Saturday, May 30, 2015

The hero who took out the bad guys

Buy a gun or two. Something powerful. Something you'd never shoot a deer or a wild hog with. Something made for one reason and one reason only: to kill. To kill people, in particular. Now, buy a couple hundred rounds of the most lethal bullets available. They're called RIP bullets, and they don't just kill. They butcher. They maim. Think of a regular bullet as a sharp knife and a RIP bullet as a blunt axe.

Next, play with the gun. Toy with it. Load it and unload it and gaze at it and fantasize shooting it, of blowing people away. Just for kicks, lug your new gun into the local Applebee's and scare the hell out of some children and old people and libtards.

Eventually, you'll want to take it out and shoot something. That's what it's for. Shoot up an old TV set or computer monitor. Take out some clay pigeons. Just don't forget to take along your ear plugs or noise-reducing headphones. By the way, 3M makes a nice pair of tactical ear muffs. A lot of SWAT teams use them. I'm sure they'd look great on you.

And now, wait for the bad guys to show up, to threaten you, to step into your cross-hairs. It might be a genuine criminal. It might just be that punk kid who owns the monster truck down the street, who's always gunning it at 2 or 3 in the morning. And when you confront him and he smarts off and then decides to bull-rush you because he's young and drunk and stupid, then you shoot him. In the chest. In the head. If you're lucky, he'll be wearing a gray hoodie, which means he's a gang-banger for sure, and you stood your ground.

Well, good for you. The Founding Fathers salute you, and your fellow Constitutional scholars at Cabela's and Walmart and the gun shows applaud you defending freedom and liberty and the American Way of Life, not to mention the Second Amendment.

And so what if a few of these guns fall into the hands of the wrong people. Of course, I'm referring to children. Not hardened criminals.

Kids do crazy things, especially when there are guns stashed around the house. Like the 4-year-old Kentucky boy who shot and killed his 6-year-old sister. Or the 3-year-old Michigan boy who died after accidentally shooting himself in the head with the gun he found on the closet floor of his home.

As Joe the Plumber so eloquently stated, your dead child doesn't trump his Constitutional rights to hoard guns. Besides, criminals will have their guns, regardless. It's part of being a criminal. They're loaded, and they can always get more — legally, in most cases. Most importantly, they get the first shot.

And you can't stop them because no one sees them coming. They're odd-duck types who have never once broken the law but who are quietly and politely seething, roiling, ready to explode. They plot their revenge and, one morning, strap on the gear and show up, locked and loaded, at a post office or a J.C. Penney's or in the halls of your 12-year-old daughter's school, where they blurt out the lyrics of a rock song or a line from Catcher in the Rye and then start blasting away.

It's at that point that I wish you would show up, but you never do, so over the course of the 45 minutes, they slaughter 10 or 12 and then kill themselves or are killed by police officers who are specifically trained and equipped to do just that. It's their job whereas you work the counter at Pep Boys.

Eventually, the blood is mopped up and the funerals are held and the victims are buried and nothing changes. You still troll Walmart or Cabela's and the gun shows and buy another gun and another bucket of bullets, and you return home and diddle with them and gaze at them and sink deeper and deeper into your cammo-covered BarcaLounger and your warrior fantasies of being the big hero who takes on the bad guys and defends America. The Beautiful.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

The commie, socialist wannabe

I received an email recently from a former colleague, a retired Texas school administrator who trades in tea party agitprop. The email linked to a piece of hogwash that's made its way around the Internet a dozen or more times, titled, “4 Simple Questions.” It was written by a New Jersey lawyer, Richard Silverlieb. 

“Help me figure this one out, Bobby,” my former colleague asked, sarcastically. “I'm not sure I can!”

Well, I knew it was a set-up, but I glanced over it, then responded, first, by questioning Silverlieb’s objectivity, inasmuch as he ends his screed with "A pen in the hand of this socialist commie wannabe is far more dangerous than a gun in the hands of 200 million patriotic law-abiding citizens."

Then, I questioned his veracity by pointing out that communism and socialism are not the same and that no one I know cares if one gun is shared among 200 million law-abiding, patriotic citizens. I mean, that is what he wrote. "…a gun in the hands of 200 million patriotic law-abiding citizens." 

I suspected Silverlieb's accusations were as pristine factually as they were grammatically and, of course, I was correct. Almost every one is deemed false or highly misleading by either or both Snopes or Politifact. Of course, my former colleague thinks Snopes and Politifact are libtard b.s. published by Bolsheviks, and, besides, mere facts are just some pinhead's opinion. Darwin is wrong because not all apes have evolved into humans, and snow in Boston means global warming is a hoax, perpetrated by someone really, really evil. Like Bill Nye, the Science Guy.

My former colleague reminds me quite a lot of an old friend who turned 61 recently. Many of us sent him the obligatory ‘Hope you have a great birthday blah blah blah’ message. Late in the afternoon, my old friend posted a message on Facebook, thanking everyone for thinking of him. He told us he had spent the day with his children and grandchildren, had a great time and yak yak yak, but then, for no apparent reason, he took a roundhouse swing at "the idiots in Washington D.C." 

Why go there? Why couldn’t he have just written, "Thanks for the kind thoughts and messages. I hope you all had as good a day as I did." Why drag politics into this otherwise sweet moment?

Well, here's why. He believes he's oppressed. He feels threatened. He fears the big, bad goose-stepping government of the criminal commie socialist wannabe is going to ban the future sale of .223 M855 ammunition. This especially infuriates him because .223 M855 ammo is the only ammo capable of bringing down a stag or a wild hog or whatever it is he picks off from the comfort of his deer blind. Apparently, regular bullets just bounce off.

Should I have been surprised by his micro-rant? I suppose not. He seems to get much of his political and some of his religious instruction from the NRA or Duck Dynasty. A week or so earlier, he suggested that Obama "Just needs to stop breathing.”

So, what does this suggest? It suggests that these otherwise good people — salt of the Earth types — wake each morning and return to sleep each night, swathed in the comfort of their loathing of one man, the scary wannabe. They call him all kinds of names and make fun of his wife and ridicule his two teenage daughters. The wife is said to resemble a monkey, and the daughters are surly and hateful.

Of course, that's pittance compared to the lies they tell about the commie socialist, who, by now, should have destroyed the economy, gutted the military, declared Sharia law and dispatched his ISIS storm-troopers to confiscate all guns, knives and Bibles. That the economy seems to have improved significantly since the meltdown he inherited in 2008, and that he made the call that took out Bin Laden only infuriates them further, so they invent and circulate more lies about him, and nothing is too petty. He failed to salute the nice Marine standing next to the helicopter. He refused to wear an American flag lapel pin, or he wore it on the wrong side, which means he hates America. He hates America so much, he sent U.S. soldiers to West Africa because he wants them to die of Ebola.

So, here's the deal: I wonder what might the country be like today if my old classmate and my former colleague and the rest of their kind had invested as much time and emotion and energy into something constructive — losing weight, learning a second language, mentoring an at-risk child, reading a book that didn't involve snipers or Bill O’Reilly? 

Perhaps the nation would not be as mean and dumb, as frightened and fatuous as it is today. Perhaps we might have found a way to come together to get something done. Perhaps we might have found that we have more in common than we do in opposition. Perhaps we might even have attempted to do what Jesus instructed us to do: love each other, even our enemies, even the socialist, commie wannabe.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Finding the real Ronald

I’m not sure what I thought I’d found when I met Ronald, an African-American kid in a football letter jacket, attending an after-school newspaper session I was conducting as a favor for an old friend. Her staff is almost entirely female, which is typical. Girls read and like to write, while boys don’t read and hate to write and spend huge chunks of their young lives wasting zombies on computers.

So, I was surprised to find Ronald there. He didn’t participate in the discussions, but he wasn’t disruptive, so I paid scant attention to him until his teacher shared with me a rough draft of his article about two brothers who play tennis.

“Rough” is an understatement, and my lizard brain tempted me to embrace the convenient stereotypes regarding race and gender and teen culture, which I’m apt to do if I’m not on my guard and might have anyway had I not just watched the rioting in Ferguson, Mo., and the media circus in tow. I thought about Michael Brown and decided I needed to learn more about Ronald than the fact that he’s black and wears a football jacket and once wrote “tense” when he should have written “tennis.”

So, I asked my friend to ask Ronald if he’d agree to a short interview. Of course, he was happy to, but then, he would be because, as I now know, Ronald is happy about most everything.

During our brief interview, he used the word “love” at least a dozen times. He loves school, his classes, the other members of the newspaper staff.

Mostly, he loves sports, especially football. He’s a JV tailback and defensive end, and though it was an up-and-down season, he loved every moment of it — even when he conked his head on the corner of a table while horsing around in the locker room, landing him in the emergency room with a gash that will likely leave a scar.

Somehow, Ronald is happy about this because it taught him an important lesson: Leaders don’t horse around in the locker room. That’s important to know because he now sees himself as a leader.

“A leader,” he told me, “has to be strong. He can’t get down and want to quit and just say, ‘Aw, I quit. I can’t do it.’ If you’re going to be a leader, you have to be ready to go when times are tough. Sometimes, I just have to say, ‘Hey, be the leader you can be and try a little harder.’”

Like in chemistry, which he thought would be his hardest class but is not. In fact, he loves it.

“I got a knack for chemistry that makes me want to figure out all this scientific stuff. It makes me wonder, ‘How did this happen?’ and ‘Where did this come from?’”

Actually, Ronald has a knack for life. His sophomore classmates voted him onto the Homecoming Court, but he missed the pep rally because that was the day he was horsing around and bonked his head.

Bandaged and released, he made it to the game. Of course, his classmates were ecstatic to see him on the sidelines.

“I saw one kid with a poster of me,” he said. “You could see the tears and joy in my eyes. I was so happy and so excited, but I could still feel the pain, but, I was thinking, ‘It’s just a great moment.’ I was extremely happy to be there.”

Make of this what you like, but here’s my take-away: Almost everything I first thought about Ronald was wrong, and if I hadn’t met him, my first impression would have calcified and confirmed a lie. Imagine that. Now, Imagine doing that every day, several times every day. That probably explains Ferguson.

Truth Be Told

Several months ago, I was invited to attend a graduation ceremony held inside the state prison in Lockhart, and I agreed to do so, mostly for reasons no more noble than fleeting curiosity. The ceremony is one step along a longer journey of discovery for female inmates, sponsored by an outfit called “Truth Be Told.”

Once I’d agreed to attend, I was instructed to read, fill out, sign and return a stack of forms that reinforced the fact that I was about to enter a real prison, and this is serious stuff. Even an inveterate smartass like myself was impressed and sufficiently cowed.

A month or so later, on a stormy November afternoon, I and 20 or so other attendees — all women   assembled in the gravel prison parking lot, emptied our pockets, removed our jewelry, dropped our cell phones in our car trunks, queued up and double-timed our way into a holding area, where we were reminded politely first and sternly second to pipe down. Duly chastened, we allowed ourselves to be eye-balled and stamped and processed and shuttled through a maze-like corridor past gawking inmates into a huge assembly hall that resembled an empty bus barn. We dragged metal folding chairs across a damp concrete floor into a semi-circle and sat and waited, making small talk and listening as the rain peppered the corrugated tin roof.

Eventually, the women inmates entered. They were mostly young and mostly black or brown. Some seemed defiant. Some were sheepish. Most of them were something in between — embarrassed but determined to make sense of the wreckage of their lives. They ambled in and sat among us, and we were invited to chat with them, but we were instructed not to ask anything about why they were in prison, how long they’d been in prison or how long they’ll be in prison, though we could ask them where they grew up and went to high school.

Most of the inmates had names like Monique, Crystal, LaPorsha and LaShon. I doubt any of them grew up in Westlake Hills or Highland Park. Several went by nicknames such as Nay-Nay and T. Bo. One tiny, young black woman was movie star gorgeous, full of spunk. Another was a tall, lumbering Hispanic gal who reminded me of Chief from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. She spoke no English that day, although I'm told she speaks well enough, and seemed desperate to disguise the fact that she’s 6-1 at least.

After the obligatory introductions and an occasional abrupt interruption by a guard (or, correctional officer or whatever they’re called), the program began. I expected a half hour of hip-hop dancing and geeky pantomime worthy of a fifth grade talent show at an all-white school. I was so wrong. The program was funny and sad, poignant and profound, smart and deeply moving. I was particularly blown away by a poem by Chantel, titled “Let It Be.” 

Here’s a stanza:

I’ve taken my mask off before and got hurt.
But with my mask on, I be damn if I’m treated like dirt.

Some think my mask is ugly, but to me, it’s beautiful.
My eyes black as coal lookin’ straight to your soul.
My lips are painted ruby red from all the blood I’ve seen shed.
My skin is a tone of 18-karat gold.
You will never see through it, so my secrets are never told.

The skits and the poetry readings, the “wise letter to myself” all hammered home a seminal point: I am here for a reason, and I have no one to blame but myself. Neither Momma nor Daddy. Not some piece-of-shit man. Not “The Man.” Not God. I’m here because I didn’t love myself enough to avoid or reject those people who used me and abused me, so I put myself here. I know that now. I also know that I can be someone of value if I believe in myself and trust in God, if I surrender my false pride, if I wise up and grow up and stop living in fear because it’s never too late.

Love may never find me here.
Alone and scared, my biggest fear.
I must search within and find out why,
Confront this pain, “I have to try.”

Memories surfaced from deep down inside.
My past, My Self, could no longer hide.
I then realized this prison was built
With blocks made of secrets, shame and guilt. 
— T.Bo

After the skits were finished and some of us outsiders had a moment to compose ourselves, the Truth Be Told directors invited us to offer a few thoughts, and I was thrilled to do so. 

This is what I said:

“Two or three years ago, I was teaching a writing workshop at Columbia University in New York City, and one afternoon I was sitting in Alfred Lerner Hall, and I picked up and thumbed through the campus literary magazine, which is produced by some of the smartest yet most coddled and privileged kids on the planet. Everything I saw and heard here today was light years better than anything I read in that literary magazine.”

I told them how inspired I was by their honesty and courage, and then I got choked up again and had to cut my comments short, but here’s the deal: Not so long ago, I was asked to respond to the following writing prompt: What Inspires You? I submitted something, but it was half-hearted because at that time, I had no idea what inspired me. After meeting and watching and hearing these women who are struggling valiantly to understand how it is they are doing time in a privately-run, for-profit prison in Lockhart, Texas, well, let me just say, I do know now.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Sis! Boom! Bah! Humbug.

Principal Terrence Cutler: “When I heard that you were going to be subbing here, I almost lost my mind. Well, there’s something you need to know about, Kenny. You’re not the only athlete here at Jeff Davis. I happen to be training for a triathlon right now. So, I’m doing a lot of running. And cycling. Swimming. Well, you know all about that.”
Kenny Powers: “No, actually, I don’t. I play real sports. I’m not trying to be the best at exercising.”

The UIL’s decision to pilot competitive cheerleading reminds me of this scene from HBO’s “Eastbound & Down.” Kenny Powers is a wasted and washed-up professional baseball pitcher, thoroughly, unredeemingly obnoxious. I love the guy, and I’m certain he’d agree with me when I say, “Competitive cheerleading is not a real sport.”
Actually, it’s not any kind of sport. Why anyone thinks it is escapes me. I asked a couple of cheerleaders if they thought it should be, and, of course, they did, but they failed to provide a single compelling reason beyond, “Cheerleaders work hard.”
Well, that’s lame. So do the team managers.  Anyone thinking about an ankle-taping contest? Or, how about competitive PE?
In truth, cheerleading ranks up there with twirling, which is a UIL music competition even though it has nothing to do with music and everything to do with dance and digital dexterity. It remains a UIL solo-ensemble contest because of events described later, and, of course, because it’s saddle-stitched to marching band.
Well, two wrongs don’t make a right.
I have no objection to twirling or cheerleading as school activities. Twirling provides girls (and a handful of boys, I suppose) the opportunity to perfect their tossing and fetching skills, which might prove helpful later in life should they turn into border collies.
Cheerleaders, meanwhile, learn histrionics and facial contortions as well as flipping and bouncing and shaking things — real and inanimate —which, I suppose, is the perfect preparation for future marriage counseling sessions or school board meetings where sex education is discussed.
So, please, don’t accuse me of being prejudiced against cheerleaders or twirlers because I’m not. Fact is, my daughter was once a head-bobbing, ribbon-draped, fist-pumping junior high cheerleader who for two full years spoke only in all-caps and exclamation points, as in “GOOD MORNING, DAD!!! PASS THE TOAST!!!” which, in time, forced me to respond, “Can’t you just take drugs like all the other kids?”
Incidentally, I remember when UIL’s former director of music proposed dropping twirling as a state solo-ensemble music contest because — duh — twirling isn’t music. He provided a clear and reasoned argument to support his claim, and his proposal appeared destined to pass when the doors of the big hotel banquet room burst open, and in tromped every mascara-caked, metal-mouth mad-as-hell twirler east of IH35, along with their mothers and the owners and operators of the local twirling academy.
Over the next hour, they testified in their little pixie voices about how that mean old UIL director of music was ruining their lives and stealing their dreams, and their tears soaked their rhinestone outfits, fringe and all. And what about all the people who come to the football games just to watch them? What would happen to these people? Does anyone even care?
It wasn't meant rhetorically.
It didn't matter. The sweet old men sitting on the committee charged with legislating such matters wilted in the face of this lipstick blitzkrieg.
Suffice it to say, twirling remains a state music solo-ensemble contest, today, tomorrow and forever.
I suspect the same will happen once cheerleading gets its bow in the door. There’s little difference between a head bob and a head butt, and, like it or not, competitive cheerleading is certain to become a UIL “sport” after its one-year pom pilot. Go ahead. Stand up and holler.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Game Changers

Brenham head football coach Glen West’s first name isn’t Glen. It’s Gordon.

If you know anything about Texas high school football, you might guess where “Gordon” comes from — especially when you learn that Glen’s daddy grew up in Stamford and played football there for Gordon Wood — the greatest Texas high school football coach ever.

Wood coached from 1951-57 at Stamford, which is located 41 miles north of Abilene in the middle of not much and generally dry. The town was built by Swedish immigrants in 1900 along the Texas Central Railroad, so when folks there talk about “the wrong side of the tracks,” they mean it literally.

Glen West’s daddy — his name is Kenneth — grew up on the wrong side of those tracks. He was a bad student in a bad situation but he wasn’t a bad kid. He was mostly lost. His mother was often sick and hospitalized. His dad had trouble finding work, and when he did, it forced him to hit the road, so Kenneth and his two brothers were often left to fend for themselves.

One day around 1950, Gordon Wood pulled Kenneth aside and said, “Son, straighten up or you’ll end up in a place that’s a lot worse than Stamford.” Of course, he coaxed him to play football, but he knew football alone wouldn’t change what Kenneth needed: a steady, consistent, reassuring voice. Someone to break the chain and stand in the gap. Basically, a parent. So Wood stepped in, made sure the boys were fed, clothed, doing their schoolwork and sleeping indoors.

As for football, Kenneth played tackle and played well enough to earn a scholarship to play for the “Traveling Cowboys” of Hardin-Simmons, coached by Slingin’ Sammy Baugh. By the time Kenneth had graduated and served a brief stint in the Army, Wood was coaching in Victoria, and Kenneth joined him there, launched his coaching career, met his future wife and started a family.

In 1960, Wood moved to Brownwood, and Kenneth followed him two years later, toting with him an 18-month-old son, Glen, who grew up celebrating Brownwood state football victories — especially the 1978 title in which he started at linebacker.

“To say that Gordon Wood has had an influence on me is a huge understatement,” Glen said. “He has had an influence on my whole family.”

He can’t imagine where any of them would be without him. He probably wouldn’t be a coach, and even if he were, he probably wouldn’t be the coach he is — the man he has become.

Here’s why: For years, Glen was nagged by the thought that he needed to be doing more for the athletes and students at Brenham High, something beyond the X’s and O’s and coaching poster platitudes. Then, on his way home from a leadership conference, he figured it out: To make a real difference in the lives of some young people, he had to be less like a coach and teacher, and more like a father. From that epiphany sprung the “Brenham Game Changers,” a group of local educators, business people, clergy and civic leaders who have committed themselves to do whatever is necessary to make a difference.

He says it’s not about quick and easy solutions or instant gratification.

“You’re not always going to get the Cinderella ending,” he said. “The slipper doesn’t always fit, but you just have to keep trying.”

Because that’s what Gordon Wood would have done.

So now, let’s end with an anecdote.

After coaching, Kenneth West became a Brownwood High principal. One day, Gordon Wood pulled Gordon Glen West aside and said, “Who would have ever thought your daddy would end up being a high school principal?”

Wood paused, then added with pride, “Isn’t it great,” as if he was talking about his own son, which, in some ways, he was.

Van Thomas

In late November, 1970, the White Oak Roughnecks were undefeated, ranked second or third in the state and about to enter a deep run into the Conference A state playoffs. I was a decent enough starting wide receiver and cornerback on that team, and we were all full of ourselves — smalltown heroes with pretty girlfriends and fawning parents and cool teachers who knew better than to saddle us with too much homework.
It was everything it's made out to be. Of course, you can say the same about a fibrous tumor. Both are benign until they grow so large as to, as the physicians say, "overexpress themselves."
At any rate, one afternoon, at the end of practice, the sports editor of the local daily newspaper, Van Thomas, cornered me and said something along the lines of, "I read your story (in the high school paper). When this season's over, you should swing by the office. We might be able to find a job for you."
Well, the season ended two weeks before Christmas on a frigid Friday night in a 7-6 loss to Pflugerville, one game short of a shot at the state championship. Of course, we were devastated. Our girlfriends and our moms cried, and most of our dads tried to console us and place it all in perspective, which wasn't entirely necessary. Soon enough, the fall semester ended, and we turned our thoughts to Christmas and New Year's and other sports and the final slog toward graduation — not to mention all the homework our teachers were inexplicably assigning.
In time, I accepted Van's offer and made an appointment to meet him at his cluttered mess of a desk in the front right corner of the dank, nicotine-caked newsroom. I wore my new gold crushed-velvet blazer that I bought to have my senior portrait taken in, which Van was polite enough not to laugh at. Instead, he nursed a cigarette and explained what he and the other sportswriters did and  how I might fit in. He then introduced me around the office by my first name like I was a favorite nephew just back from the war with my arm in a sling.
I don't recall him offering me a job, but a few nights later, I called in my first story: White Oak falls to West Rusk in non-district basketball game
The piece was no longer than three paragraphs. No quotes. No official stats. Just a final score and a line or two how White Oak had squandered a 10 point lead going into the fourth quarter. 
The best thing about the story? It carried my name in the byline. "By Bobby Hawthorne, Special Correspondent."
If I wasn't insufferable enough before, I certainly was after.
Over the next four years, I would write at least another 100 stories for the News-Journal. My freshman and sophomore years at Kilgore College, I took 16-18 hours per semester and worked upwards of 40 hours a week at the newspaper, covering high school games, keeping stats for the Kilgore College beat writer, and knocking out three or four or more stories a week in between.
I wasn't very good, but I was reliable and willing to learn from my many mistakes, and by the time I left in the fall of 1973 to attend the University of Texas at Austin, I mostly knew what I was doing.
I also knew I would major in journalism.
I knew I would be a reporter.
I knew I had a job as a sports reporter when I finished at UT because I had learned how to pound out a clean and coherent story on deadline.
I learned to listen to the older guys, to accept their advice and to read their stuff because it was better than mine.
I learned how to overcome my natural timidity and talk to coaches and players and get them to say something more than boilerplate bullshit.
Perhaps most importantly, I learned the tribal customs and rituals of a newspaper newsroom.
In particular, I knew to never interrupt Van while he writing, especially on deadline.
I knew that whatever Van said to or screamed at me or to anyone else in a flash of red-faced anger or frustration was forgotten 10 or 15 minutes later.
I knew Van had my back — like the time when I dared to predict that White Oak would lose to New Diana in a pivotal district football game. At the pep rally, the Roughneck coach held up the Longview sports page and pointed to my story and called me a traitor. That evening, as I sauntered up to the press box, I heard a sprinkling of boos, but I assumed they were aimed at the officials or the New Diana coaches. They weren't. They were directed at me by people I knew, people who I thought were my friends.
I brushed it off, but it stung, even after I realized it brought me a dose of notoriety I found useful in dealing with the local thugs and ne'er-do-wells.
When I told Van about it, he laughed and asked, "Well, was your prediction right?"
He knew it was. New Diana throttled them.
So, he took a slow drag on his cigarette, nodded at me, wheeled around and walked off, and I came to understand what he was teaching me: In this  job, if you want a friend, get a dog.

• • •

Van died October 10, 2014, at the age of 81, not more than a month after telling me he wanted to cover the Livingston football team at least one more season.
"You like to think you can continue doing what you’re doing year-after-year, but you can’t,” he said, then proved it so.
I suppose that will be the last lesson Van Thomas taught me. I hope I'm smart enough and wise enough to heed his advice. At any rate, here's the column:

• • •

For only the second time since 1961, Van Thomas didn’t make it to coaching school. He had planned to go to San Antonio, but it was hot and he’d just returned from Austin where he was working on a story about the dismissal of a local boy from the UT football team. Van said he sympathizes with the young man but, darn it, the kid seems as talented at finding trouble as he is the end zone.
Van was also peeved at the NCAA for abruptly barring college coaches from speaking at high school coaching clinics like the THSCA’s. It’s all big business now, and Van realizes it, but he misses the old days, as old men are apt to do.
Van turned 81 recently. He has covered East Texas high school athletics for 55 years plus. Red-headed, flat-topped and freckled, he moved to Texas in the spring of ‘61 by way of northeast Arkansas and northern California, landing first in Henderson, then moving to Longview, then to Nacogdoches, and finally to Livingston, where for the past 36 years, he’s written his twice-a-week “Once Over Lightly” column for the Polk County Enterprise.
The column is full of sports flotsam, homespun humor and innocent gossip. I’ll be disappointed if he doesn’t mention this interview to his readers, not a one of whom know me. When Van is finished, they’ll feel as if they do.
Van said he thinks about retiring and would if it weren’t for the kids.
“I still love getting to know them,” he said. “Many of them will never have their name or picture in the paper again. This is their one shot.”
Of course, he’s encountered hundreds of fabulous athletes over the years and has a story about almost every one. Among the best: Big Sandy’s Lovie Smith, White Oak’s Mike Barber, Palestine’s Bill Bradley and Henderson’s Joe Wylie.
He said he needled Smith after Big Sandy ran up 100 points against some hapless opponent. He claims he had a hand in Wylie’s decision to attend Oklahoma over Arkansas — his alma mater. “Joe was one of the smartest kids I ever met, and I told him I thought OU was a better fit,” Van said.
Of course, Van spoke at length about Longview’s James Street, who might have attended Arkansas had the Razorback coaches taken his advice and offered him a scholarship. Van said he asked Frank Broyles if he planned to pursue Street, and Broyles replied, “Who all is interested in Street?’”
“Looks like it’s you and Texas,” Van said.
“Well, I tell you what,” Broyles said. “I’m going to let ol’ Darrell have him.”
We know how that turned out.
Van loves telling these stories, and over the course of an interview that stretched almost two hours, he told so many that I couldn’t mention them all if I committed to a two-volume biography. And they’re not all about sports. He described in great detail his 1967 trip to Saigon to write about a three-wheeled, 100-ton jungle-crusher built in Longview by LeTourneau.
But mostly, he talked about high school players and coaches, with whom he forged long and deep friendships, and that’s made the recent deaths of Street and Robert Newhouse of Hallsville and Rodney Thomas of Groveton particularly painful.
“James’ death broke my heart,” Van said. “I loved him like a brother.”
The same is true of Thomas.
“I almost adopted Rodney,” he said. “One of the nicest guys you’d ever want to meet.”
Van said he plans to cover the Livingston team again this fall. His health is good enough, he says, even though he smoked a pack or two of Benson & Hedges a day until he went cold turkey in January of 1983. But he’s not kidding himself.
“Eighty-one, well, that’s getting up there,” he said. “You like to think you can continue doing what you’re doing year-after-year, but you can’t.”
I wish I could have interviewed him in person. His staccato laugh seems an octave higher today than what I remember from my days as a young sportswriter in Longview, and I tried to picture him as he surely is now: a flat-topped and freckled ruddy old man, a little hunched and pudgy and jowly but sweet blue eyes still dancing behind his black, horned-rim glasses. I hope he has at least one more season in him before he and “Once Over Lightly” hang it up.