One morning, when I was unhappy with my old man, a U.S. Army drill instructor, who often brought his instructional (bullying) tactics home, I followed a little path through morning dew to a tin-can town where a bale of terrapins idled in sunlight beside a brook that did not babble. I liked it there and decided to stay forever, but later that day I was found by a search party led by the drill sergeant himself. The local paper called it a rescue but the leader of that search party and I knew better.
That was six years ago. I’m fourteen now, struggling mightily in certain situations with my self-confidence, the drill sergeant’s emotional battering having taken its toll. For example, I can’t speak in a classroom anymore without my voice trembling. So I just sit there when called on staring at something on the floor that only I see in the awful silence.
My drill sergeant dad isn’t my biological dad. He’s Mom’s second chance at wedded bliss. Between dads, for several years, I was raised in a potting shed trailer in the piney woods of west central Arkansas—a sanctuary for moonshiners, marijuana growers, and merry (and not- so-merry) pranksters. I called it the Hillbilly Outback and often stated there was nothing there but cow flop and crazy people. But it’s a beautiful place and I was perfectly happy with its unsophisticated ways.
It was after Mom remarried that my troubles began. For six years we’ve followed the drill sergeant from one post to another. I don’t know what Mom sees in him. Oh, he did resemble Paul Newman a little bit at one time. But he drinks too much and I’ve lost count of how many doors he’s kicked in and how many walls he’s punched a fist through.
Frogtown’s a tiny community on the northern periphery of the Hillbilly Outback. It’s called East L.A. by many of its two hundred residents, dozens of whom, on a semi-regular basis, journey to Los Angeles and back looking for work. The quail and the quiet meet there is how I describe it. It was this place that we left in August of 1961 to join the drill sergeant at his latest duty station, Fort Belvoir, Virginia, only fifteen miles south of Washington, D.C.
The drive from Arkansas to Virginia, with Grandma along to help with things, took three days and two nights. It felt like forever. Each day we had to stop at 6 P.M. so Granny could get her beauty sleep. Somewhere between Memphis and Nashville, a guy on a John Deere tractor actually passed us after we pulled over so Grandma could plaster on another layer of make-up.
Finally, we arrived on August 15, chugging through Belvoir’s front gate at 5 P.M., just as taps was echoing across the post. Having lived in the civilian world the past two years, Mom didn’t remember when taps is played on a military installation, you pull your vehicle over, get out, put your hand over your heart, and stand until it’s finished. She just kept driving, following the little map the drill sergeant had made for her, until we reached our new home located in a nondescript brick housing complex for NCOs and their families called Dog Creek.
Our quarters in Dog Creek were only about three hundred yards from the Potomac River. I hurried over there as soon as Mom pulled into our new driveway. Just on the other side of the Potomac, in Maryland, there was an amusement park called Marshall Hall and screams from roller coaster riders carried across the river that was about one quarter of a mile wide at that point.
Over the next year I would come here often to fish and to get away from my troubles at home. I caught a few catfish. But it was the happy noise that I heard on the other side of that dirty river that kept bringing me back.
School was still a few days away when, on bicycle, I found the post fieldhouse. On the outside it resembled an old airplane hangar. But inside there was a fine primary court, two secondary courts, and nine baskets in total. I went inside, checked out a basketball with my dependent ID card, and began shooting two-handed set shots, defunct as peach baskets but still effective. I had made thirteen free throws in a row when I heard the guy in the office say, “Your shot reminds me of Larry Costello’s.” Costello played for the Pistons and I had patterned my shot after his though I had seen him play on TV only a couple of times.
I didn’t say anything, just kept making free throws. When I hit my twentieth in a row, the office guy came out and introduced himself. He was Private First-Class Charlie Toledo.
“That’s thirty straight,” Charlie Toledo said, after I had made ten more free throws.
He was impressed. But I wasn’t. And when my next shot missed, I remember telling him, “I’m a little rusty.” I hadn’t lost confidence in my ability to shoot a basketball.
Later that afternoon, driving home after seeing Grandma off at the bus station in Alexandria, Mom said or did something the drill sergeant didn’t like and suddenly it was just like old times. He cussed her and then he cussed me for telling him not to cuss her. That night the argument in their bedroom, heard all over the house, continued until sunrise.
There were no other children my age on the hilltop in west central Arkansas where I grew up and, thinking I must be the only six-year-old in the world, I was astonished my first day of school to find twenty-five other children my age crowded into our first-grade classroom.
Astonished and horrified is how I felt that first day at Mount Vernon High School. There were 1,500 freshmen. Fifteen hundred! So many that Quonset huts had been constructed to serve as our classrooms. These makeshift digs were crowded together on what little property the school had behind its main building. I couldn’t move without bumping into fourteen-year-olds. I didn’t know any of them.
I was eight when I was taken by the drill sergeant and Mom, whose disagreements had recently turned bloody, to a child psychologist. “Don’t mention trouble at home,” Mom said. “Don’t mention trouble at home,” the drill sergeant said. “You’re wanted,” Mom added. “There’s a roof over your head,” the drill sergeant reminded. What did I say when the nice man asked, “How ya doing?” I said, “I can’t breathe. There’s a tiny basketball stuck in my throat. I can’t swallow and I can’t breathe. And by the way, there’s no trouble at home.”
That September I dodged flying bowling pins two nights a week. I had taken a pin-setting job in a four-lane bowling alley located across the street from the post field house. I did not want the drill sergeant feeding me; I wanted to pay for the food I ate with my own money. I did for a while too, dining regularly on hot dogs at the post snack bar. The other five nights a week I was in the field house. When I wasn’t playing in pick-up games with GIs, I was helping Charlie sweep the courts and wash towels.
Every night I would arrive home around 11 P.M. When it was quiet I would sit alone in the dining room eating a snack and thinking about things like how many boys would be trying out for the basketball team at a school with 1,500 freshmen. Could I be lost in the crowd? No, I told myself, I would do something to stand out. I just had to.
I was also thinking about running away from home. But I was always thinking about that. Had even done it a couple of times, once as recently as two years ago. But as basketball season neared I knew I wasn’t going anywhere.
“Hawkins,” Charlie Toledo said one night, “taking on these older guys is making you tougher. You shouldn’t have any trouble going against other ninth graders.”
“I don’t know about that,” I said. “This District of Columbia area is basketball country. Especially northern Virginia. But I hope you’re right.”
In a shooting drill that night, I had made thirty-five shots in a row from the top of the key and twenty shots in a row from the deepest part of each corner. I had also made ninety-seven of one hundred free throws. And Charlie had good-naturedly given me grief for not doing better.
But I wasn’t satisfied just being a shooter. I wanted to be a complete player and worked on all sorts of drills to improve my footwork, essential for playing good defense, especially on the perimeter. And with Charlie’s assistance I worked on dribbling and passing skills as well.
School was tough. Mount Vernon High drew hundreds of students whose parents had worked their way into top-level government or government-related jobs. These students were smart. The dozens of Army brats who attended school there, having been exposed to a variety of cultures all over the planet, were no dummies either.
Had I tried in the classroom it would have been difficult to make decent grades. But I didn’t try, did just enough to stay eligible to play ball. And of course there was the problem of my utter lack of self-confidence in classroom situations: my shaky voice when speaking in front of classmates that I compensated for by playing dumb or by just sitting there saying nothing when called on.
Only in one class was my strange behavior noticed. Mr. Ward, my algebra teacher, a die- hard basketball fan, never missed a freshman game. Nor did he miss the disconnect between my aggressive on-court demeanor and my timidity in his classroom. The result would be a noble effort by him to make things better in my life. But this intervention, and it was an intervention, was still a couple of months away.
The sound of coffee percolating was a signal that my drill sergeant dad and Mom were getting along. When they were fighting, Mom didn’t get up and make coffee. Of course, the drill sergeant could have made it himself, but he seldom did. The rest of my life I would feel safer when I heard coffee percolating or just smelled it brewing.
The morning of the Mount Vernon High School ninth grade basketball tryouts, I did not hear or smell coffee making. All night the drill sergeant and Mom had ranted at each other. I had slept only a couple of hours. But I was so used to sleep deprivation by now that I could function with two hours of sleep almost as well as I could with eight. Besides I could nap on the bus ride to school and in the study hall class I had after lunch. I would be fine at 6 P.M. when this big event, in my life anyway, was to begin.
For a school with so many students, the Mount Vernon High School gym was small. One hundred and twenty ninth grade boys on the court made it seem even smaller. One hundred and twenty! I should have been worried about being lost in the crowd. But for some reason I was very confident this night. I believed I could make any ninth-grade basketball team in America if given a fair chance.
Coach White divided us into six groups of twenty to shoot free throws on the gym’s six goals. “Shoot till you miss one,” he said. “If anyone makes ten in a row, I want the rest of his group to start counting.”
I was the last in my group to shoot. While I waited and watched, three times someone made ten free throws in a row. Each time when that boy’s group had begun counting, Coach White appeared at that particular basket to observe the shooter.
Before my turn came, the best anyone had done was to make thirteen shots in a row. I was surprised no one had done better. Maybe the guys were nervous. I wasn’t nervous and made consecutive free throws with Coach White standing just over my right shoulder as I made the last twenty-six.
“Great job,” Coach White said. “What’s your name?”
“Hawkins Rogers,” I said.
“Your shot reminds me of Larry Costello’s.” I didn’t tell him I’d heard that before. “You just earned a spot on the squad, Hawk. Congratulations.”
After showering, I waited across Highway 1 (it passed in front of Mount Vernon High School) for a D.C. transit bus that ran from Alexandria to Fort Belvoir, a five-mile journey. D.C. transit buses would be my ride home after every practice for the next three months.
I was anxious to share my good news with Mom. But first I would stop by the Belvoir fieldhouse to let Charlie know how I had done. Having accomplished something that could not have been accomplished without a tremendous amount of work, I was proud of myself. But I had only made the squad. Being a starter on that squad was my goal. I hadn’t seen a lot of great shooters among the one hundred twenty boys trying out, but I had noticed a half-dozen or so fine looking basketball players. Earning a spot in the starting line-up at this school would not be easy.
Other than a basketball (or baseball) player, the only thing I ever wanted to be was a writer. I loved books and there was a library in the basement of the courthouse in the small town five miles from our hilltop. There I discovered a storyteller named Hemingway and Kenneth Patchen, a poet who disliked bullies as much as I did.
Patchen was funny in a sad way and sad in a funny way. I always felt better after reading him. Hemingway piled one direct statement on another until something interesting was said, without ever being wordy. I did not share his passion for bullfighting and big game hunting, but I could, and did, read his stories over and over.
I had begun writing myself. I hadn’t told anyone and wouldn’t for several more years. But I had two spiral notebooks filled with my poems. Most were awful. But I did like one that I called “The Hawk.” Check it out:
My name is Hawkins Rogers.
I am 14 years old.
My parents fight each other
almost every night.
It’s my job to wipe up
their blood. I do this
with a house mop.
There are times when
I could use something
There are days
when I just want
not like a ship
that sinks in
the deepest part
of the ocean
and is lost forever,
but like a sock
that goes missing
in the laundry
and might show up
In other words,
if and when
I would like
the right to
my parents ever
get their act
I had begun to need writing nearly as much as I needed basketball. And I needed basketball as much as I needed oxygen.
Three more nights of tryouts followed. Coach White announced cuts at the end of each. It was a rotten business. I wondered how many really good players were being overlooked. Given just four nights to prove ourselves, it was impossible to determine with certainty who the best twenty-five players were. But, finally, twenty-five boys were left. This was the Mount Vernon High School ninth-grade basketball team. I was happy to have made it. But I still had to prove I belonged in the starting line-up.
Tryouts over, real practices began. At first, these were mostly conditioning sessions. We ran until someone threw up and then, after he was helped off the court and the court was cleaned up, we ran some more. There were also shooting drills and ball-handling exercises.
Two boys stood out right away. Their names were Fran Lawrence and Rick Dennehy. Fran was a 5’11” forward who could do it all: shoot, rebound, and defend. Rick was a terrific ball handler and shooter. At 5’5” he was almost my height exactly.
The first time we scrimmaged I expected Fran and Rick to be on the first team. They were. I was on the second team. But the first time the point guard on the first team, who had been the star quarterback on the ninth-grade football team, brought the ball down the court, I stole it from him and went in for an easy layup. When he brought the ball down the court again, I stole it and went in for another easy bucket.
“You guys switch teams,” Coach White said. And that was that. I was a starter. It was a spot that I wouldn’t relinquish that season.
Fran, Rick, and I worked so well together I knew right away we had a chance to be a very good team. But basketball isn’t a three-on-five contest. We had a 6’1” post man named Ross Hampton. A good rebounder and outlet passer, he would also give us a solid defensive presence down low. The other starter, a 5’11” forward named Johnny Power, ran like a deer and jumped like he was on a pogo stick.
Coach White beamed watching his first unit run through drills that night.
The last week of November, with the exception of Thanksgiving Day, the drill sergeant was away on maneuvers. It was a welcome respite from the stress that complicated my life when he was around.
“Runaway,” the Del Shannon hit that had been released in February was still my favorite song. I loved Del and Roy Orbison. And there was a soulful label called Motown that I liked.
My classroom demeanor hadn’t changed. “What’s your problem, Mr. Rogers?” Mr. Ward had asked in the hallway after class one afternoon. I had refused to say present when he called the roll that day. I didn’t respond to him, just ducked my head and pretended I didn’t hear or see him. He blocked my path for a second, then relented, and I scooted on past him.
The Mount Vernon High School ninth grade basketball team was practicing daily right after school. It was the only time we could reserve our home court. Several times I had noticed the ninth-grade cheerleaders practicing at the same time in a hallway just outside the gym. One particular girl caught my eye. Her name was Bonnie Julinda. A mere wisp of a woman, she was very pretty. But she appeared to be interested in Rick Dennehy. It was just as well: I had fallen in love with Nancy Kwan after seeing her in The World of Susie Wong at the post theater.
Oh yeah. I have a little brother that I haven’t mentioned. His name is Dave and he’s twelve years old. He’s my best friend and I can’t tell my story without including him.
He was there when the drill sergeant dangled Mom by her ankles from a third-floor balcony that night in Kitzingen, Germany, helping when the blood had to be mopped up later. He was there for every drunken rage, every demeaning and threatening word. I always felt like his protector even as I struggled to protect myself. He was a damn good athlete too. But his sport was baseball. He would sign a contract with the San Francisco Giants one day. But now he was just another child being terrorized by the lifer Mom had married.
Why didn’t she leave him? It’s a fair question. Well, she did. Twice. Both times we almost starved to death in that potting shed trailer in the piney woods of west central Arkansas. Still, if Mom had understood the psychological damage staying with the drill sergeant was doing to her children, she would have divorced him. I’m certain of this. It would have been a rough go for a while, but we could have managed.
December 2, 1961, we opened the season at Herndon. Freshman games were played on Saturdays at ten in the morning. The crowds were usually sparse, mostly family and friends.
The opening tip went from Ross to Fran who hit me flying in for an uncontested layup. It was a play we had perfected in practice. I had scored our first two points of the season. I didn’t score again that day. But Fran and Rick each scored in double figures and we defeated Herndon thirty to four. It wasn’t that close we joked on the bus ride home.
The cheerleaders rode on the bus with us and I noticed Rick sitting with the lovely Bonnie.
I had a photo of Nancy Kwan in my pocket that I had cut from a magazine.
Classmates, at least some of them, were looking at me differently. The pity on their faces had been replaced by admiration. Basketball was a big deal at Mount Vernon High School; word traveled fast that I was a good player on what promised to be a very good freshman team.
For three months I had been eating alone in the back of the lunchroom. The Monday after our first game I was joined by two other freshmen, one a teammate. “What took you so long?” I did not say, just grateful to have their company.
But some days it was still difficult in class to even say present. It sounds crazy but I dreaded roll call. I didn’t know it then, but the healing process required for interacting with others in classrooms and other public situations would take a lifetime.
Our next opponent was Groveton, a school about five miles north on Highway 1. The Mount Vernon and Groveton high school basketball rivalry was legendary in northern Virginia.
“They’re all important but I would rather win this one than any other,” Coach White said at Monday’s practice. He was excited and he was getting us excited. Motivating. Some coaches do it better than others. It was probably Coach White’s greatest strength. Our practice that day would be the most intense practice so far in our young season.
After every practice that week I rode a D.C. transit bus to Fort Belvoir. There I would head for the fieldhouse, check in with Mom by phone, hang out in the office with Charlie, shoot a couple hundred shots on the basket nearest the office and, before calling it a night, help Charlie sweep up the place.
Even with the drill sergeant back, there had been no loud arguments in our house lately.
“His time in the field must have worn him out,” Dave said.
Tuesday morning, the week of the Groveton game, I decided to skip classes and check out a landmark or two in our nation’s capital.
I rode the school bus to Mount Vernon. But instead of going to first period shop class, I sneaked across the street and caught a D.C. transit bus into the city.
I had two dollars for bus fare and a bag of donuts. I was dining on the donuts in the gallery of the House of Representatives when I was asked to leave by a security guard who pointed to a sign that read “No food or drinks.” I took my donuts, and slightly hurt feelings, and headed for the Smithsonian.
Having read and enjoyed Lindy’s account of his Atlantic crossing, I looked forward to seeing “The Spirit of St. Louis.” There were many wonderful exhibits in the Smithsonian but Lindberg’s plane was my favorite.
I returned to school, from what I considered a very educational outing, about thirty minutes before our practice that afternoon.
Groveton was a challenge: tall and talented and well-coached. A much bigger crowd than usual for a 10 A.M. freshman game showed up. Among them was Mr. Ward, my algebra teacher.
For three quarters we traded buckets, neither team able to put the other away. I hadn’t scored a point, but I had played well defensively. Finally, with three minutes left in the final quarter, Coach White called a timeout.
“Put me on their point guard,” I said. “He’s dribbling the ball too high. I can take it away from him.”
“He’s yours, Arkansas,” Coach White said.
I stole the ball three times in those final three desperate minutes, twice passing to Rick for easy buckets. Then with the game tied at thirty-eight to thirty-eight and one second left on the clock, I was fouled driving into the lane.
Everyone in that little gym who knew about my ability to shoot free throws was certain the game was over. Our bench and cheerleaders had already started celebrating when I…MISSED. I couldn’t believe it either. But, fouled in the process of shooting, I had one more shot coming. I swished the second opportunity and seconds later found myself being carried off the court on the shoulders of Rick and Fran.
Our fans were going nuts. I took it all in. There was a happiness in Mom’s eyes that I hadn’t seen in months. Dave was jumping up and down. I caught a glimpse of Bonnie glancing my way as she celebrated with the other cheerleaders. And just before my teammates let me down I saw Mr. Ward. The look on his face was a mixture of admiration and bewilderment.
All this and I had scored one point that morning.
That Monday in the lunchroom everyone at my crowded table wanted to discuss the game. This was the kind of attention that I welcomed. But I was glad when it was over too. After lunch I had study hall and during study hall students could visit the library. Other than on a basketball court there was no other place I would rather be.
I checked out as many books from the library as was allowed. These included a collection of poems by Gregory Corso, whose stuff read aloud sounded like stand-up comedy routines, and Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. Describing the mountains in Spain, Hemingway could have been describing the Hillbilly Outback. I had been in caves just like the one his guerilla unit was holed up in.
Speaking of the Outback, here’s my latest masterpiece, composed in the library the Monday after the Groveton game. It’s based on an inept air showman who visited Greenwood, Arkansas, in 1960:
The Drunken Barnstormer
these old hills
like a turkey
Madison High was next. They had a good basketball tradition. But we had the better players that Saturday morning. With big Ross dominating the boards and igniting our fast break with at least a dozen terrific outlet passes, we raced to a fifty-three to twenty-nine victory.
I scored ten points on five long-distance set shots. These were among the few points we scored that morning that weren’t the result of fast breaks. Fran and Rick scored twelve and eleven points respectively and Johnny Power defended with his usual relentless fury.
The week after the Madison game, on Tuesday night, we played a team of eighth graders from St. Mark, a local all-black Catholic school. Coach White and the St. Mark coach were buddies. The contest was arranged to settle a dispute between them over whose team was better.
It was difficult to believe that in a place as progressive as northern Virginia, schools would still be segregated in 1961-62. It was a disgraceful state of affairs that should have been corrected long ago. I competed with blacks on a regular basis in the Belvoir fieldhouse. For many of my teammates it would be a new experience.
St. Mark was unbeaten and right away I could see why their coach thought so highly of them. But their youth showed on the boards where Ross and Johnny muscled their way to several put backs. We defeated them forty-two to thirty-four, but I was impressed with their grace on the court and the courage they displayed battling older guys.
When the surfing craze reached Arkansas in the summer of 1960, I rode over to Sugarloaf Lake with my grandfather. Every damaged brain in Sebastian County was there, mixing Dr Pepper and whiskey in Dixie cups, ignoring the dry lakebed, pretending Malibu.
I mention this because I’m beginning to suspect my own brain might be a little damaged. Today I fell asleep in study hall and dreamed about Mount Vernon High School being struck by a tornado during which I saved Bonnie Julinda from falling debris by shielding her body with my own. Naturally, I was seriously injured, but I would recover in time for our next game. The bell ending class also ended this goofy fantasy.
As if I needed to be reminded where Bonnie stood, I saw her in the hallway between classes standing beside Rick Dennehy.
With Christmas break starting that Wednesday, our next game was played Thursday morning at Falls Church. Falls Church fell fifty-three to thirty-one.
“It wasn’t that close,” Johnny Power joked on the bus ride home. These words had become our mantra.
Five to zero at the Christmas break. “Enjoy the holidays,” Coach White said. “But don’t lose your conditioning. Run at least an hour every day.”
That afternoon I headed for the Belvoir fieldhouse and with Charlie rebounding I spent an hour putting up two hundred shots on the goal just outside the office. Later I helped Charlie wash towels and sweep the courts. Before calling it a day I ran for an hour.
The past two months had flown by. Tired and needing a break, I looked forward to sleeping in the next few mornings.
It was Saturday, around noon, two days before Christmas. Mom was at the commissary. The drill sergeant and Dave were in the kitchen.
“You little bastard!” the drill sergeant roared.
I rushed to Dave’s aid. “Don’t call him that,” I said.
The drill sergeant turned, charged across the room and pushed me against the wall. As I spun away from him, the drill sergeant threw a punch. It missed. I returned fire. Amazingly, my punch landed. But my one hundred five pounds didn’t exactly pack a mighty wallop. The drill sergeant charged again, just as Mom opened the front door.
“What the hell is happening?” she demanded.
The drill sergeant was breathing as heavily as I breathed when called on in a classroom. “These little bastards…” is all he said before storming out the door, climbing in our Chevy Biscayne and squealing away.
Mom poured the half quart of whiskey he left behind into the sink.
After the fight I went for a long bike ride, pausing on a ridge overlooking Highway 1. Should I ever decide to run away, this would be my route out. But to where? I would just go and worry about where I was going when I got there. Even at fourteen I knew this was unsound thinking. But I was so desperate to distance myself from the drill sergeant I didn’t care.
Standing there watching the seemingly endless swarm of cars and trucks heading south, an idea hit me like a flailing elbow under the bucket. I hid my bike in the highest weeds I could find, worked my way down that rise, and crossed the highway.
My thumb hadn’t been raised for more than a couple of minutes before a car pulled over. The driver was a boy about eighteen. He was going to Fredericksburg, thirty miles away. He would have to let me out there. I climbed in. He drove too fast and played his radio too loudly. But he didn’t ask questions. Just outside Fredericksburg he pulled over and let me out.
Before he disappeared, I had dodged a half-dozen vehicles, crossed Highway 1, and was hitching back the other direction. An older guy stopped. He looked a little creepy. Hitching was dangerous. But so was living with the drill sergeant. “Do you know Jesus?” he asked a couple of minutes after I had gotten in. I pretended not to hear, and he didn’t say anything else before letting me out beside the ridge where I had left my bike.
I didn’t tell Mom what I had done that day. I did share my little adventure with Dave. “Did you seriously consider running away?” he asked.
“No,” I said. “I was only practicing.”
when I was a boy taking milk to market
with my grandfather, we rounded a curve
on the pig trail that connected us with
the other world and were met by a fleet
of blue, green, and yellow wild canaries.
I was spellbound and he pulled over
so I could watch them go from right
to left across the cracked windshield
of his ’39 Ford pick-up and into the scruffy
underbrush of the River Valley.
I composed this latest effort in the Belvoir fieldhouse during the Christmas break.
“Do ya wanna be a Renaissance man or something?” Charlie Toledo had smiled, when he noticed what I was doing.
D.C. has its grand history and I loved catching the D.C. transit into the city and strolling up and down its broad sidewalks. But I missed the Ozarks and its power to delight almost daily with a sight like that cloud of canaries drifting across that lost road.
The drill sergeant left after we fought that morning and didn’t return the rest of that day. He didn’t return the next day either. He did resurface Christmas morning, but only to pick up his dress blues. I don’t think he spoke to Mom. I know she didn’t say anything to him. He left and didn’t show up again until New Year’s Eve when he moved back in.
I am not excusing the drill sergeant’s behavior. There is no excuse for the way he treated his wife and children. But I do think, in fairness, it should be noted that he grew up in a shanty with a dirt floor in the most remote area in west central Arkansas. His mother was mentally retarded and his father beat her and their four sons, of which the drill sergeant was the second born, on a regular basis.
Years later I would compose a little poem titled “Stray” that expressed my feelings about the drill sergeant’s childhood. It begins: “Nipples were all his mother ever gave him; his old man gave him less.”
Classes resumed on January 2 and that afternoon the undefeated Mount Vernon High School ninth grade basketball team held its first practice in two weeks. It was good to be with my teammates again. On and off the court, we liked and respected each other and this showed during games. We shared the ball, made the extra pass, and helped each other defensively, sometimes to a fault.
Coach White scrimmaged us hard and I was glad I had stayed in condition over the holidays. “Coach, you’re a cruel man,” Fran Lawrence gasped after we ran a full-court passing drill for thirty minutes nonstop.
“I warned you guys,” Coach White said, with a smile on his face that seemed a bit cruel. “There are no easy games left. We have to get in prime basketball shape and pronto. Arlington is next and they’re undefeated too.”
At home, the uneasy truce between the drill sergeant and Mom continued. I was grateful. After the workout Coach White had put us through, I needed eight hours of uninterrupted sleep.
I felt Mr. Ward observing my behavior with a hawk’s eye (pun intended) in his classroom now. Oh, he was careful not to embarrass me: I was never called on anymore. He didn’t even call my name during roll call. I was grateful for this. Attention was the last thing I wanted in a classroom. But I had an uneasy feeling. I didn’t know Mr. Ward had a plan and that it would be implemented in a couple of weeks. But I just knew something was up.
Coffee was percolating in the early mornings at our residence in Dog Creek. Sleeping well, I felt more energetic than ever on the court. Our whole team was energized. We needed to be. Arlington was as big and talented as Groveton and it would be a road game.
The ninth graders had a pep rally during lunch hour Friday. Coach White showed up and introduced our team. “Hawk’s our spark plug,” he said, when I was I introduced. I was glad we didn’t have to say anything—not that I would have.
After Friday’s practice, I stopped by the Belvoir fieldhouse and, in addition to my usual shooting routine, I lofted up a couple of dozen shots over a broom that I had Charlie hold up. “Unless Arlington has some eight footers,” Charlie joked, “I don’t see how this helps.” But it was an old basketball trick. And it had worked in the past for a lot of players.
As I walked the mile to Dog Creek from the fieldhouse that night, it began snowing. A good omen, I thought. It had snowed the night before the Groveton battle too.
Arlington’s gym was bigger than any other I had ever played in. It resembled a huge barn. There was so much distance between the goals and the bleachers the goals appeared to be defying gravity and hanging in midair on their own. For shooters, unfamiliar with the place, depth perception could be a major problem.
“We’re gonna have to get the ball to Fran and Ross in the paint,” I told Rick Dennehy, my backcourt mate, during pregame drills. “This place is not exactly conducive to outside shooting.” He nodded in agreement.
It was a crazy game. Arlington jumped out to a ten-point lead and we caught them just as the first quarter ended. It happened again in the second quarter, only in reverse. We took a ten-point lead before Arlington rallied. It was tied twenty-five to twenty-five at halftime.
Several times Rick and I had managed to find Ross or Fran near or under the basket for easy field goals. I hadn’t scored a point, hadn’t even taken a shot. But I had several takeaways and their point guard, whom I was guarding, hadn’t scored either.
Thirty seconds into the second half I rattled in a twenty-five-footer, swiped the inbounds pass and laid the ball in for two more points. Tumbling into our line of cheerleaders I glanced up and found myself face to face with the lovely Bonnie. But I digress. This four-point lead did not last. The fourth quarter commenced with Arlington in front by two points.
Johnny Power sprained his left ankle late in the third quarter and McCoy Andrews, the star quarterback on the ninth-grade football team, replaced him. Our sixth man, Mac could play anywhere on the court. Now, Coach was asking him to help Ross and Fran on the boards and to help Ross defend Arlington’s 6’3” post who had already scored fourteen points.
Fran and Rick each scored four points in the fourth quarter. I made another twenty-five- footer. Mac helped Ross slow down Arlington’s inside game. But we just could not catch up. With ten seconds left and Rick hurrying the ball down the left side of the court, we trailed by a point.
Rick Dennehy put up a fifteen-foot runner from the left side of the key with five seconds left. Almost every Arlington player moved in his direction. I don’t know why I had drifted under the basket. Normally I would have stayed outside looking for a pass from Rick. But I was standing alone under the basket when Rick’s shot careened off the backboard and right into my hands.
This was going to be an easy putback, I thought. But suddenly there was an obstruction between the basket and me. He was a foot taller than I and when I lofted the ball over him, all I could see was the word Arlington and the number thirty-three on his jersey. I banked the ball high off the backboard and into the basket just before the buzzer sounded. I didn’t see the shot go down. But I heard our fans. And suddenly I was being carried off a basketball court for the second time in a month on the shoulders of Fran and Rick.
At halftime I had noticed the Mount Vernon varsity basketball coach at the game. He was sitting next to Mr. Ward in the stands just behind our bench. I saw them again as I was carried around that barn in Arlington. They appeared to be staring at each other in almost disbelief.
On the way to our bus someone tapped my right shoulder. “You seem to have a flair for the dramatic,” Bonnie Julinda smiled.
“Just lucky,” I said. It was the first time we had ever spoken to each other.
I was anxious to share my good news with Mom and Dave who hadn’t been at the game. But first I stopped by the Belvoir fieldhouse. Charlie had thought I was crazy when I asked him to hold that broom up so I could practice shooting over it. “You’re kidding!” he shouted when I told him it had worked.
That Monday at school I walked the halls like a Roman general returning from a great conquest. The only thing missing was someone whispering in my ear: “Remember, you are only human.”
Well, it wasn’t quite that dramatic. I did receive plenty of praise walking those hallways between classes and I appreciated that. But it was also a bit embarrassing. I didn’t play for pats on the back from people who didn’t even know that I was alive only a couple of months earlier. Or who knew I was alive but acted like I wasn’t. I played because I loved the game and because every time I played it well I proved again the drill sergeant was mistaken when he called me a loser.
There was a rumor going around. I heard it that morning. Supposedly, Fran, Rick and I had so impressed Coach Spencer, the varsity coach, that he was going to promote us to play in a varsity game. The varsity team was having a tough year and, so this rumor went, Coach Spencer wanted the Mount Vernon fans to get a glimpse of the future. Watching us play would cheer up the Mount Vernon fan base and him too.
“Sounds like a rumor we might have started ourselves,” Rick joked at practice that day.
“Well, it’s a lovely idea,” Fran said. “But, I’ll believe it when it happens.
I dreamed this during study hall recently:
A U.S. military advisor is killed in Vietnam fighting the Commies. Brought home and buried with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery, when the flag draping his casket is folded and presented to his widow, she refuses to accept it. “He might have been a good man on the battlefield,” says this long-suffering woman. “But he was an incorrigible bully at home.”
Phillip Ward could not solve the Hawk Rogers problem. How could anyone be so timid in a classroom and so aggressive on a basketball court? Obviously, someone or something had damaged the young man. Hawk was intelligent: Ward had checked his test scores filed in the admin office. It must be something at home. But what? Ward intended to find out.
Phillip Ward had been a fine basketball player himself. Had even played on the frosh team at the University of Richmond. But that would be as far as his basketball skills would take him. What he thought he might have in common with Hawk Rogers, other than a shared passion for basketball, was a domineering father. It was a guess, but an educated one. All the signs were there.
Ward could remember a time when he, too, had trouble interacting with classmates. His own self-confidence had almost been destroyed by his old man’s emotional and physical battering. It wasn’t. But he knew, under similar circumstances, not every child would be as lucky. I think I can help this boy, the algebra teacher, who didn’t often bring school home with him, told his wife.
Not once all week did Coach White even mention our next opponent. I had to check the schedule I kept in my locker to see that it was Vienna. A junior varsity player who had played for Coach White the year before said Coach would do this when he wanted his guys to concentrate on themselves and not worry about who they were playing.
Vienna was small and slow. We routed them fifty-one to seventeen. It wasn’t that close. I scored twelve points on five long-distance set shots and two free throws. It was the most points I had scored in a game all season. Fran scored eleven points and Rick added ten.
At the free throw line I noticed Bonnie standing just behind the basket I was shooting at. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her looking prettier. I had to step away from the charity stripe for a couple of seconds to regain my concentration before shooting.
After the Soviet Union constructed the Berlin Wall in August of 1961, the United States activated several Army National Guard and Reserve units. Among those called up was a young man named Lenny Wilkens. A former star college basketball player at Providence College, he was now playing for the St. Louis Hawks in the National Basketball Association.
The night of January 13, Lenny’s Fort Lee basketball team played Fort Belvoir in the Belvoir fieldhouse. A couple of hours before the game I was in the fieldhouse office when he checked out a basketball and began shooting on the goal nearest the office. Having seen him play on TV, I recognized him immediately. I just couldn’t resist. I left the office and challenged this basketball great to a shooting contest. Lenny smiled and suggested we play a little one-on-one instead. Well, I did my best.
Before he left to dress for the game against Belvoir, in which he scored forty-five points, Lenny Wilkins complimented my shooting ability and ball-handling skills. I pedaled home that night with my self-worth (on a basketball court) high as the stars lighting my way.
“How did someone who grew up in the hills learn to dribble a basketball so adeptly?” I was occasionally asked in those days. Coach Spencer, the varsity coach, had posed the question in these very words.
“Because I grew up on a hilltop and it was flat up there,” was my standard reply. “Point guards in the Ozarks are produced on hilltops or in valleys. Boys who grow up on hillsides might have a beautiful shooting touch but I have never seen one who could dribble well. You just can’t dribble on a hillside. Try it sometime.”
Some people thought I was joking and would laugh when I recited these lines. But Coach Spencer, to his credit, didn’t even crack a smile. Of course, when I was responding to him, I deleted the intentionally sarcastic last sentence: “Try it sometime.”
I was really enjoying Gregory Corso’s poetry. He was a central figure in the Beat Generation. The Beats were as fed up with American Puritanism as I was fed up with the drill sergeant’s oppressive ways. They had withdrawn from society. I had withdrawn from the classroom. They were outsiders. I felt like an outsider every day of my life.
But I was no Beat wannabe. They were a group. Loosely affiliated in most cases. But a group. A basketball court and baseball field were the only places where I wanted to be a part of a group.
I liked Corso because he was funny and honest, my two favorite qualities in a person. In his poem titled “Power,” Corso writes: “Being afraid is power/Standing on a street corner waiting for no one is power/The demon is not as powerful as walking across the street/The angel is not as powerful as looking and then not looking.”
I wrote this about Corso:
He writes poems that rip the covers off beds,
climb up on them and jump and shout like
nursery school children at home on a snow day.
All was quiet on the home front. The drill sergeant was away on maneuvers again. I was sleeping well.
Charlie Toledo had a girlfriend now. He was sneaking away from the fieldhouse and meeting her somewhere off post. When he did, I ran the joint alone. Really, all I did was check out basketballs and hand out towels. When I wasn’t in the office, I was shooting on the goal nearest the office. Charlie had started calling it the Rogers Goal.
Almost every night just before closing time, Dave, who practiced baseball year round, would arrive with two ball gloves. When my chores were done, I would play catch with him. He was a middle-infielder with lightning hands. Everyone in the gym would stop what they were doing to watch him work out.
At school, Coach Spencer had brought Fran, Rick, and me to a varsity basketball practice. We did well enough scrimmaging the older guys that he continued saying he might promote us for a varsity game. I’m sure the varsity guys weren’t happy about this.
Bonnie Julinda and I seemed to be crossing paths in the hallways between classes more and more often. She always had something funny to say. I rarely saw her with Rick anymore.
We played Annandale next. Coach White had warned us about their big man. He was 6’8” tall with solid basketball skills. But he didn’t have much help. Rick and I repeatedly stole the ball from their guards. The giant managed to score twenty-two points. But it wasn’t enough. The final score was forty-seven to thirty-five. Fran scored fifteen points to lead our scoring. Rick helped out with ten points. I had five steals. And Johnny Power, back from his ankle injury, was credited with ten rebounds.
The Mount Vernon ninth-grade basketball team was eight and zero with three games remaining.
That Monday after practice I was called into Coach Spencer’s office. Fran and Rick were already there when I walked in.
“You guys are dressing out with the varsity for tomorrow night’s game with Yorktown,” Coach Spencer said, without looking up from something he was reading. “I don’t know how much you’ll play. The game will dictate that.”
I couldn’t believe it. Nor did I know how I felt about it. Coach Spencer respected my ability to play basketball and I was happy about that. But I didn’t want to draw the ire of guys on the junior varsity and varsity teams.
Coach Spencer, you must be a mind reader, I thought, when the next thing he said was, “Don’t worry about the upper classmen getting their feelings hurt. I’ll handle that.”
“The game will be sold out, and the gym will be rocking. Enjoy it,” Coach Spencer continued, finally looking up at us.
“Bring them in,” Coach said, and the varsity manager hurried in carrying three uniforms. Rick’s and mine had been altered to fit our mighty ninth-grade bodies.
Ninth graders being called up to play in a varsity basketball game was the main topic of conversation at school on Tuesday. It wasn’t just the ninth graders that were talking about it either. I overheard one upper classman tell another, “It’s a lousy idea.”
I saw Bonnie leaving the lunchroom as I was going in. “Good luck tonight,” she smiled.
“Will you be there?” I asked.
“Absolutely,” she smiled again.
Coach Spencer is a good coach, but he’s also a bit of a showman and playing ninth graders in a varsity basketball game will be seen as just another of his stunts if we don’t make an impact tonight, I was thinking, as Fran, Rick, and I dressed out by ourselves in a corner of the locker room.
The Mount Vernon High School gym was packed and deafening applause greeted our arrival on the court. I had attended two varsity games earlier in the season and I did not recall it being this loud.
The crowd had spent the entire first half calling for Coach Spencer to play his freshmen. He resisted. But after Yorktown had increased its lead to twenty points at the end of the third quarter, Coach had seen enough.
The fans went nuts when they saw their future checking into the game.
Yorktown still had their starters in. They were all seniors. A couple of them laughed out loud when they saw us. They weren’t laughing thirty seconds later when I banked in a little runner. And they weren’t laughing when Fran drained two in a row from the left corner and when Rick intercepted a pass and went in for a layup.
We managed to cut their lead in half. But we couldn’t get any closer. I hit a twenty-five- footer late in the fourth quarter. The crowd loved it. Bonnie was sitting in the stands just behind our bench and running back down the court I caught a glimpse of her celebrating.
The next morning in shop class, a classmate said it seemed like every ninth grader in school was at the game and going crazy as Fran, Rick, and I helped to narrow the Yorktown lead.
Coach Spencer’s freshmen had justified his confidence in their basketball ability. But it was their first and last varsity game that year. All three of them were grateful for that.
“Beginner’s luck,” a Yorktown player grumbled, reluctantly shaking my hand after the game. I did not disagree.
At school the day after the Yorktown game, it seemed like everyone had something complimentary to say.
“I was very proud of you,” Bonnie smiled, when our paths crossed outside the lunchroom. “You were so confident out there. Didn’t you feel any pressure?”
“I’ve never felt pressure on a basketball court,” I said.
“I love watching you play,” Bonnie smiled again. I wanted to follow her as she walked away.
“Our three guys did a good job last night,” Coach White said at practice that afternoon. Then he moved on to our ninth-grade team’s next opponent. “McLean has only lost two games, one to Arlington in overtime. It will be another battle this Saturday morning.”
“I hope ninth grade basketball will be challenging enough to keep you boys interested,” Johnny Power joked in the locker room after practice.
Charlie Toledo had been promoted to corporal in December. But he’s a Pfc. again. Busted when someone reported to Charlie’s superior officer that a fourteen-year-old boy was operating the Belvoir fieldhouse while Charlie made out with a woman in the parking lot. That somebody even had a photo of Charlie in action. The funny thing is Charlie didn’t lose his position at the fieldhouse and I wasn’t banned from hanging out in the office.
“The stripe doesn’t mean anything,” Charlie said. “I’ll be saying goodbye to Uncle Sam in a few months anyway.”
He just dodged the proverbial bullet, in my opinion. His punishment would have been far more severe had it been known that Charlie had been sneaking away to meet this woman off post.
McLean’s gym was tiny with large windows on either side of the court that let in blinding rays of sunlight.
Their guards were the best Rick and I had played. We had trouble guarding them and McLean jumped out to an early lead. Fran was having his best game of the year, making shots from all over the court. But we trailed at halftime by four points.
I could not believe how good their guards were. Rick and I looked at each other in disbelief. Many teams we had played had one great outside player; McLean had two.
We trailed by three points with two minutes left in the game. I had not scored. But then it happened. On two straight trips down the floor, I hit shots from deep in the right corner. Each time, I swear, I could not see the goal. Because of the sunlight in my eyes. I just shot where I thought the goal was. I could not believe my good fortune.
I made the last one with fifteen seconds left on the clock. It was the game winner. Their best player, whom I had struggled defending all morning, missed a twenty-footer, with my hand in his face, at the buzzer.
For a second, it seemed I would be carried off the court again. I was hoisted onto the shoulders of big Ross Hampton. But I jumped down and raced off toward our dressing room before anything else could happen. On the way I passed Bonnie who gave me a little hug.
I could not believe how lucky I had been on the shots I made. I HAD NOT seen the goal when I put those shots up.
Something had taken over my being in those final minutes. It always did in a basketball game with time running out and my team behind. I had made a couple of shots. But I had also taken charge defensively, shouting out instructions and screaming at guys to get their hands up and to move their feet.
That Monday at school, Mr. Ward announced in class that I had again helped bring our team from behind.
“Hawk made big shots late in the game, as usual,” Mr. Ward said. “But it was his leadership on defense that most impressed me. Barking out instructions to his teammates in those final minutes, Hawk sounded like a drill sergeant.”
I wanted to get up and walk away from that room and I almost did. But I decided that would just call more attention to myself. So I sat there and said nothing.
I did sound like a drill sergeant late in games now that I thought about it. But it was unsettling, to say the least, to hear Mr. Ward vocalize the words “drill sergeant.” Was it a coincidence or did he know something I didn’t know?
My table was the place to be in the lunchroom now. I was flattered, I really was. But, at times, I missed the old days. I hadn’t always liked eating alone, but I didn’t like all this attention either.
I was running into Bonnie on a regular basis, our paths crossing outside the lunchroom and in hallways between classes. It seemed like the more I let myself like her the more nervous I was around her. But it was a good nervousness. If you can enjoy such a thing, I did.
So thin were the walls in the quarters we lived in, Dave and I didn’t have to be curious to hear the drill sergeant and Mom were fighting again. The drill sergeant had some earplugs that he wore on the rifle range. Dave found a pair of them and started wearing them at night. But I still heard everything. Sometimes I wished I were deaf. Gallaudet, just fifteen miles away, had a basketball team. Yeah. I could play for them and not have to listen to all that noise on the other side of these paper-thin walls.
That Wednesday I had just sat down in study hall class when I was summoned to a meeting with the Mount Vernon High School principal. This had not happened all year and my journey to Mr. Dill’s office felt like a death march. When I reached the office, my fears were justified. There, with a forlorn look on her face, sat Mom, Mr. Ward, Mr. Bridges, the ninth-grade student counselor, and Principal Dill. I had been ambushed.
I glanced behind me. The path was clear. I should be able to get away. But then I saw Coach Spencer coming down the hallway. I stepped inside the office door and sat down beside Mom. I did not look at her. I just couldn’t.
After Coach Spencer entered the room, we all followed Principal Dill into a conference room off from the office. It was a tiny space with just enough room for a table and six chairs. I looked behind me again, still weighing an escape, before I entered.
“Hawk,” Mr. Dill began, “Mr. Ward tells me you refuse to participate in his algebra class. If you would tell us what the problem is, perhaps we can help you. Mr. Ward says your timidity in his classroom is completely at odds with the confidence you display on a basketball court. Having seen you play, I must say I agree with Coach Spencer who says you have a bright future in basketball. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a better ninth grade shooter. But this disparity in your behavior is a concern. Is there a problem at home?”
I didn’t say anything.
“I want to see that battler I see on the court in the classroom too” is the best an emotional response Coach Spencer could offer.
“I checked your test scores, Hawkins,” Mr. Ward interjected. “You’re a bright young fella. I had my own demons growing up. I think I can help you. But you have to let me.”
“My door is always open,” Mr. Bridges said.
I didn’t say anything.
Mr. Dill now addressed Mom. “Mrs. Rogers, I don’t mean to be intrusive. But I must ask, is there something happening at home that is affecting Hawk’s behavior at school?”
Mom didn’t say anything either. She had been ambushed too. At least it seemed that way. She reached over and took my hand.
I wanted to die.
The room I wanted to die in was so tiny Principal Dill’s coffee breath permeated it and I thought for a second that I might puke. Mom did throw up and that is how this intervention ended.
Fran and Rick offered their support at practice that afternoon. I don’t know how they heard about what happened in Mr. Dill’s office. I hoped that would remain private. But it was nice to know they were not just teammates but friends too.
That afternoon I didn’t call home from the Belvoir fieldhouse to check in with Mom as I usually did. And that night I didn’t go home after the Belvoir fieldhouse closed. Instead, I walked over to where Highway 1 ran by the post. There I sat on a hillside and stared down at the stampedes of steel roaring north and south.
Running away would have been easy. But the undefeated Mount Vernon High School ninth grade basketball team had two games left. I wasn’t about to miss them.
Jesus, I thought, walking home, what a day.
It turned out Mom was pregnant. The result would be a brother whom Dave and I loved dearly. But how this could happen in such a hostile environment was just too much for my fourteen-year-old mind to process. I did recall a couple of weeks of percolating coffee in the early A.M. in our little abode.
Mom grew up on a dairy farm in Mt Zion, Arkansas, a community of three shacks and three barns on the Oklahoma border. When my grandparents went to bed early, which they did almost every night to rest for the long day that always lies ahead, Mom, starting when she was only fourteen, would sneak away to dance with miners in a nearby coal town. She was a beauty. The miners and every other man in Sebastian County noticed. She quit school at fifteen to help on the farm, married at sixteen to get away from the farm, divorced at seventeen and remarried my biological dad at eighteen.
She did not understand child psychology—an ignorance her entire generation shared. But, following her mostly wonderful maternal instincts, she did a lot more right than wrong raising her children. She read a thousand books to Dave and me. She played baseball and basketball with us. She had a better sense of humor than anyone else I’ve ever known and Dave and I would never have a better friend.
Mom was seventeen when I was born. “We’re growing up together,” she would often say.
“What happened in Mr. Dill’s office?” Bonnie asked the next day at school.
“I’ll tell you someday,” I said and changed the subject.
But Miss Julinda wasn’t buying. She poked a piece of paper into my coat pocket. “It’s my phone number,” Bonnie said. “I’m a good listener.”
I did call her that night from the Belvoir fieldhouse. We talked for about twenty minutes. I didn’t share all my troubles and certainly divulged no gory details. But good listener? Bonnie was a great listener. She didn’t ask questions either. I was grateful for that.
I had never called a girl before. Charlie must have suspected as much. He overheard part of the conversation. But he didn’t say anything. That he minded his own business might have been what I liked best about my recently busted pal.
At Friday’s practice, Coach White pulled me aside. “How ya doing, Hawk? he asked.
“I’m fine,” I said.
“Good. Let’s turn our attention to basketball now. Shall we?” he smiled.
“Fairfax is another good team,” Coach said, before turning us loose that day. “Their post is 6’3” and good. Rick and Hawk will have their hands full with their guards. This will not be easy.”
That night at the Belvoir fieldhouse I worked on various mid-range shots. Often heavily contested, these shots were difficult to make in a game.
It snowed again that night as I rode my bicycle home.
Coach White’s scouting report was half-right. The Fairfax guards were outstanding. But their big man was 6’6” tall and better than good.
Johnny Power had to help Ross so often that his man was repeatedly left open for short jump shots. Rick and I fought their fine guards to a stalemate. But it was Fran, shooting the lights out again, who kept us hanging around. Starting the 4th quarter, Fairfax held a five-point lead.
That lead was a single point with fifteen seconds left in the game and Rick bringing the ball down the left side of the court. We had been here before. Trapped by two defenders, Rick managed to somehow get the ball into my hands at the left elbow. I swung right and, with three seconds left on the clock, lofted up, from midrange, a running underhanded something that fell through at the buzzer. I am not making this stuff up. It happened exactly like I just described. I could not believe my good fortune. I had again scored the final and winning points in a game that season. I scrambled off the court and into our dressing room as pandemonium broke out among the several dozen Mount Vernon fans present. It was the only shot I attempted that morning.
I was the last guy on the bus and no sooner had I sat down than Bonnie Julinda sat down beside me. She was speaking but I didn’t hear anything she was saying. I was remembering how lonely I had been at the start of the school year. How long ago that seemed.
Seconds later, I did hear Bonnie say, “I’m so proud of you.” Then somewhere between Fairfax High and Mount Vernon High, Bonnie Julinda reached over and took my hand.
I called Bonnie from the Belvoir gym that night. We talked for about twenty minutes. Charlie left the office so I could have some privacy. I thanked him for that and for not inquiring about what Bonnie and I had talked about when he returned.
He did want to discuss my latest game winner. “I was just lucky again,” I said. “I just keep getting the ball in a position to score with time running out. The shots I’ve made to win these games could have been made by anyone. With the exception of that one I made this morning. I don’t know where that one came from.” I didn’t either. It actually seemed a little otherworldly.
That Sunday I went for a long walk around the post. In one housing area I noticed an old man shoveling the snow off a driveway court. When I passed that way again, thirty minutes later, he was putting up two-handed set shots, defunct as peach baskets. I couldn’t resist: “Your shot reminds me of Larry Costello’s,” I shouted.
“It’s a dying art,” he shouted back.
Yeah, I remember thinking, but it’s not dead yet.
Later that afternoon in the Belvoir gym, I spent at least two hours practicing two-handed set shots myself, with an emphasis on twenty-five- and thirty-footers. Our next and final opponent was Manassas. They weren’t very good and I thought Coach White might be OK with a long-distance show for our fans. Basketball isn’t a circus, but giving the fans a little eyewash in the season finale seemed like a fine idea in my fourteen-year-old mind.
I wasn’t so cocky at school Monday when Mr. Ward announced in algebra class, “Hawk did it again.” I’m sure he meant to be kind. But I hated being complimented in front of people. And, of course, I hated being singled out in class. For any reason. He went on for a while. I could only sit there and take it. I bet some of the kids in this class would love being on the receiving end of this crap, I remember thinking. When he finished, I lifted my head and noticed half the class was looking in my direction. Exactly what I didn’t want.
What did I want? To run into Bonnie Julinda outside the lunchroom. I did. “Call me tonight,” Bonnie said.
“We can’t take Manassas lightly,” Coach White said at practice that afternoon. This was just coach speak and Coach White knew it. The chance to finish unbeaten was all the motivation we
I called Bonnie from the Belvoir fieldhouse that night. Again, we spoke for about twenty minutes. “I hope you know how to dance,” she laughed just before saying goodbye.
She had been very coy throughout our conversation. “I do not know how to dance,” I had said. “But I can learn.”
There was another pep rally for the Mount Vernon freshman basketball team at school Thursday. It happened during lunch hour. It had an impromptu feel. But, of course, it was staged. Coach White just happened to be passing by the lunchroom when it began. He didn’t introduce us for which I was thankful. He just shared a few thoughts about our season and then our cheerleaders performed a dance routine they had been practicing for months. It was the first time I had really watched them. They were very good.
“You guys were great,” I told Bonnie later. Uncomfortable with being praised, another thing that I liked about her, my favorite cheerleader quickly changed the subject.
Bonnie was easy to read. Every so often a certain expression would creep or romp across her face revealing something about her that she didn’t want known. I didn’t know what but I could tell she had something up her pretty sleeve.
Friday night, shooting on the goal just outside the office in the Belvoir fieldhouse, the goal Charlie Toledo called the Rogers Goal, I allowed myself to reflect on the season.
It had rushed by like a Rock Island freight train briefly emerging from a tunnel of pine before disappearing into another tunnel of pine in the Hillbilly Outback of west central Arkansas.
I could not believe how lucky I had been from the first day of tryouts. On the court, these past few months had been like the fairy tales in those books I had checked out when the Sebastian County bookmobile had passed by our trailer when I was a boy.
Manassas was not a good team. But we shot and rebounded so poorly in the first two quarters the score was twenty to twenty at halftime.
“I expect more from you guys” is all Coach White said in the locker room.
We turned it around in the second half. Ross Hampton and Johnny Power began dominating the boards and Fran and Rick began scoring at will. In the third quarter, I hit a twenty-five footer and, with Coach White shouting, “Go ahead,” I hit a thirty-footer in the fourth quarter.
Ahead by twenty points with two minutes remaining, Coach White took out his starters. The crowd that included at least a hundred Mount Vernon ninth graders rose from their seats and gave us a long and loud round of applause.
That night in the Belvoir fieldhouse, I stayed in the office checking out basketballs and talking with Charlie. Finishing eleven and zero had made it a season that I would never forget. But it was over and my two-handed set shot was on vacation.
“I’m gonna rest for a couple of weeks before I start practicing again,” I said.
“You had a great year,” he said.
“I had a lucky year,” I said. “A very lucky year.”
“How’s it going at home?” he asked.
“It’s going,” I said.
Changing the subject, he asked, “What about baseball this spring?”
“I’ll play baseball this summer,” I said. “But I’m gonna work on basketball this spring. When a defender stays back, I do a good enough job of shooting over him. But when a defender gets in my chest, I want to get better at going around him. That’s something I’m gonna work on this spring in pick-up games with these GIs.”
“Hawkins, do you ever stop thinking about getting better at basketball?” Charlie Toledo asked.
It was a rhetorical question and he knew it.
I called Bonnie later that night and we spoke for our usual twenty minutes. She was very excited about something but wouldn’t say what it was.
All was quiet on the home front. But tension was building. The drill sergeant hadn’t erupted since Christmas. He’s due, I thought. Do not get caught and swept away in his molten lava flow when it happens again, I told myself.
If eggshells had been strewn across the floor in our quarters in Dog Creek, I would have been walking on them. However, it was cold hardwood that I was stepping on when I passed the drill sergeant in the hallway that connected our bedrooms at 6:30 A.M. that Monday. He growled something. I couldn’t tell what. But I grumbled something back. This seemed to satisfy him. He opened the front door and went on without growling anything else.
At school, Mr. Ward raved on about Mount Vernon’s unbeaten ninth grade basketball team for ten of the longest minutes of my life. I didn’t think he would ever stop. If there had been an open window in that classroom, I might have leaped through it. Never mind that his room was on the third floor.
Bonnie and I sat together at lunch that day. She had already eaten. I don’t know how she managed back-to-back lunch hours. But she could be very resourceful. We are quite the little power couple I couldn’t help thinking. Now is when I needed someone whispering in my ear, “Remember, you are only human.”
I had turned my tray in and we had just left the lunchroom when Bonnie reached into her purse and pulled out a card and the biggest lollipop I had ever seen. You’ve just been twirped, the card read.
“What does twirp mean,” I asked. I honestly didn’t know.
“In this case, it means I’m asking you to a dance this Saturday night at the gym,” Bonnie said. “The Sadie Hawkins Dance, it’s called. It caps off Twirp Week. Twirp stands for The woman is required to pay.”
“Well,” Bonnie smiled, “what do you say?”
“I’m honored,” I said. “I can’t wait for Saturday night and thanks for the lollipop. Is this a date?”
“I think so,” Bonnie said. “When you call tonight, we’ll discuss logistics.”
What a damn fine girl I thought as I watched her walk away.
“My dad and I will pick you up at your house at 6 P.M. Saturday,” Bonnie said, when I called her that night. “After the dance he’ll magically reappear and drop us off at Taliano’s Restaurant in Alexandria, home of the best spaghetti in northern Virginia. I’m buying, of course. From there, and this is the romantic part,” Bonnie joked, “Dad and I will take you home.”
“I like it,” I said. “But it’s possible, given how dysfunctional my family can be, that I’ll have to meet you at the dance. I’ll take a bus if that happens.”
“We can take you home from the restaurant, can’t we?” Bonnie asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “The drill sergeant should have drunk himself to sleep by then.”
“I’m sorry you have to live this way, Hawk,” Bonnie said.
“I am too,” I said. “But we’ll try your way first. I’m just saying when dealing with my family it’s always good to have a Plan B.”
“I just want to be with you for a while, Hawk,” Bonnie said.
“The feeling is mutual,” I said.
I had called Bonnie that night from a phone booth outside a post snack bar. The dime it cost was the last of my pin-boy fortune. It was a good thing she was financing Saturday night because I was broke. Tomorrow I will do something about that, I decided, while riding my bike home.
Tuesday after classes I rode the school bus to Belvoir. But I did not go home and I did not go to the fieldhouse. I headed for the post commissary where Army wives did their grocery shopping. There I would offer to help these women carry out their purchases. You could make a buck or two in tips doing this. But you had to be careful. For some reason this was against post regulations and MPs patrolled the area.
I had made almost three dollars that afternoon when an MP jeep pulled up beside me.
“Get in,” the driver said.
“Where do you live?” the other MP asked.
“Dog Creek,” I said.
Five blocks from home, not wanting an MP jeep pulling up in front of our place, I said, “I live here,” and the MP driving pulled over and let me out.
Five minutes later I walked into our quarters, told Mom I would be right back, pedaled off to a nearby PX and purchased a Valentine’s Day card for Bonnie. I still had two bucks left in case I needed it Saturday night.
The next day at school Miss Julinda and I exchanged Valentine’s Day cards. We might be the second coming of Bogey and Bacall, I had scribbled on the card I presented to Bonnie who smiled after reading this and said, “If you continue to have these brushes with the law, we’re more likely to be the next Bonnie and Clyde.”
When I returned from the Belvoir fieldhouse that night, I asked Dave what kind of Valentine’s Day the drill sergeant and Mom had.
“I’m pretty sure they didn’t exchange cards,” he said.
Around 6:30 A.M. the next morning, I passed the drill sergeant in the hallway between our bedrooms again. He didn’t say anything. But I could tell he wasn’t happy. His fists were clenched so tightly I could see the whites of his knuckles. His jaws were clenched as tightly as his fists and were throbbing as they always did when anger was building inside him.
The hallway was very narrow and I turned sideways to be certain we didn’t brush against each other. He didn’t speak, didn’t even look up.
A couple of months ago I submitted my poem “The Hawk” to a little poetry mag in Arkansas called Poultry in Motion. Today I found out it’s going to be published! Included with my acceptance notification was a dollar bill. Now I have three dollars for Saturday night in case Bonnie finds herself a little cash-strapped. “The Hawk” will be in the summer issue.
It was Dave who passed the drill sergeant in the hallway at our quarters just after six Saturday morning. The drill sergeant made a snide remark and Dave snapped back. The drill sergeant then picked Dave up and threw him against the bathroom door, the crashing noise waking Mom and me.
Mom and I arrived in the hallway simultaneously. The drill sergeant threw a punch that clipped my bottom lip and then pushed my pregnant mother who lost her balance and fell on the floor. I went back in my bedroom and returned with my late grandfather’s walking stick and began swinging it wildly at the drill sergeant who retreated to his bedroom. He left the premises shortly thereafter, pausing to glower in my direction on his way out the door.
Mom and Dave both appeared to be OK, at least physically. Emotionally? She was sitting at the dining room table mumbling something about moving back to Arkansas with her boys. He was standing in front of the living room window, staring off somewhere.
At noon I called Bonnie. “It’s Plan B,” I said. “I’ll catch a D.C. transit and meet you at the gym at 6:30.”
My details were sketchy but I did tell her that I had suffered a bloody lip that morning defending my brother and Mom.
“I’m worried about your safety,” Bonnie said.
“I am too,” I said. “I can’t breathe in this place. I mean it. I just can’t breathe around the bastard. There’s no oxygen in our relationship. I don’t know how much longer I can take his crap without doing something crazy.”
I had not meant to upset her. But I could tell by the concern in her voice that I had.
“We’ll talk about it tonight,” Bonnie whispered before hanging up.
But we didn’t talk about it that night. We danced instead and we danced some more and during our last dance Bonnie Julinda very tenderly kissed my busted lip before just as tenderly kissing the other.
At Taliano’s the spaghetti was amazing. There was a candle at our table and Bonnie’s pretty face actually glowed in the light it made. I guess all faces kinda glow in candlelight. But not like Bonnie’s did that night. I could not take my eyes off her.
I don’t know how they organized it but her father pulled up just as we stepped outside. Thirty minutes later, he dropped me off at the Belvoir fieldhouse. Bonnie took my hand and held it for a few seconds before we parted.
At the restaurant I had told Bonnie not to worry if she didn’t hear from me for a day or two. I would be OK and I would be thinking about her.
I had placed a gym bag containing a few necessities in a discarded locker by the door at the back of the fieldhouse. Now I retrieved it and headed for that ridge just off post that overlooked Highway 1. I paused there and gathered my courage. Minutes later I descended that little hill and raised my thumb in the cold night air. A car pulled over and I climbed in.