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When I was a freshman in high school my first class of the first semester was physical education (P.E.) at 7:45 a.m.

Somehow, I drew the same short straw my sophomore year. How I envied the kids who enjoyed P.E. at roughly 1:00 p.m., in the daylight, with actual waves of radiant heat emanating from the sun – they had it so good.

I recall suffering through various freezing activities (even the buildings’ interiors were cold, I think they used a gigantic Freddy Krueger-esqe, fire-driven central boiler built in 1949 to heat the campus, it took all day to gain any efficacy), including:

  • Watching the football players excel at flag football, much to the satisfaction of our very tight sweatshort-wearing P.E. teachers, Mr. Reeves and Mr. Pica, who pulled double duty as the Head Football & Assistant Football Coaches, respectively.
  • Watching the football players excel at weightlifting, including utilizing forms since deemed inadvisable by health and fitness professionals, like yarding down on the lat pull bar to the base of your neck (behind your head) with as much weight as possible to the point it sort of lifted you off the ground. And using an actual “neck machine” to kind of torque your neck forward and backward, ostensibly to strengthen and/or tear your neck ligaments, apparently.
  • Watching the football players excel at this horrible game called “knee rugby” where you run around on your knees on wrestling mats and try to throw a rugby ball into a floor hockey net “goal” while getting absolutely mauled by football players. And wrestlers.

In order to survive knee rugby, my friends and I developed a plan where we avoided the “scrum” (a.k.a. big pile of sweaty, hairy bodies piled on top of each other with hands awkwardly probing for/ripping at the “prize” rugby ball thing) by kind of half-heartedly milling around its perimeter and grunting/growling loudly caveman-style in an effort to fake both our enthusiasm and participation.

The goal was to signal to the coaches that we were, yes indeed, violence-prone American boys eager to kill each other simply for possession of the inflated, inanimate elliptical object, and thus earn ourselves a proper place within tribe (and receive some form of beneficial grade). And possibly allow them to rest assured that our great nation would survive any attack by the Soviet Union, nuclear or otherwise, thanks to the strength and fortitude and bloodlust of its Young Men. I mean, The Cold War was still going on and stuff, so it was likely on their minds.

Of course P.E. wasn’t just about football players. Sometimes we played volleyball, where the basketball players excelled.

Interestingly enough we never actually played basketball. I wonder if somebody died, and they had to sweep the incident under the rug, under an agreement with the School Board to never speak of it, or play of it, again?

One of the most bizarre activities involved training for that stupid  President’s Challenge, Health & Fitness Award promulgated by the President’s Council on Sports, Fitness & Nutrition (actual government agency thing). This crucible was introduced by Lyndon B. Johnson in 1966 in an effort to encourage all Americans to “make being active part of their everyday lives and be physically fit and stop being such fat burger eating slobs.”

(Talk about a thin veil, surely this was instituted to create a population stalwart enough to survive a Soviet attack – Johnson likely had a hotline to Mr. Reeves and Mr. Pica and all P.E. teachers across the nation so he could receive weekly readiness updates on young America’s ability to repel Evil Communist Invaders. I wonder if he also had a pair of tight sweatshorts he wore around the Oval Office.)

The “challenges” (one had to score in the 85th percentile in each to achieve the award) included curl-ups, pull-ups, push-ups, the sit-and-reach, the 30-foot shuttle run and the one-mile endurance run.

Little Known Fact: If you made a contribution to the Democratic Party you only had to score in the 50th percentile.

Another Little Known Fact: If you could demonstrate proficiency in attacking a series of fortified communist bunkers by calling in artillery then conducting a squad-level assault by laying down a base of fire then flanking the position, you only had to score in the 10th percentile.

Despite being forced to routinely practice these activities throughout the semester, I didn’t score in the 85th percentile in any of these when it came to test time. Well, at least not the push-ups and pull-ups. But due to a clerical error upon graduation I received the little gold tassel thing that indicated I was an Official Award Recipient. I didn’t say anything.

I just read the program was discontinued June 30, 2018, because the President’s administration at that time deemed the private sector was whipping young folks into shape just fine. I actually blame today’s young people themselves, what with their propensity for having good relationships with their parents, holding corporations accountable for creating a greater good for society and the planet, refusing to smoke, and other bewildering habits that promote health and wellness, both physically and mentally. They didn’t need help from the feds.

Another unique task we, particularly as freshmen, had to complete to get into the good graces of our very square-jawed, violence-loving instructors involved running the interior perimeter of the Names Gym, then “bear crawling” the same perimeter, then running again, so and and so forth, then dying.

Bear crawling is basically crawling in a push-up position. I see it’s regained popularity amongst extremist groups including BootCamp enthusiasts, ACE-certified personal trainers, the Taliban, and bears – particularly the aggressive packs of black bears continuing to encroach on our fragile urban spaces the woods keep sprawling over as we just simply try to exist and build driveways for Amazon drivers to park in/future drones to land in so they can deliver our Very Important Items® that much faster.

Anyway, bear crawling is a nightmare (although it does explain bears’ impressive abs), and I still have post-traumatic stress over the whole thing. Occasionally the P.E. teaching assistants would encourage one’s effort by threatening to strike one as one’s bear crawling effort lagged (due to a combination of dehydration, exhaustion, and cardia arrythmias) – coupled with occasional, actual strikes. Accompanied with hollow, synapse-free, mouth-only, hyena-type laughter from what can only be described as an actual, legitimate, hopeless doofus of a teaching assistant. Not that I’m bitter. Besides, it was the very late 80’s, so physical abuse and bullying were socially acceptable. HisnamewasPatTooeyandIhatehim…pant, pant.

So that was physical education in the late 80’s – early 90’s: Getting tackled, creating permanent deformities with free weights, running weird drills and generally almost getting killed. Oh! I forgot about the post-class, open, and completely freezing showers. That was fun.

I don’t know much about what modern high-school kids do for physical education these days. I’m sure it’s fine. I will say my demographic likely faced much more adversity and thus developed more resilience than any modern teenager what with their kale salads, quinoa and proper strength and conditioning techniques. I mean, do you really think these kids can repel an invading army?

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