Playing Punch with a Pennsy


April 09, 1992|By JEFF DEITCHMAN

At recess, locked in a spirited game of punchball, I forgot about my hair, my clothes and just where I fit into junior high school. Everybody forgot about everything else when we played punch.

Punchball may have been strictly a Baltimore pastime. It was a sort of poor man's baseball; all that was necessary to play was a ''pinky'' -- a rubber ball about the size of a tennis ball. Pinkies may have been tennis balls shaved to their smooth, pink skin.

We got terribly involved in playing punch, and we screamed at each other whole-heartedly about the rules. In my last year of junior high, my class won the lunch-league championship in punch, and I got a school athletic letter for it. A ''P'' for Pimlico. I remember feeling a little embarrassed for the adults who gave me the letter. Giving a kid from Baltimore an award for playing punch was like giving an Eskimo an award for wearing a parka.

In the Fifties pinkies cost about 15 cents. You could get them at most five-and-dimes. But if you could find one, you got a ''Pennsy.'' Pennsys cost a quarter -- a fortune -- but owning a Pennsy earned you esteem. They really were better. Cheap pinkies had hard spots and mushy spots and a clumsily welded seam; Pennsys were uniformly firm. The seam was a beautifully thin black line etched half a millimeter into the rubber.

The real article had the word ''Pennsy'' stamped within a keystone for a logo. The logo got scuffed off after its first game, but the thin black line was a lasting authenticator. When you weren't actually playing with a Pennsy you could still hold it and stare at it and get a good feeling. Stores seemed to sell out of them the day they arrived.

If a Pennsy rolled down a sewer, a 110-pound manhole cover or cast iron grate in no way discouraged us. Neither did the foul ooze or the vermin. We, who argued exhaustively over fine points too complex for adults to understand, never argued over who would go down the sewer to get the Pennsy. It was a matter of honor that, in unspoken rotation, you would go when your turn came.

The game was exactly like baseball, except that there was no pitcher and you needed neither glove nor bat. If you were ''up'' you simply tossed the pinky into the air a foot or two above your head and punched it as it came down.

Timing was everything. If you timed well, you could meet the pinky with the second knuckle of your fist and it would fly off in a screaming line drive or a majestic, soaring rainbow. Swing a little early or a little late and you got a weak dribbler or a lazy pop-up.

That's all there was to the game, except for the three or four dozen rules we argued over. I don't seem to recall any of them now, although I can easily picture the rage of any of my peers as he expressed his point of view to me and scornfully listened to mine.

I won't call them good old days and wouldn't dream of reliving them, but I think I long for a time when I could get mad like that, and let it go like that. The game seemed to contain the whole world. There were times in it for democracy and times when something faster than democracy worked better. There were measures of symmetry, chaos, beauty and strife. And there was some pain. If you timed it wrong -- if you hit the pinky with the heel of your hand or off the flat of your fingers -- it stung.

There was, however, in the balance, a sweetness. If your timing was right, the feeling of meeting the ball was like striking a lovely chord on a fine piano.

Some years ago I moved away from Baltimore. Every spring, I wonder whether you guys still play punch.

Jeff Deitchman writes from Takoma Park.

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