Outside, even in grade school, I remember marveling at the curved, laminated-wood beams that arched over the guts of the building like a rib cage. It reminded me of an animal, sleeping mostly, on its back, awaiting the buzzer on Friday that would awaken it on a cold, dark, winter night.
Inside then, every five or ten years it seemed, they would tear up the hard wood floor and replace it with a new one. With the periodic tear-up, it amazed me to see the sump pumps that secretly ran below the surface there, silently protecting and endlessly fighting the longest war of seeping dampness. Unchecked, the dreary muck, and primordial ooze, would certainly have crept back in. Built in a swamp, I was told, or the river ran through it. The high school gym was fixture in the town, and its personality was reflected.
It was like Jean Giraudoux’s invisible garment woven around us from our earliest years. It was made of the way we eat, and the way we walk, and the way we greet people. Woven of the tastes, and colors, sounds and perfumes that our senses sported on though childhood.
Sure, the gym was home to difficult afternoons when Bill Estes would maniacally line us up and give all that missed a layup, light swats, for instructional purposes. Violence lived in the running head shots of killer dodgeball games in P.E. classes of the day. And back and forth “suicides” were no fun to anyone.
Ah, but the Friday nights in November, spent in its brightly lit, and unashamedly loud compactness; when the whole town turned out to jam themselves in next to their neighbor on the hard, varnished, bench seats and shuffle their feet though the sticky spots on cement-floor aisles.
They would funnel through one of the double doors early in the evening, along the edge of the steel rails, back toward the plywood ticket shack inside on the edge. Down the cement steps they would lumber, past the door opening to a long narrow hall to concession stand “dungeon,” and file on past the wooden stage, up the steps and on to the other side.
After the JV game, the dungeon would fill with coffee-swilling parent clusters, and teachers, and pixie-stick-crazed younger brothers and sisters would crowd to the front of the opening in the back wall.
“Give me candy, hot dogs, hot cocoa, popcorn, Coke.”
And fulfilled -- they would saunter away carrying precariously, red-and-white, wax-covered, logo-emblazened cups full of the flat, black liquid to spill on the way back to their seats.
Then, as varsity players hit the hardwood for pregame, all would once again funnel back into the belly of the beast, and take our respective positions under the black and white banners of champions past.
At the jump, the gymnasium became a living, breathing thing.
And as the night wore on, and the building warms to the crowd…
Stomp, stomp, stomp —Stomp, stomp, stomp.
In a small voice, tentatively at first:
“I've paid my dues. Time after time. I've done my sentence. But committed no crime…” Eventually working our way into:
“We are the Champions. We are the Champions. No time for losers.”
It was enough to make visitors timid and fearful — to cower the whole town of Mancos.
And the show… zebras with whistles, the band, pom-poms, cheerleaders and of course … warriors of the court.
I was never much of a basketball player, but man, that gymnasium was it.
At a very young age, Lynn and James and I, would angle for the opportunity to run the big, six-foot mops over the wood surface at half times. After the games, we would stay late into evenings to help James’ grandfather, Lee Squires, clean the joint — a labor of love.
Later, when I couldn’t stand the thought of missing one of the Friday night worship services, I would volunteer to keep stats, just to be a part.
And I recall the great players through the years, the ball hogs and the hustlers. Coaches that you cussed, losses that would break your heart. Close calls. Near misses. Teams on to state, and rebuilding years. Times when folks silently filed out, orderly, quietly, with hangdog dejectedness, and their heads down all the way to their cars, which were still half in snow banks along the front.
Other times, when the crowds barely able to contain themselves, burst out at the crash bars on the double doors, on to the slick sidewalks and into yard and parking lot, yelling — no screaming, just to keep the place from exploding.
But nothing felt quite like the uneven breath and the restless heart beat of that gymnasium on a Friday night in November.
“When the Dolores Bears fall into line, we’re going win this game …”