Intimations of Immortality
September 7, 1980
And so we got through, all the way to the home opener, downhill after that, with no injuries only the Jap, who broke his collarbone and set us back one good defensive lineman, and we got through on one good phrase, an inside joke. There’s a good sight of energy to an inside joke, something to remember.
It came about like this: two days before summer camp, Hunky and Lum were riding around in Hunky’s daddy’s old pickup truck and Hunky drove off a mountainside outside of Bat Cave. The pickup plunged and bucked about a hundred and fifty yards down into a ravine, missing most of the serious trees except the last one.
Hunky drove all the way down, just as if he knew where he was going and at the bottom, the engine block in their laps like a picnic lunch, Hunky said to Lum, “That uz a hellava wreck, Lum.”
Lum just nodded, peering straight ahead through splintered glass and radiator steam.
“It was, wadden it,” he said.
And that was what got us through summer camp. After some fine collision on the grass, Hunky’d say, “That us a hellava wreck, Lum (or Kelso or Bruder or MacFarland).” And the answer: “It was, wadden it.”
We each went after that phrase, wanted it for ourselves. It was a kind of music in the high and undiminished heat of September. And we needed all the music we could get for summer camp was no madrigal; it was a lament, a work song. Remember the Volga boatmen? That was us. All thighs and backs, the brain suspended in Riddell’s ingenious strapping like a pea under a walnut shell and the coach a carny barker, shuffling the shells around.
The only thing we had to look forward to was the first scrimmage at the end of two-a-days, and that carried its own peculiar gifts. The first scrimmage, before the mind is blunted completely by heat and repetition, is an event of a ritual kind, carried out by an inspired physical madness. The novice may stand out here, framed in the gilt of his coach’s watchful eye. He can win honor and carry away, as though it were gold goblets from the fall of ancient cities (fans, perched secure as passive Pueblo on the stadium sides, never think of the origins of “the sack,” but we of the defense carry on an old work).
The body’s first contacts, from love to pain and all the coruscations between, are the memorable ones: first hurts are fiercest, and the ones most watched over. And so it is with the lesser wounds of our sport. In the first scrimmage, the body, after dull months of training, responds joyously, spontaneously loosed. Even now, years past, I can still remember the rhythms of it, the two lines off the ball in that lovely uncoiling intercalation of motion, the sounds of leather popping and helmets banging together. It’s a rhythm one carries forever, subconsciously, touched on occasion by a memory rising up sharp enough to cut bone. And years later, a good pro guard with some age on him, thinking retirement, would say to me, in a phrase succinct as any good poetry, “The sound is what binds us.”
So the groinfelt grunts echoed across the practice field, under the brow of Old Bailey, beside the mountain stream which sounded like all our halftime talks. Where fat tackle Lemuel Dean sprawled, heaving into the water his breakfast, his misspent summer. And afterward, survivors all, to Flat Creek, where we eased the principled grief of two-a-days with cold beer, telling lies bigger than a number four washtub, and speaking to one another of the uncultivated pleasures of our working day.
We were naturals then, unawed by questions because the work at hand depended on either memory or instinct, surely answers enough, and only later would it become a question, how to speak of the uncultivated pleasures to the literate, hanging around the sight of the fray wearing curiosity like a decoration.
And how does one speak of such pleasures to a man wearing teeny wire-frame glasses, looking down from above the timberline of the nose, down from the glacial deposits of the intellect. Why, such a man probably likes baseball. Which is so because everybody, at some moment or another, has swung a bat at a ball and remembers that picture until it becomes in the mind one consanguine event, sons connected to fathers and fathers to their fathers and pastorally so on. We do speak from the dugouts of our prejudices.
“There is a bucolic aspect to baseball,” an educated fellow once said to me. “My wife, now, contends that baseball is theater.” Nods over martinis, the olive a fast pitch off the mound of gentility.
But if baseball is our heartfelt sport, then football is for the liver and lights. One, after all, does need a sport one can die in, and football is a shot at the sensations of immortality for to make it through successive Saturday afternoons is to be unable to die. Until one knows better. (This is possibly the shot as cheapshot, mortality being life’s clip to the blindside.) Then we still have a possibly ridiculous—but playful—gesture.
I see Hunky, the middle guard, being led away by a phalanx of policemen after he attacked, with a lamppost uprooted from the ground, a large bronze eagle on the front of a suburban house. “I HATE Early American,” he explained to the cops. I see the running backs MacFarland and Honeywell running through the cemetery, dodging tombstones and bashing each other with an old tractor tire, their method of getting into shape. I see the guards, Kelso and Garrett, standing under opposite goalposts on a Sunday afternoon, firing shotguns at each other, allowing the pellets to rain down on one another’s unhelmeted heads. And the big tackle, Bruder, waltzing across the foyer of Myers Dorm, hugging a Coke box.
We do, indeed, forget the sweet anarchy of outrageousness. It is an innocent state, before the world’s demands are met. And football players are children in the costumes of impossibly-shaped men, playing at keeping the world’s dire intentions at bay. Thus, thousands of people come out to watch, and to dream themselves into innocence.
O, MacFarland and Honeywell, Kelso and Garrett, and Bruder! Like bills at the Bijou, preordained acts for the Saturdays of our youth. And Hunky. I do not forget Hunky. Whom I loved for his manners, which were nonexistent. He ate mashed potatoes with his fists and during games, spit tobacco between the legs of opposing linemen just before the snap, which occasioned distraction. Hunky’s problem was his seeing, which was chimerical past three feet. He might see anything, or nothing at all.
“Where did they go?” he asked about a visiting team when the players lay down to do pre-game leg raises. Once, playing offensive guard, Hunky got spun around and blocked his own fullback into the middle of the next season.
Off the field, Hunky wore glasses with lenses thick enough to pull in the moons of Saturn. He was a history major, fond of analyzing the world’s large confrontations in football terms.
“World War II,” Hunky mused. “Home team reserve strength in the fourth quarter. Hitler was no good when flushed out of the pocket.”
I loved, too, Hunky’s energy, which blazed like the constant burn-offs on Texas oil fields. I studied it for its origins, then abandoned speculation to the arcane plumbing of genetics. My own energy, an undependable houseguest, rose through the fall. In October, I sat through an afternoon literature class, the dry hum of Dryden and Pope, and bounced tentatively on the balls of my feet under the desktop. All my energy was in my claves, lying coiled in wires. I considered bouncing harder and bringing down the building on the eighteenth century but my wandering eye fell upon Pope:
Together let us beat this field
Try what the open, what the covert yield.
Ah! Even Pope tried his hand at sportswriting. I went that afternoon, out into ripe October, my energy a harvest. The coach, a tall, angular man who looked like he was made of the same impenetrable stuff as the Easter Island statues (he, too, gazing inscrutably at the horizon, looking for, we knew, a quarterback, as tall and as inscrutable as himself), sent us through hundred-yard windsprints. Six, eight, nine of them. I thought I could go on forever. As we passed the coach I knew I would be first, and shielded from the coach by the squareness of Hunky, I yelled, “Run us, Mother!” I wanted him to. He obliged. He made us run three more and for revenge, dive sweating into the sawdust pit used by the pole vaulters, then jog two hundred more yards uphill to the locker room.
The sun was almost behind Grandfather Mountain, making the shadows very lean across the campus. The grass was a brilliant green. I felt I would live forever, a youthful deceit. Is not part of the charm of youth the ability to squander time guiltlessly? And for the linemen’s revenge upon me for the added wind sprints, I was held while Bruder varnished my hanging parts with Black Magic, the ineradicable paint for our football shoes, which was like having those vulnerable items covered against weather. A sobering act which taught me that immortality was fleeting.
The autumn I stayed out of school (out of shape, out of sorts) I never went near a football field. Faithless, I saw autumn vaguely past. An ineligible running back named Hoots, and myself, spent Saturdays wandering morosely the back streets of Asheville, where a friend of ours sold second-hand furniture to the prostitutes who were always moving in and out. We did not even listen for the scores of our own team but were, in Updike’s exacting description on ex-athletes in The Centaur, “like dogs tormented by a site where they have buried something precious.” We, too, felt “old and increasingly slack.”
On homecoming, Hoots attempted to purchase the services of a businesswoman in a hotel by the railroad tracks.
“How much? he asked.
“Fifteen,” she replied.
“How about twelve-fifty?” he said.
“Honey,” she answered wearily, “I wooden even DANCE for twelve-fifty.”
We had $13 between us. We placed it in a greasy pile on the bar of the Brown Derby and told the bartender to see us through the evening. Which he did. At closing time, we drove erratically home. Sometime between the Brown Derby and home, Hoots threw up eight dollars and a half. He did this, I seem to recall, in the pockets of his sports jacket. To keep from ruining my car, he explained later. Hoots was extremely polite. Running off-tackle, Hoots would slam into big linemen, breaking tackles and yelling, “EXCUSE! EXCUSE!” until he went down under a ton of defense.
In truth, we missed the less punishing ritual of football. Another such autumn would have killed us both. On Monday, we were in the weight room, anticipating spring practice in the manner of a homesick man dreaming of his own mattress. We were, as the head man noted, in need of some work.
We longed for the articulate geometry of the playing field, a fact, because God only knew where literature might lead. The playing field had no God, only referees. We gave our brief homage to God, of course, sitting glassy-eyed on the cold dressing room concrete before the kick off. Bruder picked his nose during the prayer. Hunky, most sacrilegious of all, stood to one side and did the Twist to the chaplain’s rhythmic exhortations about good men all, putting on their pants one leg at a time.
Hoots himself disproved that one. Before the Catawba game, Hoots had Kelso and Garrett hold his pants, then he jumped off a bench into them. Both feet together.
“There,” he said, mighty satisfied. “You go out there and tell them Eagles or whatever kind of birds they is that there’s an absolute MADMAN over yonder at running back and he DON’T put on his pants one leg at a time.”
We did wish for something to believe in but since we had not called upon Him all week we had more pride than to call now. The faith would be: head-to-head this afternoon, fear tucked away in your watch pocket, and untroubled sight. Hard and clean and sweet, and up into their numbers. And if you kept the faith, the first play would be the running back inside and you’d pinch in and take a goodly shot to the head from the tackle and that would calm you down where from then on, all you watched was the movement of the ball, going after it like a hog after a melon.
And after awhile, on just the right fall afternoon, the gold dancing off the cheerleaders’ little bitty panties and doing things to the abdominal muscles the fullback’s forearm could never do, air so clear and crisp you could have bottled it and sold it to the Tennessee tourists, struck a glancing blow on the helmet by a falling maple leaf—that kind of afternoon—well, you could fairly smell the ball coming your way.
As for the offense, I’ve only heard stories of that business. Tales traveling men brought back from a strange land. I was down in the ditches of defense, the unholy side, and while we respected the offense, we did speak a different language. “Hell,” said Bruder, demonstrating the impartiality we all felt, “my sister used to go out with a pulling guard.”
The offense spoke a delicate language. A mixture or colors and numbers, it rolled across the quarterback’s operatic tongue and sent his men out in concert. The guard and center a fugue crescendo. The tackle sforzando. The tight end a cappella across the middle. The offense lived by language, and even poets spoke for them. Did not Auden say that time “indifferent in a week to a beautiful physique, worships language and forgives everyone by whom it lives … ”
Here, now, the real difference in this two-backed beast: The offense is modern, those boys were builders, all for progress. Whigs, I’d say, as Yeats said of Whiggery, “a leveling, rancorous, rational sort of mind.” The defense, now was a beargarden. The defense operated on old passions thought best buried under the stones of forgotten cities. We were the ones in the belly of the horse, thinking to let the damage in. The defense grunted its will at one another. Ours were tongues of artless construction. Suspicious of the offense’s subtlety, we spoke the patois of our provincial company. We bellowed, rasped, and thumped our meanings out.
From the sidelines, I perceived the coach as sorcerer, the quarterback as sorcerer’s apprentice. Reece, the quarterback, will attempt to prove to the defense that the hand is, indeed, quicker that the eye. He will attempt to make his running back disappear. MacFarland eyes Reece malevolently. Disappearing is more than an act of the will. MacFarland has slightly bowed legs (a plus factor in the impecunious grading books of pro scouts) which he obtained from running dive plays into the linebacker, a Hun of a man who stands two yards away, his mustache dripping with the ruin of decadent offenses. After the season, the linebacker will be drained of bile and put up in the garage for the winter.
Reece drops back into the pocket as though it were lined with deerskin. Reece is a believer. There’s a subtle piety about him. The center, Lang, is no believer. Lang, built like an icebox, gives off heat to keep his entrails cold. His head is handed to him each play, usually on the platter of the middle guard’s forearm, while that thief, Reece, sits this day in glory. Certainly the center holds. He also kicks and gouges.
We have not here the spirit of technology (a favorite metaphor of the critics, that solemn row of bleacher-birds, waiting to pick all our carcasses clean), but something older: the spirit of agriculture—driving, plowing, planting, dunging, sowing. And Reece has put the ball up, no missile, critics, but an offering. He’s the one man among us who might believe in God, said Hunky. No, I said, piety aside, but he believes finally like the rest of us: in his own good arm and intent.
Bartee is deep over the middle. He spots the ball. It seems to hang above him, fruit on a high tree. Bartee’s the tight end, a hybrid cat, half lineman, half back. He goes up singlemindedly, his fingers spread in those cold upper currents. There’s no sound when his fingers fasten to the ball, as it’s supposed to be. We know our physics: A ball falling in the forest of the receiver’s fingers makes no sound. The safety plants his helmet in Bartee’s back but Bartee is protected by adrenalin. Bartee only hurts on practice days, only limps for the cheerleaders.
And, every few weeks or so, things worked out just that way.
Afterward, we showered and dressed and walked out of the tiny college town, to where Hunky’s old Buick was hidden in a tobacco barn (cars were forbidden on that severe campus), to drive seven miles where we drank beer with mechanics, checked for age each time by the owner’s wife, Carol Lee, who saw us more than she did here own sons. (Us: “You got to be kidding, Carol Lee.” She: “Honey, I’m serrus as kidney failure.”) And arm-wrestled truck drivers on the pinball machine, proud of the bruised forearms we brought in with us. (“What’s the matter with yore arm, boy?” “Ole Hunky, he spent the evening trying to get the attention of this big ole fellow from over in Tennessee.”)
One Monday, Hunky and I sat morosely in math class, trying to concentrate on this lesser geometry. We watched secants and cosecants go about their middling business. The professor was an old disciplinarian named Booger Lance, who had been an All-American guard at Furman. Balding, a tight little purse of a mouth closed penuriously against the spending of pleasure, his body resembled a squat Victorian bookcase. He spoke to the engineers as though we were fullbacks: “Now, men (pursepurse), I want you to take this problem (pursepurse) and march down the field with it (pursepurse).”
Determined to build a bridge for my mother, I whirled in the backfield of early ambition, tucked the problem securely under one arm, and turned upfield. Where I fumbled. I was, even then, a lineman, graceful only in small unnoticed moments but dreaming elegant backfield dreams.
I had been instructed in grace by the poor Carolina dirt in which I had grown up, thin and full of gristle. Farmers are not athletes, you see. They grow stocky and slow from struggling to stand upright under the burden of gravity. Or bony from running down misfortune. A man standing in those pockets of fitful soil was never tall enough to spot his receivers. No athlete stood in those mean fields (although Phillip Thackston used to sneak out of the back fields on his daddy’s old Farmall and drive it to high school football practice).
I’ll tell anyone: I did mind the meanness of those fields. I wanted riches, fame, money, the love of dark long-legged ladies, and money. I wanted to work for myself. I was glad to leave. I sprinted out of the barnyard, down the lane, out on the highway, up the mountain and to school, eighty miles and one state line away. Although the new air seemed rarified, I was not even breathing hard.
The first thing I noticed was the rye and bluegrass so thick on the football field you couldn’t feel the earth underneath. Why, linemen would fatten here like Angus, and running backs would founder. My daddy’s whole herd of Holstein could have wintered on that hundred yards.
The grass on high school fields I’d known had turned pale from the heat and worn away under clumsy schoolboy cleats until there was a huge blimp-shaped patch of red clay down the center of the field.
“That’s so’s you boys can draw plays in the dirt with a stick,” our coach told visiting teams.
Over at Pickens, the whole team went in at halftime with every elbow scrapped raw. Visiting teams used the girls’ locker room, and the trainer lined us up by the Kotex machine and slapped one on every wound. In the third quarter, a big Pickens tackle bear-hugged Cooley the fullback to the ground for a six-yard loss, then growled, “It looks like it’s the wrong time of the month for you’ens.”
Why, in this new-found luxuriance, grass drills and the hamburger would be pleasurable. And I would have four fine years of it. I did not know then, of course, that I would never be this innocent again.
We were merely off looking to spend the coin of our bodies’ realm: energy. For what other currency do the very young have? We were not old enough to be tradesman, merchant, broker, or bailiff, nor wise enough for artist. We could not very well buy, sell, or speculate in the world’s traffic. We might be soldiers, or ball players, both whimsical pursuits, and while a good play may have gotten you some less fortunate’s ears and tail, it was, as Joiner said, short of killing, and, “a man’s a damn fool to deny the pleasure of such moments.” Football is, you see, the transformation of energy into purposeless grace. And may we not admire the manifestations of energy in nearly any form?
I don’t follow the game anymore. I never did, really. I understood, you see, that it wasn’t really a team game. Oh, it was a disciplined game alright, but the discipline merely set you free. I’ve lost some speed now, too, although I can still break 5.0 in the 40 and my weight’s still playing weight, near 205. I just tell ’em like Hunky used to tell ’em: “Speed ain’t everything, ’cause if speed was everything, gazelles’d rule the world.”
And even now, when October breaks over me like a premonition, I dream of villages meeting on green fields, wives and children eating and drinking nearby while we, the villagers, kick the skull between the boundaries. And, afterward, happy and bruised, we drink together from it.