This is a bit of rolling around in my thoughts of a post. It began with some wonderful memories of autumn growing up in Lebanon. Then, i thought about my passion for playing football and those six wonderful years i actually got to play. And then, i started writing, and then, i realized i had written a lot about the stuff i was writing about. And then, i decided i would edit it. And then, decided i didn’t want to and didn’t. But i didn’t want to do much editing, perhaps because i’m not very good at editing. And then, i felt depressed about my not being a very good editor, which probably keeps me from being a very good writer. And then, i wondered why i was working on this book when i enjoyed redoing our trellis, replacing beams, painting, hanging sun shade screen, painting all the hardscape, hanging old lights, discovering shorts, replacing with new lights, cleaning the teak furniture, setting the lighting timer, losing about five pounds in water weight from sweating, taking a cold shower, drinking a gin and tonic, having another of Maureen’s fabulous chef quality meals with a nice couple of glasses of red wine, turning on the streaming television to watch the Padres while reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit, which i may never finish.
And then, i think, “What the hell? i ain’t no superlative writer. Hell, i’ve got two daughters, a brother, a sister-in-law, a niece, a nephew, and a bunch of friends who write better than me, and this is really some sort of stuff for my grandson to know what his grandfather was like, and that’s enough, so here it is rambling, piecemeal, no attempt to puff out my chest cause i was just another boy growing up in a different world in a different time, and i think we would all be a bit better off if we took the good things from the past and deleted the bad instead of throwing out the baby with the bathwater and completely refusing to learn from our past.
We just rolled over into September.
This is no longer such a big deal for me since…whenever the world of reality overwhelmed my ideal of autumn.
It was a long time ago.
Now i think of the lyrics (and the song) of Jimmy Durante’s “September Song:”
Oh it’s a long, long while, from May to December
But the days grow short, when you reach September.
When the autumn weather, turns the leaves to flame,
One hasn’t got time, for the waiting game.
Oh, the days dwindle down, to a precious few.
i get a little maudlin.
So i start to write. i started this about the time we actually rolled into September this time around. i wrote about how i loved my pre-autumns in Tennessee. Then i tried to describe why and i rambled through a whole bunch of stuff i had written before. Then i couldn’t remember what i had put in and what i left out and then i became frustrated.
Perhaps it was the weather. For the past week, the Southwest corner has felt more like August in Tennessee. You know: 95 degrees, 95% humidity. This was after a summer of highs below 80 and the usual low humidity. Coastal high desert weather driven by the Japanese current. So the impact of two-a-day practice weather in pre-season football was smacking me in the head, along with memories of digging graves in such weather in Cedar Grove. But mostly, it made me think of the discomfort (and that’s putting it mildly) necessary to get to the wonderful memories of Tennessee autumn.
From my six to twelve years of living, the beginning of September only meant to me my summer was pretty much over. i could no longer spend every waking moment, usually barefooted wearing shorts only, in our yard or the Padgett’s vacant lot between our house and theirs playing football, baseball, cowboys and Indians (which is what i thought was a rather noble tag but is now considered politically incorrect) and pretty much any thing Beverly and Roberta Padgett, Martha, Bill Cowan, Bill Simpson, eventually Joe, and i could make up, not forgetting our cousins, Nancy and Johnny Orr and our games while they visited on many weekends from Chattanooga back when it was US 41 through Jasper and Monteagle and down the switchbacks to roll through Manchester, touching the edges of Tullahoma on what was then about a four-hour drive and finishing off with Murfreesboro before Cedar Grove Cemetery and Wilson County Memorial Gardens wiped out the scores in the counting cows game, both sides.
In 1956, the semester at the second year of Lebanon Junior High began on September 4. My world changed and September took on a glorious song for me for six incredible years.
My introduction to organized football as a seventh grader did not start illustriously.
The dust and dirt field used for recess kickball, softball, dodgeball, and many other shenanigans of which i cannot tell was converted to the Lebanon Junior High Colts (Coach Jimmy Allen changed the name from Blue Devils); the next year we wore red and white disconnecting us even more from where i dreamed of being a star fullback like Clifton Tribble, not yet willing to accept my parents would send me to Castle Heights, not the place for my dream of stardom.
You see, i wanted to go to Castle Heights and be a post-graduate football hero as well because each fall i could hear the band play their march songs and hear the crowd roar from the field not a block away across West Main, and Harold Greer was my second choice to follow after his and my LHS Blue Devil careers. It was not so outlandish a dream in that i was sure i would grow to six feet, two inches tall, weighing in at 180 pounds, something i have attained and now wince at on the scales every morning because i remain vertically challenged at five-six and trust me, 180 doesn’t go well with five-six.
But the maroon and gold Tigers were not in my immediate plans for the future. i first had to don an ill-fitting uniform with high top shoes that were way too big and a helmet that could stay fix in one direction if i rotated my head real fast.
This feat, not intended in September on that dusty old field in 95 degree temps with 95 percent humidity, was something that benefitted me over a quarter of a century later when JD Waits and i held an Okinawa wardroom party in our Coronado Cays condo, and to entertain our guests put Dennis O’Connor’s title song from Walt Disney’s “Johnny Appleseed” 78 rpm album on the stereo, and to the delight of our guests, danced before them and twirled with cast iron frying pans on our heads that also, like that helmet, did not move, gaining awe from our guests. This was the party created when the wives of the ship’s officers had a party just for them. JD and i pointed out this was discriminatory and invited the ladies to a “wardroom wives” party hosted by the two single officers…only the guys showed up too.
So i pushed around those blocking dummies in the heat and sweated and my feet flopped in the shoes and my vision was constantly blocked by the non-rotating helmet, and i learned “gee 46” and “haw 35” and cut into the line so Earl Major or Jimmy McDowell could slam me into the dust turned to muddy dirt in my sweat with my helmet going every which way except with my head, and i woke up the next morning hurting like i had never hurt before and lay on our living room rug hoping to die but crawled back up, went to school, got through the classes to don that not yet quite dry uniform and the same ill-fitting helmet and shoes to do it all over again for about a week that felt about two days short of eternity.
But it was worth it. With very little playing time for the second stringers, you know, the seventh graders, the 1956 Lebanon Junior High Colts went undefeated. The entire team, seventh and eight graders; first, second, and third stringers; managers, and coaches have remained close friends.
The next year was my highlight in football notoriety. i was co-captain with Jimmy Gamble. i was at my dream position, fullback, but it was dicey. The junior high powers that were had limited junior high backs to 125 pounds. i was on the edge. i was at 124 at weigh-in but added a pound or two during the season. We didn’t weigh me again. The season produced my only touchdown, according to The Lebanon Democrat sports story, i ran a punt back against Shelbyville four hundred and forty seven typos of yards for my score. i still feel bad my father was on a business trip to Atlanta and missed it.
And then we lost to McMinnville. It was close but we lost the first and only game of our junior high football. Several of us cried all the way on the short ride from the field to our locker room. i was devastated. But it did not cloud my love of the game.
In 1958, i reported reluctantly to Castle Heights and went out for freshman football, not reluctantly. The uniform fit a bit better than my seventh grade outfit, but not by much. It was a mixed season. Wayne Pelham and i alternated at tailback in the single wing and were co-captains. More importantly, i began to develop a love for defensive linebacker. The highlight of my season may have been at practice when Wayne ran through a hole in the center of the line and i met him about a yard past the line of scrimmage. We were both at full speed, we both lowered our heads and probably looked like a bad version of competing rams, meeting head on. It knocked both of us out for a moment. Back then, you kept playing.
In 1959, Castle Heights classes began on September 1. The varsity began early practice two weeks before. i was invited, and thrilled. Of course, there was a possibility (i denied it was possible) i could be cut and required to play on the JV team. At five-six still and weighing in at a whopping 128 pounds, i was assigned to blocking back on offense and linebacker on defense. i’m still not too sure why. It really didn’t matter. Castle Heights, a member of the prep school “Mid South” conference allowed a post graduate year. Single wing blocking backs were a force, a guard in the backfield essentially. It was pretty evident i was not cut out for the position. But my role would be a running back on offense, the “T” team fodder for the first stringers. Yet it was a victory. i had made the varsity.
Then in practice as the diminutive linebacker in the tried but true 6-2 defense, the fodder faced a fullback off tackle. But it was no ordinary single wing fullback. It was Snooky Hughes from Carthage, the post graduate who was six feet and 200 pounds of red hair, ruddy complexion, more like a steam roller than a running back, who breathed like a steam engine, and when he got hot, which one can do in Tennessee early practice and September, his face would turn white hot, and the forehead scar from a childhood run in with a barbed wire fence and the scar from the slipped baseball bat whipped around the backstop and caught him on the chin would turn dark red. He looked like the Apocalypse coming in maroon and gold. Even worse (or better for me) he could get about three feet off the ground at full speed, a cannon ball. Except the little guy could get down to two feet off the ground, just enough to get under the fire and brimstone and tackle Snooky by knocking him from under his feet. It was enough to earn me a spot on the travel team which traveled 300 miles to South Alabama to play Marion Institute’s junior college team. It was brutal, the 6-4, 230 pound tight end went to Bear Bryant’s Tide the next year. Down by a large number, someone decided i should get a shot, so they sent me in…128 pounds of linebacker. The quarterback noting my size or lack of it, called an audible, tight end, yeh, that tight end, crossing across the middle. i had him covered, but there was no way i could stop him from making the catch. Then i had to try and tackle this Sherman tank. i, thinking i was cool and macho, although i don’t know how the hell a 5-6, 128# bozo could possibly think he was either, followed the manly fad and had rolled my jersey sleeves up above the elbow. i reached out to grab the behemoth and stuck his free arm out like a straight arm, so i grabbed his arm. He flicked said arm and the bozo attached to it, sort of like a sling shot. i went sliding across that Georgia clay and sand field like mister behemoth had flicked a fly off his sleeve and my bare forearms skidded across the Alabama mix of clay and sand and became raw from elbow to wrist ensuring my sleeves would not be rolled up for the rest of my football career.
In 1960, September 6 started what was a a good junior year when i played a bit more, but still second string. Ronnie Naar cut through the line; i went low; Ronnie jumped; and kicked my shoulder, dislocating it. Still, i produced the only action photo (by JB Leftwich, of course) of me in action in a football game, Carson-Newman’s B team.
This junior year was when Mike Dixon, The Cavalier sports editor dubbed me “Mighty Mouse” and gained the quote from assistant coach Jimmy Allen, “If he weighed 200 pounds (i topped at 148), they would have to make a law prohibiting him from playing football.” It was also the season of a great story told earlier about our game against Baylor School.
In 1961, September 5 was the first day of practice, and although i had yet to admit it, my last autumn of football. i had a great pre-season, and in our first game against Ferrum, the fourth ranked junior college in the country, i began alternating with Harper Ruff, a PG, at linebacker. Ruff was hurt toward the end of the first quarter. Amazingly, i made 16 tackles to which i contribute my being so small, the behemoth Ferrum linemen didn’t see me. Ferrum won, 6-0. We fumbled on their six-yard line to keep us from scoring, and they recovered our fumble deep in their territory and they scored, missing the PAT.
i hurt my knee in practice the next week and only played a couple of rounds
Coach Gwynn sent the film of that game to the coach at Centre College in Kentucky. The coach wanted me to play there, but Centre didn’t award athletic scholarships. They offered me a $2000 academic scholarship, but it could not match the NROTC scholarship to Vandy, which i took. Sadly, the film of that game has disappeared. i’ve always wanted to see if i really did make 16 tackles.
The Castle Heights Tigers went 6-2 that year, beat Baylor for the first time in two decades, and won the “mythical” Mid-South Conference championship.
i still love autumn in Tennessee, but i miss playing football, always have.