All Over America
By David Daniel
Was it the recent summer Olympics that put it in my mind? Or, somehow, the TV footage of the chaotic evacuation of Afghanistan? I’m not sure, but . . . does anyone remember the great high-jumping mania that once gripped the nation?
All over America, people were doing it. Jeez, you couldn’t go anywhere outdoors—and in many cases, indoors—without seeing high jumpers. There was a tall young athlete at Boston University named John Thomas, who was the first person to jump over seven feet. He was the poster boy, I guess, but there sure were plenty of folks jumping.
People would set up a bar in their backyard or in a city park and spend hours together, with family and friends, practicing their form. It became the rage. Even the outgoing President Eisenhower, that confirmed golfer, couldn’t get enough. He set up a standard on the White House lawn, and he and his wife—Ike 70, Mamie in her 60s—took turns jumping.
The Kennedys maintained the tradition, giving it a gloss of haute couture. There’s that famous photograph of Jackie Kennedy wearing a Valentino Garavani gown and a leopard skin pillbox hat, going over the bar, that made the cover of Look magazine.
My family was no exception. I recall my dad devoting one Saturday morning to erecting a pair of 2×4 uprights in the yard, measuring precise calibrations with a slide rule, and then setting a thin bamboo pole across. We’d pass hours of family fun scissoring over the bar. The competition among us was keen. Mom would mix up a frosty pitcher of Kool-Aid, set out plastic tumblers, and sit at the picnic table cheering us on. Pregnant with my youngest brother, she had only reluctantly given up high jumping when she reached the third trimester.
Our neighbors, the Normans, took up jumping, too. They didn’t have kids and weren’t very friendly, but you could see them there beyond their hedge. Eleanor Norman, self-conscious about her weight, wouldn’t go much over three feet, but Joe would. Wearing a strappy T-shirt and plaid Bermuda shorts that bulged over his little potbelly, he’d manage about four feet with a kind of flopping motion, like a fish escaping over the side of a rowboat. Then, a smile softening the flushed and crabby folds of his face, he’d light a Herbert Tareyton and sit with his wife drinking highballs.
Even our local bully, “Teabags” Teevin (who took particular delight in menacing me with his switchblade) wasn’t immune. He gave up the knife, traded in his motorcycle boots for Jack Purcells, and we’d go head-to-head at the high jump bar.
At school, all kids wanted to talk about was their jumping. Girls would hold jump ropes up and see what heights they could reach. The school even held a jumping-themed 8th grade dance, called “High Jumping Hijinx!” Unfortunately, an energetic name doesn’t necessarily make dancers, and most of us stood timidly along the walls, boys on one side, girls on the other.
Clergy sermonized on the craze from pulpits where it was variously used as metaphor for heavenward high striving or, in a few cases, as an exemplar of Man’s sinful overreach and ultimate fall. Walter Kronkite, Morton Dean, and their news colleagues editorialized on the salubrious benefits the sport offered. And no one had to extol the affordability of high jumping as compared with more costly pastimes such as golf and midget auto racing.
There were humorous dimensions to the infatuation, as well. At Concord State Prison, two inmates nearly escaped when they high jumped over a ten-foot fence; but corrections officers were right behind them, and the pair were foiled by the outer wall and gave up without further incident. They all got their pictures in the newspaper, inmates and guards, shaking hands.
Gee whiz, those were fine days in America. Healthy, mostly happy days, with millions upon millions of citizens high jumping. That’s not to say there weren’t occasional injuries. Every other week or so someone would wind up with a sprained ankle or, in some instances, totally paralyzed. These unfortunates only served to inspire the American ingenuity for finding solutions, and before long people were laying down air mattresses or old auto inner tubes for softer landings, which reduced the number of injuries sharply, allowing folks to go on enjoying this wholesome activity without threat of paraplegia.
And people got quite adept at high jumping, as people will at anything they put their minds to. John Thomas went on to the Olympics, favored to win a Gold Medal. Astonishingly, he was beaten not by one, but by two commie athletes from the USSR (who were no doubt using drugs, as Reds were known cheaters).
The heights that professional American jumpers attained were under-reported in the media but were believed to be in excess of fifteen feet. Some commentators justify this mis-reporting as intended to not discourage everyday Americans from endeavoring to better themselves. And there were young athletes reaching impressive new heights. In my town, a high-schooler named Danny Trask was routinely clearing eleven feet.
Those were swell days, when time seemed to move syrup-slow, and all over America, under clear blue skies, people were high jumping, content with the simplicity of striving for no more reward than the lofty floating feeling of getting over.
But time is a river. Almost as quickly as it rose, the high jumping vogue began to ebb. After Dallas and Dealey Plaza, few spoke about it anymore. After Medgar Evers, MLK, and Bobby Kennedy it was history. After the blood-dimmed tides of Selma and Hue, Kent State and Khe Sanh . . . after the death dance of 9/11, a global pandemic, wildfires and floods, the annihilation of innocence was so complete, I have to ask myself . . . did I make it all up?