• Otter Views: The Real Guys

    I spent a couple of years once on Guam, a U.S. territory so far west in the Pacific that it lies on the other side of the international date line from the rest of the country. It’s the place “where America’s day begins.”

    I only mention Guam because it was there I learned a useful expression. To while away our off-duty hours, some Vietnam-era Navy buddies and I formed a volleyball team. We played six-man indoor matches against squads from other military bases. On free weekends, we’d play “slap ball” sand doubles at the beach.

    It was there we met a group of Southern Californians who had come to the island as contract workers for various government agencies. Among them were a pair of dentists who had grown up in Manhattan Beach, the Fertile Crescent of sand doubles volleyball. The dentists were both named Bob.

    To us swabbies, beach volleyball was a pastime, but to the South Bay dentists, it was a passion. The two Bobs told us the sport was taken so seriously in their town that they’d slept on the court as kids so they’d have the first game the next morning. At length they took pity on us and taught us the rudiments.

    By Manhattan Beach standards, the South Bay Bobs were middling good players, but to us they were superstars. They could serve, bump, set, dink and spike like it was automatic. They covered the entire court, had a hundred trick shots, and dove full-out on the sand to bring up hard-hit balls. On defense, their hands were as quick as cobras.

    “You’re volley gods!” we’d shout after the dentists had converted yet another diving save into a feathery set, a booming spike and a critical side-out. The Bobs would glance at each other and smile. “No,” they’d admonish.

    “We’re just B players. Wait ‘til you see The Real Guys.”
    “The Real Guys? How will we know who they are?”
    “Oh, you’ll know,” the Bobs said cryptically.
    Once back “Stateside,” I drove to the South Bay to watch the Manhattan Beach Open, at that time the heavyweight championship of sand doubles volleyball. This was before the pro leagues, before jump serves, before women’s doubles took off, and before sand ball made it into the Olympics.

    The “Real Guys” were all there: Ronnie Lang, Gene Selznick, Ron Von Hagen, Butch Mays, Jon Stanley, the Suwara Brothers. But as good as those legends were, even faster guns were on the rise: Keith Erickson, Larry Rundle, Tommy Vallely, Sinjin Smith and a young phenom who would lead the U.S. men’s indoor team to Olympic gold in 1984 and 1988: Karch Kiraly.

    The level of play was light years beyond anything I had imagined. Back then, only the serving team could score, so “side out” ball was a marathon of grit and endurance. After playing in the blistering heat for two days, the finalists still had enough left to play a three-hour championship set. This went so late it finished under car headlamps. If memory serves, Von Hagen and Vallely outlasted Rundle and Rudy Suwara, but memory may be suspect.

    These days, I think about “The Real Guys” while swimming elder laps in the PG High pool. Ever-newer volley gods have supplanted the beach ball legends of my era, but the Real Guys concept is still germaine. To verify that, I need only look across the pool to where the high school swimmers are working out.

    The way the adult school lap swim is set up, we elders get the shallower lanes, and the students get the lanes in the pool’s deeper half. If I don’t look over to their end, I can sometimes delude myself into thinking that I’m churn- ing right along. “I’ve got this now!” I think. “Look out, Michael Phelps.”

    But then I slip up and glance across the pool between breaths. Swimmers who left the wall after me streak by in a blur of bubbles, flip off the far wall, and pass me going back the other way. I am a tramp steamer; they are barracudas.

    For the purposes of this discussion, these young men and women are “The Real Guys” of the PG High pool. And like the volleyball standouts who slept on the court and played under headlights, they pay their dues with endless training.

    But one day I felt really strong. “I’m gonna blow by those kids today,” I thought, adjusting my goggles. As the Real Guys pushed off in the deep end, I blasted off the wall in my shallow lane and swam as hard and fast as I could.

    Glancing over mid-way, I could tell I was gaining slightly on the leaders! I was a human torpedo! I, too, could be a Real Guy!

    Then I noticed they were all pulling buckets. Somewhere, the South Bay Bobs are smiling.

    posted to Cedar Street Times on July 18, 2014

    Topics: Otter Views

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