Memories Revisited…

“One minute, you’re young and fun. And the next, you’re turning down the stereo in your car to see better” –Unknown

Who were these guys? I arrived late to the table and questioned, “How did you guys get so old?” I had made the hour drive to the restaurant thinking of those thrilling days of yesteryear, seeing them as the young men from forty years ago. Young men, full of piss and vinegar, with all their hair in my mind’s eye. Except Stan, Stan never had hair. Obviously, my mind’s eye needs some corrective lenses.

There were nine of us, eight retired coaches and one of our former players.  It had been the player’s idea. An impromptu reunion. I don’t know how many great ideas John has had during his life, but this was assuredly one of the better ones.

We had lived life like dysfunctional brothers for most of a decade and stayed connected for the three decades since. Clay, the head coach and athletic director. Carroll, the secondary coach, and basketball coach. Stan, the offensive line coach, wrestling coach, and later head coach and athletic director after my time. Max, a former player who could coach anything and helped me with the defense when he wasn’t calling plays for the offense. Cooper, the defensive line coach, resident comedian, and Precious Pup. Larry, our JV coach who would become a successful head coach in his own right. Mike, the trainer, and highly successful wrestling coach. John the wide receiver, punter, and wrestler we coached so long ago who went on to a college career before a continuing career as a successful human. Oh, I forgot. There was Don, the linebacker and defensive end coach.

Around the table there were jokes and laughter, stories that had been told before, with embellishment, I’m sure. There was catching up and a bit of talk about those we have lost over the years. Most of our conversations wound from our own craziness to the kids we coached or taught and their craziness. “Do you remember” began many of our conversations.

We were young coaches and teachers in the middle Seventies, in our mid-twenties to early thirties. Some of us fresh out of college were closer in age to our kids than our peers. We became seasoned quickly and somehow never quite gave up our youthful exuberance even as our hair fell out and turned gray. Testosterone ruled the day and sometimes youth is wasted on the young. Many mistakes, many humorous, were made but somehow, we survived and grew into responsible human beings.

There was nothing more important than Friday nights…or preparing for Friday nights and the parties afterward. It was war and losing was an affront to our manhood. One coach described winning as “better than sex.” Sex lasts minutes, winning lasts all week long.

We were a brash, egotistical about our abilities, hardworking, hard partying group. We were the Ivanhoe, King Arthur, and Knights of the Round Table of the football fields. We were Sirs Percival and Galahad seeking our own version of the Holy Grail and fighting opposing knights from the opposite sidelines. Like Percival and Galahad, we never found our Holy Grail, but it didn’t stop us from competing.

There might have been a bit of the wooing of the lovely Rowena or Rebecca but most of us ended up like Brian de Bois-Guilbert, dead on a sword…usually our own sword. It didn’t stop us from trying until marriage and family responsibilities reared their head. I promised not to tell those stories until we were all dead.

As I have become seasoned, or just old, I have come to realize there was much more to those years than the rush of winning football games. There is the rush, but eventually I learned it is about the people. The memories of wins and losses have dimmed over the years but the people…the people in those memories are crystal clear.

It has been almost twenty years since I stood girded for battle on the sidelines of a football field, a whistle or play sheet instead of a sword. I coached the game for thirty years. One might think I would have more ties but in all honestly, I haven’t watched a high school football game live in a decade or more. I’m not motivated. I don’t know the people. I don’t know the players, the coaches, the teachers, and the fans. There are no ties. There is nothing to bind me to the game except my memories.

I am often asked, “What did you do before you retired?” My answer is usually followed by another question, “A teacher and coach?  What did you teach and coach?” Once, I went into a litany of sports and subjects, now I simply say, “Kids, I coached kids.”

It is the memories that bind me to people…to my former students and players like John. It is the memories that bind me to seven balding coaches telling jokes and reminiscing. It is the memories that made it seem like just yesterday I walked off the football field and out of the locker room we once shared.

“The past beats inside me like a second heart.” ― John Banville, The Sea

“Kids don’t remember what you try to teach them. They remember what you are.” —Jim Henson

From left to right, from the floor and around the table: Hank the wonder dog, John Black, Stan Hopkins, Clay Bradburn, Larry Frost, Dennis “Max” Massingille, Don Miller, Cooper Gunby, Mike Frye, Carroll Long

Blog image of Mauldin Football from Gwinn Davis.

Don Miller’s author’s page https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM?fbclid=IwAR2n75Gfrb8wkA0AlIhcygC4VnZMTaNWVqzVDEqEKQRuMGy9oc8kN4B5l8I

My BBQ Hash Ought Not Be Lookin’ At Me

“Like the blind man said as he wandered into a cannibal village . . .“Alright! The country fair must be right up ahead. I smell barbecue!”― John Rachel

This morning I fell into a rabbit hole that involved football and BBQ.  If you have ever been to a football tailgate, you know how they are related. Southern football tailgates for sure. 

Here, in my part of the world, worshipers of the religion that is football filed back into various high school cathedrals erected to their pigskin gods this past week, and college football worshipers will begin their own pigskin revival this weekend. Many worshipers will bring with them their religious trappings in the form of grills and smokers, filled ice chests, and lawn chairs. 

It is time to sacrifice the fatted hog to whichever football deity you worship. Hardwood charcoal smoke and the aroma of Boston butts slow cooking will waft through the stadium parking lots and are the sacred incense of the religion of football.

No photo description available.
Picture from The Tailgate BBQ-Facebook

I have worshipped football for most of my life and spent twenty-nine years coaching it. As a young, first-year football coach I was a clean slate.  I knew not what I was getting into when I accepted the offer to coach junior high football at Gallman Junior High School and scout for the Newberry High School Bulldog varsity squad in the fall of 1974. 

I was the junior high offensive and defensive line coach, positions I had played in high school…positions I found I was sorely lacking the knowledge necessary to coach. As my first varsity head coach, a big, hairy, square bodied man with the moniker, Bear, pointed out to me, “The first thing you need to understand is that you don’t know sh!t from Shinola and learn which one you need to shine your shoes with and which one you better not step in.”  An old phrase that meant I was ignorant.  Yes, I was ignorant, and some might claim, “You remained that way and to this very day, step in the wrong one…every day.”

Not only was I “on the field” ignorant, but I also had no idea what off-field responsibilities coaching entailed. Cutting fields, lining fields, taping ankles, doing laundry…all fell on the heads of the younger coaches.  I was twenty-three and a first-year coach, my duties weighed heavily upon my shoulders. Did I mention I was a fulltime teacher too?

Friday game nights I never saw us play live and in living color until the last game of the season. I was responsible for scouting. It was my duty to drive to the next week’s opponent’s game for reconnoitering duties and film exchange. Sundays, I assisted with film breakdown because I was the only coach who had seen our next opponent live.  All the while facing five classes of seventh graders daily, five days a week, and no real clue how to teach history, either.  I didn’t know sh!t from Shinola and I was learning which was which while on the job.

What does this have to do with BBQ hash? Nothing but I’m getting there.

Another duty I didn’t realize I had was the twice-annual fundraisers we ran to support our programs.  Athletic programs run off gate receipts and only a few sports make money.  Consequently, athletic programs run their “Sell Your Soul to the Devil for Athletic Equipment” fundraisers or allow the Booster Club to bend you over a desk.  “Was it good for you? Here is the chin strap you needed. See you next week and maybe I’ll give you a second one.”

In my part of the world at the time, the midlands of South Carolina, the easiest way to raise a lot of money was selling tickets for BBQ plates with all the fixings…said fixins. A local farmer gave us a deal on hogs, a local grocery a deal on chicken and the fixins, a local game meat processor did his part and viola, fund raiser.

The kids were handed a number of tickets to sell entitling the buyer to a plate of BBQ…with all the fixins. It also gave us an idea of how much to prepare. That’s right, coaches, their wives, their teams, and any fool stupid enough to volunteer were responsible for preparing and serving the food.

Family and friends who allowed their arms to be twisted into purchasing a ticket would show up on the blessed day and pick up their Styrofoam containers and consume them where ever. This was held in conjunction with meet the Bulldogs and picture day. Everyone wins, athletics get their needed equipment and supporters get a meal. A right good meal I might add.

Unfortunately, it also requires a sleepless night of slow cooking porkers and cluckers for the coaches and then filling plates with pulled pork, or roasted chicken, slaw, pickles, fried hushpuppies, baked beans and my duty, BBQ hash smothering white rice…all without the benefit of any sleep for over thirty-six hours and a hangover from drinking too many brown likker drinks brought by one of the other assistants to help while away the hours. I truly didn’t know the difference between “sh!t and Shinola.” Ah, the stupidity of youth.

BBQ hash is a dish served over white rice, an accompaniment to BBQ served mainly in the Dutch Fork of South Carolina.  Unrecognizable pig parts are cooked until they attain the consistency of mush.  Unrecognizable pig parts means “don’t ask, don’t tell”. Head meat including snouts, tongue, liver, and other organ meat were primary and I guess I just told.

Sautéed onions and potatoes are added and are further cooked to death.  Near the end, mustard BBQ sauce, vinegar, pepper, and hot sauce are added and simmered just long enough to give the flavors a chance to blend. That could be ten minutes or forever plus one day. Finally, you’ll stir in butter.  The dish is much better than it sounds and not a dish you need to eat if counting calories or if you have an arterial blockage.

My duty? Stir the hash in a huge black, cast-iron kettle over an open fire with a wooden boat oar.  Stir, stir, stir, sweat, sweat, sweat, drink, drink, drink.  Repeat until the correct consistency is achieved, or you are too inebriated, tired, or dehydrated to stand.  Couldn’t be dehydrated. Don’t worry, the hash will all come together on its own.

At some point during the early, still dark hours of the morning, I watched as a white object was stirred to the top of the hash. No I wasn’t drunk or dreaming. In the flickering light of the wood fire under the kettle, I watched an eyeball roll over and fix me with its gaze.  This was not an unrecognizable pork part but I decided not to tell. As it sank, it seemed to wink at me as it disappeared into the ooze. 

Suddenly wide eyed, fully awake, and fighting the urge to scream, I dipped the oar where the eyeball had disappeared but never found it.  Later as I ladled hash on top of white rice, I worried which lucky diner would receive the prize he or she didn’t want.  I also admit it was years before I ate BBQ hash again and to this day, when I do eat it, I’m careful to search each forkful before opening my mouth.  Hash ought not to be lookin’ at you while you are eating it. 

In my best Bugs Bunny voice, “Bon Appetit!” For a recipe for genuine SC BBQ hash that doesn’t use “don’t ask, don’t tell” pig parts try https://spicysouthernkitchen.com/south-carolina-barbecue-hash/

In case you are unsure, Shinola is a now defunct type of shoe polish.

The image of the football grilling over coals came from Canva.

Don Miller’s Amazon site can be found at https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM?fbclid=IwAR1Kd0edLWxmy4Zt24SHvYnwe7QBAyx47b-LwntLo5wOhrAjT838vBaFKL0