by Terry Hargrove
It has been quite a week. When things happen that I don’t completely understand, I always go back to my childhood and look for inspiration or understanding. Yep. There it is.
When I was a kid, sports were my life. I have the scars to prove it. Hours under an endless June sky were marked by innings, and days that crept by slow in July heat are remembered as quarters in a never-ending football game. We violently imitated every competition we saw on TV, and when we had to, we invented our own contests. I’m still very proud of my brief reign as grand champion of full-contact croquet, a beautiful sport that drew mothers to our park like June bugs to watermelon rinds. Oh, how they screamed.
The Dad watched us head out to the park every morning to play. He had been forced to go to work at an early age, so he was determined that my brother Glenn and I should have the freedom that boys need when summer descends from heaven and school ends and the nights are short and warm as blood. We repaid this kindness by playing as hard as we knew he worked. If the possibility of injury wasn’t there, hell, it wasn’t a game worth playing.
Chief among us was Big Sam. He was the first bleeder, the last complainer, and the juggernaut of Fourth Avenue. Big Sam could hit a softball out of the Park, could top a double ringer in a game of horseshoe sprints, and was the first person I ever saw actually touch a basketball rim. But Big Sam’s sport of choice was football. Now, you might find this hard to believe, but he could knock the Tuesday right out of you. I know that sounds weird, but if he tackled you on a Sunday, you’d go to bed on Monday night and wake up on Wednesday morning. That explains why I’m still a terrible speller, since all my 5th grade spelling lessons were on Tuesdays. So even though I’ve been an English teacher for 27 years, I still struggle with “-i before -e except after…” I don’t know, diphthong or something.
Big Sam had to spend a week with his grandparents every July, so we honored his absence by playing harder and harsher than ever until his return.
That’s when they came.
There were three of them. Tim, Ted, and Tom Pardee had wandered up from Alabama that summer and immediately insinuated themselves into our world. We tried to be friendly and asked if they’d like to join us in a friendly game of dodge brick, but they deferred.
“Isn’t there some kind of sport we could play instead?” asked Tom. “There’s a backstop over there. We could have a catch.”
“Yeah, we could play some baseball,” suggested Johnny Miles. “But none of us brought our catcher’s masks. I guess we could use football helmets. Have a catch? What the hell does that mean?”
“Helmets and masks?” asked Ted. “Why do you need that to play baseball? Only the catcher needs a mask.”
“Not the way we play,” said my brother.
“I don’t suppose you guys have ever played Whiffle Ball?” asked Tim.
“That thing with the plastic bat?” I laughed. “No, man. We play baseball, with a real baseball and a real bat. Whiffle Ball is for school and little kids.”
“You’re just saying that because you can’t hit my Whiffle Ball fastball,” said Tim with a grin.
“You know,” said my brother, “I’m getting tired of dodge brick, and there are nine of us. Three more and we could have a game. 6-on-6.”
“We’ll play,” said Tom. “But only if we can be on the same team. And only if the game we play is Whiffle Ball.”
And eventually, we went along. We argued about if for an hour, but arguing with the Pardee boys was like arguing with the brick that was falling toward your foot. It did no good. So they won. We played Whiffle Ball. And in spite of what he said. I still think I could have hit Tim’s fastball had he ever tried to throw it. All I got was a dizzying array of curves, and when I made contact, the Whiffle ball sailed a majestic 27 feet, if it had the wind with it. Our baseball field was 5 times larger than it needed to be, and the game went on for almost five hours. In the end, we wandered away from a 37 inning, 0-0 tie.
“We win by default,” smirked Tim.
They next day, they came back.
“No Whiffle ball today,” stated my brother in a bold preemptive strike. “We always play basketball on Fridays.”
“We like basketball,” said Tom.
“Great! Well, there’s seven of us, so with you guys here, we can go five-on-five. It’ll be just like a real game.”
“We’ll play,” said Tim, “But only if we can be on the same team and only if we play half-court.”
“Half court? Half court is for girls!” said Ray Miles. It was 1966. Girls’ basketball really was played half-court. They were delicate back then.
“We will play basketball, but we will only play basketball if we are on the same team and if we play half-court,” said Ted. “And we don’t want any of you guys on our team. We’ll play all seven of you. Three-on-seven.”
We argued again, they stood like wooden blocks, and in the end, they won. Again! The strange part was they weren’t very good at basketball. They stumbled and threw off balance shots and never fouled and smiled when they missed easy layups. But they wouldn’t quit. After four hours of this, when three of our players had hit triple digits, we wondered away.
“We win by default,” muttered Tom.
On Saturday morning, as we rested in the shade of the second largest oak tree in Marshall County, they came back. Tim had a football.
“Today is Saturday,” he said. “And on Saturdays in the fall, we always play football. We do this to honor the Crimson Tide, the only college football team forged by God himself.”
“Forged?” I asked. “I heard they were coached by God.”
“They are coached by Bear Bryant, which is very nearly the same thing, you heathen,” said Tom.
“So, now you guys want to play football,” said my brother. “Let me guess, there must be some kind of restriction, something strange that makes the game uniquely yours. No blocking? No first downs? Blindfolded? Australian rules? I give up. What is it?”
“We want to play football,” said Tim. “But the football we want to play is…”
We all leaned forward.
And we laughed and laughed. Touch football was a football game without tackling. That’s like a baseball game without high and tight fast balls, or a basketball game without the occasional flagrant foul. It was possible, but it was certainly a coward’s way to play.
“I have to admit,” said my brother at last, “I knew you guys were weird and all, but I didn’t think you were liars. You aren’t from Alabama, are you?”
Tom, Ted, and Tim shuffled in an uncomfortable silence. Finally, Tim muttered:
“I didn’t think so,” said my brother. “I hate Alabama as much as the next guy, but even I will be the first to admit that there isn’t a kid in the whole state of Alabama who plays touch football. I ought to slap you for even mentioning Bear Bryant. Anybody who plays touch football hasn’t earned the right. Where are you from really?”
“I don’t know anybody from Iowa,” Glenn said, “but to my eyes, you guys have certainly put their entire male population in a state of perilously low esteem.”
“We want to play football,” said Tim. “And we want to play touch football. And since we are the ones who have the football, it must be touch football or no football.”
You aren’t going to believe this. They won again. Four hours later, we were playing touch football. Then Big Sam showed up.
“I wanna play, I wanna to play,” he screamed.
“You can be on their team,” said Tim. “That was third down and they have to punt.”
“I can’t tell you guys how much I missed this place,” said Big Sam. “I’ve spent a week with my cousins and they’re all girls. Mean ones, too. So, did the game just start?”
“Umm, no. We’ve been going at it for about two hours,” said Glenn.
“Two hours? But you’re all so clean.”
“Well, you see Sam, we’ve been playing…playing…”
“Just spit it out,” I suggested.
“We’ve been playing… touch football.”
Sam looked at all of us. He scanned our faces in the huddle, but we looked away. His face twisted as if he couldn’t understand what Glenn had just said.
“Whose idea was this?” he asked at last. His voice trembled with menace. Glenn pointed at the Pardee brothers, twenty yards downfield, waiting for our punt. Big Sam stood and yelled at them.
“Hey! I just want to let you boys know that I don’t play touch football,” Big Sam screamed.
“Well, if you want to play with us, you have to play touch football,” Tim yelled back.
“You don’t understand! I don’t play touch football!”
“Again, if you want to play with us, you have to play touch football,” Tom repeated.
Big Sam looked at us all with an expression of confusion. When he looked at me, all Icould think to say was:
“They’re from Iowa.”
Glenn’s punt was in the air. Tim eased to his right to make the catch. I found myself hoping he would signal for a fair catch. Big Sam respected the rules above all else. But as he raced past me, I could hear him repeating, over and over:
Tim gathered in the ball and turned up field. I don’t have the adjectives to describe Big Sam’s tackle. It was an onslaught of sudden violence, and Tim looked like a fly that had zipped into a freight train. He was coming toward me, and the next instant, he was going away. His fumble flew almost as high as Glenn’s punt. It landed in Tom’s hands and he turned to Big Sam and said:
“Maybe you didn’t hear us. We’re playing tou…”
Big Sam hit Tom so hard, that the last two consonants flew off his word and shattered on the rock wall that was our east sideline. Ted took the fumble and made a break for home. Big Sam caught him along College Street. We heard the collision and saw the smoke.
When Big Sam came back, Tim and Tom had crawled away. We were left to accept Big Sam’s scorn.
“I’ve been gone six days, and when I come back, you guys are playing touch football. Touch football! I can hardly believe it. It’s like this is the Twilight Zone. Do you have any idea what would happen if the kids from Alabama or Georgia or Mississippi found out guys in Tennessee played touch football?”
“Don’t say it, Sam.”
“No! I must, and you must listen! If they found out we played touch football, then they might decide to let other teams into the Southeastern Conference. Strange places like South Caroline or Arkansas. They play touch football there, so why can’t they play in the SEC?”
“Stop it! Stop it!” I cried. “It’s too terrible.”
“You don’t understand,” said Glenn. “These guys, they wouldn’t play unless we played by their rules.”
“Then they don’t play,” said Big Sam. “This whole sorry episode tells me a lot more about you guys than about them. My father learned to play football on this very field. Charlie’s grandfather donated this land to the town to make this park. Now, it’s our turn. Listen, we have a lot of ourselves invested in this place. I broke my arm right there on that sidewalk. Johnny got three stitches from that rusty spike. And a shot. Glenn, you broke a collarbone falling off that slide. We have invested our blood and sweat in this place. Now some guys from Iowa come
in and want to change the rules to suit themselves? And you guys are going to let them? Let them change Iowa, if they want. But this park is ours. Our grandfathers made it, our fathers kept it, and now we’ve earned it, bone by bone and drop by drop.”
“What do we do?” I asked.
“We tackle. We tackle until most of us agree that we don’t want to play tackle anymore. We never let some small group of folks come in and change the rules for us. If more of us want to play touch than tackle, then we’ll play touch. We’ll probably be dead by then or real old, like 20 or 21. What kind of country would this be if we all let a tiny group of people dictate to everybody else what they should or should not do? Majority rules, majority does not run! And one day, our own children will play here. And by God, they’ll play tackle.”
Big Sam went home then, and it was a week before he came back to see us. The Pardee boys, bruised and complaining, were back the next day, it being a Monday and all. They insisted we play International Rules Croquet, but we declined, and added that if they wanted to play croquet at all, they would have to survive a match of our own full contact version. They said they would go home and discuss it, and probably would be back the next day to accept our challenge.
Of course, they didn’t show. The next day was a Tuesday, after all.