Late this afternoon, Brooks Morris, a 17-year-old pole vaulter, will rest a 15-foot fiberglass shaft on his shoulder, glance down the runway at the crossbar and landing pit, then look into the stands. There he will find his father, and a strange form of nonverbal communication will commence.
There will be shrugs and nodding heads and wild hand gestures. They will not be speaking Russian and they will not be speaking French and they will not be speaking English.
For the ensuing two hours, Brooks Morris and his father, Ron, will speak pole-ish.
Ron Morris knows the language well. He began jumping in junior high, using a bamboo pole. He graduated to rigid fiberglass and then to a steel pole at Burroughs High, where he set a national high school record in 1953 with a jump of 13-11 1/2. He then went to USC and became one of the top collegiate vaulters in the nation using the first of the flexible fiberglass poles, and in 1960 took a trip to Rome, where he captured the silver medal in the Olympics with a jump of 15-1 1/2.
He worked his way up to a best of 16-6, and in 1966, Morris did whatever it is you do with a 16-foot-long pole that you don't want anymore--Hang it up? Lay it down? Use it to dislodge cats from trees?--with the silver medal and a room full of crystal vases and trophies to remind him of his brilliant career.
One year later, Brooks was born.
Now, everyone knows that the sons of baseball players want to play baseball and the sons of football players want to play football. But there is not an exceptionally long list of sons of pole vaulters who decided early in life that they, too, wanted to make a life out of running down a narrow track wearing their underwear and shoes with little nails protruding from the soles and using the world's longest mop handle to propel themselves high into the air.
But Brooks Morris did.
His father, who was then coaching the sport at Cal State Los Angeles, brought Brooks to vaulting practice and to track and field meets at an age when the youngster's only personal experience in vaulting consisted of leaving the crib.
"The vaulters were like my big brothers," Brooks said. "I was always around those guys."
At the age of 5 or 6, Brooks recalls running around in the front yard with a rake handle and toppling onto the grass. As a seventh-grader, he decided to get serious about the sport, so the son of a former Olympic pole vaulter went to the obvious source for some pole-vaulting tips--a ninth-grader.
"I wanted to know a little bit about what I was doing before I told dad that I wanted to be a pole vaulter," Brooks said. "So this guy in ninth grade showed me a little bit about how to jump, and I worked at it for a while."
His father said he made no attempt to get little Brooks interested in pole vaulting.
"I was really concerned that, because I had done well in the pole vault, he'd feel pressured into doing something that he wasn't all that excited about," Morris said. "I tried not to influence him too much. I introduced it to him, and then I backed off and left him alone.
"But in junior high he really got excited about it, and from then on, once I knew he was genuinely interested in it, I tried to do as much as I could to help."
That's when Ron Morris learned an important rule of parenting--a good father does not necessarily make a good coach.
"I found out right away that it's very difficult to coach your own son," he said. "I'd get impatient at practice and he'd ask me, 'Why are you mad at me?' Coaching him was something that someone else needed to do."
So Burroughs track and field Coach John Switzer moved into the picture, and Brooks Morris started moving the crossbar higher and higher.
"My best jump was 14-3 the other day in practice, but my best meet jump is 14-even," Brooks said. "I feel I'm getting stronger and better all the time, and maybe I could get into a Division I program somewhere. I guess I know I'll never be as good as my dad was, that I might not ever be a world-class vaulter. But that's all right. That's no reason to give it up."
When Ron Morris was asked where he kept his Olympic medal, he said, "Oh, I don't know. I guess it's around here somewhere."
That, Brooks says, is funny.
"Oh, sure. He knows right where it is," the son said. "We always know exactly where it is. Don't let him kid you.
"Just before the 1984 Olympics, I took it out and was looking at it for a long time. I pictured myself in the Olympics, running down the track with the pole, the crowd cheering. And the announcer is saying, 'Here comes Brooks Morris. His father won the silver medal in 1960 in this event.'
"Once I even took it to a party. It took me about an hour of coercing him into letting me take it. Basically, he said 'OK, but if you lose it. . . .' "
The medal was a big hit with Brooks' friends. It was also a big hit with Brooks.