One summer something happened in South Bend, Indiana, where I grew up. I don't remember just how it all began, but that doesn't matter. What does is that the new summer playground at the Laurel School became a place where life took on new meaning for all of us. Because a man named Mr. Rockne was our director.
There it was, a brand-new playground. It had a clean gravel surface with well-marked play areas for games. There were plenty of nice new softballs and bats and smooth white volleyballs and nets and a basketball court. There were swings of every kind and size, seesaws, a sandbox and a new shiny Maypole that didn't creak—all safely enclosed by a wire fence you could see through. All of these things alone would have made a happy enough summer. But it was Mr. Rockne who made this the most important summer of our lives.
Before this, summer vacations had been dreary, as I recall. There weren't many things we could do, once the Fourth of July picnic and Circus Day were past. We played hopscotch with a piece of broken glass (there always seemed to be plenty of that around), and when there were a few more of us we played "one o' cat," using as a Softball an old black cotton stocking stuffed with rags.
We never went near the school. Laurel School was named for one little tree growing at the corner. It was a scowling, dark brick building set in a grassless, dusty play yard, the bareness of which was relieved by a single, rusty swing set and a lonely, half-tilted Maypole. Even these were forbidden us by a wooden fence on which kids had scrawled sentiments denoting a certain disenchantment with the state of things.
September 20, 1959
But in the summer of Mr. Knute Rockne, all this was changed. There was something to get up for in the morning now. All the chores had to be got out of the way before the playground opened at one o'clock. Even the precious little money-making jobs were forgotten. Long before Miss Doolittle, the playground director, arrived we would be waiting for her to unlock the gate. And invariably our first question was: "Is Mr. Rockne coming today?"
Mr. Rockne came around often, even though he supervised other playgrounds like ours. His little two-seater Ford would rattle along noisily over the bumpy brick pavement, and we could spot his red head and wide grin a block away. Even before his little car jolted vigorously to a determined stop near the gate we were already at the curb, bursting with eager questions and exclamations and the sheer joy of seeing him again.
We thought Mr. Rockne was funny looking, with his squashed nose and his red hair and a grin that made crescents of his eyes—and that strange nasal voice of his. But when he smiled at you, you knew it came from way down deep, and you knew he meant that smile just for you. You could talk to Mr. Rockne and not be afraid. And he always seemed to have plenty of time for you.
Even though Mr. Rockne didn't come every day, it wasn't long before he had us all organized into teams. All kinds of teams—softball, volleyball, newcomb, German bat ball—it didn't matter what the game, he just made us feel how important it was to be on a team—and how important it was to play a good game. Playing a good game didn't always mean being a star, either. Somehow it had more to do with what went on between you and the rest of the team. If you caught a fly, or hit a home run, or kept the volleyball going back over the net six times in a row all by yourself, you didn't feel much more glory than if you had made that little inconspicuous supporting play for somebody else.
I don't remember that Mr. Rockne ever talked to us about "fair play" and "being a good loser" or anything like that. He never preached to us about such things. It was just that there were certain rules of the game, which it was everybody's business to know, and rules were rules, and what sort of a player were you anyway, if you didn't abide by them? It was winning according to the rules that made you feel proud and exhilarated. And somehow, even losing was a part of the game. That was the chance you had agreed to take. You didn't hate your opponent if you lost, unless of course you were sure he had cheated. Then you would call him all the nasty names you could think of, but not when Mr. Rockne was listening. Strange, though, how he sometimes didn't seem to hear you, even when he was within hearing distance.
We were the intermediate group, and of course Mr. Rockne was often busy with the older boys, the very ones we used to be afraid of before the playground got started. He often took them off for games with other teams, but even when they were around we began to notice that these boys weren't so bad after all. They began watching our games, advising, encouraging and teasing us in a good-natured flattering way. And we, for our part, found ourselves taking more notice of the little ones, those younger than ourselves. We would help Miss Doolittle look after them, think up things for them to do, settle their quarrels, protect them, become fond of them. And gradually the idea of a team began to expand to an ever-widening circle.
Strangely enough, without a word from anyone, we found ourselves becoming more careful of our own appearance. No more leaving the house in the morning without at least washing our faces and combing our hair. We started wearing tennis shoes and socks and even concocted a uniform of white middies and heavy, blue serge gym bloomers we borrowed from our older sisters in high school. The bloomers were always falling down round our ankles and were much too hot for the summer. But we thought Mr. Rockne would like the uniforms.
One day Mr. Rockne brought us some baseball caps bearing an advertisement for Pillsbury flour, and handing us each a cap, he asked, "Now, how about a name for the team?"
This made us feel more important than ever. What shall it be? We pondered the question for a few days, and the next time Mr. Rockne came around we rushed up to him with: "What about 'Live Wires,' Mr. Rockne?" We watched with pride the electric response in Mr. Rockne's face.
"Live Wires! Yes, I like that!" And we all fell to drawing zigzag lines all over our new Pillsbury caps and proudly printed the name of our team across the front of them.
We were ready now to go out and play other teams. When the game was at a nearby playground, we always walked. But when it was scheduled across the town, we knew we could count on Mr. Rockne to show up in his two-seater. How he ever got us all into that little car I'll never know. Sometimes there were as many as 12 of us. And how we did love those rides with Mr. Rockne!
"What makes your nose so flat and funny, Mr. Rockne?" we would ask. And Mr. Rockne would tell us how he had broken his nose playing baseball.
"Gosh, that must've hurt!" we said and winced. Then passing quickly over the thought of pain, "And have you got a rock in your knee, Mr. Rock-nee!" we teased.
"No, but I've got a silver rib," he said in his modest way, and we knew he wasn't fooling. A silver rib! We were filled with awe. Here was a special sort of man with a silver rib he got playing football, and he belonged to us. I know now Mr. Rockne was famous then and was assistant coach at Notre Dame. But we certainly didn't know anything about it at the time. We didn't need to. We only knew he was somebody who cared about us, and somebody for whom we wanted to be our very best selves in everything that we did.
But the most remarkable thing of all about Mr. Rockne was a way he had of going straight to the heart of things and studying them out until he really understood them. He must have had an awful lot to do, supervising all those playgrounds, and yet he never seemed to be too busy to pay attention to even the smallest things—even such a silly little thing as the Highland fling that day we were in the basement learning it.
PAGEANT IN THE OFFING
That was soon after the dancing teacher, Miss Montgomery, started coming around once a week. She went to other playgrounds, too, like Mr. Rockne. And Miss Montgomery said we had to learn some dances for a pageant. We didn't know exactly what a pageant was, but a few of us girls would go down to the dank, smelly basement of the school, and Miss Montgomery would teach us the Highland fling and the sailor's hornpipe and other dances she got out of a book which she kept looking in as she shouted instructions. Then she would sit down and pound out the music from the same book on a tinny, off-tune piano, as we struggled and perspired and got all out of breath over something that didn't seem to make much sense. This went on for several weeks until Mr. Rockne came down to watch us one day.
"Say! That's great!" he exclaimed, and immediately joined the class. We giggled and squealed as he bobbed up and down, flinging his leg around and getting his arm movements all mixed up. At first we thought he was just kidding. But there was a look in his face we had never seen before. I realize now how earnestly he was trying to master that first step of the Highland fling. Quickly he moved us all outdoors into the sunlight, getting some of the older boys to help move the piano near the window where it could be heard.
"Now, then," he said, "let's go back to that first step again. How did you say it goes?" And taking the beginning position, with his elbows out to the sides and his knuckles turned under on his hips, he fitted his movements to his words as he spoke, "The left arm goes up when the right foot goes out..." and first thing we knew, we were all—the older boys along with Mr. Rockne and the rest of us—concentrating on the intricate steps of the Highland fling.
"This stuff speeds you up!" said Mr. Rockne, exhilarated and breathless, mopping his forehead with a large white handkerchief. "Makes you think fast with your body! Makes you light and quick on your feet!"
We all began practicing those first three steps of the Highland fling like mad every chance we got, until Mr. Rockne's little car pulled up at the gate the following week. We saw at once that Mr. Rockne had somebody with him, somebody all dressed in plaid. When the man stepped out of the car, wearing a pleated skirt, and followed Mr. Rockne through the gate, we were quite startled, especially the boys, who took one look and ran back to the far corner of the playground where, without a backward glance, they started shooting baskets. We clung close to Mr. Rockne.
"This is my friend, Mr. MacLeod, and that's a kilt he's wearing," said Mr. Rockne, in answer to our silent question. "Care to hear him play his bagpipes?" Mr. MacLeod started in to tune up his bagpipes and then, pacing back and forth in front of us, he began playing, while Mr. Rockne sat down on the steps beside us. It sounded like a lot of crazy loud noise at first, but we looked over at Mr. Rockne to see what he thought. And Mr. Rockne's face began to beam with a strange excitement that must have been catching, because we, too, began to feel excited by the bagpipe music.
ENTER THE INQUISITOR
When Mr. MacLeod rested, Mr. Rockne began questioning him about everything Scottish—the Highland games, the fling and the Scottish sword dance. We kids couldn't understand Mr. MacLeod very well, but that made no difference. What really absorbed us was the way Mr. Rockne was listening. When Mr. MacLeod told him how the Scots thought their war dances "aroused the power of concentration and brought skill and courage in battle," we thought Mr. Rockne was going to jump right out of his skin, he seemed so excited. But he kept right on listening, harder than ever. Then, just when we were beginning to get fidgety after all their talk, Mr. Rockne suddenly burst out into the gayest, jolliest mood. Grinning with all his might right at us and reaching out to take our hands, he cried happily, "Let's all dance to the bagpipes now!"
Mr. MacLeod began playing his mad music again as we all scrambled to our feet and tried hard to catch the tricky rhythm. The bagpipes sounded more and more like the intense nasal voice of Mr. Rockne. Away we went. We hopped up and down, stamping down with both feet astride as if to awaken the very earth beneath us, then spinning round and round in fearless abandon. All of us—Mr. Rockne and the boys, and even Miss Montgomery, whose long bell-shaped skirt whirled merrily in a way we had never noticed before.
When we performed the Highland fling to the music of a whole corps of pipers at the final field day of the playground season, it was the high spot of the pageant, everyone said, and for us, the proudest achievement of our young lives. Especially when Mr. Rockne came up to us right afterward and said, with what looked a lot like tears in his eyes but was probably just the reflection of the bright summer sun, "That was great! Just great!"
Years later, when I was invited to come out and teach a summer session at Oregon State College in Corvallis, I was on the point of writing back to say that I couldn't come, when I glanced through their summer catalog and the name "Knute Rockne" caught my eye. He was scheduled to give a coaching course that summer.
Although it was highly impractical for me to travel across the country and back just to teach a six-week session at Corvallis, nothing could have kept me from going. I certainly didn't expect Knute Rockne to remember me. Even so, I think I would have traveled to Timbuktu to see him once more. But Mr. Rockne didn't come to Corvallis that summer—nor any summer after that.
I'm not much of a mystic, and I don't know anything about the transmigration of souls and all that sort of thing. But some years later I was again out West, teaching dancing to a class of college athletes at Colorado State College. My big burly students had already learned the Highland fling and the Scottish sword dance, which they sometimes practiced down at the football field. Although I knew most of the men by name, there were still a couple I wasn't quite sure of. Especially one, who was awfully slow to catch on and didn't seem at all interested.
One day, after a particularly strenuous go at the Sioux eagle dance, I finished with an explanation that the eagle is a symbol of courage and power. The men were on their way out, talking and laughing, and a few of them were still bouncing around with the double step of the eagle dance, when I heard a familiar nasal voice: "Say! This is great stuff!"
It gave me a fleeting sense of panic. I had no idea why. But the same nasal voice went on to say: "This makes you quick on your feet!" I had a sudden feeling I was losing my mind. I turned quickly, almost terrified of what I would see.
A SMILE FROM THE PAST
And there he was—the student whose name I wasn't sure of, his arms outspread like an eagle, his body curved gracefully forward as he was beating the floor vigorously with his feet. He smiled up at me proudly, and I saw that his smile came from way down deep and that it made little crescents of his eyes.
"What was that you just said?" I asked, staring at him.
He blushed a little, but still grinning at me, he stopped dancing and was mopping his forehead with a large white handkerchief, as the nasal voice continued: "I was just saying, this is great stuff, this kind of dancing!"
"Who are you?" I asked, more bewildered than ever.
Before he had time to answer, it flashed through my dazed consciousness that this boy was Jack Adams—a promising freshman everybody was talking about who had broken his nose playing a most valiant game of football the year before.
"Where do you come from?" I persisted, still dazed.
I can't remember what he answered. I wasn't listening. Before he had finished talking, as though in a dream, I blurted out, "But that's not near South Bend..." He began to look strangely at me, but I hardly noticed.
"Mr. Rockne would have liked that," I found myself saying.
"What?" Adams asked me.
"About the dance."
"Oh," Adams said. "I see."
And the strange part of it is, I believe Adams did see. It was odd the way he was not puzzled by my remark. He grinned with that same look of sharing a deep unspoken secret I had seen so often in Mr. Rockne's face. Mr. Rockne would have liked that.