By RAY GASKIN
A version of the following story written by Ray Gaskin first appeared in The Heavener Ledger in 1999.
In the mid-1950s, when I was about 10 years old, I got a Hutch football outfit for Christmas. It included helmet, pads, pants and jersey. One day my west side neighbor friend Bobby Cherry told me some grade-school boys were going to gather at the high school field, choose up sides and get after it. The exact details weren’t clear.
My dad had no problem with Bobby’s suggestion that I tag along. He’d been raised on a Bokoshe farm during the Great Depression and got his nose bloodied many times when he was a kid. My prim and proper mom was a different story. She preferred that I stay home and practice playing the piano.
After much wrangling, my request was granted. Donning my gear, and with a football under my arm, I headed across town. When I arrived at the football stadium, the other youngsters—roughly 20 of them—broke out laughing. I was the only kid clad in a uniform.
“You look like a comic book character, Razor,” Buster Coggins, bareheaded, wearing jeans and sweatshirt, chided. My fourth-grade classmate had nicknamed me Razor because I was very skinny. I ditched the garb, well except for the pants, and soon a brief exercise in democracy unfolded.
Two older boys—Jerry Johnston and Johnny Council—were elected team captains. That made sense because they wanted to play quarterback. In short order they took turns choosing players. A tall lad named Jerry West got picked by Jerry. I figured he must be good at catching passes. A brash youngster named Mickey Wynn was chosen by Johnny. I figured from Mickey’s cocky demeaner that he must be pretty good. Bobby volunteered to play center—an unsung position—so he got selected quickly. Most everyone else wanted to catch passes and run with the ball.
The impromptu draft continued until the two captains got to the bottom of the barrel and had to choose between me, the skinniest kid present, and another boy who waddled when he tried to run.
The mayhem that ensued was a mixture of two-below-the-waist touch football, rugby and mixed martial arts. Connor McGregor would’ve felt right at home. I got knocked around quite a bit but made it home with all my teeth.
That soothed the objections from my mom and soon Bobby and I were gathering at the West Side Grade School lawn regularly for impromptu games with other neighborhood kids, including classmates Buddy Westmoreland, Jerry Don Guinn, Larry Wisdom, Ronnie Tucker and Mike McCoy. Sometimes we’d be joined by east siders like Mike Vickers, Butch Gilstrap, Joe Johnson and Buster. Mickey Wynn’s front yard was also a popular place to toss a football around.
Buddy Westmoreland and I drew up some trick plays and suckered other boys into games of two-man touch using a pee wee football. One afternoon on a vacant lot next to Coonrod’s neighborhood grocery we got the best of Mickey and his pal Jimmy Scrivner. They were a year older than us which made it all the more thrilling. Naturally, later they denied that it ever happened.
There was one common thread in all the pick-up games, no matter where they were played and who was involved. The outcome was always in dispute. While the winners gleefully crowed, “We whipped you fair and square,” the losers invariably retorted, “We got cheated.”
Using the clothesline in our yard, Bobby and I would practice booting field goals. If we heard the sharp “ping” of a tiny projectile ricocheting off our brick trash incinerator it was a sure sign that neighbor Johnny “Goose” Tatum, a future Oklahoma Sooner who lived across the street, was monkeying with us. His intent wasn’t to ding us with BBs fired from his Daisy air rifle, just to terrorize us a little. After all, we were known to lob a few water balloons in his direction under the cover of darkness.
If there was no one around to play touch, I’d make up my own games in the yard that separated our house from my neighbor Bobby’s. His mom surely thought the kid next door was looney when she’d look out the window and see him darting about in that Hutch regalia, cradling a football, impersonating a Heavener Wolves runner, stiff-arming imaginary Poteau Pirates before charging into a row of nandina bushes that substituted for a goal line pileup, all the while describing the action in a squeaky announcer’s voice that would’ve made Bill Stern die laughing.
At a Heavener Wolves game one sultry September night a bunch of us lads were playing “keep away” with a wadded-up Dixie Cup behind the old wooden bleachers. I went to get a drink of water from a faucet that stuck out of the ground and was used to irrigate the field. After taking several gulps, I noticed that a shadow had suddenly blocked the stadium lights from my view. “What the heck?” I wondered, glancing up.
There, before my eyes, was the biggest, baddest-looking football player I’d ever laid eyes on. For an instant, I was Tom Thumb in the presence of King Arthur. Broad-shouldered, muscle bound and square-jawed, the gridiron gladiator was practically busting out of his soiled purple and gold uniform. He looked down at me, grinned, and said, “Hi, preacher’s kid.”
I had just been addressed by one of Heavener’s iconic football stars, Donnie Cron, and he knew who I was. Imagine that, me, a scrawny runt. I’m not sure how I responded, but it was a seminal moment I’ve never forgotten. Later that season big Donnie shed red-shirted tacklers like rag dolls when Heavener trounced its big brother, Poteau, 55-20.
Around town there were plenty of places to debate the peaks and valleys of Heavener Wolves football, including the Coffee Shoppe, T&M Pharmacy, and the barber chairs of George Kelley and Tom Azlin, to name a few.
The seasons came and went. Baseball was popular. Basketball had a following. It was the only sanctioned school sport offered for girls in Oklahoma. There’s no telling how many varsity letters classmate Judy Gore would’ve earned if there had been sports like softball, soccer and track available to girls in those days.
Eventually, the calendar always turned, and it was football season again. On Friday nights the KCS trains continued to rumble through town, but the streets were deserted. Even the gas stations and the pool hall shuttered early. Everyone was gone to the Wolves football game.
Ray Gaskin has written a book about his boyhood experiences growing up in Heavener. It is titled Tales from Indian Rock and is available at Amazon and in Heavener by calling the Ledger at (918) 653-2425.