Thursday, January 27, 2022

Dirty Laundry (Don Henley)

It was a dark and stormy night. Dad was working late. Wendell studied for AP Biology in the Florida room, Skipper did her spelling in the dining room and I glued stickers onto a geography poster with my mom paying bills feet away. Then the doorbell rang. Mom said, “April, could you get that?”

Knowing I was chosen because I was closes to the door, I got up to get it. The doorbell rang about ten more times. Either they were selling something and there was a prize involved or this was a lunatic. Standing on the front porch, soaking wet was the prized lunatic herself, Mrs. Tolanco, the most obnoxious of all the Whiskey Rebellion Blackhawk Football Booster mothers. A former Whiskey Rebellionette twirler, her senior class voted her ‘Most Divine.’ These days, she resembled the late drag queen Divine.

Opening the door I said, “Hi Mrs. Tolanco.”

Barreling past me and knocking me over like her son Frankie did an opponent on the offensive line, she said, “Wendelin, Gracie, I need a lawyer!”

As I got up, she still ignored the fact she knocked me over. Mom came running out ruing the day she asked me to answer the door, “Judy, I understand you are upset, but Wendelin isn’t home right now.”

Mrs. Tolanco said, “Grace, no can do. We need to sue in big court!” She held up a copy of The Hawk Wing, The Whiskey Rebellion High School newspaper. The headline read, “Blackhawks, Lady Hawks and Rebellionettes Get A Failing Grade by Sandra Angelina.”

Under the article was a picture of a girl who looked like Emily Dickinson The Belle of Amherst joined Sonic Youth with a by-line read, “Sandra Angelina wants to snuff out the patriarchy and write the great American novel.”

Mom said, “Okay Judy, I know you are extremely upset but I need you to calm down and take a few deep breaths. She’s an angry teenager. You know how tough it is to be that age.”

Mrs. Tolanco said, “Well wait until you read what she wrote. The Whiskey Rebellion Women’s Club asked me if it was true. It was about a boy shoving a baseball bat up another boys…”

Mom held up her hand, “Judy, please calm down.”

Mrs. Tolano said, “My Frankie plays football, works part time at the plant store and volunteers with our church to help the shut in at the end of our block with her grocery shopping and yard work. We have a few Rebellionettes and Lady Hawks who are a part of the youth group too. These are good kids and I won’t have them slandered!”

Wendell came running out, “Mrs. Tolanco, you okay?”

Letting it spray like Tammy Faye she said, “NO! Do you know this rotten Sandra Angelina?!”

Wendell said, “Yeah, she’s a weird chick who wears all black and writes death poetry.”

Mrs. Tolanco said, “A ha! The motive here is bitterness and revenge. She couldn’t make The Lady Hawks or the Rebellionettes. Maybe one of the guys wouldn’t date her. Or better yet, she’s a LESBIAN!” The way she said lesbian was louder, angrier and more punctuated than anything else.

Skipper poked her head out of the dining room, “Mrs. Tolanco, I don’t mean to be rude but I am trying to study.”

Mrs. Tolanco screamed, “ I AM BEGINNING TO DOUBT YOUR FAMILY’S COMMITMENT TO BLACKHAWK NATION!”

Mom walked over to the door and opened it, “Judy, I think you need to go home, get some sleep and if you still have legal questions call Wendelin in the morning.”

Mrs. Tolanco threw The Hawk Wing on the ground and made a dramatic exit out the door. When she was gone we let out a collective laugh. I said, “Wow, Dad’s gonna love that.” Dad hated Mrs. Tolanco.

Wendell said, “Oh I’ll bet. Frankie’s a nice guy, too bad his mom’s a freakshow.”

Mom said, “How do the guys feel?”

Wendell shrugged, “I’m ignoring it and the more level headed ones are too. But some of the others are pretty pissed. Anyway, I got to get back to studying.”

Later that night, I read the poison pen piece. Despite the hype it was a badly structured angry skree. Sandra Angelina alleged The Blackhawks and The Lady Hawks and Rebellionettes by extension were bullies who engineered a cheating ring and subjected underclassmen to violent hazing. She was correct. The previous year there had been a cheating ring involving some football players and a few Rebellionettes and Lady Hawks serving as inside people. And bullying had been an epidemic on the football team too. The violent hazing incident where the baseball bat was shoved up the butt happened as well. The only problem, it was last year. The players, cheerleaders, and Rebellionettes involved had graduated, and the coaches were fired so aside from a fact checking issue, there was nothing to be done. Matthias, while far from perfect, was zero tolerance for bullshit on the field or off.

Sandra did have some points I agreed with. Yes, the women’s sports and smaller teams fell to the wayside with little to no publicity for their events, but Whiskey Rebellion was in Steeler County so football was king. The glossy program sold at the home games raised enough money for a new weight room. Sandra claimed the football team kept other athletic teams out. Under the previous coach, the football players intimidated smaller, weaker students out of using the weight room. As far as I knew, Matthias’s squad didn’t behave this way, but Wendell and his teammates were the ones who primarily used it.

When I was finished, I handed Skipper the article. As she read it Skipper said, “Two words: spell check.”

Skipper, despite being grade levels ahead in math, was a terrible speller. I said, “That means a lot coming from you.”

Skipper shrugged, “Only someone of limited intellect would get mad at this like Mrs. Tolanco.” We both burst out laughing.

For the next week, Mrs. Tolanco blew up Dad’s phone demanding the boosters take The Hawk Wing to court. When Dad told her she had no suit, Mrs. Tolanco started a petition demanding The Hawk Wing be shut down. Gaining traction, she began to put pressure on Coach Matthias to approach the administration about disbanding The Hawk Wing.

Coach Matthias, who didn’t like Mrs. Tolanco but wanted to do damage control, approached Mrs. Callahan, The Hawk Wing sponsor, to clear the air. Smooth as sandpaper on a bed of nails Coach Matthias said, “I have no problem with the rest of weird kids that write. But that filly that wears black ain’t no good.”

Mrs. Callahan was indignant, “She has a name and it’s Sandra Angelina. Remember it.”

The two began to shout at each other. Hawk Wing staffers jumped to Mrs. Callahan’s defense. Blackhawks that were in the vicinity saw a Blackhawk down and aided their embattled coach. As the air filled with insults, threats and profanity, the school security guard tried to break up the shouting match gone wrong but failed. The long suffering vice principal Mr. Johns had to assist. When he was ignored, Bo the Janitor, a Vietnam vet with PTSD, jumped in.

As they were being separated, Coach Matthias vowed, “This is a day that will live in infamy! Blackhawk Nation has declared war!”

Mrs. Callahan replied, “Good! Because we not yet begun to write!”

That was the start of what would go down in history as The War of Words. The day after the first shots were fired, Mrs. Tolanco arrived at Principal Cicero’s office with her petition. What she didn’t count on was that Mrs. Angelina, angry her daughter’s locker had been vandalized with the word “CUNT” written in red nail polish, was also waiting to talk to Principal Cicero. The mothers got into a screaming match. When they tried to punch each other, school security had to separate them, escort them out and ban them from school property. Meanwhile, The Hawk Wing, previously ignored, was now flying off the shelves as sympathy for Sandra Angelina and her cause grew.

In what became known as The Battle of Dodge Ball, some Lady Hawk cheerleaders had informed Sandra that she cease and desist, “or else your time at Whiskey Rebellion High School will be hell.” Sandra refused. These same cheerleaders, who were in her gym class, this was Aztec Ball Court where it would be a fight to the death. Dodge balls became deadly weapons. However, what the cheerleaders didn’t count on was members of the women’s volleyball team, who were glad Sandra spoke up for them, would jump to the unathletic girl’s defense. Spikes were fired, resulting in several bloody noses. Volleyball players and cheerleaders were taken to the office, and in all six people were suspended.

Next was The Battle of the Band Room. What started it is not known, but a Rebellionette twirler and a flutist fought over the truth of the Sandra Angelina article. The baton gave the Rebellionette an advantage, but wielding a flute proved to be far more dangerous. The band director, aghast, separated the girls who continued to fight even as the principal suspended them both.

The penultimatum was The Battle of the Stairwell. Several Blackhawk football players had taunted Sandra in the hall with the usual round of insults that included, “Bitch,” “Rug Muncher” and “Tampon Eater.” The hockey team, which Sandra’s cousin Rudy belonged to, were lying in wait in the stairwell ready to pounce to defend her honor. When the time came they jumped three guys in Blackhawk letter jackets. The only problem was, these weren’t the three Blackhawks who had been taunting Sandra but three different guys who were not only at the wrong place at the wrong time, but were actually trying to stay out of The War on Words entirely. Seeing their fellow Blackhawks in trouble, others close by jumped in. Size wise, football guys had the advantage, but the hockey guys lived to get bruised, bloodied up and would not go down. In a match that was a draw, twenty students were suspended.

The War on Words soon spilled down into Constitution Middle School. It made clique divisions more divided and poured salt in wounds that were fresh, especially since several of my classmates had siblings who were suspended because of their participation in the conflict. Like Wendell, I was trying to stay as far out of this as possible, but it was becoming harder and harder as everyone demanded you pick a side. Trying to dodge the draft, I was on my way to lunch when Coach Douglass, my reading teacher and Coach Matthias’s second in command, poked his head out of his classroom, “RL Stine, do you got a minute?” That was his nickname for me because I was always writing something.

I said, “Sure Coach, wassup?”

Coach Douglass, who towered over me said in his thick West Virginia accent, “I don’t know about you, but this War on Words has gotten out of hand. Coach Matthias doesn’t want to call a truce which I think is a mistake. Where do you stand?”

I said, “I stand by the side that wants to stay out of it. No offense.”

Coach Douglass said, “But this is why I need your help. You’re kind of one of us because of Wendell but you are one of them because you are a weird girl who writes. Any ideas?”

I was being backhanded but I was being called to service, “Coach, you got to meet them at their level. Get a player to write a respectful rebuttal.”

Coach Douglass said, “How about Wendell? People like him and he’s smart.”

I said, “Ask him.”

Coach Douglass said, “Matthias is pretty adamant on this war. RL Stine, make him think it was your idea. Remember, Blackhawk Nation is counting on you.” I was charged with saving a country that didn’t exist. To quote the great Nancy Kerrigan, “WHY ME?!?”

That night, as Dad was working late again and Mom was running errands I pitched the idea to Wendell. He said, “Absolutely not! In the War of Words I am a conscientious objector.”

It was a reach but desperate times called for desperate measures, “Wendell, Blackhawk Nation is counting on you.” Then I told him about my conversation with Coach Douglass.

Wendell said, “I was afraid he would do something like that. A lot of the guys are getting into trouble. It sucks because some of them are really nice but people are just so angry that they are starting stuff or getting sucked in by other people starting stuff. It’s not fair. Yeah, some of us were jerks but a lot of us study, make the honor roll and just want to mind our business.”

I said, “Then put that in your editorial.”

Wendell said, “Eh, you know I hate writing.”

Skipper, who was feet away suggested, “Wendell, you like to draw, do a cartoon.” Wendell was a great artist and doodled frequently when he was bored.

A smile crossed his face, “Great idea, Squirt. I’ll do it in study hall tomorrow.” Then we both gave her a fist bump.

Wendell created a cartoon entitled "Don’t Box Me In." On one side it had the stereotype of a Blackhawk football player bullying kids, cutting class, cheating and partying until the wee hours with his friends. On the other side it had the same Blackhawk football player and his teammates helping special needs students, studying hard and having both his coach and mother remind him about work/sports/life balance.

"Don’t Box Me In" was a hit with everyone. Impressed, Mrs. Callahan offered Wendell the gig as Hawk Wing cartoonist which he glady accepted. He also got an unlikely new fan, Sandra Angelina. Away from the front lines she confided in Wendell that she was sick of The War on Words but some of the more overzealous Hawk Wingers were pressuring her to keep fighting, even though at this point it was a giant shitshow.

The two decided to negotiate an armistice. Wendell approached Mr. Napier, his guidance counselor who moonlighted as the football announcer about plugging the women’s sports and the smaller teams during the home games. Mr. Napier not only thought it was a great idea, but was embarrassed he hadn’t thought of it himself. The women’s volleyball team especially enjoyed the new publicity, and during their championship season found the stands packed. Smaller sports also took out ads in the glossy football book to show their appreciation, but also to let the town know that football players weren’t the only Blackhawks.

In return, Sandra talked Mrs. Callahan into apologizing to Coach Matthias. As an olive branch, Coach Matthias offered to do an exclusive sit down interview with Sandra where he consented to being recorded and didn’t dodge the hardball questions. Coach Matthias didn’t deny the cheating and hazing incidents happened, but they were under the former coaching staff. He explained because the former players had been so out of control, the team had gotten a deservedly terrible reputation that he was working to change. Coach Matthias explained that unlike the coach who came before him, he stressed that both athletics and academics were equally as important. And while the previous football teams had excluded people from the weight room this wasn’t going to be the case when he was around. Yes, the football team had raised the money to build the new weight room but all students, regardless of what sport they played, and even those that did not play a sport, were both welcome and encouraged to come work out.

Several Lady Hawks and Rebellionettes wrote editorials apologizing for their roles in The War on Words, but felt dragged in because they resented being stereotyped, but also the boogeyman of peer pressure played an active role. Hawk Wing staffers and people who were on the other side respectfully rebutted, saying they too were sorry, but they resented being ostracized and treated like a second class citizen in their own school. Together, the different voices had an honest conversation about bullying, peer pressure and labels. The Hawk Wing issue, entitled Cliques, won state wide Quill and Scroll prize.

Sandra Angelina went on to attend Sarah Lawrence. After she graduated she freelanced with Mother Jones reporting on crisis pregnancy centers and the conditions of women’s prisons ruffling even more feathers before she opened a socialist bookstore. She recently self-published her opus, “Toppling The Patriarchy.” While not quite the great American novel, it is a hit with the social justice crowd. I’m glad she’s finding her muse. I just hope she uses spellcheck.

Like my writing, check out my books on Amazon

Monday, January 17, 2022

Stagger Lee (Lloyd Price)

Sal’s Italian Too was ready for the annual Blackhawk Banquet. Decorated in black and orange, a long table was set with a buffet and next to it was a cake that had a Blackhawk decked in a football uniform and a Lady Hawk dressed in a cheerleader outfit. Usually held before the first scrimmage in the high school cafeteria, it was the first time the event was a white tablecloth affair.

Our dad, the Whiskey Rebellion Football Booster treasurer, was responsible for this magic. Using his background as a tax lawyer, he balanced the budget and used his power of persuasion to get Sal to close the restaurant for the evening and let The Blackhawks use the space for free. In return, Sal’s Italian Too got a courtesy full page ad in the glossy football program and a mention by the announcer during every home game of the season.

Unfortunately my dad was late because a deposition had gone longer than expected. The food was going quickly, so my mom pre-fixed a plate and sent my younger sister Skipper and I get some tin foil to cover it from the kitchen staff to keep it warm. (Really it was a one person errand but Skipper decided to tag along).

After obtaining the tin foil, we passed Suzette Winklebleck, the varsity cheerleading coach. Her jet black hair swooshed as she walked along swinging her hips. Suzette, as she insisted on being called by her girls, had been head cheerleader at Whiskey Rebellion herself. Try outs for the squad were a mere formality as she always selected girls who who’s family members she shook pom poms with.

There was one loophole for anyone who didn’t have The Old Whiskey Rebellion connection. Every summer, Suzette conducted a week long clinic at the high school where she taught “Lady Hawk Fundamentals.” Like a good role model, she could be seen smoking by the bleachers before camp. Our mom had put Skipper and me in it a few summers before in case we wanted to cheer. At the end of the week, Suzette explained to our mom that Skipper and I weren’t “Lady Hawk material.” We were relieved.

Suzette passed us on heals that were too high to walk on and in hot pink outfit so tight that she hung out like a Pillsbury biscuit waiting to pop. Greeted by her husband Cort, a long suffering and non-descript man, she gave him a cringeworthy kiss.

Skipper, who was ten and tested genius level said, “Those shoes defy the laws of physics. She could fall and seriously injure her head.”

I said, “That would imply there was a head to injure.”

Skipper said, “Maybe she already has. That would explain impractical outfit.”

We arrived at the table and handed our mother the foil. Suzette swooshed by, swinging her hips so wide she nearly hit our brother Wendell in the head. Wendell said, “What an obnoxious safety hazard.”

Mom said, “I’ll tell you what’s obnoxious. The Lady Hawk Boosters don’t donate, don’t plan and yet we have to invite them.” The controversy at the planning meeting for The Blackhawk Banquet had been the budget. My parents, who were doing most of the foot work and realized that they could cut the cost significantly by not inviting The Lady Hawks who never made a monetary donation. The Old Whiskey Rebellion faction was up in arms because this was the way it had always been. Mom and Mrs. Renninger got into a shouting match with my dad and Mr. Renninger had to separate them. After seeing he wasn’t going to get much support, Dad caved. Mom was still bitter.

Suzette swooshed by again. Mom said, “She’s Old Whiskey Rebellion alright, because she is too old to be wearing that outfit.”

Our dad arrived. Feet away from our table, Suzette was hitting on several Blackhawk football players. She flipped her hair and laughed as Cort stood helplessly by her side. Between bites my dad said, “Jesus God almighty! Doesn’t she know this is a family event? Even the girls at The Jefferson Lodge have more sense and decorum.” The Jefferson Lodge was the local strip club in town. Some of the more illustrious Whiskey Rebellion alums danced there.

The lights dimmed and the banquet began. Coach Matthias began to speak in his thick West Virginia accent, “Thank y’all for coming tonight. A special thank you to Wendelin Brucker for gettin’ Sal to cater this event!” Dad proudly stood up like an actor who had won an Oscar and the room rewarded him in kind.

Matthias said, “GO HAWKS! LET’S GET FIRED UP!” Like a tent revival, the room was in a frenzy. Coach Matthias said, “Now I ain’t a thinkin’ man or a talkin’ man so I will bring Coach Stephens.” Relief hit the room as the tall, dark and handsome dream boat of a JV coach approached the mic. The women all silently drooled.

Coach Stephens said, “Now, I would like to introduce the first award, Hardest Worker. This young man only became a Blackhawk this year. He didn’t know the game but he learned it and over the summer improved his bench press and speed. I am pleased to present The Hardest Working Blackhawk Award to Wendell Brucker!”

Tears of joy streamed down Mom’s face as she took photos. Dad beamed with pride. The Blackhawk players chanted, “BRUCKER! BRUCKER! BRUCKER!” Bashfully, Wendell took his award. Speaking softly behind the mic he said, “Thank you Coach, my teammates and my family. Go Hawks!” The room applauded, kindly acknowledging this shy kid who didn’t expect to win.

Wendell got fist bumps from his fellow Blackhawks as well as The Lady Hawks. When he sat down, Skipper and I flashed him a thumbs up. Dad said, “Son, your public speaking skills suck.”

Wendell said, “Dad, I didn’t know I was going to win.”

Dad said, “Growing up, I didn’t have the same advantages as you. Remember that.” Wendell angrily shoved food in his mouth and looked away.

Coach Stephens then said, “Now I present to you, team captain of this year’s Blackhawks, elected by uniamous vote by both his teammates and coaches, Kyle Latham!”

Kyle ran up to the stage with his blonde ringlets bouncing. Like a rapper at a concert, he stood onstage and made the raise the roof sign with his hands. Then he yelled, “Go Hawks! WHOOT! WHOOT!”

Unmoved by the fact Wendell was intentionally ignoring him, Dad pointed to Kyle, “Wendell, now that’s how you command a crowd.”

Kyle jogged back to his seat. Mrs. Latham, who was at the next table, took my mom by the arm, “I don’t know what the hell that was. We made him practice his speech at home!”

Mom shook her head empathically and said, “How about this, we combine Wendell and Kyle and create the perfect kid.” The two women laughed.

Coach Stephens said, “This next young man has been a leader on the field and off. He also overcame adversity but kept going. It is my pleasure to present The Blackhawk Spirit Scholarship to Matt Eichenbrode.”

The room cheered loudly for several minutes. Matt Eichenbrode was inarguably the nicest kid on the team. He had gotten to know Wendell because they both volunteered with Circle of Friends, a group that had lunch once a week with special needs kids at school. On the fence about whether or not to play football, Matt swayed the tide and talked Wendell into becoming a Blackhawk.

This past spring, Mr. Eichenbrode, who drove a truck for Steel City Beer got into a fatal auto accident during a flash flood. Mrs. Eichenbrode worked as a book keeper and Matt worked part time as a landscaper, but that wasn’t going to be enough as he had three younger siblings at home, one which was special needs. In response to the tragedy, The Blackhawks had a fundraising drive for The Eichenbrode’s. Our family, as well as every other Blackhawk and Lady Hawk family, donated.

Because he had lost his own father as a teenager, our dad had gave the Eichenbrode’s a free legal consult. He didn’t practice accident law, but a shark of a colleague owed our dad a huge favor because he had gotten him out of a jam with the Feds. The shark, grateful he wasn’t in prison, got the Eichenbrode’s a huge settlement. The money, while it did not bring back their father, helped solve other problems like paying Mr. Eichenbrode’s burial costs and saving their home from foreclosure until the life insurance kicked in. To thank him, The Eichenbrode’s had sent a huge flower arrangement to our house last week.

As Matt walked to get his award Dad said, “Part of the reason I was late was this kid stopped me to shake my hand and thank me personally, AGAIN.” Then Dad yelled, “GO MATTY!”

Giving Coach Stephens a man hug and taking his award, Matt said, “While my dad can’t be here tonight, I know he is looking down thanking each and every one of you for helping us out. Being a Blackhawk is being a part of a family. Every time I lace up my cleats and step on the field, there is always an obstacle but I always have my team behind me. That way, I can turn a negative into a positive.”

Matt went on, saying he was inspired by his work with Circle of Friends, the team trainers and the hospital staff who tried to save his father after his traumatic accident to help others. With the $500 reward from the Blackhawk Spirit Scholarship, Matt aspired to go to St. Francis University, major in physical therapy and continue his playing career with The Red Flash. When Matt finished, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house and he got a standing ovation. Dad beamed. The Blackhawk Banquet was as close to perfect as could be.

After Matt went back to his seat and the applause died down, Coach Stephens introduced Suzette. Wobbling in her too high heels, Suzette said,

“Hi Everyone. Quick story. This summer, I saw Matt at the beach.”

I whispered to Skipper, “Beach?! After the last few months he’s had? Is she insane?!”

Skipper shrugged, “Maybe she got her summers mixed up.”

Suzette said, “So there Matt was, shirt off, pecs out and a huge bulge coming from his speedo. And then all of a sudden a potato fell out and landed by his feet.” Mom put her hands over Skipper’s ears. The room gasped in WTF horror.

Al Pender, who was perpetually on JV yelled, “HIS DAD’S DEAD! LEAVE HIM ALONE AND PUT SOME CLOTHES ON, YOU SAGGY, FUGLY BITCH!” Usually no one liked Al, but now he had become the conscious for the room as jeers and obscenities filled the air. Mom’s hands were glued to Skipper’s ears as she shook her head in annoyance. Dad’s eyes were fixed in their infamous death stare. The Blackhawk Banquet had gone off the rails.

Suzette laughed and did a tone deaf hair flip, “C’mon, it was just a joke!”

Wendell said, “Sal’s probably not having us back next year.”

A big, bass voice thundered, “GET OFF THE STAGE YOU FREAKIN’ MORON!” Glancing over, we realized it was Sal himself! Taking his large arm, he threw a piece of half eaten Blackhawk cake that landed several inches from Suzette just missing her. Panicked, Suzette screamed.

I said, “Yeah, because Sal will be in prison for killing her.” Dad gave us both the shut the hell up look and we did.

In an attempt to save the evening, Kyle sprinted to the stage and took the mic from Suzette, “Blackhawk Nation, my first duty as your captain is to order you to stop the violence now. We are better than this!” When we became a country I did not know, but slowly the room began to quiet down.

Matt walked up to the stage joining Kyle. He said, “Guys, thank you for having my back. Until now it’s been a great night. Let’s step over this and make it a great night again. Go Hawks!”

Coach Matthias stood up and took a turn at the mic, “Latham, Eichenbrode, thank y’all for making sure the Titanic didn’t hit the iceberg. Now sit down.” Kyle and Matt obeyed. Coach said, “Next to heckle, I don’t care who y’all are, will have to run. That’s not a threat that’s a fact. And Winklebleck, don’t go out for Saturday Night Live.” The room broke out into a much needed laugh break that lasted for an entire minute.

When the laughter died down, Coach Matthias smiled, “Now that’s comedy!” Then he gave the mic back to Suzette.

The evening went on with the Blackhawks giving The Lady Hawks a mix of hostile silence and weakened claps. Embarrassed, The Lady Hawks grabbed their awards and ran. When she was done, Suzette grabbed Cort by the arm and quickly wobbled out the door.

As we left, Mrs. Renninger approached us. Having been a Lady Hawk cheerleading captain herself, she now had three sons who were Blackhawks. Her blonde hair in a bob and her pearly whites flashing she said, “Wendelin, Gracie, you’re right. This is for the boys. The Lady Hawks can embarrass themselves on their own dime.”

Dad said, “Cindy, what she did to Matt tonight was appalling.”

Mrs. Renninger’s said, “Yup. They’re our neighbors. Skip and I organized the meal train for Nadine and the kids after Walt was killed. Between us, Suzette was never really Lady Hawk material. The only reason she got to be captain was because mother was coach. She couldn’t even do a straddle jump.” As we digested this useless information, Mrs. Renninger turned to Wendell, “Congratulations sweetheart. Welcome to the Blackhawks.”

Wendell said, “Thank you, Mrs. Renninger.” Then the perpetual busy body marched away.

When she was out of sight Mom said, “I still don’t like her.”

Dad said, “The night she got into it with your Mom I thought Skip was gonna have to give her a rabies shot. So much for Old Whiskey Rebellion.” Then he took Skipper’s hand and off we went.

Mrs. Renninger took her marching and circulated a petition demanding Suzette Winklebleck be removed. Suzette, in order to save her job got her mother, friends and former Lady Hawks to write letters in support explaining it was just a joke that was taken the wrong way. Suzette was soon to learn the key to good comedy was timing, awareness and knowing your audience. The schoolboard agreed she was batting 0-3 when they sided with the petitioners and fired her.

Suzette Winklebleck was replaced with Senorita Marianne Jonestum, a Spanish teacher from the middle school with a fake tan, fake eyelashes and a brief career as a swimsuit model in West Virginia. Reforming The Lady Hawks from within, Senorita Jonestrum selected her squad based on merit rather than politics. Eager to make amends , Senorita Jonestrum and The Lady Hawk Boosters helped plan The Blackhawk Banquet the following year and made a sizeable donation to cover costs. Sal, happy that Suzette would never be returning, gladly invited the team back where they have been holding the annual event ever since without incident.

Matt Eichenrode had a standout senior season with the Hawks and was admitted early decision to St. Francis. He continued to make magic on the field with The Red Flash and off where he graduated with honors. Moving back to Whiskey Rebellion, Matt now owns and operates the very successful Eichenbrode Physical Therapy where his wife is the office manager. Carrying on family tradition, his twin sons both play for the Mini Blackhawks in the Pop Warner league.

Eichenbrode Physical Therapy takes out a full page ad in the glossy football program every fall. In the center of the ad is a picture of Matt, Coach Stephens and Coach Matthias from that infamous Blackhawk Banquet. Getting the last laugh, Matt has this message for perspective clients, “Physical therapy is turning a negative into a positive. An injury might feel like you just found a potato on the beach. It’s unexpected, but once you peel back the layers, with the help of your team you can do anything.”

Monday, January 10, 2022

Ray of Light (Madonna)

Pre-season training for the Whiskey Rebellion Blackhawks meant a strenuous August. Two weeks before scrimmages, the team spent the week at California State University of Pennsylvania, aka Camp Hell. Staying in bunk bed style dorms, the Blackhawks had three practices a day plus conditioning and strength training. As Coach Matthias explained to the Boosters in his thick West Virginia accent, “It separates the men from the piglet’s on their mama’s teet.”

The week before Camp Hell was roommate selection. My brother Wendell was an outsider having not played Pop Warner, and most of the guys had talked about rooming with their buddies at Camp Hell since the age of five as pee wees. Despite being new to The Blackhawks, Wendell’s easygoing manner and hard work earned him many fast friends so our parents werent worried.

It was four days before camp hell and our dad was out of town in Harrisburg working on a class action lawsuit. This meant a trip to the pool, take out from Sal’s Italian Too, and sleeping in front of the TV. Mom parked her mini-van and we walked to the practice field to retrieve Wendell. Standing next to Coach Matthias, Wendell’s dark brown hair was matted to his head and the expression on his face was hard to read. Matthias said, “Mrs. Brucker, the lady I wanted to see.”

Mom looked at Wendell, “What’s wrong? Is it another concussion?” My ten year old sister Skipper and I stood there hoping Wendell was alright. He had gotten a concussion the week before.

Coach Matthias laughed, “No. We like Wendell a lot because he works hard, keeps his head down and is respectful of everyone. He’s what it means to be a Blackhawk. So I was wondering if it was okay if he roomed with Ragni. The kid’s a little odd. Now I am asking you because Bobby and his mother don’t quite fit in if you know what I’m sayin.”

Wendell said, “It’s okay with me. We’re just sharing a room.” Mom said, “Coach, the kid seems harmless. We’re happy to help in any way we can.”

Coach Matthias said, “Good. Then it’s settled. See you tomorrow, Brucker.”

To say Bobby Ragni and his mother didn’t quite fit in was an understatement. Often mumbling to himself, he was a loner who cried at the drop of a hat. For career day, Bobby had done a report on being a terrorist. The last line of the paper was, “Timothy McVeigh really doesn’t seem like a bad guy. And following Tim’s lead, I want to put The Whiskey Rebellion Blackhawks on the map, even if I have to blow up a building.” Needless to say he got an all expenses paid trip to the school psychologist.

Bobby’s mother, when asked her name, explained, “my chosen name is Devorah.” My mom, seeing the bleach blonde Devorah who carried healing crystals and worked at Sheets was shunned by the rest of the Booster parents, tried to befriend her. My mom asked where Bobby’s father was, to which Devorah said that Bobby had never met him and he never came around. When Mom asked if he paid support Devorah explained, “He can’t, because Bobby’s father is a ray of light.” My mom laughed but then regretted asking when she realized Devorah was completely serious. Bobby was born with a bullseye in the middle of his forehead.

As we pulled into the pool I said, “Since he is half ray of light, maybe he can levitate, think of the stories.”

Skipper, who had tested genius level and was reading Greek myths all summer said, “But he might be Icarus.”

I said, “Nah, Icarus fell to his death and was too young to breed.”

Mom shut off the ignition to her mini-van, “Wendell, next week are Bobby’s only friend. Coach asked you because he trusts you. You need to eat with him and have his back. Being a leader isn’t easy. You understand?” Wendell nodded as we all got out of the car and headed to the pool for a refreshing dip.

The night before the team departed to Camp Hell, the Latham’s had their annual pre-season kickoff celebration at their house. Everyone on the team was invited as well as their family members. The food, cooked by Mrs. Latham, the head of the remedial reading department, was served buffet style. The desserts, cooked by Mr. Latham, head of the math department, had a table of their own and were worth the Type II diabetes one might get. Their blonde haired son Kyle, a starter on the offensive line, was the shining star for having his parents host such a glorious event. While he was still new to the Blackhawks, it helped Wendell’s standing among his peers that Kyle had adopted him as a surrogate baby brother, possibly because Wendell had been one of Mr. Latham’s favorite students of all time.

As we stood in the buffet line to get Mrs. Latham’s trademark lasagna, Kyle said to Wendell, “Little Buddy, tell Coach you can’t room with Ragni. He’ll understand. Millweather and I will figure out some way to squeeze you in. I would get into it what happened last year but we’re about to eat.”

Before Wendell could reply Mom flashed Kyle an I will cut you smile and grabbed Wendell’s arm dragging him to the side. Seeing Mom at barely five feet pull Wendell was a site in itself, “I raised you to include, not to exclude. And the bullying you just saw is why poor Bobby didn’t turn up today.”

I would have pointed out since the ray of light was his father maybe he had weekend visitation, but my mom would have also slapped me. Wendell said, “Mom, I said I would and I will. Can I get some food now?” Wendell yanked his arm, rolled his eyes and got back into the food line.

Mom said, “Good. Because I raised you to be a man of your word. Remember that.”

After getting some lasagna, Skipper and I took our food outside to the picnic tables in the Latham’s back yard. As the sun set and the lightning bugs hit the air, Wendell had taken a seat next to Casbar Renninger. One of three brothers named after The Three Kings, he had two brothers. Balthizar was in pre-season camp at Waynesburg College and Malkiar was in my grade. All of them bragged that they could get any woman they wanted and often did. Their father, who was an annoying blowhard who oversaw the local Pop Warner League, was head of the exercise science at the local community college and fancied himself an expert on everything.

Casbar shoved a piece of bread in his mouth and chewed as he spoke, “Brucker, I know you are bound and determined to be roommates with the freakshow but don’t let Ragni take the top bunk.”

Wendell said, “Do you ever get tired of being an asshole?”

Casbar continued to chew with his mouth full, “Call me an asshole but I am just stating the facts. I’m trying to warn ya. Balthizar let Coach talk him into it too so just do as I say.” Balthizar was an obnoxious loud mouth so whatever Bobby did Balthizar probably deserved.

Wendell said, “Since you are bound and determined to chew when you talk I will let you choke and won’t perform the Heimlich.”

Casbar said, “Good, cause that would be totally gay.”

Wendell said, “That’s mouth to mouth you idiot. Why am I even talking to you?!”

Casbar said, “Fine. Be his butt buddy.”

Wendell got up, flicked him off and walked away. As he did, Casbar, who still had his mouth full began to sing, “Quicker than a ray of light he’s flyyyiiinnnngggg!!!!”

The next morning the players gathered for camp. As per instructions, they showed up to travel in a suit and tie. Since it was Sunday, Wendell had just finished being a junior usher at church so he was dressed and ready to go after a McDonald’s dive through breakfast, or what he referred to as “the last meal” before Camp Hell.

After we pulled up, Wendell kissed my mom and popped out of our dad’s Buick and on to the bus with the rest of his teammates. My dad said, “Matthias had Wendell room with Ragni so no one else would kill him. You know that, right Gracie?”

My mom said, “I know Wendelin.”

A minute later, Bobby Ragni and Devorah pulled up. Getting out of their sedan, she wore a red sari with a red dot painted in the middle of her forehead. Years later, I would learn that was called cultural appropriation. Skipper said, “Why is she dressed like that when she is not Indian?”

My dad said, “Because she’s a Goddamn goof. That’s why.”

Devorah attempted to follow Bobby, who looked like a morose scarecrow in his wrinkled suit. Matthias said, “Son, did you get that off of a bum or a corpse?” Bobby said something and stood next to his mother, holding her hand. Devorah attempted to follow him and Coach Douglass, Matthias’s bigger assistant blocked the way.

Devorah screamed, “I’m not leaving! The kid he roomed with last year gave my Bobby a black eye and a bloody nose!” Devorah, although extremely eccentric, was telling the truth. Balthizar and any of the Renningers were about as understanding as concrete.

Coach Matthias said, “Ma’m, we put him with Brucker. He’s a nice kid. Ain’t nothin gonna happen.”

Devorah said, “Oh, another random assignment with a sociopath! GREAT!!!”

Coach Matthias said, “No. Brucker agreed he would do it. C’mon, Bobby. You comin or not.”

Bobby boarded the bus when all of a sudden the guys began to sing in an out of tune cacophony, “QUICKKKKEERRRR THAN A RAY OF LIGHHHHHHTTT HE’S FLYYYIIIINNNNGGG! AND I FEEL LIKE I JUST GOT HOME AND I FEEEEEEEEELLLLLL!!!!”

Mom said, “What on Earth is that song?”

I said, “Ray of light by Madonna. You know, because Devorah keeps telling people Bobby’s father is a ray of light.”

My dad rolled his eyes and rolled up his window, “That woman is one hundred percent the reason her son gets his ass beat.”

Devorah, after another minute of arguing, accepted that she would have to trust that Bobby was in good hands with Wendell. Then Matthias and Douglass boarded the bus, the doors closed and the team drove away. After the bus left our Buick joined the caravan of cars leaving the parking lot. As we pulled onto the street my dad said, “With a mother like that the kid is damaged goods and he hasn’t even started life. Wouldn’t be shocked if he grows up to become a skin head.”

Wendell called every night around 7:30 PM on the dot from Camp Hell. It was after dinner and lights out was at nine. For the most part, he sounded exhausted since he was doing three practices a day: one at 7 AM, the second at noon, and the third at 3 PM with strength and conditioning twice a day in between. Wendell talked about his teammates, the other teams and the new kids he was meeting. When asked about how rooming with Bobby Ragni was going he gave the same answer, “Fine,” and then changed the subject.

The following Saturday, Wendell returned from Camp Hell. Instead of having dinner with the family he asked to go to bed early. It was unusual for Wendell to miss a meal. The next morning, Wendell went to church while he usually was upbeat and affable as a junior usher, he moved like a zombie. At breakfast, he barely touched his food again. Mom said, “Eat, Matthias said you need to put on weight.”

Wendell rolled his eyes and ignored her. Dad said, “Come on, Son. Did Bobby levitate? You can tell us.”

I said, “Nah, he turned into a werewolf.”

Wendell said, “Shut up! All of you! Camp Hell was pure hell!”

Mom said, “Just what I was afraid of. They bullied Bobby and they bullied you too.”

Dad said, “Son, today was the gospel of Job. You are a lucky kid. God has given you a lot and could take it away.”

Wendell said, “Well God never roomed with Bobby Ragni!”

Mom said, “Your ugly teammates brainwashed you. Another thing I was afraid of.”

Wendell said, “Balthizar Renninger is a jerk but he beat Ragni up for a good reason.”

Dad said, “Son, the kid’s got issues, you know that.”

Wendell said, “He doesn’t have issues, Dad. He has a subscription. When we got to our room, he called the top bunk. I didn’t care because I was only going to be sleeping there and we went on and on about seeing his father who was a ray of light. So we go to practice where he gets his ass beat and then I sit with him at dinner because he has no friends and the guys just lay into him with that stupid Ray of Light song and Bobby starts crying. So I defend him and get into a fistfight with Casbar Renninger.”

Mom said, “Did you get him? I hate that kid and his family.” We all nodded as most everyone found the Renningers hard to stomach even on a good day.

Wendell said, “No, Coach broke us up and made the whole team do an extra run. And then Bobby started crying during the run so it was extra conditioning. And we got to bed at 11 and had to be up at 5. At this point I just want to sleep and all of a sudden I feel this dripping and soon it’s like a waterfall and it smells really bad. Then I realize…..HE’S WETTING THE GOODDAMN BED!”

We sat there shocked for a whole minute because we were not expecting this. Skipper raised her hand, “Wendell, did you speak to Bobby about seeing a doctor for his bladder issues?”

Dad said, “Skipper, be nice, he prefers Mr. Peabody.”

We all burst out laughing but Wendell did not find the humor in any of this, “SHUT UP! ALL OF YOU! THIS ISN’T FUNNY!!”

Dad said, “Son, you’re wrong. It’s hysterical.”

Mom said, “Enough, Wendelin. Sweetie, you should have told us. How did you get through the week?”

Wendell said, “You couldn’t have done anything. Besides, as a peace offering Renninger let me sleep in his room between practices because he figured I had learned my lesson. Latham and Millweather let me slip in after lights out and I slept in the bottom bunk with my feet facing Latham so it wasn’t weird. And I snuck in before Bobby woke up so you wouldn’t give me crap, I wouldn’t get in trouble with Coach and I wouldn’t make it on the hit list he told me he keeps in his dresser drawer at home. And I still ate with him. HAPPY?!”

Mom said, “Well I am still very proud of you.”

Wendell stood up and said, “I HATE YOU ALL!” Then he stomped out of the room.

Dad called, “Son, don’t be a pee brain!”

Skipper said, “That story was quite disgusting. But it would have been better if he levitated.”

The season came and went with Bobby barely saw any playing time. Some of it was the fact he was a mediocre player to begin with but then there was the fact he told several of the other seniors about the hit list he had in his drawer. Like every senior regardless of skill or position, at the end of the season Bobby was awarded a Whiskey Rebellion Blackhawk Letter Jacket that he wore everywhere regardless of the weather. One day as we were running errands and the temperate was a record high, we saw Bobby walking in his letter jacket and beeped. As Bobby waved, my mom said, “That kid will wear that thing every day until the end of time.”

After graduation, Bobby worked for a while at Sheets and then was fired for creeping out a female coworker and then fell off the map completely. That is, until one day I was eating pizza while watching Live PD and saw the department in Arizona had pulled over a soverign citizen.

As they ordered the suspect out of the car I heard a familiar voice say, “I am a citizen and I only adhere to Maritime Law.”

Wearing what looked to be a beaten up Whiskey Rebellion letter jacket with a military style crew cut I said, “Holy shit! That’s Bobby Ragni!”

Bobby ultimately got seven years for resisting arrest and assaulting a cop. He put Whiskey Rebellion on the map and didn’t even need to blow up a building. Behind bars, Bobby has become a hero in The Sovereign Citizen movement and his girlfriend who he met on a facebook group for other sovereign maintains a blog about Bobby’s incarceration and dedication to his cause entitled, “Ray of Light.” The blog recently reported three kids did a paper on Bobby for career day, so he is finally becoming the cool kid he always wanted to be. As an added bonus, prison is filled with people who hurt children, and you know there is some sadistic CO who puts them in the same cell with Bobby knowing he will call the top bunk.

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Tuesday, January 4, 2022

Bad Boys (Inner Circle)

My dad was away working on a class action lawsuit in Harrisburg, which meant take out from Sal’s Italian Too, the classic Italian eatery in town. Wendell limped towards my mom’s van and slumped in, tired and hot from a long day of pre-season practice.

My mom said, “What happened to your leg?”

Wendell said, “Can I get the bread zucchini?” Changing the subject was his way of concealing the truth.

My mom said, “What are you not telling me?”

Before Wendell could answer, Nunzio Venchenzo waved to my mom. A buffed would be Antonio Banderas, Nunzio was one of Coach Matthias’s senior shining stars on the offensive line. Flashing his pearly whites he said, “Hi Mrs. Brucker. You are looking beautiful today.”

My mom smiled, “Why thank you, Nunzio.”

Nunzio said, “Well I have some news to make you feel swell. My dad offered to cater the pre-season banquet free of charge.” His dad, Fabrizio owned a pizza parlor on the edge of town aptly named Fabrizio. The pizza rivaled Sal’s Italian Too.

My mom said, “Great. We will discuss it at the next booster meeting.”

Nunzio said, “Oh, and if you ever want a slice it’s always on the house for your family, especially Wendell.”

“You are so very sweet, Nunzio. God bless you.” Then my mom rolled her window down and drove away.

When we were out of the parking lot Skipper raised her hand. Despite being out of school the ten year old was always studious, “Didn’t Sal agree to do it and isnt he signing the paperwork tonight?”

I said, “Yup. And dad also said there’s no way in hell Fabrizio will cater a Blackhawk dinner ever.” Earlier in the year, Fabrizio had come under fire for refusing to serve a biracial couple. Many in the community, my family included, responded by refusing to patronize Fabrizio’s.

Wendell said, “Mom, the next time you see Nunzio dont talk to him. He put a dirty hit on me.”

Skipper said, “Maybe it was an accident.” While book smart, she always saw the best in people.

Wendell said, “No, it was a dirty hit. I’m next in line for his position and I am benching as much as he is. My speed just needs work Coach says.”

We pulled into Sal’s. My mom said, “Next time I see him, I’ll just run him over.”

Two days later, my father, home from Harrisburg and informed Fabrizio that Sal was catering the event. Fabrizio responded by trying to cuss my dad out, to which my dad responded by hanging up the phone. Nunzio reupped his campaign against Wendell by putting a dirty hit on him attempting to reinjure his leg. The bad behavior didn’t go unnoticed though.

Coach Link, a longtime fixture in the Whiskey Rebellion Blackhawks, saw what Nunzio was doing. Warning him to stop, Nunzio ignored Coach Link. In response, Coach Link benched Nunzio for the rest of the practice and told him that he would suggest it was Wendell, not he, who should be starting. When Nunzio tried to say it was an accident Coach Link responded with, “Bullshit, Pal. Save your Eddie Haskell routine for another sucker.”

That Saturday was the first scrimmage against Penn Forest, a mostly black team we would again face off with later in the season. Nunzio’s parents sat away from the rest of the fans, possibly because anyone else would punch them. Fabrizio shouted, “C’mon Hawks! Get those ink blots!” Next to Fabrizio sat Nunzio’s mother, who wore a black funeral veil and prayed the rosary, never looking up to speak otherwise. Most people looked at the odd couple, rolled their eyes and looked away. The show was free but after two seconds you saw the whole thing.

Skipper said pointing to Nunzio’s mom, “April, who died?”

I said, “No one just her hopes and dreams.”

Wendell played well, getting some varsity time and the whole JV scrimmage. While he executed a good campaign, he got a concussion which meant Skipper and I would have to retrieve him from the trainer while our mother waited in the car. As we approached the training room, we saw we saw Coach Link and Nunzio shouting at each other. Coach Link said, “Nunzio, give back Jason’s money. NOW!” Both of Coach Link’s sons played for the district. Jason, the youngest, was the fastest running back coming up.

Nunzio said, “Coach Link, c’mon. That’s not true and we both know it. I would never do that. Jason’s confused. He knows how much I looked up to JT.” Link’s older son, JT, was the most fearsome center to ever play for The Whiskey Rebellion Blackhawks. He was currently in his third year at US Naval Academy where he was a starter.

Coach Link said, “Son, we all make mistakes and lying only makes it worse. Give it to me now and this ends. You hear?”

Nunzio laughed, “Man, your bookie must have hit you extra hard. Or did your latest girlfriend from the Jefferson Lodge stick you with something that’s eating your brain? This is nuts and we both know it. Even for you.” Coach Link had a horrible gambling problem that cost him his marriage to his kid’s mother. He had two other ex wives, both who were strippers that he met on the job at The Jefferson Lodge. Coach Link was currently dating Bambi, dancer of the month, who had actually been JT’s high school sweetheart.

Coach Link grabbed Nunzio and said, “Listen here you smug sonvabitch! You steal from Jason, you steal from both JT and me!” His trademark cigar flew out of his mouth as Coach Link swung at Nunzio barely missing him.

Nunzio laughed again, “Pops, lay off the cigars. Smoking kills.”

Coach Link swung again, but then Coach Matthias grabbed his hand. In his thick West Virginia accent, Matthias said, “Both of you, my office. NOW!”

I looked at Skipper and said, “Now this is cinematic gold.”

Skipper said, “You mean this very disappointing adult behavior?” Wendell then walked out of the training room with a hell of a headache but was even more bummed that he had missed the action.

That Monday the news over the wire was Nunzio had turned on his Eddie Haskell charm and got Coach Matthias to believe the alleged theft was just a simple misunderstanding. Because he had tried to punch a player, Coach Matthias suspended Coach Link for two weeks. Over the weekend Coach Link interviewed and accepted the equipment coach job at Clairsville, our most bitter rival. While the position was a significant pay decrease, the carrot on the stick was that Jason, who wanted to join his brother at Navy, would be a part of the starting squad. The news stung, but anyone close to the situation knew that if “The Nunzio Problem” was addressed this all could have been avoided.

The Nunzio problem continued to flourish with Nunzio bending the rules and Coach Matthias being a sucker for the Eddie Haskell routine. Able to get away with it once, Nunzio continued to steal from underclassmen. Using his size and strength to intimidate them, they feared speaking up because either they would get beaten up or Coach Matthias wouldn’t believe them anyway. Unchecked by Coach Link who despite his faults operated out of fairness, Nunzio continued to put dirty hits on players he saw as competition, especially Wendell. While he didn’t say it, whenever I saw Wendell limping I knew why. When my mom bought it up he just changed the subject because there was nothing anyone could do really. The reality was, Wendell’s speed and strength were improving, two things that didn’t sit well with the team bully.

In the middle of the season, Nunzio began what he referred to as “lucrative side hustle.” Moonlighting for a local drug dealer, Nunzio served as muscle if a recalcitrant customer refused to pay. Using Fabrizio’s as a front, Nunzio pushed weed and mushrooms, but as he explained, “My real goal is coke and heroin because that is the future.”

The law and Nunzio’s entrepreneurial spirit soon clashed. While cruising in his best friend Kyle Latham’s car, the two were pulled over for having a broken taillight. Kyle, who’s dad was head of the math department and who’s mom was head of remedial reading, was clueless that his friend was on his way to drop off vicadin that had been ripped off from a local pharmacy to a dealer. When the cops searched the car, Nunzio, who had dropped the bag turned on his Eddie Haskell charm and claimed the drugs were Kyle’s and he was drug free. The act worked and a confused and shocked Kyle was booked, cuffed and taken to the station. Panicked, Mr. and Mrs. Latham called my dad at 2 AM to get their son, who had never even gotten so much as a detention, out of trouble.

Kyle was a good kid with no record, so my dad was able to work his magic to get probation with the charges getting espouged after a year. But the Latham’s wanted blood. One night at a game, they kvetched about but their Nunzio fatigue. As usual, Skipper and I sat there attentively pretending not to listen.

Mr. Latham said, “He sleeps at our house. A LOT. I don’t like to see a kid put out, but Coach Matthias is now treating us like his freaking answering service.”

Mrs. Latham said, “I told Kyle to just quit. He doesn’t want to play in college anyway. That way it’s less time with Nunzio and that enabling jagoff Matthias. But his girlfriend Lexi wants him to play and you know how that goes.” Lexi McCandless, Kyle’s girlfriend, was a cheerleader and they were the quintessential Whiskey Rebellion Blackhawk couple.

Mr. Latham laughed, “I don’t know what kind of power Nunzio has over him. He’s a dufus. And I know he’s a dufus because I had him as a student!”

My mom said, “It’s the Eddie Haskell thing.”

Mrs. Latham said, “Eddie Haskell was charming. Nunzio is just a pig. He eats the whole container of ice cream and puts it back in the refrigerator. We said help yourself but come on.”

My dad motioned his head towards Nunzio’s mom, “Women stopped wearing those to church in the 1960s. That’s just weird.”

Mrs. Latham said, “So much good God is doing here. Her son’s a thug and her husband starts spouting his racist garbage in my house. I told him to get out. We don’t talk like that and we don’t tolerate that. And he told us we couldn’t handle a joke. I told him we can, hate just isn’t funny.”

Mr. Latham said, “Speaking of veils, we told Kyle that that we are putting the Nun in Nunzio as in no more of that jagoff in our son’s life. I follow him between classes to make sure Kyle isn’t hanging out with him. Sometimes I’m late to mine. But let me tell you, I can get another job but I can’t get another kid.”

Mrs. Latham said, “And I am eating lunch with him which he hates, but it keeps Nunzio away because it’s uncool.”

My mom laughed, “Good for you.”

The ref blew the whistle. My dad looked at Mr. and Mrs. Latham, “The law is going to catch up with him and that charm’s about to run out. It always does.”

My dad called it. A week later, Nunzio graduated to armed robbery. With a ski mask and a gun, Nunzio camped out late at night after a game at The Whiskey Rebellion Shops, our local strip mall. He held an old woman at gunpoint. Frail and afraid, she handed Nunzio the money to save her life, but slipped and fell as she hurried away, breaking her hip. From her hospital bed, she was able to give a description of the assailant as wearing a Whiskey Rebellion Blackhawk football letter jacket.

Ever the criminal mastermind, Nunzio bragged to anyone who would listen. Lexi McCandless, who was angered Nunzio had jammed her boyfriend Kyle up but was also the granddaughter of the old woman he robbed, called the police and gave them the hot tip. Nunzio was promptly arrested and identified by the old woman in the lineup. Coach Matthias could no longer ignore the Nunzio problem and kicked him off the team. Fabrizio began an aggressive campaign to get Nunzio reinstated. After phone calls failed, he made a visit to Coach with his disgraced offspring by his side.

Skipper and I saw it in person one Thursday as we ran into the high school to fetch Wendell from practice. Standing beside his son, Fabrizio made his pitch, “ Coach, this is a misunderstanding. Nunzio is a good boy. He was just playing a joke.”

Coach Matthias said, “Well the old lady and the cops ain’t laughin. My players understand they are to behave like warriors on the field and gentlemen off. Son you are a disgrace to your team, your community and your letter jacket.”

Nunzio hung his head as his father continued to plead his case, “Nunzio ain’t like those blacks from the city who are destined for jail. He made a mistake. He’s from a good family. Coach, you were young once. You gotta understand, boys will be boys.”

Coach Matthias said, “No, punks will be punks. And I don’t care what color he is. You are livin’ proof that if you plant rotten corn you get rotten corn. And if I had a belt, I would put you both over my knee right now.”

As Wendell rounded the corner, Coach Matthias said, “Son, tonight is Thursday. I want you in by 8 PM cause I need you rested for tomorrow night because you are starting. Don’t study too late, y’hear?!”

Wendell’s eyes flashed with excitement, “You got it, Coach!”

Nunzio said, “Coach, you can’t have that runt replace me?”

Wendell said as he walked off, “Nunzio, he just did and that’s Starter Runt to you.”

Nunzio screamed and kicked a trash can. The mask had finally dropped and Nunzio was showing his true self. When we got outside, Skipper, Wendell and I burst out laughing. Then Wendell looked at his watch, “Ohmigod! We need to get home. It’s six already and I have to eat dinner and have a big chemistry test to study for!” The three of us then sprinted to our mom’s van. Of course, she reveled in this latest development and regretted missing Nunzio’s meltdown.

That Friday, Wendell made his debut on the offensive line as a starter. Impressing the coaches and teammates, Wendell not only secured the spot for the rest of the season but for the remainder of his career at Whiskey Rebellion. Starting in the last four games, he earned the coveted Blackhawk letter jacket and would go on to become a fan favorite and was eventually elected team captain.

Nunzio had his day in court. Once again, Fabrizio argued that it was “a joke” and “boys will be boys.” In pleading his son’s cause, Fabrizio also informed the court that his son was “not a problem black.” As usual, his mother prayed the rosary complete with funeral veil. Unfortunately the judge, who during sentencing revealed she was part black, did not share their sense of humor and sentenced Nunzio to five years in prison. When Coach Matthias learned of his fate, he cut Nunzio’s face out of the team picture and made it a rule that Nunzio was never to be spoken of again.

From prison, Nunzio earned his GED, earned an associates in business and became the shining star of Western Penitentary’s Intermural Football Team. Using his Antonio Banderas good looks, he began a prison pen pal relationship with Bambi, who gone through a tumultuous breakup with Coach Link. Sick of her job at The Jefferson Lodge, she was now working part time as a Reikki Practitioner and Wiccan Tarot Card Reader. The day he was released, Nunzio and Bambi married at the same magistrate where he was first arraigned for armed robbery.

Putting his prison business degree to good use, Nunzio took over Fabrizio’s and managed it for years with Bambi. The two lived and worked quietly for years until COVID-19 when Nunzio took to the business’s facebook page and called Black Lives Matter a terrorist organization and referred to Dr. Rachael Levine as an ugly man in a wig. He also refused to close for the pandemic because Bambi’s tarot cards told him it was a hoax.

Locals, appalled by the racism, transphobia, and COVID denial organized a boycott. Health officials hit them with fines and sanctions. Fabrizio’s was forced to close it’s doors. Shocked, Nunzio protested on facebook that his community was “a bunch of pussies that couldn’t handle a joke.” While the home audience is always the hardest, Nunzio is still determined to hone his comedy routine. He now has a youtube channel where he makes racist, sexist, transphobic, homophobic and otherwise cringeworthy videos. The upside is he has ten subscribers. Sigh, he finally found some people who share his sense or humor.

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Sunday, December 12, 2021

Little Red Corvette (Prince)

Thursday nights were my favorite nights for two reasons: I got to scoop of the week and it was porkchop night. My dad took a lemon pepper covered chop, “How’s the team shaping up, Wendell?”

He passed the plate to my brother who took two, “Mike Shirley has been promoted to back up.” The sophomore showboat had been training for a starting spot since Pop Warner.

My mom snatched a chop, “I hate that kid!”

The ill feelings went years back. In sixth grade during lunch, Mike Shirley challenged Wendell to a fight. It was the first year all the kids from the town’s elementary schools were in the same building. Wendell didn’t know Mike, but didn’t stop Mike from walking up to Wendell in the middle of gym class and challenging him to a fight for no reason whatsoever. Wendell told Mike to name the time and place. Mike said after school in the parking lot. When the hour of the duel arrived, Wendell came to the parking lot but Mike did not. The clock ticked. Still no Mike.

Believing that Mike would eventually materialize, Wendell waited two hours. When it began to rain, Wendell realized Mike wasn’t coming and walked home. Back at the ranch, our mom, fearing Wendell had been kidnapped, called the police. She was on the phone with the cops when Wendell walked through the door. While the fight didn’t happen, Wendell got an ass whooping from our mom because, “That kid could have come with a gun or a knife.” Her true ire was saved for Mike Shirley, “If I ever see that kid I will beat him up myself. I hate that kid!”

Truth is subjective, and Mike told anyone who would listen that he won the fight. Unfortunately for Mike, he was heard by Wendell bragging to class heart throb Annabella Stabler by the lockers. Incredulous, Wendell walked up to Mike, tapped him on the shoulder and decked him. Mike fell to the ground, weeping pitifully. Annabella responded by laughing hysterically which made Mike cry harder. Mr. Snodgrass, an art teacher and Vietnam vet who heard Mike wagging his mouth and had doubts about his story, separated the lads and told them to be on their way. From that day onward, when Mike even sensed Wendell, he hot stepped it.

My dad said, “Well his dad is an overgrown coolness dude who comes to the booster meetings and shows up on his playbaby motorcycle with his new wife. And then his ex wife comes with her new husband and they all sit together. And then he has siblings and half siblings and step siblings and that kid’s life is one giant math equation that never gets solved. No wonder Mike has issues.”

What my dad was referring to was that Mike Shirley’s parents were high school sweethearts. His dad had also been quarterback and his mom had been head cheerleader. Mike’s mom had gotten pregnant with him her senior year, and the two married on prom night after the last dance at the magistrate. They had two more kids before getting divorced. Mike’s mom remarried the head of the bus garage and Mike’s dad remarried a lady who was a receptionist at one of the elementary schools. Both his parents had children with their second marriages, and their new spouses brought children from their previous marriages and lived within a three block radius of each other.

The happily divorced blended family sat together at all the games both varsity and JV, and the parents, stepparents, siblings and whatnot seemed like great friends which was both good for the kids but generally an anomaly considering we knew our share of blended families where things were nothing short of acomonious. It was incredibly confusing to determine who was related and how, especially since the cast rotated weekly. To make matters more complex there were also aunts, uncles and cousins. Wearing shirts that said, “Mike Shirley Fan Club,” they had two rows of reserved seats. Those who regularly attended the games nicknamed the section Shirley Village.

Wendell passed the plate of chops to Skipper, “Mike groupies stay to watch him at practice and he drives them home in Maxine.” Mike, for his sixteenth birthday that summer, got a red corvette after the members of Shirley Village put their money together that he named Maxine.

Skipper, who was ten and just tested genius level, took her chop, “Don’t they have homework?”

I bit my chop, “Girls like that don’t do homework.”

Wendell took a third chop, “Mike and his Pop Warner friends are joined at the hip. If you arent one of them they don’t talk to you. I just avoid them, go to practice and get out of there before their stupidity can infect me.” What Wendell was referring to was the kids who came up playing Pop Warner were notoriously cliquish, and unlike them Wendell was on the honors/AP track.

My dad said, “Son, you should try to make some friends on the team. My mother never let me play football.”

Wendell said, “You told me how many times.” In a snit, Wendell pretended to count on his fingers, “One, two, three, four, five…”

My dad said, “Just saying, Son. If you are going to be on the team make some friends. You are going to be playing with Mike for the next few years.”

Wendell said, “Friends?! It was your idea I play!” What Wendell was referring to was after the soccer coach told him he was “too big,” at the urging of my dad Wendell switched to football.

I said, “Your friends with Bobby Ragny.” Bobby Ragny was a wide receiver with behavioral issues that Wendell had roomed with over the summer at the team’s pre-season camp. Coach Matthias matched the two up because neither boy had any friends on the team.

Wendell said, “Shut up, April.”

Skipper said, “Did you ever speak to him about getting his bladder checked?” At camp, they had bunk beds. Bobby took the top, but that’s the way Wendell discovered Bobby also wet the bed.

Wendell said, “Screw you all, I have friends. Just not Mike Shirley!”

My mom angrily bit her chop, “Good! Because I hate that kid!”

The Friday of the game came arrived, and it was the first cold night of the season. Skipper and I made our way to the visitor’s concession stand to get hot coca. There was not only less of a crowd there, but the home stand was operated by the soccer parents. Despite the fact that football was better for Wendell’s build and temperament, the soccer parents felt Wendell sold out and wouldn’t hesitate to let us know. In reality, it was more salt in the wound because not only were their games underattended, but varsity football was the parent that really paid their bills.

The visitor’s stand was operated by the JV parents, most of who we knew from the Saturday games. Each family took turns, and during the second home game of the season Skipper, my mom and I had taken ours. We got up to the window and a woman with big red hair that we didn’t know took our order. This came as a shock to Skipper and I because usually we knew everyone that worked concession. Big Red called it into the back and a little boy who couldn’t have been more than eight walked forward with our cocas.

The little boy said, “Mom, they’re Wendell’s sisters, right?”

Big Red flashed an embarrassed smile, “Yes DJ, those are Wendell’s sisters.”

DJ poked his head out and yelled, “BAD CALL REF!”

Big Red laughed, “Sorry about that. DJ knows most of Mike’s friends because they have been around since Pop Warner and even held him as a baby. Mike was even saying the other day he wishes he knew Wendell a little better. Oh, by the way, I’m Mrs. Higbee, Mike Shirley’s Mom.” Apparently Mrs. Higbee hadn’t gotten the memo that Mike wasn’t on Wendell’s Christmas card list.

Glancing at her I saw the Mike Shirley Fan Club T-Shirt, go figure. I said, “Nice to meet you, Mrs. Higbee. I’m April and this is Skipper.” DJ poked his head out again and yelled, “GO HAWKS! HOLD THAT LINE!” DJ then handed us our hot cocas and we each gave him a fist bump for a job well done.

Mrs. Higbee said, “He plays every Sunday with the Pop Warner guys now, but this is the highlight of his week.”

DJ turned to us, “They made me quarterback. Just like Mike!”

Seeing the line forming Mrs. Higbee said, “Oh, and tell your dad that we will have the concession money ready after the game. He just needs to come over.”

What Mrs. Higbee was referring to was at the end of the night the people working the concession gave the treasurer, the position my dad held in the boosters, the money from the sales and he logged it. Last week Mr. Pender and his much younger girlfriend had forgotten resulting in some Saturday JV drama. To add insult to injury they also took a bunch of free food for themselves and their friends.

Back in the bleachers we had to pass Shirley Village to get to our seats. A woman with big blonde hair who I guessed was the New Mrs. Shirley held a video camera. The second string was in.

A man who I knew as Mr. Higbey from the bus garage that was chewing tobacco on the low, “Thank you by the way. LuAnn has had to work the last four weekends at the hospital and missed the JV games, she would be heartbroken if she didn’t get to see this.”

The ref blew the whistle and the collective screamed, “GO MIKE!!!!”

Then the whistle sounded again, half time. Mrs. Shirley got up along with a well bundled up girl who had Pop Warner pom poms who was probably a little older than DJ. Upon seeing us, Mrs. Shirley said, “Girls, hi! I’m Kim, Mike Shirley’s stepmom. We will have the concession money at the end of the night.”

Mr. Shirley, who was probably hot in high school said, “No fuss. No muss. We ain’t the Penders.”

I said, “Mrs. Higbey already told us. But WILCO.” Mrs. Shirley looked relieved.

Mr. Higbey handed her a $20, “Tell LuAnn to bring me some popcorn and DJ has earned his milkduds.”

Mr. Shirley handed her a $20, “And some nachos cause it cold and I am starving like Marvin.” Then he turned to us, “As you can see, we pay for our food, too.” The band hit the field and the show began.

Mrs. Shirley said, “Come on, Jenna.” As the music from the half time show filled our ears, the little girl danced across the track waving her pom poms behind her mom as the two made their way to the visitor’s concession stand. Shirley Village was a great many things, but they were doing their part which is more than I could say for a lot of the JV families. Mike apparently also wasn’t still angry about a dumb ass sixth grade hallway fight.

After the game, which we lost, my dad successfully got the collection from Mrs. Shirley. We got in the car to pick Wendell up from the locker room up the hill. As we drove out of the parking lot, there was a red corvette in front of us which I had a funny feeling was Maxine. As my mom pulled out of the parking lot, a busty blonde ran out in front of our mini van. My mom slammed on her brakes and blasted her horn.

The blonde stood outside the corvette with a nervous smile on her face but was not getting in. Then my dad rolled down his passenger window and yelled, “Come on!”

Wendell said, “Dad, Mike has to open the passenger door. He is the only one allowed to touch the handles on Maxine.”

Skipper said, “That makes no sense.”

I said, “His family seemed nice enough and Mike told his mom he wishes he knew you better.”

Wendell said, “I know him well enough to know there’s a village missing it’s idiot.” Maxine’s passenger door finally opened. Mike Shirley stuck his head out the window, flashed his million dollar showboat smile, waved and Maxine drove off into the night.

My mom drove out of the parking lot and said, “I hate that kid.”

Monday came, and Skipper and I were setting the table before our dad came home from work. As I finished putting the plates on, I heard the beeping of a car horn. Looking out our window in our driveway was none other than Maxine. I called, “Skipper! Mom! Get in here. NOW!”

Mike, who was seated next to the busty blonde my mother had nearly run down, saw us at the window. Flashing their million dollar smiles as if Friday night had never happened, both waved as Mike beeped his horn and Maxine drove off into the sunset. Seconds later, Wendell jounced through the front door. My mom said, “Wendell, what was that?”

Wendell said, doing a little dance as he talked, “I got to ride in Maxine.”

My mom said, “WHAT?! You hate that kid.”

Wendell said, “No Mom, YOU hate that kid. He apologized to me today at practice for what happened in sixth grade. He didn’t want to fight me, he just wanted to impress Annabella Stabler who turned out to be kind of a jerk. Then he saw me walking home and offered me a ride. So now we’re friends.”

I said, “Friends with him, okay. But not the bimbo mom nearly killed.”

Wendell said, “For your information, her name’s Erica Kaninski, she’s nice. And she has some hot friends who need tutoring.” Due to his stellar academics, Wendell had recently been selected as a peer tutor.

I said, “The first lesson should be looking both ways before crossing the street.”

Wendell rolled his eyes, “Forgive and forget. Our fight happened four years ago. Friday was an accident. JEEZ!”

As Wendell walked up the stairs Skipper called, “Whoever you are, and wherever you have taken him, please bring Wendell back!”

That night at dinner, Wendell glowed about his new friend Mike. My dad said, “Glad you’re making friends, Son. That’s important. Mike’s mom and stepmom did a bang up job on concession and it’s the best it’s ever run. And they volunteered to do it again. It’s a hard job. God bless ‘em.”

Wendell said, “And his girlfriend’s hot friends need tutoring.”

My dad said, “That’s an olive branch and a friend for life.”

My mom said, “I still don’t get it.”

My dad said, “It’s the way guys are. We fight and then make up.”

Wendell said, “Maxine is a slick car.”

My mom rolled her eyes, “Is he a good driver?”

Wendell said, “Actually, yeah. He doesn’t want to hurt Maxine.”

My mom said, “Good. I still hate that kid, but I will hate him more if he kills. And if he kills you I will kill him and then I will hurt Maxine.”

Mike Shirley would become one of Wendell’s best friends on the team and Wendell rode many a time in Maxine. Erica’s friends, who were all failing math, were regulars in Wendell’s tutoring room. While the romance only lasted until Christmas, Erica and her hot friends turned their math scores around with Wendell’s help and also spread the word about his skill as a tutor. Wendell’s client list grew, and was one of the most impressive parts of his application to Brown.

Maxine died after six years, but Mike’s love for cars, especially corvettes, is still alive today. Good looking, personable and knowledgeable, Mike would go on to open his own successful car dealership. Shirley Corvettes is run and operated by most of Shirley Village, so while most outsiders don’t understand their business practices it somehow works. DJ, who now is a third string quarterback for the Miami Dolphins, is their celebrity spokesperson. Mike divorced twice before eventually marrying a showroom model and having three kids with her. Next to DJ, the happy family is on all the Shirley Corvette TV commercials. When my mom saw their first ad she said, “Good for Mike! I always liked that kid.”

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Sunday, December 5, 2021

Gangsta's Paradise (Coolio)

The JV game was a bloody grudge match. A win in triple death overtime in the freezing rain redeemed the fallen The Whiskey Rebellion Blackhawks who had lost the night before. The fire, my mom’s chili and Van Damme in Blood Sport with our newly purchased cable were a well earned Saturday evening reward.

Wendell was in his glory because his last minute sac cemented the victory. Coach Stephens, the easy on the eyes head of the JV guys, was so impressed by Wendell he called Coach Matthias and the two agreed, Wendell was worthy of a promotion to varsity punt return. This was the cherry on top of a great week where Wendell, who had been training his body for two years now, broke a squat record in the weight room, one held by powerhouse junior Vince Davis.

Then the doorbell rang. Skipper and I, the only ones even remotely awake, jumped up to get it. Standing at our front door, good looking with the inflated sense of self to match was Mac Buzzinski otherwise known as Buzz. At the beginning of the season, Buzz, like Wendell, had been on JV. When a senior starter broke his leg during practice, Buzz, who was next in line for the wide receiver spot, took his place by default. While he was talented, Buzz’s ego was already bigger than the state of Texas.

What made this visit even more bizarre was Wendell and Buzz hated each other’s guts. Aside from the fact Buzz was a chronic jagoff, about a month ago at a Booster Club Meeting my dad the treasurer, and Buzz’s dad the secretary, got into a shouting match over the budget that would have escalated into a fist fight had their rather embarrassed wives not pulled them apart. Memorable insults include Mr. Buzzinski calling my dad, “An out of touch shit head in a suit,” and then my dad responding by saying, “Oh yeah, well you’re a Goddamn cement head yum yum asshole,” in reference to Buzz Senior’s work as a contractor. Little Cement Head, my dad’s nickname for Buzz, tried to even the score by jumping Wendell in the locker room. Wendell, who wasn’t as fast as Buzz but was much stronger, gave him a bloody nose and knocked him down. While Buzz was the clear cut loser, Coach Matthias acknowledged it was a punk move on Buzz’s part and made both parties run after practice.

Looking out into the driveway I saw Buzz’s car was running, Biggie blasting from the stereo. Knocking on the window like a prisoner was his younger brother, Jeremy, who was autistic and barely verbal. Their parents, after IEPS, court dates and other actions, were victorious in getting Jeremy mainstreamed into public school, and were especially successful in advocating for him to get speech therapy. While the success of the speech therapy for Jeremy was limited, Mrs. Buzzinski, who was a salt of the Earth woman and had gotten to know the system all too well, wanted to help families like theirs. Attending law school part time and graduating last year, she recently opened a legal practice where she advocated for the rights of disabled children. How she lived with Big Cement Head and Little Cement Head was a mystery.

Coach Matthias, despite his gruff nature, taught adaptive gym and was actually good at it. Seeing Jeremy’s hyper focus and attention to detail-side effects of being on the spectrum-as assets, he promoted the young man to equipment manager. Loud noises and too bright lights sometimes made Jeremy meltdown on the side of the field, but the pads and cones had never been so organized. Coach Matthias rewarded him with a Jersey that said Baby Buzz that Jeremy wore with pride. For all his faults, Buzz took Jeremy just about everywhere he went, going out of his way to make him one of the guys.

I opened the door. Buzz said, “Wassup?! Wendell in da crib?”

Skipper and I exchanged a glance as we both visibly tried to translate. Buzz lived on the other side of town, and usually the varsity starters watched game tapes on Saturdays at the high school which we lived three blocks away from. That would explain why he was in the area, but Saturday practice would have wrapped hours ago. Skipper pointed to his rolled up pant leg, “You run the risk of hypothermia.”

Ten years old, Skipper had recently tested as gifted and with good reason. I not only noticed that but the pink bandana which was beyond explanation just like everything else. Buzz said, “Lil Shawty, it’s for my dead homies.”

I said, “No man rocking a pink babushka should use homies in a sentence, ever.”

Buzz said, “Strawberry Lane Crew in da house! Did I stutter?! I ain’t playin yo. Get Wendell.”

I could tell Skipper was as dizzy as I was from this brief encounter with Buzz. We called for Wendell, who was at the door within seconds. Skipper said, “I know you punched him but he is clearly still experiencing head trauma.”

Wendell said, “No, that’s the way he always talks.”

Skipper and I ran back to the TV room, but my mom, now awake, ran upstairs to investigate. Within a minute, Wendell yelled, “Stay away from my house and my sisters you fucking idiot!” Then he slammed the door.

Walking down the stairs, my mom, who was barely five feet tall, said to Wendell, “You stay away from him. He’s a bad kid. It took me nine months to form you. Then twenty four hours of labor. The fetus was in distress so it was an emergency C-section with two weeks recovery. It has taken me nearly 16 years to get you to this point. I will not let a moron with too much leisure time screw up your life in 16 seconds!”

My dad, now completely awake and pissed off said, “What the hell was that?”’

Wendell said, “Nothing, can we just watch the movie?”

My mom said, “Tell him, or I will.”

Wendell said, “Buzz got into it at Eat ‘n’ Park with some of the players from Joyce Kilmer last night after the game. They challenged him to a rumble and he wants me to act as an enforcer because he’s impressed with my strength. And he’s calling his gang The Strawberry Lane Crew because that’s where he lives. They couldn’t even throw down with the Sesame Street Gang.”

I said, “They wear pink bandanas.”

My dad said, “ No doubt Little Cement Head’s mouth got him into this.” Kilmer, one town over, was poorer and more rural than we were and their kids were always getting into fights.

My mom said, “I don’t like him. If he comes here again, I am calling the police.”

My dad said, “His mother’s gonna put a stop to all of this, you just watch.” Then he turned up the volume just in time for the Kum Met Te.

The following Friday, Skipper and I were selected to give the team food after the game, a plumb gig for younger siblings. That night was especially sweet because The Whiskey Rebellion Blackhawks had defeated Clairsville, our most bitter rival in an away game, for the first time in over a decade. Wendell had also made his varsity debut on punt return and impressed Coach Matthias.

Vince Davis, the team’s only black player, a bigger quiet kid, approached. Just as he was getting his food we heard, “YO! YO! Wassup my brotha!”

Vince groaned, “Buzz, you are worse than a concussion and I am not your brother.”

Buzz said, “I am just speaking the language of your people, Homie.”

Vince shook his head, “That is really racist and ignorant, even for you.”

Buzz said, “Hear me out. The Strawberry Lane Crew could use your services as an enforcer and I could act as an agent for your talents. You see, we thought of Wendell Brucker for the role but as we know he is a WWIIIIIMMMPP!!! You are much stronger than he is.”

Vince said, “He broke one of my records and I still have three. What’s your point? Besides, I was there. Your big mouth got you into this, and now you are gonna have to dig yourself out.”

Buzz looked like he had been hit in the head with a hard object, “Man, don’t be a fool. Unlike Brucker you can roll legit my brotha!” Vince laughed, “Your dumb ass pink do rag wearing crew is about as legit as MC Hammer after bankruptcy. Ken Doll, I hear Barbie wants to throw down. Oh, and Brucker’s sisters are here. Keep talking…”

Vince took his food and made his exit. Buzz turned to Skipper and I, “Shawties, I was just playin….just so you know.” My dad, who coordinated the food distribution, gave Buzz a look of death which made him run to the bus. So much for being a real OG.

Buzz was determined though. The following week, he recruited three other players for the Strawberry Lane Crew. They were Franco Diamond, a third string lineman who dreamed of being a cage fighter; Jim Hanks, a big lug who often was a bench warmer due to academic ineligibility; and Al Pender, a JV wide receiver known for his profanity ridden outbursts usually cost the team yards. Buzz’s recruits, meeting in his parents garage, received initiation, aka being punched in the face by Jeremy who was surprisingly strong. Buzz assured, “Yo, the speech therapy failed so he won’t talk about official gang bizzznizzzz.”

The Strawberry Lane Crew dawned their pink bandanas, causing anyone who saw them to roll their eyes. My mother and Skipper were horrified at

Jeremy’s role, but my father, Wendell and I found a strange comfort that Buzz was including his learning disabled brother in his illegal aspirations making him an equal opportunity employer. However, laughter ceased when a date was set for the rumble, Friday night after both Whiskey Rebellion and Joyce Kilmer had their perspective games. Al Pender, the most unbalanced of the group, blabbed that he had access to guns and was bringing a few to the fight. My mom, now extremely distressed told Wendell he was to stay away from Buzz, and if The Strawberry Lane Crew tried to approach him in any way to let her know so she could call the police.

The Friday of the rumble steadily approached. Wednesday morning, two days before the main event, I found myself running late to third period as my social studies homework had fallen to the bottom of my book bag. Sprinting to the door, I saw Coach Douglass, Matthias’s second in command and my reading teacher poking his head out of his classroom door, “Brucker, you got a minute?”

The bell rang, “Coach Douglass, I am already late. Can I talk to you before lunch? It’s in three periods.” Mr. Regent, my social studies teacher, was a stickler and hated tardiness. A lecture would be coming if I didn’t step it up.

Coach Douglass said, “Don’t worry, I’ll talk to Old Regent and I’ll write you a hall pass.”

Entering Coach Douglass’s class, I wondered what was wrong? Was my Charlie Skadaddle diorama not up to snuff? That had been last weekend’s project and Coach was very particular when it came to our dioramas. I said, “Coach, I tried my best. I write, I don’t draw.”

A mountain of a man, Coach Douglass said, “Brucker, your diorama was fine. Did Mac Buzzinski visit your brother two weeks ago and ask him to be in his street gang? I need you to be honest.”

My heart began to pound. I didn’t want to answer because I feared any answer might get poor Wendell, who was working hard, in trouble. Coach Douglass said, “Mrs. Davis came in here this morning pitching a fit because she heard Al Pender running his mouth and asked Vince who told her everything, including the fact that Wendell had been approached, too.” Mrs. Davis was the middle school nurse. A no bullshit woman, I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall for that one.

I said, “Yeah, it was last Saturday after the JV won against Jumonville where Wendell had the sac. Wendell told Buzz to buzz off and that he didn’t want to be involved. Is Wendell in trouble?”

Despite the fact Wendell had told Buzz no, I didn’t know what version of events Coach Douglass got, “To answer your question, no. Wendell is in no trouble at all. Look, I don’t know all of the details, but Jeremy went with the guys to Eat ‘n’ Park after the game and something triggered a meltdown. Apparently Buzz had words the week before this went down with the kids from Kilmer and they said something about Jeremy that night. That’s how this all started. You know how Buzz is when it comes to Jeremy.”

Buzz was unlikeable most of the time, but the fact he was willing to become a gangster to preserve his brother’s honor said a lot. So I had to give credit where credit was due, “Well they should have left his brother alone. That wasn’t right, Coach.”

Coach Douglass said, “I agree, but a street fight isnt the answer. Now I appreciate you being honest. Here’s your hall pass. Not a word about this to anyone, okay RL Stine.” RL Stine was Coach Douglass’s nickname for me because I was always writing something. I took my hall pass and off I went.

That night, my dad had a function for a Democratic candidate he was endorsing at Sal’s CafĂ©, the upscale Italian eatery in town. We were meeting Wendell after practice, who would be showered and dressed, and then planned on heading over and meeting my dad there.

Pulling up in the mini van in front of the high school, we waited for Wendell. On the practice field across from us was Buzz running along with Al Pender, Franco Diamond and Jim Hanks. Coach Matthias supervised from the hill while Coach Douglass assisted down below on the green. My mom rolled the window down so we could listen. Coach Matthias yelled in this thick West Virginia accent, “Well if it isnt the Pink Ladies of Whiskey Rebellion High!”

Franco Diamond threw up. Jim Hanks screamed, “Coach, let him stop! He’s sick and stressed!”

Coach Matthias said, “Not as sick and stressed as he’s gonna be in prison when Big Bubba is coming for him!”

Al Pender screamed, “Fuck you! Fucking Buzzcock! You said your retarded brother coudnt talk!”

Buzz went to punch Pender. Coach Douglass pulled them apart. Coach Matthias said, “Y’all better believe he talked well enough to tell me about your stupid street gang! Pender, that is thirty more laps for you for speaking disrespectfully about a member of my staff who contributes more than any of you maggots! And Buzz, thirty more for exploiting your brother!”

The now defunct Strawberry Lane carried out there sentence when suddenly, Mrs. Buzzinski materialized. Dressed in the power suit and heals that had lawyer written all over it, Mrs. Buzzinski said, “Malcolm Alexander Buzzinski, you and I are going to have a little talk.”

In the truest OG move over, Mrs. Buzzinski marched on the field, grabbed her son by the ear, and he let out a high pitched scream that broke the barrier of sound. She said, “I had a very important deposition today, and I was interrupted when Mrs. Davis paid me a very angry phone call.”

Buzz pleaded, “Coach, I have thirty more laps, right?”

Coach Matthias let out an evil laugh, “Boy, there are some things worse than prison or hell. That is why I am releasing you to the custody of your mama!” Sadly, the show was interrupted when Wendell emerged from the locker room in his suit ready for dinner.

On our way to Sal’s, Wendell said that Coach Matthias noticed bruises on Jeremy’s hands during gym class. Concerned, Coach asked what happened. Apparently the speech therapy worked better than anyone thought, because Jeremy revealed the existence of the Strawberry Lane Crew, the date and time of the rumble, Al Pender’s plan to bring a gun and how he was afraid his big brother would get hurt.

Coach Matthias, incredulous, called his colleague at Joyce Kilmer who was not only outraged about the planned gang fight after his game, but that his starters had bullied a learning disabled student. They too were being punished in kind at that moment. Needless to say the rumble was cancelled. Of course my dad loved the fact that he had called it all along.

Aside from living with the fact his mother busted up his street gang, Mrs. Buzziski said no more gangsters paradise and decided mama would knock him out. In an effort to put her son back on track, she signed him up for a Scared Straight Program and Campus Crusade for Christ. Inspired by the minister he worked with and the inmates he encountered, Buzz went on to become a football star at a Division II school and then entered the seminary. Getting a dual degree in social work, he ministers to at risk youth and he is assisted by none other than his brother, Jeremy. The good news is, Buzz got out of the life. The great news is, he gave me an epic story.

Like my writing? Visit me at AprilBrucker.TV or buy one of my books on Amazon.

Sunday, November 28, 2021

A Country Boy Can Survive (Hank Williams Jr.)

It was Monday night, the first official tailgate of the season. Friday would be the first official game of the season. The late summer air buzzed with insects as country music blared from the stereo. Down the hill, the marching rehearsed their half time show.

Enjoying the sights and sounds, my younger sister Skipper and I loaded our plates with ribs and other fixins from The John Wayne Diner-a western themed restaurant that always catered the booster events. Decked out in our black and orange-the school colors of the Whiskey Rebellion Blackhawks- we were in our glory as we were among the cheerleaders and football players. Wendell had begged our mom not to dress us up as he was a mere undersized sophomore and didn’t want to be picked on by the upperclassmen. All was forgiven when a busty blonde cheerleader named Tracee Yanowski said to Wendell, “Your sisters are adorable!” It was official, Skipper and I had arrived. We were on the A list with the rest of the heroes of the fall.

The event had one villain, the new coach, John Ezekiel Matthias. An import from West Virginia, he was already butting heads with the boosters and the season had not yet begun. A lot was riding on this tailgate. Everyone seemed to be ignoring the drama and having a good time. That is, until Coach Matthias decided to turn off the country music to make an announcement. We all breathed a sigh of relief because we couldn’t hear a song about a broken heart or a broken pickup one more time. Standing by coach were Douglass and Stephens, two former players of his that served as Matthias’s assistants. Both were gigantic boulders and Matthias stood in front of them, half their size, like a red neck mob boss.

Douglass was my reading teacher down the hill at the middle school. This in itself was ironic as Douglass had misspelled several words on the blackboard-public school education at it’s finest. Stephens was a tall, dark drink of water that all the ladies lusted after. I whispered to Skipper, “I get first dibs, I’m older.”

Skipper, three years younger and often light years smarter said, “With the advancements in cloning we could both have one.” We both high fived at this compromise as the cheerleaders silently swooned and the lonely, long married booster mothers snuck a peak.

Then Coach Matthias began to speak in his thick West Virginia accent, “I just want to say I am proud of these boys for all the work they have done this summer when they could have been going after fillies, sitting on their butts or playing those doggone video games. We are going to win this Friday. Now let’s get fired up!” Everyone clapped. This was nice.

Confused, Skipper said, “What’s a filly?”

I said, “I think it’s a female horse.” The look on Skipper’s face was priceless, but I had a copy of Black Beauty to back me up.

Coach Matthias continued, “I realize things have not been so good with the boosters. And I know I ain’t the most diplomatic of fellas, but I got a fundraising idea everyone can be excited about cause we need new equipment. It’s called Cow Pile Bingo.”

My dad, who was elected booster treasurer because of his taxation background raised his hand, “Coach, what is Cow Pile Bingo?” Everyone nodded, relieved my dad had asked because out of all the parents, he got along the best with Coach.

Coach Matthias said, “Wendelin, glad you asked. Cow Pile Bingo is when you get a cow in the middle of the field and bet on where it is going to poop. It’s a lot of fun and the winner gets a lotta money. Now let’s get fired up!” Coach Matthias raised his hand expecting applause but instead what he got was dead silence.

Rochelle Kelly, the beautiful red headed cheerleading captain and current senior class secretary said, “Eww Coach, that is animal cruelty!” The cheerleaders nodded in agreement.

Douglass said, “Now ladies, I know it sounds gross, but it’s how I learned my numbers growing up. It’s an effective teaching tool.” Last week, Douglass had told our class in addition to reading he was also certified to teach math. The visual as well as that other information made me worry for the future of the youth of America.

Mr. Latham, who’s son Kyle was on the starting line, was head of the math department in the district. A former football player himself, he tried to be diplomatic, “Coach, I admire the enthusiasm of you and your staff, but this is not how the kids learn math in this district.”

My mom raised her hand, “Coach Matthias, I think it’s great you want to raise money for the team and we know you care, but in our district we have a grounds staff that our tax dollars pay for that manicure the fields. We don’t even let dogs go on there because it destroys the green where the boys play. Cow poop produces trichinella.”

Douglass said, “Trica……waaa?!”

My brother Wendell, known as the brain of the team, raised his hand, “Coach Douglass, it’s a bacteria from animal poop…..”

Kyle, who acted as Wendell’s surrogate big brother/guardian angel on the team made the sign for Wendell to stop talking. Wendell shot a look of anger at our mom. It was official, she had ruined his tailgate after all and his nightmares about being on JV forever were about to be a reality.

While my mom and Mr. Latham tried to be supportive with the no sandwich, Mrs. Andrekis who’s son Tom was starting kicker, went in deep, “This is Whiskey Rebellion High School, not the film Deliverance.”

Mr. Andrekis, who was clearly whipped by his overbeating wife said, “Coach, c’mon, where would we get a cow anyway?”

Tom, wanting to keep his starting position said, “Mom! Dad! PLEEAASSSEE!!!”

Mrs. O’Shea, who’s son Ryan was the starting quarterback, rolled her eyes, “Coach, can we discuss this when we aren’t eating?”

Mr. O’Shea, who was an intolerable blowhard said, “Coach, Whiskey Rebellion is a blue ribbon school. Most kids here go to college, they don’t work in the mines like you did growing up.” Ryan, horrified and also wanting to keep his starting position, let out an audible groan.

Coach Stephens, with his million dollar good looks decided to help out, “I understand ya’ll are alarmed because this is out of ya’lls comfort zone. But this is an event that could help the less fortunate. When it’s over, we can kill the cow and donate the meat to the families that need it.”

Mr. Capalano, who was booster president, famous for his vanity plate CAPS and had a son Bobby who was second string center said, “Coach, the boosters and the coach always worked together. You have no interest in that. You have completely gone rogue.”

Bobby, ever the suck up who wanted to get off second string said, “I am all about cow bingo or whatever this is. It sounds great!” Then his cheerleader girlfriend Ashely Grant punched him in the arm and Bobby bowed his head in defeat.

Coach said, “I have no idea what rogue means but Cow Pile Bingo is a hit where I come from.”

Mrs. Andrekis said, “Where you come from is West Virginia where our church’s kids went on their last mission trip.”

Coach was now furious, “Y’all think I might be crazy, but when I came to this district ya’lls boys were about as prepared for action as Bambi’s mother was in the first ten minutes of that movie!”

Suddenly, all hell broke lose. Mrs. O’Shea, blitzed out of her mind, took her plate of ribs and threw it at Coach, “YOU ARE A DISGUSTING BARBARIAN! GET OUT OF OUR TOWN!” As the ribs hit him in the face, Matthias stood shocked. Cow Pile Bingo might have been a hit in Coach’s old district, but it was sure as hell a miss here.

For the next few days, everyone in all of the grade levels talked about what was known as Bambi-Gate. The story morphed so many times that in one version the coaches and parents even got into a food fight. Skipper and I, because we had been witnesses, became minor celebrities for the week because we saw the train wreck up close and in person. Later that week, as I was telling the umpteenth person that there was no coach/parent food fight, Coach Douglass asked to see me. I said, “Am I in trouble?”

Coach Douglass said, “No. I just am curious, where do you live?”

The question was weird, “Why, Coach Douglass?”

Coach Douglass said, “I always see Wendell walking home after practice and figured it had to be somewhere close.”

I said, “Up the hill on Foxtail Road three blocks from school. Ours is the one with the ivy and flowers.”

Coach Douglass changed the subject, “You know Coach Matthias didn’t like it when Bambi’s mother got shot. His daughter always cries at that part.”

I said, “Yeah. But I also get what he was trying to say. The team was pretty unprepared and we got eaten alive last year. Welcome to The Whiskey Rebellion School District where parents are drunk on themselves.” Coach Douglass laughed. Cow Pile Bingo had been a horrid idea, but we both agreed that seeing some of these booster parents who were hard to take lose their proverbial shit was entertaining.

That night, I rushed to complete my homework while helping my mom and Skipper cook the porkchops when the doorbell rang. Skipper, who was setting the table was too far away to get the door, and Wendell, who took double math that fall because he had tested up a year, had not one but two big tests. My mom said, “April, would you like to get that?”

I said, “Do I have a choice?” This was a running gag between my mom and me.

She said, “No.”

I said, “Dad is gonna be home in a few. We can just pretend we aren’t home?”

The doorbell rang again and now it was followed by an urgent knock, “April, if it’s a band kid tell them we will take two hoagies. If it’s a religious nut tell them you are Catholic. And if it’s a serial killer, scream.”

Making my way to the front door, I didn’t see a serial killer but saw the next worst thing, Coach Matthias. Standing there, despite the rain and the typical cold snap of early September, he was still in his gym shorts and t-shirt that said “Coach.” While I pitied the man for being in the inclement weather, I also didn’t want Bambi-Gate under my roof.

Grudgingly I opened the door and said, “Hi Coach….”

Coach stepped into our foyer, “Your daddy home?”

I said, “Not yet.” Then I called to Skipper and my mom, “Coach Matthias is here!”

My mom ran to greet coach with a smile like she wanted to kill him, my dad for volunteering to be booster treasurer and then herself, “Hi Coach, what can I do for you? Sorry the house isn’t a little cleaner.”

Coach said, “Don’t worry Grace, I grew up on a hog farm and live with a two and four year old. But I’m glad I found the place. Coach Douglass told me April said the one with the flowers and the ivy.” I turned bright red. Maybe he couldn’t spell but Coach Douglass had totally just punked me hillbilly James Bond style.

My mom shot me a look of death. I shrugged, running up the stairs and pulling Skipper with me who said, “I wondered how he knew where we lived.”

Wendell, who had circles under his eyes from studying, emerged from his room, “Girls, am I hallucinating or is Coach Matthias downstairs?”

I said, “He’s downstairs. Want to go and say hi?”

Wendell rolled his eyes and shook his head no, “Not really.” After Bambi-Gate, the team had been forced to do an ungodly amount of physical exercises as punishment for the unbecoming conduct of their parents.

Skipper said, “April told him where we lived.”

Wendell said, “You’re stupid. Big surprise. Because of Mom, I had to run extra laps and had a week that made the Hanoi Hilton look like a dream vacation. Now we have Bambi-Gate under our roof because of you!”

Angered, Wendell sneered inches away from my face. I said, “Hey jagoff, Coach Douglass saw you walking home. He asked if we lived close to the school because he always saw you walking. He’s my reading teacher. What was I supposed to do, huh?!”

Wendell sputtered, “Oh yeah…..you still brought Bambi-Gate under our roof.”

I said, “No, you did. He’s your coach. You’re the one who wanted to play.”

Wendell rolled his eyes, “No, Dad wanted me to play!” It was true, our father was living vicariously through Wendell, another reason he accepted the position as booster treasurer, “This is all his fault and I hate Mom, Dad and YOUUUU!!!!!!” He then walked in his room, threw his math book across the room and began to punch his pillow. So much for studying.

The garage opened. Dad. Skipper said, “Dad’s home. Now you both stop it before we all get in trouble.” Wendell and I sighed. She had a point.

From upstairs we listened. My Dad said to coach, “A beer?”

Coach said, “Nah, the wife would kill me and mine wears the pants when I’m home. Wendelin, I ain’t no Einstein like your boy Wendell, but I know we need to raise money and I know I need to work with y’all. I want to make this right. I moved my family up here for this job.”

My dad said, “I think you meant well, but cow poop and food and Bambi’s dead mother werent a good combo, especially for some of these folks.”

Coach said, “Clearly they ain’t hunters.”

My dad said, “Coach, I know it looks bad but you need to see the forest for the trees. You have a lot of strengths, like Coach Stephens. He’s single. Why not have an auction where women can buy a date night with Coach Stephens?”

Coach said, “I like that. He likes the fillies and the fillies like him.”

My dad said, “Would he be up for it?”

Coach said, “He will be. I’m still his coach.”

It was settled. That Friday night, the auction for a date with Coach Stephens was a success. Not only did it raise five thousand dollars, but it was one of the highest grossing events in booster history. Miss Renreski, a lonely science teacher who had just gone through a terrible divorce, was the winner. The two would have a tumultuous cuffing season romance and would break up the following spring when Mrs. Renreski left him for Mr. Topper, a tech ed teacher who had lost his left thumb in an industrial accident.

The team would win that Friday night as well as the rest of the season. Coach learned to work with the boosters which made him the ultimate hero of the fall. And no one spoke of Bambi-Gate or Cow Pile Bingo ever again.

For more on me go to AprilBrucker.TV,and to buy my books go to Amazon. xoxo