There it was, staring at me as soon as I opened a box, situated like someone had placed it there on purpose. How long had it been, I wondered, since I had seen the photo of myself perched awkwardly atop a donkey.
Just before happening upon the photo, I was grumbling to myself about having to drag the Christmas decorations out of the attic. Then the next second it was like someone threw my memory gears into reverse, and I gently reached down to pluck the picture from its place of rest.
I have no idea when I had last laid eyes on the old black and white photograph. But I instantly recognized the T-shirt I was wearing (my parents bought it for me on a family vacation to South Dakota, and I wore it way too often), and the running shoes I was wearing that I had forgot I had ever owned.
Whoever said a picture speaks a thousand words was mistaken, because this little picture was speaking volumes to me. In the time it took to open a box, my frustration at hunting for Christmas decoration disappeared, and I was content as scenes of old flashed through my mind.
As I stood there looking at the photo, I could hear the crowd oohing and aahing as I crashed onto the floor of the old Hillsboro High School gym when a donkey deposited me there, and I could almost taste the nasty smell left on my blue jeans from riding those old donkeys.
The picture was taken in the late 1970s during my senior year in high school. Back in those days, donkey basketball games were a popular fundraiser, and somehow I was selected to be on one of the teams competing in one of those events.
When I signed up for the gig I really didn’t know what to expect. But I had watched donkey basketball games before, it seemed like a lot of fun, and I figured it could not be all that hard to shoot a couple baskets while sitting atop a donkey. I was right and wrong.
It depends, you see, on which donkey a player is paired with.
The first part of the game I had a cooperative donkey. I could lead it about anywhere I wanted to go — like near my team’s basket — hop on top of the animal, wait for a pass, then chuck the ball toward the hoop. I even made a two early baskets. But what I did not figure out until a little later in the game was that not all the donkeys were equal. Each team was allotted one donkey that was fairly cooperative, but all the other donkeys were trained to do something else — like stay in one place no matter how hard they were pulled or pushed, or to suddenly drop its head and send the rider crashing the floor about the same time it was mounted.
I caught on in the second half when I was assigned one of those donkeys that would not move. After pushing and pulling and cursing at the animal under my breath, I finally resigned myself to the fact that the new donkey was not going much of anywhere. So I jumped on top of it — where riders were required to be to shoot, catch or pass the ball. About that time a pass came my way. I caught it, and the donkey started to move toward my team’s basket. But after just a couple steps it suddenly lowered its head and sent me spiraling down its neck toward the floor. As I was falling, I launched a hook shot from near half court. I hit the backboard, rolled around the rim a couple times, then fell out. While the shot didn’t go in, I was pretty proud of the attempt, and even more so as I hit the floor hard and crowd started oohing and aahing.
As I stood there in the quiet of the attic and stared at the picture, I chuckled at the thought of taking pride in such nonsense.
When I looked a little closer at the picture, I could see Chief Wannawin — the huge wooden Indian cutout that was created by Dave Everson, one of my classmates, hanging on a wall in the old gym — and one of my other classmates, Phil Cole, atop another donkey. But what really caught my attention was how skinny I was. I mean, I knew 5’9 and 120 pounds was pretty skinny, but I didn’t realize I was as skinny as the scrawny boy in that picture.
Thinking about the donkey basketball game reminded me of playing against the Cincinnati Bengals and some Harlem Globetrotter wannabes in that old gym, and the countless other hours I spent there. The next thing I knew I was recalling fifth grade basketball games I played there, being a gym aid, proms, pep rallies, concerts, junior/senior banquets and my own graduation ceremony. There were later years when I covered countless games there as a sports reporter, watched Scouts race Pinewood Derby cars there, and even officiated basketball games that my sons played in inside that old gym.
I snapped back to reality at the sound of my wife’s voice asking if I was making any progress on the Christmas decorations.
Before long, the old photograph will return to the attic to rest with other keepsakes. But for the time being it sits where I can gaze at it from time to time — and let those old memories roll.
Jeff Gilliland is the editor of The Times-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 937-402-2522.