WILT CHAMBERLAIN & ME
On my tenth birthday, I stood five feet two inches. I was short, and some called me a runt. Over the summer, I began to sprout. I grew out of everything so fast my parents thought I might be an anomaly. I was taken to several doctors, but they found nothing wrong.
My feet stopped growing first. Size eleven and a half. I hated looking down and thought I was wearing violin cases instead of shoes. My schoolmates made fun of my big feet, and I didn’t want to go back to school.
When my eleventh birthday rolled around, my foot size was no longer an issue. I had grown into a human tree. I stood six feet five inches in my bare feet. I towered over everyone in my family. At school, I was the tallest person in the building. No teacher, student or janitorial personnel measured in over six feet. Only the strongest of friends hung out with me as everyone else got out of my way when I came close. It was as though I had a disease, something catching and dastardly that would surely kill anyone who dared rub up against me or touch something I had already touched.
Then, as miraculously as it had started, it all stopped. My shoe size was twelve, and my height was six feet five inches. I was skinny, awkward, clumsy, and never met an object I couldn’t avoid bashing into. I didn’t know what dexterity meant, but I didn’t have any.
I was the epitome of a geek. It wasn’t that I was a nerd because I didn’t even fit in with that crowd. I was just that big guy. I was too tall to be anything, and that became lonely.
For over a year, I tried to be shorter. I bent over, walked weirdly and tried to be small and unnoticed. Nothing worked.
It was a Saturday morning when my grandpa walked into the backyard. The kid down the block had made fun of me, and I chose to feel sorry about everything. The wrath of life had fallen upon my twelve year old shoulders. Grandpa sat next to me. He said nothing, so I remained quiet.
“So?” I’ll never forget the touch of sarcasm he had in his voice.
“Yeah, why are you pouting like a baby?” Grandpa had a way with words.
“Awful big baby,” I mumbled.
“You’re right, you are unbelievably large. So why is the giant baby pouting?”
“I’m not.” I was equally bullheaded and stubborn.
“So why are you pouting?”
“I’m the tallest person in my school. Everybody makes fun of me.” Grandpa didn’t mind if I shed a tear like my dad did, but I had to have a sound reason to spill tears. I fought the tears back.
“You’re a freak, so get over it.” He wasn’t even looking at me when those words came from his mouth. He watched an old truck drive down the alley. “It’s too bad. Actually your getting so tall is downright sad. I don’t know what you can do with your life now that it’s over.”
“What am I going to do?” It was pathetic how sorry I suddenly felt about being as tall as I was.
Grandpa stood up so abruptly it startled me. “You’re going to come with me right now.”
I stood quite reluctantly as he grabbed under my arm and pulled me to follow. We were suddenly in a big hurry and grandpa was much stronger than I thought. I was on my way to something terrible, and he was dragging me to hurry and stay with him. “Where are we going?”
We took a bus ride to downtown Denver and got off on 16th Street, right in front of Daniels and Fisher department store. I had been to the building many times to see the Christmas decorations in their window displays, and to roam with gramps through the tallest building in Denver. This day, however, wasn’t a holiday or special occasion. Every time I looked up at the clock tower 20 stories up, it made me dizzy.
“C’mon,” my grandpa said and pulled me into the building. We walked down a hallway where a room had been cleared out. A small sign was posted on a pole. When we got close enough to read it, I wanted to run off. The sign stated: “TALL MAN’S CONTEST.”
“I’m not going in there.” I nearly shouted, causing others to look at me. I tried to shrink down and pretend I was shorter.
“Yes you are,” grandpa said firmly. He grabbed my arm and tugged me into the room. “Let’s see what kind of a freak you really are.”
“No!” I was near tears being humiliated by the man I loved. He was about to embarrass me in the worse way possible.
“There is no way out now, bucko.” He was very strong and with little effort dragged me into the room.
A woman stopped our momentum. “Has he been measured?” She said in a kindly voice.
“No,” my grandpa answered. “He’s probably too tall. He thinks he’s a freak. Will the measurement really embarrass him?”
“Well,” the woman said as she studied me from head to toe, “it probably will.”
“Then we can leave, right grandpa?”
“No, I think you should be measured. Tall freaks like you need to know the truth.”
“Why are you doing this to me?” I asked.
Grandpa turned back to the woman and smiled. She nodded as if she knew what he was asking without asking it.
“What is your name?” She asked me in that kind voice of hers.
“Billy,” I answered
“Come, Billy.” She took my hand. “Let’s see if you will qualify.”
Qualify? I wanted to shout, but it was too late. She led me into this small entryway where two poles were attached to a third forming an archway.
“What do you want me to do?” I asked.
“Let’s see if you can walk beneath the bar without hitting your head.”
I froze, and then grandpa pushed me. I moved forward, and my forehead touched the bar. I missed going under it by only an inch.
“You see?” I shouted angrily. “I’m too tall.”
The kindly woman laughed. I was humiliated. “No, you passed.” She looked at grandpa, and her smile actually grew. “You were right,” she said to him.
“I knew it,” grandpa said while looking at me.
“What’s all the shouting about, Mrs. Walker?” A powerful, deep male voice said from behind us. I was the first one to turn around and found I was looking into a man’s chest. My eyes drifted up as though I was peering up at the clock tower outside. The man was the biggest, tallest human being I had ever seen.
“This is Billy. I’m afraid he thinks he has grown to tall and has become a freak.”
“Really?” The tall man said. “Can he walk beneath the bar?”
“No,” the woman answered while still smiling. “His forehead touched the bar.”
“That’s excellent,” the tall man said loudly. He held out his hand to me. “My name is George, Billy, and before your arrival I was the shortest man in the room.”
“Shortest?” I repeated.
“Come with me,” George said and led grandpa and me into the huge room full of people, men and women. They were all taller than George and towered over me. I suddenly became the shortest person in the room. It was an amazing nanosecond to have the fear and anxiety lifted from my shoulders. Free from the weight of being intimidated, and then a feeling of safety engulfed me, and it was unbelievable to experience such relief. I found my body stretching taller, my neck straightening and the curve in my back disappearing. It was exhilarating. There were lots of people taller than I was.
While the experience was fantastic and what grandpa did was beyond anything I could have ever asked him to do, it didn’t totally cure the gawking I continued to receive over the following years. What it did do was give me a sense of pride, and I no longer felt inferior or out of place. As an adult, whenever my wife and I went out, people continued to stare.
Over the years, going here and there I would see another tall person. We always seemed to recognize our predicament being members in good standing, in the “tall club,” and did so with a look or nod. We were different, and most were proud of it.
In 1970, we planned a trip to Las Vegas. We attended the usual shows, played a few games, and then ended up in a place I always tried to avoid – a club with a dance floor. My wife loved to dance and back home we went out often. I always tried to pick clubs where I wouldn’t know anyone. In Denver that was hard to do, but in Los Angeles it was easy.
We sat and watched people dance. My wife wanted to join in, but once again that ugly old Mr. Embarrassment raised his head.
“I’m too tall, honey,” I said. “My head will stick out like a sore thumb.”
“If you go, I’ll go.” The man’s voice came from the table behind us.
We both turned and found Wilt Chamberlain, the basketball super star, and his pretty date sitting at the table behind us. The pretty date also wanted to dance, but Wilt didn’t.
“You feel as I do on the dance floor?” I asked.
“Worse. Listen, if you’re game enough to go down to the dance floor and wiggle your body, I’ll be right next to you.”
We introduced ourselves, chatted a few minutes and then got out on the dance floor. It was amazing. The feeling of standing out in a crowd disappeared. We stayed out on the dance floor, and side by side with, Wilt Chamberlain we danced half the night away.
Whenever we attended a Los Angeles Laker game, I always said hello to my Las Vegas dance partner. It always created a laugh and another shared story with one of his teammates.
Looking back, regardless of the type of person you are or where you’re from there are always little minions who dance and play with our brains. Everyone has little fears and most are able to hide them from others. On occasion, these little episodes expose the vulnerability we all have or the weakness we believe we possess. It only takes one great moment to put it all behind you. As Wilt and I discussed, it was silly to allow the kind of dance embarrassment we both felt when the chance of ever seeing anyone from that club again in our lifetime was minuscule. That alone gave us both a good laugh. We knew it was true, just hard to get over.
Since that night, my height has never been an issue or embarrassment. It was a little cure of something I grew up with, a form of being bullied for something totally out of my control. It was a nice weight to have been lifted from my shoulders. I wish everyone could be freed from the inhibitions that hound us all, and live freely without humiliation or being intimidated.
William Byron Hillman © 2013
Web site: http://www.williamhillman.com
Author Page: http://www.amazon.com/author/williamhillman
Dream Searcher http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00EC19DJW
Let’s Sue ‘Em http://www.amazon.com/dp/B009M9E790
Veronique and Murray: http://tinyurl.com/8xrmmu7
The Hard Way: http://tinyurl.com/86hgtz6
Zebra’s Rock and Me http://tinyurl.com/7b28qu6
Quigley’s Christmas Adventure http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00ANVNQ6G
Rollie Kemp Books
Ghosts and Phantoms Part I: http://tinyurl.com/6wxef7g
Ghosts and Phantoms Part II: http://tinyurl.com/d7mtspu
APRIL: http://tinyurl.com/7gt9prdBad Rap: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00DNIHCYI