David Foster Wallace: Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley
photo by Vincent Laforet
While I couldn’t find David Foster Wallace’s cruise ship missive, I did find the first chapter of the collection, which is about his competitive-tennis playing youth. And it’s a darn fine essay. This also gives me the excuse to post the darn fine Laforet image above. One of my favorite sports shots ever.
Here’s the essay; I’ve jumped it, since it’s quite long.
derivative sport in tornado alley
When I left my boxed township of Illinois farmland to attend my dad’s almamater in the lurid jutting Berkshires of western Massachusetts, I all of asudden developed a jones for mathematics. I’m starting to see why this wasso. College math evokes and catharts a Midwesterner’s sickness for home.I’d grown up inside vectors, lines and lines athwart lines, grids–and, onthe scale of horizons, broad curving lines of geographic force, the weirdtopographical drain-swirl of a whole lot of ice-ironed land that sits andspins atop plates. The area behind and below these broad curves at theseam of land and sky I could plot by eye way before I came to knowinfinitesimals as easements, an integral as schema. Math at a hilly Easternschool was like waking up; it dismantled memory and put it in light.Calculus was, quite literally, child’s play.
In late childhood I learned how to play tennis on the blacktop courts of asmall public park carved from farmland that had been nitrogenized too oftento farm anymore. This was in my home of Philo, Illinois, a tiny collection ofcorn silos and war-era Levittown homes whose native residents did littlebut sell crop insurance and nitrogen fertilizer and herbicide and collectproperty taxes from the young academics at nearby Champaign-Urbana’suniversity, whose ranks swelled enough in the flush 1960s to makeoutlying non sequiturs like “farm and bedroom community” lucid.
Between the ages of twelve and fifteen I was a near-great junior tennisplayer. I made my competitive bones beating up on lawyers’ and dentists’kids at little Champaign and Urbana Country Club events and was soonkilling whole summers being driven through dawns to tournaments all overIllinois, Indiana, Iowa. At fourteen I was ranked seventeenth in the UnitedStates Tennis Association’s Western Section (“Western” being the creakilyancient USTA’s designation for the Midwest; farther west were theSouthwest, Northwest, and Pacific Northwest sections). My flirtation withtennis excellence had way more to do with the township where I learned andtrained and with a weird proclivity for intuitive math than it did with athletictalent. I was, even by the standards of junior competition in whicheveryone’s a bud of pure potential, a pretty untalented tennis player. Myhand-eye was OK, but I was neither large nor quick, had a near-concavechest and wrists so thin I could bracelet them with a thumb and pinkie, andcould hit a tennis ball no harder or truer than most girls in my age bracket.What I could do was “Play the Whole Court.” This was a piece of tennistruistics that could mean any number of things. In my case, it meant I knewmy limitations and the limitations of what I stood inside, and adjustedthusly. I was at my very best in bad conditions.
Now, conditions in Central Illinois are from a mathematical perspectiveinteresting and from a tennis perspective bad. The summer heat andwet-mitten humidity, the grotesquely fertile soil that sends grasses andbroadleaves up through the courts’ surface by main force, the midges thatfeed on sweat and the mosquitoes that spawn in the fields’ furrows and inthe conferva-choked ditches that box each field, night tennis next toimpossible because the moths and crap-gnats drawn by the sodium lightsform a little planet around each tall lamp and the whole lit court surface isaflutter with spastic little shadows.
But mostly wind. The biggest single factor in Central Illinois’ quality ofoutdoor life is wind. There are more local jokes than I can summon aboutbent weather vanes and leaning barns, more downstate sobriquets forkinds of wind than there are in Malamut for snow. The wind had apersonality, a (poor) temper, and, apparently, agendas. The wind blewautumn leaves into intercalated lines and arcs of force so regular you couldphotograph them for a textbook on Cramer’s Rule and the cross-products ofcurves in 3-space. It molded winter snow into blinding truncheons thatburied stalled cars and required citizens to shovel out not only drivewaysbut the sides of homes; a Central Illinois “blizzard”starts only when the snowfall stops and the wind begins. Most people inPhilo didn’t comb their hair because why bother. Ladies wore those plasticflags tied down over their parlor-jobs so regularly I thought they wererequired for a real classy coiffure; girls on the East Coast outside with theirhair hanging and tossing around looked wanton and nude to me. Windwind etc. etc.
click the link below to keep reading.
*also- you can now see all of DFW at Harper’s online, here.
The people I know from outside it distill the Midwest into blank flatness,black land and fields of green fronds or five-o’clock stubble, gentle swellsand declivities that make the topology a sadistic exercise in plottingquadrics, highway vistas so same and dead they drive motorists mad. Thosefrom IN/WI/Northern IL think of their own Midwest as agronomics andcommodity futures and corn-detasseling and bean-walking andseed-company caps, apple-checked Nordic types, cider and slaughter andfootball games with white fogbanks of breath exiting helmets. But in the oddcentral pocket that is Champaign-Urbana, Rantoul, Philo,Mahomet-Seymour, Mattoon, Farmer City, and Tolono, Midwestern life isinformed and deformed by wind. Weatherwise, our township is on theeastern upcurrent of what I once heard an atmospherist in brown tweed calla Thermal Anomaly. Something about southward rotations of crisp air offthe Great Lakes and muggy southern stuff from Arkansas and Kentuckymiscegenating, plus an odd dose of weird zephyrs from the Mississippivalley three hours west. Chicago calls itself the Windy City, but Chicago,one big windbreak, does not know from a true religious-type wind. Andmeteorologists have nothing to tell people in Philo, who know perfectly wellthat the real story is that to the west, between us and the Rockies, there isbasically nothing tall, and that weird zephyrs and stirs joined breezes andgusts and thermals and downdrafts and whatever out over Nebraska andKansas and moved east like streams into rivers and jets and military frontsthat gathered like avalanches and roared in reverse down pioneer oxtrails,toward our own personal unsheltered asses. The worst was spring, boys’high school tennis season, when the nets would stand out stiff as proudflags and an errant ball would blow clear to the easternmost fence,interrupting play on the next several courts. During a bad blow some of uswould get rope out and tell Rob Lord, who was our fifth man in singles andspectrally thin, that we were going to have to tie him down to keep him frombecoming a projectile. Autumn,usually about half as bad as spring, was a low constant roar and themassive clicking sound of continents of dry leaves being arranged intoforce-curves–I’d heard no sound remotely like this megaclicking until Iheard, at nineteen, on New Brunswick’s Fundy Bay, my first high-tide wavebreak and get sucked back out over a shore of polished pebbles. Summerswere manic and gusty, then often around August deadly calm. The windwould just die some August days, and it was no relief at all; the cessationdrove us nuts. Each August, we realized afresh how much the sound ofwind had become part of the soundtrack to life in Philo. The sound of windhad become, for me, silence. When it went away, I was left with the squeakof the blood in my head and the aural glitter of all those little eardrum hairsquivering like a drunk in withdrawal. It was months after I moved to westernMA before I could really sleep in the pussified whisper of New England’swind-sound.
To your average outsider, Central Illinois looks ideal for sports. Theground, seen from the air, strongly suggests a board game: anally precisesquares of dun or khaki cropland all cut and divided by plumb-straight tarroads (in all farmland, roads still seem more like impediments than avenues).In winter, the terrain always looks like Mannington bathroom tile, whitequadrangles where bare (snow), black where trees and scrub have shakenfree in the wind. From planes, it always looks to me like Monopoly or Life,or a lab maze for rats; then, from ground level, the arrayed fields of feedcorn or soybeans, fields furrowed into lines as straight as only an AllisChalmers and sextant can cut them, look laned like sprint tracks or Olympicpools, hashmarked for serious ball, replete with the angles and alleys ofserious tennis. My part of the Midwest always looks laid down special, as ifplanned.
The terrain’s strengths are also its weaknesses. Because the land seemsso even, designers of clubs and parks rarely bother to roll it flat beforelaying the asphalt for tennis courts. The result is usually a slight list thatonly a player who spends a lot of time on the courts will notice. Becausetennis courts are for sun- and eye-reasons always laid lengthwisenorth-south, and because the land in Central Illinois rises very gently asone moves east toward Indiana and the subtle geologic summitthat sends rivers doubled back against their own feeders somewhere inthe east of that state, the court’s forehand half, for a rightie facing north,always seems physically uphill from the backhand–at a tournament inRichmond IN, just over the Ohio line, I noticed the tilt was reversed. Thesame soil that’s so full of humus farmers have to be bought off to keepmarkets unflooded keeps clay courts chocked with jimson and thistle andvolunteer corn, and it splits asphalt courts open with the upward pressureof broadleaf weeds whose pioneer-stock seeds are unthwarted by ahalf-inch cover of sealant and stone. So that all but the very bestmaintained courts in the most affluent Illinois districts are their own littlerural landscapes, with tufts and cracks and underground-seepage puddlesbeing part of the lay that one plays. A court’s cracks always seem to startoff to the side of the service box and meander in and back toward theservice line. Foliated in pockets, the black cracks, especially against theforest green that contrasts with the barn red of the space outside the linesto signify fair territory, give the courts the eerie look of well-riveredsections of Illinois, seen from back aloft.
A tennis court, 78′x27′, looks, from above, with its slender rectangles ofdoubles alleys flanking its whole length, like a cardboard carton with flapsfolded back. The net, 3.5 feet high at the posts, divides the court widthwisein half; the service lines divide each half again into backcourt and fore-. Inthe two forecourts, lines that run from the base of the net’s center to theservice lines divide them into 21′x13.5′ service boxes. The sharply precisedivisions and boundaries, together with the fact that–wind and your moreexotic-type spins aside–balls can be made to travel in straight lines only,make textbook tennis plane geometry. It is billiards with balls that won’thold still. It is chess on the run. It is to artillery and airstrikes what footballis to infantry and attrition.
Tennis-wise, I had two preternatural gifts to compensate for not muchphysical talent. Make that three. The first was that I always sweated somuch that I stayed fairly ventilated in all weathers. Oversweating seems anambivalent blessing, and it didn’t exactly do wonders for my social life inhigh school, but it meant I could play for hours on aTurkish-bath July day and not flag a bit so long as I drank water and atesalty stuff between matches. I always looked like a drowned man by aboutgame four, but I didn’t cramp, vomit, or pass out, unlike the gleaming Peoriakids whose hair never even lost its part right up until their eyes rolled up intheir heads and they pitched forward onto the shimmering concrete. Abigger asset still was that I was extremely comfortable inside straight lines.None of the odd geometric claustrophobia that turns some gifted juniorsinto skittish zoo animals after a while. I found I felt best physicallyenwebbed in sharp angles, acute bisections, shaved corners. This wasenvironmental. Philo, Illinois, is a cockeyed grid: nine north-south streetsagainst six northeast-southwest, fifty-one gorgeous slanted-cruciformcorners (the east and west intersection-angles’ tangents could be evaluatedintegrally in terms of their secants!) around a three-intersection central towncommon with a tank whose nozzle pointed northwest at Urbana, plus afrozen native son, felled on the Salerno beachhead, whose bronze handpointed true north. In the late morning, the Salerno guy’s statue had a squatblack shadow-arm against grass dense enough to putt on; in the eveningthe sun galvanized his left profile and cast his arm’s accusing shadow out tothe right, bent at the angle of a stick in a pond. At college it suddenlyoccurred to me during a quiz that the differential between the direction thestatue’s hand pointed and the arc of its shadow’s rotation was first-order.Anyway, most of my memories of childhood–whether of furrowedacreage, or of a harvester’s sentry duty along RR104W, or of the play ofsharp shadows against the Legion Hall softball field’s dusk–I could nowreconstruct on demand with an edge and protractor.
I liked the sharp intercourse of straight lines more than the other kids Igrew up with. I think this is because they were natives, whereas I was aninfantile transplant from Ithaca, where my dad had Ph.D.’d. So I’d known,even horizontally and semiconsciously as a baby, something different, thetall hills and serpentine one-ways of upstate NY. I’m pretty sure I kept theamorphous mush of curves and swells as a contrasting backlightsomewhere down in the lizardy part of my brain, because the Philo childrenI fought and played with, kids who knew and had known nothing else, sawnothing stark or new-worldish in the township’s planar layout, prizednothing crisp. (Except why do I think it significant that somany of them wound up in the military, performing smart right-faces inrazor-creased dress blues?)
Unless you’re one of those rare mutant virtuosos of raw force, you’ll findthat competitive tennis, like money pool, requires geometric thinking, theability to calculate not merely your own angles but the angles of responseto your angles. Because the expansion of response-possibilities isquadratic, you are required to think n shots ahead, where n is a hyperbolicfunction limited by the sinh of opponent’s talent and the cosh of the numberof shots in the rally so far (roughly). I was good at this. What made me for awhile near-great was that I could also admit the differential complication ofwind into my calculations; I could think and play octacally. For the wind putcurves in the lines and transformed the game into 3-space. Wind didmassive damage to many Central Illinois junior players, particularly in theperiod from April to July when it needed lithium badly, tending to gustwithout pattern, swirl and backtrack and die and rise, sometimes blowing inone direction at court level and in another altogether ten feet overhead. Theprecision in thinking required one to induct trends in percentage, thrust, andretaliatory angle–precision our guy and the other townships’ volunteercoaches were good at abstracting about with chalk and board, attaching apupil’s leg to the fence with clothesline to restrict his arc of movement inpractice, placing laundry baskets in different corners and making us sink ballafter ball, taking masking tape and laying down Chinese boxes within thecourt’s own boxes for drills and wind sprints–all this theoretical prep wentout the window when sneakers hit actual court in a tournament. Thebest-planned, best-hit ball often just blew out of bounds, was the basicunlyrical problem. It drove some kids near-mad with the caprice andunfairness of it all, and on real windy days these kids, usually with talentout the bazoo, would have their first apoplectic racket-throwing tantrum inabout the match’s third game and lapse into a kind of sullen coma by the endof the first set, now bitterly expecting to get screwed over by wind, net, tape,sun. I, who was affectionately known as Slug because I was such a lazy turdin practice, located my biggest tennis asset in a weird robotic detachmentfrom whatever unfairnesses of wind and weather I couldn’t plan for. Icouldn’t begin to tell you how many tournament matches I won between theages of twelve and fifteen againstbigger, faster, more coordinated, and better-coached opponents simply byhitting balls unimaginatively back down the middle of the court inschizophrenic gales, letting the other kid play with more verve and panache,waiting for enough of his ambitious balls aimed near the lines to curve orslide via wind outside the green court and white stripe into the raw redterritory that won me yet another ugly point. It wasn’t pretty or fun towatch, and even with the Illinois wind I never could have won wholematches this way had the opponent not eventually had his small nervousbreakdown, buckling under the obvious injustice of losing to ashallow-cheated “pusher” because of the shitty rural courts and rottenwind that rewarded cautious automatism instead of verve and panache. Iwas an unpopular player, with good reason. But to say that I did not useverve or imagination was untrue. Acceptance is its own verve, and it takesimagination for a player to like wind, and I liked wind; or rather I at least feltthe wind had some basic right to be there, and found it sort of interesting,and was willing to expand my logistical territory to countenace thedevastating effect a 15- to 30-mph stutter-breeze swirling southwest to eastwould have on my best calculations as to how ambitiously to respond toJoe Perfecthair’s topspin drive into my backhand corner.
The Illinois combination of pocked courts, sickening damp, and windrequired and rewarded an almost Zen-like acceptance of things as theyactually were, on-court. I won a lot. At twelve, I began getting entry totournaments beyond Philo and Champaign and Danville. I was driven bymy parents or by the folks of Gil Antitoi, son of a Canadian-historyprofessor from Urbana, to events like the Central Illinois Open in Decatur, atown built and owned by the A. E. Staley processing concern and so awashin the stink of roasting corn that kids would play with bandannas tied overtheir mouths and noses; like the Western Closed Qualifier on the ISUcampus in Normal; like the McDonald’s Junior Open in the serious corntown of Galesburg, way out west by the River; like the Prairie State Open inPekin, insurance hub and home of Caterpillar Tractor; like the MidwestJunior Clay Courts at a chichi private club in Peoria’s pale version ofScarsdale.
Over the next four summers I got to see way more of the state than isnormal or healthy, albeit most of this seeing was a blur of travel and crops,looking between nod-outs at sunrises abrupt and terribly candent over thecrease between fields and sky (plus you could see any town you wereaimed at the very moment it came around the earth’s curve, and the onlypart of Proust that really moved me in college was the early description ofthe kid’s geometric relation to the distant church spire at Combray), riding instation wagons’ backseats through Saturday dawns and Sunday sunsets. Igot steadily better; Antitoi, unfairly assisted by an early puberty, gotradically better.
By the time we were fourteen, Gil Antitoi and I were the Central Illinoiscream of our age bracket, usually seeded one and two at area tournaments,able to beat all but a couple of even the kids from the Chicago suburbs who,together with a contingent from Grosse Pointe MI, usually dominated theWestern regional rankings. That summer the best fourteen-year-old in thenation was a Chicago kid, Bruce Brescia (whose penchant for floppy whitetennis hats, low socks with bunnytails at the heel, and lurid pastel sweatervests testified to proclivities that wouldn’t dawn on me for several moreyears), but Brescia and his henchman, Mark Mees of Zanesville OH, neverbothered to play anything but the Midwestern Clays and some indoorevents in Cook County, being too busy jetting off to like the PacificHardcourts in Ventura and Junior Wimbledon and all that. I played Bresciajust once, in the quarters of an indoor thing at the Rosemont Horizon in1977, and the results were not pretty. Antitoi actually got a set off Mees inthe national Qualifiers one year. Neither Brescia nor Mees ever turned pro; Idon’t know what happened to either of them after eighteen.
Antitoi and I ranged over the exact same competitive territory; he wasmy friend and foe and bane. Though I’d started playing two years beforehe, he was bigger, quicker, and basically better than I by about agethirteen, and I was soon losing to him in the finals of just about everytournament I played. So different were our appearances and approachesand general gestalts that we had something of an epic rivalry from ’74through ’77. I had gotten so prescient at using stats, surface, sun, gusts,and a kind of Stoic cheer that I was regarded as a kind of physical savant, amedicine boy of wind and heat, and could play just forever, sending backmoonballs baroque with spin. Antitoi, uncomplicated from the get-go, hitthe everliving shit out of every round object that came within hisambit, aiming always for one of two backcourt corners. He was a Slugger; Iwas a Slug. When he was “on,” i.e. having a good day, he varnished thecourt with me. When he wasn’t at his best (and the countless hours I andDavid Saboe from Bloomington and Kirk Riehagen and Steve Cassil ofDanville spent in meditation and seminar on just what variables of diet,sleep, romance, car ride, and even sock-color factored into the equation ofAntitoi’s mood and level day to day), he and I had great matches, realmarathon wind-suckers. Of eleven finals we played in 1974, I won two.
Midwest junior tennis was also my initiation into true adult sadness. Ihad developed a sort of hubris about my Taoistic ability to control vianoncontrol. I’d established a private religion of wind. I even liked to bike.Awfully few people in Philo bike, for obvious wind reasons, but I’d found away to sort of tack back and forth against a stiff current, holding some widebook out at my side at about 1degrees my angle of thrust–Bayne and Pugh’sThe Art of the Engineer and Cheiro’s Language of the Hand proved to bethe best airfoils–so that through imagination and verve and stoic cheer Icould not just neutralize but use an in-your-face gale for biking. Similarly, bythirteen I’d found a way not just to accommodate but to employ the heavysummer winds in matches. No longer just mooning the ball down the centerto allow plenty of margin for error and swerve, I was now able to use thecurrents kind of the way a pitcher uses spit. I could hit curves way out intocross-breezes that’d drop the ball just fair; I had a special wind-serve thathad so much spin the ball turned oval in the air and curved left to right likea smart slider and then reversed its arc on the bounce. I’d developed thesame sort of autonomic feel for what the wind would do to the ball that astandard-trans driver has for how to shift. As a junior tennis player, I wasfor a time a citizen of the concrete physical world in a way the other boysweren’t, I felt. And I felt betrayed at around fourteen when so many of thesesingle-minded flailing boys became abruptly mannish and tall, with suddensprays of hair on their thighs and wisps on their lips and ropy arteries ontheir forearms. My fifteenth summer, kids I’d been beating easily the yearbefore all of a sudden seemed overpowering. I lost in two semifinals, atPekin and Springfield in ’77, of events I’d beaten Antitoi in the finals of in’76. My dad just about brought me to my knees after the Springfield loss tosome kid from the Quad Cities when he said, trying to console me, that ithad looked like a boy playing a man out there. And the otherboys sensed something up with me, too, smelled some breakdown in theodd detente I’d had with the elements: my ability to accommodate andfashion the exterior was being undercut by the malfunction of some internalalarm clock I didn’t understand.
I mention this mostly because so much of my Midwest’s communalpsychic energy was informed by growth and fertility. The agronomic anglewas obvious, what with my whole township dependent for tax base onseed, dispersion, height, and yield. Something about the adults’ obsessiveweighing and measuring and projecting, this special calculus of thrust andgrowth, leaked inside us children’s capped and bandanna’d little heads outon the fields, diamonds, and courts of our special interests. By 1977 I wasthe only one of my group of jock friends with virginity intact. (I know thisfor a fact, and only because these guys are now schoolteachers andcommoditists and insurers with families and standings to protect will I notshare with you just how I know it.) I felt, as I became a later and laterbloomer, alienated not just from my own recalcitrant glabrous little body,but in a way from the whole elemental exterior I’d come to see as mycoconspirator. I knew, somehow, that the call to height and hair came fromoutside, from whatever apart from Monsanto and Dow made the corn grow,the hogs rut, the wind soften every spring and hang with the scent ofmanure from the plain of beanfields north between us and Champaign. Myvocation ebbed. I felt uncalled. I began to experience the same resentmenttoward whatever children abstract as nature that I knew Steve Cassil feltwhen a soundly considered approach shot down the forehand line wasblown out by a gust, that I knew Gil Antitoi suffered when his prettykick-serve (he was the only top-flight kid from the slow weedy townshipcourts to play serve-and-volley from the start, which is why he had suchsuccess on the slick cement of the West Coast when he went on to play forCal-Fullerton) was compromised by the sun: he was so tall, and so stubbornabout adjusting his high textbook service toss for solar conditions, thatserving from the court’s north end in early afternoon matches always filledhis eyes with violet blobs, and he’d lumber around for the rest of the point,flailing and pissed. This was back when sunglasses were unheard of,on-court.
But so the point is I began to feel what they’d felt. I began, very quietly,to resent my physical place in the great schema, and this resentmentand bitterness, a kind of slow root-rot, is a big reason why I never qualifiedfor the sectional championships again after 1977, and why I ended up in1980 barely making the team at a college smaller than Urbana High whilekids I had beaten and then envied played scholarship tennis for Purdue,Fullerton, Michigan, Pepperdine, and even–in the case of Pete Bouton,who grew half a foot and forty IQ points in 1977–for the hallowed U of I atUrbana-Champaign.
Still strangely eager to speak of weather, let me say that my township, infact all of East-Central Illinois, is a proud part of what meteorologists callTornado Alley. Incidence of tornadoes all out of statistical proportion. Ipersonally have seen two on the ground and five aloft, trying to assemble.Aloft tornadoes are gray-white, more like convulsions in the thundercloudsthemselves than separate or protruding from them. Ground tornadoes areblack only because of the tons of soil they suck in and spin around. Thegrotesque frequency of tornadoes around my township is, I’m told, afunction of the same variables that cause our civilian winds: we are acoordinate where fronts and air masses converge. Most days from lateMarch to June there are Tornado Watches somewhere in our TV stations’viewing area (the stations put a little graphic at the screen’s upper right, likea pair of binoculars for a Watch and the Tarot deck’s Tower card for aWarning, or something). Watches mean conditions are right and so on andso forth, which, big deal. It’s only the rarer Tornado Warnings, whichrequire a confirmed sighting by somebody with reliable sobriety, that makethe Civil Defense sirens go. The siren on top of the Philo Middle Schoolwas a different pitch and cycle from the one off in the south part of Urbana,and the two used to weave in and out of each other in a godawful threnody.When the sirens blew, the native families went to their canning cellars orfallout shelters (no kidding); the academic families in their bright prefabhouses with new lawns and foundations of flat slab went with whatevergood-luck tokens they could lay hands on to the very most central point on theground floor after opening every single window to thwart implosion fromprecipitous pressure drops. For my family, the very most central point wasa hallway between my dad’s study and a linen closet, with a reproduction ofa Flemish annunciation scene on one wall and a bronze Aztec sunbursthanging with guillotinic mass on the other; I always tried to maneuver mysister under the sunburst.
If there was an actual Warning when you were outside and away fromhome–say at a tennis tournament in some godforsaken public park atsome city fringe zoned for sprawl–you were supposed to lie prone in thedeepest depression you could locate. Since the only real depressionsaround most tournament sites were the irrigation and runoff ditches thatbordered cultivated fields, ditches icky with conferva and mosquito sprayand always heaving with what looked like conventions of copperheads andjust basically places your thinking man doesn’t lie prone in under anycircumstance, in practice at Warned tournament you zipped your racketsinto their covers and ran to find your loved ones or even your liked onesand just all milled around trying to look like you weren’t about to losesphincter-control. Mothers tended sometimes to wail and clutch childishheads to their bosoms (Mrs. Swearingen of Pekin was particularly popularfor clutching even strange kids’ heads to her formidable bosom).
I mention tornadoes for reasons directly related to the purpose of thisessay. For one thing, they were a real part of Midwest childhood, becauseas a little kid I was obsessed with dread over them. My earliest nightmares,the ones that didn’t feature mile-high robots from Lost in Space wieldinghuge croquet mallets (don’t ask), were about shrieking sirens and deadwhite skies, a slender monster on the Iowa horizon, jutting less phallic thansaurian from the lowering sky, whipping back and forth with such frenzythat it almost doubled on itself, trying to eat its own tail. Throwing off chaffand dust and chairs; it never came any closer than the horizon; it didn’thave to.
In practice, Watches and Warnings both seemed to have a kind ofboy-and-wolf quality for the natives of Philo. They just happened toooften. Watches seemed especially irrelevant, because we could always seestorms coming from the west way in advance, and by the time they wereover, say, Decatur you could diagnose the basic condition by the color andheight of the clouds: the taller the anvil-shaped thunderheads, thebetter the chance for hail and Warnings; pitch-black clouds were a happiersight than gray shot with an odd nacreous white; the shorter the intervalbetween the sight of lightning and the sound of thunder, the faster thesystem was moving, and the faster the system, the worse: like most thingsthat mean you harm, severe thunderstorms are brisk and no-nonsense.
I know why I stayed obsessed as I aged. Tornadoes, for me, were atransfiguration. Like all serious winds, they were our little stretch of plain’s zcoordinate, a move up from the Euclidian monotone of furrow, road, axis,and grid. We studied tornadoes in junior high: a Canadian highstraight-lines it southeast from the Dakotas; a moist warm mass drawls onup north from like Arkansas: the result was not a GreChi even aCartesiGammat a circling of the square, a curling of vectors,concavation of curves. It was alchemical, Leibnizian. Tornadoes were, in ourpart of Central Illinois, the dimensionless point at which parallel lines metand whirled and blew up. They made no sense. Houses blew not out but in.Brothels were spared while orphanages next door bought it. Dead cattlewere found three miles from their silage without a scratch on them.Tornadoes are omnipotent and obey no law. Force without law has noshape, only tendency and duration. I believe now that I knew all thiswithout knowing it, as a kid.
The only time I ever got caught in what might have been an actual onewas in June ’78 on a tennis court at Hessel Park in Champaign, where I wasdrilling one afternoon with Gil Antitoi. Though a contemptible anddespised tournament opponent, I was a coveted practice partner because Icould transfer balls to wherever you wanted them with the mindlessconstancy of a machine. This particular day it was supposed to rain aroundsuppertime, and a couple times we thought we’d heard the tattered edges ofa couple sirens out west toward Monticello, but Antitoi and I drilledreligiously every afternoon that week on the slow clayish Har-Tru ofHessel, trying to prepare for a beastly clay invitational in Chicago where itwas rumored both Brescia and Mees would appear. We were doingbutterfly drills–my crosscourt forehand is transferred back down the lineto Antitoi’s backhand, he crosscourts it to my backhand, I send it down theline to his forehand, four degreesgles, though the intersection ofjust his crosscourts make an X, which is four degreesand also acrucifix rotated the same quarter-turn that a swastika (whichinvolves eight degreesgles) is rotated on Hitlerian bunting. This wasthe sort of stuff that went through my head when I drilled. Hessel Park wasscented heavily with cheese from the massive Kraft factory at Champaign’swestern limit, and it had wonderful expensive soft Har-Tru courts of such adeep piney color that the flights of the fluorescent balls stayed on one’svisual screen for a few extra seconds, leaving trails, is also why the anglesand hieroglyphs involved in butterfly drill seem important. But the crux hereis that butterflies are primarily a conditioning drill: both players have to getfrom one side of the court to the other between each stroke, and once theinitial pain and wind-sucking are over–assuming you’re a kid who’s inabsurd shape because he spends countless mindless hours jumping rope orrunning laps backward or doing star-drills between the court’s corners orstraight sprints back and forth along the perfect furrows of early beanfieldseach morning–once the first pain and fatigue of butterflies are gotthrough, if both guys are good enough so that there are few unforced errorsto break up the rally, a kind of fugue-state opens up inside you where yourconcentration telescopes toward a still point and you lose awareness ofyour limbs and the soft shush of your shoe’s slide (you have to slide out ofa run on Har-Tru) and whatever’s outside the lines of the court, and prettymuch all you know then is the bright ball and the octangled butterfly outlineof its trail across the billiard green of the court. We had one just endlessrally and I’d left the planet in a silent swoop inside when the court and balland butterfly trail all seemed to surge brightly and glow as the daylight justplain went out in the sky overhead. Neither of us had noticed that there’dbeen no wind blowing the familiar grit into our eyes for several minutes–abad sign. There was no siren. Later they said the C.D. alert network hadbeen out of order. This was June 6, 1978. The air temperature dropped sofast you could feel your hairs rise. There was no thunder and no air stirred. Icould not tell you why we kept hitting. Neither of us said anything. Therewas no siren. It was high noon; there was nobody else on the courts. Theriding mower out over east at the softball field was still going back andforth. There were no depressions except a saprogenic ditch along the fieldof new corn just west. What could we have done? The air always smells ofmowed grass before a bad storm. I think we thought it would rain at worstand that we’d play till it rained and then go sit in Antitoi’s parents’ stationwagon. I do remember a mental obscenity–I had gut strings in my rackets,strings everybody with a high sectional ranking got free for letting theWilson sales rep spraypaint a Wacross the racket face, so they were free,but I liked this particular string job on this racket, I liked them tight but notreal tight, 62-63 p.s.i. on a Proflite stringer, and gut becomes pasta if it getswet, but we were both in the fugue-state that exhaustion through repetitionbrings on, a fugue-state I’ve decided that my whole time playing tennis wasspent chasing, a fugue-state I associated too with plowing and seeding anddetasseling and spreading herbicides back and forth in sentry duty alongperfect lines, up and back, or military marching on flat blacktop, hypnotic, amental state at once flat and lush, numbing and yet exquisitely felt. We wereyoung, we didn’t know when to stop. Maybe I was mad at my body andwanted to hurt it, wear it down. Then the whole knee-high field to the westalong Kirby Avenue all of a sudden flattened out in a wave coming towardus as if the field was getting steamrolled. Antitoi went wide west for aforehand cross and I saw the corn get laid down in waves and thesycamores in a copse lining the ditch point our way. There was no funnel.Either it had just materialized and come down or it wasn’t a real one. The bigheavy swings on the industrial swingsets took off, wrapping themselves intheir chains around and around the top crossbar; the park’s grass laid downthe same way the field had; the whole thing happened so fast I’d seennothing like it; recall that Bimini H-Bomb film of the shock wave visible inthe sea as it comes toward the ship’s film crew. This all happened very fastbut in serial progression: field, trees, swings, grass, then the feel like the liftof the world’s biggest mitt, the nets suddenly and sexually up and outstraight, and I seem to remember whacking a ball out of my hand at Antitoito watch its radical west-east curve, and for some reason trying to run afterthis ball I’d just hit, but I couldn’t have tried to run after a ball I had hit, but Iremember the heavy gentle lift at my thighs and the ball curving back closerand my passing the ball and beating the ball in flight over the horizontal net,my feet not once touching the ground over fifty-odd feet, a cartoon, andthen there was chaff and crud in the air all over and both Antitoi andI either flew or were blown pinwheeling for I swear it must have beenfifty feet to the fence one court over, the easternmost fence, we hit thefence so hard we knocked it halfway down, and it stuck at degreesntitoidetached a retina and had to wear those funky Jabbar retina goggles forthe rest of the summer, and the fence had two body-shaped indentationslike in cartoons where the guy’s face makes a cast in the skillet that hit him,two catcher’s masks of fence, we both got deep quadrangular linesimpressed on our faces, torsos, legs’ fronts, from the fence, my sister saidwe looked like waffles, but neither of us got badly hurt, and no homes gotwhacked–either the thing just ascended again for no reason right after,they do that, obey no rule, follow no line, hop up and down at somethingthat might as well be will, or else it wasn’t a real one. Antitoi’s tenniscontinued to improve after that, but mine didn’t.
(C) 1997 David Foster Wallace All rights reserved.