My grade school classmate Sourber was the Evel Knievil of bicycles. I once saw Sourber ride a bike straight up a tree trunk—5 or 6 feet up before he fell back in a tangle of spokes and limbs. The bike had no brakes—which he probably knew. He just lay there on his back, laughing.
Sourber was the Franco Harris of sack-the-jack. I once saw Sourber shake my tackle, and three or four more, and juke and fake until finally someone caught onto his shirt, and we began to pile on, leaping onto him like salmon, one after another as Sourber staggered downfield with five defenders on his back. Finally Cheryl Groah dove and tripped him up. As the pile disentangled itself, Geoff Hauck shouted, “Jeepers creeps, it takes the whole doggone army to bring Sourber down!”—which was one of the most memorable things I ever heard anyone say. And Sourber lay on his back, laughing and laughing.
But Sourber’s greatest moment of those young years came as a result of Eichenlaub. Mr. Eichenlaub, reading teacher. Eichenlaub was really his name. And that spring he had it even tougher than his name—because he was student teaching under Mrs. Crotchety Frownface. Mrs. Frownface’s class was living death: book reports, SRA, and a general sense of mummification. But that spring, a small miracle happened: Mrs. Frownface took time off from teaching (maybe to get a mouth lift), and that meant Mr. Eichenlaub took over.
I didn’t know much about teaching, but it seemed to me that Mr. Eichenlaub had the right idea about how to do things. The deal was, we would work very hard and very attentively for a couple days and get a little ahead of schedule. Then the time we had saved up could be spent—on kickball.
Kickball! When we’d scrimped enough minutes, Mr. Eichenlaub would close his book and say, “All right, this is it. You know what to do. Let’s go.”
And we were so happy—but we were so quiet as we sneaked out of the school, the entire quiet sneaky class sneaking right out of school with the teacher who was sneaking out with us—
—out to the ball diamond. And then with model efficiency we divided into teams, and with model cooperation we assigned lineups and positions, and with model application we applied ourselves to our favorite project, the ancient game of kickball.
Which brings me back to Sourber, and the greatest moment of all.
The sun was out, big and bossy, I was standing near the dirt spot that meant second base, and Mr. Eichenlaub was on the mound—all-time pitcher. Then Sourber came up.
Sourber was the kind of kid that, whenever he was up, whatever team you were on, you felt something like hope or glee in your throat. There was something so pure and exultant about him as he prepared his body for the explosion—it made you hold your breath. Sourber called for a bouncer (as opposed to the roller), and Mr. Eichenlaub served up his trademark bouncing pitch.
The rubber KUNG! of the well-driven ball thrilled us as Sourber’s great boot blasted far over Netscher’s head in left—and it was pandemonium. Sourber was chugging around second before Netscher nabbed the ball, and flung it to Born, and Born zipped it to Szymanski, we were shrieking—and there!—there was Eichenlaub in shallow left field, waving his arms as Sourber ate up turf toward third—
Sourber rounded the base as Szymanksi relayed the ball to Eichenlaub who spun around quick—and then I knew that something momentous was about to happen—Sourber streaking toward home, kids leaping and hollering, and Eichenlaub with the ball steamed toward the infield, reared back and chunked an absolute rocket, the ball actually changed shape, changed into a red rubber missile that howled through the air, an adult throw no doubt about it, straight as a ruler and gunned at the intersection of Sourber and home—and Sourber, young as he was, his black hair flying, sensed it coming with that intuition of great ones, and at full tilt he flung himself into the air, arching his spine backward, the missile screaming at his body—he arched around into a perfect semicircle above the earth, and the red hot missile of Eichenlaub whanged neatly through that semicircle of Sourber and kept going and going, and Sourber cachunged to the ground at the plate, rolling, rolling, safe at home, safe!
It was a miracle. It was the sports miracle of my life. And Eichenlaub, bless him, waded into the hysterical mass of kids and grabbed Sourber up with a great shout, and hoisted him high up, shouting, “That was great! That was great, you’re great, Scott Sourber!” And Sourber was laughing, high in the air there, Sourber was laughing.
There was no doubt about it: Scott Sourber was the Willie Mays of kickball.
And there was also no doubt that Mr. Eichenlaub was the Scott Sourber of teaching.
I was nine years old; I was in fourth grade; I knew greatness when I saw it.
This first week of May is Teacher Appreciation Week. For me, every week is.
I loved (and hope to have learned from) Mr. E’s unguarded praise of Sourber, and of the rest of us. Being seen, being appreciated like that by a someone at the right moment—that can really stay with a fellow.
This piece was written as the closing monologue for a weekly variety show that the Austins and I produced on WEZE radio in 1994/5.