The boys were high school boys, a distinctive subspecies, and one inclined to moderately obnoxious, but generally good-natured, behavior.
Especially when they’re in a pack, a situation which, in boys as in, say, hyenas, tends to suppress individual attitudes and encourage group action.
This bunch fulfilled that role with enthusiasm.
I was in a place new to me — sitting on the blue plastic bleachers in the gym at McCall-Donnelly High School in McCall, Idaho.
My vertebrae, which tolerate the torture of flat plastic benches with a bit less equanimity during each successive ordeal, grew increasingly stiff as the afternoon progressed.
I was there, me and my abused backbone, with my wife, Lisa, and our son, Max. We were there to watch my daughter, Olivia, who’s a freshman at Baker, play volleyball.
The gym was relatively tranquil during Olivia’s JV match.
But in the intermission prior to the start of the varsity match, the student section began to fill in, with a couple dozen Vandals supporters, most of them male, taking up the first few rows near the net.
Before the first serve, a school official recited over the PA system a reminder about sportsmanship. The wording was somewhat different from what Oregon high schools use but the message to fans was the same — be respectful of everyone, players, coaches, even referees.
(This pregame ritual insinuated itself into high school sports some time during what seems to me now the inconceivably long span of years that have elapsed since I got my own diploma. I am no doubt misled slightly by nostalgia, that consummate conniver, but as I recall it, in my youth such announcements were deemed unnecessary, the assumption being that the spectators were capable of dealing with untoward behavior themselves, should that be necessary. As it sometimes was. And as they sometimes did.)
I had chosen, for no particular reason, to sit near the net. This put us pretty near what became the Vandals’ cheering section.
As the varsity match moved through its first set, I noticed that the students, after gobbling the sandwiches, chicken strips and other food most of them had brought (I was tempted to ask where they bought the sandwiches, which looked pretty scrumptious to me), began to focus more on what was happening on the court below.
Also they started chanting.
Much of this was as indecipherable to me as much of the music recorded over the past couple decades. The slogans must have been part of a school tradition, as none of the students seemed to struggle to get the words right.
But then a couple of the boys started uttering a sort of yelp/scream hybrid right at the moment the Baker player was poised to serve.
This struck me as a rather blatant disregard for the sportsmanship policy, which included an admonition to not, in effect, hassle (a more bureaucratic phrase was used) individual players, coaches or officials.
A few minutes later I noticed that the school official who had read the policy was talking with the lead referee, on the other side of the gym from where we (and the boys) were sitting. After a brief conference the official started walking in our direction.
I whispered to Lisa that he was going to remind the boys about what the school considered proper behavior.
I couldn’t hear clearly what he said, over the squeak of sneakers on hardwood and the cheers, but the official was smiling during his short speech. I gathered that the essence of his message was that the boys should have fun, and make plenty of noise if they liked, but to ensure their decibels were directed at backing the Vandals and not harassing the Bulldogs.
The boys mostly complied.
I heard a couple of pre-serve yelps — albeit quieter yelps.
But most of the noise echoed from the rafters during the many exciting rallies or after the Vandals had scored a point on their way to a 3-0 sweep.
I haven’t spent much time in high school gyms over the past year and a half.
Most of us have had the same experience.
And so I was happy to spend a few hours in a situation that, before I had ever read the word “coronavirus,” was so normal as to be unremarkable.
These days, anything normal is sort of remarkable — a reminder that life as we once knew it has continued despite the incredible upheavals we have endured since March 2020.
I had a similar experience several days later in the Union High School gym, a wonderful example of 1950s construction that I had somehow managed not to visit.
With its glossy polished wood bleachers — complete with back rests that my vertebrae were smitten with — its steep steps that make current building codes seem draconian, and its slightly frayed but still jubilant banner celebrating the Bobcats’ multiple state titles in 1949, the UHS gym is a gem.
As we walked out into the slight chill of the early September dusk after Olivia’s volleyball match, I imagined the winter evenings in distant decades when fans clomped through the snow to watch their basketball teams play. I heard the phantom rumble that surely would have been audible from outside. I thought of them in their heavy coats, little clouds of condensation in their wake as they walked to their cars in the frigid twilight after the final buzzer, replaying the key shots and rebounds and steals while they were fresh.
I relished something as simple as sitting in a gym and watching kids play a game.
And I appreciated that a pandemic, for all the havoc it can wreak, is incapable of suppressing the enthusiasm of teenage boys, fueled by sandwiches and heavily sugared drinks served in cups large enough to water cattle.
Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.