Royal Marines

A lively group of squash players in the Royal Marines are touring the U.S. right now. Most of them were on two previous tours to South Africa in 2007 and 2010, so they know the standard operation procedures of a tour and are having a great time at it. We hosted them in Philadelphia on Tuesday and it was great fun, a lot of various racquet sports in addition to the squash singles. At dinner afterwards, the four Pommies I sat near told me about their times serving in Afghanistan. All had been there at least once. One guy had just returned two weeks ago and was heading back for another tour next month. He admitted it was tough, especially because there are no usable squash courts left in the country.

Squash on the Titanic

Right about now exactly a century ago, perhaps the most poignant conversation in squash history occured.

Earlier this week the BBC interviewed me about this conversation. Here is the story:

The Titanic, nearly nine hundred feet long, boasted many amenities for its passengers: a swimming pool, a gymnasium, a Turkish bath and the latest import from Wiesbaden, mechanical bicycles or “electric camels.” On Middle Deck (F) and Lower Deck (G), just forward of the foremost boiler rooms and adjacent to the post office sorting room, was a squash court.

“A squash racquet court,” read the notes on the Titanic’s blueprints, “is provided on Deck F, and is in charge of a professional player. Tickets for the use of the Court may be obtained at the Enquiry Office 2s/2d [or 50 cents; about $15 in 2012] per half hour to include the services of the Professional if required. Balls may be purchased from the Professional who is also authorised to sell and hire racquets. The court may be reserved in advance by applicaton to the Professional in charge, and may not be occupied for longer than one hour at a time by the same players if others are waiting.”

About half a dozen spectators could crowd onto the F deck in an enclosed gallery, with an unsightly wire fence as protection from errant balls. The walls of the court were made of steel, painted grey, and the wooden floor was made from Veitchi flooring compound. It certainly was a fast and loud court.

The professsional was Fred Wright. Born and raised in Great Billing, a village in the East Midlands. Wright was twenty-four years old, unmarried and living in Shepard’s Bush in London. We don’t know about his prior experience on a squash court (the game was so young that very few clubs had proper professionals). Wright signed on for the daily wage of one shilling, depending for his livelihood on tips.

We know he got a few. An American officer, Colonel Archibald Gracie, wrote in his memoir, The Truth about the Titanic (1913) about playing with Wright. Breaking the Sabbath, Gracie played squash with Wright before breakfast on Sunday, 14 April.

That evening when the unsinkable ship hit an iceberg, seawater rushed into boiler room number six, the room right next to the squash court. By midnight the court itself was flooded; instead of two men swatting a ball, passengers saw in horror sea water. Above on the open decks, Gracie bumped into Wright as they scrambled to the lifeboats. Gracie remembered his half past seven court the following morning.

“Hadn’t we better cancel that appointment?” Grace said.

“Yes, we better,” replied Wright.

Wright went down with the ship. His body was never found. He was, perhaps, the shortest-serving squash pro in history. 


Ever Notice?

We are creatures of habit and routine. We sometimes don’t notice when something is different from the norm.

Ten days ago I played in a Wilmington v. Lancaster squash match at Reflex, the downtown Wilmington club. Reflex has a flag-bedecked four-wall glass court and I was lucky to play all four of my matches on there (I ended up playing eleven games, winning nine, over the course of ninety-five straight minutes of play). I had already played four games when I was warming up with a new opponent. Commenting about the court, he said, “Oh, well, the lower tin is something you have to get used to.”

I hadn’t noticed—maybe it was all the doubles I’ve been playing—but the tin on the glass court was seventeen inches high, not nineteen. I had just been obliviously moving along, very pleased about my suddenly brilliant dropshots and the fact I hadn’t been tinning that much.

It is much like when I play a leftie. Invariably, I head to the right service box to serve when I am hand-in, serving to their forehand, and sometimes I won’t remember who I’m playing for a few serves (I’ve always loved how lefties subtly encourage you to do this by heading to the left side of the court after losing a point, knowing that many players will forget they are playing a southpaw).

The same thing apparently is happening right now to the PSA players at the 2012 El Gouna International Squash Open, where they are playing on a brand-new portable glass court owned by the Egyptian Squash Federation. The court, built by ASB, doesn’t have the traditional back-wall door, but rather not one but two doors on the side walls. Some players, after winning a game, instinctively are heading to the back wall.

Maybe, someday, there will be a portable court with a door in the tin, replicating America’s coolest squash court exit at the Amalgamated Chowder Club in Keene, New Hampshire.