Drug smuggling, border hopping and sailing the seven seas with the inventor of really quick badminton.
This is a story about Bill Bandes, the man who invented speedminton. What, you’ve never heard of speedminton before? Well, soon as I clear that up, I’ll continue. See speedminton is a marriage of racket sports. But just like Princess Diana’s old situation, there are three in this marriage too. You take a basic squash racket, modify the shuttlecock from badminton and steal tennis’s style of playing and you’ve got speedminton. Speedminton is the hipster summer sport. It can be played with a cigarette on your lip and a cold beer in your hand. Bill, the inventor and mascot-in-chief, wouldn’t have wanted it any other way, so lets get back to his story.
Bill Bandes was born in Eastern Germany in a small town famous for having the biggest cement factory in all Europe. Nothing else. Big personalities don’t last long in small towns, but it was Bill’s mother, not Bill, who set him travelling for the first time. She had just been divorced. She was broke. She said to Bill, “We have two options: we turn the gas on or we escape to the West.” Luckily for you, me and Bill they went with option two and took an illegal train ride into West Berlin and freedom. It was 1960 in West Germany, and Bill and his mother were sent from refugee camp to refugee camp before they were given a home. They were Germans all right, just not the right kind.
Some youngsters get used to not having homes. They find their security in other deeper, hidden places instead of between front and back gardens. So for Bill it made perfect sense to leave his mother when he was fifteen and go make a life for himself at sea. He hitchhiked to Hamburg and applied for work on the first ship he saw.
‘It was the golden age of sea travel,’ says Bill. ‘Jamaica, Haiti, Puerto Rico, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Morocco.’ He lists off the countries like old friends. Bill got work as a steward meaning his job was to serve the captain and to wash dishes. By the time he’d turned sixteen he could speak Spanish, had broken a few Latin American hearts and was building the mental muscle that would get him through the rough times ahead.
Now a thing about Bill. He talks slowly. His words come out with the lazy speed of bowling balls returning from the gutter because Bill’s a pothead. He canes anything from nothing to ten joints a day.
What this means is that time undergoes an alteration when you’re in Bill’s company. Minutes stretch into hours, afternoon slides into evening, and you find yourself cancelling further appointments until it’s just you, Bill and the moonlight. But the stories grip.
‘I got fired on my second tour at sea,’ says Bill. He was sent to the kitchen to wash the crew’s dishes. Bill only washed up for the captain, remember? He did it but told the cook in charge that he didn’t like to be spoken to like a skivvy. He got a slap across the face and left for his cabin. His first officer followed him in and said that if he didn’t get down to the kitchen fast he’d hit him so hard he’d go head first through the cabin window. “I offered him my cheek,” Bill says, “and he fired me on the spot. We were near the Azores in the middle of the trip, and I had to pay the rest of the way from my wages.”
He arrived home owing more than he made, but on the upshot, Bill now had a motto. “Head first through the window, that’s my way,” he says.
Bill wasn’t just hard-necked, he was cute too. One time his ship docked in Russia. It was winter and minus forty degrees. The Russians saw Bill’s good German boots , scarf and coat and paid big money for them. Bill then did a little currency exchange with the rest of his crew and doubled his Rubles into Deutschmarks.
But truth be told, apart from the odd up, Bill’s economic fortunes have always been down. He’s fifty-eight now and in spite of being the inventor of a very successful product, he’s no tycoon and he’s got no living legacy.
‘Sure, maybe I would have married,’ Bill says, ‘But I’ve always been broke and it’s hard for a woman to understand a man obsessed with shuttlecocks.’
The shuttlecock obsession began late for Bill. But he’d have to fight the law on a couple of occasions before that came about.
Bill came home to Germany and started living in Bavaria. Problem is, Bill was no typical Bavarian; he was a hippie with the take-no-shit attitude of a sailor and the drug appetite of a Rastafarian.
“People like me were hunted like criminals,” says Bill. “I was arrested for possession and given a ten month suspended sentence.”
A suspended sentence is not a get out of jail card, it’s more like a swinging axe hanging over your head, and if you so much as fuck up the once, it’ll chop you down. Bill took off to Copenhagen and the hippie commune of Christiania. When his parole officer eventually caught up with him, he said he’d have to come back and do the time for breaking probation. Authority has never had much luck with Bill. He’s a friendly character. Charming as a crooner, with the gift of turning simple speech into magic spells. But you wouldn’t want to tell him what to do. And so it followed that instead of coming back to Bavaria to serve his time, Bill moved to Berlin and went underground until the police finally caught him three years later. He was thrown in a Berlin prison. He took it with the usual stoic attitude that he’d taken every other setback with.
“When you’ve already crossed two oceans at the age of sixteen, what can hurt you?” he says, “I was formed at sea. It makes you strong. Many popular people have visited jail. I was only in there for drugs. For green leaves. I’ve never felt like a criminal.”
But that’s how he was seen, and it didn’t help that his drug of choice had recently upgraded to heroin. He got caught again. This time it looked like he’d go down for a decent stretch. He fled to Venezuela and stayed in South America for ten years. In that time he quit heroin. The ten years ground the last hard German corners from his character.
“I feel more like a Latino than a German,” says Bill. “I walk slowly. I don’t rush. I like to say manana to everything.”
And that’s the god’s honest truth. Bill always schedules meetings for late in the afternoon and can hang out shooting the breeze like he was raised under a Sombrero in a rain-parched plaza.
When Bill began to miss home he flew back to Germany and slipped into Berlin again. This time he’d really have to go underground and wait for his wanted order to go stale. He found a girl and lived with her for seven years. He fell in love but it’s hard to let yourself go when even the slightest bit of police attention could send you back to prison.
“If I crossed the street and the green man turned red, I’d freeze in fear,” Bill says.
Bill didn’t have much to do in that time apart from fretting and this is where the speedminton part kicks in. Berlin is full of parks. Bill hung out in those parks all day playing racket sports.
“We played different,” Bill explains, “We had no rules and we played harder. Shit got broken all the time. Yamazaki, Yamaha, Victor, all the shit kept breaking down.”
This is when Bill began work on speedminton. He’d develop a game that could not only withstand his rough treatment but also continue to work in the wind and in the darkness. Bill began to sketch his ideas and visit sports factories.
“I’m no engineer,” he says, “I just love to play. It makes you very happy if you do it the right way.”
Speedminton was invented, but first it was called shuttleball.
“That was a bad name,” Bill admits but through these early mistakes, the long nights taking scissors to shuttlecocks and the trips to the patent office, speedminton as the hipsters in parks and the surfers on beaches know it today, was born.
Each man kills the thing he loves, said an Irishman not a German. Bill sold speedminton and it was, he says, like ‘losing a child’. His business partners took the sport away from him and put him on a small salary that keeps the wolf from the front of the door but doesn’t afford for much comfort behind it.
“As an inventor you sacrifice everything,” Bill says, “It’s like monotheism and all my life I wanted to be plural.”
The next step for Bill is to get out of Germany. The wandering feet haven’t left him. He plans to hit up his partners for some more money, and travel the world as a tourist playing speedminton on the best beaches in the world.
“Waikiki, Peru, Lake Titikaka – the altitude would make the distance much further, can you imagine it?”
Who knows if this is going to happen. Speedminton has become a big industry and Bill is growing superfluous to its needs.
You still find Bill hanging out in the parks in Berlin handing out signed autographs if you’ll take one. He’ll bend your ear for a moment if you encourage him, and he’ll charm the pants off your girl without any encouragement. There’s some magic in the old sailor yet. It makes you think his fortunes will rise and he’ll come up smelling of roses. Bill always dresses for the beach, and soon as things work out you can bet that’s where you’ll find him. Racket in one hand, cocktail in the other with one eye on the game and the other on the beauties walking by.
“Many inventors died unhappy. Many killed themselves because an inventor has to sell everything to make his dream come true. You’re like a spider in your own net and it’s dangerous. Luckily my invention is just a few grammes of plastic. So it won’t kill me.”