Fourth down and two to go. Merrillville High is playing Sommerville tonight and it is a big rivalry. Neither team is going to State this year. In fact, neither team is very good. My son Jake is playing fullback though, so this is the most important game in the world for me. Billy Squires is a pretty good quarterback and he’ll probably carry the ball. We need this first down to keep possession of the ball and run out the clock, and Billy is going to need a block to spring him loose. He’ll need a good fullback. Jake is a good fullback.
I’m sitting on a hard bleacher seat watching Jake line up in the offensive backfield and I feel a sense of peace in the world. Merrittville is not very good, like I said, but Jake is good, and the coaches up at State College have noticed him. Jake is a senior, and the possibility of a football scholarship is very real. I can’t tell you how much I hope Jake goes to State College and gets and education. I don’t care if he is good enough to play in the pro’s, although God knows that he wants to do just that. I’m just glad that he doesn’t want to follow in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps.
Vietnam was all that I had in my future when I graduated back in 1965. Oh, sure, I could have gone to college and got a student deferment, but what then? I would have graduated from any four year course in 1969 and the war was still going strong then. I would have gotten drafted one way or the other. I didn’t want to go to school anyway. I’d just done thirteen years of school and that was all I had the stomach for, thank you. Besides, in our little town it was still commonly accepted that serving your country during time of war was an obligation of citizenship. Even though I could have come home in a box, like Wally Mather did, I would have preferred to be a dead hero than a live coward. I’m not so sure that I look at it that way anymore, but that’s how I looked at it then. It’s how nearly everyone else in Merrillville looked at it then too.
Yes! First down! Jake flattened a linebacker, and Billy Squires got six yards. One and a half minutes and Merrittville will win bragging rights back from Sommerville. “A Battle of Villes” they call it, and although it isn’t on any statewide sports writers’ radar, it’s darned important to us.
Susan is cheering lustily next to me. Susan really loves her brother, and I can’t tell you how proud I am of that. I liked my siblings well enough, but we fought and competed like most other brothers and sisters do. Susan and Jake are not like that however. They’re far from inseparable, but when they are together there is a warmth and respect that is noticeable to anybody who will look. Jake is Susan’s dashing big brother, who helps her when she needs it and would protect her from any harm. Susan is Jakes Little Sister; a designation which advertises “Do Not Mess With This Girl!” Susan is also Nancy Dexter’s best friend. That goes a long way with Jake.
I think – or I guess I should say I hope – that Jake and Susan learned to love and believe in each other because that is how my wife and I have tried to raise them. It’s how we have tried to live together ourselves. My family was pretty close, although there was always a tension between my parents that I couldn’t quite understand or put my finger on. It had something to do with the war and their differing opinions about Germans, I think, but that seems really weird to me and I would never say that I figured it out.
My wife, though, had a much harder ride. Her parents died when she was in junior high; I won’t share the details. She went to live with a relative on the far side of town from me and I hardly saw her again during my school years, and when I did it was like seeing a caricature of the girl whom I had initially known. She had been a very pretty girl at first but she later grew thin; gaunt, I would call it. Her hair was cut then in some sort of home-done bowl shape, and she seemed to look vacant or, even worse, bitter. And her aunt, with whom she went to live after her parents died, didn’t look any better. In fact, I saw Vietcong charging my position on a bridge over the Saigon River during the Tet Offensive who looked more cheerful than her aunt.
I saw her one last time before I went into the Army. Heidi and her aunt were coming out of a store that I was going into. I said something to her in German, the language that we both were learning in the good early days, and she said something back. I think that she allowed herself to enjoy that moment, but I couldn’t be sure. I asked her if I could take her picture, since I was leaving in a week or two and – I have no idea why – she said that would be OK. Her aunt wouldn’t let her be in a picture by herself, and so she stood by her, looking like she would prefer to be sprayed by a skunk rather than be standing there allowing me to take her picture.
I kept that picture with me in Vietnam. All of the other guys had pictures of wives and girlfriends – at least that’s what they said they were – and I thought that I shared a hut with nineteen Romeos. All I had was a picture of two females, one young and one older, both of whom looked like they’d been weened on a pickle.
I knew that the girl had once had a good heart though. In fact, she had been my first girlfriend, but that died when her parents did. I never really got over her, and I was thrilled to read in a letter from my father one day that he had seen her working in a nearby town and that she looked good; nicely dressed, hair done well, and with the look of health about her. I wrote back and asked if he saw a ring on the fourth finger of her left hand. After a few weeks Dad’s next letter came. He said “No.”
For the rest of my tour in Vietnam the memory of that girl and the relationship that we once had not only stayed with me, but actually grew. When things got dicey I would think “I have to survive this and see if anything can be made from that relationship that I enjoyed so long ago.” And I did survive. Upon my return I made contact with the girl – now a young woman – and made it clear that I wanted to see if there was anything left of that old relationship that could be breathed back to life, and then I left her alone.
I went to State college three hour’s drive away and came home on holidays, and some weekends. One weekend my dad gave me a note that said “Yes. I would be willing to see what might remain there. Coffee? 643-9927.” I made the call, made the date, and after a period of three years in which we carefully explored what we wanted and expected out of life, I made the proposal. She said “Yes.”
I’m amazed as I sit here on the bleachers that it has worked out so well. When I was twenty two I still believed in fairy tale endings. I know a little bit more about life now. My wife was smart enough to get counseling to help her with the trauma of her childhood. Dad helped me to understand that marriage and fairy tales have nothing to do with each other. Our pastor has been a big help too.
We’ve had some tight spots where our individual sins have rubbed up against each other, but somehow my war experience in Vietnam and her even worse childhood experiences of a different kind right here in Merrillville have created in both of us a willingness to give up a little for the sake of a good marriage and a good family. Every night I offer a prayer of thanks for this.
I hope my wife gets back in time for the final whistle. Merrittville is about to take the victory formation and I know she’ll want to see it, but nature called and would not accept “No” for an answer. The linemen are down in their three point stance. Billy Squires is under center, and—-.
“Hurry Mom” Susan calls out. “Hurry”.
I see Heidi jogging up the steps two at a time to get to her seat, which she does just in time. The snap. The kneel. Fifteen seconds later, the whistle. Merrillville has won their bragging rights for the next year. Susan’s hero (and ours too, by the way) is celebrating with his teammates on the thirty yard line. I lean over and kiss my wife.