Growing up my father tried to instill as much Slovak into our Amercanized lives as possible. My brother took accordion lessons, my siblings went to Slovak school twice a month, I was forced to eat strange sausages straight from the Slovak butcher in Astoria, NY, and we had to attend gymnastics at Sokol Hall.

When I was really young, we’re talking younger than 5, I used to envy the other kids for being old enough to attend Sokol. Every Tuesday after dinner my father would herd my sisters, clad in red leotards and my brother in shorts and a tight, tucked in tank top, to Sokol Hall in Guttenberg, NJ – home to Slovak gymnastics.

Dad and I would drop all three off, and I’d watch them head out into the huge gymnasium where I would hungrily eye the mats, beam and uneven parallel bars. Oh, how I wanted to join them! But you had to be 6 I think to join Sokol, so I would leave behind the chalk-covered apparati, and go visiting some local Aunt, Uncle or cousin with dad.

But when I got old enough, I was promptly signed up. I couldn’t wait to get my hands in the chalk and get my white gym slippers broken in. Clad in my very own red leotard I marched onto the wooden floor of Sokol hall and prepared to start my gymnastics career.

Within a month, all I wanted to do on Tuesday nights was hide behind the couch. Sokol wasn’t the wonderland I thought it would be. The instructors were strict. Like, no bullshit whatsoever I don’t give a rats ass if you are only 6 shut the hell up strict.

The first thing you did was line up in a long line from oldest to youngest along the walls of the gym. We were like a nazi youth square, standing at attention, hands pressed firmly to your sides and feet absolutely together. Any deviation in form, or any whisper or titter got you called out, bawled out and sent to the corner.

Let’s remember, I am six. My nickname is motor mouth. My future gymnastics career was quickly morphing into a gloomy corner staring at dusty wood paneling.

One instructor was big and blonde. Her name was Karen. I imagine she was the type of lass who at 10 smoked unfiltered Camels and pushed down small children in playgrounds. She was assigned my age group one fine Tuesday night, and this broad, for whatever reason, did not like me. I remember following my usual team mates to her group that night and her saying to me, “You’re not in MY group. Go find where you belong!”

I was dumbfounded. This was my group. I always tumbled with these girls. I wandered around the gym in a daze for a while, not sure what to do. I was waiting for someone to help me – to guide me into the group that I belonged in. Finally, I sat on the floor in a far corner and began to cry. My oldest sister came up to me and when I told her what Karen had said, she grabbed my hand and let me join her group. The instructor didn’t seem to mind even though they were way more advanced – when they did back walkovers down the mat, I did somersaults.

I don’t know if that bitch Karen was ever reprimanded for her cruel treatment of me, but I hated her guts after that. I hated all of the instructors after that. And my parents? I think they thought I was overreacting. Now if it were MY kid she’d done that to, that skank would’ve been on the unemployment line faster than you can say Olga Korbut.

Twice a year we had a recital for our parents. We’d rehearse and rehearse and then put on a show on a Saturday afternoon. One year we did a routine involving jump ropes. Picture twenty 6 year olds continually skipping with jump ropes and the room there was for a multitude of errors. I can still hear the parents laughing. Another year we did a routine that was nothing more than a vehicle to showcase the most talented girl in our group. I was not a fan of hers.

I can’t remember her name but still remember the house she lived in. We used to have to pick her up sometimes to drive her to Sokol. She was not friendly towards me at all even though we were in the same age group. Let’s face it, she was a star and I was still struggling with back bends. I remember the recital routine – each girl came out and did her little trick; cartwheel, walkover. Then you joined the others to make an open ended circle. And the last girl was little miss star, who would run out and do a round-off back handspring and land right in the center of the circle we formed.

Oh, I was pea-green with envy! I could NEVER do a back handspring, and let me tell you I tried! On the bright side, while that routine was somewhat belittling, at least nobody was laughing.

Some Tuesdays, rather than go visiting, dad would stay and wait for our lessons to be over – see, Sokol Hall had a bar. Oh, how I LOVED that bar. It was dimly lit and smelled of stale beer and wet cardboard. The crusty bartender would serve draft beer and drinks from the center of a square bar with stools lined all around it. Some nights after Sokol was over, dad would buy us a soda, served in slim, small bar glasses, and a bag of Bon Ton potato chips. If we were lucky we’d get some money for the jukebox where I would always play “Knock Three Times” by Tony Orlando and Dawn.

I only did Sokol for two or three years. Most likely my dad got tired of trying to find me every Tuesday night and decided to spend his money on something worth-while. I’d visit Sokol Hall often, though. Every year we’d have a big Slovak celebration there called a Hody – yes, there’s another good blog post in that – and other times my dad would go by there to discuss some sort of Slovak business. During those visits, I’d walk out into the empty gymnasium and stare at the rings, tucked away in a recessed hole in the ceiling. I’d see the beam and the bars quietly stored in the room next to the kitchen, waiting for the next Tuesday where girls would again tumble and twirl on them.

I might do a cartwheel or two as I stood in there alone and I’d think back none too fondly of Tuesday nights clad in a red leotard and white gym slippers.  Then I’d head to the bar where my dad, a bag of chips, and Tony Orlando waited for me.

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