How to make $15 last forever 

Good Dirt

My brothers and I knew what Dad was up to. We could hear the electric drill and saw, and we imagined him sliding a carpenter's pencil from behind his ear and carefully making his measurements.

Christmastime 1976, and the long views on the Colorado plains were magical in winter light. Life crackled with energy. It was my senior year at Calhan High School, the middle of basketball season. I played for the mighty Bulldogs, and our team of 12 scrappy country kids played well.

We'd honed our skills in grade school and junior high, then gained strength and maturity as our faces became fuzzy and our shoulders grew wide. But our basketball poetry — our own style — had been written on barnyard courts, where our simple hoops had been nailed to trees, or the sides of a weathered building. Some of them are still there.

Playing in the wind, on frozen ground, or in the summer heat, we expressed ourselves on long, lonely days with behind-the-back passes and impossible long-range shots. Choosing teams among our friends, we creatively played this American game.

Much of my childhood home still stands about 10 miles east of Meadow Lake Airport on Judge Orr Road. Dad bought the place in 1967. We milked cows — a truly difficult livelihood — for several years. After that, Dad worked odd jobs and we scraped together what existence we could. Our family eventually moved, and the old dairy has since been neglected.

To say we had no money during that winter of '76 would be an exaggeration. But there wasn't much. Dad had driven to Calhan and picked up a sheet of inch-thick plywood, a few pieces of lumber, and some paint. In those days, I doubt he spent more than $15. Then everything disappeared into the basement, where the hammering and sawing commenced as we counted the days to Christmas.

At school, our team was one of the best in the old Black Forest League that included Simla, Ellicott, Peyton, Falcon and Elbert. Small-school basketball games in eastern Colorado on Friday and Saturday nights were electric and loud. The old gymnasiums with shiny wood floors captured cheers that I can still hear.

I had a pretty good jump shot from 15 feet. But I was a streak shooter, hitting nothing but net four times straight, then missing every shot until next week. I played defense well and ran all night. I could pass the ball, but seemed prone to bouncing it off my foot. There were many who played better than me.

We had chosen the place for our barnyard basketball court and had planted a thick telephone pole in rock-hard ground. Dad wanted it to be perfect, and he used a level to ensure that everything was plumb. From the top of the pole, about 13 feet up, two strong boards extended horizontally toward our new court. Everything was braced and solid.

The north wind would blow the snow into predictable drifts 10 feet deep or more — I'm not kidding — and we'd shovel the gravel court. Sometimes, the ball would get wet and freeze. But we played on with stinging, icy hands and feet.

Christmas Eve provided some sunshine and a chinook wind, and Dad emerged from the basement, carrying our new basketball backboard. He'd created a Christmas masterpiece, the exact dimensions of an official backboard. He'd painted it white, then added red striping for the shooter's rectangle behind the rim. He had reinforced it all with a 4-by-4 inch cedar frame. The ball would bounce true off of Dad's backboard.

Standing in the pickup truck bed, four of us strained to lift it into place. The sun set behind Pikes Peak 40 miles away, and we bolted everything down with the rim exactly 10 feet from the ground.

The chinook wind left a warm night. It was time to play. We hooked up extension cords and plugged in two or three lights. The illumination worked well, and on that clear Christmas Eve 39 years ago, beneath a million stars, I became the best barnyard basketball player in Colorado, at least for an hour or two. I couldn't miss.

This memory was purchased for $15 at the local lumber yard and created with a father's love for his boys. I'll try to remember this as I do my Christmas shopping this year.


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