Friday, December 31, 2010

Halftime Show - By Lee Y. Greene, Jr.

An installment story about life in North Alabama.

I have lately become obliged to document stories about life in the many communities that dot the rural areas of our home state. They are all true, except that names and some places have been changed to protect the innocent and guilty alike. If you are not from the South, there will be many references and phrases from our dialect that may escape your understanding, so consult a fellow Southerner if you must.

Small communities that dot our state have a local source of pride in their high school. In generations past, they were symbols of higher education and opportunity for the children of the residents. The quality of education was measured and boasted by the schools’ performance on standardized test scores. Now days, they are measured by how many wins their sports team can compile against your town. Sports booster clubs are an order of magnitude larger than scholastic boosters clubs, if there even is one. To be fair, in some rural areas, sports are simply the only chance for a college scholarship that many kids could get.

All towns in Alabama are measured by population, but most denizens of our state will only know the size of a community by their Alabama High School Athletic Association school size class, by average daily enrollment. To outsiders, the AHSAA class ranges from 1A being the smallest to 6A being a large urban sized school.

One particular town in North Alabama, Arley, in Winston County, has a vibrant program of community-involved sports and academics. They are a “2A” classification, so by some strange formula of dubious origin, one can infer the town’s approximate population. As with any small town, the high school is a source of great pride in the community. Everyone is involved in the school activities at some level. Local businesses donate money and materials for campus events, parents and grandparents are called upon to make cookies and refreshments for holidays, and all are called upon to show up for the Friday night football games in the fall. Apparently empty seating is a sign of community apathy, and is greatly frowned upon if it is apparent to the visiting team’s supporters.

Of the many volunteer tasks that are required to run a sanctioned ASHAA football contest is a staff of people to carry the “chains” during the game. These are the people who hold the “first-down” and “down number” markers on both sides of the sidelines so the teams and fans can see how far the offense needs to move the ball in order to get four more plays. This sideline crew, called the “chain gang” unlike the referees who are obliged to be brought in from somewhere else, are from the home teams’ support base. One night this became a problem.

A few storied seasons ago, a heated football game between Arley’s only high school, Meek High and their bitter rival, Addison High, another Winston County school was underway. The game was in Arley and was very close, so tensions were high as both teams made scores against the other, but neither could put the other away. During the first half, the referees made several penalty calls against the two teams for what each side of the stands thought were undeserved and obviously made because the other team had somehow paid them off prior to the game. The scene was getting even more tense as halftime approached.

Two of the chain gang crew for the Arley home team were a husband and wife team, Ned and Alice. They were local residents who had been doing the chains for as long as anyone could remember, and that is what they lived for. It is widely known that Alice, was the meanest wife in all of Winston County. Evidence of this is another story, but suffice to say that she was a fiery woman. Ned was no prize himself, but they got along with minimal turbulence. Ned and Alice raised and sold “recreational poultry” for a living.
This night, Ned was on the visitors’ sideline doing his job marking the placement of the ball and setting the down number. An overly spirited woman, an Addison fan, was standing near the sideline with other visiting fans, watching the game. As the first quarter melted into the second, she began hurling insults and berating Ned, and the chain gang in general, for being from Arley. Ned, being used to this abuse, just ignored her and continued with his task. As the game wore on, she became more vicious with her verbal attacks and finally got to a level that captured Ned attention. During a timeout, Ned turned to the belligerent fan and told her she should behave or she would be escorted out. This made the woman even angrier and she continued her vitriolic assault squarely on Ned. She yelled “Stop moving the markers to help Meek out” and “You Arley trash are always trying to cheat us” and “You ain’t nothin”. Her flowery language got even worse and Ned warned her again “Lady, if you don’t get on, I’ll have you throwed out!” To which she replied, “I wish you were a woman, so I could whip your butt!”
The Addison woman seemed to like the reaction from Ned when she tossed out the “whip butt” provocation. Ned just smiled and returned to his duties as the timeout expired and play resumed.

A few minutes and a couple of incomplete passes later, halftime finally arrived. Ned and his group walked across the field to meet the other sideline crew and get a Coke. The concession stand was halfway between the two stands of fans, so they headed to the neutral lands to get a drink.
One of the school bands began their routines and started marching on the field. The Addison woman, who must have been very highly spirited in a dry county, followed Ned and the crew to the fence that lead off the field. Again she lit into Ned about how he was cheating and that he was a low down trashy liar.

Against his better judgement, Ned hollered at her, “Tell me what you said before, you witch!” Addison woman then repeated her “I wish you were a woman, so I could whip your butt!” statement. At this point, Alice, who apparently didn’t like anyone else but her to whip up on her man, jumped the fence like a steeplechase mare and started swinging punches at Addison woman. Addison woman gave as good as she got, and the fight was on. The band stopped playing as the fight spilled onto the football field.

Everyone just stood around and watched in stunned silence for what seemed like an eternity, but it could not have been more than a few minutes as both football teams began filing out of the locker rooms back to the field. Other fans began to push and shove as tempers flared over. Shouts and insults were passed over the crowd as other fights were starting to breakout. Both women were swapping prizefight punches with each other in a full-on catfight, so vicious that the coaches were pulling the wide-eyed players back to the sideline away from the fracas. Eventually, others calmed down from screaming at each other and pulled the fighting women apart. Apparently a threat of canceling the bitter rivalry game was all that was needed to get the crowd back under control. Ned and Alice stayed on their side of the sideline, and another chain gang was used on the visitors’ side. Addison woman was escorted off the premises and told to leave.
The game progressed, eventually ended, but no one ever forgot the halftime show in the Meek-Addison game, locally known as the “Thrilla in the Free State”.