John Updike

Glory Days for an Ex-Basketball Player

I think that my wanting to incorporate Bruce Springsteen into my English class began as kind of a joke, or just me trying to see if it would work.  And yet there I stood in front of my advanced tenth class, talking about the lyrics to ‘Glory Days:”

“So what’s the connotation here?” I asked as we looked at the first verse …

I had a friend was a big baseball player
Back in high school
He could throw that speedball by ya
Make you look like a fool, boy.
Saw him the other night at this roadside bar
I was walkin’ in, he was walkin’ out.
We went back inside, sat down, had a few drinks
But all he kept talkin’ about was … glory days …

“It’s actually negative,” one of my students said, “They meet up and hang out, but the line is, but all he kept talking about …”

I tried as hard as I could not to sound like Jack Black in High Fidelity and reply, “That word, but …”

Granted, this isn’t the hardest song to analyze because if there is one thing The Boss is not, it’s a master of subtlety.  Although I give him credit when I play the song and point out the irony contained within–“Glory Days” is a bar rocker of a song (and the video is the same way) but the lyrics suggest a wistfulness on his part, or a resignation that we all get as we approach middle age:

Think I’m goin’ down to the well tonight
Gonna drink ’till I get my fill
And I hope when I get old I don’t sit around thinkin’ about it
But I probably will
Yeah just sittin’ back tryin’ to recapture
A little of the glory of
But then time slips away and leaves you with nothin’ mister
But boring stories of glory days.

When I use this in class, I jokingly say that this has become one of those anthems for people who are too old to get that drunk at a wedding and embarrass themselves by belting every lyric, completely unaware of the irony.  Sometimes, the joke gets a laugh.  What’s more important, though, is how it connects to the poem that is the major topic of study for the day, which is John Updike’s “Ex-Basketball Player:”

Ex-Basketball Player
Pearl Avenue runs past the high-school lot,
Bends with the trolley tracks, and stops, cut off
Before it has a chance to go two blocks,
At Colonel McComsky Plaza. Berth’s Garage
Is on the corner facing west, and there,
Most days, you’ll find Flick Webb, who helps Berth out.

Flick stands tall among the idiot pumps—
Five on a side, the old bubble-head style,
Their rubber elbows hanging loose and low.
One’s nostrils are two S’s, and his eyes
An E and O. And one is squat, without
A head at all—more of a football type.

Once Flick played for the high-school team, the Wizards.
He was good: in fact, the best. In ’46
He bucketed three hundred ninety points,
A county record still. The ball loved Flick.
I saw him rack up thirty-eight or forty
In one home game. His hands were like wild birds.

He never learned a trade, he just sells gas,
Checks oil, and changes flats. Once in a while,
As a gag, he dribbles an inner tube,
But most of us remember anyway.
His hands are fine and nervous on the lug wrench.
It makes no difference to the lug wrench, though.

Off work, he hangs around Mae’s Luncheonette.
Grease-gray and kind of coiled, he plays pinball,
Smokes those thin cigars, nurses lemon phosphates.
Flick seldom says a word to Mae, just nods
Beyond her face toward bright applauding tiers
Of Necco Wafers, Nibs, and Juju Beads.

Believe it or not, it takes a while for students to understand exactly what is going on in this one.  I’ve had a student point out that 38 or 40 in one home game is “beast” and a number ask if his career was cut short by an injury.  That’s some pretty good creative prediction, although I have to admit that I’m more impressed by the person who realizes taht the answer to my question of “What happened to Flick?” is “Nothing.”

What I love about poetry is the concept of word economy.  In “Ex-Basketball Player,” Updike describes this person and his life so incredibly well in such a short amount of space.  From a teaching point of view, it’s an example of how poetry and analysis of poetry really helps cultivate critical thinking.  Many of the skills that we ask students to use: describing characters and situations, evaluating a situation, and making predictions, are used by just reading and talking about these lines.  But more importantly, through the story of Flick Webb, we can also see a real person as well as how that real person has a story, even if it is one of regret and sadness.