Tennis Camp

Tennis Camp

My mother sent me to day camp for the first time when I was 12. Usually, I hung around the house with my younger sisters, reading and complaining about the heat. Perhaps Mother was tired. We had moved to Washington, D.C. two years before when my father, a journalist, took a job in the Kennedy administration. Then Kennedy was shot and Camelot ended. My father landed in the hospital a week later. I didn’t understand much of his illness, only that he almost died and stayed in the hospital for months. When he came home, he was more irritable and moody than ever, and he had never been a happy-go-lucky guy. My mother served him a hot lunch in the dining room every day. He sat alone at the head of the polished wood table, his plate on a placemat.

By summer, he was back to work, but his gloom hung over the house. I had learned to play tennis that year in school, so Mother chose a tennis camp. We played four hours of tennis a day, with an hour of bridge in the morning and an hour of chess in the afternoon. The air was already thick with humidity in the morning when I sat on the front steps, waiting for my carpool. The sun was relentless. By the end of the first hour of play, our required tennis whites were soaked through and faintly pink from the dust of the clay courts. They gave us plenty of water, and salt tablets if we wanted.

Since I was a beginner, I ended up in the youngest group, a bunch of 10-year-old boys. There weren’t many girls at the camp at all, except for a few teenagers who already played in tournaments. The one other black kid (out of about 50 kids), a boy, was also a talented player. I imagined that he and the girls were recruited for the camp. The year before, Arthur Ashe, a black teenager from nearby Baltimore, was the first black player on a United States Davis Cup team. Suddenly, talent scouts perused the public courts as well as at the segregated country clubs.

Our camp sat on the grounds of the Sidwell Friends School, but was owned by a couple of tennis pros, a man and a woman, retired from the circuit. I remember this distinction, because the Quaker school had turned me down a few years before, and my mother was still angry about it. The school planned to integrate grade by grade, they told her, so they would accept me only if she were willing to hold me back a year, to fit with their orderly progression.

I loved the camp. In those days, girls didn’t play sports the way they do today. My mother never learned to ride a bike. She had sent me to a ballet class once, but it was nothing like whacking the ball over the net. It felt great to push my body, to sweat, to be out of breath. The boys were fine company, once they saw that I tried hard. They didn’t observe any social niceties. Even inside, playing bridge, we didn’t chat past the tennis moment. No one asked why my hair was so curly when I took off my white cloth hat, or commented on my dark tan. My period had started that spring, which was a problem with the daily whites, but I managed. On the tennis court, I felt that I had been granted a reprieve from womanhood, a last chance to be an all-out kid.

One day it rained so hard, they took everyone at camp to the movies. We saw the 1950s film Brigadoon—the story of a jaded New Yorker traveling in Scotland who wanders into the enchanted village of Brigadoon on the eve of a wedding. The village is enchanted because it appears to the rest of the world for only one day every 100 years. The villagers don’t face the strife and hardships of our world. It’s a Lerner and Loewe musical:

“The mist of May is in the gloamin’
And all the clouds are holdin’ still
So take my hand and we’ll go roamin’
Through the heather on the hill.”

The idea that there might be a bucolic parallel universe choked me up.

The next summer, I was anxious to sign up for tennis camp again, and once again the month flew by. I had a one-piece tennis dress with panties that I stepped into like a bathing suit. It had big gold buttons at the shoulders, a dropped waist and pleated skirt. It made me feel beautiful and strong. The last week, the woman who owned the camp came up to me and asked would I be willing to play a game with a journalist, a man who wrote a kind of Herb Caen social column. There were younger girls at the camp, but they wanted someone who could give him some opposition, and still be “cute.”

My memory is that she also asked me not to mention that I was black. In retrospect, I think it is more likely that I already understood that they wouldn’t have chosen a darker girl. I said yes.

I wore my tennis dress, which brought me luck. We played three games and I beat him two to one. I don’t know how hard he tried. I certainly did. He spoke to me briefly, about tennis, but he didn’t ask and I didn’t tell. He wrote a charming fluff piece about the “little girl” who beat him. The column wouldn’t have worked in the same light-hearted way with “a little black girl,” at least not then. Nothing he wrote was untrue. Yet I was enough my father’s daughter to know that I (we?) had deceived the readers.

The next year I felt I was too old for tennis camp.

Toni Martin is a physician and writer who lives in Berkeley.


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