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.”

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