Do you know the story? It’s an old-un, the real thing lost to history. What we have left is the story I heard when I was a little kid, the one my daddy told me and his daddy told him, all the way back to Jeremiah Rourke. The man himself was a different person in his world, a madman and a genius, a lackadaisical work-a-holic that spent all his time in the lab perfecting his masterpiece, the technological wonder of it’s age.
But that isn’t what this story is about. This, my lads and lassies, is the story of how we came to attach tennis balls to the bottom of walkers.
You see in the days of yore, when the wheat fields grew to be tilled by the younger and the older were allowed to relax on the porch, smoking and knitting and having tea, whatever it was that the elderly did in those days. The world, well, it was a hotter place back then. The sun shone down and the heat began to dry the crops, the wheat fields.
Jeremiah Rourke was a whacky old man, his family confused by him. While his son, Harold, worked the wheat fields the old man would be in the barn, crackin’ away at his invention. Old Jerry, for he preferred Jerry even though most people called him Jeremiah, was working on a way to hobble around without being carried or wheeled in that great, ancient, wooden chair on wheels that had passed for a medical device in those days. Old Jeremiah had been working so long and so hard in his life, his back aching and cracking regularly. And so he worked in the barn, a shock of wheat sticking out from between his teeth, on his great creation – the four legged walking assistant, which he called “the stagger horse”.
He finished it one day, the curve of the handles sized precisely for the comfort of his hands and the wheels on the front two legs able to slide forward easily, but he had one fatal flaw. Try as he might, Jeremiah Rourke could not figure out how to stabilize the back ends. He tried rubber ends to no avail, for they were not sturdy enough. He tried large, flat bottoms but they snapped off and broke under the weight of a grown man. Once, when he was at his wit’s end, he even attempted to use the buckskin rug that his son had so proudly acquired through his hunting, the large deer it had come from being the biggest the lad had ever seen. All of these things were useless, and in the case of the buckskin rug it rather damaged the family dynamic.
Eventually Jeremiah decided to live with his device as it was. His aching back and hips, the inflamed pain in his kees, these things were still alleviated by the use of the mechanism and he only had to deal with the occasional spill. As long as he went slower and kept his balance he was usually able to get around just fine, though it was a rather inconvenient speed for the aging man, who felt he had much more energy than his deteriorating body would allow him to expend.
One day, after months of getting by with the unfinished device, Jeremiah had a hankerin’ for bananas. It was a mighty powerful hankerin’ too, the kind a drunkard gets for hooch or a fat man gets for grandma’s fried chicken, the kind of hankerin’ you can ignore but will stay until satisfied. Jeremiah’s was bad, and he was set in his desire to satisfy it. And so he set out, his walk to the store short but perilous, for the potassium-laden treat that he craved.
He hibbled and hobbled, his walker click click clicking it’s way along before him, keeping the pace at slow and steady. And so it was that he came to the crick. As I recall it was old Harvey’s Crick, the little trickle that flows into the Ark River up yonder, somewhere North of the city. The bank on one side was less than two feet from the other side, and most just hopped it. Jeremiah, though, was back to baby steps and hopping was no longer his forte. This presented a problem, and eventually he sighed and stumbled slowly through the water, soaking his shoes and socks.
Jeremiah, wet of feet and low of spirits, kept on. His journey was bolstered by the thought of bananas at the end of it, the shining yellow fruit bright and alluring at the end of the journey, and he soldiered on.
He came next to the dirt road, the dust always floating only inches above the ground. The cars, they drove too fast on this road. Everyone assumed that no one ever came here, no one ever crossed here, and so they drove like madmen. Supervision deficiencies aside, the place was a known location for teenagers wanting to prove their mettle, to put the pedal to it and fly through the night and scream down the road as fast as they could go. This was a dangerous place.
Jeremiah lurched into it slowly, his forward motion ever-steady. Unbeknownst to him, two sedans screamed down the road side-by-side. The kids were racing, each one showing off to the other. Oh sure, the chicks in the seats mattered to the boys a bit, but they were far more interested in showing off for each other, the testosterone floating in the air thicker than the monoxide flowing from their tailpipes. The cars, both of them black and out-of-date, roared down the dirt road, kicking up trails of the stuff wherever the wheels touched and spraying up the red crumble everywhere.
He heard them coming and kept on, a sweat breaking out on his brow. Determined and excited, he pushed himself onward. The teen boys, eyes focused on each other as they took the curves and straightaways of the dirt road, barely registered him. They lurched together and rose over a crest of hill almost a full split second away from the old man. As they came forward one of them looked up and saw the man, panic spreading over his face. The other followed his gaze and in that second time slowed down a spell, inching along at half-pace or less.
The cars shoved away from one another and split off to the side, flooring it with one wheel on the shoulder of the road apiece. Jeremiah closed his eyes, fully expecting death, but was surprised when he opened them and saw that he lived, his life only spared because he was in the dead-center of the road as the vehicles split apart and dodged his frail form. It only took him ten more minutes to finish crossing the road, his knees knocking with shock from the fear of it all.
As he reached the edge of the road he paused, wondering if his reward would be worth his suffering, he saw it ahead. “Milt’s General Store” the sign read, high above on a tall pole and in bright red letters. A near-religious excitement took him over, and he began stumbling forth, the click click clicking of his walker sounding out with every rushed step. Only the park lay between him and his goal now, and no sandbox or child or tennis court would stop him from his delicious treat. His rate increased slightly, his caution being thrown to the wind in a near-sprint, at least a near-sprint for what he was capable of.
He dashed around sandboxes. Slowly. He danced through the seas of excited children playing tag and “red-rover”, and inched his way through the hoot and holler with painstaking precision that only the desperate and the hungry are capable of.
As he reached the tennis court he looked out over it. Two children had given up on practice, instead throwing the balls and trying to get them to stick in the chain link enclosure and throwing water at each other from their canteens. As a result the ground was littered with puddles and tennis balls, a veritable minefield for the infirm and especially for the walker.
Jeremiah Rourke, however, was in a hurry and by now he was starving. He stumbled forward, quickly and desperate. Almost immediately he slipped and began to fall backward. He lifted the walker and slammed it back down on the ground, putting his body weight into it and lurching forward.
It was the moment of miracles, the shining moment when everything solidified and crystallized and became whole. The back of the walker, each peg, slammed down on a green and fuzzy tennis ball. With two loud “pock” sounds he felt his walker sink into them. Without thinking about it and only stopping to praise his good luck he stumbled forward, thrilled with the time he was making and the speed with which he was getting to his bananas.
He exited the park and went across the parking lot. Despite the moving cars and hot asphalt he made it with absolutely no mishaps. He wandered around the entire store looking for the produce, the linoleum causing him no problems. He was there for almost an hour before he finally made it to the bananas. Twenty minutes after that he had made it up to the counter and checked out.
When he exited the building, his bag of bananas hanging from his walker, he vaguely wondered what had happened. So many slippery surfaces, so little sliding. He glanced down, looking at the tennis balls. Then it clicked.
Bananas and paper bag floated down from the air as he tried to shuffle his feet in triumph, his still-strong arms hurtling them up and down in a display of victory. He had perfected his device like many such geniuses – by accident.
And we’ve used it this way ever since, to this very day. The walker of Jeremiah Rourke and the magnificent green fuzziness of its’ legs, the tennis balls a tradition amongst the elderly. At least, among those who still remember the story of dancing Jeremiah and his bananas.