Chapter 2 Enter The Jock
Sports, as I started to tell you back a ways, became an entirely different experience for me. I couldn’t get enough of whatever sport was in season. I don’t know whether I was too stupid and simple to grasp the nuance of chess club, astronomy, crafts, etc., or if I just liked getting the opportunity to legally beat the hell out of someone. In the long run, I guess it doesn’t matter what the reasons were. The fact is, I was addicted to athletics. I loved baseball, softball, basketball, football, kickball, tennis, golf, bowling, pool— if it had anything remotely to do with a ball, I wanted to do it, and I wasn’t satisfied until I had the skills to do it better than the other kids. I practiced from dawn to dark, then I went inside and oiled my baseball glove or went out to the garage and punched the bag I made out of an old canvas laundry bag, stuffed with sand and rags and suspended in mid-air with a rope I tied to a roof joist. It was so heavy that I needed a friend to help me hoist it into place. For hours, I hit it, tackled it, pretended it was an opposing lineman and barked out signals before launching myself from a 3-point stance to block it. Whenever I needed to work out a few frustrations, I mentally affixed the face of my rivals on that bag, and beat the damned thing senseless. In the 7th grade, Ron Poulan gave me a set of boxing gloves and my world changed. Over a period of a year or so, a rush of self-confidence came over me as my body started to morph. I gained a little weight, I started to build some muscle mass and I no longer feared anyone. On the athletic fields, kids who’d been unbeatable rivals in previous years now seemed manageable. The more events I won, the more I wanted to win. Feats of skill became tastes of honey; tidbits of liquor so delicious I craved it to feed my unquenchable need… my ego. It was no longer enough to merely win; I needed to crush my opponent. Little by little, the joy of victory became a vehicle of appeasement. Such considerations as how the game was played no longer mattered. Just win, baby. And the die was cast. For the remainder of my boyhood and for much of my adulthood, I was officially a jock.
Originally, the designation seemed to be a desirable one. Society tended to treat us differently. After all, the honor of the school was in our hands. On a weekly basis, we ventured onto the noble field of battle, entrusted to bring home that trophy or be carried off on our shields. We became the symbolic warriors of the cause and the good of all mankind hinged on our performances. Forget the fact that most of us were incapable of spelling ‘performance’ or any other multi-syllabic words not directly pertaining to our quest for ego-gratification. But, little by little, I began to hear the snickers behind my back and I started to sense that I was different, but of course, I’d been indoctrinated to believe that all their wisecracks were mere jealousy, that our way was the only way, and if others didn’t keep quiet, they’d be next. The pack would have their way, the alpha-males spreading their genetic seed regardless of whatever societal attitudes prevailed. We were entitled, after all.
Although my talents (and size) predisposed me to play baseball, my real love was football. For most of my youth, I was pretty little. Most of the kids outweighed me by at least ten pounds and were three or four inches taller. It didn’t matter, because I had The Bag. My house (or more correctly, my garage) was one of the more popular places to spend time after school, because all my friends loved to come over and work out with me. We didn’t know it, of course, but even then we were becoming soldiers. The regimens involved in committing to weightlifting and scheduled workouts became the precursors for discipline and military bearing. Leadership skills found their origins in that garage, both for me and for all the kids who entered.
Baseball was king in my part of town, especially during the middle school years, grades 7-9. We called it “junior high school” in those days; we didn’t realize we were being ‘developmentally subjugated’. This was before the days when every district had a psychologist on staff. The vice-principal gave us all the psychology we needed: Mind your manners and don’t be an asshole, or I’ll beat the hell out of you and tell your parents to come get you. Then, when you get home, you’ll get it again. We weren’t smart enough to know that we were being abused, I guess. We just knew that if we screwed up, there’s a price to pay, so we learned the art of deceit. Vice-Principal Sharkey’s paddle had at least three holes in it and the man was born to wield it. Nothing gave him greater pleasure. So, once having tasted its fury across the fleshier regions of the gluteus maximus (that’s your ass for those of you who're biologically challenged), it didn’t take Albert Einstein to know that you didn’t need it again.
But, I was talking about baseball. Sorry, I tend to drift in and out of coherency like that. I’ll start off telling you about the time I threw a no-hitter against our biggest rival and before you know it, I’ve described, in detail so vivid that it makes you want to rip your eyeballs out for having been foolish enough to sit still and read it, the machinery used to put the white chalk lines on the baseball field. I don’t know why, either, it’s just how my mind works. Maybe if we’d had a school psychologist, someone could have diagnosed the reasons and put a stop to it. In those days, only crazy people were forced to go to psychologists or psychiatrists. If you were a nut case, everyone knew it and chances are very good that if you were, you were already in the loony bin. I can only remember one kid who ever slipped through the cracks. I won’t give you his real name because I don’t want to get sued, but ‘Johnny’ was the oldest of three brothers living with their parents on the next block down from us. All three boys were pretty good athletes and loved the competition—both with each other and with the world. They fought every day, with each other if they couldn’t find anyone else to beat up. They were of Eastern European ancestry and their last name ended with “-ski”. Although I think they were actually Lithuanian, they became the neighborhood ‘pollocks’. Their parents were highly religious and discipline in their family surpassed anyone else’s. Those kids got the tar beat out of them at least a couple of times a week—with the belt. So, you might say they had ‘an attitude’ with the rest of us. But, ‘Johnny’ and I were the same age (he was the oldest of the three brothers), and we became pretty good friends. Early on, maybe around the age of 12 or so, I knew that ‘Johnny’ was different. All he talked about was girls, but during the summer, when all the kids played outside under the streetlight (in ‘Johnny’s’ front yard, by the way), ‘Johnny’ seemed to vacillate towards the girls, but not in a sexual way. It was if he had more in common with them, than with us. It wasn’t anything in particular, just an observation. I didn’t have the chance to interact with ‘Johnny’ during school because he and his brothers went to St. Pius, the local Catholic school, while the rest of us heathens went to public school. Yes, most of us them were Catholic, too, but, their parents didn’t have the cash to “kiss the Pope’s ass”, as my dad put it, but that’s another story. But around the ninth grade, ‘Johnny’ went away. Another Catholic family lived two doors down from them and had a daughter I shall call ‘Susie’, who was the love of my life from the first second I knew what a girl was. One night, they came home to find ‘Johnny’ in their basement, wearing ‘Susie’s’ bra, panties and Girl Scout uniform. It might have worked for him except for the fact that ‘Susie’ was very petite and he was nearly six feet tall and weight 170 pounds. Plus, if you can trust the story as told to me by my father, he had the panties draped over his face—all three pairs. Needless to say, we gave ‘Johnny’s’ family a little wider berth after that. In my father’s words, “You need to stay away from them crazy-ass pollocks… they’re nothin’ but white niggers.”
Shocked? Well, I understand that. Remember, though, we’re talking about the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. This was before Dr. Martin Luther King made his famous “I have a dream…” speech and most of us woke up—at least a little. Aurora, Colorado of the Fifties and early Sixties was a reasonably well-designed little community on the east side of Denver. During this time, the growth of the city and the phenomenon of suburban sprawl were in full bloom. World War II veterans were becoming established in their neighborhoods, most were working, and, in general, times were pretty good. Of course, with the rapid growth came the inevitable launch of the social experiment called America.
In those days, Aurora was still lily-white. Thinking back upon it, I really think it was better that way. The introduction of minorities into our neighborhoods would have had the effect of watering down our dysfunction. Their unfortunate tendencies towards tight-knit families and loyal associations among friends would have ruined everything. It would have irreparably brightened our outlook on the world. If we had someone around who tried to make sense, we could never have achieved the high levels of disillusionment so proudly exhibited by all my friends. I was a senior in high school before I ever met a black person. Oh, we played against blacks in sports, but until I met Cliff Arrington, the only thing I knew about black people was that ‘a nigger is a nigger is a nigger’. My father was raised in Kentucky, during the Great Depression and they took their identity from the deep South. Whites and blacks did not even talk to each other unless the black person was serving the white in some fashion. Remember, this was only about seventy years after Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves. The great social pendulum had not yet swung back towards the middle and although black people were no longer forced to work for white people, they still had very little entrance into white society and were economically forced to take positions as ‘second-class’ citizens. Who wouldn’t be pissed about that? I can think of no one.
So, with attitudes being what they were, under a constant state of distrust and separation, my father felt no compunction whatsoever about putting labels on people. He had been raised on the streets, too; no one lived well during the 1920’s and 1930’s. His path crossed that of blacks as they competed for bread and practically everything else. Times were so bad that often he had to steal to buy food. In those dark days before World War II, the boy who became my father would walk miles and miles on the railroad track hoping to find coal that had fallen off the trains that headed from Appalachia to points north. If he had a good day, they had heat for the house that night. If not… well, they did the best they could. But being the oldest boy in a family of nine children with no father, he bore the burden of being a man when he was eight years old. He left school in the second grade. So, I understand why he harbored a deep-seated animosity for an entire race of people, but I think it went much further. I honestly think his hatred was a symptom of his own self-loathing, his belief that he’d been cheated out of the opportunity to ever attain one tenet of the American dream, the pursuit of happiness. Plus, he didn’t have the benefit of even an elementary education. Blacks and other minorities were merely the most convenient focal point for his misplaced sense of retribution. Even if I can’t admire it, at least I understand it.
Deep down, my father was a kind, caring man, but I think he felt that he had to show the world a guy who wouldn’t allow anyone to take advantage of him. He loved hard and he hated hard, and sometimes it was difficult for a kid to discern which emotion was present at any particular time. Until I was about ten years old, I thought my first name was Damn-It Bob, because whenever he spoke to me, the first words out of his mouth were “Damn it, Bob, why didn’t you mow the lawn?” or “Damn it, Bob, why did you get such a lousy grade in Math? Is Herbert hiding his paper again?” He fussed and fumed at me so much that I came to expect it all the time. Then, when we were around his friends, I’d hear him telling them of my feats of bravado in baseball or football and I had to listen more intently, because I thought he was talking about someone else. Does my father have an illegitimate son somewhere? From day one, my father and I had a love/hate relationship. He just couldn’t offer me praise directly, and it hurt me. It wasn’t until I had my own kids that I understood—he honestly felt that if he showed me too much love, he’d make me soft and effeminate. No son of his would turn out to be a queer. Oh, and just in case you’re wondering, he got his wish. I’m 100% straight, which I consider to be a blessing. I’m not nearly tough enough to accept the abuse gay people endure in this society on an ongoing basis. I’d be doing time for murder the first time some asshole called me a faggot.
*Sigh* See? One thing you need to understand about old people (I refuse to allow myself the moniker ‘senior citizen’, it entails just the sort of smarmy political correctness that I detest) is that we understand mortality, at least in the sense of its immediacy. Therefore, since we know that we are ‘on the clock’ so to speak, if we desire to do something, we need to get cracking, because that clock is ticking. I admit that I understand little about the technical aspects of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, and I don’t recall reading a part of it postulating that time passes faster when a person eclipses the age of fifty, but I swear it’s the case. I won’t bore you further with it; just realize that may be why this story is such a jumbled mess. I have to get it out while I’m thinking of it, because I may not have the opportunity to go back and do the editing and re-writes necessary to meet the standards of the publishing industry. Remember, this is my gift to you and like any gift you receive, you’re required to accept it in the spirit which it’s given. Then, after much fawning over it when in my presence, complete with the mandatory expressions of delight in having received it and your audible recognition of its overwhelming power and value in acting as your ultimate moral compass, I authorize you to lovingly place it amongst the great classics of literature you keep on your bookshelf. Either that or put the pages through a paper shredder and use it as a gerbil nest—your call.
Screw it, I’m not going to talk about baseball. As a spectator sport, it’s a passé snooze of a game, short bursts of athletic excellence wrapped in three hours of inertia. The brand of baseball being played in the Major Leagues these days relies on the ability of gargantuan batters being able to drive the ball over the back fence, thereby proving their manhood and exhibiting their peacock prowess as they do their ‘home-run trot’ around the bases. It’s become the symbol of all that’s wrong with professional sports. Spoiled, vain, arrogant, filled with contempt for the very fans that ultimately pay their salaries… what’s to admire about them? Yet, we flock to watch them in greater numbers than ever before. Has entertainment become so hard to come by that we’re forced to support a game played by millionaires to make more money for billionaires? I think I know why we do it, though. We’re trying to re-capture our youth. Admittedly, there’s something special about a ballpark. Hot dogs taste better there, the sun is a little warmer… even the loudmouth sitting behind you becomes your newest, best friend when your team scores or puts down a rally from the opponent. Baseball is life in microcosm. Sometimes it’s slow and boring, sometimes it happens so fast, it’s over before you realize anything’s taking place. The full gamut of human emotions is run every time we watch or play the game. In simpler times, baseball was our national pastime. Its nine-inning passion play once held the nation hostage to its result. Now, a few geeks check the box scores to see if their fantasy teams won them any money, and none but the most hard-core of purists understand anything about the game at all. All things must pass. I’m glad I chose not to talk about the game that took up probably sixty percent of all my hours on earth between the ages of six and eighteen. It’s a pleasure not to tell you that I played on three straight high school state championship baseball teams, that I received a scholarship to play baseball at the University of Colorado and that the Philadelphia Phillies drafted me. It’s all pretty boring… I’m glad I didn’t mention it.
Football is another story entirely. I was known as a ‘tweener’. I wasn’t fast enough to play running back, accurate enough to play quarterback, or big enough to play the line. But I loved to hit and was a ferocious tackler, so they kept a roster spot open for me. I knew that I’d never be big enough to get a scholarship, but the prospect of suiting up on Friday nights in front of those big crowds was like an opiate. The rush I got from listening to the cheers was nearly inexpressible. Lining up across from an enemy lineman gave me a thrill on every play, especially when it was cold and you could see his breath. I loved to talk to my opposition, too, a habit that resulted in being ejected for fighting on several occasions. It seems some guys get a little irritated when you insinuate that you’ve been screwing their sister... or mother. I used to read the newspaper obituaries in hopes that I’d get lucky and a member of the opposing team might have just lost a loved one. That’s always good for fireworks if you happen to mention to the unfortunate guy that you have a thing for corpses and would he mind if you snuck a quick peek at good ol’ mom.
Even in the Sixties, football was serious business. The stands were filled with fathers whose scions were out there on the gridirons of America, getting the crap kicked out of them, so daddy could vicariously score the touchdown that he never quite accomplished in high school. This, of course, is because good-ol’ dad was in chess club. The closest he ever got to a football field was when he recalled his glorious heroics to that cute blonde at the Boom-Boom Club.
I have loved football since I was old enough to know what it is. After my first football practice (third grade as I recall), I remember thinking, ‘Hey… this is great! I get to beat the hell out of that butt-hook, Gary Bishop, and not get kicked out of school!’ In junior high school there were two kids I tried to convince to come out for football for precisely that reason!
As it turned out, neither guy would accommodate me and I ended up getting kicked out of school, anyway. But, that wasn’t until basketball season, and I sucked at basketball, so it didn’t matter. Why would anyone waste his time playing a sport that involved activities that didn’t involve physically assaulting the other team?
I always liked to fight. I don’t know why, I just did. All you psychologists out there, eat your hearts out, I made it all the way to manhood (arguably) without ever once polishing the leather on your couch. I owe it all to football. Coach Roman Gabler was the only shrink any of us ever needed. The man took motivation training from the Marquis de Sade, his pre-game speeches inspired by Mein Kampf and Knute Rockne.
Of course, in the Sixties, everyone’s favorite football team was the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Never mind the fact that most of the guys on the team were either of Italian or Polish descent, in God’s eyes, all football players are Irish.
I’d heard all the stories regarding the exploits and heroics of Johnny Lujack, Paul Hornung and all the rest. And before Coach Gabler stepped onto a bench and began his inspiration, exhorting us to become mad dogs of hatred as we stormed out of the locker room shouting and cursing, we received the inspiration of one Father Armand Dresser.
Father Dresser, our team spiritual advisor, was the pastor at Our Lady of Victory Parish. His nose was as red as a ripe maraschino cherry. Almost every kid on the team had served as an altar boy at one time or another, so we thought of him as something other than inspirational. In fact, there wasn’t a single one of us who hadn’t taken his turn unloading the liquor truck as it pulled up to the back of the rectory. In hindsight, I’m sure the Bishop would have liked to know about that, too, but it’s all holy water under the bridge at this point. Honestly, a couple of liters of altar wine per day is probably necessary to keep a man sedated enough to listen to the confessions of a faithful flock. How many adulterous affairs is a man capable of keeping quiet about before he runs screaming into the streets?
Also, while I’m on the subject, I want to know something. If he couldn’t see us when we were in the confessionals, why did he always know our name as he handed down our penance? Every Saturday, as I awaited my turn to go in, I’d sit and think up ‘sins’ that would be right on the edge of the mortal/venial threshold, just to see if I could push the envelope and receive something other than five Hail Mary’s and ten Our Father’s. Once I managed an “Examine your conscience, my son”, too. As I recall, that one involved looking in neighbor’s windows, the cute little Frontier Airlines stewardess. I felt like I was finally starting to make some progress down that road to Hell.
As was his custom on Game Day, Father Dresser always wore his black floor-length tunic that made him look and walk like a penguin. Of course, his uniform wouldn’t have been complete without that little black hat. Coach Gabler called him “Dress”… “Come on up here, Dress, and give us our Lord’s blessing…we’d hate to have any of those assholes crippled for life!”
Then, we’d mill about while a couple of assistant coaches helped “Dress” onto a bench. “In the name of the Father, and of the Son and the Holy Spirit, let us pray…” Then, he’d commence his litany of the saints, progression of Beatitudes and adoration of Mary, all in Latin, of course, stopping only to catch his breath or burp. We’d all look at each other out of the corners of our eyes, shake our heads and grin, patiently waiting for Jim Worthington (our huge All-Conference right tackle) to fart and crack up the whole team! Some of the guys took bets on whether Father would fall off the bench from a combination of inebriation and vertigo from keeping his eyes closed that long.
I remember getting a letter from my mother years later, while I was in the Marines, telling me that Father Dresser had left the parish. Evidently, the Bishop had sent him on special assignment to a monastery somewhere, the purpose of his mission to ‘examine his conscience’. It seems that Father Dresser might have more appropriately been called Father Cross-Dresser, but that’s a story for another time.
I managed to graduate from high school on time, thanks, in no small part, to Herbert and his magic paper. Teachers, counselors (and my mother) remained eternally vexed and confused by my lack of performance. The standardized tests I took showed my IQ to be remarkably high, yet my grades were only slightly above average. From day one I was told that if I studied very hard, I could become an above-average craftsman or teacher. You see, very few kids were encouraged to attend medical or law schools unless their parents were doctors or lawyers. One mustn’t rock the boat. The counselors’ attempts at ‘profiling’ led to diminished expectations even for the kids who did study hard and finish at the tops of their class. In those days, only the top ten to fifteen percent of the kids attended college, unless they received athletic scholarships. Probably an equal number enrolled in trade schools, and the rest either joined the military or went to work. I graduated in 1965, and even then, the specter of Vietnam loomed over our heads. Even as a junior, I remember guys joining up, trying to avoid the draft. The word around town had it that if you enlisted before being drafted, you had a better chance of going to a military trade school, thereby prolonging a trip to Vietnam. One guy who did this stands out in my mind because he was the class clown. Light on intellectual creativity and prospects for higher education, Tony Smucker realized that as soon as he graduated, he would be drafted, so he enlisted during spring semester. This was a boy who would do anything for a laugh. During his senior year, he cut the tip off one of his fingers while in Wood Shop. He missed one afternoon of school and showed up the next day with that fingertip in a small jar of formaldehyde. The entire morning, he took bets with all comers as to the prospect of his consumption of said fingertip. If he’d had one of those little green eyeshades, you’d have sworn that he was a Las Vegas bookmaker. Kids would give Bob Shaughnessy the money while Tony wrote down his or her name on a legal pad. By the time lunch hour rolled around, Tony sat at the head of a table with only that little jar sitting in front of him, amputated phalanx floating independently within, and a huge throng of kids forming a crush around the table, each wishing to get a glimpse of the act. Cheers, jeers and catcalls of many forms accompanied the scene as Tony sat grinning at the crowd, hoping to entice some late money into the bet. Then, when he felt the time was right, he turned the lid off the bottle and picked up a fork. Screams immediately found air in the room, causing Lee Rosa, the wrestling coach and 1957 Mr. Colorado, to push his way through the crowd and confiscate the severed appendage just before it entered Tony’s mouth. It’s rumored that in turn for not being suspended (thereby not graduating) and all the kids’ names on the betting list not being sent to Mr. Sharkey’s office for the corporal punishment he so loved to dish out, Tony would give the money (all $470) to the March of Dimes campaign against birth defects. We lost Tony in the spring of 1965, the victim of a Viet Cong ambush in a fire fight in the Ashau Valley of Vietnam. It was announced over the loudspeaker in homeroom. That morning, reality drove into my psyche and parked in my garage, never again to relinquish the space. That day, my childhood ended.
The middle 1960’s were, arguably, the greatest time of social upheaval in American history, fueled mainly by the Vietnam Conflict. Most of us then between the ages of sixteen and twenty-one were the progeny of World War II veterans, the generation that is now called the Baby-Boomers. Right after high school, young men were forced to register for the Draft, the government’s process of rounding up every male who had reached his eighteenth birthday. They were placed in a cattle pen called The Selective Service Bureau and left to graze until the government felt it was time to slaughter them. Then, they were herded into military vehicles and sent to training centers with names like Camp LeJeune, Camp Pendleton, Fort Bliss or MCRD (Marine Corps Recruit Depot) San Diego, dressed in green for a few weeks and sent to Southeast Asia, never once being allowed to question the process. Of course, a process this drastic never escapes the scrutiny of the public, and a counter-culture in direct defiance of the war was born. They were called Hippies or the Peace Generation. These people spent their time reading the political works of Lenin, Marx, Malcolm X, Ché Guevara, and formed cells of resistance called The Weather Underground, Students for a Democratic Society, The Black Panthers, the Yippies, and many more; their entire reason for existence being the cessation of military action in Southeast Asia and/or the overthrow of the U.S. government.
In those days, the government and society alike vilified these people. But, their influence on literature, music and mores of society could not be denied. They were starting to have enough impact that other ‘minority’ groups saw the opportunity to make a splash onto the American political scene. A woman named Betty Friedan became the foremost spokesperson for women’s rights in the world with the publication of her book, The Feminine Mystique in 1963. Ms. Friedan was instrumental in the foundation of the National Organization for Women (NOW), and is recognized as the preeminent catalyst for the women’s movement. Suddenly, life as we knew it in the United States took a new tack. Women, empowered by their new-found political clout, began the revolutionary activity that would change the world. No longer were women content to be stay-at-home mothers. They lobbied to have the ‘glass ceiling’ lifted from salaries paid to women. Soon, faculties at universities were being filled with women professors and seats in medical and law schools were occupied, in greater numbers than ever before, by female students as the Equal Rights Amendment legislation was enacted. Much of the societal circumstance we see today found its infancy during the Vietnam Era.
So what does all that have to do with me? Everything and nothing… The Marine Corps drafted me in February of 1966, while sitting in the dugout of the Philadelphia Phillies training facility in Clearwater, Florida, nine days after I’d arrived for spring training. I mention this because on that day, my dream of becoming a professional baseball player died. All the hours and days of preparation, all the missed family gatherings spent at this practice or that out-of-town ball game… just to have the dream die right before my very eyes as I was about to find out whether or not I had what it took. Maybe I wouldn’t have made it, but that’s the problem. I’ll go to my grave without knowing. Honestly, I’ve had a good life in spite of it, but in the back of my mind, there’ll always be that nagging question that has no answer. Okay, write this down: Don’t let your dreams die. It’s actually just that simple. If you love something enough to consider it your ‘dream’, then it’s important enough to devote your life to it. Never give someone the power to steal your dream. If I had it all to do over again, I’d have ignored that notice-of-induction telegram entirely and finished spring training. At that point, I would, at the very least, have been told whether they would pick up their option on my contract and offer me assignment somewhere in their farm system. Then, I probably would have honored my commitment as an American citizen; complete with the knowledge of what could have been, had it not been for the war. The dream, to me, was more important than the actual eventuality of it happening. Then I wouldn’t have felt cheated. Don’t let anyone cheat you out of your dreams. That way, when you write your memoirs fifty years from now, you won’t be pissing and moaning about what a raw deal you got from life, like your grampy is now.