We all grew up within biking distance of the city park in Olean, which sat in western New York’s southern tier at the crossroads of the rustbelt and the northernmost foothills of Appalachia. The park had basketball courts with these tectonic cracks that made the surface too uneven to play on, a baseball diamond with crabapple-sized stones littering the infield, and a wide strip of tall conifer trees that walled off a quarter-mile gravel track. The track encircled the field we would all come to for the cannibalistic ritual of our football games.
We were a bunch of white kids with immigrant names. Our grandparents or great-grandparents moved there to work the steel mills, bought houses, and had families until Bethlehem Steel went under in the late 50’s. When the town they found themselves in no longer had a purpose, it left few prospects for our families, the ones somehow managing to hang on. And in the early 80’s, what was left for us was the strip mall on State Street with the full regiment of military recruitment offices. Our grandfathers, fathers, and older brothers had signed their names to contracts in such places. In that way we all knew we’d end up sniffing around those doors when we turned seventeen in a few years. There was no talk of not joining the military—it was just talk of which branch.
A lot of the kids in my town had fathers who had gone into the Army with the exception of a few Marines, and that had either taken them away for good or delivered them back to the same spot coiled too tight for domestic life. They took jobs with the sanitation department, working the third shifts at the Cut-Co Knife or Zippo factories, ran firework shops, moved west for better jobs, or were long-haul truckers we rarely saw. We wore their moth-eaten Buffalo Bills clothing we’d pulled from boxes in the basements and attics with their names angrily etched on the flaps in the looping black letters of our mothers’ handwriting.
Playing football in their old sneakers and cleats stripped us of all our insecurities. We were beaten free of timidity and varnished in deep-muscle bruises. Getting hurt was our continuous initiation. There was the frump of air knocked out of our chests, nut shots, concussions, chipped teeth, the red specks of blood on the fatty white flesh of wet scabs, and skin torn open like split grapes so we could see the mystery of our stewed-tomato insides. We thought our fathers would be proud of how tough we were becoming.
But down to the last of us who filled out our roster, that field and those games became our collective fallout shelter to hide from our home lives. We each tried our best to silently smash our worries away and leave them turned up in clumps of mud we scarred the grass with. And though nothing was ever so clear, our mere presence day after day was our unspoken attempts at saving one another.
[Continued in Confrontation 109]