The Praying Mantis

It was just a regular sales call really.  A long drive to Astoria during a typical drenching wet Oregon winter storm.  My first stop was Astoria Granite Works.  It was always more than a regular sales call for me.  I love talking with Russ and Mo Warr, who bought the old memorial business in Astoria in 1994.  In 1998 they started fabricating granite countertops which turned out to eventually be, my corner of the world.  They operated both businesses out of the original building. A turn of the century building, built well before the last turn of the century.  Russ toured me through the back which revealed much of the original beam trolleys used to move memorial blocks for processing and engraving. A myriad of gates and trolley intersections designed to allow people and heavy stone share a tight working space.

To this day, Russ is regarded by many as a stalwart of Astoria and as such, he can tell a great story or two.  Whenever I would come to town Russ would discuss business of course but what he really liked to do – was give tours, and tell me about the town he loved; Astoria.

Mo, on the other hand, kept things running at the business.  Always very kind and cordial I got the sense that nothing in that business passed Mo’s scrutiny easily.  Now my impression of their affairs is that Russ liked being a business leader and community pillar.  He struck me as an anchor of equal measure in a community looking for any anchor that was available.  In a port town that mostly watches ships go by, anchors are important. His trusted partner Mo worked to make sure that anchor was in solid ground which is a bit tricky when occasionally the anchor showed up somewhere without proper notification… to Mo.  This is just my impression as I don’t really know but Mo struck me as a woman you would not trifle with in any regard; Which is why I really like her.  

But as tough as Mo might seem, on this day, she was hopping around the showroom of that old building like some of it was hot lava.  The thing about old buildings on the coast is that you have water, people, and critters.  In winter, when the water gets high enough it forces everything else to get cozy, whether they want to or not.  Mo pranced around the showroom of that old building and proclaimed, in no uncertain terms…

She saw a rat.

—— *** ——

As I recall, it was Bob that introduced us to the game.  In 1976-77 it was clearly something no one in our small town of Lebanon Oregon had seen before.  If you look it up you would discover the current form of hacky-sack was invented in Oregon City by a couple of guys in 1972.  Circle kicking was nothing new but this little bean bag of sorts, a little bigger than a golf ball, made it easy and cool to get a circle going.  In fact, that’s how I remember it happening for me the first time.  

I stepped outside the band room after class to see Bob Brendle in the breezeway kicking this little bag, keeping it in the air with nothing but his feet.  “What the heck is that?” I asked as Bob continued concentrating on the sack, his big bushy hair responding in kind to each kick.  “It’s a hacky-sack” he quipped as an errant kick sent the sack careening into the band room door.  I bent over and picked it up for inspection.  It was made of soft leather and was filled loosely with small beads of some kind.  I tossed it back to Bob who stopped it with his chest and let it fall down to his feet; He kicked it back to me.  Next thing I knew the two of us were kicking that sack back and forth, only to have someone else emerge from the band room and repeat the dialog. As I recall, Mr. Knight came out to see what the commotion outside his office window was about.  He opened the door to see half a dozen of his students in a circle, making comical movements and gestures as they attempted to keep some kind of goofy little ball in the air.

“It’s a hacky-sack!” 3 or 4 of us said in unison soon followed by spastic moves to keep the sack in the air.

Mr. Knight just shook his head and closed the door.

Instantly, the demand for sacks outstripped the supply.  This was because Bob seemed to have the only hacky-sack in existence.  I think it was Tim Richard who carefully took the sack apart and made a pattern a few days later.  Next thing you know copies of this pattern were distributed in Drafting Club and Band.  Several of us went home, cut out pieces of leather and attempted to sew them together.  I made several attempts at this new craft, cussing as I poked my finger with the large needle I was using; It took days for me.  Bob and Tim, on the other hand, seemed to master the art in no time, bringing in sacks almost daily; selling them as fast as they could make them.  There was no need for a sales pitch.  You just simply started playing in crowded hallway and within minutes you had a circle going, soon someone was begging you to sell them the one you had on you.

After nearly a week of trials, I finally came up with a sack that I liked.  Mostly because it was different.  It looked the same but it had a different weight and feel.  This was because I didn’t use the same bead material that Bob and Tim were using to fill their bags.  I still have no idea what they were using in those days.  What I came up with was lead shot from an old shotgun shell.  It took awhile to figure out how much shot was the right amount to make the sack respond well but after several test kicking sessions in my parent’s driveway, I stuffed the bag into my pocket with a satisfied smile on my face.  

The next day, I didn’t announce my new design to the circle.  I just pulled the sack from my pocket and tossed it in Bob’s direction for the serve.  It took only a few kicks before he grunted: “What the f%#& is up with this sack?”.  He managed a nice pass over to Steve Canaga to volley.  Steve took one kick to float the sack perfectly in front of him as he blurted out the question everyone in the circle was thinking…  “Boyd, what the hell did you use inside this bag?”  I just grinned as I waited for a pass in my direction… “Shotgun Shot” I said with a chuckle.  Bob busted out one of his signature belly laughs, his eyes squinting from behind his glasses.  “Leave it to Boyd to come up with a hick town hacky sack” he said just before wheeling around with a “roundhouse” kick in an effort to save a wild pass.  It was a nice try but his effort had my lead filled sack come in contact with the bony part of his ankle.  With an “OUCH!” and several expletives, Bob announced his decision to use his sack instead of mine.  Even so, I kept that sack for many years.  In fact, I may still have it somewhere to this day.

That year hacky-sack became a hit all over school and inevitably the charter members of this original group of players got pretty good at it; myself included.  Mastering not only the fine art of controlling the bag in front of you, but also developing techniques to make saves, with a sudden snap of the foot, or a roundhouse kick orbiting high and wide in a desperate effort to return the sack back into the circle. Behind the back kicks were also praised; especially when you could float the sack from behind you, over your shoulder past your ear to take control again with the bag securely in front of you.

We weren’t getting good because we practiced all the time.  We were getting good because we played ALL the time.  During lunch hours, on band trips, club outings, behind the bleachers during ball games.  Each time we would inevitably have to explain to someone what it was we were doing.  This was especially true when our High School Jazz Band traveled to Hawaii for a music festival.  I’m not absolutely certain we were the first group to play hacky-sack on Waikiki Beach but based on all the comments and questions we got, the odds are pretty good that we might have been.  We were ambassadors of the game and it was cool.

After high school, the game and my homemade hacky sack stayed with me.  Bob and I drove to Phoenix Arizona to attend a drafting trade school.  Our hacky-sacks came with us.  It wasn’t long before we were standing in the Arizona summer heat with our roommate Cary Pickens from New Mexico; I pulled out my lead shot bag.  “What the f&%@ is this you all are doin?”  Bob and I smiled and said “It’s hacky-sack”  I can still see Cary’s gangly arms and legs as he tried to master the game while keeping his glasses secure.  I cannot even count the number of times we almost lost that “shotgun” bag in the Salt River or in a stickery thicket where sidewinder rattlesnakes or other critters might lurk.  “I’m not goin’ in there” Cary would say.

Later the next year, I found myself in the Oregon Duck Marching Band.  Bob and I took different paths after Phoenix but I soon discovered that Tim Richard was one of the many high school bandmates in the marching band.  That year we traveled to Seattle to play at the University of Washington halftime show for a game between the Ducks and the Huskies.  Before the game, we stood on the field and Tim pulled out a sack.  The game was getting better known by then.  Fewer people were asking what it was and more would join in right away.  Soon there was a big circle of us playing in the middle of Husky Stadium until the game officials ordered us off.  

The next day the marching band played the halftime show for the Seahawks at the King Dome.  Again, a group of us found ourselves in a circle, around the Seahawks logo in the middle of the field, playing hacky-sack before the game, in the King Dome.  Even though the stadium still looked pretty empty there must have been thousands of people looking on as we contorted and kicked a barely visible little object.  I’m sure it looked very odd back then.

Around that time I started training in karate.  Between that and hacky-sack I began to develop pretty fair “kicking” ability.  In fact, it wasn’t long before I started to co-mingle martial arts with the game.  There were aspects of both that served each other well.  In those days, I could easily kick well above my head.  I was more Jonny Hayseed than Jean-Claude Van Damme but I managed to be effective despite my lack of style.  The powerful karate front kick where your leg snaps back just as fast as it attacked became a kind of trick shot for me in hacky-sack.  My goal was to kick the sack when it was only a few inches from the ground with a snap-kick so fast is was nothing more than a blur; ultimately floating the sack to a perfect head height in front of me.  I spent a ridiculous amount of time trying to perfect it.  I even nicknamed the move…  

“The Praying Mantis”

—— *** ——

Now Russ, a tall and lanky guy in his 70’s had a friend and employee with him that day (Herb I think) who was also about 70.  It was easy to see these guys spent most of their lives being “self-sufficient”.  I tried to stay busy updating a display rack in the corner of the room as these two older guys attempted to locate the rat.  Mo was busy shouting directions while building what looked like an emergency escape ramp to the top of her desk; just in case.  Russ had fashioned a very impressive spear of sorts, deadly in appearance; I’m pretty sure it was a stick with a nail.  Herb and Russ would talk a little about where they saw the rat last and who is going to move and do what.  Well, actually Herb was pretty much the furniture mover while Russ posed, ready to skewer that beastly thing with his dreaded nail spear.  There was some bustling and some more talking before Herb finally got a good hold of a display he wanted to move and gave it a jerk backward.  

Suddenly a “debatably” large dark figure sprung from under the display.  Russ lunged with his spear digging the nail into the carpet – apparently a clean miss.

“Wow, that’s a big one” Russ proclaimed in a very calm voice as his body moved in near mechanical precision to the circumstances at hand.  

Mo was sprinting up her emergency ramp to the top of her desk.

I, on the other hand, froze in amazement as this large matted creature shot like a lightning bolt across the room, taking refuge behind some demo headstones.  

Actually,

 

I don’t know what to call these headstones; headstone examples?; mock memorials?; display graves?.  

Whatever they were called they had a big ugly rat behind one of them.

I turned to say to Russ “Did you see that?” when I saw the pointy end of that spear go by, soon followed by the rather determined face of Russ.  Herb, on the other hand, was in a flanking move on the other side of the lobby.

“Behind the monolith Herb” said Russ.

“I saw it” said Herb.

“Why won’t you let me call an exterminator!” cried Mo as she ran in place on the desktop.

By now I had given up on the display rack.  My concentration was on these two guys trying to maneuver behind gravestone displays lined up neatly on a narrow mini-stage against the wall.  In my business, I don’t deal in monoliths but I know enough about granite to conclude they weren’t moving these things.  So as Russ wacked behind the granite displays with his trusty nail spear Herb moved side to side in a somewhat cute attempt at herding.  

“What could go wrong?” I thought.  

And with a mighty “THWAAAK” from behind the memorials and an “OH GOD” from the desktop, the mangy streak of darkness bolted straight for Herb.  Herb did a herding move to the right.  The rat juked a bit further to Herb’s right and then –  Herb just kept going right – for about 10 feet.  Fortunately, he did not pass close enough to Mo’s desk for her to slap him on the way by.  

There was another set of loud noises as the rat now bolted to Herb’s ever dissipating left.  

It was Russ of the Mountain, casually leaping from the mini stage, like Thor in a multi-dimensional super slow motion scene, wielding his javelin of nail death, striking the carpet once more as the disease ridin’ rat-king blur made straight for the pacifist slab-granite guy standing frozen, like a deer in the headlights.  

Now I’ve been around for a while and I’ve seen a lot of things.  And in as much as I can understand Russ and Herb’s casual down-home hunting style it was frankly a lot to digest as a scrunchy matted grunge muffin came hard-charging directly at me.  

Suddenly something kicked in from the past.  It was like another dimension of clarity albeit with a dash of panic.

All my experiences and all my friends; even the ones that made fun of me; they were there with me.  All those hours I spent merging disciplines and kicking a goofy little bag.  All that shit came together at this moment.

I kicked that rat.

Fortunately!

The rat did not float in front of me at perfect head height.  It just careened off across the room for a ways and then started rolling.  It rolled and tumbled like any superhero enemy might roll in the climax of any given superhero movie.  But it was a rat.

I swear to God this next part happened.  While I will admit some of the previous descriptions may be a bit elaborated this next part did actually happen.

The rat tried to get up, and then seemed to look at me  –   as if to say… “Was that a Praying Mantis?”  Then it twitched a bit and fell to the floor.  The rat was out cold.  

The silence in the room was crisp.  Mo just looked on, dealing with the confusion of feeling sorry for something and wanting that same something dead.  Herb was thankful a wall had stopped his progress to the right well before permanent injury might have occurred.

Russ of the Mountain just looked at me with staff in hand and said.  “Nice Kick”

I was as stunned as anyone about what just happened.  But I did manage to say…

“We’re a full-service company”

I stood there as if I was waiting for a round of trumpets when Russ of the Mountain finished off the rat in a scene similar to the ROUS slaying in The Princess Bride movie.  But with a nail… on a stick.

You know something?  

The more you live, the more you realize, you may be unexpectedly prepared for an unexpected event you never ever was preparing for.  I mean all that time I put in was meant for glory in, like maybe, a national hacky-sack tournament or maybe a showdown with a deranged mugger at the slurpy stand in a 7-Eleven store.  

But I got a rat.

Still, I suddenly wonder if I can find that old shotgun sack.  It might in the attic, maybe?  God, I hope there are no rats up there.

Thus says…

The Praying Mantis

© db 2018

Thoughts on the Swing

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