Horse racing is pompously called the “sport of kings”. Bunk. The Masters claims to be a “tradition unlike any other”. Hogwash. I grew up playing a sport that is truly fit for a king. A sport so steeped in tradition that it makes the Masters look like a Tuesday twilight round of golf at George Williams. A sport so simultaneously dangerous and mentally demoralizing that mothers would routinely shield the eyes of any child who dared watch the heated battles unfold. The stars in this sport appear do not appear in the pages of Sports Illustrated. There are no trading cards carrying their likeness, and no jersey’s with their names scrolling across the back. No children idolize them. They go by simple names, and sometimes, they go without a name at all. Instead, they’ll respond to shouts of “hey kid” or “you, red head”, or perhaps the even more mysterious “you, the kid by Gunderson’s pier”. Yes, this is a sport full of bravado, but one that lacks true stars. In this sport, the only players are your friends or brothers, and the only reward an eternal membership to the small and imaginary but enduringly important Rag Tag Hall of Fame.
I am a member of this revered group, as are my older and younger brothers, and our childhood friend T. Or Little T, if his father Big T was around. We played our sport not on land nor on fields nor on courts, but rather on slippery white piers, behind submerged ladders, and underneath moored boats. Danger was everywhere, lurking overhead in the form of sharp boat props, and low hanging pier stringers. This was not a sport for the meek. This was the grittiest of all summer sports, and our trapezoid shaped arena spanned from the North side of the Loch Vista Club pier, to the southern boundary of my parents pier, East to the outermost buoy, West to the shore. Inside of these boundaries were two full piers, more than a dozen moored boats, and three or four other boats attached to buoys. This was a minefield, both glorious and terrifying, and we were the willing participants in a sport that anyone with the ability and desire to swim under and around boats and piers could experience.
The sport consisted of at least three and no more than eight participants, though the preferred number was between four and six. The ideal location was one with several piers, several buoys, and several moored boats. If you just had a normal pier without neighboring piers, the sport would have lacked the same dangerous appeal that it oozed at my home course. The sport is like tag, but it’s played with a rag and it has some rather insidious rules and procedures. The rag isn’t really a rag at all, instead it’s a sock, with or without two thick red stripes. The sock would be tied with a knot or two in the middle, so that it created a hard ball of squeezed wet cotton, with two “tails” hanging off either side of said knot. The concept of the sport was simple. Whoever was “it” had to throw the sock at, or tag someone else, thereby not being “it” any longer. In this, the sport was like tag. What was not at all like tag was the fact that if you hoped to tag someone else, you had to swim. And dive. And run. And once you caught this other person who was now to be it, you had several options. Options that tormented me as a boy.
The dignified thing to do, upon catching your prey, would be to simply tag them with the rag. The thing we did? We’d grab the rag by one end and whip it across the arm, or leg, or face, or back of the person we were tagging, and in one swift motion, hit them with the tail of the rag and let go of the other end. This would send the rag flying through the air, and the other person who was now it, would have to swim after the rag that would land 20, 30, or even 40′ away. And wet rags sink. So when one player would whip the rag against another and throw the rag out into the deeper water, the person who was now it would have to swim post haste in order to grab the rag before it sank to the weedy bottom. And in the case of my youth, I was the person swimming, and my older brother was the person whipping. And then were was the demoralizing thing that T was doing.
T and my brother were friends. They were also three years older than me. They were also better swimmers and they delighted in making me aware of that undeniable fact. Both were scrawny specimens on land that lacked any quickness or measurable coordination, but once they were in the water and there was a rag involved, both were Phelpsian. When in underwater pursuit I swear I once saw my brother hold his breath for 8 minutes straight… And so it was that my brother would easily catch me, whip the rag against my sunburned back or shoulder, and send the rag soaring through the air. This was not the problem. The problem was in the direction of my brothers release. He’d sting me with the rag (sock), and launch it out into even deeper water, where, as coincidence would have it, T waited. And it was then that T would perform the most difficult maneuver ever invented in the sport of Rag Tag- the tow.
The rag would land with a splash, and T would grab the rag in between his toes. He would then swim to the bottom and bury the rag in the seaweed. Or worse yet- he’d swim to the bottom, then along the bottom for 20 feet so as to make me thoroughly unaware of the location of the buried cotton treasure. He’d surface and cackle with delight, and I, the martyr, would swim towards where I last spotted that rag, gasping for air along the way. I’d gulp one last breath and with burning lungs head to the bottom, determined to locate a little glimmer of white amongst the weeds. And when I’d finally find the rag, my brother and T and whoever else joined in would be in hiding. They’d be hanging from the stringers, and ducking behind horses. And they were always silent, and I just a touch too slow.
After summers spent swimming for my life in and around the piers, absorbing stinging blow after stinging blow from the whipped rag at the hand of my older brother and Little T, it was finally my time to shine. My younger brother, having migrated from the warm, safe shallows, was finally old enough to join in the “fun”. And then I was the one doing the stinging. Inflicting both physical and psychological damage onto someone else this time, glad to finally have survived the Rag Tag hazing that I feared would never end.
To this day, I look back at the summer days spent chasing my friends and brothers around those white piers, and I’m amazed at how dangerous it was. In writing this post, I’m also glad to report that those days were some of the best summer days of my life. Parents today have an infatuation with the beach. “Where’s the beach?” they say. “where can my precious little one’s swim?” You know where the can swim? Right under those piers, and around those buoys. They can swim between horses and hide behind ladders. And if they’re lucky, someone will tie a sock into a knot and introduce them to the grandest game ever played. Rag Tag. Coming this summer to a Lake Geneva pier near you.