Ah, Friday football.
The scent of just-mown grass, half-beaten yellow under the late-August sun, prickled my nose and mingled with the acrid smell of the stadium cinder track. Chalk lines crisply cut the field. Drums rolled. The batons of white-booted majorettes flashed silver. The band, smothered in dark green uniforms, marched. Duhn-duhn-da-dah-da-duhn-duhn. Into the stadium. Duhn-duhn-da-dah-da-duhn-duhn. Up the cement steps. Duhn-duhn-da-dah-da-duhn-duhn. To their 50-yardline seats. Duhn-duhn-da-dah-da-duhn-duhn. The dance team pranced behind, yellow capes jauntily flung back. Gold sequins glittered on top hats and sparkled on clover leotards. Sweeping arms to the left and then to the right, they snapped a salute.
Was this heaven? No, it was Alabama—the holy ground of football, where Paul “Bear” Bryant eternally walked on water, where Auburn played out miracle seasons, where Protestants celebrated Hail Marys, where five Birmingham radio sports channels simultaneously obsessed over pigskin picks, points, and past seasons 365 days a year.
Ah, Friday night glare. High school. Under harsh white lights, the aromas of blown-out popcorn, sizzling hot dogs, and greasy hamburgers hung in the air. The crowd buzzed while the genteel bass of the local news anchor—the dear dad of a football player-cheerleader-dance-team family—rolled through the snack menu, PTA thank yous, and a list of sponsors.
Perspiration beaded on my forehead. I plucked at the hem of my cheerleader uniform, shorter by 2 inches after a careless toss in a high-heat dryer cycle, dreading the fulfillment of my weekly Thursday nightmare: the football team bunches restlessly behind the banner of the school mascot (Spartans) sagging between the goalposts. The cheerleaders hop up and down in front, shaking pompons frenziedly, waiting to rush them down the field. Then the boys tear through the paper curtain in mad glory, overrunning their peppy escorts in a cleat-stampede—
That’s when I always woke up.
On entering high school, my friends and I hatched a plan to escape social obscurity: we would try out for cheerleading. My family’s risk factor for uncoordinated offspring was decidedly low. Surely my jackrabbit legs would catapult me to new heights. My picture in the yearbook! Flippy little skirts to wear! And dates, dates, dates!
Genetics laid out another destiny. On making the squad, I became the lower half of daredevil stunts—The Base. I and my Herculean counterparts lifted, carried, and acted as human springboards for 80-pound Tinkerbells (we were typically 35 to 50 pounds heavier). Before each kickoff, a teen angel clambered onto my shoulders, popped up to a standing position, and waved fervently to the crowd, whipping them into a frenzy. Her weight shifted constantly, so I smiled gamely and swayed, much like the Transamerica Building during a seismic catastrophe. About then, the school photographer strolled up for a few shots, zeroing in on the beauty above. Several sooty footprints decorated my uniform by the end of the game.
I cast aside my glasses—thick lenses squeezed into hippie wireframes—to cheer in squinty-eyed vanity. Not once did I suffer performance anxiety; the crowd was little more than a roaring blur. I rarely glanced at the football field because the action was so hazy I couldn’t tell whether our team was making or stopping a first down.
A couple of times, I stared into my myopic fog, hallucinated that the boys were on the verge of a first down, and began yelling, “First and 10, do it again! First and 10, do it again!”
My Tinkerbell partner wheeled around, got in my face, and boomed, ” DE-fense, DE-fense! HIT-em a lick. HIT-em a lick. Har-DER! Har-DER!”
My perspective was always a little off, from football to current culture. I never gushed about Robert Redford’s face, Paul Newman’s eyes, or Warren Beatty’s mane. I had a crush on Richard Harris’s pained visage (Camelot) and adored Henry David Thoreau, Chief Joseph, and John Keats. My preferences puzzled Mary, my older sister and cheerleader co-captain: “But, Cathy, those men are so-o-o dead.”
Maybe dead men were easier to dream about. Live ones required much analyzing during lunch, gym class, and breaks at our lockers. At night, the phone lines crackled with speculation.
“Will he ask me out? He’s gotta. He’s just gotta.”
“His sister told his best friend who told his next-to-best friend that you thought he was cute—and he smiled.”
“Was it a big smile?”
“His sister said, well, sort of, kind of. She counted about 10 teeth.”
If nobody asked us out by Wednesday night, we turned to other activities until a fresh week rolled around. Never dating steadily, I expended great energy painting spirit posters and banners. I tried to raise football slogans to lofty alliterative heights: “Eradicate Eagles.” “Conquer Cougars.” “Vanquish Volunteers.”
However, my scribblings fell flat before critics who weilded power megaphones:
“Give me a break. Those posters look like an anti-roach campaign.”
“Yeah, what’s wrong with ‘Pluck Eagles’ or ‘Crush Cougars’? ”
“Get to the point. How about ‘Bash Volunteers’?”
(In retrospect, their corrections proved an early writing lesson: use concrete verbs.)
Deep down, I was a coordinated nerd. I lauded Jethro Tull, David Bowie, and other select musicians because they penned artful, somewhat grammatical lyrics. Editing double negatives in rock ‘n’ roll lyrics and re-counting the beats became a one-week obsession until Mary told me to shut up. A random encounter with Aristotle’s Poetics in the library resulted in a much-belabored term paper: “The Development of Aesthetics in Classical Greece.” When I eagerly turned in the assignment, my besieged English teacher scanned the first page, looked up wild-eyed, grabbed a red marker, marked a huge “A” by the title, and handed back my paper. Smart woman. Why ruin her weekend suffering through Greece’s literary golden age crammed into 16 ink-spotted pages?
Journaling became my passion. Pathetic fallacy littered any expression of my interior landscape. Trees and stones wept when a running back broke my heart. Skylarks soared when the quarterback asked me out—once. A park bench and a lamppost, dimmed by fog and drizzle, symbolized my parents’ lack of understanding.
Looking back, I would say my mother was rather kind. When I thrilled to Robinson Jeffers after reading “Hurt Hawks,” Mom scoured Birmingham for his works. No such luck. There was not a particular fan base for a dead-language-scholar-poet who scribbled tragic happenings while shut away in a lonely, hand-built stone tower in Carmel, California. The poor woman called two dozen bookstores in New York before locating my Christmas present—Jeffers’ collected poems—which she dutifully handed over, drily commenting, “Tennyson, anyone, next year?”
One lazy afternoon, I stopped by the library and spotted a tome lying abandoned on a table: The Feminine Mystique. I grabbed the book, concluding it was a how-to beauty guide. Whoa! The content was rather dizzying for my vapid teen mind, so I dispatched it to the return-to-library stack on my dresser.
Ms. Betty Friedan, however, got me to thinking on one point. Why were boys always stuck with the dating tab? It seemed a fair question. So on my next social outing, I proffered money at my date when he stepped up to buy two movie tickets. His face telegraphed disdain; I stuffed the bill in my purse and took the free ride until college.
Although I retired my cheerleader letter sweater at 17, I casually roll with the Crimson Tide in deference to Deep South religion. But during basketball season, the Tar Heel nation requires worship.