When I was younger, when asked, I would answer enthusiastically and always with pride.
I would always give a clear picture of where my hometown was.
As I got older and after I moved away, I began to notice that nearly every time I told people where I was from, I delivered the words, “Oak Harbor, Ohio” as though it were an apology for something I did wrong.
I would wait for that familiar blank stare. I would then say … “Oak Harbor is in Northwest, Ohio… close to Cedar Point” and suddenly I would see their eyes light up with recognition.
When you grow up in the tight confines of small town America, everything outside the boundaries of your hometown is kind of a blur. You can only imagine what everyday life is like in faraway cities. Those places outside of the town limit signs could be just as much a figment of your imagination as anything else you’ve ever dreamed. No matter how many pictures you’ve seen. No matter how many times people would come back with stories of life beyond your reality, it just never really seemed to convince me.
To me, those places were as much a fantasy and as far away as the land of Oz.
As a child and even into your teens, you know your hometown intimately, and it knows you. It seemed that no matter where you went, you were always running into something that reminded you of how much you’ve already done there. Every day it would wrap around you like a warm blanket on a cold winter’s night until you felt you knew it as intimately as you did the layout of your own bedroom. You could walk around it with your eyes closed and never be surprised by a single thing.
When I got my driver’s license when I turned 16, it was the first time I felt like I was part of the world and not bound by the unforgiving signs of our town limits.
I felt untethered, independent and unrestricted.
It makes me grin when I think about it now, because I was still bound by the town limit signs. I just changed my mode of transportation. I went from a 10-speed bicycle to a Ford Pinto. Which really only meant I could drive the loop around town a little faster.
Not much faster, mind you, but just enough to make me feel free. I would drive my car in the same continuous, languorous, tedious, life sucking regular loop around town.
A typical summer night would be as follows: I would pull out of my driveway on Locust Street and drive south to the stoplight by Denny’s Gulf Station. Make a left turn onto Water Street and drive real slow to see if any of my friends were at Van Atta’s Dairy Queen. If no one was there, I would continue down the street and turn left onto Finke Road and drive through Veteran’s Park to see if there were any softball or baseball games going on. An extra bonus was if there were any girls playing tennis on the courts next to the road.
In today’s world, I would be handcuffed, interrogated and probably body-searched over why I was sitting in a car, at the park, watching the games from the front seat of my car.
But not back then.
I can’t tell you how many times I sat there parked in my car. Watching the games from the front seat, trying to look and be cool. Wanting to talk to the cute girls playing tennis or to the other girls that were just walking around the park trying to look as cool as I was trying to be. I sat there trying to get enough nerve to start conversations with girls whose names I knew and went to school with since kindergarten.
I could never pull the trigger.
I would just swallow my confidence and promise myself that tomorrow night would be different. “I will do it for sure tomorrow” I would say to myself, as the music blared from FM 104.7 on my stereo. I would sit there alone, hoping that the station would at least play, “Cold as Ice” by Foreigner or “Do You Feel Like We Do” by Peter Frampton when those girls would walk by so I could turn it up even louder and that they would “hear” that I was cool.
Thinking about it now… it probably was just as creepy as it is today for someone to sit in the car like that I just never considered it when I was doing it.
It never dawned on me at the time, but when I would pull up in my dark blue rusted out Pinto, I was pulling next to the never-ending sea of Camaro’s or Trans Am’s that always seemed to be owned by every “cool kid” in Oak Harbor.
Eventually, I would grow tired of just sitting there in my car with the music blaring from my radio. I would start to pull out of my parking spot to make another loop around town.
Maybe something was going on? Maybe something changed since my last trip around town?
Heading down Main Street towards Locust Street, I’d crank the stereo system a lttle louder, knowing all the while that it cost more than the car I was driving.
I was lying to myself. I would tell myself that tomorrow night would be different.
I just experienced the Friday Night Lights of Oak Harbor football.
I haven’t been to an Oak Harbor game in over 20 years.
I wonder what had changed? I wonder if it was like I remembered it?
There was a time, that Oak Harbor felt Friday Night football was the center of their existence. The starting players would have signs with their names in their front yards. The players spent the whole day wearing their jersey around school and counting down the periods until school was finally over so they could focus strictly on the game.
The players knew that growing up in Oak Harbor meant they were born and raised for those Friday night lights. Seemed like every kid would dream of the day when they would play under those lights.
Players didn’t take anything for granted because they knew the history of what teams and players had done for Oak Harbor in the past and the players didn’t want to let the town down! All players who ever put on that Rocket green helmet knew who they were playing for: their teammates, the school, the town, and all former Rockets that ever wore the uniform.
The cheerleaders decorated the players lockers, paying close attention and doing a little more for the senior football players. There were pep rallies and booster clubs and cross-county rivalries.
A lot can change in 20 years.
I pull into the parking lot and slowly get out of my car. There is something that is always uncomfortable about walking into a football game by yourself. It’s like there is an unwritten expectation that you go to the game with someone else.
I am alone and I feel self-conscious.
It’s October. There should be a chill in the air but there isn’t. I expected the school colors of Christmas Red and Christmas Green to be draped all through the stadium and everyone standing shoulder-to-shoulder, like I remembered the games in my memory.
I hear the band playing. The band starts to play the Oak Harbor “fight song” and suddenly I am adrift in nostalgic familiar territory. I stop and listen and I am surprised that words come oddly back to mind easily…
“We’re loyal to you OH High…”
I watch the band march off the field to same drum cadence that has been the signature of the band for as long as I can remember.
“O-H-H-S… O-H-H-S… Rockets!!!”
I make my way along the front of the stands. My brother and sister are somewhere in the crowd. They are here for their class reunions. For my brother, his 45th. My sister she is back in town for her 40th reunion. Now my brother has only missed probably 7 or 8 games of Rocket football since the day he graduated all those years ago. He is walking history book of knowledge. He knows and remembers all of the players, the teams and their stat history. For my sister, this may be the first football game she has been to since she walked off the field on her last game as a cheerleader her senior year.
I find them with their respective classes in their designated seating so that they can sit together and talk about old times and watch the game together. I am keenly aware that I don’t belong to either of these classes. But I wedge myself into a seat among them and suddenly I am an imposter. It feels like everyone’s staring at me. Each alumni from the class of 1971 and 1976 trying to figure out who I am.
A face they don’t remember.
My sister reminds a few people who I am sitting with, that the person who has crashed their party was her “little brother” and for some, a vague sense of recollection comes to mind. I am sure they found some relief in knowing that I wasn’t someone in their class that they totally did not remember.
The game has already started, but I can’t follow what’s happening on the field.The sun has long set, but the lights are so powerful that it looks like the type of daylight I often experience in dreams.
Surreal. Metallic. Unforgiving.
Friday Night Lights.
I am sitting in the midst of a group of people who are themselves trying to reconcile their memories of the past to the reality that is surrounding them.
I am no different.
My mind starts to drift off… suddenly it is 1973.
It was the first day of football practice – I was late.
I began to panic.
Maybe I’d come on the wrong day! Maybe I’d come to the wrong place! Every time I would open a door, there was another hallway. I couldn’t find the coaches – I couldn’t find any of the other players.
And that’s when it hit me, this was Jr. High School. The transition from elementary school to Jr High was a BIG deal to me.
And I… was completely… and utterly… alone… and on my own.
It was 1973.
It was a crazy time. Nixon and the Watergate scandal were the headlines and people were on the move… asking new questions… looking for answers.
People were breaking in new ground and wanting a change.
Seemed like everyone I knew was searching for a new identity. Including me.
That September, I entered Rocky Ridge Junior High. I was looking forward to new adventures. I wanted to start my 7th grade year with a bang.
After my summer baseball season ended on a sour note and I was clearly given the sign from the baseball gods above that my dreams of being a baseball player were now dashed upon the rocks of reality. I was looking for new opportunities. I wanted to play sports, but not just any sport but the sport of football to be exact.
I had always idolized the high school football team. I would always think about what it would be like to play in front of my friends and family. Playing on Friday nights, in the glow of the bright lights that would spotlight hometown heroes and legends.
I spent many Friday nights watching the game from the railroad tracks that ran along the west side of the field.
I would wait patiently until halftime and then they would close up the ticket booth and we were free to enter into the game. For me, Oak Harbor’s football stadium at the corner of Church and Walnut will always be considered hallowed ground and it’s the players and teams that made it special.
The Jr. High football team changed at the high school on Church Street and after running down every hall of the school, I finally found the locker room and went in.
To say that they were less than pleased to see me come into the locker room more than 10 minutes late for the first day of practice is an understatement. For what it’s worth, it did get me noticed. Linda Lee’s little brother. More importantly, I gave the coaches a face of the one person they would ride and harass for the rest of the season.
I survived that first day and at the end the week, the coaches called out my name and they threw me my new football jersey. Christmas Green…with the number 80 blazoned in white on the front and in the back. I was now officially a member of the 7th grade football team for the Oak Harbor Rockets.
I was so proud.
I had not even put on a pair of shoulder pads and here I was strutting around in my football jersey. We were told to wear the jersey to first day of school and I happily complied. I remember walking through the doors that first day of school with my bright green jersey on. I was way too cool and I remember walking about two foot off the ground.
I had no clue of what I was going to face in the coming days.
Considering the fact in 1973, I was a smidgen over 5 foot tall and weighed all of 65 lbs. I should have been keenly aware of what I was about to face. We were lined up in the hall outside of the equipment room and waited for our turn to be called in to be fitted. I was so excited.
Names were called and I waited patiently. I was among the last 5 or 6 players that were called. When I was finally fitted with my equipment, I realized that something was different. Before I ever stepped onto a field with football pads on, my fate had already been determined. While the bigger kids and those who had families that had special ties to the school received newer equipment, I was given football pads that were straight out of the 1950’s. My way too large helmet was commonly called a “monkey ear helmet” because of the protruding ear portion of the helmet.
“That will work!!!” my coach declared, as he slapped the side of my monkey helmet. The helmet spun so far that I was now looking out the earhole of the helmet. But all my thoughts and concerns were about one day playing under the lights on a Friday night. So I straightened out my helmet and made my way to the door of the locker room.
I almost made it out when I was stopped because a father was in a heated argument with the coach about the inept, outdated and unsafe equipment his son had been issued. A few minutes later that son would emerge with nice, appropriate equipment with a rounded safe helmet like the Varsity players wore.
I didn’t have a dad that did those kind of things. I was completely and utterly alone and on my own.
Still I was proud. I was starting my time playing football. I wasn’t going to let inept, outdated and unsafe equipment get in my way. I did learn quickly that running around with all these pads on was much different from what I was used to when the guys and I played backyard football in Blakely’s yard. This was going to take some time to adjust.
For the most part, I survived the first few practices by being pretty lucky and besides the prodding from the coaches I stayed out of the line of fire. Then the fateful event happened. We had a football drill called “hamburger”which basically is a drill where two players lie on their back with their helmets touching. On the coach’s whistle, both players get up and run back four yards in opposite directions, where one player takes a handoff from one coach and the other slaps the hands of a waiting coach. At that point, they turn and run at each other. The player with the ball tries to run through the tackler and the tackler tries to bring the ball carrier down. After the tackle is made, each player moves to the back of the line as all players take part in this drill.
I took my spot in line and as I got closer to my turn to participate in the drill, I looked across to the other line to see who my competition was going to be. I really wanted to make a good impression on the coaches and I wanted to make sure I was matched up with someone my size and if luck would have it, maybe even someone smaller than me. So I watched to see who was going to line up against me. I saw that it was someone who was bigger than me and I started to shuffle my way a spot further back in line where I would be matched with someone my size.
I got to my preferred place in line when I heard the loudest whistle I think I have ever heard. Then I hear my coach screaming out my name, “LEE… front and center!!!”
I had been caught cutting the line… which was a big no-no.
He grabbed me by the facemask of my “monkey ear helmet” and proceeded to pull and drag me back and forth in front of my team. All the while using me as an example as to what a player was not supposed to do at practice.
After the verbal tirade and personal humiliation, he finally drug me over to the spot where I would have to carry the ball. He made me lie down at the spot and I hear him talking to other players but I cannot hear what he is saying. I hear the whistle and I jump up to take the hand off from my coach. Everything is good up to this point and I take the hand off and I turn to run the ball through the defensive player. Here is when things start to go south, because it is then I see him.
Earl Kashmere… that’s right and he was a monster. Earl Kashmere was Mr. Football of the Oak Harbor Junior High. He was no less than a foot taller than me and he was about 100 lbs. heavier as well. Earl was just staring at me, waiting for the kill and I thought just before he hit me that I saw a glimpse of a small smile come across his face.
I had never been hit so hard in my entire life. My body went completely numb and I saw stars, once again, through the earhole of my helmet. I remember hitting the ground and as all the air rushed from my lungs so did any current desire to play football.
I never told my family what happened. I am sure a law suit by today’s standard. Coaches got away with that sort of thing back then. I didn’t have anyone to tell and I surely did not have helicopter parents that protected me. I would have been just told that it would build my character.
Have you ever known those moments that changed your life? Do you remember a specific time, a special event that was life changing for you? I think it happens to all of us, I know it happened to me on that day. I suddenly realized that I wasn’t good enough. I didn’t quit. I stuck it out for the season. I wanted to play, but I just wasn’t good enough and so I finished the season and the dreams I had of Friday Night Lights faded off into the distance.
Profound moments of life are not all good moments.
So my football career was short-lived and I never played football again for the Rocket’s.
That was over 40 years ago. I think I am finally recovered from the pain endured on the practice field that day.
The game tonight is coming to close. The Rocket’s once again are victorious. The Friday Night Lights once again protected by the dedication, blood, sweat and tears of young men that are just trying to make their dreams come true.
I make my way out of the stadium. The lights still burning bright in the night. My thoughts drawn to how I don’t feel part of it anymore and as I open the car door to get in and head home, I can’t stop thinking about that picture of me in that Christmas Green football jersey.
I smile and I wonder whatever happened to Earl Kashmere.
For anyone who really knows me, it is no secret that I have loved to write for a long time.
I remember when I graduated from college, I received a gift from a close friend of mine. I slowly opened the box and pulled out a beautiful Waterford pen. It felt great in my hand and immediately I knew that it was meant to tell stories. It was meant to share thoughts, beliefs, feelings and perspectives. It was meant to be used. All it and I needed was a blank piece of paper.
I started to write. I wrote about everything. I wrote about growing up in a small town. I wrote about my family. I wrote about the death of my brother. I wrote about my college experiences. I wrote about traveling around the world, meeting two U.S. Presidents and I re-told stories that my grandfather shared with me. I wrote about my future dreams and how I truly felt about the things in my life. I wrote every day and I kept my musings in note-books and hid them so that no one would ever find them. I was embarrassed, afraid that someone would read them and expose my thoughts and feelings. It was my life story hand-written and detailed on paper. Nobody ever knew that this was what I did in my spare time. That was over 30 years ago. Long before there were computers in every home. Long before word processors, blogs and the internet.
Then life got in my way. Responsibilities of a young father and a man trying to make it in this life sapped any desire and passion I had for writing. I just simply stopped and put the pen down. For almost 20 years, I really did not write much more than my sign my name. I swallowed the desire and passion I had about writing. Most of what I had written over those years would never be read by anyone. I hid my notebooks and today I assume they are where I placed them all those years ago. I am sure that some of my “best” writings are embedded somewhere in that “buried treasure.” Unfortunately, I have no ability to unearth them. Along with my treasured Waterford Pen, those notebooks will remain where I put them all those years ago.
In some ways, the reason for this project is to try to remember and relive the raw feelings and perspectives of that time in my life. This is intended for my family and more importantly my children and grandchildren. I write now so that they will know where I came from and in a small way to have piece of me that will endure, long after I am gone. I want to be remembered and I want future generations of my family to know that I existed. I realize that sounds and feels really arrogant when you actually write those words down. But what is the purpose of life and living if you don’t leave a legacy that is to be remembered in a good way? Truth is, if you are not remembered in the eyes of the local community you grew up in, your “hometown,” the chances of your passing will ever be noticed are slim. However, if your life is reminisced by those who love you, likely you will be remembered forever.
I am aware that there is never enough time to say everything that I want to be told. My intention is that for those that read this, will not only get a glimpse of what it was like for me to grow up in 1960’s and 1970’s but to also come away with the feelings of what it was like to grow up in the safe confines of Oak Harbor, Ohio. It is intended to be as frank and personal as I can possibly make it. I will not intentionally censor myself and I will try to keep it real. I will try to tell the truth as I had seen it and at the very least, how I perceived it.
To be honest, it also is my last attempt to try to put into words of what it was that made growing up in a small town in Northwest Ohio something special to so many people. There is no doubt that I have lost clarity of many of the memories over the years. There are details that I used to be able to easily recollect before, even as recent as a few years ago, but I can’t anymore. Many of the details were tossed into the abyss when I hid my notebooks all those years ago. Not to be alarmed too much as I am pretty sure I am not suffering from any medical problem leading to unusual memory loss. I believe it is just a natural process of life that is being orchestrated by something.
And that something is Time.
Time marches on, like a faceless army – emotionless, merciless, relentless, all-consuming, pillaging the confines of our mind and the precious memories of our past. Time creeps slowly and surely. They say that “time heals” but what they really mean is that “time erodes.” Time erodes everything – the bad, the ugly, and even the good. Time erodes the details so that sometimes memories cross and blur into one another. I look at some of the things I used to do when Oak Harbor was home. I wish I could do them again. However, for a long, long time Oak Harbor hasn’t “felt” like hometo me. I don’t live there anymore except in the memories that flood my thoughts.
It is like standing on the banks of a rushing river. Your past is on the other side, and you are on this side and there is no way across. No way to go back. That river is called time. The waves of time, slowly crash against the shores of our memory. Slowly and surely eroding away the sand castles of your past.
Maybe time isn’t the enemy. Possibly the real enemy is the attachment to memories that I am not sure ever existed the way I remember them. Over the years, I have told myself that this is silly. Why am I trying to re-connect to a place that doesn’t even remember that I was part of it? Why am I trying to find a way home to place that doesn’t exist anymore?
The tracks of time are final. No point in mulling over it. Was what I believe happened reality? Are the memories just a creation of my imagination?
Does any of it matter?
It is then I am reminded of the many times I lie awake at night with memories of another place and time running through my mind. I have come to the conclusion that answers to these questions really are not important. There is something deep inside of me that is pushing me to find my way back home. Even if that home isn’t what you thought it to be.
Maybe my memories are real. Maybe not.
But I am reminded that everyone has a story… this one is mine.
Hopefully, it will be the start of a journey to find my way home… for good.