Late October, 1974, the recently opened West Lincoln Junior High hosted a football game. At that game were a number of high school students. Five of them, including four juniors from WLHS, never made it home...they were killed in a single-car accident. I was a 9th grader...one of the first class of 9th graders at WLJH. Though I did not know any of the students who were killed, many of my new classmates did, including one who was dating a boy that was killed. It was a time of great sadness, in the midst of a time of uneasy transition for all of us, adapting to this consolidated school, missing the comfort of the smaller elementary schools, sorting out new relationships and pecking orders.
Of course I was already sad. Adolescence was proving a real challenge for me, as I wasn't one of the dashing athletes, nor was I in band or choir or any other organization that gave me a peer group. I had been bullied quite a bit over the years, and now that bullying was taking on new aspects, coming as it was not just from older neighborhood toughs, but also from elitist boys and girls at this new school who made fun of me for sport. So I was struggling to find my place. I tried out for the basketball team, but I didn't make the cut. I lived too far away to make it to many of the school events, and so I wasn't part of the regular crowd in the stands. I had church responsibilities, even at that age, but I was struggling with that, too. Mama's good little boy was developing a dark side, one of which she definitely would not approve!
By late 1974, my grandfather had cancer and was in rapid decline. This was particularly hard on my father, given his strained relationship with his father and brother. Yeah, tell me about it, Pop. Anyway, Grandpaw Rhyne would die in early January, 1975, officially marking the beginning of the worst year of my life. I cannot tell you about all the things that happened to me. I am still trying to remember some of them, after trying for more than three decades to forget. I can tell you there was love and loss. I had to let go of my crush on Connie. I found a potential new crush with Kathy, even though I knew she was way outta my league. I was obsessed with the unattainable, rather than pondering the plausible, and so I missed chances.
There was another girl, sort of. We had PE together. She was not pretty, not clean, not healthy, but I liked her. She became my dance partner when our teacher introduced us to square dancing. I never hesitated to take her hand, and she liked me for that. I knew she was into drugs and more. I knew she lived in a very troubled home. I didn't care how she looked. She and I were partners, and so we learned to dance, together. There is no metaphor there, just the simple act of sharing a couple of hours a week in a gym full of kids that could be horribly hateful and cliquish. But in the spring of 1975, my dance partner, on a drug binge and feeling hopeless, put a gun in her mouth and pulled the trigger. Football players were asked to be her pall bearers. Never mind that they would NEVER have taken her hand on the gym floor or anywhere else in public view. I chose to grieve in private.
I was SUCH a loner by the end of that school year. I had a new 10-speed, and so I took to the back roads of Lincoln County. That bike not only gave me freedom...it began to transform my body. I had grown taller than many of my classmates (hence my dream of playing basketball), but I needed to grow stronger, more agile to compete. I concluded that, since everyone in my frame of reference obviously loved football and football players, I would become one. Then maybe I would have a chance at making the JV basketball team. As a child, I had dreamed of being Bart Starr, but, alack, I had no arm. Now I would find my niche elsewhere...maybe as a guard or tackle. I made the team (they were desperate), but played the whole year as End, Guard, and Tackle (in other words, sitting on the end of the bench, guarding the water bucket, etc.). Still, I was a part of the team. I took the punishment, the hazing, the pain...I took it all, and my body grew stronger, more agile, to a degree, anyway.
As football season ended, my coaches encouraged me to play a winter sport. I suggested JV basketball...they suggested wrestling. I had two friends from church who wrestled, so this looked safe. They were seniors, one a heavyweight, the other somewhere in the 185-195 lb. classes, and neither were men with whom you wanted to tangle. Practice was a bit of a shock, as it was much more rigorous than football, but I was eager to learn, to please, to be a part of the team. But then things began to unravel. Many of the juniors and seniors resented our new coach. He was a poor replacement for the acclaimed coach who had left WLHS to go to a bigger school. Also, the injury bug took out one of my big friends (shoulder), and then the other (back), and the way the coach handled things led to both of them quitting the team. At the same time, my other grandfather, Preacher Friday, lost his long battle with heart and lung problems. He died right before Christmas.
I cannot explain to you just what my grandfathers meant to me. I was very close to them, closer in ways than I was to my own father. Losing them left a huge void in my life. In particular, losing her father was a severe blow to my already depressed mother. Things began to change for the worse at home, as well as at school. And there was another thing...a forbidden relationship, forbidden sexual exploration, forbidden fantasies. After all, I was Southern Baptist...pretty much EVERYTHING was forbidden. I had not only fantasied...a lot...about certain women at church, etc., but I had indulged in quite a bit of exploration with a childhood friend. It began innocently enough, but now, by age 16, we were no longer children, and I was deeply ashamed of the things we had done...sometimes continued to do when I was desperate and lonely enough.
I cannot remember when I tore the muscle in my back. I think it was over Christmas break, after I had returned to wrestling practice and been chewed out by the coach for missing several days. Nobody had told him about my grandfather. Apparently that was my job. Ugh. Anyway, I had driven my dad's truck, and I had given my teammate Steve a lift. I tore this muscle in practice and was in horrible pain, so of course the coach thought I was faking it. Steve had to drive the truck home, and then my mom took me to the emergency room. When the pain had eased enough, I returned to school...on crutches, dragging my legs along as best I could, as I still could not walk. Dear Kathy, the unattainable, was a saint, carrying my books for me, etc. She is married to a long-time friend of mine, btw...apparently she was attainable :-) She is still a saint.
I eventually recovered from my injury, and continued wrestling, but it was not fun. It was a matter of pride, stubbornness...I don't know what all. I suppose I was trying to prove that I had the right stuff. Again, I can't remember sequencing here. I have tried so very hard to move beyond that time in my life, and I have failed so very miserably. I am writing this in hopes of at least moving, even if it is side-ways. At some point, without the protection of my two big friends, I found myself under attack in the locker room shower. It was brutal, and I was defenseless against the two senior wrestlers who attacked me. This wasn't the usual hazing...I had passed that test during football season. This wasn't a prank, unlike the time a senior football player stole my shoes then wore them to school the next day, daring me to call him on it. This was assault, of the kind designed to strip me of what fledgling sense of manhood I had begun to form. This was the day a part of me died.
Someone heard/saw what was happening and went to get the coaches. The head football coach broke it up, only to humiliate me by asking, repeatedly, whether or not I minded what they were doing to me. Maybe he was trying to make me grow up...who knows? If I said "yes, I mind!" then he would have been forced to take action, and my high school life as I knew it would have been over. So I said nothing. From that day forward, there was no more hazing, no more assaults. Yes, there were rumors, snickers, stories spread over beer...stories that continued to resurface over the years. One of them had made me do this, someone said. One of them had done that to me, said another. I tried to forget, suppress, block, pretend it never happened.
I endured two more years of high school sports...more injuries, more disappointments, more frustration, all in the name of being part of the team. I gained a modicum of admiration from some coaches, some peers. I could have gotten a date with Connie, my former unrequited crush who was now a cheerleader. I never asked. I could have gotten dates with so many girls. I never asked. I couldn't risk letting anyone get close to me after that. I could not risk showing them what I saw when I looked in the mirror. I couldn't let them see the real me. And so I lived alone with my pain, internalized my anger, and sank into the darkness.
In that darkness, the poet Lemuel Crouse still dwells. I did not know it at the time, but he was born that day in that locker room. The thing I saw in the mirror, that wraith lurking in my bloodshot blue eyes, was him. Eventually, I would give him voice, and he would give me words. I have shared many of those words with you, here on this blog...sometimes at great risk and cost. Both of us have been at a loss for words for many months, for many reasons. I have been wallowing in the pit of despair, and he has been silent, biding his time. I am at my best when I walk in the light and let him walk his own path in the darkness. This is the balance I have lost, the balance I must now regain.
He will write again, as will I...just not right now. Right now, I have to mourn the passing of another student...a lovely girl who sat on the front row of one of my classes. She lost her life on a foggy night in a bad curve, and so we mourn her. But I live every day with PTSD, and so I also mourn a bit for me, as well...traumatic events force me to relive my own. Forgive me, Cady...I mean no disrespect. Godspeed to you, sweet soul. Rest in Peace.