LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- I don't remember how old I was, nor what gifts I received. For a writer, not remembering is a nuisance. And occasionally, a gift.
It was Christmas night. The excitement had passed. The gifts had been given. Brothers and sister were scattered to corners to play. The grown-ups, I imagine, were sitting around, telling each other that they'd overdone it, that they could return what didn't fit, remembering.
I do know that I warmed up one of my two basketballs by the wood stove until it was stretched to the point of bursting. Maybe I warmed myself, too, as I sometimes did before slipping out the lengthy back hallway and out toward the barn.
Watch the boy, stepping through the clear night with pregame purpose, trailed by clouds of his breathing. See him pull open a side door, climb up an enclosed feed trough and click on a drop-cord light, revealing a basketball rim and net, hung above the wide, shut, double barn doors.
There were several goals at our house. The main one was out in the side yard. My first goal.
My dad had gotten the idea to fix up a backboard and hoop on an old, out-of-use telephone pole on the property and plant it in a patch of ground beside the house.
So he set to work with the post-hole diggers. He went into town and bought the goal, braced it to the pole, and several of us steadied the unbearably heavy contraption against the closed tailgate of his pale yellow pickup.
The plan, as I remember it, was to back the truck up while pushing the pole and steadying it so that it would nestle down into the hole.
But when we tried to hoist the pole, we lost it, and it slid sideways and crashed to the ground, the fiberglass backboard breaking in half. Sometimes, remembering the scene, I can almost imagine Garrison Keillor narrating it, his voice now lilting to almost a whisper, describing the fall, pausing for the audience to laugh.
My dad had no choice, it seemed, but to go buy another one. On the second try, we got it right, and it became my home court for the next eight seasons or so, until I left for college.
The broken goal hung, too, glued together, above the door of a small wooden shed, about six feet off the ground. I played on it when I wanted to pretend to be tall, until the walnuts ripened overhead and started falling in bunches.
The goal in the barn was reserved for rainy days or winter nights. There was no scoreboard, but the clock certainly was ticking. After about 15 minutes on a cold night, the ball no longer would bounce.
I can't remember the specifics of that Christmas. I can remember taking off my jacket and bouncing the ball in a playing space not much wider than a free-throw lane, bordered on one side by a stall for a calf and another on the other for storage. The bare light bulb threw off fierce shadows, and a beam in the ceiling meant that shooting arc had to be at a minimum.
The boards of the barn floor were loose and uneven, except for one. How is it that I cannot remember the highlights of a holiday, but I remember a lone board in a barn floor, driven solid by a nail, on which I bounced the ball to shoot free throws?
I couldn't have stayed very long, but certainly long enough to satisfy one of those bursts of boyhood basketball energy, long enough to feel the cold in my bones, because shooting ball in a winter coat was no way to play. Making the last shot, or maybe several last shots, I flung myself back over into the stall, climbed up and clicked off the light, and headed back to the house.
It's possible I never even was missed. The clicking off of that light, it seems, is the shutting off of my memory.
But it doesn't take light to illuminate such a moment, even years later.
As a child, I was focused on the game. The bounce of the ball, the sound of the net. As a man, the camera widens, the light softens, the scene pans and there's a boy, on Christmas night, in a barn, next to a trough for feeding animals. We never called it a manger. But all these years later, it calls to me.
In a lifetime of keeping my eye on the ball, it wouldn't be the last time I would wander straight through the Nativity without noticing. Thankfully, each year presents us a new chance to stop, be still and quiet, and find it again before the ball stops bouncing.