It was during high school that I got the idea of trying out for the role of school mascot. This was years ago but that does not matter very much. The story itself is rather timeless. It could happen now or it could have happened, I don’t know, a hundred years ago. I was simply a fresh young and naive kid. It was my last year in high school but my first year at this new school. We constantly moved. My father didn’t think it was such a trauma to uproot us every few years. But that’s another story. This is more or less a sports story. Not exactly football and basketball, although that’s part of it, right? This is mostly a story about the sport of cheerleading. Yes, cheerleading is a sport. Fans of cheerleading are currently seeking an official sport status from the NCAA. Anyway, I did not really know what I was getting myself into when I decided to try out for school mascot.
We had a cool school mascot to rally around, a lion. Lucky for some lion, we did not feel any compulsion to keep a caged lion on campus. That was a different story in college. I went to a university were we actually had a caged cougar. I always liked cats…and lions. I loved the symbolism. I love all the variations on lion designs. I still want to get a lion tattoo someday. So, to get to be a lion seemed pretty awesome. Being a lion mascot would be serving some need I wasn’t fully aware of.
I couldn’t help thinking of the Cowardly Lion. Even with such a compromised character, Bert Lahr in the 1939 MGM classic, “The Wizard of Oz,” retained the energy of that noble animal, the king of all animals. To take on that sort of role spoke to my primal instinct! And then it all came down to a big reality check when I tried on the huge head mask, followed by the rest of the costume which was heavier and more cumbersome than I had ever imagined. How do you walk in this thing? I guess I didn’t exactly feel like I was running wild in the jungle. But I had to get my priorities straight and so I persevered.
When did I see my first lion? This is intergenerational. My father, and his father, and I saw the very same first lion! The Cowardly Lion from the original book, “The Wizard of Oz,” first published in 1900! Those distinctive illustrations by W.W. Denslow captivate any child, even today. Maybe you’d need to be a little patient and seek it out. But just toss aside all the digital clutter we subject ourselves to each and every day, quiet things down, slow things down, and you would have a child caught up in that magic all over again.
Back to my story, thanks to my being part of the journalism staff, I had a certain amount of authority. It was enough to convince Jamie, in charge of the cheer squad that year, to give me a hand. Tryouts were coming up soon. The mascot costume was currently in storage. She was more than happy to let me try it on for size. Better yet, she was all for guiding me through cheers and all the right moves. I followed her masterful instruction every step of the way. I started to feel like a lion—right before I wasn’t.
I wasn’t planning on doing anything fancy inside this big catsuit. I wasn’t going to be doing any cartwheels but that was okay. I had never done cartwheels before so why start now? Mostly, I sweated a ton. And then, I had a rude awakening. I discovered how much I was out of my element when I took an abrupt wrong turn and rolled on my ankle all the way to a major sprain!
What went wrong? Maybe I should never have gotten Jamie to give me a personal tour of the school mascot. Maybe if I’d properly trained. Maybe if I’d been part of a team. Well, all that theorizing could go out the window. What was done was done. I put myself in this situation. I ended up sprawled on the linoleum in a lion costume. But I had Jamie by my side.
Jamie was truly very attentive. What a godsend! I remember her pulling that stupid lion head off me. “Are you alright, Henry? Are you alright?” she kept asking. I pointed down to my giant lion paw feet. “Sprained ankle! Sprained ankle!” is what I kept saying. She looked like an angel, so beautiful and sympathetic. An impulse must have taken over and she passed her hand across my hot and sweaty face. “You poor thing,” she said. I could only close my eyes. I was mortified. I was happy too, all things considered. But I was definitely mortified.
Then she reached down and kissed my cheek. “Call me when you get better, tiger,” she said.
I perked up right away and absent-mindedly blurted out, “But I’m a lion!”
“No, you’re not,” said Jamie, “but that’s okay. I prefer men.”