I first met Sloan in front of the old railroad depot in Lewistown, Mont., where the tracks are overgrown and the Boy Scouts have a wishing well in which they hold hostage a lovely nine-pound rainbow trout. The trout no longer spooks at sudden shadows, just lazily swims around, swims around, growing insolent and indecently fat. He was wearing a shapeless brown felt hat—Sloan, not the trout—and a gray suit coat and a green striped shirt and tie that nearly matched and a pair of khaki pants. Many washings had bleached the khaki until it was translucent, like an underexposed negative. I know now that Sloan dresses as he does—half vintage Hart Schaffner & Marx, half Army-Navy surplus—because he has made up his mind that the call to fish will never catch him with his trousers down.
Sloan is 65 or 70, limby and nimble as a mountain goat. The itch to see the horizon has been on him since he was very young. He believes most Westerners have it, a fundamental vestige of the frontier that throbs in their veins, but that they hide it in the folds of the new conservatism. He has been a boomer all his life, Sloan. Moving around. Riding boxcars. Tending bar. Bootlegging whiskey. Dealing out playing cards in smoky hideaways. Once, in a desperate time, he scratched for gold in a place where the gold had long since gone.
Now he sells Irish Sweepstakes tickets in Sacramento, Calif. and, when the fever is on him and he feels he must return again to the palaces at Reno and Las Vegas or come home to Lewistown for the trout season or a round of deer hunting, he turns the sweepstakes book over to the new woman in his life, "a precious young thing, fair and sweet as a rose."
Standing over the wishing well that first day in Lewistown, the first day of a far-flung and loosely charted course across the country, was an unsung spincaster from the East with a pocketful of brand-new flies with strange inspirational names like "Ginger Quill" and "Sandy Mite." Sloan came loping down Main Street from the direction of a large pile of blackened wood, the gutted remains of an old flour mill. I could see his big lobey ears and long chin flickering in the dimpled wake of that lovely un-frightened rainbow trout.
May 3, 1970
Sloan had left Lewistown in 1922, but had come back almost every year since to resume negotiations with the fish. Big Spring Creek, his primary stamping ground, runs through and under Lewistown, a tributary of the Judith River that in turn bleeds down from a confluence with the Missouri River farther north. The creek pumps 62,000 gallons a minute of "the finest drinking water in the world," a designation favored by Lewistown pamphleteers and sign makers, into the pipes and bellies of the town. The water is clear and ice cold and 99.8% pure. It is enough water to sustain a city of 500,000 and therefore is a surfeit for Lewistown's dwindling 9,500. Lewistown's spiritual sustenance as well as its life's fluid is in that ruffling silver stream. And there are those, like Sloan, who will swear to its preeminence as a fishing hole. Only the day before, Sloan said, he personally extracted 19 rainbows, all of legal length and eating size.
"I thought the limit was 10," I said.
"Well, it was a cold day. Thirty-five degrees. On a crazy day crazy people catch crazy fish. I am well aware that I am nine trout in the public debt, but I have a sister in Great Falls who broils fish in butter with chives and garlic salt. I will bring her a package this weekend."
Not many syllables after that I was able to talk Sloan into assisting me in the search for truth and trout. He piled into my rented car and directed me to a spot not far below the State Fish Hatchery.
A perfect place: brawling water, good dark holes, a deep, stone-lined run a man could make a cast in without being cramped. Sloan told me to keep my store-bought flies dry. He hauled out a couple of home-tied enchantresses he called "Brown Bombers," and nimbly tied them on my line and his. First in, he laid on delicately to a piece of water that looked too open and shallow to me. Almost immediately there was a wink on the surface and a mottled glistening cylinder of flesh rose mightily to the fly. Line and muscles tightened, Sloan leaning into it instinctively, and the battle joined—short, sweet and one-sided. The trout, a four-pound brookie, was broad on its side in short order.
"Trout fishing," said Sloan, "is 75% finding them." He put the catch in the slatted coffin he carries on his hip. "I do not fish for trout where they ain't no trout."
It was, so near to town, clearly a hard-fished stream, though we were the only ones on this stretch that afternoon, but Sloan caught 10 to my three before we were done. After I had lost two in a row and handled a third clankily, being too big with it, Sloan turned to me with his good left eye (the other wanders in his head like a blue molecule under a laboratory glass) and said, "Just what are you doing way out here?"
"Sloan," I said, "you won't believe this, but I have come to see America."
Sloan sat down on the bank and put his shoulder blades against a large boulder. Behind him, its leaves clattering in the soft air, was the yellowest aspen I had ever seen, so shimmering yellow in the sun it made me blink.
"I thought it was something exciting like that," he said, affecting a yawn. "Big-city people don't come to little towns like Lewistown unless they're really fishermen, which you aren't, or just nosing around looking for an Interstate, an artifact or a ghost."
Sloan then launched into a lengthy morality sketch in which he took the role of the guy raised in a small town where doors are never locked and free breathing can be accomplished without gauze over the nose. This guy eventually tries the big city, lured by the prospect of becoming a teen-age millionaire as sure as the greedy trout is lured to the nudge on the surface. He goes and he lashes himself to the opportunities and the muted multitudes and the sophisticated thrills, and often enough he is gone forever. "A few come back," said Sloan, "but they all like to try. And here's the point: people from big cities would never trust themselves to try a small town. I mean to live in one. When the urge comes you never hear anybody say, 'Let's pack up and move to Lewistown, Montana.' No, they say, 'Let's move to Los Angeles.' So they never get the feel for life the small-town guy has."
The exact center of Montana is a spot on a kitchen sink in a house in Lewistown. The land was made for ranchers and farmers; Lewistown needs them more than they need Lewistown. In the late fall, when the earth is opened in long deep slashes to receive the seed, the smell of the land reaches into the city. The Lewis and Clark trail once passed near here, and so did Blackfoot, Crow and Shoshone. Now the Crow are on a reservation near the Little Big Horn and pan-faced Blackfoot girls with bouffant hairdos lean against the tavern walls of Great Falls. The Indian Problem is for other towns and the foreign government at Washington.
A town's character, like a man's, is shaped early, often by the stress under which it is born. Lewistown was born poor. It sprouted in 1881 out of an old trading post named Reed's Fort, its nativity unblessed and unheralded, only recorded, like a booking in a seaport log. Shaped by hard truth, the people of Lewistown take life without varnish. Lewistown historians sternly point out that C. M. Russell, the famed cowboy artist, made the town sheriff's blotter twice, once for gambling and once for assault. A Lewistown man who knew him says that whenever he saw Charley Russell he was full of lice.
The antelope and elk were already coming out of the foothills when I got to Lewistown. Pushed along by the advancing frostline, they could be seen grazing speculatively beside the snow fences and the great bunkers of packaged hay—ever closer to the guns of the townspeople. No self-respecting Lewistown male goes the season without getting his buck, and he prepares for that moment—restoring equipment, hoarding shells—as diligently as he prepares for the drastic Montana winter.
Main Street, Lewistown is a log chute swooping down into town from a blinking light on U.S. 87. In its infancy the city was laid out on a bias to accommodate existing fence lines. Not even the natives are sure which way is north. Downtown, bankers and storekeeps and bowlegged ranchers in Stetson hats greet on first-name basis. Copenhagen Snuff is a big seller at the City, a combination drugstore, gun shop, pool hall and gin-rummy parlor. On the magazine racks respectable Lewistown housewives can catch up on cosmopolitan advisories just by scanning the covers: "Bedroom Hopscotching Among Young Adults"; "Nudity Can Save Your Marriage."
In the afternoon the kids come into the City to shoot pool, and the old men, divided from the young by the gun rack, play gin rummy in loud voices. The kindly justice of the peace who owns the place is known as the hanging judge by the kids. He sentences them to haircuts.
The town's civic ramrod is an immaculate white-haired little man with a Chaplinesque mustache named Cooley. Charlie Cooley is the local Chevrolet dealer. He is 75, and he has looked at life from both sides. As a boy he ran errands and trimmed the lamps for a house madam in Virginia City. Later he was a mucker in the hotboxes of the mines. One of the great lessons of his life was learned at the pleasure house. "I saw nothing, I heard nothing, I told nothing." He says it has helped him in business. The mayor was in a swivet when I was there over the city council's refusal to allocate funds for a pellet gun he needed to shoot the pigeons off his roof.
At the first tempering of dawn the next day I was deep into a platter of pancakes at the Gem Cafe when four men came in and with a good-natured clattering of chairs took the table next to mine. One was a Negro, the proprietor of an auto-repair shop. Two wore cowboy boots and were geared for the range. The fourth, leading the conversation, was a man in a pharmacist's jacket, though his conversational style was more like a dentist's drill.
The pharmacist had gone down that weekend to see Montana State University play football. He said he liked to make a regular thing of catching a college game every five or six years, "Just so I can really tie one on. Get sloshed and have a time." The trouble was, he said, he didn't get much out of those games because he couldn't keep track of the ball.
"On TV they show you right where it is all the time. In person I can't follow the ball. I mean in those college games. I don't have that trouble here with Don's team. They fumble the ball enough so you can keep an eye on it."
From that ringing endorsement, I could not wait to get around to see the Lewistown high football players at practice that afternoon. They were a handful—25 or 30—and they were working out at a field that was tiered on one side, like an amphitheater. The team's distinctive wardrobe included a wide variety of jersey colors and irregular pants. Every now and then a player would reach down and toss a rock off the field.
The coach's name was Don Perkins, a shiny-eyed man moving into middle age with a gray-on-black crew cut and a flashy, worthwhile nose. The high nasal quality of the Midwest was in his voice. What I was staring at, he said, was a drive-in football stadium, perhaps the only one of its kind. There were enough spaces on the three levels to park 150 cars and, theoretically, keep a thousand people from freezing to death on a Montana Friday night.
The coach said he carried about 25 men on the varsity, but that was academic because he never cut anybody. His star halfback was a boy named Schultz who was in the upper 10% of his class and planned to run off to California to be an engineer at the first opportunity. The other players called Schultz "Rosey Hands" because they said his hands were always pink from dropping passes.
Perkins came from Minnesota to be the Lewistown coach and has been on the job 15 years. He said by now he was comfortable in it. Yes, even happy. He figured out one year that his annual coach's stipend ($800 over his salary as a biology teacher) broke down to 32¢ an hour. After that he never wanted to figure it out again. In 1964 his team did something outrageous. It went undefeated. "People didn't know how to act," he said. "Everybody wanted to give us a banquet. I finally had to tell them to stop giving us banquets."
On the far corner of the field was some flat, unpretentious construction that appeared to be progressing very slowly. Perkins said it was a new warmup house he had asked the school to spring for. Evidently 1964 was too long ago to be remembered. A civil suit was holding up completion of the warmup house.
Perkins would get the warmup house eventually. He also had an order in for 10 new helmets for the jayvee team next year. He thought he'd get those, too. No, he didn't think they'd be getting a new stadium any time soon. He said he really couldn't complain, because the school itself was 50 years old. As we walked along the sidelines I stopped for a drink of water. It was fine. Probably the best in the world.
We grow farther apart and we grow closer together. Regional idioms are almost gone, regional dialects melding fast—smooth-talked out of our mouths by the great one-language surgeons of network radio and television. The throbbing roads level the tastes of the land. The national dish is pizza pie and dairy freeze. Everything comes in cellophane or frozen. A&W is a kids' hangout in Lewistown, Mont., and Barre, Vt.—and Hastings, Neb.
The young man at the airport wore a brown suit that seemed to shine and a paisley tie, and his wing-tip shoes were scuffed. He was considering a promotion that would take him to Florida to live, but at a "temporary" pay cut of 40%. "I wish," he said, "somebody would tell me what to do." Once he played football and drove a seed truck in Hastings, and now he won't be coming back. "People here resist change," he said. "I hated it when I grew up here and I hate it now."
I gave an old woman a lift into town from the airport. The Great Plains were bleached by the winter's bite and ugly as a bedsore, with no background to give them relief. The old woman's postman husband had made his rounds by horse and buggy; on bad days, just on horse. But he is gone, and so is the town they lived in. Now she travels to see her children in Georgia and Honolulu and finds kids crazy. "How can they study and have the television, the tape recorder and the record player on at one time?" She said people today are missing the contentment she knew.
The parking ticket cost 25¢ in Hastings. The cop who collected it apologized. He said it used to be a nickel. The teacher in the basement classroom at the $3 million high school was a balding ex-football coach. The generation gap did not scare him. He said if there were no generation gap the old couldn't teach the young anything. The thing that scared him was that if the gap got too wide the kids he loves to teach would become "the other side," and then he would not want to teach anymore.
Johnny Hopp drove. It was seven below zero and he was taking this cold-footed man from the East to a steak dinner at the country club. He was taking the long way so that he could show the scenes of his childhood and the new configurations of brick and steel that mark the march of a town's progress away from the decaying core. The sign on U.S. 6 said: "Welcome to Hastings Pop. 25,000 Sertoma Lions Kiwanis Optimist Clarke Hotel."
At 53 Hopp, the ex-Cardinal, had aged gracefully. His belly was still taut under his impeccable tailoring, and his hair, combed straight back in a style popular in the '40s, called (by boys in the '50s) the Eddie Cantor, had thinned only marginally. The lines in his face gave him away; a geometry of lines from squinting up at pop flies.
"That's Duncan Field," Johnny Hopp said. The ball park had the comfortable beaten-down look of a favorite pillow. The light columns stood out against the gunmetal sky. "Yogi Berra played a game there as a kid, for an American Legion team. I understand he hit a home run they still talk about. It was a helluva drive. Even in a Cadillac it was a helluva drive."
Steve McQueen was showing at the Strand. Double-O Seven was at the Rivoli. The movie heroes march two by two across the country, as binding to the culture as the highways are to the economy. The car radio announced the Hastings chill factor at 35° below zero.
"My father had a bar in Hastings, Hopp's Tavern," said Johnny. "My grandfather used to ride to town on his bike to the bar, and when he was finished he'd push the bike home. When the season was over and I'd come back, people would come around to the bar and say, 'How's Johnny doing?' 'Hell, I dunno. Go see for yourself. He's up on the Platte River, hunting.' "
After Johnny Hopp made it to the major leagues it looked like he would never let go. He played 13 years, a long time. One year he hit .340. Of the high-paid stars of today only a handful ever hit .340. But he was in a lesser constellation. The most he ever made was $30,000. He was known for longevity, for speed afoot, and he could always catch a fly ball. "No one epitomizes the Cardinal spirit like Johnny Hopp," a columnist in St. Louis wrote in 1942 when the Cardinals retrieved a pennant after being 10½ games behind the Dodgers in August.
The Cards had Johnny Hopp first, and then the Braves, Pirates, Yankees and Detroit Tigers owned him. He played in five World Series and had a lifetime batting average of .296. That is better than people like Frank Howard or Harmon Killebrew will end up with, but they hit balls in the bleacher seats and Johnny Hopp played a different game called hustle. Hustle does not negotiate especially high when the average starts to slide.
Everyone knew where the great DiMaggio spent his years after 1951; those implacable journalists of sport, the nerve endings of his vast following, would not allow him to go uninvaded in his privacy. The DiMaggios of baseball do not fade away, they only die. Or reincarnate as managers. But what of the Johnny Hopps? Are they all up hunting on the Platte River?
"I ride the state for the Kansas-Nebraska National Gas Company," said Hopp. "I have a car and an expense account, and I do public relations, put out a magazine, make speeches, hold clinics for kids, that kind of thing. I'm active in civic affairs. I'm luckier than a lot of guys. I hunt and I fish and I play golf. I don't watch baseball. Oh, I might see a World Series game if I'm home for lunch and can catch a couple innings on the television. Never been a sitter. That's one reason I live here—15 minutes to the hunting, 15 minutes to the fishing."
A sign by the road invited travelers to purchase "Appaloosas and Apples." A motel marquee made an equally diversified offer: "Chinese Food and Breakfast." A Union Pacific Railroad freight train groaned across the viaduct at Burlington Avenue.
"I dreaded the day I wouldn't play," continued Johnny Hopp. "I couldn't imagine not playing ball anymore. Then, in the winter of '52, the contract didn't come in the mail [Detroit, Dec. 23 (AP)—The Detroit Tigers announced today the unconditional release of Johnny Hopp, the 36-year-old...] and that was the way it was done. Twenty years of baseball, and then no baseball. That year I buried myself into the golf driving range I had, and later I took a job as a coach for the Tigers, and I coached a year for the Cards. Then I didn't get a contract in the mail again. That one was not as hard. I'd be lying to you if I said I didn't miss it, but life goes on. Things work out."
An executive for the club Hopp had played for longest came to Hastings after that on business. "He had always told me how much he admired me, how much he appreciated the way I played, all-out all the time. He said I'd always have a job in baseball.
"He was in Hastings three days. He never called to say hello."
Barre, Vt., Pop. 11,100. The Granite Center of the World. Granite for topping people off when they are dead. Everybody has to be first at something. The town grows lengthwise, tight to a vine of concrete designated as U.S. Route 302 out of Montpelier. Snow dusts the road and is piled high on either side. It is 20° below zero. Ice, snow and endless non-color.
Coca-Cola Bottling Company, Mercedes-Benz, Moose Lodge 1391, Del's Pizza—polyps newly grown to the vine. A&W Root Beer is closed for the season. The owner has gone to Florida. A clanking orange snowplow leads the way into town, ripping off the crust. The traveler has been told Barre is the hottest sports spot in the state. In context, that is a curious adjective. It has been below freezing for every hour save two since Christmas.
The lights are on at midday. Neat, ancient high-gabled houses. People move in, out, in again, and the population goes unaltered. No slums. No lounges. No Negroes. No YMCA. "Say, son, what do you do here to keep your mind off your freezing feet?" "Hunt rabbits." "And?" "Race snowmobiles—40, 50 miles an hour. Faster at night. You can be braver at night."
The auditorium is up a side street from the main road on the crest of a steep glassy hill. It had been erected in 1939, a monument overlooking the city, and had acquired the well-used look of a place that has seen the comings and goings of operettas, politicians, Harlem Globetrotters and Gorgeous Georges.
A high-booted man in a quilted jacket was sweeping the snowdust from the entranceway, looking, alone in that gray perspective, like the last curler on earth. He said he couldn't be sure of the principals but there was, indeed, a big basketball game tonight and to arrive early because the place would be jumping. He said this without looking up from the business end of his broomstick.
With time to burn, I went for coffee at one of the glass-aluminum specialty food huts found on every main street. In a doughty mood brought on by the prodding cold, I ordered two cream-filled chocolate-covered coconut-coated donuts and bent myself like a palm over my steaming coffee to eavesdrop.
Two men in oil-company uniforms were sallying over the departure of a bearded young man in a maxi-length fur coat. The young man had just walked out with a bag of donuts and a German shepherd on a leash. I could see him through the plate glass, piling his dog into a green Ford with New York license plates. A snub-nosed blonde girl was behind the wheel. The young man was topped off by such an extravagant amount of wrinkly hair that he appeared to be an extension of his own coat.
"A Goddard man, all right," said the younger of the oilmen. "The only way to go to college. Go to class whenever you like. Say whatever you want in class. Lay it on the old perfessor. Free thinking. Free love. Boy! Real ah-van...a-van..."
"Only rule they have, the girls have to be out of the boys' rooms by 4 a.m."
"It's the rule. I dunno, it's the rule. So they can get a couple hours sleep before class. But you get over there at 6, you can still catch the changing of the guard."
"Seems to me you know an awful lot about it for a disinterested party."
The younger man grinned.
My rations were delivered, cash on the barrel, but I was short the change and the waitress couldn't break a $10 bill. A man in a business suit on the far side of the counter offered $7 for my $10 in a straight cash deal. "That's a Vermont special," he said. "Try fleecing a Vermont man and that'll happen to you."
When the oilmen had left I asked the businessman about the Goddard crowd. The school was only a few miles away; were Barre's mothers concerned?
"No, not really. They're actually pretty intelligent kids from wealthy families—New York and Massachusetts. They're not demented or anything, just ashamed they're not as miserable as they think they ought to be. Maybe we'd be better off not trying to understand them so much. We'll wear them out trying to understand them."
Early enough, I retracked up the glass hill and found a parking place across from the auditorium in a field closed in by parapets of plowed, crusted snow. I was directed upstairs to the "adult" section, being assured by the usher I would be less comfortable at floor level (students) unless I had a strong ear for one team or the other. I took an aisle seat in the second row of the balcony.
The auditorium filled quickly. In front of me a boy in a red athletic sweater, perhaps 17, with long black sideburns, was deep in communication with the light of his life, a plumpish girl with bone-white hair flattened against her head. Behind me settled a family of fans whose instructional chief was a graying man in a parka and a yellow tie and chukka boots.
I could not have been luckier. The man was a hope chest of information. He soon had our area apprised of the local team's precarious position. This was, as I had hoped, a grudge match, the big game between home-town Spaulding and Montpelier High. Both were unbeaten in the conference. "At home," said the man, "Montpelier is 15 points better. But not here."
A black-haired woman, once pretty but loosened from her beauty by time and maternity, took the seat to my left, squeezing in with her son. The boy looked about 10 and as he sat down he gave a hair-raising impersonation of a busted steam valve, a cheer he was to repeat often during the game. The woman waved at some friends to my right, and politely wished me a good evening.
The game began, and after that the profound stomping and yelling slackened only enough to renew itself in rolling waves of sound. The players exulted over every basket and were devastated by every miss. Foul calls were signals for surges of indignation, usually led by the coaches. No foul call was justified. Mandibles jumping, the Montpelier coach patrolled the sidelines, posturing and calling signals and beseeching referees. He was so far-ranging that once he wound up in front of the Barre bench. Realizing where he was, he did a perfect double-take, as though suddenly awakened from a dream walk.
The game was close at the start. "At's it, attaboy Louis!" shouted the information center behind me. He knew all the players by their first names. "Get those hands up Gary.... At's it, at's it, spread 'em out!" Then, at a modulation better suited to instruct us: "See that Timmy? He knows what he's doing. We're gonna box that No. 23 out, that Cody kid. He's their top player—we've got to box him out."
We nodded our agreement.
A Barre player, clutching his stomach, took himself out of the game, cramped with emotion. He sat down and bent over and someone put a towel over his head. I had forgotten how intense and how exciting teen-age children at sport can be. And how wonderfully superior community involvement in sport is to that tenuous relationship the big-city fan has with his professional team. Those were the neighbor boys out there, and the boy friends and sons and nephews, and up here were the dads and moms and brothers and teachers and best girls, and the link was through the heart and in the blood. In contrast, the other is an illusive, one-sided romance, the supporter having to half-imagine communion with the athlete, and the athlete only vaguely aware who is behind those claps and boos.
It is popular just now to think of participant sport as superior, perforce, to spectator sport. No one would disagree that the specimen adult American—desperate for exercise—is better off playing two sets of tennis than nesting two hours in a box seat. But that is a purely physical argument, and what I am talking about is an exercise of the soul. Once, in a little Mormon town in Utah, I saw this at its fullest bloom: a whole town loving and loved by its high-school basketball team. Years later—six, to be exact—I received a letter from one of the players on that team. He remembered I had been there just for a visit and he was writing to tell me of the untimely death of his father. He thought I would like to know.
My information from the rear was correct. The Barre team was not as good as the Montpelier team. But in its flailing it demonstrated a strong willingness to survive, like a non-swimmer treading water, and actually led by a point after the first quarter. The boy in the red sweater in front of me took advantage of each peak period of excitement to put the clinch on his girl friend. That way it looked like cheering.
In the second quarter our hopes for Barre soon deteriorated. Montpelier began to open up a lead.
"Press 'em! Press 'em!" implored the man behind me.
"Press 'em!" I yelled, surprising myself.
A Barre boy, Timmy, stole a Montpelier pass and dribbled madly downcourt.
"Attaboy, Timmy!" said the man, leaping up. "He'll get the ball for you, that Timmy."
Timmy, too madly, let the ball slip out of his hands and out of bounds.
"He'll also lose it for you," said the man.
Barre continued to grow sloppier. It could have used the surer hands of the boy in the red sweater. By halftime the issue was as good as resolved. Barre trailed by seven. As five unsmiling, sturdily constructed baton twirlers trundled onto the court I struck up a conversation with the woman on my left.
She said she had only recently returned from Tucson, Ariz., where she had lived 10 years, nine of them without a husband. She had kept a loaded gun in her closet after a man was bludgeoned to death 150 feet from her house. In a city of 250,000 she felt quarantined, and ached with homesickness. Home was Montpelier, and the names and faces of the boys on the Montpelier team were all familiar to her, though she had never seen them. A small town's athletic families are self-perpetuating. Fred Smith grows up to look like his brother Ed or his father Ted and the family athletic pride melds into the pride for school. "The Cody boys—they're Syrian," she said. "They've always been fine athletes. There's a section in Montpelier we call Codyville because there are so many Codys.
"When you are from Montpelier, you think of Barre people as rowdies. This is the blue-collar crowd. Montpelier's the capital, you know, and we always felt we got a better upbringing over there. Now I live in Barre and I hear the other side. Barre people think Montpelier people charge everything and don't pay their bills."
The teams were back on the floor and the noise was picking up. Half shouting, I asked if she had any other qualms about coming home again.
"Only one," she said.
She hesitated, and turned her eyes to the game. For a time I did not think she was going to answer. When she did, I could barely hear her.
"...Aren't enough single men," she said.
The game ended, Barre a loser by 16 points. The Cody boy scored 32 points. Codyville would jump tonight. Our side's exit from the auditorium was a funeral procession. Two wet-eyed boys barely in their teens stood at the edge of the parking lot, searching the crowd for a hostile face. In the time-honored tradition of high-school kids and grudge games, a mouse under the eye is a badge of honor at school on Monday morning and they had made up their minds to try for a pound of flesh. "If one comes at you, kick him in the———," one boy instructed the other.
In some parking lots I have been in, in New York and Washington, words like that would have been the prelude to real trouble. Knives, perhaps, and chains, and then sirens in the night. In Barre, Vt. the only trouble I encountered was getting my rented car through the one break in the snowbound parking lot. Skillfully maneuvering, taking chances, intimidating others—parking lots bring out the natural sporting instinct in all Americans—I was able to avoid by two being the last car out.
On Route 302 I gave a young hitchhiker a lift toward Montpelier. He was probably 13 years old and he was wearing neither gloves nor overcoat nor hat, only a tufted leather jacket. His cheeks were chapped rouge-red. He said he had just come from washing dishes at a restaurant where they pay a buck an hour, and was going to join his dad for a night ride on the family snowmobile.
"She's a Panther," he said. "Seventy-five miles an hour. Makes 15-foot jumps. We're in a club. They have races and everything. You ought to try one out."
I did the next morning, and in the afternoon as I flew out of Burlington the jet dipped its wing to the south and I could see in the snow the ruts and tracks of the sport. I had made my mark on Vermont and it would last, in that refrigerator, at least to spring.
Early in this narrative I presented the football coach of Fergus County High, Lewistown, Mont. as a man who earned his 32¢ an hour. That is what he figured he got for coaching football one season. If he seemed to be offered up as a novel specimen, I apologize. His drive-in football stadium might be novel; he isn't. As a group, high-school coaches are all waiting to get their rewards in heaven because as long as they are high-school coaches they are going to be underpaid on earth. But there are exceptions....
Interstate 75, a thundering tape measure marking the miles from Sault Ste. Marie to St. Petersburg, skirts Valdosta, Ga. to the west, expediting the escape route to the sands of Florida and taking the play away from old U.S. 41, a more serene, edifying conveyor. A voice named Benton is making the car radio tremble: "...ray-nee night in Jaw-juh...ray-nee niiiiiiight in Jaw-juh...it seems like it's raynin' all over the world...."
Ahead of me the folds in the earth rise gently. Tobacco country, and soybeans and cotton and pines that yield the gum turpentine. Spanish moss hangs from the trees like bridal trains, recalling the wedding of the people to an older, mellower time.
"Welcome to Valdosta. Church of Christ one-half block."
The churches are gleaming white. They seem to be everywhere, two to a block. The police cars are white, the streets clean, the society stratified: 10% control about 90% of the wealth. Langdale, Strickland and Goodloe are names to know, or to be reckoned with.
In the center of town the marble statue is of a soldier in anachronistic fighting gear. The statue was erected in 1911. The inscription says it was dedicated to "Our Confederate dead. CSA." White people, hanging to the thread, do not want to give up their heritage either. In the year 1969 some black people raised the roof over the playing of Dixie at high-school sporting events. Whites blamed "outside agitators."
Despite ax-handle rhetoric from the slate capital, the integration of Valdosta High School has gone smoothly. The school was one of the first to be integrated in the state and it was a balanced, meaningful integration. The Valdosta High School football team, the best team in Georgia year after year, is coached by a man named Wright Bazemore. Bazemore does not have stars. He only has boys he considers his children. Fifteen percent of his children are black.
I missed the hunting I had hoped to have with Wright Bazemore. I got there too late on a Saturday afternoon and he had already gone and returned.
"Get your birds?" I asked.
"Got me a few."
"What's a few—the limit?"
"Yes." He smiled.
"Well, maybe we can try tomorrow."
"I'm a Christian," he said.
"I don't hunt on Sunday. I go to church on Sunday."
To fill you in on all of Wright Bazemore's qualifications might be a fairly suffocating thing, but for those who cannot resist box scores, a medium-length rundown is offered.
Wright Bazemore is now 53 years old. He is, in middle age, not imposing to look at—a moderate to small man with gray hair and batwing ears, and a rather nice smile under licorice eyebrows. He is shy and lets his wife do most of the talking in mixed groups. He was born 60 miles up the road in Fitzgerald, where he once scored 10 touchdowns in two high-school football games. He went on to play at Mercer when Mercer was taking lessons from teams like Army and Navy and Georgia Tech.
Wright has been coaching the Valdosta High football team for 29 years. He did not have to die to get into the Georgia Hall of Fame, because his teams won 266 out of 313 games and 14 state championships. No, he rode in on a wave of adoration. Four trophy cases crowd the school halls and are crammed with little gold men kicking footballs, old retired jerseys and half-deflated footballs that have scores like 48-0 and 54-6 painted on them. (Winning isn't everything. Total annihilation can be fun, too.)
Since I had missed the hunting, Wright said there was no need for me to miss supper and took me to his house for hamburgers with the family. His wife, Bettie, was prone to be informative. She talked about the country's debt to the Negro and how it was being paid in Valdosta, but admitted to an honest concern about having to drive her daughter across town next year to what had been an all-Negro school. I have seen the uneasiness everywhere. Busing is fine until the horn toots for thee.
The subject of her concern was a slim, very dark-eyed girl who was on the verge of becoming beautiful. Every time the telephone rang the girl was the first one to it. The family was having trouble keeping boys off her scent. The boy at the table, her brother, had a strong jaw and a curl on his forehead—"a straight-A student," Mrs. Bazemore said—and only recently was a regular linebacker on Wright Bazemore's varsity.
After dinner Wright drove me around to meet Dynamite Goodloe, a town hero. I had heard about Dynamite Goodloe but I didn't know he was one of the Goodloes. Dynamite was relaxed in a chair in his sprawling ranch-style house, wearing a monogrammed T shirt and dungarees and chewing on a pipe. Even in repose he was a striking figure, almost a perfect square, maybe five six or seven, 240 pounds. Despite his physique, he had been an outstanding athlete: football at Georgia Tech and an enviable record in amateur golf. When Wright first started coaching at Valdosta High, Dynamite used to come around and scrimmage with the team. Without pads.
Coffee was served, and Dynamite began talking about "this man" Wright Bazemore and what he had done. And Wright just sat there quietly and listened. As I understand it, it had worked this way:
Wright Bazemore's effect on Valdosta was not to make football the logical focal point of a town's pride, but to make football the town's passion, its purpose. Kids in cradles were rocked toward the day they would be in on the program. The program, which Wright had set up as city schools' athletic director, consisted of junior-high-school teams that were fully equipped and played 10-game schedules. These feed the 95-member high-school varsity. (I could not help but think of Don Perkins and his meager 25 in Lewistown, Mont.) For the varsity there were no rags, only riches. A Touchdown Club was organized, at $10 a member, and the club donated $3,500 a year so that Wright could take 110 players to a deluxe two-week football camp in the summer. The club provided 35¢ a plate so that each player could have chops and steaks when other kids in school were eating tunafish.
Wright's abilities were compared with those of Bobby Dodd and Bear Bryant; the major had called him Valdosta's "No. 1 citizen." Dynamite Goodloe said he was the No. 1 deterrent to juvenile delinquency. Wright did not allow his players to drink or smoke. One who did smoke was kicked off the team and a few days later came to Bazemore in tears. His father would not let him eat with the rest of the family, he said, and had banished him to his room every night after supper. "Coach," said the boy, "I'll kill myself if you don't take me back."
Every game was a sellout in a stadium that has 12,000 seats. The only way to wrest a season ticket from a regular was to get it willed to you. Parents who had moved away brought their kids back to town when they were of age for football. And athletes who had moved away hid their cigarettes and came around to see Wright Bazemore before visiting mama and papa. A New York company chartered a plane to bring alumni home to see the games on Friday night. A boy in the Air Force had his mother send tape recordings of game broadcasts.
Bazemore's personal needs, meanwhile, were being taken care of by a flexible school and salary policy, and he obliged by not turning his head to college offers. He was rewarded for his fidelity in still other ways: a new Buick, and a camper, and a trailer, and a color television set and a boat. And there was always somebody who would fix his TV for free, or bring around some avocados.
"This is a very good place to coach," said Wright Bazemore.
"Because of him, Valdosta is a better place to live," said Dynamite Goodloe.
"Here we believe in football," said Wright Bazemore.
And then, just as we were about to call it a night, Mrs. Bazemore said something that I have not yet forgotten. Nor have I decided exactly what conclusions to draw, if any. My feelings then and now are ambivalent. I was sitting there in the glow of Wright Bazemore's great success, convinced that at last I had found the high-school coach who was not only worth his salt but was getting it, too, when Mrs. Bazemore said what a blow it had been to be tied in the championship game last year.
The team had won 12 straight, and then was tied 26-26, by Athens, Ga., and, she said, "all Wright could do afterward was go around saying to people, 'I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry,' as if he'd lost. As if he'd failed. Just 'I'm sorry, I'm sorry.' I felt so bad for him."
Having experienced Wright Bazemore, I felt, on Sunday morning in Valdosta, Ga., the need to be better myself. Perhaps if I were a smoker I would have given up smoking. Instead I picked out the biggest, oldest Baptist church in town, a high-ceilinged, stained-glassed, sand-colored edifice in which the pipes of the organ stretched across the choir area like a glistening row of super baseball bats.
I was ushered in, just behind a little black girl in pigtails and the whitest ruffles I had ever seen, to a seat—the church was packed—between a woman and her children and an old lady in a blue-feathered hat.
"How nice to see you again," said the blue-feathered hat. "Very glad you could come, and"—looking at the woman and children next to me—"my what a lovely family you have." She was still talking to me when the music started, and I felt so good I belted out the first hymn with stunning vibrato.
The preacher wore a modified crew cut, and his delivery was bloated with pro-nun-cia-tion and vivid symbolism. "...A gold mine waiting to be ex-ca-va-ted by some prospec-tor...." It wasn't long before an opaque look came over the eyes of the choir. My personal objection to the sermon was that it could have been delivered anywhere—the Lions Club, the B'nai B'rith—without offending anybody. It lacked the ecclesiastical wallop I had hoped to find in the Bible Belt, and left me strangely unpurged.
I got out as quickly as possible and searched Valdosta's streets until I found myself a Burger King and ordered a double hamburger. Heavy on the onions.