27 March 2009

Crookshank: the Homestead Years

Settled in the early 1800’s on the edge of what would become Hoosier National Forest, Resolute, Indiana, today is a city of about 13,000 residents with tree-lined streets, rolling hills, languid breezes, a lazy river through the center of town, pies cooling on windowsills, still-working antique gaslight lamps, and friendly face after friendly face of all hues and colors. It is dear reader, a magical place to grow up; to be forced to leave here would be a sad thing.

A large portion of the homestead was annexed into the park by an Act of Congress in 1913, meaning that 2/3 of the ancestral home of eleven generations of Crookshanks and their heirs would be protected from being taken by the state or city governments for their uses. Almost 2,000 acres were under the protection by the grand daddy of all governments, the federal government, for better part of 100 years. Although most of their land was now included in the park, the Crookshanks and their kin would forever have free reign on their land -- and they made full use of it. There were vacation homes (more like tiny lodges) that sat on smallish lakes, creeks, and even the Ohio River. These were built over the many years by various cousins, aunts and uncles, and a few great, great grandfathers and grandmothers.

But, the one structure that received the most attention from Wes and his family was the raised basketball court with a large ‘C’ painted at center-court. It had a wood floor (built from the hardest, longest lasting wood from local trees), and was set 18 inches above the grassy field located behind Trip’s large barn. A colorful canvas canopy towered 50 feet over the court, like a giant geisha's fan, providing a much-needed sun shade. There was also (equally as important to the 47 first-cousins of Wesley Crookshank) a stream conveniently nearby that hot, sweaty players of many sports would routinely jump into to cool themselves down (along with several dogs, an occasional raccoon, and one very fat bunny).

Although born in Kentucky, 13 yr-old Wesley Crookshank's heart and soul (and large hands and feet) belonged to Indiana through and through. Though still in junior high, Wes could already palm a basketball with one hand and could score from all over the basketball court at-will: lay-ups, shots from the top of the key or behind the backboard. He was a fluid machine of arm movement, jumping ability, proper arc on his shot, and follow-through with his hand snapped-down just so. He didn’t really shoot the ball so much as toss it in with the skill of a supremely confident Army sharpshooter. Wes didn’t fire that often, but when he did, it was deadly accurate and sometimes bodies were bloodied and egos bruised.

Under the direction of “coach” Trip Crookshank, young Wesley could already shoot a basketball right-handed better than most ball players in Indiana. But, Wes was left-handed. His grandfather Trip (and Wally his dad) encouraged young Wes to throw a football and baseball right-handed since before he could walk. And, yes, shoot a basketball too, in spite of his being sinistral (which is not such a nice word for left-handers, derived from the root word for sinister), Crookshank would practice shooting right-handed in middle-school as he would for the rest of his life.

Far from being sinister, Wes was indeed a natural lefty. His grandpa would tell anyone within earshot that the reason for this was that when Wes was a baby in Kentucky, he must have always been reaching towards Resolute to get back home again to Indiana because on the map, the Hoosier State would have been on his left. Being a lefty made writing with the fountain pen that school required him to use that much tougher, as one would invariably smear ink both on the page and your palm. So, Wes began to favor math over English because when working math problems, one could write top to bottom, figuring out the solutions neatly. Whereas in English class, it was a messy mess of green ink on his shirt at least once a week, and he’d feel the fool walking around school with evidence of his left-handedness on his sleeve for all the school to see -- an emerald letter 'L' of embarassment.

Being the grandson of a Methodist minister, Wesley scored points with the frugality commensurate with his faith. The game was never about Crookshank or his stats; he played out of loyalty to his team, and more importantly to win. It's not that Wesley played-down to his competition (like a weaker player might); it was simply that Wes was confident in his abilities (even if no one knew how good he was) and content to be unheralded. But, when scoring was needed, Wes could pour in the points like one turns on a spigot, as his cousins knew all too well.

Each afternoon, like clockwork, Wes would put on his well-worn sneaks, and pull-on his father’s over-sized basketball jersey -- after completing his homework, of course -- to shoot 100 free throws from the free throw line, aka, the “charity stripe.” He would wear the jersey over shirts, sweaters, even his jacket if the weather was freezing. From the charity stripe Wes would shoot with 97% accuracy each practice session, sometimes making 100 in a row. His talented cousins could shoot 80 or so in a row, but none ever matched the centennial mark from the line. After his 100 daily free-throws, he’d "shoot around" for another hour. On weekends, after chores on the farm were done, Wes and his cousins played hours upon hours into the friscalating twilight until they were called for supper.

Wes missed his father, more than he would ever let on to his grandparents. If Wes was sitting in class and heard a familiar Ford truck drive past, he'd crane his neck to see if it was his dad's green machine (only his closest friend, and cousin, Jerome knew what he was doing). And when his dad would come home for visits, Wes never let him out of his sight.

It was on one of these visits home that the Crookshank cousins played their uncles in a grudge match game that to this day is talked about with reverence. It was the beginning of the legend that was Crookshank, Wesley Ellis, and the first disagreement between Wes and the man he adored.

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