Autumn is nearly here, and I am churning.
We will soon be astraddle the seasonal cusp and each year at this time something awful resonates in me. I feel the rumbling in my gut, and it has nothing to do with the Thai red curry shrimp I made and ate last night.
This time of the year stimulates nasty memories, disturbing memories. The change of season displaces debris on the bottom of the mnemonic pond that floats upward, dark and disturbing into consciousness.
I am unable to repress the memories; unlike a realtor, I can’t sublimate pain, rejection and humiliation and direct it to a moneymaking activity, reminding myself all the while how indispensable I am to the overall welfare of mankind.
Autumn means the high school football season is just around the corner. It means I am on shaky emotional ground.
Most guys who played high school football use the arrival of autumn as an excuse to rehash their glory days, exaggerate their accomplishments, revel in gaudy triumphs, real and imagined, relate tales of last-minute heroics, report noble and numerous victories gracefully borne.
It gets downright Homeric.
Not for me. I have nothing to brag about.
With each new autumn come the flashbacks, and I churn.
I played two seasons of varsity football, and I was the captain of my high school team. It was the worst football team in the history of the game.
I won’t name the school; the joint has developed a respected athletic tradition since I darkened the halls — since I was asked to leave near the end of my senior year with a record of unproductive and disgraceful behavior — and there is no reason to sully that reputation. But, in my day, it was a dismal story: we had a 1-15 record over two years, if you believe a forfeit counts as a win.
The team now goes by the name “Sun Devils.” Back in 1964, the squad was known by our six fans as the “Battling Dilettantes,” and by our opponents as the “Pouting Neer-do-wells.” We represented a small, private boys’ school noted for substantial capital holdings, a snappy regimental school tie, and a fleet of late model sports cars parked in the student lot.
We were not known for our football team.
Not in any positive sense, that is.
There were not a lot of Dilettantes on the team. Most of the fellows at the school were weenies and they played an inferior brand of soccer. Why risk an injury when you’ve planned a ski trip to Portillo next spring?
So, it was up to the members of the student body who were 1) mentally unstable, 2) flooded with prodigious amounts of testosterone, and/or 3) too “husky” to look good in shorts and play a game that bore an vague resemblance to football.
The first alarm that a comfortable life was set to disintegrate was the awareness of the approach of autumn. With fall on the doorstep, it was time to shed the seersucker sports jacket, cease mixing the martinis, and pull on the vaunted black jersey, black pants and red helmet of a Battling Dilettante.
It was time to churn.
Each fall, the scene was the same: brutal — like a train hitting a stalled Buick filled with kids on their way to the prom, again and again and again.
Autumn meant returning to the nasty embrace of Ralph, the coach. Ralph — the crewcut ex-college lineman — built like a fireplug, swarthy, fired by thwarted dreams of a professional football career, energized by an inherent dislike of weazly little rich boys. Ralph’s attitude, and the naked violence it stimulated in him, prepared the Dilettantes for the season ahead. Ralph’s idea of practice was to pummel as many players as possible, all the while mumbling things about putting silver spoons “where the sun don’t shine.” Ponder for a moment the utter delight of two-a-day practices in a black uniform, in 95-degree heat, with one of those darned spoons stuck where the sun don’t shine. Ever walked around with a hot spoon up your ass?
To make the situation even better, the athletic director was the Marquis de Sade of sports. The man was a retired navy Captain — a bitter and anal-retentive Annapolis grad hired to ensure the Battling Dilettantes were damaged and humbled at each autumn outing.
The Captain idolized Nietzsche. Above the Cap’s desk was a framed quote by the laugh-a-minute German: ”That which does not kill me only serves to make me stronger.” A snappy motto for a spindly, syphilitic philosopher with a goofy walrus mustache — a cruel portent for the Battling Dilettantes.
The football schedule reflected the Captain’s harsh attitude and the piece de resistance was the creation of what the A.D. labeled, “a stirring rivalry … a fall classic.”
The game pitted the Battling Dilettantes against a team from the Colorado State Prison at Buena Vista.
Are you beginning to understand why I churn?
Nothing produces enthusiasm and love of the game like two massive, rusted buses pulling into the school parking lot, the upper parts of the vehicles wrapped in concertina wire, a loud howling issuing from their darkened interiors.
Nothing inspires confidence like the sight of your opponents being led to the field under armed guard.
Nothing makes you feel more alive than looking across the line at a 250-pound thrice-convicted felon who refers to you as “sweetie.”
Autumn was certainly not the favorite time of year for one member of the Battling Dilettantes — a good-natured, myopic, gap-toothed left guard, whose idea of a fine fall afternoon was to cruise down the lane in a green Austin Healey Sprite while his girlfriend read aloud from the collected poems of Wallace Stevens. Listen to The Emperor of Ice Cream enough times, you get laid.
He churns yet.
Once the fall classic (read “debacle”) was over, there was the regular season schedule prepared for the survivors by our nautical Attila the Hun.
The Battling Dilettantes schedule consisted entirely of teams from small farm communities on the eastern plains of Colorado.
The churning got worse.
Picture if you will a strapping lad, genetically engineered to buck bales, pull combines and carry cows (and whatever else they do in small farm communities on the eastern plains of Colorado). He is not impressed by someone whose football practice is cut short for Cotillion rehearsal. Nor is he awed by the thought the opposing quarterback is privy to an incredibly successful bond investment strategy.
The small town stud from the butt end of the Great Plains is fueled by the after-effects of major sense deprivation (oh, those endless, flat vistas) and he harbors an abiding disdain for things urbane. His coach also reminds him that, following the game, out in the cornfield just beyond the flickering light cast by the homecoming bonfire, he is apt to be rewarded carnally by Betty Lou for hospitalizing a Battling Dilettante. This is powerful stuff when the next most exciting thing on the cultural horizon is a rumor about a new bovine growth hormone.
It all translated to anxiety for a gap-toothed, myopic, good-natured guy who spent much of his autumn being mashed into the weed-choked, gopher-hole-pocked plains of eastern Colorado.
You’d churn too.
Imagine yourself flat on your back, Saturday after Saturday, over the course of two months.
Imagine a large fellow with cleated shoes is standing on your right hand. Another fellow, larger yet, with a problematic complexion and very bad breath, bellows like a Black Angus bull as he pulls his massive body from your crumpled frame. This has been happening for the entire game — a game that seems to last forever.
Oh, the churning.
Betty Lou rushes from the sidelines as the final gun sounds, her perky cheerleader outfit blazing in the golden late-day autumn light. She squeals as she throws herself into Jethro’s arms. The duo is atwitter with triumph.
You — a gap-toothed, myopic, good-natured left guard — are bleeding profusely from several orifices. You have a concussion that will prevent you from successfully completing math problems for the next seven years. You are able to raise your head only slightly before profound cervical damage prevents any further motion.
Through a haze of pain, you see autumn clouds scud across a cobalt sky above you. Your one nostril that still works detects the odor of cottonwood leaves fallen to the ground, dry and crushed underfoot by a horde of joyous agrarian spectators as they file from the stadium to attend a victory celebration at Em’s Cafe. Once at the cafe, they will stare at a Hamm’s beer sign, review the horrific thrashing of the pampered interlopers, then assemble a caravan of pickups to follow the Battling Dilettante bus for several miles outside the town limits, honking horns and firing one-fingered salutes at the vanquished foes.
You blink as you raise your head one agony-riddled centimeter at a time. You hear someone moaning and calling out for his mommy. The scoreboard is still lit; you blink, attempting to correct a case of double vision.
Burlington 70, Battling Dilettantes 0.
You are not dead.
But you’re not stronger.
And years later, you are still churning.
Because this weekly dose of negative reinforcement tainted the arrival of autumn forever. While people around you wax poetic about the color of aspen and oak brush, you cringe. You can still hear, oh so faintly, the awful noise made by a grandstand full of demented farmhands armed with cowbells. You hear the sound of horns in the distance.
You are churning.
Because you are the only one of the Battling dilettantes who was not successful enough to go back to the eastern plains 20 years after those football disasters, to foreclose on Jethro, Betty Lou and their mouthbreathing friends and sell the farms for pennies on the dollar to ruthless agricultural corporations, that’s why!
Oh man, the churning is killing me.
There’s only one way to deal with this torment.
It’s like an inoculation.
I’ll go to the first local high school football home game this autumn. And, I will eat.
I’ll be riddled with anxiety when I get to the parking lot at Golden Peaks Stadium here in Siberia With a View, but I’ll handle the stomach problems with a tailgate party.
My buddies and I will gather in the parking lot and I’ll provide the main dish. Ronnie can bring chile con queso; Jack will provide the chips. Mike brings the dessert; John and Don have enough cash between them to purchase napkins. Marion can come if he promises to leave his handgun at home.
I’ll make carnitas.
I’ll take a pork butt or pork shoulder, trim it and cut it in chunks.
The meat is browned in a heavy pot. A couple of cups of chicken stock, a hefty dose of Espanola red, Mexican oregano, and some crushed garlic are added and the mess is covered and simmered for several hours. For a change of pace, I like to bring the stock to a boil, add the aromatics and browned meat then cover the pot and put it in a 300-degree oven for five hours.
The meat is done when it falls apart. I’ll shred the meat right before its time to head for the stadium and keep it moist by adding some of the reduced broth. It’ll need a bit of salt and pepper.
Condiments for the carnitas are simple: sliced jalapeno or serrano peppers, chopped cilantro, diced tomatoes, grated Asadero, finely minced white onion, slices of avocado. Slap a mound of meat on a warm flour tortilla, add the condiment mix of your choice and you are off to the races. If I’m gonna churn, I’ll temper it with a tummy full of pork.
Then, I’ll adjourn to the grandstand and watch a high school football game.
I won’t die.
I’ll be stronger.
When winter comes.
Winter is hockey season — a time when concussions and missing teeth are regarded as achievements.