Cutting And Shaping Rocks And Boulders – Part One

This is an old favorite post of mine I thought I might recirculate. The subject matter – shaping rocks – is about as old as prehistory – and we know that is some really, really, really old stuff. In fact, it is an excellent concept for placing the interaction between Mankind and Rocks closer to Infinity.

Generally speaking, my landscape designs most often featured massive boulders in their natural “finished shapes”. By this I mean using what nature had wrought after rolling the rocks and boulders which chipped off mountains and fell into rivers or were formed under advancing glaciers. The river rocks of the West are these delicious and shapely granite pieces of amazingly sensual form and which fit incredibly well into gentle, humane landscapes.

(Click on pictures to enlarge)


These natural assets can even double as seating around a warm seasonal fire in Reno………and, of course, adding even more sensuous practicality, these rocks stay warm long after the sun sets and make for a terrific feeling on cooler nights.


Disguising drainage swales by creating a semblance of a natural creek has always been yet another trick of artistic misdirection and a hugely satisfying one at that. Changing a landscape from its own natural high desert habitat into a Riparian lushness is just one of the tricks a designer can take into the work. It is more than a “small makeover” – it changes and sometimes improves on Nature. Needless to say, a small creek such as this can also conduct water into a direction more conducive to drainage on those torrential downpour days.


The “beauty part” of this is in creating an alternative universe, complete with “creekside” plantings which in just a few seasons produces a scenario a naive person might deem as natural, rather than some construct on the side of a newly-created land shaping.

Modern concrete technology is now proud of its replication of rocks. When replicating rocks is considered “modern”, then you have to realize rocks carry some value which might just mirror their age – often counted in billions of years, which is dang old.

Anyway, here is my experience with these hardbodies. ;-)

As if anyone wondered…… are some incredibly hard stuff. ;-)

Particularly rocks such as granite, marble and the various basalts landscapers encounter on a regular basis. Concrete products are obviously much the same – hard, unyielding and perfectly suited for their roles in pavements and building construction. Concrete also has varying densities – which typically rise in price when searching for a permanent hardness.

During the processes of landscaping, we are often asked to make products conform to our weird ideas and plans no matter how seemingly impractical on the face of it.  In terms of your basic rock impediments, we can encounter huge boulders right smack in the ground where no one guessed they would be. Take it from one who knows – as is illustrated further down – this happens.

So we learn ways of dealing with all aspects – boulder impediments, shaping stuff for practical and aesthetic purposes, slicing bricks to help us make a curving effect, cutting rocks up to clear room or to actually use.  We learn about cutting brick pavers and wall systems; we learn about the tolerable gaps which maintain the security while allowing us to provide a curving element to the landscape.

(enlarge any picture by left-clicking – some, twice, to get real detail)


What happens in the length of a landscaping career for the luckier – (or is that “Unluckier?” I forget!)  is that we run into these great persons with great tools, who can direct our energies to rectifying our little problems. Being willing to learn and listen comes in very handy when dealing with some of these smart fella’s who specialize in things we never even heard of.

As a perfect example, I was taught by an elderly Italian guy how to cut granite into increasingly small sizes. Here’s the formula:


Seems simple, eh? These little items go by various names – we called them “Pins and Feathers”, although I have also seen them as “Plugs and Feathers”.

But wait. The addition of a small sledge hammer and a masonry power drill complete the picture. Generally, as can be seen, the process does not involve dramatically pneumatic or gas-powered machinery. Nor does it involve psychic power to discern “weak spots” or advantageous lines for the work. The nature of these stones are somewhat uniformly crystalline – with some exceptions being breakage in handling – so one can literally create the line one desires to establish.

When all are engaged, it looks something like this piece of marble prepped for sectioning – prior to gentle taps which serve to break the stone:


To relate all this to my existence, a small story:

We encountered a project in Deep Cove, British Columbia (a gorgeous suburb of Vancouver, hard by the Burrard Inlet) on a chunk of land which was something like 30′ wide by about 200′ long – one of those chopped-up residential sections specially-inserted to allow more people to savor the salt air and shoreline. The property was shoreline property with a severe slope to the rear and a long boat pier extending outwards in to the ocean water bay. Our client was interested in our  somehow providing some specific landscaping wants – walls for perennial beds, the irrigated lawn, a paver walkway and landscaped stairs to conduct folks down easier to the pier and his boat (s). Needless to say, it was an architectural feast for an innovative home designer and I was the chosen fool to implement the outdoor plan. The house itself was marvelously eccentric – as was the owner, lol.

Well we ran into “issues” right off the bat. Needless to say, the sloping nature of the hillside was the geological result of rock behaving very much like rock – in this case, the common granite which composes so much of the area’s geology. To make matters worse, the home was a replacement and “improvement” over what had once been there – all landscaped and apparently full of great pockets of soil.

Here, thanks to the Deep Cove Yacht Club (link provided) is a look at the small burg and it’s lovely setting. The home referred to in this post is on the left back, about a mile from the harbor park, one of the piers jutting out into the bay. It’s pretty easy to see why someone would want to live there.


All that aside, we return to how great the landscaping looked to deal with and how simple this was going to be.  ;-)

Au Contraire.  Not really. I was kidding and so was Fate.

“Hey, Steve! This crap is all rock!”

As we stuck one of our first stabs of our ubiquitous shovels into what we figured was a great lush dollop of dirt, we heard the clang of all clangs and, as we explored more, we realized we were plain on top of good old rock. Lots of rock. Tons of rock. Uh oh.

“There”, thought I, “goes a perfectly good plan.”

We had a wall designed to be out front and, to be honest, we had not really investigated very thoroughly, seeing as how it was a long ride out through traffic to assess the place and it was in the midst of a rainy season. But – the saving grace: the “Price was Right” – we had something of a license to make it all work. It was an interesting moment.

Fortunately for me, I had been watching another construction project down the street that very first morning. Indeed, my attention was ostensibly focused on how they arranged parking (my original impetus) on the narrow little street. (One learns as a contractor – real early – to grease the wheels of all trades in a neighborhood, including those on separate projects! This is called “Survival”, for those wondering.).

That then led to more than one handy discovery, as I illustrate below. I also advised them that we had deliveries of fairly large stuff scheduled which might block access at a future point – always a landscaping dilemma.

As we conversed about logistics and what we could do for them to trade favors during the course of both projects, I could not help but notice the masons who were constructing the entire face of this other cool home with a Granite facing. I watched, fascinated, as an older gent ran his rock drill into a large slab of native granite, piecing off chunks of the stuff for the guys inserting these “chunks” into cement, and into what was an absolutely gorgeous finish.

He was amazing. He’d drill holes along this line of his devices – usually no more than 3 holes – and then add some grease to his “Pins and Feathers”, then insert them into the holes, wedges facing out. He tapped on the “pins”, just firmly, not terrifically hard, very patiently, running from one to the other in sequence. As he did this, suddenly you’d hear this cracking sound and the entire rock would split, exactly where he wanted . It would just fall right off into the pile of other pieces.

Here is a Youtube vid of a guy doing much the same thing. The short film was made by Port Coquitlam resident and professional instructional designer Brian Thorn, who noticed my placement here and who delivers a perfect rendering of the process on a small scale. His  lesson is perfect and the video aptly describes the process to a ‘Tee’. The virtue of this video is in how it deals with a general stone – one which could be used as either an example of creating shapes or in removing obstacles. Both are the same, in the end.

Remember to wear your ear muffs as you watch this drilling festival – it ends soon enough,lol:

Indeed, cutting huge slabs of granite into increasingly smaller pieces turns out to be somewhat simple. It hurts, “giving away the store” like this – I mean, it seems so specialized – but this is one highly satisfying chore, in the end. It always seemed so “Lilliputian”!  ;-)

Anyway, as we discovered our rock hard impasse, I returned to the guy later on and asked if he’d give me some advice on how to deal with things. He was kind enough to wander up with me to assess my situation. I greased my own improvement by an offer of beer, lol. Which was gladly accepted with smiles from his crew.

He was a virtual fount of information. I showed him the parameters of the dilemma and he had a very ready answer: “No problem! Just cut that granite out and use it for the wall!”

I blinked and asked if he’d help us out. We could wait for him to finish down the street seeing as how we had major work first, out back. We would pay whatever the going rate was. He then informed me he was booked for 2 years, lol. My heart sank.

He smiled at me, seeing my obvious disappointment. “Tell you what,” he said. “You stay around after work and I’ll teach you how to do it. You’ll learn this in about 20 minutes.” I was dubious, but I was young and dumb and this guy was one interesting as heck guy. I gladly complied.

He came up and I delivered the promised beer - ;-). In the end, it turned out he was right. Within 30 minutes, I had cut through two big portions of the impeding granite rock. I could barely contain myself, I was so crazy happy. He saw my wonder at the result and he well knew he’d “hooked me” into the whole “rock-shaping” world – a place where no one can be unaffected. I guess it’s short of “orgasmic” or “Cathartic” – but I wonder. ;-)

All of you “Closet Rock Fans” should thoroughly enjoy this next video!

True Rock Fans will endure this next one as well – especially inasmuch as it displays authentic and melodic Music. It’s a party. You also have to love the safety boots.

The project was an unmitigated success in the end – except for the raccoons – but that’s another tale.

Details And Their Importance

As I progressed in landscaping as a career – and especially in my own projects – I came to realize how vital “finishing” can be. As the business owner who had a “speak freely” attitude I promoted among my crews, I learned many things I would otherwise not have attempted or known without their input. Nor is this some false modesty – it is simply truth. The only thing I did right was listen.

Finishing A Project

Well, it came to pass that my crews could get pretty upset with my behavior during finishing – the last day or two on a project where the time seems to slow down and a business begins chewing into profit lines. As well as I may have insisted we perform installing things, my frustration always seemed to emerge just about now.

We’ve used fire hoses tied directly into fire hydrants, using 2-3″ hoses to blast large projects into cleanliness. Needless to say, the need for an excellent pressure washer is must-have for projects where brick dust, soil amendments, bark mulches, street dust and – Heaven forbid – oil stains from standing, dripping vehicles (including the machines used for the work, like Bobcats) -can produce stains of potentially disastrous impact. Brooms, fine rakes for bark mulch, snippers for the tags which always accompany plants and which – if left – reduce the entirety to a more amateur status, blowers, you name it, all of which seemed diabolical to someone with my level of ADD, ha ha.

But the real fact was, they were prescient. They were totally capable of leaving a project looking as perfect as it could look. Plus, I would get the call when we were done and drive over to assess it all. I could still set standards, even if I was awful at the work. So they basically kicked me off the jobs. And I’m serious. I was hard to live with. The reason I say it was a factor is because crews from 2 different eras and 2 different countries did the same thing. I am a mess at the end. Luckily for the crew, it was so obviously unsatisfying to me, they both recommended that I go to the next project and begin. The truth is, I am, having said all the above, a monster at starting things. This was pretty much always where I saved and made money. I could destroy stuff at a dizzying pace!!  ;-)

Add that I was a sole proprietor in effect, we then saw how the wisdom of moving along rapidly and seamlessly became a truism in how to handle the work. An early or prompt arrival gave me time for the ‘soul-to-souls’ I could have with clients, as well as ascertaining potential changes they may have conceived and wanted to talk over. It also allowed me to arrange deliveries for the future, from machinery to sub trade scheduling.

The picture below is somewhat typical of the crude beginnings of a project. This is about the third day of work on a large residential project in Reno. I have spirited away one guy to run the larger machine, separating out boulders by size as I played around with actually setting the rocks into soil. Meanwhile, the other guys were finishing a project elsewhere.

(click any image to enlarge)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA   Eventually of course, the entire crew showed up and we were wholly underway, a glorious sensation to me as our attentions bent to newer projects. Soon, we would be doing the “mid project” Phase 2-3 work of final rock placement, irrigation and planting. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA I would always collect the final check on a walk-through with owners, listening to any corrections they may have had from punch lists we both created and/or listening to them rave. The latter was always my favorite. ;-)

Detail In The Work Itself

“The devil is in the details……..” .but so are some excellent angels.

Eventually, what I found was a profound sense of feeling well-served on the parts of clients who almost daily checked out our progress and who expressed the severest appreciation for how we handled details. I learned, for example, to actually work to produce details someone would admire. Rather than shy away from difficult aspects of projects, I learned to embrace them instead. For example, this rock grouping clustered around a gas-fed fire pit we designed and installed was never even spoken of during the original design consultation. I just went and thought it was too cool not to try.001 The “trick” here is the absolute snugness of the bricks which were custom cut to nestle in next to these boulders with zero tolerance for clearance. It made them look far more natural. (double click to get a better idea of how perfect I required the fit.) SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERA The owner later lamented he overspent on chaise lounges and bar seating in his back patio “because everyone wants to go sit on the dam rocks!” ;-) (He said it with a smile, let me add, lol).

Below is a picture 20 feet away from the fire pit, illustrating how I would use the same “snug” technique with boulders I would insert to break up boring and predictable lines on the outer edge of the patio. I always thought it gave a far more “lived-in” look and seemed incredibly more interesting if not natural. 001

Here is the same patio, looking out at a small hill we created in order to supply the owner’s requested waterfall, creek and fish pond.


A view of the same project from a different angle, looking back………..


More detail, this time merely providing an interesting edge, snugging up nicely to the concrete border.


This entryway to a home – below – was a process of gluing bricks onto the existing very bare concrete left by the builders. Note, on enlargement, the circle pattern we cut and forced into the mix right at the door way itself. I wasn’t asked for this, either, but this detail proved a winning formula and honestly didn’t take too long to manufacture.

From the very front:


A better look, when enlarged, from the side.


“Detail” also took place at the very end of jobs, during the cleanup I mentioned I was forced to avoid. ;-)  (kicking and screaming………not). Below is the day of completion at the finishing touches around a small pond in the woods we created by falling trees, digging a hole, and trying to make it look as natural as possible. In the end, this is probably the best detailed finishing I ever saw. It looks like it’s been there forever.





Inasmuch as most of our larger work looked something like the below about mid-way through, the “End” so often seemed so remote. Imagine all the work involved and then imagine not attending to the small stuff.


But rescue is at hand by some willing labor and the good vibes we always tried to support.




Accidental Tourism – Part Two

As a pageant, football has few rivals. And high school football has its very own style, especially in growing small towns still large enough to have 3 other major rival high schools. Bands, cheerleaders, big dances after, all the somewhat drunk or just fun-loving friends going purposefully loco, already in party mode, City fathers, businessmen and their families, families of teachers and girl friends – just packed with respect for and and enjoying participation as good fans of the team. Cheering for them. Good times. ;-)


001This is the part where I discover my 155 pound self at Owensboro Senior High wearing pads, a helmet and curiously enduring the weird surprise of finding my ankles being taped in serious manner by the team manager, minutes before one of those Friday Night football games. Having endured the “game meal” with the other guys – super dry burnt steak and other forgettable tasteless items – in the cafeteria and having hung out for long hours, just laying down and relaxing to an illegal degree which a home game allows – the forced relaxation of the powers that be - and then finally the lights come on, a crowd can be detected and we run out onto the field to wild applause.

(I remember thinking how the crowd often seemed to determine the play, which I know is bunk, but the sheer scale of this event seems so overwhelming at times. It’s a pretty awesome experience – like a shower of manna on an apprehensive head and shoulders – and which seems to gift an unparalleled ferocity when it is required. It also awards a feeling of invincibility, for better or worse. These are your 100% moments. For real, some of the accomplishments of players are way beyond what they do in practices.)

I touched the ball in actual games 3 times as a high school football player. I caught a pass and ran back two kickoffs, one of them opening a game in Tell City which I ran back 45 yards. We were rather, ahem, run-oriented with Dicky Moore and Frank Chambers in the backfield. One would gain 200 yards in a game and the next week, the other one would. We basically battered teams into the ground. Even weirder is the fact that our other back, a guy named Wee Wee Moorman, weighed 220 pounds and could run with the force of the sun. Wee Wee was the biggest guy on the team. I know his body well – these guys are who I tackled in practice for 2 long years. Scrimmages were live in practice and “game situations” were always played. 1st and 10, 3rd and long – that sort of thing.

Here is what football taught me: The human thigh is the biggest and baddest muscle in the human body. Tackling guys like our very excellent backs who were the dual offensive feature of that team – as well as tackling Wee Wee – took place 2-3 times a week in live, full-on, vicious scrimmages. The only compliments one got on defense were for hard hits and bring downs, smiling while the guy in charge of blocking you got chewed out for screwing up. It gets a bit contagious. Memories of practices are fairly vivid actually, at least generally. I remember dirty white practices jerseys, complete with some remnants of soil already earned. I remember developing strategies for facing these running backs, playing as either a safety or cornerback in the practice defense. I remember my first collision with Dickie, facing an incredible force which hit me lots harder than I hit it. I bounced off of him but managed to catch his foot and trip him. I thought it was fairly creative of me. It was always a mnemonic highlight for me, that little series. Like a hidden secret but real success.

The first time I got either knocked out or just slobberknocked into and out of the pain world was actually in junior high when I broke my nose courtesy of a middle linebacker as I ran the ball up the middle and who hit me in the face mask, lol – with his. I have been knocked “woozey” a few times. It seems to me to be the nature of the game. But the King of My Hits came in a game in Louisville, played at Atherton High. We played Louisville St. Xavier, a state power at the time.

For some reason or other I started the game on a defensive kickoff. I remember feeling strange. As we kickoff and the ball settles into the returner’s – Dicky Lyons of UK and Oakland Raider fame – hands, the play develops where my man somehow got completely lost and I found myself facing a dude packing the ball, coming straight at me. I ran forward and launched myself into him, head-on. I made the tackle – I hit him right solid on the thigh -.and someone said I got all sorts of props for doing it running back to the bench.

But I wasn’t there.


I remember next seeing the time left on the clock from the sidelines and wondering where the first quarter went. I had been out on my feet for a half hour at least. It was a completely weird situation and then the coach called my name and back out I went. I couldn’t shake the weirdness, but I played OK and quite a lot in a tight battle that we lost, 13-7.

On the ride back in the team bus, I remember I faced a serious anxiety about vulnerability. I felt incredibly alone. My head began hurting about halfway through the ride and it stayed that way for the next day. That collision began my divorce from the sport, which I formalized my senior year, quitting the team at the start of practices.

I never even mentioned it, aside from telling my friends how weird it felt. I actually considered it normal – which it was, lol, among players – but I remember the resulting anxiety to this day. I remember Coach Gerald Pointer had someone go out and find me following my not reporting for play at the start of my senior year. I was definitely penciled in as a starter. Ironically, I was playing around at baseball with friends at the Wesleyan diamond when Jimmy Musick rode up and told me the coach wanted to see me. (We had just that week finished a long and fairly successful American Legion baseball season, losing in the State Final to Ashland). When I got in front of the coaching staff at our practice headquarters, Coach Poynter (who I have always liked immensely unto this very day), went ahead and asked why I didn’t report.

“I’m a baseball player, coach.” Then  I smiled (like a real baseball player would). ;-)

I looked them all right in the face and I told them that I was investing in something I do well. I don’t want to get hurt for playing a sport I really don’t much like in the first place. I mentioned I like the team and that hurt the most about quitting.

They gave me a pass. They listened and understood. I have zero bad feelings about any of them – to the contrary.

My father, however, was incensed, and probably more because he knew I had made what he thought was a rash decision all on my own. The truth is, that’s true. Before I sat in front of the coaches, my decision on the matter may have been 2 hours old. But it truly came from the heart, that’s all I can say.

I had a great fall, doing things normal people do, lol. I even got a job pumping gas. Marcia Roby and I made a few road games together. Good times. ;-)

at least until baseball season. ;-)


Accidental Tourism – My Life In Football

001In a way this is a story of extreme local interest to the denizens of Owensboro, Kentucky and almost no one else. My hometown, Owensboro is a sports-mad town with a legacy in the state of Kentucky as something of a traditional athletic power. No team in the state has won more State High School baseball titles. Just last year they won a very competitive, basketball-crazy state’s Championship in basketball. Two of the city/county’s other 3 high schools have also won baseball championships – Owensboro Catholic High and Daviess County High. The 4th, Apollo, has actually come close. When I attended there, we won state Track and Field honors regularly and, as many who know me realize, we won the first of 6 eventual school titles in baseball with me patrolling shortstop as a 10th grader. Bear in mind, this was all in open competition with no “subdivisions” based on school size. In other words, we competed with all the teams from Louisville as well – yet another sports mad city, just 10 times larger.

Basketball and football were king, with baseball and track being increasingly popular due to some fairly outrageous successes. Football in Owensboro has consistently produced individuals who competed at the next – and even higher – professional levels. The Friday Night phenomenon so popular in Texas and down South included Owensboro as a preferred local Friday Night recreational ticket, so often followed by dances and mingling events hosted by the school following games. Yes, as always, football was a pageant….a literal pageant, with our crackerjack band, lovely cheerleaders and 5,000 rowdy fans cheering it all.

It was into this matrix where I evolved into a reluctant participant. In my day, kids with some talent played every sport – it was, frankly, one of the secrets to Owensboro’s long legacy of success. Players like Bobby Woodward, Richard Anderson, the incredible All American duo of Dickie Moore and Frank Chambers who I practiced against daily – one, Dickie leading the nation’s small colleges in rushing 3 years in a row and having an evemtual career in the CFL, and the other – Frankie, attending Alabama, along with our coach……… Kenny and Dwight Higgs, Frankie Riley, Gigi Talbott, Ike Brown, Sam Tandy, NBA Hall of Famer Cliff Hagan – it’s a long list – played every sport they could. It was just what we did. You could see many of the same athletes doing well at each sport in their own rights. The coaches were cooperative for the most part and the new muscles required at each sport created a sort of 2 week No Man’s Land of conditioning for each kid, developing and discovering new muscles and pains relative to their sports.

The feeder system of junior high schools fed dollops of players into the matrix, featuring the raw athleticism and sometimes dominance of certain star-quality individuals into a hard-fought mix of competitions. This is where my individual story as an “accidental tourist” begins………..



It was in the 8th Grade at Southern Junior High where I began my march to cooperating with talented mesomorphs and psychotics in the sport of football at both the coaching and playing level. I recall the first days of football camp – begun a week or two early, prior to even school openings. It was a bumpy career ride.

Another of my friends saw the wisdom of an early retirement from football, especially after enduring the humiliation of being youngest on the club and getting an unbelievably embarrassing set of football tools, complete with the hazing of the team’s managers whose laughter at the stuff they were reduced to handing out was bully-like but real, unfortunately deep laughter – it was that bad. The helmets handed out to the 8th graders were literally from an earlier era. What we referred to as “’47 Crash Helmets” – real leather helmets, ha ha, and more experimental, weirdly-shaped types of modern helmets (are you reading, Steve Bare, ha ha ha?) provided a completely embarrassing look for each of us as we dredged up equipment handed down from decades of predecessors. Inasmuch as this was my first football since a tentative experience one year in Little League football while living in Bowling Green…………………….

…………………..I actually quit the sport after a few days.

(An angry Father of mine intervened somewhat dramatically. Football was his sport, having played it at Eastern Illinois University in the 30′s and attracting attention with his speed and ability, thus earning the title of “Flash” which my friends teased him remorselessly about. “Flash” actually came from a headline or two celebrating “Freddy The Flash”, who made football look almost easy. He did not agree with my quitting – and did not agree most forcibly, one of his few interventions as a sports Dad. Needless to say, I reported back out to the field in rapid form. The moment did not increase my respect for the sport. I always viewed playing football as a survival sport not particularly suited to my skill set. Yet, there I went, learning the game, playing for 5 straight years at a program well-known for its superlative players.)

In Junior High, I was a fullback/running back on offense and a cornerback on defense. Later, in high school, I became a wide receiver in a pro-style set, occasionally playing Tight End when personnel issues like injuries loomed. I never shook the unreality on the field, no matter what level. I often wondered just exactly why I was playing – what I had done right to earn the dubious distinction of occupying the same field as the incredible players we had who loved it all. That is how uncomfortable I felt with a sport I had zero natural feelings for.

Here are some of this tourist’s memories of the sport:

As an 8th grader, the season dragged on while I waited for my second favorite sport – basketball – to commence. We played 8th Grade football against other teams, so we had our equals to compete with, and it became interesting for that reason. Make no mistake, I really enjoyed my team mates, all personal friends already. And also make no mistake that this level of competing saw some very satisfying times – great defensive hits on my part, the sensation of “team play” where we sacrificed for the betterment of our record and witnessed, first-hand, what “team play” could coalesce into – a winning formula. I recall – vividly to this day –  few truly embarrassing moments of incompetence as I watched Marvin Robinson streak outside for repeated touchdowns on plays where I – the cornerback – was supposed to “turn the play back inside” from the outside, whereupon I did not, ha ha. Marvin just ran around me, untouched for a couple of long TD’s. Learning from mistakes also took place on a visible level. Just like the embarrassment of incompetence provided an alchemy I adjusted to in my sporting life as time rode on, making me better, if addled..

But Fate had a new plan I would never have guessed at, even in the 8th grade. Southern had 5-6 guys kicked off the team for the abhorrent crime of smoking cigarettes – an unusual penalty in some ways, considering the wild number of farmers who grew tobacco in the lush Western Kentucky fields and the humongous warehouses that hosted tobacco auctions in a clearly tobacco-centered town like ours. But nevertheless, these guys were goners, and they were some of our best players, no less. Well, into the breach go I.

It was our final game of the year when I found myself starting in the backfield for the 9th grade – the “big” – team against traditional heavy rival, Daviess County. Yes, I fully admit my excitement at such a weird opportunity. I was most definitely “playing up” now. I felt a strange sense of destiny, warming up, for real. I had planned to do absolutely everything I could to help us win a pivotal, pennant-clinching game against our rivals and competing first-place qualifiers.

So we kick off and hold them enough to make them punt. I was not a defensive player in the game inasmuch as the defense suffered fewer scratches from their end. So out I went to join the first team offense.

Our very first play from scrimmage was for a screen pass from the excellent and very experienced Terry Tyler to yours truly, a young Walter Mitty. The surprise play took advantage of a very startled Daviess County defense and, catching the ball all I saw was a wide open field ahead of me. I was shocked at the crazy opportunity, the first time I had ever benefited from another team’s defensive mistakes. Naturally, I did what I was supposed to do – I ran like hell.


Well, I scored on that play – 65 yards long – our very first play from scrimmage. At the very end of the run, just as I crossed the goal line for the score, I felt the presence of a defender making an attempt at a tackle. To this day the name Barry Beck haunts my dreams. He launched himself at me in the “good old college try” – well into the end zone, no less – and I attempted to vault him, jumping over his sliding self but catching just enough of him to literally pinwheel me in the air, creating a sort of “flip” which I rotated a full 180, coming down hard from a substantial height of leaping momentum and tackler-propulsion. On my way down, I stuck out my left arm to cushion the fall and I heard my arm snap. Completing my fall, I lay there for a moment with the ball in my right arm, satisfied about the score with a warm feeling. I then took a closer inventory, lying there, of my arm and I suddenly had a sinking feeling that I was looking at 2 elbows. My arm had broken between the elbow and wrist, making a literal “L” out of the forearm. I mean, there was absolutely no doubt I had the first broken bone I had ever seen this close-up. I remember Roy Kennedy’s eyes as he looked at me through the tiny gap in his helmet, and then watched him turn to throw up.

(Interestingly, (if you are a ghoul) my Mother reminds me that she had only just shown up to the game – it was that early in the contest. Walking into the stands to join my Dad, she asked “So how are we doing?” in all her innocent hopes, even before she sat down. My Dad pointed out a cluster of people standing and leaning into a player on the ground in the end zone. “Your son is on the bottom of that pile.”)

Well, I was driven to the local hospital where I remember seeing my rather breathless parents arrive. Walking in the door with a towel over my arm, I remember the sounds of my huge football cleats hitting the slick tile floor, then finding myself in the air again as I slipped and fell, right back onto my back. Finally lying down for a doctor’s perusal, I recall the sense of comfort that mom and Dad had joined me here. The doc told me to count backwards from 100 and I got to about 97.

I remember waking up in the Recovery Room, alone and quiet. I looked down and saw this cast on my left arm – a whole new deal. None of the implications for the future loomed at all. I was also merely the 3rd kid on that team who had broken his arm playing football that year, including Jerry “Jumbo” Elliot’s compound fracture – a “Kevin Ware” type injury with protruding split bone featured –  just for an arm and not a leg – during a completely average play. It was my last visit to a hospital for sickness or injury until 2011, lol, a span of 49 years.

Mom and dad showed up, concerned and loving, God bless them, and even brought a magazine – a Sports Illustrated – a fave of mine back then. As we sat talking, here comes the denouement of the day.

Coach (Yogi) Meadors came into the room, all smiles and concern. After quickly getting the questions in about my state, naturally I asked him the results of the game.

“Steve, we got beat 27-0. Your touchdown didn’t count because we were offsides on the play. It was called back.”

Thus began my love/hate relationship with football.

The next season saw me in a far more prominent role. As starting fullback, I got a number of carries and learned quite a bit about twisting and turning, doing complete 360′s – spins – to keep balance and deal with initial hits. I began becoming a far more efficient cornerback, having learned my lesson about “containing” the play in front of me and learning to throw myself in some organized manner at ball carriers. It was a season of successes, actually, and I even had this 75 yard punt to brag about as the team’s kicker, a ball that hit the frozen ground of that day and literally received a prop boost as it bounded away down the ‘frozen tundra’ of that exceedingly cold day. The only real negative of the season was my bursting through the line on a dive play right up the middle and receiving a helmet in my face after 3 yards, hit by a large middle linebacker who broke my nose – yes, through the face masks. Bleeding on the bench at the halftime break, my coach was livid at how we played and he questioned my courage. It seemed like such an incongruous thing – after my broken nose, I still never missed a play. I recorded the humiliating event as yet another strike against the sport in my world. We won the game, 7-0, on a literally last second, 60 yard pass from Landy Lawrence to Gerald Woods, our athletic freak of nature

The next season was very real. Showing up at high school practice now, as a 10th grader, we endured summer two a day practices run by the local psychotic, Ralph Genito, who had played his own football at the University of Kentucky during their highlight season of all time on the Orange Bowl #3 ranked team and whose coach was the legendary Bear Bryant. Genito was a football-mad semi-tyrant who developed an animus towards me early on. Channeling The Bear, his view of the world was that there was football………………………and that’s about it outside of flirting at the local Country Club in his role as lifeguard, ha ha. But I digress.

The camp he ran that season, before school even began, was one of the most brutal experiences of my life. Later on, when I went through Basic Training in the Army, I found the process suspiciously easy. I wondered if I was somehow missing the difficulties others faced as I pranced through basic with a smile, never bothered in the least by the physical nature of the process. I credit Genito with preparing me for the military very well indeed. That initial set of practices saw our numbers of participants steadily decreasing as people quit, finally resulting in a football team consisting of 31 players only. Yes, it was that bad.

Next post – Steve discovers what a concussion is.