Several years ago, for exercise and fun, I wandered over to the handball courts near the Town of Brookhaven recreation complex in Centereach. I approached with some uneasiness, as my gray beard and bald pate clearly showed I was past my prime for this fast-paced game. I saw players with varying skill levels, ages and personalities.
Luckily for me, an older gentleman sat courtside chatting comfortably with the youngsters. He looked up and smiled, stretched out his hand and said, “I’m Herb. I’ve got next. Want to play?”
I don’t remember whether we won or lost, but it was the first of many afternoons that Herb Weismandel and I have played handball.
It was clear to me that day that I had met someone special. Herb was easy to play alongside, joyful, encouraging and pleasant to all. I learned about his wife and his children, that he lived near Selden Middle School (we both remembered when the courts were built there — and taken down years later). Over time, I learned that for many years, he sang in his church choir and managed his wife’s women’s softball team.
But perhaps the finest thing about Herb is that he seems to know and is friendly with everyone, young or old, tattooed or bearded, white or brown, dropout or PhD.
Herb is like a grandfather to some, an uncle to others, or a friend to a middle-aged stranger he just met. Having played handball for many years, he has known the fathers of some of the younger players. I think that because of how he treats everyone, it doesn’t matter to anyone that he has lost a step. He jokes that he’ll cover 25 percent of the court if his teammate will cover the rest.
Why does an aging, retired plumber with two hip replacements keep this up? When I asked him, he said something like, “What am I going to do? Sit around at home and get old?” So he’s out there, four or five times a week, a few hours each day. He brings a gallon of water, a chair and a bag of handballs to share!
This tribute to my friend is not mine alone. Hundreds of local people, most of them younger (they affectionately call him Herbie), have spent time on those courts and been welcomed by the same smile, the same sunny disposition and the same recognition of the humanity that binds us all.
One year, a group of players had a plaque made in tribute. “Handball by Herbie,” it says. They affixed it up high in foul territory on the concrete handball court wall.
I look forward each spring to renewing our friendship. Herb turned 70 in November, and although I’m a dozen years younger, there are times when our combined age is three or four times that of our opponents’.
Our friendship makes me appreciate my life more — and it has the added benefit of being sweet when we two aging jocks can school a few youngsters in the art of street handball.
Reader Tony Morena lives in Coram.