seem pretty soft, when you hit it at that speed (or even faster on an outside corner), you certainly can bounce quite a lot before sinking.
As far back as I can remember, Dad liked to fish, and sometimes the techniques he used weren't exactly legal! Now the River Murray was famous for its Murray Cod, which could grow up to 30–40 pounds (13.5–18 kgs). But over time, they were few and far between, and there was a limited season. One way to catch them was to use a spinner, a large lure that involved a metal shaft around which span two propellers, in opposite directions. At the tail end was a large hook. Spinners were definitely illegal. Now while it was legal to have a drum net, it definitely was not to have a gill net. Of course, Dad had one of each!
Most often, we anchored the boat and sat in one spot for a while with hand rods (US: fishing poles) using either worms or shrimp as bait. When moving, we trailed a line with a floppy, a small rubber lure that looked a bit like a fish and contained a hook. Sometimes we rowed and sometimes we used a small outboard motor.
I recall one year that we went to Port Param, not far north of Adelaide. The beach there was famous for crabs, and we'd each walk out towing a metal tub set inside an inflated car tube (US: inner tube) that was tied to our waist. We used homemade crab rakes to dig around in the sand in about 1–2 feet (30–60 cms) of water until we felt a crab move, and then we scooped it up quickly and dropped it in our tub.
In my mid-60's, here in the US, I discovered that a neighboring town had an indoor pool, which cost a pittance to use. After an initial visit, I bought a pass and went once a week. (No sense overdoing it, right! In any event, once a week is infinitely more often than never!) Over time that increased to twice a week, and now it's three times. Having played semi-pro sport in my youth, exercise was part of the job, and never something I enjoyed, so the only way to not lose interest in this endeavor has been to limit myself to 30 minutes per session. I have a form that involves six kinds of swimming or exercise. Much more than a half hour seems like work.
In the British Commonwealth, playing bowls on a flat, hard green was a popular pastime for both men and women, as individuals or in pairs. My parents were avid players. However, I recall that in my youth, it was deemed to be "old person's game;" however, that changed over the next 20 years as much younger (even teenage) players got involved.
Although I tried the game a few times, it was not something that interested me.
My rural area had a 9-hole golf course on which the greens were actually browns! That is, they were made of packed, fine-grained sand rather than grass, and that sand contained oil (something simply not allowed now in these eco-friendly times). And to make it interesting, a major, 2-lane state highway ran through the middle of the course, and near several holes there was a large quarry (that had been created to build the highway).
My Dad and two brothers played there for several seasons. I remember once caddying for my father, who managed to hit his ball into the quarry. Let's just say that after a lot of swearing, he finally got it out after more than a dozen shots!
When I lived in Adelaide, I occasionally played a par-3 course.
I have since learned about Mark Twain's attitude towards golf—Golf is a good walk spoiled—and I'm inclined to agree. I also recall hearing that, "If the ball goes right, it's a slice. If it goes left, it's a hook. If it goes straight ahead, it's a miracle."
Given the generally warm climate in Australia, even in winter, golf is very popular, and many clubs have associated motels, restaurants, and caravan parks. And fees to play can be quite low. As such, I was stunned to learn from my Japanese friends that as there is little flat land in Japan, golf courses are rather scarce, and many people can only afford to play a few times a year. Most make do by hitting shots from platforms at a multi-story driving range!
This 7-person form of basketball used to be for women and girls only, but in the 1970s, men started playing it too. It's very popular throughout the British Commonwealth. The goal does not have a backboard, and the ball is passed; there is no dribbling. During my school years, in my local leagues, the women played netball at the same time and place as the men played Aussie Rules football.
In Australia, I knew this sport simply as hockey; after all, what other kind of hockey could there be?
Although I was required to try the game during high school PE classes, I played it like golf, but apparently one isn't permitted to swing the stick above one's shoulder!
Of course, I've since learned that in Canada and many parts of the US and other countries, hockey means ice hockey, as God intended, and many youngsters there learn to skate before they can walk! Some years ago, I stayed with friends in Slovakia, and at the end of my trip, my host gave me a Slovakian national ice-hockey team shirt. I rediscovered it several years ago, and sometimes wear it as a night shirt.
Now, what sort of a game is played over five days and can end in a draw, and stops for tea breaks? That would be cricket! It's another very popular sport throughout the British Commonwealth.
Back in my youth, cricket pitches were made of concrete, and they were often located in the middle of Aussie football fields. (Cricket is played in summer, football in winter.) Imagine having a long concrete slab in the center of your football field! Clearly, that was dangerous. At major venues, the cricket pitch was made of hard-packed dirt, but in the winter when it rained, that section became very muddy and slippery, making things very difficult for football players (he says from experience).
In 2015, on a trip to Adelaide, South Australia, I had the privilege of having a behind-the-scenes tour of Adelaide Oval, the home to the state cricket team and now to the city's two professional Aussie Rules Football teams. Before the football season starts, they use a large machine to dig up as a whole thing the grass cricket pitch, transport it to another field, plant it there, and replace it with another grass section of the same composition as the rest of the field. So, no more muddy football games!
Like tennis and some other older sports, cricket had a (conservative) dress code: one could wear any color one liked, as long as it was white! However, in the late 1970s, Aussie media tycoon, Kerry Packer, upset that classical approach, and then some. He founded World Series Cricket, which directly competed against the classic international cricket test system, and–Heaven Forbid—had players in colored uniforms! Eventually, there was a great reconciliation of the world's cricketing organizations, and the game was very much improved as a result. Many major games are now held on a single day, which makes playing more aggressive and results in higher scores.
Except for high school PE, I had no exposure to the game, and I definitely wasn't keen to face a bowler sending me a very hard ball at great speed, having it bounce once on a concrete pitch on its way toward my head or body. To use an Aussie saying, "I'd rather have a poke in the eye with a blunt stick!" These days, players wear helmets, and sometimes face guards.
Snooker, Pool, and Billiards
At age 16, I went to play in a junior league for a semi-pro Aussie Rules Football club. The club recreation room had two full-size billiard tables, and I soon fell in love with the game of snooker. I also enjoyed pool, playing that mostly on smaller tables, but preferred snooker. On rare occasions, I played billiards. If you have never played on a full-size table, I can assure you that being tall and having a long reach is an advantage!
Occasionally, I watched a very popular British TV show called Pot Black, which featured snooker games.
I definitely like playing table tennis. As a very tall person with very long arms, I can reach around the table without having to jeopardize my bad knees, so it's one of the few physical games I can still manage. That said, I rarely play it, but when I do, my natural ability soon surfaces, especially with my backhand shots.
This was a popular activity in Adelaide in the 70's, and I played occasionally with a few friends. More often, after university night classes ended, several of us would go to a bowling alley, sit upstairs in the visitor's lounge, and watch people playing, while we ate grilled cheese sandwiches.
On a visit to my hometown, my dear friend Colin invited me to a meeting of the local rifle club. We spent some time down in the large hole below the targets. Our job was to lower the target after each shot, record the score, and plug the hole. We were in communication with a club officer back at the shooting line via a telephone. Later, I took my turn actually shooting, and I varied from hitting the target close-in to missing it completely. Although my eyesight has never been stellar, looking at a target some hundreds of yards (meters) away over an open sight showed me that a very small error at my end meant a very large one at the target end!
Attending Professional Sports Games as a Spectator
My first-ever baseball game was on Opening Day at Wrigley Field, the home of the Chicago Cubs. Back in 1980, the field had no lights, and the game was played on a weekday afternoon. (I lived in Chicago from 1979–80.) My second baseball game was at (the now demolished) Comiskey Park, then the home of the Chicago White Sox. It was a night game on America's July 4th Independence Day holiday, and there was low cloud cover. As such, when the fireworks were set off, the sound of the explosions was contained, and fairly shook the stands. My third game was at (the now demolished) Kingdome, home of the Seattle Mariners. What made that especially interesting was the field was indoors, which made for a pretty good-sized building.
While living in Chicago, I saw an exhibition game of the world-famous Harlem Globetrotters. (Oddly, I never did go to a Chicago Bulls game, however.)
My only ice-hockey game was in the Washington DC area to see the Washington Capitals play the Edmonton Oilers. It was a high-scoring game with three goals scored in a minute or so.
I've attended two professional American football games. The first was Opening Day with the Seattle Seahawks. I was in a private, corporate suite for 24 guests, halfway up the stands, overlooking one end's goal line. The cost of that little 3–4-hour soiree was around US$18,000, with food and drink included. The second was with the Washington Redskins, (whose name was deemed politically incorrect, and has since been changed to Washington Commanders).
While on separate trips down under, I attended an Aussie Rules Football night game at (the now-retired) Football Park stadium at West Lakes to see the Adelaide Crows, and years later an evening Crosstown Showdown between my home state's two teams, Adelaide Crows and Port Power.
Although I've never had the urge to attend, as a tourist, I have visited a number of Olympic stadiums. My first was Montreal, Canada. The facility was built with enormous cost overruns, which took years to pay off. Next up was Helsinki, Finland. Originally built for the 1940 Games, which were cancelled because of WWII, the facility sat idle until 1952. I've twice visited the Beijing, China, site, where I was very impressed by the exterior view of the "Bird's Nest" stadium. Of course, my visit to the Munich, Germany, site conjured up memories of the "Munich massacre." My most recent Olympic site visit was in Barcelona, Spain. I've also visited Lillehammer, Norway (a Winter Olympics host), to attend a conference. At that time, deep snow was all around and one could see the Olympic ski jump in the distance.
Bits and Pieces
Recently, when I was tired of looking at a screen for hours at a time, I searched through my (now not so large) collection of books, and came up with "Rules of the Game: The complete illustrated encyclopedia of all the sports of the world," an Aussie publication from 1974. I spent several hours reminding myself about rules of games I'd played, as well as learning about some others. Here are some of the things I (re-)learned from that book and subsequent research:
- The biathlon involves cross-country skiing and rifle shooting.
- A quadrathlon (or quadriathlon, tetrathlon) is an endurance sports event involving swimming, cycling, kayaking, and running. However, in winter, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing replace swimming and kayaking.
- Regarding the pentathlon, according to Wikipedia, "Five events were contested over one day …, starting with the long jump, javelin throwing, and discus throwing, followed by the stadion (a short foot race) and wrestling." However, the modern pentathlon involves fencing, freestyle swimming, equestrian show jumping, pistol shooting, and cross country running. (This event should not be confused with the Aussie Working-Man's Pentathlon, which involves the following: having the wife sprint to the local bottle department [US: liquor store] to get cold beer; having the wife deliver beer to husband who is sitting on the couch watching sport on TV; husband drinks beer; husband burps repeatedly and loudly; husband calls out, "Beryl, bring more beer!" And when she asks, "What's the magic word, Dear? [as in please]," he replies, "Now!")
- The heptathlon involves seven track and field events, which differ by gender. Over two days, men compete in 60 meters, long jump, shot put, high jump, 60-meters hurdles, pole vault, and 1,000 meters. women compete in 100-meters hurdles, high jump, shot put, 200 meters, long jump, javelin, and 800 meters.
- If you are a true glutton for punishment, you might try the decathlon, which involves 10 track and field events held over two days.
I once observed my long-time friend Gerard compete in an Ironman triathlon qualifier. He was one of 2,000 people who at 7 o'clock in the morning, thought it was a good idea to swim two 1-mile (1.6 km) laps in the sea, ride 112 miles (180 kms) on a bike, and then finish off with a marathon run (26 miles/42 kms). I was tired just thinking about competing! [Being Dutch, in winter competitions, Gerard replaced the swimming component with skating on a frozen canal.]
From time to time, I think about taking a parachute jump before I die, but not just before I die! Certainly, I'd be tethered to a jump instructor. But then being so tall, I'd likely hit the ground before the instructor. I've also thought about flying, but given that I don't do well with motion sickness, piloting small planes would never work. But flying an ultralight might! I briefly considered helicopters. (I've had two such rides: a short one around Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, and a long one from Las Vegas to the Grand Canyon.) I once went to the top of a small mountain to watch people jump while hanging under very large hang gliders. While I can imagine trying that from the top of a sand dune, jumping off the edge of a precipice is not my idea of fun!
Once I'd played a decent level of sport, I found it way more interesting to be a player rather than a spectator. And about the only game I actually enjoy watching is Aussie Rules. However, after my knee surgeries at ages 19 and 21, my playing days for most sports were definitely over. When I'm doing something, be it work or play, I put in 110% effort; I really don't know how to put in less! So having a casual game of anything is quite a challenge.
In my humble opinion, a major downside to sports in Australia, is that as a fundraising thing, many sporting clubs installed poker machines. In way too many cases, this simply provided yet another way for blue-collar workers to waste their money. As such, on a trip to my home state a few years ago, I was encouraged to hear they were reducing the number of machines allowed per venue.