One time when I was visiting Sydney from the US, I got into a conversation with an elderly priest who had spent most of his working life on Bougainville Island.
We sat out under the gum trees, watching parrots whir by, and he told me about halting an incipient battle there once, between rebels and government forces, and about a boy he had known who people in the village thought was a fish in human form, and about one time a song was sung from one end of the island to the other without ever stopping, people singing it in turn for weeks, and many other things.
And then he got onto cricket, his favorite sport, which he had played as a boy and young man, quitting the pitch only when he was 40, in a ceremony attended by most of the people he'd worked with on the island; in the course of this event he had burned his cricket bat on the field, and marked everyone's forehead with a smudge of the ash.
We were all laughing, he said, but there was a sweet reverence to the moment which I do not forget. There are more sacramental moments than we know.
Talking about cricket on Bougainville sent him back to one particular cricket match which he had witnessed as a prisoner of the Japanese Imperial Army in early 1943. The Japanese had taken the island in 1942, he said, and he was imprisoned with many other residents, both islanders and Australians.
He continued: It was not an especially harsh camp initially, nothing like the camps in Burma and Thailand, and we were allowed to read and play cricket and conduct religious services. But then as the war turned against the Japanese, and the Allies took a corner of the island, things grew darker. There is a great deal to tell of that time when things grew harsh, but I wanted to tell you about this one day, when we decided to play cricket.
It was a Sunday, and we set up stumps in the morning, and dressed in the best clothes we had left, and made up teams and assigned positions. One captain was a minister, a remarkable man, and the other was a teacher. The camp guards looked angry but no one stopped us. I opened the bowling.
There was something desperate about the game. It wasn't like in the films, where we were making a statement to the oppressor. It was more like we were starving for something. I'll never forget that game. Everyone played as hard as they possibly could. I don't have the words for what it was we were so desperate for, but you could feel it in every man and boy.
I have tried to tell people about this game and they say things like nostalgia or courage or memory or peace but those are not the right words. They don't get deep enough. It's like if we had not been able to play that game we would have sickened and died. I don't know quite what else to say.
We played all day. We didn't break for tea or lunch because we were afraid the guards would make us stop. We finished finally at dusk when one fellow jumped for a ball in the air and nearly caught a fruit bat. There are days when I think if we had not played that game none of us would have survived the war.
So the next time someone makes fun of sport and says it's all childish nonsense, or scrabbling for money as they say now about sport on the television, remember that game. There's something deep and sacred about sport, though we don't have good words yet for what that is. But I think those words may come in the years ahead. I would guess they will be beautiful words, rhythmic and delightful. I wish that I could hear them. Perhaps I shall.
Brian Doyle is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland, and the author most recently of the essay collection Grace Notes.