For years, Brian and I had little to say to each other due to the icy chasm of our eight years difference in age. We had few common interests, after all. Not until I reached adolescence did our cold war start to thaw, a more or less civil diplomacy emerging in the unlikeliest of venues: on the virtual football fields, baseball diamonds and tennis courts of pioneering Intellivision video games. It was my older brother, who followed sports and occasionally actually played them, versus his nonathletic and sports-illiterate sibling in highly competitive contests of manual dexterity and hand-eye coordination. Countless battles unfolded on the color screen of our wood-paneled console television as we stretched out on the living room floor and blindly manipulated the controllers, keeping our wide eyes locked on the action.
Sometimes we were woefully mismatched, as when we faced off in football. Clearly Brian had the far better grasp of strategy. I had only one effective weapon in my pitiful strategic arsenal, a potentially devastating play that I called The 9929 Twenty-Yard Fadeback. Named for the four-digit code one entered into the controller to call a play that included a receiver going long, the scheme exploited a curious anomaly of Intellivision Football: its quarterbacks never threw too short nor tossed the ball out of bounds, instead firing off passes that would spiral all the way off the scrolling screen if they were not caught. By some strange compromise of gameplay design, those golden arms could accurately throw the length of the football field.
Them Catholics sure know how to make themselves miserable, let me tell you. I know, 'cause I used to work with one. Fred Murphy, that was his name, he used to work down in the supply cage, only decent guy in the whole department. Everybody on the shop floor knew to go to Freddy if you needed something, 'cause he'd actually listen to you and do whatever he could to help. Maybe he couldn't always fix your problem, but he'd go to bat for you every time. I never knew anybody who didn't like Freddy, except maybe the old fart who used to run the supply cage like it was his kingdom and we were the serfs. Anyway, ol' Fred was a good guy.
Now we were all second shifters back then, including Fred, and somehow or other we started up a Friday morning bowling league. Might have been Mel Gordon's idea, he was a pretty good bowler before his heart attack. The rest of us were just in it for a good time, you know? Couple of beers, some greasy food, who cared about the score? It was a great way to unwind before the last shift of the week, and you knew the weekend was on the other side. Fred was kind of a quiet guy, not pushy at all, and it took awhile before someone thought to ask him to join our league, since it was all guys from the floor. But once he joined us, he never missed a Friday, not so long as the league lasted.
November 24, 1983: Muddied combatants pose before heading home for Thanksgiving dinner.
It was a sacred tradition for a number of years, a ritual no less important to its participants than the national holiday on which it occurred. Every Thanksgiving morning at 9:00, a ragtag group of brothers and friends assembled on a frozen field at Robb Park for a spirited game of touch football. Victory with all of its bragging rights was awarded to the first team to score five touchdowns. By that time, great patches of dormant grass would be stripped away, leaving a muddy pit as testimony to the annual battle. Soaked through, sore, and grimier than any other time of the year, the players trudged home to clean up in time for heartily appreciated turkey dinners.
The Turkey Bowl began as a smaller affair, nothing much more than my three older brothers and a few of their friends running some plays on Thanksgiving morning. Things changed when my brother Richard taught 7th and 8th grade math and science at his alma mater, the same Catholic school that I attended.
"I told students I was a tight end at Cal Poly Pomona," acknowledges Richard. "They didn't know any better."
If gloves could talk...this one wouldn't have much to say.
"You want me to play softball in a prison?" I asked incredulously.
"I know," said Brian in a calm tone that resonated with sympathy and reassurance. We both knew that my objection had little to do with the unusual venue, and it was painfully obvious that he was desperate for players. So desperate, in fact, that he was approaching one of the last people you would want to ask if you wanted to forge a decent softball team. My brother tried to bolster his sincerity with a smile, but he could barely suppress a laugh as he tried to entice me by adding, "It'll be fun!"
"Yeah, fun," I grumbled. Brian belonged to a service organization that not only did the occasional good thing for the community but also participated in a recreational softball league. Scheduling a game against the inmates of our local minimum-security prison was a way to join the two vocations. Unfortunately, only a handful of members had signed up for the opportunity. Joining Brian in this endeavor would be the noble thing to do, but it would require a complete consumption of my pride. It was akin to taking a willing dive into a pool of embarrassment. "Let me think about it."