Yesterday, I went back to my Camelot, although I don't really call it that. Vacantlot would be more like it, though to me it is always a place of magic and wonder. I discovered it over a period of years and, with something like the instincts of a migrating bird, I return there each fall.
Yesterday my son, Randy, went with me. We drove to the local high school practice field and began throwing a football even before we got out of the parking lot.
"Take off for a long one!" I shouted, and he streaked away, a tall boy of 15, the sun glinting off his blond hair. I cocked my arm and waited for him to go a full 30 yards before I threw the ball hard toward a spot I hoped would give him the proper lead. It did, and Randy gathered in the ball on the run. Whirling quickly around, he raised it in his left hand, waved his right in the silent signal recognized by little boys and grown men since footballs started getting passed around on this planet: take off left.
I took off, riding a high that no drug could possibly match, breathing hard and holding my hands chest high, ready to extend them to catch the ball. I saw Randy's arm come forward and the pigskin sail high toward me. I slanted more to the left and ran under it.
Slap! The ball stung my hands and forearms, and I hugged it tight as I slowed down, already starting to turn to loft it back to my son. We ran down the field like that, passing the ball back and forth.
"Way to go, Dad!"
"Good catch, Randy, great!"
As all schoolboys know, you can't have a good game of pass and kick without proper narration and identification with legitimate football heroes.
"Kramer lets it go! And Rashad's got it!" I shout as Randy leaps high to grab the ball. "Oh, what a catch! Touchdown, Vikings!"
There is an odor of new-cut grass. The sky is cloudless and the temperature about 80. A nice breeze is blowing over the field, which sits on a little plateau overlooking green Minnesota farmland.
"Hold it for me, Dad!"
I place the ball on the 15-yard line while Randy limbers up his place-kicking foot. He boots one that skitters off to the left and silently retrieves the ball while I remain in the holder's position. On his next try the ball sails over the crossbar.
"And the Vikes tack on the conversion!" I announce to the thousands crowding my imagination.
It is so beautiful, this wondrous place of autumn. I'm 44 years old now, and when I was Randy's age not many guys of 44 ran around in a T shirt and blue shorts playing pass and kick. But it makes me younger than Randy, because....
The Minnesota farmland fades away and the dominant structure on the landscape becomes the white tower of the University of Texas, as seen from the playground of Wooldridge Elementary School on 24th Street in Austin. I am 11, in the sixth grade, and playing pass-and-kick football on the gravelly ground with my brother, Jerry, 13, and Billy Jackson, 10, our best friend. In the fall, the session is a daily ritual. Sometimes a few of the university boys come over from a fraternity or boardinghouse and play with us, and we marvel at how far they can pass and how high their punts fly.
On one historic afternoon Bobby Layne, the Longhorns' quarterback, spent a few minutes with us. He threw a pass to each of us, and we caught the battered ball as though it were a piece of jade thrown by a silk-clad khan to the masses.
I wished fervently, and secretly, that Adele Black and Peggy Taylor, the prettiest girls in the sixth grade, had been there watching. Sometimes they stayed around after school waiting for their parents to pick them up. But not on that day, darn it. I somehow knew that my performance would have made one or both of them want to marry me when we grew up.
We asked Layne if he would throw the ball as far as he could, and he laughed and told us to stand about five feet in front of him. Then he said, "Take off."
We ran toward the far end of the playground, me down the middle, Jerry on the left sideline and Billy on the right. Layne waited and winked at his wife who was standing patiently, smiling, on the sidewalk. We ran. To my mind, the distance seemed like 600 yards, easy. Then, almost too quick to see, he threw the ball. It traveled like a bullet, spiraling, humming, soaring higher than the two-story, tan stucco school building. Then it started down; Jerry, Billy and I closed in on the fence. The ball dropped out of the sky, coming down between me and Billy. We both stretched our arms out and just tipped it before it hit the base of the fence. We looked back in awe. Layne waved and then he and his wife walked away, as did the people who, recognizing the passer, had stopped to watch.
"Boy, howdy!" Billy exclaimed.
I picked up the ball. "I'm Bobby Layne!" I yelled, giving Billy the universal take-off-for-a-pass sign.
"I'm Jimmy Canady!" Billy shouted, claiming the identity of the Longhorns' halfback.
Jerry cast about for a moment for a UT player for himself and then yelled as he joined the pass pattern, "I'm Tommy Landry!"
Shadows rolled across the playground like a tarpaulin being laid in slow motion. We threw the ball around until our instincts and the setting sun told us it was time to head home.
I played my Bobby Layne part for years, although more silently as I grew older, through junior high and beyond. At odd moments, I still do.
The bright fall sun, the sting of leather (even imitation leather) against my hands—they have stayed with me since then. Wherever I have managed to get into a game, I have found my Camelot: on a Far East island after Army duty hours; in a park in Little Rock where I wrote for the AP about the exploits of Layne's successors in the Southwest Conference; in a backyard in Louisville where I watched Randy take his first uncertain steps as a baby and try to eat a tiny, soft rubber football.
Each fall constituted an awakening and a remembering. But finding my special place became harder and harder. The running and kicking got a little tougher, the muscles a little sorer. In the first year after I first noticed the soreness I could excuse taking it easy because Randy was just a little tyke.
Soon, however, there were no excuses. With each passing year I added a ring of fat around my middle. Expense-account dinners and cocktails and too much sitting around had put flab on my body, and my zest for life atrophied like unused muscle, my enthusiasm sputtered like a flare at the end of a campus torchlight parade. I watched as my Camelot faded into the distance. The cry "Way to go!" grew faint. In the fall I had to be content with watching the flat, flickering images of football players on the television screen.
Then, four years ago, I decided to take up jogging. I wondered if by running I could catch up with my retreating Camelot, recapture it for the fall and the other seasons, too. So I started to run, very slowly and self-consciously at first, clomping along in $3.98 sneakers from the local K-Mart, having to stop after only a block or two. But I kept doing it, until I could run for several blocks, and then, after I'd learned enough to buy running shoes and quit smoking cigarettes, I went a mile.
In a short time I became aware of the sheer joy of movement that I had known as a child, when a leap over a sidewalk was an Olympic long-jump record, when a dash across a vacant lot, a jump over a Cyclone fence, a swing from the tree limb in Professor Boatwright's side yard all added up to a victory in the decathlon.
Far away on the horizon I could see the outline of Camelot. When fall came again I was even closer, and I asked Randy if he wanted to go out and throw the football around for awhile.
Now, through the fall, the winter, spring and summer I run, pursuing a memory of vitality and happiness. It calls for extra effort and I give it proudly. I grew to hate the insidious accumulation of rings around my trunk and began reversing the process. My sense of serenity grows. On and on I run.
Life begins to look different. Some of the attitudes I have held for years slip away from me. New ones grow and take hold like replacement cells in my body and, like such cells, they are stronger, more resilient and able to function far better than their worn-out predecessors. People comment, "You don't seem so uptight anymore." And I don't feel so uptight either. My wife, Marilyn, and my children notice the change.
Yet I am not a zealot. I don't run five miles every day; usually it's only three or four, and if I do it three times a week it's a good week. Sometimes I skip a whole week at a time, and I still succumb now and then to the lure of a big lunch and a couple of Manhattans.
But what I do seems to be enough to carry me down the road toward Camelot. I follow its shining beacon over snow-covered roads in January, breathing through a piece of old terry-cloth towel, which I have discovered is an effective—and cheap—mask against the Minnesota cold. I run in the moderating chill of spring and in the heat of summer, gasping in the humidity and finishing clammy with sweat.
I have found once again something of that joy and that exuberance that I knew on the playgrounds, sidewalks and vacant lots of Austin. It is a new strength, a new defense against the stresses of adult life. The alleged benefits of exercise, I have discovered, are very real. For years I had been skeptical of such reports, but, for me at least, they are true. The more I move around, the calmer things get.
But my greatest pleasure arrives with the approach of fall. It comes when the zest of summer is beginning to pall and the back-to-school ads for kids' clothes and notebooks start appearing in the paper, when the sports pages start carrying notes on pro football training camps and the college coaches' laments about their coming season—that's my time of year. It is the time when I remember the awesome bulk of Memorial Stadium in Austin, the color of the light on the UT tower on nights after football games—orange if the Longhorns won, white if they lost (it was usually orange)—the fallen autumn leaves rustling along 26th Street and the pretty coeds rushing out of the sorority houses on University Avenue to the post-game dance.
It is in the fall that I shed the weight of years and pick up my pace, because I am almost to Camelot. There it is, up ahead, my refuge, my dream world, my special shining spot.