Monday, September 24, 2012

The Immortals

For days in the fall of forty-nine, St. John’s High had buzzed with rumours about whether or not Torchy Brownstone would be allowed to play in the football game on Friday. Torchy was our first-string quarterback, a two-year veteran with the school, and if we were to have any chance of beating Kelvin – our arch-rivals from River Heights – then the team could not afford to see him sidelined with a knee injury. The injury had been sustained in a practice session last week when a second-string linebacker had gotten carried away with an enthusiasm and tackled Torchy just as he was coming around the end on a double reverse. So one of our own players had done what the rest of the league would have been trying to do all through the fall.

What hurt most was that Torchy should be sidelined when we were playing Kelvin. The game itself didn’t count for anything. It was an exhibition game, a warm-up before the regular season began. But what did count was that this was a contest between the North and South Ends of the city. And that was no small matter.

The North End consisted mainly of immigrants from Eastern Europe laboring classes, small foreign-language newspapers, watch-repair shops, a Jewish theatrical company, a Ukrainian dance troupe, small choirs, tap-dancing schools, orchestral groups, chess clubs and more radical political thinkers per square block than Soviet Russia had known before the Revolution. The South End – or River Heights, as it is more fashionably called – was basically what the revolution had been against. The mayor, most of the alderman, the chairman of the school board and many of the civic employees – not the street sweepers, of course – lived in River Heights.

Actually, when you think about it, they had chosen a curious home for their end of town. If you’ve ever passed through Winnipeg, you’ll realize that it rests on one of the flattest stretches of land in the world. In fact, I read in the school library once that the land falls at the rate of no more than two feet per mile as it extends northward towards Lake Winnipeg. So the Heights, you see, can’t amount to much more than six or eight feet, at the most. But people there like to think of themselves as living on a plateau overlooking the rest of the city, as in a sense they do. For the heights they’ve attained are built on political and economical foundations that gave them a vantage point of something more of the order of six or eight hundred feet.

Another way of distinguishing between the two parts of the city is by looking at the street names. In the North End, you’ll find such names as Selkirk Avenue, Euclid Street, Aberdeen, Dufferin – names steeped in history, names which suggest the realm of human endeavour, anguish and accomplishment. But if you look at the street names in River Heights, what you’ll find, with few exceptions, are such names as Ash Street, Elm, Oak, Willow. Vast expanses of velvet lawns, well-treed boulevards – the sea looks like a garden, a retreat from the toil and anguish everywhere feasible in the North End. The two cultures meet downtown, where the South End gentry immediately head for the managerial offices, and the North End rabble file past the company clocks with their time cards. After work countless numbers of expensive cars sweep grandly across the Maryland Bridge back into Eden, while street cars and buses pass northward beneath the C.P.R. subway into a grim bleak underworld of parallel fences, concrete walls, locked doors, and savage dogs that seem capable of looking in three directions at once.

But at the Osborne Stadium in the fall, the traditional roles can be reversed for an evening. There, on Friday nights, the North End may more experience the heady hours of triumph it knew during the 1919 strike, when it seemed the World Revolution might begin right here in Winnipeg. So, you see, the fact that Torchy Brown had injured his knee in football practice was a major concern to us all.

And then to add to insult, the English teacher, Mr. Rockwood caught our star tackles, Norm Mittlehaus and Sam Margolis, in Room 41 the day before the game and tried to have them disqualified from playing on Friday. Room 41 is Goldman’s Drug Store – just across the street from the high school – and kids are always sneaking across during the day to have a soda, read a magazine, or have a smoke. And Rockwood is always catching them. Rockwood is about five feet two and weighs about a hundred and eighty, so he’s a fairly stocky little guy with huge shoulders and a neck like a bull dog. Needless to say, Rockwood lives in River Heights, and he would have still been teaching at Kelvin if he hadn’t swatted one of his pupils one day – the son of a school trustee, as it turned out – and since then he’s been our affliction. He often tries to have kids expelled, banned from writing exams, or disqualified from playing football – which drives the football coach, Mr. Powalski, wild. It had always seemed to us that Mr. Rockwood would have been much happier, would have felt more free to express himself, and would have achieved a greater degree of fulfillment if he’d been a guard at Auschwitz.

Anyway, as soon as Mr. Powalski learned that Rockwood had disqualified our star tackles Mittlehaus and Margolis from playing the next night, he rushed up to the principal’s office and threatened to resign – again, for what must have been the tenth time that year – if they weren’t reinstated.

On the Friday night of the game, the stands were packed. Would Torchy play? And what about Mittlehaus and Margolis? Even I came to the game that night, and I rarely go to football games – or any kind of sports event for that matter. As usual, I was intensely preoccupied with the finer things in life, with art and poetry, and all my evening then were taken up by an epic poem in hexameters I was working on. But the whole school was caught up in the game that night, and Nate Samuelson, my bench partner in physics lab who had just been elected student president, finally persuaded me that I couldn’t stay behind.

So there we all were, glaring across the field at the River Heights stands, where, sitting shamelessly among the staunch supporters of the opposing team, we could make out Rockwood; Peg-Leg Dobson – our physics teacher; Mr. Atkinson – our chemistry teacher and Mr. Clearwater – the principal. Still, Kleinberg, Schultz, Rasmussen and Pollick – all loyal North Enders – had stationed themselves prominently in our end of the stadium.

Rumours abounded. Kelvin was supposed to have all-new football equipment donated by the president of a huge department store. Their new sweaters, it was claimed, were no longer the school colours, cherry and grey, but a regal purple and gold. It was also whispered that the team had been practising secret plays to be unveiled that night. They had a new fullback – a huge two hundred pounder, who would make mincemeat of our line. And, most ominous of all, there was talk that the chief referee had bet five dollars on the River Heights team.

But each new rumour of impending doom simply set our spirits soaring higher. We shouted taunts across the field, blew up Sheiks and let them float skyward, unveiled posters that displayed a hammer and sickle, beneath which were the words, “Workers, Arise!” bombarded the officials with over-ripe tomatoes and rotten eggs which we’d saved especially for the occasion, and flung rolls of toilet paper into the playing sea. Until an exasperated voice in an Oxford accent that had obviously just been acquired that summer asked us all to stand for the National anthem.

Then the whistle blew, and we kicked off to Kelvin, and, to our horror, that two hundred pound fullback really did exist because he caught the ball and ran over three of our tacklers for a touchdown. Less than sixty seconds after the game started, they had a converted touchdown – worth six points then – and we had three injuries. Suddenly our players in their ripped sweaters and torn pads looked like a pretty shabby lot compared to that Kelvin team, which moved with such military precision in their new uniforms and shiny helmets.

On the next kick-off, our star runner, Cramer, caught the football, and was promptly tackled by their two hundred pound fullback, whose name, we learned, was Bruno Hogg. When Cramer finally managed to get up, he was limping. A mighty groan escaped from the North End stands. Jerusalem had just been taken and we were all being marched off to captivity in Babylon. We could see Torchy, down on the sidelines, pleading with the coach to let him in – knee injury and all – but Powalski sent Marty Klein instead. When they first caught sight of Marty, the military discipline of the Kelvin team threatened to disintegrate. Marty’s all of five foot two and can’t weigh much more than 125, so his appearance caused first stutters, then guffaws. Of course they didn’t realize that Marty uses his size to his advantage. He’s the sneakiest player you’ll ever see.

Right away, Marty calls a plunge by the fullback. But when they peel the players off our boy, he doesn’t have the ball. Then the Kelvin line bounces on the two halfbacks, but they don’t have the ball either – and so they throw them away and begin looking around with murder in the eyes for the tailback. By the time they start looking around for Marty, it’s too late. He’s waving to them with one hand, the ball in the other, from behind their own goal line. Marty had jumped right out of harm’s way once the ball had been snapped, and then he strolled off down the sidelines while the Kelvin team pounced upon one player after another in their frantic search for the missing football. Somehow we managed to finish the quarter with a six-all tie.

But in the second quarter, disaster struck. We’d manage to hold Kelvin in their own end of the field until they had to kick on third down. Out of their huddle they marched in that military precision of theirs, and we knew right away something tricky was up. Three of their backfielders pranced out to one side behind the kicker, who booted the ball no more than fifteen yards, and those three ballet stars danced away with the ball while we were left looking like jerks, with our coach hastily thumbing through his handbook to see what it was all about. When Kelvin tried the same stunt a few plays later, all three of their ballerinas were immediately flattened. But that was strictly verboten, according to the officials, and we were penalized fifteen yards. Then that two hundred pound fullback of theirs got the ball again, and we were behind another six points. But at last Powalski found the section in the rule book dealing with on-side kicks and brought an end to that particular gimmick.

When we finally got the ball again, Marty Klein called another plunge by the fullback, but now the whole line piled on top of poor Marty, and so the fullback – who did have the ball this time – had already bulldozed his way more than half the length of the field when his bootlace came undone, and he tripped over the loose end. Of course Kelvin recovered the fumbled ball, and we were lucky to finish the half only six points down.

During the intermission, more rumours swept through the stands. A doctor had been seen racing down to the stadium from the North End with a special drug and a set of splints that would enable Torchy to play in the second half. This was immediately contradicted by another rumour: the same doctor had warned that Torchy would limp for the rest of his life if he played that night.

Someone else hinted that there was a special reason for those Kelvin players moving about with such stiff, jerky movements and spastic gestures. All that talk about military precision and strict training was a bunch of nonsense. Nate Samuelson had sneaked into the Kelvin dressing room before the game and sprinkled red pepper into everyone of their jock straps. A little later somebody spotted Nate sitting beside me, and soon a couple of dozen people were cheering their new student president. None of us suspected then that twenty years later, long after he had become a doctor, gotten married and had two children, he would take a overdose of drugs and walk off the MacIntyre Building smack on top of the early morning traffic jam. Nate stood up in the stands that evening, smiled in that sly way of his, and waved his hand to the cheering crowd.

Later still, a few students from the Grade Twelve Industrial Class stormed across the field to pick a fight with some of the River Heights fans, but they got thrown out of the stadium by the police for their efforts. Afterwards, we heard that they had peed in the gas tanks of all the posh cars parked around the stadium – cars which after the game were seen to be lurching and stalling through the streets leading back into River Heights.

Then the players came back on the field, and that two hundred pound fullback of theirs got the ball, and now were behind twelve points. It was during the third quarter that they really began to grind our team into the turf. They seemed to be getting stronger by the minute, while our crew looked shabbier than ever. We couldn’t understand it. It didn’t make sense. Unless they’d discovered the red pepper, from the way they paraded and strutted across the field, it was clear they’d be prepared for any contingency. We couldn’t put anything past them.

When calling plays, they didn’t huddle, as we did. Instead their team would line up in two rows, with their backs to us, and their quarterback would stand facing them and bark out the number of the ?ay. They couldn’t have cared less if we overheard or not, they were so confident. Then the centre would march out and crouch over the ball, while the rest of the team moved with just as much military precision to their positions. The ball would be snapped and – Quick March! – they end fifteen more yards, while, as likely as not, we had a few more lumps.

Just as we were getting used to the fact that they weren’t trying anything fancy now – that this was going to be one of those bruising games where each side tries to pound the other into the earth – their two hundred pound fullback started to come round one end, then handed the ball off to the tailback, who scooted round the other end on a double verse. And we were eighteen points behind.

The mood on our side of the stadium became grim. On the field the game was turning into a rout. Marty Klein, who was playing safety, as well as quarterback, got creamed when he intercepted a Kelvin pass on our one-yard line, and the Ambulance Corps had to carry him off the field. Down on the sidelines, Torchy Brownstone was still pleading with the coach to let him in.

I guess we should have known when Torchy appeared on the bench dressed for the game that the fates had decreed he would play that night. We knew it was crazy, but on the field he limped with the first-string line: Norm Mittlehause – a savage tackle who was later to sing with the Metropolitan Opera and eventually become a cantor; Marvin Hammerman – who’d recently met a bunch of pretty nurses at the General Hospital and was playing with the reckless abandon of someone determined to break a collarbone at least; Sammy Margolis – who never quite came up to expectations, and who, when he was sent to Los Angeles to study dentistry, married the daughter of a clothing manufacturer instead; and Sheldon Kunstler – who later moved to New York and got rich by inventing a machine that bent, folded and stapled computer cards. Across the field they moved, as the voice on the P.A. system announced that Torchy Brownstone was playing against doctor’s orders, and we all cheered mindlessly.

St. John’s huddled behind their own goal line. A couple of Kelvin linemen – huge Goliaths that seemed to have just wandered in from the little plains of Judea – let long thin streams of spit slide from between their teeth to the grass. Their team-mates looked no less contemptuous.

Then the St. John’s huddle broke, and Izzy Steinberg, who’d played the Lord High Executioner in The Mikado the year before, marched with an exaggerated goose step to his position as centre. About him the rest of the team marched with stiff, jerky steps to their places also. Dressed in their torn sweaters and oversize pants, held up by bits of string and old suspenders, they turned smartly to salute Torchy, who promptly returned the salute, and then as one man they all whirled about to give a “Sieg Heil” to the members of the Kelvin team. As the full impact of the caricature was taken in by the spectators, laughter began to gather within the North End stands until it washed over the Kelvin fans.

The laughter and noise quietened into an expectant hush as Torchy began to call signals. Everyone in the stadium knew that Torchy had the largest sleight-of-hand repertoire of any high school quarterback in the city. Consequently, once the play began, anyone who could conceivably get his hands on the ball – backs, ends – all were immediately flattened by those Kelvin behemoths that came roaring through our line. Which meant that nobody laid a hand on Torchy as he limped down the field, paused briefly to fish the ball out of the hole in his sweater, and then crossed over the River Heights goal line. The quarterback sneak had travelled the whole length of the field.

While the Kelvin players were still complaining to the officials, we could see Torchy calling the St. John’s team into a huddle. I don’t know what he said, but after the kick-off, our players charged down the field as if they’d been transformed. In the fading sunlight, their torn uniforms looked like golden armour, ablaze with precious stones; their helmets shone with emeralds and sapphires; and they moved with a grace and power that was electrifying. That two hundred pound River Heights fullback – who was playing both ways – caught the ball and was promptly hit by Sidney Cohen in the hardest flying tackle any of us had ever seen. After that tackle, Sidney, who had always impressed us as something of a Momma’s Boy, was Papa’s Boy forever.

The Kelvin fullback had fallen to the earth as if he were the Tower of Babel crumbling beneath the wrath of God. The ball bounced into the air, and Torchy... Torchy was where he always is during a fumble. He would have scored touchdown if he had had to go down on the field on crutches. The same, I’m afraid, could not be said of the two hundred pound fullback. Bruno Hogg lay unconscious on the field, dreaming strange, alien dreams of knishes and gefilte fish, and blissfully unaware that, for once, he’d met his match and had been vanquished utterly. Now we were only six points behind.

During the fourth quarter, the Kelvin line started tackling Torchy on every play. You’d see him out there, limping away from the action of the hand-off, holding up both arms to show everyone that he didn’t have the ball, and still they’d tackle him. So then Torchy started throwing passes – that way the whole stadium could see he didn’t have the ball. But neither the Kelvin tackles nor the officials seemed to care. And that was when Torchy sent word to the bench that it was time for Luther Johnson to come out.

Luther was our secret weapon. Just recently, his family had moved up from a black ghetto in Chicago, whether Luther had played end for the city high school champions. He was a lanky six foot five, could be along for miles faster than most people could sprint, and caught passes thrown anywhere within shouting distance.

Before vanishing in a melee of purple Kelvin seaters, Torchy managed to get away a twenty-yard completion. On the next play, Luther caught a thirty-five yarder. Suddenly those River Heights players didn’t seem to be strutting about so much. From the way they kept sprinting, first from one player on our team, then to another, you could see that they were puzzling who to go after. Torchy might just choose to go leaping across the goal line for the tying touchdown himself.

Our team wasn’t sure, either, what to do next. You could hear them arguing about it in the huddle. Once Norm Mittlehaus’s deep baritone voice could be heard demanding that they call a trick play and throw the ball to him for a change.

Finally...finally...they came out of the conference, but before they could line up, one of the officials blew his whistle to signal they’d lost the down. Too much time in the huddle. So back they went to argue some more.

They were still arguing when they came out for the second down. Torchy looked pretty small out there as he limped into position behind the centre. Even without the limp, though, we would have recognized him by that that hard whiplash voice of his, the black hair constantly falling down into his eyes and the fluid way he managed to move once the ball was snapped – hurt leg and all. He was like a particularly graceful predatory bird that’s injured a wing.

Again the ball was sent arcing through the air, and again Luther was running along in that lope of his – this time across the Kelvin goal line. Everyone on the Kelvin team seemed out to intercept the pass, and all the possible receivers were immediately encircled by River Heights players. The ball, which was soaring a good two feat above everyone’s minds, kept rising still, and looked as though it would fall uncaught in the end zone.

Luther didn’t need to leap or spring to reach the ball. Suddenly he was just there – his black face a good three feet higher than the distraught white ones looking up at him in disbelief. At that that moment, with the players all frozen together in a portrait of triumph and defeat, Luther must have looked – to the Kelvin team – like the Black Angel of Death himself. They hung there for a moment, Luther’s eyes ablaze with laughter, his white teeth flashing savagely. Then they all broke apart and stumbled to the ground, and the roaring from the stands broke over them.

As both teams lined up again for the kick-off, Torchy moved toward the sidelines, his limp worse than ever. Though only five minutes remained, now that the score was tied, not a spectator there doubted for a moment that we would go on to win the game. Standing at the bench and looking at his team-mates lining up, Torchy seemed a magician who had just worked a miraculous transformation. The fumbling rabble of players who had dragged out on to the field two hours before now looked like a company of young gods come to try their prowess on the fields of Olympus.

But that was when the Kelvin team began their incredible march down the field. It all started after the kick-off with the referee claiming that we had roughed the receiver. When Mittlehaus objected, he was promptly kicked out of the game for unsportsmanlike behaviour, and the team given an additional penalty of another ten yards. On the next play, Kelvin’s pass was incomplete, but we got called off for being off-side. A few minutes later, and they kicked a single point from our thirty-yard line.

After a moment of doubt and disbelief, a few cheers broke out, halting and uncertain, from the River Heights stands. Yet almost immediately a feverish silence gripped the stadium, preventing even the outrage protests of the North End supporters from gathering momentum. Furiously, the St. John’s team gathered around the ball. There were only two minutes left in the game, barely enough time to set matters right. Torchy began calling signals, the players snapped into formation, the ball was hiked, and now they were all in motion. Every line in their bodies, the practised way in which they moved, spoke of assurance and competence toward which they’d been building throughout the game. The fullback slashed into the line. Three yards, maybe four. Again the players gathered about the ball and signals were barked. Ends criss-crossed over the goal line, players blocked, changed direction, faked. And then the fullback – on a delayed plunge – slashed into the line again. But the Kelvin players held as fast as the walls of Jericho before they finally came tumbling down. Five yards.

For the third down, Kelvin didn’t even bother sending back receivers. The play began as another plunge, with two lines clashing and then becoming still for a moment. Suddenly Torchy began fading back, arm raised to throw – as deadly as a cobra – while Luther burst into the open, shifted to his left, and raced downfield. Torchy waited till the last possible moment as the purple sweaters converged upon him; and then the ball was soaring free out of that jumble of players – as straight and true a pass as any receiver could hope for. Luther loped effortlessly toward where the ball would arc downward into his waiting hands, and we cheered with enough energy to split the stadium apart and bring the walls of that Philistine temple down upon our enemies’ heads. And about us, the city shone as if made of molten glass – aflame in the radiance of the setting sun – gates garnished with pearl and gold and all manner of precious stones.

In the dazzled eyes of the frenzied North End fans, Luther, in his dented helmet, torn sweater and baggy pants, was already a figure of glory. But suddenly a look of alarm and disbelief crossed Luther’s face as he was brought up short in his tracks, then pitched down, face forward, into the turf – his outstretched arms empty – the ball arcing downward to bound mockingly across the Kelvin goal line, just beyond his fingertips.

His own disbelief was mirrored in the faces of the fans. He had been upended, not by a Kelvin tackle, but by a pair of snapped suspenders which had suddenly catapulted his pants violently downward so that they now hung about his ankles. As the stands erupted in catcalls, laughter, boos and cheers, we glimpsed what looked like a white flag signalling defeat. And then the whistle blew to end the game.

It was right, I suppose, that we should have lost. Anything else would have been a lie. Afterwards, as we pushed and elbowed our way out the gates, we were only too aware of the outraged glances being directed at us by our teachers from across the field. While behind us, in mighty crescendo of triumph, rose the voices from the River Heights stands:

Send him victorious,
Happy and glorious,
Long to reign over us,
God Save the King!
Those voices followed us right out of the stadium, and once out of high school, we fled in every possible direction. Marvin Zimmerman raced back to the General Hospital and eventually married one of those pretty nurses; Sam Margolis got his father to mortgage the house and send him to college in Los Angeles; Nate Samuelson, who planned to become a famous heart surgeon, actually entered Medical School; Marty Klein became a delivery man for a local dairy; Luther Johnson got taken on by the C.P.R. as a sleeping-car attendant; and Torchy Brownstone just dropped out of sight. As for Mr. Rockwood, the short, heavy-set English teacher who was the terror or Room 41, he was at last allowed to return to Kelvin – after his years of penance in the North End – but almost immediately he was forced into early retirement when he swatted a grade ten student he caught sneaking out to the drugstore on Academy Road. Most of the others - players, teachers, friends – I’m afraid I’ve lost sight of over the years. But often, when I’m least expecting it, a familiar face that really hasn’t changed all that much will stare out at me from the eleven o’clock t.v. news, or from the society pages of the Free Press, or even occasionally now as the years pass, from the obituary columns. When that happens, I fill in a little write-up of my own beneath a photography I keep filed away in my memory.

But not only have familiar faces disappeared, familiar landmarks have vanished also, and during the last twenty-five years it has become more and more difficult to keep track of the city I once knew. The Royal Alexandra Hotel, where we held our graduation dance, is gone. Child’s Restaurant at Portage and Main, where we’d all meet after a play or movie – no more. Even Osborne Stadium, where we played our football games, has vanished, replaced by a huge, expensive insurance company. Do the shouts of former high school battles ever echo within those heavy stone walls, I wonder, or have they been filed away with such names as Norm Mittlehaus, Nate Samuelson, Marvin Zimmerman and the rest, as insurance statistics in grey steel filing cabinets?

With the passage of time, the North End, too, has changed. So final has its defeat become that it has even had thrust upon it a suburb with such street names as Bluebell, Marigold, Primrose and Cherryhill. Over the years, that two hundred pound fullback has managed to race clear across the city to score a touchdown right here in our home territory. Now we also have our false Eden.

In an attempt to exact some small measure of revenge, I bought a house in River Heights a few years ago and let the lawn go to seed, allowed the back gate to fall off the hinges, let the torn screens on the veranda go unrepaired, and filled the garage and backyard with old furniture and junk from my grandmother’s house. But even I know that this attempt to plant a bit of the North End in the heart of River Heights doesn’t begin to restore the balance.

The only time we ever came close to holding our own – and, better still, maybe even winning – was that night years before when a lone figure with a hard whiplash voice and black hair falling into his eyes came limping on to the field for part of a football game. He was one of those figures who, at the time, are filed away in a special place in your memory and are then, unaccountably, forgotten – unless, awakened by some chance occurrence, they spring to life again.

It was just a few days ago, as I was passing a downtown parking lot early in the evening, that I heard a familiar voice barking out directions to some motorists who’d manage to snarl up traffic and block both exits at once. The dark figure of the uniformed attendant moved with a fluid grace that I was sure I had seen somewhere before. There was something familiar about that limp and the way he jerked his head to glance over the lot – like an athlete assessing a new and difficult situation. Back and forth he darted among the honking cars as he signalled some forward, others backward. Until, with a flair that – under the circumstances – was really quite surprising, he had managed to untangle them all.

In the darkness, as he started back toward the booth at the entrance to the parking lot, he seemed to merge with the figure that had limped along the sidelines of the stadium so many years ago and shouted encouragement to a grumbling rabble of players. That night, for almost thirty minutes, under the stadium lights, he had discovered to us all a grace and a strength that flashed electrically from one player to another. And then they were no longer a grumbling rabble of players. They became timeless, ancient, a group of immortals caught up in trials of strength that would never end, Greek athletes who had just come to life out of stone. That night, while we all watched in wonder, the city had flashed about us with sapphires and emeralds, jasper and amethysts. And how we had longed to believe that the city could stay like that forever.
From: Kleiman, Ed. The Immortals. Edmonton: Newest Publishers Ltd., 1980.

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