THURSDAY: Guarding the Cathedral

BY LEE ROBISON

Copyright is held by the author.

FROM THE day Danny Wilson joined our fourth-grade class in 1951, we, even in our childish, provincial ignorance, sensed his brotherhood with destiny. The boys clamoured to be chosen for his playground team. The girls, still bra-less and innocent, clamoured to be his partner in Mrs. McGrady’s fifth period dance class. My animus was instant and comprehensive. It was a demon in me, a dark fist of envy that clenched the first time I saw him, a slender boy with straight black hair and lake blue eyes who appeared suddenly in the classroom doorway escorted by Adeline (Adi) Perkins. She had met him during the summer, and they rode to school on the same bus. When the teacher called us to order that morning, Adi stood at front of the classroom and introduced him to us, her fingers clasping his. In that instant, in my John-Wayne-Zane-Grey fantasy world, he became dark-hatted antagonist who, though honorable and good, would fail in the inevitable struggle of heroes in which I, the champion of Adi Perkins and all chaste things would win.

Over the next eight years, my adoration of Adi Perkins abated, flared again, waned, and re-sparked in the way childish infatuations do. My animus toward Danny Wilson also changed over those years. But, though we played on the same school football and basketball teams, and ran track together, I always saw Danny Wilson as a rival, a dark other-mark against whom I asserted myself. We inhabited the same narrow valley, distant and shielded from the growing discord of our Nation and guarded by white capped mountains. We walked the same streets and roads where men and women who had held back the darknesses of the previous generation sold us our root beer floats, cut our hair, hired us in the summer to stack hay or pump gas or saw firewood. We heard and believed the same admonition that we could, in our turn, rise to save our country from the menace of a Red tyranny. We experienced together those passionate microcosms of patriotism that were pregame, high school pep rallies. But it seems we shared all this as if from different dimensional planes, sometimes flashing sparks when we touched. 

We never came to blows. But there was a constant friction, a competition to make the best grade, to run the most laps, score the fastest dash in Phys. Ed. Class. His victories were easily measured and concrete; he was faster than me, more coordinated, quicker, and so I seldom won races or basketball shooting contests. My triumphs were more nuanced and occurred in the classroom and at the debate podium. He won the track and field blue ribbons; my poems were published in the school newspaper and, several times, in the Last Lost Valley News. But though we each knew the other’s strengths and our own weaknesses, we never conceded as much to each other or our peers.

In our Junior and Senior years, Danny Wilson was quarterback and I was in the backfield. It crossed my mind early in the first season, that I, with my fitful jealousies, was not the person to be shoring up what coach Barse called the “sacred cathedral of the pocket” where the quarterback (Danny Wilson, as it happened) was the “paladin of victory.” But the second time he took a sack, I found, oddly, that like everyone else, I did not like to see Danny Wilson go down. In the next two years, the only pass rush that ever made it consistently past both the offensive line and then me was Sheridan High School’s defence led by Gabe Woodmont, a Freshman the size of Everest. It happened four times in that game, and I seemed no more than a bystander victim of Sheridan’s assault on the QB, a door unhinged and left gaping by Gabe with all the finesse of a sledge hammer. Every time I recovered myself and looked back, anxious to see whether Danny had escaped, he was down and Gabe was scalp dancing. I was sickened and angry, but the sledge hammer kept coming. I ended up playing QB for the last few minutes of that game because, late in the fourth quarter, Danny turned an ankle trying to escape another hit. But we had already won, and Coach kept us on the ground except for one pass, a quick screen that made first down.

I found myself feeling guilty for the rest of that weekend and most of the following week because I was wondering if Danny’s injury was enough for Coach to ground him for the next game, the first end-of-season play-off. But Coach taped him up, and we kept the door of the cathedral closed, and he led us to a win, going on to the lead us to the State Championship for the second year in a row.

At the victory dance, someone started singing “O Danny Boy,” and as usual the whole Gymnasium rang with 250 people singing it, off-key and on, at the top of their lungs. (This singing of an Irish pub song was something that had started the previous year after we won championship game in the District basketball tournament, led by Danny Wilson’s 23 points and my 15. I detested the song.)

Two months before we graduated high school, most of the boys in our class piled into two cars and drove to Butte for our draft physicals. That fall I went to Iowa for college. Danny Wilson had an appointment to Annapolis and Adi went to Kent, Ohio. In November, as we were all working toward end-of-term exams, President Kennedy was shot in Dallas, becoming the canary in the coal mine for our generation, though we did not know it at the time.

During my Junior year at Iowa, my parents sold the ranch, retired, and moved to New Mexico, and I lost touch with the Valley and those who had grown up in it with me. My poems began to see print in the university presses, and if I ever thought of Danny Wilson or Adi Perkins or high school football it was with the self-satisfaction that I had escaped that time and world, had taken myself beyond the childish, small town infatuations and rivalries. In those years, I let my hair grow and brushed it back into a queue. I marched against the war in Vietnam, stood arms linked to arm with other men and women, and one occasion we face down the Iowa National Guard. We saw ourselves as a frail barrier between a world falling into chaos and a life we were shaping into order with poetry, art, and social and political activism.

We followed the war with mixed feelings of fear, frustration, and anger. On black and white television screens in our dorm rooms and walk-up rentals, we watched robed priests burn. We saw the frightened eyes of girls and children wincing under the barrels of rifles. We saw rows of bodies displayed like trophies produced by those rifles. And we witnessed the physical, moral, and psychological degradation of some of our peers who held those rifles, thought our selves somehow superior, righteous. We listened to the President’s men, with their charts and wands of lies, as they spun ever more chaotic and distorted webs of deceit.

I had heard that, in spite of the President’s decree, my draft board was not calling up anyone studying for a degree, and so, during my last year at Iowa, I applied for and was accepted into the American Literature graduate program at the University of Utah. Then the following year, the draft changed to a lottery, and my number was a no-worry 283. The only thing that changed was the uncertainty of choices I would have to make. I still marched with the committed; wrote editorial pieces for the University newspaper and letters to the editor for the Tribune.

One January day, as I was calling roll for the Freshman Composition course I would be teaching winter semester, I read name of the last person on that list: “Woodmont, Gabriel.” I looked up, and a round-shouldered hulk at the back of the room said, “present.” In that instant, I smelled the blood, the dust and marking lime, the maimed grass of that long ago football field. I saw an Everest of a boy dancing over Danny Wilson, who was rolling over, wincing and standing to gather the team for one more play. I remembered the sweet joy of winning that punishing game. And I felt again the sting of that Irish drinking song echoing in the school gymnasium afterwards. And I remember my adolescent hope, and the guilt that it generated in me, that my rival would not be fit to play the next game — that I, for once, would be the leader, the hero.

I shook myself back into the classroom and completed the introduction to the course, summarizing what was expected and reviewing the general principles for organizing thought and ideas into succinct and clear compositions. I then dismissed the class, and as Gabe Woodmont passed me to leave the room, I said, “Gabe?”

He turned and looked at me. He hadn’t shaved in some time, and his hair hung in combed hanks to his shoulders. He wore a frayed, ragged olive green shirt with a stenciled USMC fading on the left pocket. There was no recognition in his eyes; but there was no alarm either, or wonder or puzzlement that I should call him by the nickname ‘Gabe.’ They were eyes that seemed to gaze — to assess this classroom, these kids filing out the door past him, this suit-and-tie teacher-poet who had called him ‘Gabe’—from another country.

I explained who I was and why I knew him, expecting, I suppose, a grin, some recognition of that time and place we both knew in our childhoods, perhaps a humorous crowing about the afternoon he made four hits on our QB. But those eyes never wavered. It was as if he stood in some alien place and time and looked with complete objectivity and disdain into a world where high school football games had relevance and where it was supposed that words could be composed into meaning.

“I know who you are.” He said, “You knew Wilson.”

The abruptness of how he said it, the past tense and the presumptive familiarity of his referring to Danny as ‘Wilson’, startled me. It suggested, somehow, a more intimate association than I had thought existed between the two of them. I grinned and blurted, “Mostly by chasing his heels.”

Those eyes from another planet did not change, but he slowly closed them, turned his head to look at some other distant alien thing he knew and I did not.

“He’s dead,” he said. The eyes came back to me, and in that distant world from which they peered, for just an instant I saw rage. “Huê. Veet Nam.” He said it as if it explained or failed to explain the universe in which he stood and from which those eyes assaulted mine. I staggered back, whether from the force of his eyes or from the incomprehensibility of what he said I cannot say.

The saliva in my mouth dried to ash. I wanted to know more, to understand. But before I could think what to say, Gabriel Woodmont was out the door and gone, and I began to understand: no answer to any question I could frame would bridge the distance between a petty school rivalry and the world in which the cathedral had collapsed and Danny Wilson no longer existed.

2 comments
  1. Obviously, a skilled writer with a well-developed individual style. But for me, it was the connection to a place in time, and the events that many of us were influenced by. A bitter-sweet tale that captured in a small window a heartbreaking truth.

  2. Excellent. Want to read more of your writing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.