1966: Super-Ball

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One unique aspect about growing up in Alaska was the sense of cultural disconnection we had to deal with – a disconnection that was even wider because we didn’t know it was there. I spent my young adulthood thinking that my youth and adolescence were just like everyone else’s – just colder and darker. There were in fact large communication and social gaps that made life on the Last Frontier more like life on another planet. For example, there were no same-day network news programs on television until I was a senior in high school and even then they weren’t simultaneous broadcasts. The early evening news was videotaped in Seattle then put on an airliner to Anchorage, where it was broadcast after 10 at night. It made watching the Super Bowl problematic; the game was broadcast live on radio so you were faced with either knowing the score beforehand as you watched the game or spending the early part of the day with card pinned on your lapel that read “Don’t tell me the score!”

Regular television shows were broadcast two weeks late, and pop music got air-time anywhere from a month to six weeks after debuting in the lower 48 – which had something to do with the practice back then of getting music to the stations – demo records went through the mail to radio stations and it just took that much longer to get from Los Angeles to Anchorage than it did from Los Angeles to Portland.

Oddly enough though there were some fads that made it north quicker than others – most likely they were brought up by people flying back and forth for work or vacation. My sister Robin got a copy of “Cherish” by the Association when a suitor mailed her a copy over a month before it was first played by Ron Moore on “The Coke Show” in Anchorage.  My only early jump on a fad was the Super Ball – by Wham-0!

Though Wham-o attributed the super ball’s amazing performance to a miracle substance called Zectron, they were really made from a synthetic rubber called polybutadiene. Invented by chemist Norm Stingley, polybutadiene required a complex process to manufacture, including molding for 15-20 minutes at 320 degrees F while compressed under a pressure of 1000 pounds per square inch .The result was a rubber ball with an extremely good grip that would instantly increase or reverse its spin depending on how hard and at what angle it hit the floor. It also had 92% resiliency which meant it would bounce 75 times for 30 seconds when dropped from 6 feet….and it wouldn’t just bounce over your head – the package said you could bounce it over your house!

…and that’s what got me into trouble.

It was early in the spring of 1966 – “break-up” as we called it in Alaska. There weren’t many places I could use my new Super-Ball – after several disasters I figured the best place to bounce a ball with 92% resiliency was the concrete basketball court just outside and to the side of Mr. Hall’s eighth grade class room at Sterling Elementary. On the first sunny day after the snow had melted off I went out during lunch-time recess to try out my Super-ball on the concrete.

I threw it down. It bounced back up close to the height of the basketball backboards. Impressive, but not higher than what I estimated the roof of our house to be. I tried throwing the ball down, this time jumping up before releasing the ball on my way down.  There was an even more impressive bounce, but again not high enough to match the rebound as portrayed on the package. As literal as I was it never occurred to me that there may have been a little artistic license in the illustration and I was determined to meet or beat the bounce on the package. I concluded that if the ball were thrown down from a higher point the added distance would increase the velocity of the bounce to the magic house-high altitude so I went back into the school, found a folding chair and brought it out on the concrete basketball court. I then stepped up on it, jumped up off it as high as I could and on the trip down I threw the Super-Ball down as hard as I could.

You know that bit about men never experiencing pain as bad as the pain women go through with labor pains? Well, I beg to differ. In addition to any extra velocity my Super-ball’s “extremely high coefficient of friction came into play” which meant that when it hit the ground the spin was reversed and bounced back up in between my legs.

Wax popped out of my ears.

I couldn’t breathe.

I couldn’t move.

I think I began to see through time….

I don’t remember how I got back into the classroom but the next clear memory is of sitting at my desk with my head laid down on top while I tried to breathe in short shallow gasps. I also remember that for the rest of the day I spoke in a key at least two octaves higher than usual, prompting me to wonder if this was the sort of thing that could halt puberty. I also remember a great deal of pain radiating from my crotch.

That wasn’t the worst pain of the day though. I guess when I went in to “recover” some of the other guys decided to try out my Super-Ball as well. The deepest pain came during that discussion when they all agreed that the Super-Ball “bounced higher than a house” when Ticky Powell tried bouncing it.

Ticky – or more formally Robert Powell. One of my best friends, a dead ringer for actor Andrew Prine and not bigger than a kitten. Seriously – he measured maybe 4’6” and possibly weighed 65 pounds soaking wet but somehow put me to shame with my own Super-Ball.

The pain radiated all that much sharper…..

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