'THOSE BOBCATS CAN'T BE BEAT'
The only thing that stood between Donald Ortman and basketball was his terrible modesty. Lank, limby and obviously cut for the game, Don Ortman would gladly play for Panguitch High, he told the coach in 1936, but not if it meant taking off his long pants. The coach, equally inflexible, could not agree ("Long pants?" he shrieked. "Out there on the court? Long pants?"), and Panguitch, Utah had to wait until Don's son Wally grew up before it could fully appreciate the Ortman family.
Nowadays, unabashed by the sight of his bare legs, Wally Ortman wears the conventional blue-and-white briefs of the undefeated Panguitch team and receives vast quantities of Panguitchian appreciation. This includes being a principal conversation topic on U.S. Highway 89 (Main Street) and at the Latter-Day Saints Social Hall and around the corner at Daly's pool and billiard retreat. Rhyming couplets are composed by adoring teenage girls: "The score goes up, that player, golly!/He's real neat, his name is Wally." His younger brothers, Kenny and Dennis, bask in his prominence and beg him to teach them to back-dribble. They consider the time golden when Wally gets with them at the make-do court in the vacant corral across the road. His girl, Barbara, has promised to retrieve the ring and picture she gave to another boy after the Panguitch coach, Bob Davis, a purist, got the team to swear off girls for the season.
Wally's gray-haired mother is still his most devoted fan. She recounts Panguitch basketball lore—like the time the "sore losers" from Marysvale set fire to a neighbor's car—while she struggles with the heavy batter for Wally's favorite boiled-raisin cake or punctiliously launders his uniform. Sometimes she cries to herself as she watches him disappear up the gravel road, walking, bag in hand, to the Panguitch gym on game nights. "It's sad for parents, the way time flies," she says. "We're content and we stay. Where can we go now? But when the children get out of school, they always go. There's nothing here to keep them."
Panguitch, Utah is a blinking amber light at a dogleg on U.S. 89, 170 miles southwest of the nearest big town, Provo, and roughly along what Salt Lake City sensationalists imagine to be the beeline taken by itinerant bank robbers and high rollers heading west for Las Vegas. A brush with such glamorous villains was suspected in Panguitch last winter when the drugstore was robbed, but other than that, Panguitch doesn't qualify as much of a sin town. The local Garfield County News reported some time ago that when a woman in nearby Escalante called to report a robbery, the sheriff (since retired) instructed her to please get the name and address of the crook and he'd be over to make the arrest.
Panguitch (Ute Indian for "big fish") squats in a water-scarce trough between the Parowan Range on the west and the Panguitch Plateau, a branch of the Wasatch Mountains, on the east. Deer are plentiful in the hills, and no self-respecting Panguitch boy will go a season without getting his buck; venison is, therefore, staple fare in Panguitch. The area is 6,560 feet above a sea most Panguitchians have never seen, and is crisscrossed with irrigation ditches partly filled with snow this time of year. It is a gray land studded with cottonwood, ponderosa pine and native fir, but mostly there is sagebrush, uninspiring, mile after mile. The beauty is in the mountains, where there are vivid streaks of red beneath peaks that seem to have been confected with Reddi-Wip.
Because of the water shortage the population of Panguitch—1,435—has remained almost constant since the turn of the century. The people are interested in outsiders ("I have never seen a Negro," said the mother of one of the basketball players) and inquisitive about their tastes, yet they are at a loss to explain the red in their own mountains. The state's largest sawmill is at Panguitch, and there are alfalfa farms and small cattle ranches that vie for the water, but the lifeblood of the community is a million dollars' worth of tourists and hunters each year. There are 13 modern motels and nine gas stations to snare the traveler within the town limits. In summer the principal attraction is Bryce Canyon, a sort of Grand Canyon in miniature 25 miles to the southeast (Grand Canyon itself is only 175 miles south). The hunters come by the hundreds in the fall. The sign outside town discriminates only against "peddlers and hawkers" (licenses required) and "noisy mufflers and cutouts." Panguitch cafe food is hearty and the hospitality is, too, despite regiments of big-city parking meters. (This winter a second-string Panguitch High basketball player called Whips is famous for his fancy dribbling and fakes between and around the meters.)
The town's religious preference is Mormon, by 95%—which makes it a challenge for a visitor to achieve a social cup of coffee. The town's passion is basketball, and it is a challenge for anybody to talk about anything else. Bill Coltrine, a high school sportswriter for the Salt Lake City Tribune, stopped in Panguitch while vacationing last summer and was assailed by a delegation of townspeople eager to stuff him with details on the great team Coach Bob Davis was going to have. "But friends, this is July," protested Coltrine. "Nobody talks basketball in July."
"We do!" chorused the delegates.
The Panguitch team had won its 16th straight and appeared well on its way to the state Class B championship when Photographer Rich Clarkson and I checked into the New Western Motel down the street from the school the other day. We had driven the 71 miles from Cedar City, the nearest airport town. "You'll find people in this part of the country are very friendly," said the proprietor of the New Western, a native named Clarence Cameron. "Now, you'll be in rooms 15 and 16. But before you unpack, let me tell you about our basketball team. They've won 16 straight. Could be better than that '57 bunch that won the state championship. And that was an exciting team. Never knew what they were going to do.
"Anyway, this could be the best we've ever had. They're fine boys, too, all of them. Joe Riggs is our little guard. We call him the Little General. Smart, very sensitive kid. His father runs the AG market in town. Just built a new house. Brent Turek is the big boy who scores so many points. His dad works for the state parks. Good job. Wally Ortman's dad has had a lot of bad luck. Been very sick. Wally's a great shooter. Lou Tebbs's dad is a rancher and a state legislator. Ned Richards' dad is the postmaster. They're big boys. Seem to get bigger every year. But listen. Let Bob Davis tell you about how they got to be the first five in the first place. Quite a scandal. Took a lot of courage on Bob's part."
Mrs. Cameron passed out dishes of peanut butter fudge ("It's my specialty") and said it wasn't unusual of a game night for Mr. Cameron to run back and forth from the motel to the gym, huffing and puffing, to get progressive accounts of the scoring. "We play Bryce Valley tonight," she said, "but there's not a seat to be had. The gym is sold out for the year. All 250 seats."
"We're getting a brand-new gym next year," said the proprietor. "Blueprints arc already in. It'll cost $380,000 and will seat 2,300 people, which is 2,000 more than it'll seat now and 1,000 more than we've got people. But we're aiming to bring in the Region 9 tournament.
"Basketball," he said, "is really it in this town. Look around you at all the nets and goals in the backyards. There's as many backboards as there are TV antennas. In some places there was a basketball goal before there was indoor plumbing. Some of them still don't have indoor plumbing."
"Actually, there's no other diversion in the winter," said another Panguitch man. "Except the movie house and the pool hall. And the movie screen has a big slice in it where a kid threw a piece of cardboard. The slice always shows up on the hero's nose. And as for the pool hall, that's no place for a youngster."
"The pool hall is the blight of the community. Always has been," said a third man. "The idle brain is the devil's workshop."
Down the street there was only a handful of cars in front of the high school though it was 2 o'clock. This, it was explained, was because only a handful of Panguitch High School kids could afford cars. The bright yellow-and-silver Chevrolet, souped up to 250 horsepower, belonged to Dr. Sims Duggins' son Rodney. The Studebaker with the bongo drums in the back belonged to the marshal's son, and it was given to him because his father didn't want him flitting around in the patrol car.
There were sheep and cows in the yard across the street from the school. (Panguitch zoning restrictions, said the hotel proprietor, maybe aren't what they ought to be.) The school is a compact, two-story, buff-brick building built to last in 1937. It is right next door to the older Panguitch Junior High, which is condemned but still in use. Standing on the steps out front, one can feel the throb of the phys ed students pounding around in the gym upstairs, can smell the pastry being burned in the home ec oven and can hear, from somewhere, a struggling cornet soloist playing The Nutcracker Suite, or is it Bye Bye Blues?
Enrollment at Panguitch is 110, of which 64 are boys. The principal, Clifford LeFevre, a bright, middle-aged man, says he gave up ranching to return to education, and this explained the huge hide of a Hereford steer that covered one wall of his tiny office. He has a staff of only 13 and therefore requires double duty from some faculty members. In addition to his own job, LeFevre teaches biology and speech; Wrestling Coach Allen Smith is also the music teacher and directs the 30-piece band; and Basketball Coach Davis instructs in math and makes a stab at trigonometry. Davis will be qualified in chemistry as soon as he completes the biweekly course at Cedar City. Teachers get nothing extra for coaching, so Davis, father of five, with a sixth due in June (his annual salary is $4,750), works summers at the slaughterhouse in Kanab and is always on call when somebody in Panguitch needs a pig butchered or some linoleum laid. "Bob can do just about anything he sets his mind to," says Principal LeFevre.
Coach Davis is a tall, curly-haired, handsome man of 32 with a crank-and-go voice and a knowledge of basketball gleaned mostly from books ("I didn't play when I was at Brigham Young, you sec"). Sitting in Principal LeFevre's office, he talked about the intricacies of his offense and how he had decided to use a double post this year. Then he was asked about the basketball scandal he'd cleared up, and about his moratorium on dating. How did a coach cope with such explosive issues?
"A couple of years ago," he said soberly, "I discovered some of the boys on the team—all of the first five, in fact—were smoking and drinking. I passed on a warning and let it ride, hoping they'd sec the light. Well, there was this party. Cigarettes and beer. A couple of the boys joined in only because they knew if I found out and was going to do anything I'd have to go against them all. That's what I did. I made a clean sweep, and the next thing you know we're starting a bunch of sophomores—Brent and Wally and Joe and Lou. It was tough going for a while. I don't imagine I was too popular a fellow down at the pool hall. But it was a blessing in disguise. This team found itself. You'll see tonight. And I didn't have to worry about them. They made their own training rules and they abide by them. They're good boys."
Did they honest and truly give up girls on their own?
"Well, not exactly," said Davis, clearing his throat. "But rules are rules. Even now I have to get after them for standing around the halls mooning. There'll be plenty of time for that after the state tournament."
Principal LeFevre and his visitors stepped out into the hall. Basketball star Turek, tall and blond, and basketball star Riggs, short and brunet, were lounging by the locker of Cheerleader Mclanie McEwen, soft and dreamy. "See what Coach means?" said LeFevre. On the bulletin board there was a huge chart divided into 40 squares. The first few squares had been crossed off with bold black strokes. "Count-Down Calendar," read the title, and LeFevre explained that the girls had put up the poster as a reminder of that day of salvation when the ball boys, as they are called in Panguitch, would be freed from Davis' clutches. "Happy days are here again!" said the caption under the last square.
As part of the general displeasure with the rules, Sophomore Sandra Crofts had written a poem (English Teacher Irene McEwen, Melanie's lovely mother, is very strong on poetry). The poem was called "Ball Season," and it portrayed the grim life of the boyless world of Panguitch girls and the girlless world of basketball players. "In bed every night, right at 10," Sandra had written sagely. "Being on the team is like being locked in a pen." She went on to say that all a girl does every day is go home to mother, and predicted that soon the girls will be dousing their hair with Brylcreem for something to run their fingers through.
The Panguitch gym was filled to popping for the game with Bryce Valley. In a front-row seat Hot Rodney Duggins, the doctor's son, pointed out that on both sides the fans were sticking out onto the playing court. This was all right, he said, because it made it impossible for a Panguitch player to go out-of-bounds. Rodney's father leaned over to say that in days past, when crowds were not so orderly, the corners of the playing floor would actually round off with people.
The Panguitch junior varsity players won the preliminary game as the key decisions by the two officials, both Panguitch High faculty members, consistently went in their favor. "Think they're prejudiced?" said Rodney, winking wildly. Dr. Duggins said that this was, after all, just the preliminary, but he remembered a Panguitch varsity game in Marysvale when the timekeeper kept the clock between his knees, hidden from view, and the last 17 seconds took half an hour. "Then there was the referee who gave the opposition the ball while Panguitch was out getting a drink of water. The other team scored," said Dr. Duggins, "and one of our lady fans fainted on the spot." By this time the preliminary game was over and Official Maloy Dodds came over to join the conversation. When he was playing for Panguitch, he said, the ladies of Escalante used to line the street outside after a game and throw their high-heeled shoes at the Panguitch players.
The varsity game began, and Dr. Duggins noted with pride that he had delivered every boy on the starting team. "The starting teams of both schools," he added. Melanie McEwen and her cheerleaders soon had the metal-roofed Panguitch gym, the exact acoustical equivalent of a rural mailbox, rocking with repetition: "Baskets! Baskets! Baskets, boys!/You make the baskets, we'll make the noise!" The boys responded, after a slow start, and soon were making baskets as fast as Melanie's group could suggest them.
Still, Bryce Valley, which had won only once previously, clung to the lead. It was sacrilege, said a Panguitch father. Coach Davis called for time. "Posing," he said to the Bobcats. "You saw a photographer out there and you started posing." He sat back down. "Slow starts, slow starts," he muttered. "Times like this we couldn't throw the ball into the Great Salt Lake." Lou Tibbs slumped beside him, momentarily relieved of his job at forward. "Have you ever seen a worse basketball player than me?" he asked. "I think I probably have," said Coach Davis absently.
The tide, inexorable as it always is for the better, taller team, began to change. Joe Riggs made six straight points, and Brent Turek and Wally Ortman seemed to get every rebound. Six, eight, 10, 20 ahead. The Bobcats piled it on.
They were every bit up to their credits. The 6-foot-3, 180-pound Turek played with exceptional basketball sense, timing and touch. His rebounding was superb. Wally Ortman's back dribble evoked many a long ah, and little Joe Riggs—"inspired," his mother said afterward when the parents got together on the floor—scored 16 points on long one-hand shots. "Unh-unh, Unh-unh, those Bobcats can't be beat!" cheered the cheerleaders. Bryce Valley became Panguitch's 17th victim, 71-48, and the state tournament was just five games away.
"Now what do we do?" I asked Hot Rodney as the crowd filed out. It was barely 10 o'clock.
"Nothing to do," said Rodney despairingly. "Unless—" He brightened. "Unless you want to ride up and down Main Street a couple times."
The next day, training rules notwithstanding, there remained the question of whether little Joe Riggs or big Brent Turek was in the lead with the beautiful Melanie. Between classes, Mrs. McEwen discussed this, but first she brought out a bundle of papers, the classroom compositions of Joe Riggs. One was entitled "Marriage Before Education?" and in it Joe wrote: "To a teen-ager of a small country town who has any foresight into the problems of the near future, the bonds of matrimony is a dread."
"Look at the others," said Mrs. McEwen. There was a poem, "Panguitch," in which Joe vowed to stay in his home town "forever," and a thesis on the multiple horrors of opiate analgesics. They were well written. On one of them, Mrs. McEwen had scribbled, "You're such a swell guy."
"This is a smart, sensitive boy," she said. "But, most important, he realizes there's more to this world—and should be more to Panguitch—than basketball. Oh, they know how I feel," she went on, eyes flashing, "I'm still as much a fan as anybody. Go to all the games. But km also the oldest teacher here. My husband has done well in the motel business and we have been many places and seen many things. We're going to Hawaii next month and we're going to send Melanie to Paris to school if she wants to go. What I'm driving at is this: as a teacher, I want a great deal more for these kids, these very fine, wonderful kids, than just a score and a winning streak." Her voice had been rising. She stopped.
"Now," she continued quietly, "Melanie was named after that fine young woman in Gone With The Wind, the one with such high character. I'm pleased to say Melanie has lived up to the image. And as for her love life, that's pretty much her own business."
Brent Turek, the third corner of the triangle, lives in Hatch, a village of 198 people, 16 miles south of Panguitch. In "My Story," a composition for Mrs. McEwen, Brent depicted himself as being initially amazed by how fast the crowd was at Panguitch High and how dumb he must have seemed. The night after the Bryce Valley game Mrs. Turek, a large, friendly, pink-faced woman, served a dinner of venison, rice, pear salad with strips of cheese, great slices of homemade bread baked in a wood-burning stove and milk. "I'm really very sorry," she said, "but there's no coffee." She said they didn't get much company in Hatch, and coffee-drinking strangers are rare. "It was funny last fall," she said. "Two bandits were supposed to be on the loose and the man on the radio said to lock your doors. Nobody in Hatch owns a lock."
It was suggested to Brent that he obviously had a talent for basketball and would surely get a scholarship offer. But what of the fair Melanie?
"Oh, gee, she's Joe's girl now, I guess," said Brent modestly. "I'm no heart smasher. Besides, girls are plenty destructive. 'Come on, come on, you don't have to be in training all the time,' that's what they say. Not Melanie, mind you, but some of them.
"Say, listen, I'd like to tell you a few things about the Mormon religion. I won't try to convert you or anything, but you'd be surprised how important it is in our lives and how much we help each other. It's a good feeling to be in touch with people. Tonight I'm going up to the Little ranch to give them the monthly lesson. As a priest—you get to be a priest when you're 16—I'm supposed to give a lesson to two families a month. Come along and see."
The Little ranch was another five miles south and apparently had fared poorly in the last 100 years. A simple unfrosted light bulb illuminated the tiny living room. There were pictures of old people on the walls, and a frayed Indian blanket covered the sofa. Mrs. Little, a painfully thin, bright-eyed woman of 77, sat rocking in a misshapen black chair, her fur-lined boots unbuckled after a long day. As Brent gave the lesson—"Honor thy father and thy mother"—she nodded approvingly, interrupting on occasion to test him with a question.
When the lesson was over she said, "He's a fine boy, isn't he? And a fine Mormon. And isn't that a fine basketball team he's on? Undefeated, you know."