Part of housecleaning each year has always been getting the family backyard sports equipment in good shape for the summer season. Every May I revarnish the croquet set and spray-paint the wickets. Before Memorial Day I macrame a new basketball net.
But when someone suggested that the housewarming gift we received last fall - the new badminton set - required instruction before putting racquet to shuttlecock, I had to laugh. Badminton is one sport I have always associated with lemonade and leisure time. I always considered it a sport that a lady in a Gibson Girl hairdo and long skirts could perfom well without dampening her forehead with perspiration.
That what I thought of badminton before I met Noel Fehm, for 17 years, was Connecticut's state badminton champion "until year before last when I came down with German measles in the semi-finals," he explained apologetically. Fehm, 50, was runnerup this year in the singles; champion in the doubles; mixed doubles and veteran's (over 40) doubles.
Noel Fehm is the only man I know who is passionate about a bird with 14 cropped goosefeathers stuck in a leather-covered cork. He began my first badminton lesson with a big buildup for women's natural abilities in the sport.
"Girls playing badminton are very formidable," he said kindly, "because the emphasis in the game is not just on strength. It's on accuracy, quickness, balance and deception."
I tried to look very tricky as I took the court. I whisked around my Twiggy racquet, a tightly strung, skinny, tubular-steel affair that weighed next to nothing. He told me to hold the racquet in front of my face and he hit the bird over my head at the net. It came like a bullet. My first response - defensive - was a whiff.
"It's easier to learn to play badminton then to learn to ride a bicycle. It's easier than learning to play Ping-Pong. A 5-year-old child can learn," Noel Fehm told me plaintively. "A three-year-old is not too young to learn to play a game of badminton."
Badminton, as he plays it, is as far removed from my ken as my backyard game of "horse" is from the NBA one-on-one series. He plays it like a watch spring suddenly coming uncoiled. His brand of badminton is a power sport. The bird hits speeds of 110 mph and decelerates just as quickly. It feels like playing tennis in a vacuum. It's a space-shuttle sport that takes all your strength to move a light-feathered object across a net in what looks like slow motion.
"The singles strategy is to serve high to the base line," he explained. "And the receiver decide if the server is hanging back and he can try a deep drop, a cut drop or a fast drop to bring him in. You want to get your opponent out of position, and you can either drop the bird softly or smash it high and past him.
"Because the net is fairly high and there is no bounce, the higher and quicker you hit the bird, the farther ahead on a point you are. The whole problem with singles is if you hit it short, you lose the point."
The indoor game is lighting quick when played by a champion. It is nothing like the backyard interlude I had in mind for long summer evenings. In fact, Noel Fehm vetoed my plans for outdoor games, explaining that subtle air currents play havoc with the bird: "Even a half-mile-an-hour wind throws the bird off.
"I bought a house with a beautiful smooth macadam driveway, and the first thing I did was to build standards for a badminton set. We played outside once. That was enough. The best way to describe outdoor badminton is to say it's like playing hockey on rough ice. The whole game falls apart."
What Noel Fehm really likes is mixed doubles. His partner is his wife, Peggy. "Just like we coordinate in raising our six children, we mesh the same way on the badminton court, " he said enthusiastically.
"Badminton is basically a pretty game. It's a super game for a man and a woman to play: It balances certain abilities each has. My wife can't clear a smash like I can, but she can make certain moves I couldn't dream of doing.
"The girl in mixed doubles is the offensive weapon; the man is always defensive. The girl waits for the opportunity to smash and make a point. She's like a cat."
Badminton is not an easy game. Fehm has to tape all five fingers on his right hand each time he plays, two or three times a week. "If I didn't, i would tear the finger-prints right off my fingertips," he said pleasantly. His right elbow is bound tightly because of a tendon strain
We batted the bird back and forth until the sole of my shoe came loose and began to flap on the wooden floor of the gym. Noel Fehm acted sorry to see me leave. "You had remarked placidly, "but after that you did OK. Now , if you would just change your grip and hold the racquet like this - "
I hastily excused myself. I told Noel Fehm I had to rush home to dust some goose-feather quills to be ready for the badminton season.