In nineteen-hundred-seventy-eight, when I was beginning my senior year in high school, the only plays my football coach, Mr. Funk, wanted me to know about were the ones where I pulled and swung behind the line one way or another and took out the defensive end or cornerback. I was what was called a "flying guard," a position that took some speed, some agility, and, well, quite a bit of crazy.
When I was a freshman, a buddy of mine convinced me that I should try out for the fall play. I did and got a small part in an abysmal production of and abysmaler play called "Life With Father." The rehearsals were in the evening and there was little overlap between 'ball,' as everyone called it then in my dusty corner of rural Ohio, and the Drama Club. No prob. I went on to be in "Where Were You on the Night of January 16th?," "The Diary of Anne Frank," and, finally there were auditions for "Our Town" senior year. I'd also been in three Spring Musicals and a couple of Summer community shows.
Now, "Ann Frank" had really jazzed me up about the theater. Awakenings about justice and evil and hope and kindness and faith and dreams were cracking loudly in my heart. I was witnessing the dawn of deeper understanding, and that changes everything. I read "Our Town" that hot Fall and knew I had to be in it. It reads like a dream, misty and dripping with a melancholy I already suspected but had yet to really experience.
Well, I was cast as the character of 'The Stage Manager' in it. Yeah, a lanky seventeen year old with a wispy mustache with about as much experience in life as a mindless mayfly, cast as the very personification of wisdom and tenderness. The irony was lost on me then but seems quite startling as I consider it now.
So, about a week into practice for the play - which I was really struggling with, a lot of lines - coach Funk called me over before a Monday practice, the first game was Friday.
"Peebs," he said, "There's no way your gonna be able to do the theater thing and play ball this year. I spoke with Mr. Tippenburger, and he agrees."
Coach Funk was about five foot six, maybe. He was, well, ruddy. His crew cut was long and red and salted with grey. He had blue, fiery eyes, lined at the corners. His most predominate feature was an ever-present cigar stub in his mouth. He never lit it, he just chewed on it, a sort of very visible plug of tobacco. He kind of rolled it around and talked through it in a high but gruff voice. He was thick as well, big arms and thighs, a barrel of a body, shaped curiously like the stub he spun on his stained lips. He played for "Woody" the rumor had it. He smelled of Old Spice and confidence and sweat.
He sounded the word theater, "thee-ā- ter," with an 'a' as long as the one in disdain and a 'ter' that sounded suspiciously like 'turd.'
His cigar went about a hundred degrees 'round. I waited. I'd suspected this might happen. I knew my answer. I'd begun to see the folly of sport, the folly of the time I'd wasted sprinting and sweating and pushing that damned sled across the dusty fields of Mason.
"So, wadderyou gonna do about it? Are you gonna play ball for me er what? Hell, Bill, were about to start a winning season."
Winning was a theme with Funk, almost a religion, though I new for a fact he was Methodist. We were winners, they, the other team, were losers. Black, white. Hard, harder. Funk or, well, not-Funk.
I've never really decided if I liked Coach Funk or not. There wasn't much to like. I know now that he only presented one side to us, that, ironically, he was just playing a role, but back then he just seemed like a hardass to me.
"I'm gonna do the play, Coach."
His mouth exploded with a tobacco tinged tirade that I can't really give justice to, but I remember it ending in one massive, apoplectic breath with "... I want you to give me one-good-god-damned reason why you would rather go inside with all them sissies and in-tee-lect-choo-alls and not come on out here fer me and win a fucking trophy for this school!"
I'd like to say I lectured him on my new found depth of understanding. Maybe even, I chided him and laid out all the frustrations of chasing a stupid not-even-round ball up and down a dirty, chalky field, in rain and snow and wind and tears and blood and so damn much sweat.
"There's girls inside, Coach," I said instead.
"YER ONLY GITTIN' ONE CHANCE AT THIS, PEEBLES!" He spit into my face.
I turned and walked into the locker room, grabbed my script and headed into the gym where a stage, small but intoxicating, could be found at the far end. I saw a few friends... and a pretty girl named Kim.
You only live once. "Yolo," as folks are found of saying these days. I suppose he had a point, Coach Funk. They did win that championship. It was a big deal but I don't remember it much, I was busy trying to remember my damn lines and understand surrealism... and flirting with Kim.
I don't believe in Yolo, I think it is flawed and dangerous advice. Not only as in, uh, say... you only live once so why not hop on that subway car and see if you can surf it through the station dangerous - which only a wild flying guard might try - but dangerous to character as well, the thinking leads to compromises of values and good sense.
You can't seize every opportunity, which is the inherent flaw in living a life you treat as though it is your only one, your only chance. It suggests risks and, worse I think, can stifle and lead to regret. Hell, if I'd've thought like that my whole life I'd be sucking down rum and Cokes in a beach town in California, smoking cigarettes and chasing bikinis. It's flawed thinking.
It was a song by Kacey Musgraves, "Follow Your Arrow," that got me to considering the alternative to that kind of, I think, self-serving direction. The chorus if the song is:
Kiss lots of boys
Or kiss lots of girls
If that's something you're into
When the straight and narrow
Gets a little too straight
Roll up a joint, or don't
Just follow your arrow
Wherever it points, yeah
Follow your arrow
Wherever it points
Maybe it's a little snarky but that last line, "Follow your arrow wherever it points," seems like a better philosophy to me. It's flexible, less demanding and gentler.
It is true I had only one chance to win the big game, get that big trophy, be the football champions of a Midwest, small town high school, the very dream I'd had so many years ago, playing PewWee ball in oversized gear handed down from the winning and loosing teams of years past. But, well, my damn arrow was suddenly pointed elsewhere, as it would in the many years ahead and often still does.
I don't know what points an arrow. What sends it, with you along, down that new path, that new arc?
Perhaps, the winds of change shift it.
Maybe, the aim is not true.
Maybe, the arrow deflects off it's target and it begins off randomly on an unknown tangent.
Maybe, it's the arrow of destiny and we just ride it and scream wee-wee-wee all the way home.
Or, perhaps, we point our own arrows. Perhaps, when we do, we know the flight it just took and shoot it again along the same flight plan or off another way, another way we send it, always us sending it on its way.
Your arrow is your heart, of course. I can only guess at the the target, I suspect it's doglegged just ahead and I'll have to launch a different way.
I don't mind.
Boys - sweet Nick, sweet Zack - help me find my arrow and I'll help you look for yours. Deal?
Thanks for stopping by and listening me ramble on about something that happened so long ago. Also, remember that a memory like this is not perfect, I recall every bit of this with an accuracy that is blurry at best, fictional at worst. Somewhere between is where the arrow landed I'd guess...
There's a little more to this story, as there always is, you don't mind, do you? Mr. Funk was at my twenty-fifth high school reunion. No cigar, his hair was greyer and thinner. He seemed even more stooped, smaller, but the fire in his eyes had faded to warm coals. He was happier, mellower, wiser. We laughed at the story which he said he remembered very well.
In front of twenty or more classmates he barked out to me, "Peebs, that was the one and only god-damned answer that I couldn't come back at. I kept a straight face until you walked down the steps and then, I gotta tell ya the truth, I burst out laughing and never held it one damn bit against you. You knew what ya were doin.' I felt that."
That's when I finally decided, I liked him...
Oh, and speaking of liking, a fellow I like a great deal, Creed Anthony over at the blog called Tales From the Poop Deck, put this story back in my mind. He wrote a piece just recently called "A Legacy of Resilience," about a visit he took to his ancestral slave past in bucolic Kentucky. It's really good.
Peace to you all.