The sickly shade of a “you are here” map at Maryland House, Aberdeen, Maryland, on Jun 28.
“We only travel to come back home,” writes Ludwig Harig, the German master of the football sonnet. These words have never seemed more true following an aborted trip to Deutschland, a trip that ended in tears on Jun 27 on a sweltering curbside outside the Delta Air Lines terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York.
Obviously the disappointment is acute, all the more so as one of the missions of the Global Game since 2003 has been to connect to the wider world. We who desire the influence of the “foreign” were consigned, by an overloaded summertime flight manifest, by unprepared Delta gate and ticketing agents, by the post-9/11 regime of suspicion and fear to navigate the same highways back home that call up only familiar aches, a landscape of loss. Yes, we could not travel by air to where we were going or where we had come from. We had to schlep by rental car.
I won’t recount every woe, as I want to turn back to football, but after facing a two-hour-long queue merely to enter the Delta terminal—a queue marshaled by a presence fellow travelers took to calling the “line Nazi,” who stooped to brow-beating non-English-speakers in a Queens accent with rejoinders such as, “If you take one more step without telling me your destination, lady, I’m calling the Port Authority police”—then the wait indoors to be told my flight to Berlin had departed (yes, I already knew that), then to shuffle with the rest of the flightless to a line of the fuming and weeping, women soccer players crying into their cell phones that they “just wanted to get home,” to confront the aforementioned “line Nazi” after he berated a woman from the Orient, left holding her daughter’s suitcase after her daughter and companion had been escorted to the Delta supervisor’s office, to be told my passport would be seized so Delta might “document my record” in a euphemism befitting a representative of the Burmese junta—all these circumstances colored my thoughts on soccer and memory over the next few days, as the World Cup and its cultural riches continued, far in the distance.
No games today | The fields of youth endure, in the sun, with the perennial berm of pines to witness: Farmland Elementary School, 28 June 2006.
The result was an unscheduled rendezvous with the past (as well as tribute to the 50th anniversary of the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System) as one of the stops on the way back to Atlanta was an elementary-school field in north Bethesda, in Maryland, where I had first encountered soccer in its suburban form. As 8-year-olds we subscribed to the “three yards and a cloud of dust” school, kicking and clawing without tutelage in a dusty midfield. The “organized” game came to our fields within a few years. My switch to soccer from baseball occurred courtesy the right fist of a red-headed center fielder, who took exception to my misplay of a pop fly over a drawn-in infield. He struck me in the solar plexus. I missed many practices after this, so the problem of my youth-sport participation had to be solved. The solution was recreation-league soccer. The boy who had slugged me, leading indirectly to my finding a game better suited to my temperament, died earlier this year in California. The news came shortly before a 25th-anniversary high school reunion.
Such thoughts seem self-referential and lacking wider purchase: a missed plane and youth soccer. Who cares? But I read an extraordinary essay a couple of days ago by Martha Saavedra, associate director for the Center of African Studies at the University of California–Berkeley (“Excavating the Field”). Saavedra is an authority on soccer and women’s soccer in Africa, especially in Nigeria, Senegal and South Africa. Called “Excavating the Field,” the essay muses about Saavedra’s own background in youth soccer. She was raised in a neighboring county, Prince George’s, in the Washington area.
The Mitchellville Tigers, forerunners of the Washington Blacksox, circa 1948. They played on a former cornfield in Prince George’s County. The cornfield was to become soccer fields for youth on the cusp of the youth-soccer movement.
The influence of her coaches, teammates and the ground itself works even more profoundly than my own memories. Her team’s home ground, Blacksox Field, has only belatedly been recognized as the home of two sandlot, African American baseball teams, feeders for the Negro Leagues that operated parallel to Major League Baseball during segregation. “A lot of things clicked,” writes Saavedra, remembering a recent visit in which she could process some of the influences of these playing spaces.
During my unplanned, sorrowful passage from New York, I had the same experience of “clicking” based on having been raised and having played games on suburban ground, where pasts have been decimated in the name of homogeneity and an American dream. Saavedra mentions the influence of William Levitt and his advocacy of suburban development, and the rapid pace with which histories are swallowed. Unknown to me, for instance, until these last few months were some of the stories from the north Bethesda community where I played soccer and wandered about, considering whether the lanes of our subdivision represented the only reality. The fields and homes were developed in the 1940s on several thousand acres of a former plantation, the plantation where the man who inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe‘s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Josiah Henson, spent his formative years as a slave.
Hidden behind thatches of maple and pine, the log cabin that served as the kitchen on the plantation of Isaac Riley still stands, attached to a frame house in the colonial style that recently sold to the Maryland- and Washington-area parks department for preservation. Henson lived on the plantation beginning with his sale into servitude as a child, in the late 18th century, until 1825; later, he escaped bondage and settled in Ontario, Canada. Of the 221-square-foot cabin—it is not known how often Henson stayed there—Henson says in his memoir, The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself (Boston, 1849):
After putting my horse in the stable, I retired to the kitchen, where my master told me I was to sleep for the night … that crowded room, with its earth floor, its filth and stench. The Negroes present were strangers to me. Full of gloomy reflections at my loneliness and the poverty-stricken aspect of the whole farm, I sat down … thinking how I could escape from the accursed spot.
The Henson cabin is at 11420 Old Georgetown Road in north Bethesda. One of our youth-soccer fields, at Earle B. Wood Middle School, is indicated. The distance between the two spots? Approximately 500 meters.
It is extraordinary, but we never read Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Henson’s memoir as schoolchildren, although the cabin itself sits less than a quarter-mile from my high school. In contrast, Beecher Stowe’s book is required reading in several European countries. A 75-year-old Colombian woman, waiting in line for the first tours of the cabin on Jun 24, tells the Washington Post that La cabana del Tio Tom was part of the curriculum at her school in Bogotá.
It became clear during this trek, as I thought about Henson’s conflicted journeys at slaveowner Riley’s behest, how often travel is connected to sadness. In the rental car, I listened to Odetta sing the folk standard “Nine Hundred Miles,” believed to come from Chicago song circles:
Well I’m walkin’ down the track, I got tears in my eyes
Tryin’ to read a letter from my home
If that train runs me right, I’ll be home tomorrow night
’Cause it’s nine hundred miles where I’m goin’.
And I hate to hear that lonesome whistle blow
’Cause I’m nine hundred miles from my home.
Another extract that I read with more than the usual attention is a sermon outline from Martin Luther King Jr., quoted from the cache of King papers recently on view, and on the auction block, at Sotheby’s in New York. “Life is a continual story of shattered dreams,” King writes.
For inspiration in reconstructing these dreams I will be looking to high-school classmate Lisa Nowak and the crew of space shuttle Discovery, floating above, and naturally to the ongoing adventure in Germany of “Les Bleus.”
Update: “Air travel in the summer of 2006 has become a Hitchcock movie,” writes Joe Sharkey in the New York Times (“Flying This Summer Has Been No Vacation,” Aug 8), before the Aug 10 crackdown on carry-on gels, ointments, balms and so on, precipitated by the terrorist plot foiled in the U.K. Our account seems mild, in fact, compared to the tales that Sharkey unearths: 30-hour air trips from New York to Maine and the like.