Time flies. Two years ago this summer, New Times teamed up with Valley Bar to create a monthly live reading series. Our tagline: True Stories. And Drinks. We’ve lived up to that, with more than two dozen shows on the books — and documented in our podcast, available for free on the iTunes store. For information about upcoming shows, or to find out how to participate, visit barfliesaz.com. This week, we are sharing three of our all-time favorite Bar Flies stories, each touching on the theme “Back to School.”
Throughout the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, Round Valley High School, in the tiny White Mountain town of Eagar, Arizona, was a football factory. By the time I got there, the Round Valley Elks had enjoyed more than 70 winning seasons in a row, won two recent state championships, and had set the state record for consecutive victories with 34.
We were coached by a squat, sadistic, no-neck little pile of muscle and gut named Tot Workman. Despite standing all of 5-foot-5, Workman exuded a loud, intimidating, and supreme confidence in his authority and ability to motivate young men to do — with as much intensity as humanly possible — whatever he told them. A devout Mormon, Workman’s voice was nevertheless perpetually hoarse from screaming at us. These tirades included the occasional epithet, which would then produce more anger at us for having made him break one of the tenets of the faith. We would succeed, he told us, “if I have to sacrifice every drop of blood in your bodies.” He meant it. The idea that coaches shouldn’t haul their players around by their facemasks, or hit them, had not caught on in our town.
I’m not trying to brag, but I believe I had several felonies committed on me in high school. We all did! It was the ’80s.
This was Workman’s system. He had the full support of the town and his players for this reason: We won. In the late summer of 1982, I became a new cog in this system: a then-5-foot-7, 130-pound linebacker.
Harold was an older and much more prominent cog in this system. Standing 6-foot-4, around 240 pounds, Harold was a senior and returning starter on the offensive and defensive line. He wasn’t muscular, just big, with an even bigger mean streak. He was the latest in a long line of aggressive, hulking, steak-fed rancher’s boys to anchor Coach Workman’s mauling, half-crazed style of line play. Harold idolized Coach Workman and, one suspected, would kill for him. At least that’s what we sincerely believed when we were freshmen.
Harold managed this role while seeming barely literate. But he was mighty quick on the uptake when it came to spotting weaknesses in others and attacking.
To his credit, Harold’s bullying could sometimes show bursts of ingenuity and absurd humor that could even be admired … but only if directed at others. Harold’s habit of backhanding unwitting underclassmen in the testicles as they walked through the hallways — punctuated with “Take a bow!” — was always hilarious … to witness.
About two weeks before the start of school, we kicked off the football season with a hellish series of two-a-day practices. Sophomores and upperclassmen knew what to expect. Freshmen like me did not. We had barely strapped on our helmets and lined up for stretching when things started going wrong for us. Before we would ever even touch a football, Workman first assigned our captain — Harold — to show us how to do proper Round Valley Elks jumping jacks. And we were fucking them up. Unlike other teams, we Elks did not audibly count out our jumping jacks. Instead, we arrayed ourselves in five lines, five yards apart, and then, silently, executed exactly 10 jumping jacks. This show of quiet discipline made for an oddly disconcerting and intimidating sight before games. While our opponents were whooping and getting “fired up” — the only sound coming from our team black-clad football robots was made by our palms slapping our thigh pads.
However, at this moment, we were weeks away from our first game. And we were discovering that it’s surprisingly difficult to count to 10 when you’re terrified. Every time we would come down on 10, a point at which we were supposed to stop and stare ahead silently, the arms of at least one freshman would rise and freeze in an aborted 11th jumping jack. After each mistake, Workman would blow his whistle, and the entire team — freshmen, JV, and varsity — would have to take off on a 100-yard series of belly flops and then redeploy for another try. As one could imagine, when everyone is punished for the transgressions of a few — and those few are invariably the youngest and weakest in the group — those few become about as popular as a fart in a diving bell. After we got in line for our third round of 10, Harold had dropped the silent part of the drill and was now flipping out and threatening to kill us. He unleashed a stream of graphic invective, punctuated by an observation I will never forget: “You look like hammered horse cum!”
It was completely involuntary, but I laughed out loud. I wasn’t alone. We had just never heard that phrase before. Hammered horse cum? How would he even know this? The snickering threw Workman into a rage of his own. Twenty 100-yard sprints later, vomiting air and feeling near death, we finally accomplished 10 suitably silent jumping jacks and moved on with practice.
After two-a-days, varsity and freshman teams didn’t practice together any more, thank God. But we did lift weights at the same time during a for-credit P.E. class. One snowy late-fall day, I stepped out of the gym shower and found myself face-to-face with Harold in the crowded locker room. He was smiling. This was disconcerting, not just because Harold was seemingly being friendly, but also because he was naked and sweaty.
Quickly adopting the universal body language for minding my own business, I lowered my eyes and reached for my towel hanging nearby on a row of hooks. But Harold moved faster and snatched it before I could.
“Can I borrow your towel real quick?” Harold said, all friendly-like, as if he were asking for a stick of gum.
Before I could protest, Harold slid my towel between his meaty thighs and began to vigorously and deeply floss his ass and balls. Back and forth, back and forth, like he was trying to saw himself in half from the bottom up. The audience was delighted. I just stood there, dripping, until he finished. Then he tossed the towel back to me and politely said, “Thanks!” I said nothing. If I had opened my mouth, I’m sure that my new ass-towel would have come with a fresh ass-kicking. It was about 4 degrees outside, but I still went to class with wet clothes plastered to my body. The towel went into the trash.
Was Harold waiting for me, or was this just a crime of opportunity? I can’t be sure. I wasn’t the only person he picked on, or even the most. It was probably just my turn.
That spring, I had managed to earn a varsity letter in track. Don’t be too impressed. Track had no junior varsity, so if you went out, you lettered. But to get a coveted RV letterman’s jacket, I first had to be initiated into the Athletic Club. Harold, as sergeant of arms, organized Hell Week, where initiates were enslaved and hazed. At any time, we were subject to vicious swats from a wooden paddle. Harold controlled the paddle, relishing the role a bit too much for our taste. For whatever reason — luck, mostly — I had managed to avoid getting a swat for most of the week. Then, like a dumbass, I mentioned this to some of my so-called friends. They promptly told Harold that I was bragging about not getting any swats.
That afternoon, as I and other slaves were washing a senior letterman’s car, Harold called me out. I had no choice but to comply. He placed me, police-style, up against the car and swung for the fences. I was wearing fashionably tight polyester sugarbooty shorts, which were wet. The sting felt like it would be fatal. The second time Harold brought the paddle down, I remember, quite literally, wishing him dead.
So, you could say I had mixed feelings when a few weeks later we heard that Harold was sick. Really sick. Inoperable brain tumor sick. Being diagnosed with cancer before you graduate high school should come with instant absolution of all sins. But with me, it wasn’t so instant. I remember feeling very little real sympathy. I didn’t really want him to die, but I harbored thoughts that Harold somehow had this coming.
A few months later, it was again time for football. I was now a sophomore, and I showed up for two-a-days heavier, faster, stronger, and definitely able to count to 10. We lined up for our first set of jumping jacks and, sure enough, some little freshman screwed up and did 11. Coach Workman blew his whistle and sent us to the fence for belly flops. As we trudged our way back, I could see that another person had joined the huddle of coaches as they waited for our return. He was tall, bald, and had a cane. It was Harold. Instead of doing another set of jumping jacks, Workman ordered the team over to take a knee.
“I want you to meet the toughest person I know,” Workman said. I don’t remember everything Harold said, but I remember the way he looked at us — with longing. He was no longer my nightmare; he was just a scared kid. He told us to cherish the time we have together as a team. Enjoy the pain because, believe it or not, we would miss it. I can’t honestly say I forgave Harold right that second for being such an asshole, but I had started the process.
“I’d give anything to put on a helmet and pads again, to be out here with you guys,” he said. “It’ll be over before you know it.”
And before I would ever see him again, for Harold, it was.
“Harold” was performed as part of the March 2016 edition of Bar Flies at Valley Bar in Phoenix.
By day, Robbie Sherwood is spokesman for the Phoenix mayor. On weekends he hosts his imaginary Food Network show, Put an Egg on It With Robbie Sherwood. He is a former political reporter, consultant, and adviser to Congressman Harry Mitchell. An Arizona native, he grew up in a White Mountain ranching family and now lives in Mesa. He has a journalism degree and a master’s of liberal studies in creative nonfiction writing, both from ASU. His book, Dear Gordon Lightfoot, is available nowhere.