Saturday, May 8, 2010

Drawing on memories

     In his 40-year career with the University Interscholastic League, the organization that governs Texas high school extracurricular activities — mostly, football — Dr. Bailey Marshall collected enough plaques and framed certificates and honors to fill an “I love me” wall the size of a freeway billboard. He also collects Southwestern art and has crates of photos of his wife, his three daughters and son and his grandchildren, all of whom he loves dearly.
     But the piece that hung on the wall behind his desk during the years he served as UIL athletic director, and then director, and then executive secretary of the League’s scholarship foundation wasn’t a rare photograph or Southwestern watercolor he picked up on one of his travels far and wide. It was a pencil and chalk drawing of the football stadium at White Oak High School where he coached and served as principal from 1957-1966. The piece was drawn by a sophomore girl who had overheard him telling another teacher how much he admired it. She had planned to auction it during a class fundraiser but gave it to him instead. He hung it behind his desk in 1966, and it stayed there for three decades.
     I imagine there were plenty of times when Bailey had suffered a bad day — for example, dealing with some blowhard state representative from Dip-shit, Texas who didn’t like this rule or that one and who, by the way, needed four tickets to the state basketball tournament — and he’d retreat into his office and gaze at that drawing, and it would remind him of all those great kids and great teams and great times he’d had as a young coach and a young father. Some of the best years of his life, and somehow, that made things better.
     A year or so ago, Marshall gave the drawing to me, a White Oak alum, class of ’71. For three years, I played on that field for teams that rolled up a 36-2-2 record. My senior year, we were 13-1, losing in the state semi-finals by a single point to Pflugerville on a miserably cold night in Temple.
     I can’t look at that drawing without thinking of my teammates, small town guys like Danny Denton and Buddy Coker, Wenford Wilborn and Joe Stephens, Ronnie Peery and Ronnie Screws. A 6-7, all-state linebacker, Danny accepted a full scholarship to play for the University of Tulsa Golden Hurricanes but quit after one year to return to East Texas and a girlfriend who later became his wife, then his ex-wife. Buddy married Donna Tuttle, his high school sweetheart, joined the Air Force and flew one of those huge cargo planes during the first Gulf War. 
     Wenford started at cornerback for four years at Louisiana Tech, earned a degree in commercial art, returned to White Oak and raised a family. I’m not sure what happened to Joe. Ronnie Peery has tried his hand at a lot of things, including teaching, but what he loves to do is fish, and he’s good enough at it to earn a living doing it. Ronnie Screws changed his last name to McOlin—son of Olin—when he became an ordained minister.     Funny thing is, no one I ever met in White Oak made fun of his last name, but I can see how it might be a problem out there in the world.
     I’ve hooked up with a few of these guys once or twice since I graduated from White Oak and left East Texas, even though my mother and two of my three brothers and their families still live there or thereabouts. I stopped going to high school reunions and homecomings for the same reason most of us do: the people I want to see—people like Wenford and Joe—rarely show up. The people I’d slog through a sewer trench to avoid always do. 
     But now and then, when I’m home to visit the family, I will buy a ticket to a White Oak football game, and I’ll stand down along the fence with Marcus Oliver and Edward Bates some other old friends and brag about how badass we were back then, how we blew it against Pflugerville, how we would have destroyed Sonora in the finals, even though they bulldozed the team that beat us, 42-7. We won’t talk about how much we loved playing football on that field because it goes without saying.
     One of these days, my daughter will sprinkle some of my ashes along the Town Lake running trail in Austin and some of them into the muddy brown water of the Danube that sluices under the Chain Bridge in Budapest, and the rest of them, she’ll toss into the air, to be whipped by those hot, sticky East Texas winds across the grass field of Roughneck Stadium. It wouldn’t surprise me a bit if they come to rest on some of Bailey Marshall’s ashes as well and, no doubt, those of any number of other guys who once wore the maroon and white of a White Oak Roughneck.
    Until then, I’ll need to decide what I’ll do with the pencil and chalk drawing of the field when my time comes to pass it along. I figure there are plenty of guys who would be proud to hang it in their offices, behind their desks, a reminder of some of the best years of their lives.