As a reader, have you ever read a novel that seemed so real you could smell baking bread, feel the heat of the sun beating down on your head, hear the roars of a crowd? If you’re a confirmed reader, one who always has a book going (usually one in each room), you almost certainly have. Because it’s those moments, those scenes, those books, that make reading so much more than a pleasant diversion and turn a casual reader into a book addict. Those moments, those scenes, those books—they take readers to another world, another place, another time and introduce them to characters they feel they know, folks they’d like to sit down with over coffee. Or beer. Depends on the time of the day, I guess.
So here’s the Sixty-Four Thousand Dollar question. How does a writer write such scenes, such books? Not that I’m saying I do, mind you. I’d like to think so, at least occasionally, and I know that while I’m writing, I myself am in another place and time. But not because I’m using my imagination to create one. Because I’m tapping my memory to reproduce them. Not exactly, of course. Not the actual moment, the actual event. I want the feel, the flavor, the taste, of that memory. And I want it to come through to the reader. But even more than that, I want to put that memory into words that I can take out and visit with whenever I so choose. Bet you didn’t know that, huh? That basically, writers are selfish people who in the final analysis, write for themselves and not for others. Which isn’t selfish at all, really, because by doing so, they create those scenes that turn readers into book addicts.
What’s all that got to do with an “Ironman”? Well, last year I published a novel very near and dear to my heart. Down Home. It’s about—home folks. The small town, rural South. One of my characters, my heroine’s son Jake, is actually a composite of both my own sons (but don’t tell them that). Jake attends a small private school, Rockland Academy, and he’s the Running Back for the football team. But here’s the thing. Rockland Academy’s so small it can’t field a full football team with separate offense and defense squads. Oh, no. It fields eleven players. Total. Which means that these high school athletes play both offense and defense. It means they never come off the field during a game. Never. The county refers to it as “Ironman Football”.
Far-fetched, you think? Not hardly. It was absolute reality in my own home county, at the small private school my sons attended. The team known throughout the county as the “Ironman Team”. My youngest son Lee was No. 99. My middle child and oldest son Patrick announced the games from the broadcasting booth. There was something so—endearing—about hearing one brother announce for the other. I never recorded any of those games, at least not electronically. I recorded every one of them in my brain, though, and I can hear Patrick as clearly as if the game were playing right this minute. “And that’s a sack of the quarterback by No. 99, Lee Branan!” My favorite was “Somebody call the Sheriff, we done been robbed!” Anybody who’s read Down Home’s heard him too, in the character of Patrick Lewis, the self-styled “Voice of Rockland Academy” as he announced one of the Rockland Academy games.
I walked the fence at every home game at the school that’s the basis for the fictional Rockland Academy, just like Down Home’s heroine Maggie did. She watched Jake, I watched Lee, but we were both really watching our son. Our Ironman. I remember one game in which the other team’s quarterback drew back to throw and sent the ball on its beginning spiral down the field. And under the field lights, a figure in the home colors shot into the air, bisected the arrow of golden haze hovering above the field and knocked the ball down. I knew it was Lee, even without the confirmation of the big 99 on the jersey, or the Coach’s roar, “Lee!! Lee Branan!! OUTSTANDING play!!” I’d give a million dollars if I had it for a picture of that moment, that figure caught in mid-air in the golden haze, but moments like those – you just can’t plan for. So you take the picture in your heart instead, which is probably even better. Because the colors never fade.
My Ironman left home Monday, March 4. On Tuesday, March 5, his group of recruits traveled to Chicago, Illinois, and thence to Waukegan, Illinois, to report for Naval Basic Training. After that, he’ll be headed (probably) to Fort Sam Houston to train as a medic. Which means I’ve been predominately a mother this past week, subject to bouts of extreme pride alternating with overpowering (but so far resisted) urges to squall like a baby. When a child “leaves home”, it doesn’t matter to any mother that the child is grown, that it’s time for them to explore their own world and create their own life. It doesn’t matter that you’re certain they’ve chosen the right career path, that you know in your soul it’s the right thing for them, that this is their time. It just hurts.
Oddly enough, one of the things that makes me feel better when my pendulum’s swinging towards that overwhelming urge to squall like a baby are two pictures of Lee I’ve had on my desk since his Sophomore year in high school. Pictures of my Ironman. I smile when I look at them, when I see his stance, when I remember I could pick him out across any football field, from any distance, just by the way he stood. I'd love to share them with you, but I can't. To upload pictures, they must be videos or jpgs, you know, the digital stuff. These pictures? Well, they were real Kodak moments. Taken with a real Kodak. The kind that used film. I tried scanning and saving and inserting, but no, won't work. So close your eyes and imagine a tired warrior, only 15, but already over six feet and 200 pounds. Imagine him with the jersey molded to his sweaty body, a water bottle in one hand, his helmet swinging from the other. Dirt obvious on the white socks. Helmet hair. He's coming off the field for the very few minutes he had available until he ran back onto it. Pictures that tell me he was part of something very special then, and he’s part of something very special now. That of course he’ll be just fine. He’s an Ironman. He’s my Ironman. I love you, son.