Mr. Ronald Hastings stood stiffly in the entry hall of his mortgage-free home. He was telling his son, Tim, that he drifted without ambition. Tim, not saying much, looked to be a much taller and stronger version of his father. There was the same nearly blonde hair and coloring, the same strikingly blue eyes, and the same hooked nose. They also shared a natural conversational distance of about six feet when standing, neither seeming likely to advance or retreat.
By contrast, Tim had an entirely different temperament. As his father went on speaking with increased intensity, if not volume, Tim smiled and said something about the weather over his shoulder as he walked casually away. His father didn’t try to insist on his continued presence. Instead, he turned angrily away, flung out of the nearby front door, and slammed it. He could then be heard burning rubber in the driveway with his new sports car.
Tim’s mother, a tall harassed-looking woman who maintained good posture, came up shortly afterwards and said, “You’ll have to forgive your father. I know he’s being bad-tempered these days, but he isn’t feeling well.”
Tim nodded in apparent understanding. The elder Mr. Hastings suffered from psoriasis, a rather painful skin condition that left painful itching sores which were almost impossible to eradicate. They were also covered with ugly white scales, and looked infectious even though they weren’t. In one way, it was good that they were in an area always covered by his trousers, and thus didn’t cause people to rush for the exits. Mr. Hastings didn’t take showers in public.
In another way, problems in those areas always made people think of sexually transmitted diseases. In fact, psoriasis was in no way venereal, and didn’t affect copulation with someone who understood, as did, presumably, Mrs. Hastings. However, the itching could give rise to embarrassing behavior in public. It was something one was glad one didn’t have, but, despite the discomfort, it was hard to be entirely serious about it. Mrs. Hastings never referred to the problem directly, but Tim did allow himself to say, “There may be people who handle psoriasis more easily.”
His mother made a gesture with her hands in apparent agreement. While she had to live with the psoriasis more intimately, emotionally as well as physically, it seemed to be part of her ideology not to complain about her husband to her children.
A philosophy major at Harvard in the fall semester of his senior year, Tim did pretty well in his courses. Two professors had told him that he had interesting ideas. For the rest, he and his house-mates played games, some of which they made up themselves, on the grassy area between their little house and the Charles River. It was believed that their frequent injuries could be cured, or at least alleviated, by ‘running them off.’
The older Mr. Hastings, a lawyer, would have had little patience with such activities, had he known about them. Under threat of withholding tuition payments, he had recently pressured Tim into applying to law school. Tim didn’t do terribly well in the interview. He remembered saying, “There probably are too many lawyers in America, but one more isn’t going to make things that much worse.”
Remarks like that, delivered in an easy soft-spoken way, nevertheless upset some people. But Tim just went on, in his relaxed and shambling way, taking courses like Sanskrit and Indian Studies 132, a history of Theravadin Buddhism given in English, and Chinese 210, an account of the views of Meng-tzu and Sun- tzu, also given in English. He liked the atmosphere of classes with an exotic professor and three or four students in quaint little book-filled rooms on the top floor of the massive Widener Library.
In November, there was an odd sequence of events which began with a conversation between Tim and Meredith Walker, the girl friend of a friend. The friend, Sun Shih-Ninh, known as ‘Jimmy’, was close to being a mathematical prodigy. He wasn’t quite as productive as Galois, the young Frenchman who wrote up his results the night before being killed in a duel, but Jimmy, a senior at only seventeen, didn’t challenge people to duels.
Tim had met him as a freshman when Jimmy, trying to learn how to throw an American football, had accidentally tossed it through Tim’s dormitory window. Ignoring the broken glass, Tim had taught him to throw the ball with greater accuracy. They had been friends ever since, and, in the previous year, Jimmy had paired up with Meredith. The cultural gap between a boy with a terrifying father in Taiwan and a girl from a gentle Boston suburb had apparently been bridged. However, Meredith, a literature major who wrote poetry, thought that she needed to learn some mathematics to keep within shouting distance of Jimmy. She therefore enrolled in a course on the Foundations of Mathematics which Tim was taking.
It was the sort of course Tim liked, full of big ideas about infinity and allied concepts, and as much logic as mathematics. Since it was not so easy for Meredith, they went to a nearby coca-cola lounge after each class in order to go over the material.
Meredith was little and pretty, with curly black hair and an expressive mouth that seemed to turn upside down when she made certain sorts of remarks. Tim, at six-five, took one step to her two as they strolled across the Harvard Yard on their way to refreshment and enlightenment. Looking pointedly away from a begging squirrel on the cold barren lawn, she said, “Last night at my parents’ party I met a fat rich alumnus who’s come here all the way from San Francisco for the Yale game. Imagine that!”
“I didn’t know anyone cared that much.”
“I usually hope that our team loses. There are fewer drunks breaking bottles in the street.”
“Is there something wrong with this man?”
“Not in the ordinary sense. He’s founded a big company that makes lots of money.”
“Not always a good sign.”
“I was teasing him a little, asking him if his tummy would give him trouble if Harvard lost, and things like that. He didn’t take that too well, so I told him I knew someone, namely yourself, who could probably help beat Yale.”
Tim recoiled. Meredith had joined in some of their pick-up touch football games, and knew too much about him. In particular, she knew that he could throw a football over seventy yards, and that he had a sprinter’s speed. He kept such things semi-secret because he didn’t want people to be constantly badgering him to join various college teams. He now asked,
“You haven’t signed me up for anything, have you, Meredith?”
“No, but this man’s a big donor, and he knows the athletic director and coaches. You may hear something from them.”
“But the game’s only five days away.”
“That didn’t seem to bother him.”
“Well, I think I can probably punt the ball higher and farther than anyone they have.”
“I bet you hear from someone.”
The football coach called that evening. Harvard coaches were under only moderate pressure to win, but they were supposed to be gentlemen. When the Boston University basketball coach had made an unseemly stink with the referee, the Harvard coach had been heard to say, “That gentleman over there is the most ungentlemanly gentleman I’ve ever seen.”
The football coach was more down-to-earth, and said only, “I was told that you might be able to help us, Mr. Hastings. I’d appreciate it if you could come down to the practice field tomorrow.”
It was hard to refuse such a gentle request, and Tim agreed.
John Mannion turned out to be a big hearty man, probably a former lineman. He came up to Tim with a smile, gave his hand a good wrench, and explained, “We’ve won only two games all season, but all is forgiven if we beat Yale.”
Tim replied that he might be able to help with the punting, and was soon handed a football.
Tim had never been taught anything about punting, but had always enjoyed kicking balls with his long legs. He had started, when he was about twelve, with a football belonging to another kid. He was more surprised than anyone when the ball had sailed completely over a neighboring house. Ever since, he had taken opportunities to punt, always marveling at the little effort it took to make the ball practically disappear from sight.
By this time, he had some directional control, and could make some adjustments to control for height and distance. As always, it seemed as if he were dropping the ball almost to the ground before launching it,
On his first try, Tim got off a long high punt that stunned the coach and the onlookers. The second try wasn’t quite as good, but the third was even better. They then brought over a center who snapped the ball fifteen yards back to Tim. When he punted again, Mannion remarked, “You get the ball off pretty quickly. I don’t think there’d be a problem of having it blocked.”
An assistant coach who had been watching said to Tim,
“You could make an easy living punting for an NFL team. Go on to the field, punt, and run off. Make a million or so a year without ever being hit.”
“You really think so?”
“Those were very big punts with lots of hang time. That’s what they want.”
Before he could think further about the matter, they set up for passing.
Tim had brought with him his roommate, Howie, from the basketball team. Howie was a fine athlete, better all-around than Tim, and as fast afoot. He would have been a star basketball player, but for his inability to shoot. However, they had played lots of touch football together, and Howie was used to catching balls thrown by Tim.
They started in what amounted to a short punt formation, and Tim fumbled the first snap from center. The ball came back awfully fast, and, the next time, he moved back a few yards to give himself time to react. Having done so, he threw some short out passes to Howie to get warmed up. They then put in a defensive back to guard, but he couldn’t stay with the much quicker Howie on his cuts. Tim completed a couple of passes of fifteen or twenty yards near the sideline. On the next attempt, Howie flew and Tim threw a high arching pass of some sixty yards down the field which Howie caught easily. Mannion said to Tim,
“It’s too late to work you into our regular offense, but we’ll have you practice fourth down passes to your friend from punt formation. We don’t have much to lose, really.”
And it was so ordained.
Walking back to their house, Howie was shaking his head dubiously. Howie Humphries was a black-eyed black-haired Italian with light skin and, through some accident of Ellis Island, an Anglo name. He had come to Harvard on an academic rather than an athletic scholarship, and, in fact, was more interested in things of the mind than those of the body. At the beginning of each semester, he would audit an impossible number of courses in addition to the ones he was taking, and only gradually relinquish most of them. His friends thought that Howie zig-zagged between many different interests and fields, but pursued each, in its turn, with passionate intelligence. His speech was odd, often quite erudite, but also with throwbacks to the street language of the meaner districts of Brooklyn. With a touch of the latter, he now said to Tim, “This is wild and fucked-up.”
“We’ll be doing pretty much what we do in our touch games, but in front of thousands of people.”
“I’m used to spectators from basketball. Also humiliation. I once stole the ball and went the length of the court for an easy layup, but wound up trying to push the ball up through the basket the wrong way. The crowd laughed hysterically.”
“The football analogue would be running the wrong way to our own goal line. We should be able to avoid that.”
“Yeah. In fact, we might be able to win the game. The defensive back they put in couldn’t begin to cover me, and the other Ivy League ones probably aren’t much better.”
“In the games we play among ourselves we don’t keep score. They probably will in this game.”
Howie, in one of his spurts of idealistic enthusiasm, replied, “I wonder if there are gamblers who’d pay us to throw the game.”
“The Ivy League is probably beneath their notice.”