Creative nonfiction by John Sheffield
My education in England began at a kindergarten-cum-primary school near my home. Generally, the girls stayed on for the primary grades, while most of us boys were shipped off to all-boy preparatory schools. For sport we played rounders—a game in which someone hurled a tennis ball at you. You tried to hit it with a stick and, if successful, you ran like hell around three bases in fear that someone would either tag or hit you with the ball. It was fun except for the Amazon women who played with us, at least six years old and towering over me. I prayed for the opportunity to move to another school.
Events of the next six months led to an answer to my prayers, but not in the way I had hoped. World War II had started and where we lived, fifteen miles south of the center of London, we were in danger of being bombed. One night my grandfather, unable to sleep, went down to the kitchen to make a cup of tea. While he was doing this, an incendiary bomb landed in our vegetable garden. The explosion rocked the house and we all heard a crashing sound; the heavy, Victorian wardrobe had fallen over and crushed his empty bed.
Across the main road in our little valley were caves under Riddlesdown, originally mined for the chalk and subsequently used to grow mushrooms. After the bomb fell, we accepted the local council’s offer to spend every night in the mushroom mines. It must have been a scary time for my parents, cowering in the dank, white-walled tunnels with hundreds of people they didn’t know. In contrast, I was excited about being with all the other children and sleeping on a camp bed; way less frightening than playing rounders.
Nevertheless, despite the safe sleeping arrangements, my parents decided that I should join the many children in the London area who were being evacuated; a worrying prospect for a four-and-a-half year old. It was even scarier when I arrived at my new school, thirty miles to the west of London. Another boy, Henry, and I were the only boys in a girls’ boarding school. If the women at my previous school had been large, these women were anything up to eleven years old, and friggin’ (a word I picked up later) enormous.
The older girls mothered Henry and me, and during the final months of winter I enjoyed sports in the gym. But spring came, and the head mistress announced that we could now do sports outside—rounders. The mothering girls turned into the Amazons that I had encountered at my previous school, but larger, more devious and vicious.
Imagine my relief on returning home for the holidays when my parents informed me that they had arranged for me to go to an all-boys prep school, also to the west of London.
As soon as I met the sports master, I asked if we would be playing rounders.
“No. That’s a sissy game for girls,” he replied. “We play proper manly sports like cricket, hockey and soccer.”
Sissy game? I could tell he hadn’t attended my kindergarten.
He continued. “Did you know that in the United States rounders is the national sport?”
“It is. The Americans disguise the fact by calling it baseball, but it’s the same game. Even adults play it.” He paused. “Of course, they have separate teams for men and women.” As he walked away he was reminiscing to himself, “I once saw this old newsreel. Babe Ruth was playing. One of the greatest, you know.”
Although I had never seen a photograph of Babe Ruth, I understood the reason for the separate teams. That Babe Ruth … I bet she was intimidating.
Dr. John Sheffield, a physicist, is the author of a humorous memoir Fun in Fusion Research, Elsevier 2013. His novel Roseland’s Secrets, Deeds Publishing, June 2015, is a mystery set on an island in the southern Atlantic. The venue is based on Roseland in the west of England, where he spent his childhood.