Tuesday, January 1, 2008


There were many things about college life that puzzled me: micro-economics; the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins; calculating water potential in plants; identifying meat in the cafeteria – to name just a few. But of all the institutional curiosities, none was more bewildering to me than physical education. I mean, what was the point? At the time, I thought the only reason for requiring it was to justify all the coaches that were necessary for one sport or another. But now, looking back, I wonder if p.e. was in the curriculum for another purpose altogether. Perhaps it was there as a Machiavellian ploy to intensify the intellectual experience by contrast, if you will. Perhaps not. Whatever the case, the Physical Education Department at Duke in the 1960s offered ample opportunities for us to forget, at least for a while, that we were in a place of higher learning.

When I entered Duke in 1966, students were required to pass four semesters of p.e for graduation. The only exceptions to that rule were the jocks. All other freshmen were given a physical aptitude test and, according to the results, were placed in either the regular p.e. class or Individual Development. The regular class comprised a sampler of activities, including swimming, rebound tumbling, volleyball, and wrestling. The Individual Development course was designed for those who were physically challenged by injury, birth defect, or an inability to walk and chew gum at the same time. Its main objective was to keep students from hurting themselves or each other.

I passed the physical aptitude test without any trouble and was placed in regular p.e. My first instructor was Roy Skinner, the university’s lacrosse coach. Skinner was a shorter version of Fred Gwynne, the actor who played Herman Munster on television. He had a wry sense of humor, and he took neither himself nor his course very seriously.

Coach Skinner lectured to us occasionally about eating and drinking too much, or about how to tell an endomorph from an ectomorph, and then he turned us loose to play a variety of games, some of which he must have invented himself. Flickerball, a weird combination of football and basketball, was one of them. The object of the game was for a team to pass a football around until someone was in position to throw it through a hole in a backboard. Points were awarded for hitting the board as well as for scoring a bull’s eye. Apparently flickerball still exists. Wikipedia describes it in part as “a game played in a group of 6 to 40 players divided more or less equally on opposite sides of an area such as a gymnasium, parking lot, or field… with no specific regulations regarding the length of the game or timeouts.” Makes you wonder why it never really caught on.

Whatever the game, Coach Skinner was not one to waste a lot of time talking about it. Instead, he was a proponent of the “throw-out-the-ball-and-let-them-play” method of p.e. instruction. His intro to volleyball consisted of the following explanation: “The ball comes over the net. The setter sets the ball. The monster man moves up. Spike! Point! That’s the name of the game.” To his credit, Coach Skinner let us know that his class was not going to cause us much trouble. “Flunking p.e. is like flunking lunch,” he told us. “If you show up, you get a B. If you show up and show interest, you get an A.”

After Skinner, our group was sent to Jack Persons, Duke’s swimming coach since the 1930s. Unlike Coach Skinner, Coach Persons was temperamental and sarcastic. He yelled a lot, and in the confines of the indoor pool his voice exploded and echoed like a sonic boom. The pool was Persons’ fiefdom, and since knowing how to swim was one of the requirements for a Duke degree, he wielded a lot of power. To get out of his class, you had to show proficiency in three of four strokes: backstroke, sidestroke, breaststroke, and freestyle. Coach Persons’ routine was to take his clipboard, station himself at one end of the pool, and yell out a stroke. Those of us who were trying to qualify would line up and dive in at his whistle. To pass, all we had to do was swim two lengths of the pool. Persons checked your name off as you climbed out.

On the first day of qualifying I passed the freestyle and the backstroke. So, I arrived on the second day needing only to pass one more stroke to fulfill the requirement. Or so I thought. When we gathered at the pool, Coach Persons read off the names of those who had failed to qualify. My name was on the list for the freestyle and the backstroke. I immediately went over to Persons to correct the situation. His face turned beet red and he told me through clenched teeth that his list was not subject to change. “Get in line, Williamson,” he screamed. I tried to tell him I was not Williamson, but he was already yelling at somebody else.

For the next two days the routine was exactly the same. I’d show up for class and hear my name called out as not having passed a single stroke. I’d protest, and Coach Person would send me to the pool to do it all over again. I ended up passing every stroke three different times before I was able to convince him that I was Williams, the swimmer, not Williamson, the sinker. Even then he blamed me for not speaking clearly enough. “Let that be a lesson to you,” he yelled. I never found out if Williamson passed the swimming requirement. He was not among us when we moved on to wrestling. Lucky Williamson.

Wrestling turned out to be the ultimate p.e. horror story. Our instructor was the university’s wrestling coach, Bill Harvey. Harvey was the drill sergeant type. He was built like a fireplug and looked a lot like Popeye. For pleasure and amusement he played on the Duke Rugby Club. Today, when I see the bumper sticker RUGBY PLAYERS EAT THEIR YOUNG, I think of Bill Harvey – although, to be fair, the phrase is a bit of an understatement in his case.

For the first several weeks, Coach Harvey ran us ragged with grueling sets of calisthenics and tumbling exercises. Then, having broken us down, he narrowed his focus to teaching us the basic wrestling holds and escapes. The culmination of our stint with him was to be two three-minute wrestling matches, each of us being paired with someone of approximately the same weight. As a kid, I thought that dancing with Mrs. Winfield Crew in junior high cotillion class was as long as three minutes could get. Turns out I was wrong.

In the first of these matches, roommates “Bad” Simmons and “Go” Tuite, friends of mine, were pitted against each other. Harvey blew his whistle and the two of them grappled away, straining and grunting, the coach screaming in their ears. It was gross and it was horrifying. When the match was finally over, “Bad” crawled to the edge of the mat and threw up. Nobody laughed.

It was then that I made a deal with the guy I was matched with. “You can win,” I told him, “just let me look good enough to get by.” He agreed. Our turn came, and we got in position on the mat. Harvey blew his whistle and began screaming at us. Evidently that was the deal-breaker for my guy. He lit into me as if his life depended on the outcome, grunting and grabbing and twisting for all he was worth. Stunned by the sudden reversal, all I could do was roll over on my stomach to keep from getting pinned. For what seemed like about an hour, my guy grappled and I rolled over on my stomach in a grotesque frenzy of flailing arms and legs, all of which was accompanied by the blood-curdling screams of Coach Harvey. “Two minutes!,” he yelled. “Two minutes!” This meant we’d only been at each other for one minute. I thought I was going to die.

Sometime just after the two-minute warning, I was overcome by a rage that welled up from deep within me. I think what did it was a combination of my guy reneging on me, and Harvey screaming like a banshee right in my ear. At any rate, my adrenal glands kicked in and with a scream of my own that would have made Hulk Hogan proud, I put a schoolyard headlock on the guy, lifted him from the mat, and leg-locked him back down. Harvey went nuts, slamming the mat and stopping the bout just before I threw up. My technique was terrible, Harvey told us, but he liked the rage.

I had reached my limit of endurance. We were allowed three cuts per semester in p.e. I took all of mine during the last three classes with Coach Harvey. I was already looking forward to second semester, when I would be able to choose a more reasonable p.e. course – one that I could get through without risk of drowning or being laid up with a strangulated hernia.

Then, just before first semester exams, I managed to break my right hand playing basketball with some of the guys on the football team. Because of my injury I was placed in Individual Development for second semester. My class met in the weight room, which in those days was located in the basement of Duke (now Cameron) Indoor Stadium. The instructor was Otho Davis. A few years later, Davis would join the Philadelphia Eagles organization and become the prototype for the professional athletic trainer. Back then, he was the head trainer for the Duke teams.

The first day I spent in Individual Development with Otho Davis is hardwired into my memory. There, on the basement floor, amidst the free weights and the early versions of exercise machines, was gathered the most pitiful group of male physical specimens I’d ever seen in one place. They were wandering around, dressed in these droopy gray p.e. uniforms, gazing at the equipment as if seeing those things for the first time.

It was into this scene that Otho made his appearance, stepping through a door from the Indoor Stadium and onto the landing of a metal stairway that led down to the weight room. He approached the railing, and, as if speaking to us from the bridge of a ship, he called for our attention. Then, looking out over the group below, Otho shook his head, exhaled an audible sigh, and said, “Okay, guys. Listen up. I want two groups. Spastics over to the left; sub-spastics to the right.” And, as God is my witness, those guys divided themselves into two groups. Everybody was laughing, especially the sub-spastics. I think I went with them.

I checked in with Otho and was told to write up a plan for rehabilitating my hand. He suggested some weight training and stretching, and I came up with a schedule of exercises and repetitions that would take me through the semester. I stuck with it only for a couple of weeks. As soon as the cast came off I began sneaking out of the weight room and getting into pick-up basketball games in the Indoor Stadium. My ritual was to wait for Otho to leave class, as he invariably did five or ten minutes after roll call, and then go up and play ball for the remainder of the hour. This went on for weeks. Then, one day I looked up and there was Otho, staring at me and motioning for me to come over to him. I dropped the ball and ran to the side of the court, a sick feeling welling up in the pit of my stomach. Sure enough, Otho wanted to know what I was doing. I gathered what wits I had and answered, without much conviction, that dribbling and shooting a basketball was really loosening up my hand much better than all those exercises. Otho looked at me long and hard, then he said, “Sounds good to me. Keep it up.” And that was about the last I saw of Otho Davis.

Sophomore year I looked over all the choices for p.e. and was struck by the fact that bowling met only one day a week. I wasn’t particularly interested in bowling, but it seemed like the easiest way to go. Show up once a week and forget about it. I mean, what was there to bowling? I signed right up.

The class met at one of the lanes in Durham and it was taught by a woman, a Mrs. Jean Gibson, who was part owner of the place. It didn’t take long for us to figure out that Mrs. Gibson took her job very seriously. Although she seemed to have little formal education, it was clear that she thought of herself as a Duke professor – a professor of bowling. All of us were taking the course for much the same reason, and none of us was the least bit serious about it – except for the guy who had his own ball, shoes, and bowling glove. He caught a lot of grief.

As the course progressed, Professor Gibson grew more and more haughty and officious. Nothing was funny to her, not even the unfortunate refugee from Individual Development who couldn’t get his ball down the lane. This guy released the ball so slowly that you could read, “Brunswick… Brunswick… Brunswick” as it crept toward the gutter, or the “channel”, as she insisted we call it. Poor fellow. One time, the momentum of his ball was so feeble that it stopped dead in the middle of the alley.

Looking back, I suspect Mrs. Gibson was insecure about teaching us and, in her defense, I’m sure we weren’t the most cooperative group she ever had. But she compounded her problem by trying to make bowling an academic exercise. Her lessons were repetitive, pedantic, and almost always involved a certain number of things to remember about each facet of the game. For example, she would explain in painstaking detail the two things about your stance, or the three things to remember about your grip. We would be tested on these things, she told us.

One day Mrs. Gibson was holding forth on the three things you had to have to be a good bowler: (1) a good grip; (2) a good backswing; and (3) a good release. She spoke about these fundamentals as if she were trying to get across some arcane law of nuclear physics. As she was going over it for the second or third time, she noticed a guy who had obviously drifted off into deep sleep. She called his name and asked him to tell her the three things he needed to be a good bowler. He opened one eye and said, “What?” Seething, she asked the question once again. “I said,” she spat out, “what are the three things you need to be a good bowler?” This time the guy opened both eyes, stared at her for a couple of seconds, and said, “An arm, a leg, and 55 cents.” What followed was the loudest, longest laugh I ever heard in a classroom at Duke.

From that day on Professor Gibson became, in her own mind at least, a woman scorned. And she set about doing everything she could to make us take her and her class seriously. She began giving daily quizzes that demanded the most trivial, meaningless information, and she delighted when the college guys did poorly on them.

I bumped along in the class, staying out of her way and doing well enough to get a B. I managed to keep out of trouble right up to the day of the final exam – six or eight mimeographed pages of bowling trivia. I was on page 3 when I felt a tap on the shoulder and heard a familiar voice. I turned around and there was my hometown buddy, Joey Page. He had borrowed a car at UNC and driven over to my dorm to see me. The guys on my hall had told him I was off campus at bowling class. Now, anybody else would have thanked the guys and gone back to Chapel Hill. Not Joey Page. He got directions to the bowling alley and drove right over.

As Joey was telling me all this, suddenly Mrs. Gibson appeared out of nowhere and snatched the exam off my desk. “You’re cheating,” she said. I remember thinking that she had reasonably misunderstood the situation, and I set about explaining that my friend, whom I hadn’t seen for some time, had just come by to say hello. To my amazement she continued to accuse me of cheating because, she said, we had been told there would be no talking during the test. At this point Joey, who true to his nature was enjoying the confusion, told Mrs. Gibson that I couldn’t be getting any help from him because he didn’t know the first thing about bowling. And he added, “If you don’t believe me, give me the test and I’ll prove it to you.”

By now the ruckus had spilled over into the class. All the guys had stopped taking the exam and were staring in disbelief at the scene being played out in front of them. A furious Mrs. Gibson had gotten herself in the middle of some kind of weird power struggle, and she was not backing down. I was acting out the role of aggrieved party, holding on for dear life. And my friend Joey Page, a stranger to everyone else in the class, was dancing around the two of us like Jerry Lewis. In the midst of all this insanity it began to dawn on me that things could get really serious, since cheating was grounds for expulsion from the university. Somehow I gathered my thoughts and told Mrs. Gibson I wanted to talk to her supervisor. “That’s fine, she said,” and she stalked over to the phone.

A few minutes later she came back to tell me that Mr. Corrie was coming right over. “We’ll see what he has to say about all this,” she declared. To this day I picture Bill Corrie, Chairman of the Duke Physical Education Department, bent over his desk, working feverishly to meet some important deadline, when the phone rings. On the other end is his bowling instructress telling him that she has a situation at the lanes. Things are getting out of hand, she says. He needs to get out there right away.

Bill Corrie was not wearing his happy face when he walked through the door of the East Durham Lanes. He conferred with Professor Gibson, and then I was summoned to join them. Corrie asked Gibson to tell her story. When she was finished, he asked me to tell mine. When I was through, Corrie looked off into the middle distance, shook his head, and said that he would have to think this one out and get back to us. Then he asked if anyone had anything else to say. I said, yes. One more thing: “If I were going to cheat on anything at this university,” I told Mr. Corrie, “it wouldn’t be on a bowling test.” Gibson turned red; Corrie almost smiled.

I never heard anything from Bruce Corrie or anyone else. When my report card came, I had a B in p.e. That was the last I thought about it until twenty years later. My wife and I were at my mother’s, going through some boxes, when we found my college transcript. Sheila was enjoying reading out my less than stellar record when suddenly she stopped and said, “You’ve been holding out on me.” I gave her a quizzical look. “You took square dancing at Duke,” she said. “And you made a B.” I looked at the transcript, and sure enough, there it was: P.E. 133: Square Dancing – Grade, B. I was completely flummoxed. How did that happen? Must have been a clerical error because I didn’t even know they taught square dancing at Duke.

It was sometime later that the truth hit me. I went back to my transcript and, as I suspected, bowling was nowhere to be found. What must have happened is that Jean Gibson, refusing to back down, had failed me. Bruce Corrie, sympathetic to my case and tired of trying to deal with her, had transferred me on paper to square dancing and given me a B. That’s the only scenario that makes sense – Corrie had stepped up and saved me from flunking lunch. What a guy! I have half a mind to look him up, give him a call, and thank him for the bailout. I wonder if he’d remember me.

Bob Williams

With thanks to my friends and classmates Dave Williams and Jon Alper for a memory boost.

December, 2008