Keeping a journal during all those dark days gave me an outlet, a foundation, something to grab and weather the everyday changes that shaped everything. It was a time of life folding back in on itself, the view from the hospital window of the old neighborhood, the history there, where even Jennifer lived as a child, and the history of the hospital itself, where I was born, where family members had died. Life repeating familiar patterns and doing the best to make memory make some sense of it all—and both memory and events co-existing in the now, both alive and in a dance as one.
Down there, below the hospital window, two streets over from Bernardo, Bill Leet lives on Wabash, near Coco Lumber Company, where among the lumber bins thousands of secret passages exist for nighttime forays: seeing how close we can sneak up to the nightwatchman, Charlie, before he discovers us; retrieving the softest wood from the scrap pile and whittling rifles and Tommy Guns for games of War, swords for stabbing the yielding trunks of banana trees, crumpling the large leaves with a single stroke; if they are out of favor with us, spying from woodpiles on Jimmy Thompson and his brother Dan (who failed an early grade and is only a year ahead of us). It is behind Bill’s house, on Park Hills, where the field lined with four oaks serves as our most serious playground. Nighttime Molatoff Cocktails (blame Jimmy for those) exploding among abandoned Christmas trees, all in the name of Battleground and Battle Cry and Battle of the Coral Sea, tend to bring adults and cops so we mostly keep to football, bloodying each other if we hit hard enough, always the dirt on jeans and shirts Glory Mud. Skills honed there serve us well when we play football for Bernard Terrace Elementary in the 5th and 6th grades.
Dan Thompson talks the coach into letting me on the team after I am sick and miss tryouts. No more practice uniforms are available so I borrow pants, jersey, and helmet from friends. No shoes, most playing barefooted. I am fast if nothing else and shortly become the starting Wingback in the Single Wing formation that the Bernard Terrace Panthers utilize. We win more games than we lose, beating neighborhood friends who play for the Dufrocq Ducks. I am hell on the reverse. Ball centered to Dan at fullback instead of the quarterback, a few steps forward like he is plowing into the line, turning and handing off to me, flying around the left end, the joy of yardage gained like an elixir. It is my first taste of attention from schoolmates I don’t know. (Later it is the laughs I get at rehearsal as a smartass Wise Man in the Christmas Pageant who slyly puts his crooked staff between his legs and aims it at Mary Toups, the perfect Virgin Mary every boy in school is in love with.)
The following year, using the T-formation, joined by classmates on the first string, the Panthers go undefeated. Bill Leet is the starting fullback and punter, coming up to me during one pregame warmup for a strategy session, asking if he should practice his punts, giving away his punting distance to the other team. I play right end and the end reverse still works. In a Jamboree game at Memorial Stadium we run the reverse five times and then Bill fakes the handoff and half of the other unblocked team comes charging through the line to smear me for a loss; just before they do I show empty hands and we all turn and watch as Bill weaves his way downfield. I run for a long touchdown but it is called back and the shortened game ends scoreless. The rest of the games we win, many of the players going on to play junior high and high school ball. Although we go out for practice in the 7th grade a few times, Bill and I discover DRAMA, realizing football practice takes place at the same time as rehearsal, girls without pom-poms more plentiful around the stage, recognition coming without battering heads and bruising bodies.