Katharine Fullerton Gerould

On Being a Sport

“BETWEEN the bridge and the river there is time for an act of perfect contrition,” my pious French playmates used to tell me. I knew very little about “acts” in the ecclesiastical sense, and the phrase puzzled me; but it stuck. It stuck like that other formula we were all brought up on, about remembering the whole of your past life as you rise for the third time before definitely drowning. I cannot, of course, verify the first, and verifications of the second are chancy. But there is no doubt that a deal of subconscious philosophy can be formulated in a few seconds, if the seconds are sufficiently uncomfortable. There is something about a brief sharp instant of fear, especially when there are no steps that can be taken, that makes one know a lot of things. The shock pieces together your hitherto random inferences, and you behold, with apocalyptic suddenness, a mental pattern. For example:—

The other evening I attended a carnival. The phrase, I know, is absurd; but in our village the only thing you can do with a carnival is to attend it—precisely as if it were a Chautauqua. We are not very riotous, and our vacant lots are very small. “Carnival” is rather the name of our intention than of our achievement. The American Legion chose to call it a carnival,—having got used, in France, to a grand scale of doing things,—and we rather liked the term ourselves. We are too small for circuses, or band-concerts, or the legitimate drama. Rummage sales for charity are about our size. So when we take over an empty lot and officially place a carnival upon it,—as if we were Paris or New Orleans or Honolulu,—we grow a little excited, especially if there are children in the family, whose natural bedtime is eight o’clock (day-light-saving).

We set out: two parents, a son, and a godfather. Of course, it was only the vacant lot opposite the old athletic field, but who knew what the Legion might have done to it? Both the male parent and the godfather belong to the Legion, but they had no idea. Son knew that there was a merry-go-round and a Ferris wheel. The grown gentlemen of the party were rather cynical: they were going, “to take the boy.” But I have found that the greatest moral advantage of living in a small academic town is to give one back some of the illusions of youth. You break your neck getting to see things that you would not turn your head for in New York or (I suppose, since the new census, one must say) Detroit.

The most exciting moment of the great war was not August, 1914, or April, 1917, or November, 1918. It was about 10.30 P.M. of that hot Sunday in July, 1918, when the Crown Prince, with all his staff and three hundred thousand German soldiers, had surrendered to the Allies. They had not surrendered in Europe, unfortunately,—only in Princeton,—but I assure you neither fake nor real armistice could compare with it. So I confess that the music of the merry-go-round, unmistakable wherever heard, and the illumined outline of the Ferris wheel (quite the smallest and youngest of the Ferris family) stirred the blood. They would have been almost inaudible and invisible elsewhere; but they were a portent in the Princeton twilight—even as the Handley-Pages or the Capronis that buzz gigantically over our garden, carrying the mail from capital to metropolis, give one no sensation comparable with that evoked by the quick rise of a “flivver” of an air-plane off the little fair-ground at Prattsville, New York—hard by the jellies, the sweet-grass baskets, the crocheted bedspreads, and the prize ox.

“Sweetheart, the dream is not yet ended,” as the ominous words run in the fairy-tale.

We eschewed the merry-go-round for ourselves, but watched the boy sitting very straight on his more than mortal steed. A steed that goes up and down vertically while he also goes round and round in a circle is not exactly mortal—especially when he is a lion or a zebra or a rooster. We tried our luck at the gambling booths—you can hardly call them anything else, those wheels and bagatelle-boards and rifle-galleries. To others the sofa pillows and red-glass vases, the boxes of candy and the wicker tea-sets: our skill brought us nothing but chewing-gum. You cannot take chewing-gum away from a child who has won it himself; so in the interest of public morals we followed the crowd.

There the serried bunches of children warred with members of the Legion as to who should be let through the gate next. When they sneaked in at the side, the Legion shoved them back, in impeccable good-humor, but with military finality. The wheel sprang a leak, and youths ran back and forth saggingly, with buckets of gasoline for the defrauded engine. The crowd grew: half of Naples and two thirds of the black belt, with an aggressive sprinkling from Jewry, surged waist-high about the demobilized guardians of the gate. But finally the lath-like mechanism was pronounced in order, and boy and godfather climbed into the last empty car. We stood and watched their revolutions, eyes fixed, it seemed, on the zenith, while Naples prodded and Lithuania kicked our ankles. Atlantic City would not have known there was a wheel there; but to me it took on the matured shape of Adventure. My husband was as gallant as on the verge of Molokai or Halemaumau; he did not prophesy, he did not warn, he did not frown. “All right, if you want to”—and as son and godfather got off, we leaped into the empty car.

And this is what I was coming to, in all these weary paragraphs: my bit of bridge-and-river, third-time-rising-and-sinking philosophy. We rose, we attained the height, we swung on in the downward loop—once and once only. I do not know how many revolutions they give you for your money; but I knew that one was all I could bear. I said, “Do you think they would stop and let us off?”—and left the rest to G. I knew that he would get me off if possible, and that he would not say, “I told you so.” These are good things to be able to count on. After one unnatural glimpse of the dim New Jersey plain beneath us, I had shut my eyes—I who like heights. I was not sick, I was not giddy, I was physically quite comfortable; but I found myself hesitant to intrude upon the stars at their own front doors. I like to lie on a rock ten thousand feet in air and feel that, if I blew hard, I could blow a planet clean out of place, or disarrange Orion’s belt. I am always hoping to double the ten thousand; then, for one instant, I shall have the illusion of a supreme decision: whether or not to lift my hand and grope for the lost Pleiad. It is not the nearness of the stars I mind; simply, I like a back to my chair when I greet them. I would rather pull them down than have them pull me up. I wanted to get off the Ferris wheel—and did.

What I had possessed for fifteen cents was one priceless moment of fear. It is not often, in one’s padded life, that one is stark afraid, primitively, for one’s own skin. Under the revealing shock of it, I did a lot of emotional algebra, finding with astonishing speed what x equals. The equation slid through its paces to the solution. In the mere instant of eye-closing I compared myself, on my modest wheel, with those who brave the ether. Yes: but they are fastened in; if I were fastened in, I should not mind; in fact, what I mind most is this fearful detachment from anything like solidity. Think how many people go round on far bigger wheels than this. Yes, but the heart knoweth its own wheel. Besides, the bones of the baby are flimsier than those of the grown-up. This thing is made of string and papier-mache, and even at Coney Island they have horrid accidents. All these contraptions are unsafe. We know it when we are on the ground, and are very wise over the accidents, in headlines, once a season. But see the children swarming; and didn’t your own boy actually squirm about to look behind him, in mid-air? Ah, children are fearless through ignorance. But grown-ups like it, too: remember that at all pleasure-resorts you find the most uncomfortable and dangerous devices the most popular. They like to walk through rolling barrels, they like to shiver along the heights of the roller-coaster, they like to stand on the slippery whirling cone and be flung off irresistibly into a padded precinct. They like looping the loops, and bumping the bumps. They like it.


Ah, my dear defensive Interlocutor,—Spirit of the Wheel, or what not,—you touch one of the most pathetic and vital facts of human nature. To each of us it is natural to crave danger, since a dash of danger is necessary to make, out of an act, an adventure. To prepare yourself for that danger, in the right way, to meet it when prepared, in the right spirit, is to be a good sport. To be a good sport, it is not quite enough to face the danger bravely when it comes: you must, to some extent, welcome it. Yet, to welcome danger, to go to look for it—is not that being merely rash, or foolhardy?

There are distinctions, my child (so spoke the Interlocutor). It is all a matter of the quid pro quo. Nothing for nothing, in this world. The danger pays for something else—knowledge, or a new sensation. Is the knowledge worth it? Is the new sensation worth it? You must decide.

But that is not being a sport, I protested. A sport takes his chances.

Exactly, replied the Spirit of the Wheel. And a good sport must also be a good appraiser of quid pro quo. Ninety times out of a hundred he must make a good guess at whether or not the adventure is going to be worth the risk. Otherwise men write him down, if over-hesitant, a coward; if over-willing, a rash idiot.

Is it worth my while, I asked, to open my eyes, to be afraid for several revolutions more, to repeat the horrid sensation I have just been having at the very top of our career—is it worth while? Am I failing to be a sport if I ask, in a few seconds more, to be allowed to get off? This has become a purely moral matter, good Wheel.

Of course it is a moral matter, the Spirit of the Wheel replied. Show me anything that isn’t. It is even a moral matter that wheels of my sort are so flimsy. Those who make them count heavily, and not in vain, on the desperate desire, in drab lives, for adventure. Drab lives must take adventure where they can find it. A new sensation for a dime—and any man is lifted from the crowd, is gloriously individual, while he is experiencing a new sensation. He stands on a peak in Darien. If there is danger added, he is not only a discoverer, but, for his instant, a hero. Perhaps the folk who make these things so badly as to increase the danger are really benefactors—are really acting morally; since, if you incur no risk at all, you have no chance of being a sport. I should be interested to know what you think. Nothing is so comforting to the soul as the memory of past perils well met and lived through. Does a man ever get over narrating a hair’s-breadth escape? You talk about being tied in. But if you were tied in, you would not be afraid. Where would be the glory? It is time, by the way, if you want to get off, to say so. Your car will presently be at the bottom. Then we are really off. We shall go faster next time.

I had only one instant left, under the empire of this my fear, to decide. As I have said before, I decided to alight. But I knew that I was deciding much more than that, and that I had been very near the wavering line which divides good sports from bad. “Only let me get off this thing,” I said to myself, “and I promise to be a normal creature again, able to smile and split hairs with jest. Give me ground under my feet, and I reenter my personality. Since it is not necessary that I should be again thus hideously lifted up, I cannot bear it. If it were inevitable—but that is a whole other problem, and I refuse to consider it.” So I got off, careless of comparisons between myself and the desirous ones who rushed to fill our places.

In mid-flight, I had come near to solving my own problem: x is what you get in payment for the discomfort you endure, the risk you run, the fear you feel. You must always determine x. Algebra is the most human of abstract sciences, since life is perpetually put to you in the form of a quadratic equation. The adventurer must be, above all, a half-way decent mathematician. He cannot afford to make mistakes as to the value of x. The whole point, I had said to myself,—or the Spirit of the Wheel had said to me,—is whether it is worth it. I shall hate going round and round, faster and faster; I shall be afraid, and “fear is more pain than is the pain it fears.” What shall I get out of it that will preponderate over that terror? Indeed, will not my fear inhibit any aesthetic sense that might operate? The part of straight common sense is to end this adventure here and now. On this I acted. But not without knowledge that some temperaments would have seen it through none the less, equation or no equation. Were those the real sports, and I no sport at all? Perhaps. And yet—there was nothing at stake: neither pleasure, nor knowledge, nor reputation. I should hate it; it would teach me nothing; no one had dared or challenged me to the act. Common sense certainly told me to do as I did, as much as to come in out of the rain if I had no umbrella and no business out of doors.

But is there not something beyond common sense, very necessary to the world? something that is indifferent to the value of x, and says, “I don’t care to solve it beforehand, thank you”? Common sense has a deal of caution in it; and do we not, somewhere in the world, need rashness? If your adventures are to be many, or successful, you must bring your algebra into play. We still pity the person who did not at first glimpse see, from the mere look of the problem on the page, that x was going to be a negligible amount. Yet what should we do without the people who disdain algebra—who try the strange new thing for the mere sake of trying it, a little careless of what it is going to bring them? What should we do without the people who love danger for itself—not as seasoning, but for the whole dish? Generally speaking, those people are used up early; and we are rather apt to deem them fools. I am not sure that the sum of them is not folly; that they are not, so to speak, all salt. A pity to be all salt; yet how could we get on without salt itself?

To be a good sport,—I think the Spirit of the Wheel was right,—one needs to calculate, and pay cheerfully, to the last exhausted nerve, if x looks good. I still do not feel sure that I was a bad sport, since there was nothing at stake. I sampled a thing which was to bring me at best nothing but pleasure. There was no pleasure in it—x was obviously zero—and I threw it away early.

My own conduct does not matter, except to me. I knew that in mid-air. What struck me, even as I trembled aloft, was that this is a vital question to us all. For deciding this question, the instinct of the race is the best test, I fancy. When does the mass feel a quick sympathy, and when does it shrug its shoulders? I leave out all rash acts of an altruistic nature; for when a thing is done for another’s sake, no matter how mad the act, x looms large. Do we, or do we not, admire, instinctively, the Human Fly? Have we, that is, a moral sympathy with him? Skill, again, is another matter: it is not the man who crosses Niagara on a tight rope that is the test case; it is the man who shoots Niagara in a barrel. Skill, however employed, arouses an admiration purely intellectual. Thus or thus a man has trained his eyes or his toes or his muscles, and either he is well-enough trained to overcome difficulties or he is not. But there is little room in that barrel for skill.

Most of us, I think, do not admire him, though many of us would run to see. We cannot believe that x equals enough to justify him. For instinctively we do all on such an occasion rush to our algebra and roughly solve the equation. But “the dream is not yet ended”; and here is the rub.

True it is, as the Spirit of the Wheel remarked, that one must do each time that little sum. But no man can quite solve it for another. Half the time x is an imponderable, a gain which none can estimate or realize but the gainer.

“We were dreamers, dreaming greatly in the man-stifled town.” X is the dream.

“In the faith of little children we lay down and died.” But still x is the dream. For the chance of wealth, for the chance of beauty, for the chance of fame, or the chance of power, a man will risk his comfort and his life; and if the chance is clear enough, other men, even if they do not emulate him, will understand. It is when there is nothing for success to bring him that they turn away. We have come to believe so entirely that no man throws away his life except in the hope of possessing something he values more, that we have, I think, little natural sympathy for the man who throws his life away for the mere sake of throwing it away. Half the time, in such a case, the man sees something that no one else sees: the value of x is his secret. But sometimes, surely, the sole act is its sole end. And there we stop. We never think of calling that man a “sport.” We call him a fool. Yet the man in the street would not like to live his life through without the spectacle of that folly.

Life has, for the good of the race, become, in public opinion, a precious thing to have and a seemly thing to keep. Otherwise life is not worth the complex cost of reproduction. Fundamentally speaking, we fear death. It is the negation of everything we spend our breath and strength upon, the reductio ad absurdum of all our activity, the very contrary of all our attempts. Religion and philosophy have decked it out and given it an honorable place in the scheme of things. But the race saves its life if, according to its own code of decency, it can. Dying is something the race prefers not to do. “I would rather die than” is, in the common speech of the world, the ne plus ultra of aversion. All this is instinctive. When we develop inhibitions and complexities, there are many things in life to which death would be preferable. But if you listen only to the deepest voice within you, you fear death as spontaneously as you blink your eye to avoid the mote that seeks it. The man who throws his life away for nothing is a fool; but—let us be absolutely honest: he is in some sort a pleasant incident. He has expressed an extraordinary and tonic scorn.

All subject peoples have been gladdened by the fool who defied the tyrant. To anyone who tells us that death is cheaper than life, we listen incredulously, but with joy. The person who has demonstrated that doing something totally unimportant is more fun than keeping alive makes the man in the street draw, for an instant, a freer breath. It makes him feel that death is only Mumbo-Jumbo, after all. To be sure, the man in the street will always say that the person who has done this for him is insane. But at the back of beyond—in his secret, savage heart—he will have liked it. He will not admit that he has liked it; for after that one blink, he becomes a citizen again. We judge so quickly, trained by the ages, that the sudden pleasure is gone almost before we have enjoyed it. But the fact remains that, for a half-instant, the sensation has been pleasurable.

We like death to be insulted, though we have been taught to be very polite to him. Our rules and codes must of necessity be made up more out of our knowledge than out of our instincts. Yet into most of our conventions, including that of “being a sport,” instinct must to some extent enter. Finding out x is education; to feel delightfulness in danger is instinct. Primitive man knows that Nature is a brute. He will propitiate her,—he must,—but if he can make an impudent gesture at her behind her back, he will surely do it. If he can defy the elements, he will defy them. If he can contrive a mechanism that flouts the law of gravity, he will patronize that mechanism in thousands. Romance—his only ally against Nature—will steady his soul while he does it. In most cases, x is what you win from Nature when you have bluffed successfully. To be a sport in the finest sense, perhaps you must have the poker face.

Man’s implacable resentment against the conditions of life lies at the heart of all this business. We become rational by canny observation of the bonds that restrain us. To be irrational is to pretend to ignore them. Real freedom does not lie that way, because our limitations bring us up very short. Real freedom is free will operating in a deterministic universe. Our philosophy professors used to explain it to us in college. Within the prison walls it is better to confine one’s self to the hundred-yard dash. Surely you are happiest when you curb your desires within the bounds of possibility. No man but a fool enters for a Marathon race when the barbed wire is going to stop him so soon. But when we see him start as for his Marathon, we forget the barbed wire for an instant—until he crashes into it, that is, and we can all ask, why attempt the obviously impossible? Why defy common sense? Why pretend to forget the barbed wire? Yet Coney Island will teach you, any day, how deep in human nature lies the ache to be the master, not the servant, of natural laws—yes, from Icarus down to the man who, since I began this page, shattered himself to pieces in the Niagara rapids.

Being a sport is, I suppose, going as far as there is any reasonable chance of your being allowed to go. That reasonable chance is sometimes a very difficult quantity to determine. But if the chance were not sometimes less than reasonable, there would be no thrill in being a sport. It is the dare-devil almost touching him—just over the line—that makes the good sport an exciting person. The good sport must calculate x—I think the Wheel was right. But if x were not sometimes incalculable, or nil, we should not bother about it, and good sports would be few. It is the hint of the madman in him that enthralls us. It is not enough, as I said, to face the inevitable danger gallantly: there must be the crook of an inviting finger toward the risk. The good sport must be a good guesser, yes; but if he is absolutely infallible, you suspect him of having looked up the answer in the key. A grade of a hundred per cent is very suspicious.

I do not know whether, between the bridge and the river, there is indeed time for an act of perfect contrition; but I do know that before the Ferris wheel can come full circle there is time for a lot of algebra. The pages written bear witness.


MLA Citation

Gerould, Katharine Fullerton. “On Being a Sport.” 1921. Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 20 Mar 2015. 14 Apr 2024 <http://essays.quotidiana.org/gerould/on_being_a_sport/>.

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