The school building looked the same but it didn't feel the same. Maybe I had outgrown it or maybe I had just been left me behind in more ways than one. I had spent two years in that building before my father became ill. Everyone I had grown up with would be gone. I hated the idea of returning to finish my senior year, but my mom had insisted. Not only that, she had insisted that I take part in every school function that came along. All that was demanded even before the doors to the school opened for the graduating class of 1963. I expected a truly miserable nine months.
I knew exactly where the school office was located. Not only because I had business there two years before, but also because I had been inside one or the other of the small rooms twice already that August. The secretary greeted me with a warm smile. She, and probably everyone else, knew the story. Fortunately no one knew all of it.
"What can I do for you Mr. Burke?" She asked it with a pleasant, though bored, smile.
"I don't know if you remember Mrs. Ansley but I played football here before I missed the year. I was curious to know if I'm eligible to play again."
"You never enrolled for you senior year did you?" She asked it knowing I had not.
"No Ma'am, my dad got sick before school started that year."
"In that case your eligibility still stands. If you had registered, then dropped out it would be gone."
"You wouldn't know if the coach is around would you?"
"He should be in his office, but I haven't seen him this morning. You remember where it is don't you David."
"Yes Ma'am, guess I will wander over to talk to him."
Ten minutes later I stuck my head in the coach's door. "Coach Reid, it me David Burke."
"Yeah David, what can I do for you?" If he recognized me, he didn't let on.
"I'd like to try out for the team."
"Sure, check with the office to make sure I'm not gonna have any trouble from the academics board."
"Already have Coach."
"You are getting in under the wire. First practice is tomorrow at four, come in at three and draw your equipment."
"Fair enough coach," I replied as I turned for the door.
"Sorry about your dad son." It was a whisper. It must have choked the bastard to say a kind word.
"Thanks," I replied not even looking back.
My eighteenth birthday was marked by a miserable football practice and a store bought cake. Mom just didn't have time to bake one. Birthdays on a Wednesday for a woman who worked so hard, just couldn't get the full treatment.
All during dad's eight month ordeal as we called it, mom's had been the only money coming in. Dad's dried up in a couple of months, after that it was live on the salary of a female factory worker. Even if it had been my dad's salary alone, we might not have done well.
Eighteen years and a day found me back on the field running laps. The first couple of days were what the coach called conditioning. It was designed to make the kids puke and I did my share. I certainly hadn't distinguished myself when the second week began. The second week was all about who could take the pain. We hit each other over and over again. After two days I began playing fullback. Why? I have no idea.
I wasn't fast and I wasn't as big as the lineman for sure. I was probably too small to be a fullback but that's where I was. I blocked for the halfbacks and ran for short yardage. In those days the kids played both offense and defense, or what they like to call iron man football now, I was involved in almost every play. I was probably the slowest defensive end on any team. Why I played there was a mystery. I had expected to be a lineman.
Football really hadn't been my idea. Hell school hadn't been my idea either. I had planned to keep the job in the plant. The plant manager had personally hired me after dad's death. No, I wasn't on any fast track to anywhere, but he wanted to help. I guess he thought it his Christian duty. I took the job but mom made me quit in August. It was back to school with me and no excuses.
During that eight month work stint mom refused to accept any of the money I made. Instead she told me to buy something I wanted or to save it for college. Since there was absolutely no chance that I was going to college, I immediately thought car. Hell I was seventeen, soon to be eighteen what else would I think.
Dad's brother the one the called Deacon stopped by once a week or so to check on us. I always thought that he slipped mom money, but I never knew for sure. On one of his visits I told him I wanted to buy a car.
"You know I'm getting ready to sell my old bomb. If you want that big old dog, I will make you a deal."
Deacon was the only grown man I knew who drove a convertible. I know there had to be others but I didn't know any. "Thanks Uncle Deacon, but I could never afford that car. It is only four years old and a convertible."
"True David but it's a damn Ford, and not even the pretty fifty-seven. I bought the ugliest Ford ever made. I bought the fifty-eight Ford fairlane. Deacon was right it was ugly as hell, but it was a convertible.
"Still I know it must have cost two grand, at least."
"Not really the guy owed me a favor."
"Still Uncle Deacon, I just don't have anywhere near what it would cost to buy that car."
"Then you can rent it."
"Sure give me what you got, then when you are tired of it, give it back to me."
"What if I tear it up?"
"Oh hell son, I have so much insurance on this piece of shit, I hope you do. Now you forget about cars and get your grades up. I have seen your report card from two years ago."
"Ok Uncle Deacon, It's a deal."
"Then drive me home," he said it without so much as a blink. On the drive he said something to me that shocked hell out of me. "The car is a gift forget bringing it back. That rent bullshit was for your mother."
"I know what you did David, I would have done it myself for anyone else, but I just couldn't for your dad. He and I were brothers and even closer at times."
I knew exactly what he meant, but I chose to play dumb. "You mean taking care of him. Hell Uncle Deacon, I had to do it there was no one else." I thought for a minute he was going to buy the line. Yes I drove dad to the doctor and hospital early on. Then I helped him to the bathroom and even bathed him. I gave him his shots for pain. I hoped that Deacon meant that.
"Taking care of him is exactly what I mean." Deacon looked hard at me. I kept my eyes on the road but I felt it. "Now David, you get your ass back to that school, and you do what you need to do."
The remark and the car were the reasons that took me to the guidance counselors office the day before school officially started. The older, to me at least, woman sat looking at my record. "Let me get this straight David, you want to retake a course that you passed two years ago?"
"Yes Ma'am, I made a D in biology and I want a chance to fix it."
"It is commendable but you are going to have your hands full passing your other courses."
"If I can't handle it, I will drop the first week. Please Mrs. Edwards this is important to me."
"Have you seen our biology teacher?"
"Sure Mr. Jasper was my teacher two years ago."
"Since you don't know I will sign your permission card to take six courses."
"Know what?" I asked it truly in the dark.
"Mr. Jasper move to another state, the new teacher is name Miss Grogan."
"Okay, it makes no difference to me."
It truly did not until I saw Miss Grogan. She was a knockout by anyone's definition. She was also young. At the plant I had interacted with women her age and older, and I had done it as an equal. I can't say that my first look at her gave me an erection, but it did light a fire in me. I'm not sure what kind of fire.
The first week of school was a nightmare for me. Everything and everyone was strange to me. I hadn't been an especially popular kid two years before but a few of the students remembered me. Since I wasn't mobbed by them, they didn't seem overly joyful to have me back.
During the first couple of weeks everyone was settling in mostly. The first football game arrived while the homework was still light. I was surprised to find myself in the line up. I certainly hadn't expected it. I got beat up some but I played almost every down. The plays all ran together in my mind. It was all just a blur. I know that we won, and even that I scored a lot of the points. It would have been a lot more fun if there hadn't been a ringing in my head. After the first real shot I took, the ringing started and the pain ended. I had seen real pain . I could disregard my own minor pain and the pain I was delivering to others.
In the locker room the other guys tried to be nice to me but I was still in never, never land. I must have looked arrogant to them, but I was really still lost. After the shower I walked into the parking lot. I found Uncle Deacon standing by the car.
"Good game David, I'm proud of you."
"Thanks Uncle Deacon. but it's just a game."
"True but it is a game of life. Just like in life you have to take your shots and if you have enough left then you give them back. You did just that. I don't give damn what the score it. Nobody in real life keeps score much. You just take the hits then you get up do it again the next day."
"Yeah, I guess you are right."
"Anyway, I just wanted to tell you that you did well."
"Uncle Deacon, I just wanted to prove I could do it. I wasn't much of a player before."
"Well, you proved you could. Now you can continue or not, it makes no difference." He smiled knowing somehow that I understood. It wasn't the doing, it was the knowing I could. I decided to continues since I liked the cheers even though I hadn't really heard them.
I spent the weekend studying and working around the house. My dad had insurance to cancel out the house payment. It was a huge chunk of our bills so things were some better. The hospital and doctors seemed to stop calling why I never understood, but I suspected Uncle Deacon made some arrangement with them.
I became something of a hero at the school. A big fish in a mud puddle it seemed. The girls took an interest in me and I flirted back unmercifully. I was a real jerk for sure. I probably could have screwed a large number of the teeny boppers. I was of an age to go to jail for it. It wasn't just that either, since a hard dick has no conscience, it was those months in the plant. They had changed my thinking on women.
The kids weren't as much silly as just boring. I knew they were into school as though it was the greatest thing in their lives. No doubt it was. It just wasn't the greatest thing in my life. I knew there was a whole world outside those doors.
Grogan, as I began thinking of her, was more to my liking. I admit that I did think of her often. It was on the Monday after the big game that she called me to her desk as class let out.
"David, I wanted to congratulate you." She was looking at me differently. The look wasn't lustful as I would have liked,it was more curious.
"It's just a game." I said it trying to get my heart back in line.
"Not the game silly, this." She handed me a paper I had written on a subject I can't even remember now. I am sure whatever the thinking was a that time, it is different now anyway.
"Oh I'm sorry. I should have realized that football wouldn't be of any interest to you." I did smile to let her know that I was past being hurt by that nonsense. I wasn't of course.
"That's right. am not impressed at all that you scored three of the four touchdowns late week." She smile then turned her attention back to the papers on her desk. It was an indication that the conference was over.
I got a lot of pats on the back and even a couple on the ass as the week moved along. At the pep rally I got more cheers when introduced that anyone else. Yes, I admit that it was heady stuff, and that I had to fight back the urge to go a little crazy.
After the rally it was try to stay calm before the game later that night. It was difficult since it was our first home game. Most of the kids weren't going to just hear about their team, they were going to see us play. It was also the conference opener. It might be the biggest game of the year since it would set the tone for the year.
The coach shuttled players in and out with the plays. We fell into a pattern. On first and second down, the team ran junk to move ahead. On third down I carried the ball up the middle. It didn't take long for the other side to begin waiting for me. When they had it figured out they pounded me. As hard as they tried they couldn't stop me. I had slipped back into a world with no pain and no reality. If they handed me the ball I ran forward. If they didn't, I knocked someone on his ass. It's the way we played football in the south in 1962.
During the first eight weeks of the ten week season, everything went as planned. We won all the games, and the cheerleaders all had crushes on one or another of the players. I'm sure there were some hot romances, but they had nothing to do with me. I had promised mom and myself, not to get involved with any of the minors. I didn't have any desire to do time.
I spent most of my Saturday evenings in the pump room. I didn't play cards and didn't care much for the taste of beer, but I did love the girls from the plant. Even the local high school football hero was better than no hero. That and my Uncle Deacon sent the young mill workers my way accounted for my limited success. I was actually getting laid now and then, but Uncle Deacon saw to it that none of the girls got serious. I have no idea how he did it, but he did. Some of the women might have been his castoffs. I never asked because I didn't care.
Grogan kept having those conferences with me. She never said anything out of the way, but she never backed away from me either. She let me flirt with her, probably because it boosted her ego. Crises came in December. We were playing in the state Championship game. That was a big deal to everyone but me. I knew that the outcome would just be a footnote in my life, but the others seemed to think that it was the highest achievement they might ever attain.
"So David, did you have time over the weekend to do your assignment." Grogan was looking down at me as she asked it.
"Yes Ma'am why wouldn't I?" I looked up into her dark, dark brown eyes.
"Well with the game and all the other things you are involved with, I thought you might not have time for this little biology paper."
I had no idea what she meant so I answered truthfully though lamely, "I do my assignments on Sunday afternoon." She had a half smile on her face. I was a little disconcerted even though I knew there was no way for her to even guess what I had been up to on Saturday night. She might guess since it seemed I was popular at school. I knew that it wasn't really me. I was the guy two years before couldn't get a date. I wasn't sure that anyone knew that I wasn't taking advantage of my hero status. Oh I was messin' with women but they were grown women, in most cases lots older then me
People were talking about me and the big game all day. The rumor was that college scouts were going to be looking. Then the fact that I chose to repeat biology came up. Getting ready for the college scouts the rumors went. There were even rumors that the university of north carolina already had a letter of intent. That rumor also stated that it was how I managed to drive the big black Ford convertible.
I barely spoke to anyone about myself, so they had no idea about any of it. Just a bunch of wild guesses. The first half of the big game was a nightmare. I was swarmed even when I didn't have the ball. They cleaned my clock so many time I felt like Big Ben. I hardly felt it, but it prevented me from advancing the ball.
We managed to stay close even with me pretty much hamstrung. In the forth quarter we got to the three with first and goal. Even with all the swarming, I go to the one yard line. Coach sent in the same thing again.
"Thomas, it isn't going to work. They are filling the off tackle hole with guys the size of trucks."
"Coach called it," he replied.
"If you got any balls, call a quarterback draw and lets end this." Whose voice I was using I didn't know. It sure as hell wasn't mine I was too lost in the moment to think let alone speak.
"Are you sure?" He asked me. I could see the frown even behind his nose guard.
"Hell no, but I'm tired of getting my ass kicked. Time you got in the fight." I smiled. I hoped they all saw it but I didn't care. We ran the quarterback draw, we scored to take the lead, they never recovered. Sort of anti climactic I know but that's how it happened.
The next night I was forced to attend the dance. Mom insisted that I join in the activities that she felt had been stolen from me. I didn't tell her I would rather have been at the pump room sipping a beer and talking with Uncle Deacon. Okay, feeling up some mill girl too. I didn't want to but I put on the suit mom bought for the away games. Every team member had to wear a coat and tie to the away games. It was the coach's or maybe the league's rule. The black suit made its last appearance I was sure. Inside the dark and over decorated gym the team got introduced one at a time.
The quarterback and I shared the loudest cheer. The announcer told each team member to chose a partner for the official dance opener. The team captain and the most valuable player will go first. The captain was the quarterback of course. I smile at him as he took the head cheerleader's hand. It was only right I supposed.
"The voting is in for the most valuable player. The team, the coaches, and the local sports writers voted. This year there was never any doubt. David Burke, choose your partner." The principle was all aglow with excitement.
God I thought, these people are taking this shit way to seriously. I looked down the row of women, even the ones there with dates seemed anxious. Probably just curious to see who I chose. I gave some thought to the homeliest girl in the school. I didn't only because I realize it would seem like a mercy dance and embarrass her even more. Instead I walked past the line of cheerleaders to the corner where the faculty chaperones stood. I extended my hand to Grogan. She shook her head.
"Please don't make a scene. It is just a dance." I stood a couple of feet away when I said it. She saw the wisdom in it. She allowed me to lead her onto the floor. We left a respectable distance between us then danced to an inspirational thing. Everyone seemed to love rah, rah music. I caught some of the cheerleader types looking angrily at me. I didn't give a rat's ass. They gave me the choice and Grogan was my choice.
When the dance ended, she walked back to the group of staff and pretty much out of my life. The conferences after class ended that night. The semester ended a couple of weeks later. She wouldn't even look at me in the halls after that. I hoped that on graduation night all that would change, but she didn't even show for the ceremony.
I got a letter from her over a year later, not really a letter just an invitation to her wedding. The invitation with the hand scribbled note had been tossed to me while I stood in a circle around the first sergeant. I was back from two weeks in the field with my ARVN unit. Since they hadn't shot me instead of the Cong, I was feeling lucky. The invitation to Grogan's wedding stole whatever good feelings I might have had.
David, I probably should have gone to your graduation. I'll always wonder now. Grogan...
Later - much later - I would look at that note and grin.