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Hometown legend, p.2
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       Hometown Legend, p.2

           Jerry B. Jenkins
 
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  Finally he sat with the package on his lap and attacked ribbon and paper. “Who’s it from, first?” his dad scolded, and Elvis searched through the scraps to see.

  “Santa!” he said, and kept digging. The corrugated cardboard box had a drawing of an electric space heater on it, just like the one his mother used in the cellar. But there was no mistaking the smell of genuine leather. Finally he turned the box upside down and shook it until a smaller box tumbled out of the stuffing, brushed his knee, and hit the floor. This was no toy. It was a football, the real thing.

  Elvis leaped and whooped and hugged his parents, smiling so big he could barely see. His dad helped him remove the cardboard casing. “Let me toss it to you,” George said.

  “Not in the house,” his mother said, so his dad under-handed the ball to Elvis from a few feet away. The boy gathered it in as he dove onto the couch.

  He lay on his stomach and turned the ball so he could read the imprint. “What’s it say, Dad?”

  “Let me see,” his dad said, but the boy only tilted it toward him. He wasn’t going to let go of it for a long time, maybe ever.

  George Jackson stood over Elvis and read, “American Leather, Athens City, Alabama.” He started to read the fine print, but the boy had heard enough.

  “That’s where Santa got it?” he said. “That’s where they make them?”

  “Looks like it.”

  The boy kept the ball with him all the time. It rested in his lap at the dinner table. He slept with it. And until he took it to school in January, he and his dad played catch in the snow every day until their fingers were numb.

  3

  My daughter Rachel says she knew when her mom died because I knocked on her bedroom door and nobody ever did that. I was stalling for time and for God to give me something to say. Time ran out and I’m still waiting for how to say it. Fact is, Estelle’s mother called from her shift at the hospital—we traded off—and told me to bring Rachel. “She’s gone then?” I said, barely able to speak. The cancer had won after all.

  Rachel made it easy for me. She opened the door and hugged my neck so tight I had to ease her back so I could breathe.

  That had happened only a couple of months after Jack Schuler’s funeral, which his own mother didn’t come to. Story was that the only way Buster could even hope to hang onto his marriage was to follow Helena back to her people in Kansas City, Missouri, and even then he was never able to keep her sober. He taught some school back there but never did any more coaching. Even though he wasn’t an old man I guess he just put in his time teaching and fished every chance he got. People say Helena was in and out of the hospital for alcoholism but that was none of my business and it isn’t like Buster and I were ever friends enough that he’d report that kinda stuff to me. When you play high school ball for a guy you don’t become his pal. Least that’s what I always thought until last fall.

  I had an idea how Coach must’ve thrown himself into saving his marriage, cause I didn’t know what else to do myself but keep working and make sure I was always there for Rachel. I didn’t know Estelle had left me the football factory until I had to know it and I’m sure if she knew the grief it brought me she never woulda done it. But in a way it was good because with me being in charge I set my own hours. Her people never forgave me for her giving me the business, which I could never figure out. I woulda given it to them cept it was clear she knew what she wanted to do by the way she worded it, and there was no way I was going to go against the wishes of a dead woman even if she wasn’t my wife and I didn’t love her with all my heart, which she was and I did.

  That caused more than tension, as you can imagine, so I was pretty much left without help raising my daughter, which turned out to be a good thing, in a way. Sure, I would’ve liked to have a woman in the house for Rachel’s sake. Not for mine, cause even though I was still pretty young I couldn’t imagine ever actually loving anybody but Estelle—at least up to recent—but I had to be both mother and dad to Rachel. Turns out that was good for both of us—well, I shouldn’t speak for her—but basically I just did what I had to do because I had no choice. I got to be best friends with Rachel rather than just her daddy.

  Since I was a young man I’d done every job at the factory from shipping and receiving to cutting cowhide to sewing and turning and lacing and even molding and inflating, stamping and painting. So except for in-law relations who resented me, everybody there knew I knew how to make a football and make the place work. They also knew I wasn’t gonna be there till Rachel was off to school each day and that I would be going home in time to be there when she got back. I never woulda seen myself as a briefcase-toting kind of guy, but I learned to lug a slew of papers with me so when she was in bed I could keep the business of the place going and not have to get a baby-sitter.

  In the summertime when she was a kid, Rachel came to work with me every day and played with other kids who came with their parents. I got some kind of award from the state for childcare innovation, but the truth is I couldn’t see doing something I wouldn’t let other workers do, so I let em bring their kids and made sure they were taken care of. Now if I just coulda kept my assistant Bev from wanting to spend more time around those kids than in my office … What can I say? You can’t change a person’s basic bent.

  American Leather is one of those small-town factories that’s pretty simple and straightforward. We got one product that takes a lot a people to produce. It starts out as a pallet of stacked cowhides cut so clean off the animals that they look like they could be put back on like snug jackets. Our supplier in Chicago does the dirty work, cutting each hide in as big a single piece as they can, dyeing em and putting the dimpling on em, even embedding that tackiness that will make the ball easier to grip.

  I’ll never forget the first summer I worked there and learned what “top grain” meant. I’d always thought it described the outer layer of the hide, but it’s simpler than that. The top grain is the top of the cow, the part that has the fewest blemishes (which we in the biz call “blems”), cause the side of the animal gets the most barbed wire nicks and parasite holes. Your best footballs come from top grain.

  Cutting machines use a pattern in the shape of a quarter of a football and chop as many of those out of every hide as possible. Course, the more experienced the cutter, the more sets of four pieces (number-stamped and kept together through the whole process) we get out of each hide. When all that’s left of the hide are the tiny spaces between the cutouts, a smaller pattern gets us the little pieces that make keyrings and such.

  Those four quarter pieces are sewed together inside out with hundred-year-old sewing machines, then the balls are turned inside out to put the stitches on the inside. The guys who do that turning—man, they’re the stars. I mean, everybody has his place in the process, but a man who can turn hundreds of balls a day is a wonder of nature. (Our top guy, Lee Forest, when he was young and in shape and cooking, once turned a hundred balls an hour for eight hours straight. Bet he slept that night.)

  Course after that there’s inserting the bladder, lacing, inflating and shaping, stamping logos, and painting stripes. Like I say, it’s all we do, but there’s a lot a steps and a lot a people involved. I love the simplicity of it. You can do it cheap and careless or you can use the best materials and hire people who work with pride. Hiring’s my favorite part. Laying off people is the worst, and I’ve done enough of that the last few years to last a lifetime.

  Doing what I had to do made me grow up quick. Though I was an age when I ought to have been grown up anyway, being a single father made me serious-minded overnight. I’d always been a churchgoer, a Christian since I was a little boy, and Estelle had really showed me what faith was—right up until the day she died. But I couldn’t see ever being as devout as she was until I was sort of forced into it by being sadder and lonelier than a transferred fourth grader. All of a sudden God and church and other believers went from being something I sorta liked because I was comfortable there to being my
very source of life. I needed Jesus for more than my eternal salvation then, and before you knew it I was praying more, reading my Bible more, singing like I meant it because I did, and dragging Rachel to church every time the door was open.

  That was nothing but natural to her, because I was now the way her mom had been and Rachel had never known different. I had gone along before and been happy to do it, but I didn’t know I would do it without living with Estelle’s example until I realized I was at the end of myself without it.

  Rachel, bless her heart, was just like her mama. She believed with everything in her that Estelle was in heaven and that someday we’d see her again. I wasn’t intellectual enough to be a doubter, but it sure was comforting to know that the more of God I realized I needed, the more of Him I learned to know.

  That’s not to say that either Rachel or I were perfect saints or that we didn’t have our all-night crying sessions. The best thing my pastor ever told me was that the Bible said we weren’t supposed to grieve like the heathens do— without hope, that is—but we are to grieve and grieve with all our might. We did that all right and sometimes we still do, all these years later. But Rachel and me sorta grew up together. She’s my whole life, and she knows it. And, oh, how she’s grown to look like her mama, dark-haired and dark-eyed with perfect skin and a thin little voice. She’s passionate about what she believes in whether it has to do with God or with saving her school or our town or the factory.

  4

  And now, a dozen years after we somehow numbed our way through two tragedies inside a few months, the school, the town, and the factory were in trouble. Most people traced the whole mess straight back to the day Jack Schuler died and Buster Schuler resigned. When you’ve lost your wife and your little girl’s mama it’s hard to place as much importance on football misfortunes, but it’s hard to argue with the fact that when Athens City High School football went in the Dumpster, the leading business in town (now mine) and the town itself weren’t far behind.

  Last fall Rachel started her sophomore year and became a Fellowship of Christian Athletes prayer warrior. She also heard the rumors that with the dwindling school population and the loss of business at American Leather, everything she knew and counted on was in trouble. I had tried to keep from her my pressures at work, but after a while there was no hiding that I had laid off nearly two-thirds of the three hundred employees we’d had when I first inherited the company. People without jobs tend to move away, so businesses were closing, the school getting smaller, and stories floating about what it all meant. The problem with the stories was that they were true.

  Athens City High School was nearing a critical point where if it lost many more students, the county would shut it down and—horror of horrors—send our kids up the road to Rock Hill, which was closer to the popular retirement community of Fairhope (and its strong tax base) and closer to Mobile Bay and its seasonal but healthy tourist trade.

  Every time we’d drive or walk through town and see more boarded-up storefronts, Rachel would tell me she and God weren’t going to let the town die. “That so?” I’d say.

  “I’m praying,” she’d say.

  I’d become a praying man myself, but I wasn’t sure God cared that much about Athens City. Surely He had bigger fish to fry. But I didn’t tell Rachel that. If her faith hadn’t been crushed by the death of her own mama, I wasn’t gonna try to threaten it by questioning God’s interest in the things she cared most about now. And it was easy to see what she cared about because she was a pack rat, a collector, a—what’s she call it?—a memorializer. Her mirror was covered with pictures and pennants and clippings. And on her dresser, under a yellowed newspaper with the headline “Coach Schuler Resigns,” was the very toy football she had with her the night Jack Schuler died.

  She’d never taken it to another game, but she’d never thrown it out either. We still never missed a home game. But, oh, that became a sad chore. The crowds faded to next to nothing and the team barely ever strung together two wins in a row. People talk about how amazing it was that Athens City had more than twice the state championships of any other team in Alabama. But to me the most miraculous statistic was that up until the Jack Schuler game, in sixty-five years the school had never had more than three straight losing seasons, and that had happened only once in the 1930s.

  In Buster Schuler’s sixteen years as head coach at Athens City, he had never coached a losing team. This previous fall the Crusaders, under their third hopeless coach since Schuler, had suffered through their twelfth straight losing season. The county school board had even talked us into changing our colors to blue and white, as if that would erase memories of the tragedy we’d seen on that field. The worst idea had been the Jack F. Schuler memorial scholarship, awarded every year to the Most Valuable Player. It paid one kid’s way to Alabama every year, but choosing the best player on awful teams had become almost impossible. None of em had ever been good enough to make Bama’s football team, but they got the free education anyway. I finally figured out that the only reason anybody ever came out for football at Athens City High anymore was that long shot chance at the Bama lottery. I guess it didn’t matter to them how the team did as long as one kid stood out enough to win the prize. All I could do, Friday night after Friday night, was sit there and shake my head at the absence of team effort. Every kid with half an ounce of talent was playing for himself.

  Rachel didn’t drive yet, so she still rode with me to every game, but she had her own friends to sit with now. Usually she wound up sitting with Josie, another FCA prayer warrior. Josie’d been going with Brian Schuler, Buster’s nephew, who was the hot new quarterback. The kid had talent, but he was clearly not a team player. He threw three-fourths of the time and though he had a strong arm and good speed, his stats were terrible. He was poorly coached, and the only hope I saw on the horizon was that the head coach, believing what he was hearing around town, had already announced he would not be back.

  The search was on for a new coach, but who would take the job for what would likely be just one season? Nobody I knew, and that included me. I didn’t even have time for junior leagues anymore. It was all I could do to keep the tradition of showing up for home games while trying to keep American Leather’s business from going overseas and trying to let my daughter go while still hanging onto her for dear life.

  Rachel said she was praying for a miracle for the school, the town, and my business. Well, she wasn’t the only one. I was already getting signals from our biggest customer, The Dixie States Association of High Schools, that their long-term association with American Leather might be starting to unravel. That would do us in for good, them accounting for right around 40 percent of our business. I believed their president, Chucky Charles, was more than a client though. We’d been friendly over the years if not exactly friends, but that was only because of the hundreds of miles between my office and his in Little Rock.

  So the Athens City Crusaders’ 2000 season had been another cesspool in which they’d missed the play-offs for the twelfth straight time. Even I didn’t know if I’d be able to stomach one more season, and I admit I sided with those on the county school board who said it might not be worth the expense and the trouble to field one more team, especially if they couldn’t find a coach anyway.

  But Fred Kennedy, chairman of the county school board, had decided that since I ran American Leather I must know everybody in the football world, so he’d asked if I’d try to find someone to take the final season. The board gave me till the end of the school year. All I could think of was to ask the freshman and jayvee coaches of neighboring schools if anyone wanted to get one varsity year under his belt before testing the waters elsewhere. I thought it was a decent idea, and I figured someone might bite. The board loaded me down with the films of all the games of the last season, which I thought might be better to burn or somehow misplace than show anybody.

  But I never got the chance to ask around whether some bold young coach was even interested in talking a
bout the job. I guess you could say Rachel’s and my prayers, at least the ones for the football team, got answered.

  5

  So it’s a little less than a year ago now and I’m sitting in my office at the factory with two things on my mind. The first is sorta never off my mind and if you’ve ever been responsible for a business and more directly lots of people and their livelihoods, you know what that is. I’m not a neat-desk kind of a guy and even though I own the business the only luxury I got is Bev Raschke, the kid-loving assistant who answers my phone before I do. (She, of course, really runs the place, which is the joke I tell every day and which isn’t so funny or far off when you get down to it.) I don’t even have a nice office. I’ve only got one window and that looks out past Bev’s cubicle onto the floor.

  Anyway, I’m sitting there noodling how to keep the place alive and not lay off any more people while still trying to meet the business we do still have coming in.

  My chief financial officer thinks I ought to be spending more time schmoozing Chucky Charles, and she’s probably right cause Chucky’s told me he’s been getting courted by the competition. Well, I don’t know how we could be doing a better job for Dixie States, and anyway I think my workers need to see me looking out for them. I’m down to the really old and valuable veterans, some a which been with us longer than I have. But I’ve already got em overworked and underpaid and now I’m asking for overtime and they’re taking it cause they know if they don’t I’ll find someone who will. So that’s first and foremost, as old Benton Estes used to be fond of saying.

 
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