When I was growing up in Evanston, Ill., in the '30s, I barely knew that the telephone existed. My friends and I didn't use the phone. It never occurred to us. When the football team gathered together it always happened the same way.
I would walk half a block to Bob Hunter's house and shout, "Hey, Hunter! Hunter!" The screen door would bang open, and Hunter would appear. Then the two of us would walk two doors up the street and call, "Hey, Bob! Bob Cain!" And so it went until the Wesley Avenue Whippets had assembled. None of the players lived more than two blocks from our "field," a vacant lot bordering the community golf course in Evanston. There were no highways to cross, no car pools and, best of all, no uniforms to worry about. A pair of corduroys, tennis sneakers, a borrowed helmet, and a Whippet was set.
On one particular October Saturday, when I was 10, it was cold, plenty cold. Weaklings stayed inside, but we ballplayers were at our field early in the morning. There was a big game that day with the Maulers, the fancy chaps from the right side of the canal (Sanitation District No. 5 drainage canal) that ran near the lot. Since the Whippets were the home team, a lot of field preparation lay ahead for us.
First the field had to be rolled. Cain's father had a lawn roller, and we worked in pairs—two 70-pounders pushing it down the bumpy field, two more Whippets pushing it back. After 45 minutes we decided we had the surface sufficiently level to pass muster. Goalposts were more than we could negotiate. For the extra point in our league, there was only a run or a pass.
November 24, 1986
But the best part of preparing the field was lining it. Several blocks away, up on Ridge Avenue, was the Lady Esther cosmetics plant. To us Whippets, the crucial Lady Esther product was face powder. Hunter had discovered that large quantities of it were dumped because of impurities, and being a born entrepreneur, he arranged to collect a sizable batch. We shoveled the rejected powder into the buckets we had brought with us and carried it back to our field.
Real genius lay in our design of the rig for making the yard lines. A garbage can, a set of tricycle wheels, bits and pieces of this and that were fashioned into the finest device anywhere in the canal area for lining a football field. We were so proud of the contraption that the MVP from the previous Whippet game had the honor of being foreman of the lining crew. How we labored to make the lines straight and sharp! The finishing touch was cross-hatching the end zone.
The whole procedure always took more time than we allowed, and we were still at it that morning when the dreaded Maulers started coming, single file, across the narrow bridge that spanned the canal. They looked seven feet tall and massive. And they were big compared with us, but big and slow and ponderous. We Whippets figured that if we could stay out of the Maulers' way on offense and gang-tackle them on defense, we could handle them.
Well, whip them we did. And even I—at 65 pounds, the smallest of the Whippets—had an unforgettable day: three scores of more than 30 yards, one the length of the field on a kickoff return. The game ended in a glorious victory for the Whippets, and after a celebratory round of hot chocolate at our clubhouse (the Cains' garage), we headed for home.
Like most men at that time, my father worked until noon on Saturdays. At 1 p.m. all 10 of us—Mother, Dad, six boys and two girls—had lunch together. There was always a lot of bantering and teasing. Today I was full of the Whippets' triumph. I was only about halfway through my game account when my oldest brother, Grayle, said, "You know, Philip, I don't believe that you even played football this morning."
My next oldest brother, Andy, picked it up. "Right. How awful to have let the team down."
Then my older sister, Mary, chimed in. "All right, Philip, who is she? I can smell cheap perfume a mile away. And at your age!"
"But...perfume?" I stammered.
My father was the next to pick up the torch. He turned to me and said, "Don't you think that 10 years old is a little young to be carrying on?"
Finally it dawned on me. Having had a good day, carrying the ball 30 times, I had wallowed in the yard lines, sidelines and end zones. The Lady Esther face powder could be brushed off, but not the accompanying fragrance.
"O.K., O.K., I confess," I said to my family. "I have fallen for a sweet lady named Esther."
Philip G. Howlett of Greenwich, Conn., a former publisher of SI, is a free-lance writer.