When The Friday Night Lights Went Out
It was the fall of 1945, the war had just ended and I was one of three boys joining seven girls to form the Junior class at Stinnett High School. I was the tall, skinny kid with wild sandy hair; the class nerd who flew airplanes, built all sort of things and read every book that I could get my hands on but had little interest in school activities. One of the other boys in the class was my opposite in every way. He was the school jock who excelled in every sport, had black wavy hair and classic good looks. All the girls were after him while none of them would give me a second look. About all you could say about the third guy, he would have been the school bully had that title not been held by one of the girls in our class. He dropped out of school a few months later to join the Marines where he was executed for fragging an officer.
High school football isn't a just sport in Texas, it's almost a religion. Ask about the quality of a school and instead of hearing how many graduating seniors would go to college or the range of subjects offered, you will be told the won/loss record of the football team. Students in chemistry class might have to share test tubes but the football team had three sets of uniforms; the new ones for home games, those for when they played away from home and the ones used for practice. Bulbs might be burned out in the restrooms but every one of the 500 watt bulbs in the floodlights at the football field would be burning brightly on Friday night. While there wasn't a twig of grass in front of the school, the football field was manicured like a golf green. Businesses in town closed at 7:00pm on Friday so everyone could attend the games.
The male presence wasn't much better when it came to the staff in the school with only three men: the Superintendent, Principal and the Coach who was listed as the Physical Education and Social Science teacher. He was far more interested in sports than academics and his casual attention to classes reflected it. Where the rest of the teachers were known as Mr., Mrs., or Miss, he required everyone to refer to him as "Coach".
At the end of the second day of school, the Coach was standing in the hall as I headed for the door, "Where are you going?" he demanded. When I said I was going home, he told me that I'd go to the gymnasium for a football team meeting. The other two junior boys and I joined four senior boys and five in the sophomore class, barely one more than necessary for a football team. They didn't have offense and defense teams in the smaller high schools, they "went both ways" as the ball changed sides. The quarterback was about the only person who played only when their team was on offense. At least the freshman class was in better shape with as many boys as in the upper three classes combined but they were barely creeping into puberty and no experience playing football. Much of the shortage of boys was due to many of them dropping out of school and joining the Navy the day they turned sixteen.
The Coach went through a Jeckle and Hyde transformation from a fairly nice guy in the classroom into a foul-mouth tyrant when he put on his coach face and surveyed the motley crew, referring to the freshman boys as "Tackling Dummies". We listened to him rant and swear for half an hour before he told us to run laps in the gym. He stood with a large leather strap in his hand, giving anyone who he thought wasn't running fast enough a slash across the butt as they ran past. When he finally let us go home, I asked my dad if I had to go out for football. He told me that it was considered an extra curricular activity and participation was not required.
The next afternoon when school turned out, the Coach was standing in the hall as I headed for the door. "Where do you think you are going?" he demanded. I told him that my dad said I didn't have to go out for football if I didn't want to. After calling me several slang words for feminine genitalia, he took me to into the Superintendent's office where the Principal was also waiting.
They closed the door and told me about the importance of school spirit, that I owed it to the school and that everyone had to play in order to field a team. I told them that I had absolutely no interest in playing football and I saw no reason to put myself in a position to be jumped on by someone twice my size. The Coach finally said we weren't getting anywhere and it was time to teach me a lesson. They grabbed and spread-eagled me face down on a library table. With the Superintendent holding my hands above my head and the Principal holding my feet, the Coach pulled my shirt up and began to whip my naked back with his leather strap. I lost count of the number of lashes but when they let me up, they told me that I would report for football practice or face the same thing every day. I walked to the pool hall my dad owned where he lifted my blood-streaked shirt and looked at my back.
I can still remember the day; it was chilly and a light rain was falling. My dad didn't say much, just put on his yellow saddle slicker and his Stetson hat and told me to come with him. Let me tell you a bit about my dad. He was a good size man, standing a bit over six feet and a couple hundred pounds. He had been in WW-I, coming home as a corporal and the only surviving member of an Infantry Machinegun Company that landed in France with 120 men. Governor Moody appointed him as a Texas State Constable when he sent in the National Guard to clean up Borger after the District Attorney was killed in 1929. He held that position until the Texas legislature eliminated the office in 1952. My dad never spanked or hit me except once when I was about fourteen and made the tactical mistake of taking a swing at him for some long since forgotten reason. My swing didn't connect but his did, he cuffed me up side of my head, sending me tumbling ass over teacup into a corner. When I gathered my somewhat limited senses, he asked if I wanted to try that again. Let's just say it was a quick and lasting lesson.
My dad always carried the .38 Special revolver that he'd had in the war. He wore it around behind him with the end of the holster sticking into the right hip pocket of his pants. I never knew what it was all about but one time a guy came to the pool hall, waving an old hog-leg pistol and yelling for my dad to come outside. My dad came out, slapped the pistol out of his hand and nailed it to one of the porch supports with a bridge spike. Then he told the guy if he ever came after him with a pistol again, it would be his balls that would get nailed to the post. The old pistol hung there long after my dad sold the place, until some guy ran off the street and knocked the porch off the pool hall.
We got in the pickup and drove to the front of the school. He told me to stay in the cab and as he got out, I saw the coach walking toward us carrying a baseball bat. When he was about ten steps away, my dad pulled back his slicker, drew his pistol and put a bullet into the ground at the Coach's feet. Then he raised it and told the Coach to drop the bat or the next one would be between his eyes. The Coach dropped the bat, turned and ran back to the doors where the Superintendent and Principal were waiting. They closed and locked the doors as he ducked inside. My dad walked to the locked doors where he said something to the men inside but I couldn't hear what he said. He picked up the bat and we drove back to the pool hall where he called the Sheriff in Borger and told him what had happened. The bat stood in a closet until long after I was gone from home; no idea what became of it.
The story went around school that the Coach had called the Sheriff telling him that my dad had attempted to kill him. The Sheriff told him that if my dad had actually tried to kill him, he wouldn't be calling. Then he told the sheriff that my dad had told them that if they were in Stinnett when the sun came up, they wouldn't see it set. The Sheriff told him that considering what they had done to me, he would advise them to spend their time packing instead of talking on the phone. The sun came up on a school with three vacancies in the teaching staff.
The school board hired a new Superintendent and Principal but couldn't find a coach so the Friday Night Lights never came on that year.
Photo of Dad | Stinnett High School
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