Standing in a field of tranquility, tucked behind spare trees hiding a suburban development, I watched two of my kids stare fixedly at a bullfrog laden pond. In the silent moments, broken only by the belch and flop of a camo black frog plopping back into the water, my mind rewound nearly forty years to the highlight event of my elementary school days. John Sutter Elementary Schools annual Frog Jump. In fairness, as a nine year old, I was squeamish about the frogs. Large, slimy, wriggling things. My mom still recalls my quaking hand in hers as we watched the day long contest. Now, all these years later, it is among my fondest memories from school. This unique tradition had its birth in 1865, in the most unexpected place, a book.
At the urging of a friend, unknown writer, Mark Twain, wrote a short story called Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog. The story was intended to be published in his friends anthology, however, Twain missed the deadline. His friend suggested the story be published in the paper. It was a huge success. A few weeks later another paper picked it up. Twain adapted it and changed the name to The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County. Before long it came out in book form much to readers delight. Set in Angels Camp, Calaveras County, California, during the gold rush. The story revolves around a bet waged over the jumping abilities of two bull frogs. It ends with an interesting twist. Twain's success could have been enough, but the story wasn't finished.
In 1928, sixty-one years after the stories publication, the Angels Camp Booster Club needed an event to honor the paving of a major street in town. They remembered the book and determinded to hold their first ever live bull frog jumping contest. It was the perfect intersection of old and new. The idea was a hit. Over 15,000 people flocked to witness and participate in the event. Today, ninety-three years later the Calaveras County Frog Jump is considered an international event. Which brings me to my elementary school.
During the spring of 1965, two intrepid teachers Bill Guzules and Lee Guidici, arranged to hold a school wide frog jump. To my knowledge it is the only one of its kind. Three nights before the event, the two teachers and some willing parents, headed out of town collecting bull frogs to be rented by students for jumping. In the week leading up to jump day, teachers read the Twain story to students, assemblies about ecology, nature care, and proper frog jumping techniques were held. PTA parents sold box lunch tickets and frog jump sign-ups every day during lunch hour for the jump day on Friday.
When Friday arrived, the playground had been transformed from a black top with four square and hopscotch lines, to a large arena of turf mats with white circular targets painted on them. Around the roped off perimeter, awning covered tables were set up for spectators as well as place to eat box lunches of hot dogs and juice.
Jumping began at 9 am sharp. Kids jumped the frogs they had rented or frogs they had raised themselves. By 2 pm the winners would be announced. The three longest jumpers of the day would get the honor of attending and competing in the historic Calaveras County Frog Jump at Angels Camp.
My aversion to frogs secured my ineligiblity to ever compete at Angels Camp. However the memories of six years of watching and cheering on friends and family feels like a gold medal to me.
It's been said, "There is no such thing as fiction." That may very well be right. Just look what Mark Twain started? Not one but two highly successful frog jumps. Thank you Samuel Clemens. Isn't it great when stories come to life?