Uncle Joe came from Follansbee, West Virginia, a town in the thick of steel country. He became legendary from the day he arrived in our family via his marriage to Aunt Sal. Among his precocious accomplishments were acts of teenage delinquency that my siblings and I could only envy and dream of one day committing. For instance, he and his buddies once smuggled a Nash Metro into their high school and drove it up and down the halls, waving at their classmates and the principal. They served their hard time in detention with no regrets. Another day, he returned home from school to find Jimmy Hoffa talking union politics with his father, who was a Teamster. When we came home from school, all we discovered was a snack.
Uncle Joe played football well enough to earn the status of honorable mention “Little All-American” at a junior college where he barreled through the line as an undersized but powerful halfback. At the bottom of the pile, he told us, opponents gouged at his eyes, bent his hands backward, and chewed on his fingers as if they were drumsticks.
After Uncle Joe flunked out of college — and this, too, was glorious in our eyes, since we were not allowed to make an F — he joined the U.S. Army and became a Green Beret and ate bugs and snakes and jumped out of planes and once crouched with his fellow soldiers on a plane to Cuba, ready to parachute into a place called the Bay of Pigs before they were turned back at the last second. He met Aunt Sal in the early 1960s at Smoke Bomb Hill, Fort Bragg, where she worked.
How could the loving recitations of family genealogy along the lines of “she was your great-grandfather’s second cousin’s maiden aunt” favored by my father and grandfather compete with Uncle Joe’s tales of red-faced principals and mutinous detention halls and sizzling snakes and parachuting into places where guys waited to shoot you? He was often either assigned to or volunteered to eat at the children’s table, and we were always glad to have him.
It’s possible we would have played football on Thanksgiving without Uncle Joe in the family, but the games likely would have been little pantywaist affairs intended only to build an appetite for dessert and to provide a respite for the adults to fall asleep on the floor for an hour or two before driving back to Huntersville or Greensboro or Winston-Salem from our home in Chapel Hill. The only violence committed would have been to the tender shoots of grass in the Moores’ backyard, mashed under the stiff soles of our Sunday shoes. Family members would not have insulted each other. They would not have been shoved into the bushes nor had their ankles twisted nor the wind knocked out of them. None of us would have returned to the house bleeding or toggling our noses back and forth or holding a piece of our ears like an offering, wondering if one of the doctors present might be willing to stitch us back together.
With a profound lack of imagination, we called our annual game the Turkey Bowl. Kids were supposed to be creative in Chapel Hill, but it’s possible that years of banging our heads against each other without helmets had reduced our potential. All of the children played: boys and girls alike, brothers and sisters and cousins and neighbors, along with Uncle Joe and the occasional guest, including once a doctor from England who made the mistake of wanting to experience a quaint American holiday custom in his soon-to-be-aching bones.
We begged such visitors to take the field with us the way the dead twins in the Stanley Kubrick film of Stephen King’s The Shining pleaded with little Danny to come and play with them forever and ever and ever just before the elevator doors opened and a tidal wave of blood poured out. “It’ll be fun,” we told them. “It’s not tackle, only touch. And you can block Uncle Joe. He’s around your age.”
Little weenies in our academic town, the sons and daughter of a doctor and a chemist, my siblings and I may have appeared modest and polite, but this meekness was only a cover for an unquenchable bloodlust that had been steeping for years. Guests like the Englishman had not witnessed us when we were younger, yelling out the car window at passersby in the parking lot at Eastgate while our mother shopped at the A&P. “Doody balls!” we screamed and ducked and laughed.
We were oppressed by the attempt to civilize us. In the Turkey Bowl, however, we were free to curse and strut, to waggle our behinds in the faces of our relatives when we scored, to inform them that they “sucked,” to hold and gouge and bite and come back home after all that for pumpkin pie and the Hallmark classic. “Y’all ought not to be playing that football,” our father told us every Thanksgiving. “Someone’s going to get hurt.” It did not help that he made his case while standing on the road below the yard of battle, dressed in a tweed jacket and cap, brandishing a walking stick. We could not afford to take advice from that sort of man.
In these matters, Uncle Joe was our inspiration. His advice in regard to the playing of football focused not on the whether but on the how: “Keep your knees churning when you go through the line,” he commanded. And: “If he keeps talking trash, just knock him down!” He seemed to have located a halfway point between the games of childhood and the responsibilities of adulthood where one could have the joys of both without the dreariness of either. I never even knew how old he was. But I knew that he made the future slightly more alluring than if he hadn’t been around.
Our stadium was the Moores’ backyard, a neighboring lawn that sloped toward the road at a gentle angle favoring downhill runners until it reached a stone wall that bordered a drainage ditch. At one end of the lawn stood a grove of pines by the Sittersons’ house; at the other, shrubs and crape myrtles formed a narrow passage into the Leflers’ yard. These marked the end zones. Scattered throughout the yard at strategic points were trees, bushes, and a grape arbor. The cunning among us knew how to use the vegetation as a screen on which to brush off an unwitting player (usually a guest).
We explained to our befuddled English visitor that our American disposition for using trees and shrubbery in this manner dated back to the Revolutionary War and could not be helped. “We have a God-given right to conceal ourselves behind vegetation. But at least we’re not shooting at you,” we told him.
“Thank goodness for that,” he might have said while holding the small of his back, given that he was a courtly, wounded man.
Family historians agree that the greatest Turkey Bowl of all time probably occurred in or about 1978. I was in college then, discovering the new vistas that opened up on ordinary life when I undertook it while drinking. My college roommate Mike Carroll, who stayed in town for the break, was investigating the same phenomena. That was made much easier that Thanksgiving by a large bowl of our family’s traditional holiday punch, which included a quart each of bourbon, brandy, sherry, and red wine, along with a modest portion of orange juice, sugar, and soda water. The punch went well with the raw oysters we ate after church that day. In fact, if you drank enough (two glasses), it went well with everything, including depression, disappointment in love, and career setbacks. In 1978, it also went well with football.
It had been raining that week, and the Moores’ backyard promised to be a slippery mess. Inspired by the punch, Mike and I agreed that we might gain a better grip if we wore spikes. I rummaged through the closet in my old room, found a pair of track spikes from high school and handed Mike a pair of soccer cleats. My shoes were festooned with sharp metal needles; Mike’s with hard plastic nubs. Issues of traction aside, we anticipated with pleasure the shock and awe we would arouse when we showed up at the Turkey Bowl in such footwear. We were laughing when we ran onto the field, greasy divots of turf kicking up behind us. To this day, Uncle Joe recalls that I wore “a big, cocky, you-know-what-eating grin.”
Uncle Joe, however, was not laughing. He did not drink — not wine, not whiskey, not beer, not spritzers, not a drop of anything alcoholic. As for shoes, he decked himself out in a pair of mangled running flats. It is possible, even likely, that he considered our tipsiness and our shoes and our cocky, you-know-what-eating grins an offense against the sacred spirit of the Turkey Bowl. It is also possible that he considered our spikes a competitive advantage. Like me, Uncle Joe did not like to lose.
We divvied up the teams in our customary fashion, with Joe calling signals for one side and I, the oldest of my generation, doing the same for the other. This being Chapel Hill, however, plays were also concocted collectively in long-winded huddles painfully reminiscent of faculty meetings. I remember one dweeb, who shall go unnamed, telling me: “I beg to differ with your strategy.”
“I beg to differ with your butt,” I responded as articulately as I could.
In the first series of the game, I faded back to pass. My cousin Elizabeth counted a quick three Mississippis, the rushers came in, and the next thing I knew I was lying flat on my back, gazing at a leaden November sky with the mindless appreciation of someone who just survived a highway accident. Uncle Joe had leveled me with his personal version of two-handed touch.
He looked down at my body. “Spikes,” he said. He shook his head and walked away, hooting in what I assumed to be a high-pitched West Virginian language that I could not speak but of which I definitely got the gist.
I would not reveal my pain in such circumstances. I got up, limped back to the huddle, and called for trickery. The ball was hiked on a slant to my brother David who pitched it to Mike, who instead of running with it, dropped back to pass. I headed to the end zone, hid behind a pine, and then emerged to catch a perfectly thrown touchdown pass from my roommate. “Eat my spikes,” I yelled, swiveling my hips and undulating in a style I had practiced since my incarceration at Guy B. Phillips Junior High School, where I was introduced to the impolite joys of trash-talking. We all slapped hands with each other for a mercilessly long time.
The scoring went back and forth from there. Our team scored; Joe’s team scored. Rarely was there a defensive stop. Everyone got into the action. I remember throwing a wounded duck of a pass that Michael Kellerhals, our recently arrived Swiss exchange student, chased at full speed into a crape myrtle. The branches cracked and splintered as he sought the ball, which bounced from limb to limb like an ugly piece of fruit.
My sister, Annie, and my cousin Elizabeth, stalwarts in the opposing line, double-teamed my brother John, preventing him from getting to Uncle Joe. To compound the insult, they yelled, “John’s cheating!” at every break in the action. The words haunt him to this day. Every year the teams were arranged to stoke historic enmities.
Although vicious competitors, neither Joe nor I recall who won that epic contest, only that at its conclusion the teams were a mere touchdown apart, that the November darkness was coming on fast, and that the passes we hurled went up into the sky and never seemed to come back down. Seeking the ball with dogged persistence, Michael Kellerhals kept running into trees. We heard the branches cracking. The game was stopped due to lack of visibility.
We staggered down the Moores’ driveway back to the house, slathered with mud and grass and blood. We could smell the wood smoke from our chimney. We might as well have been Special Forces returning from nighttime ops. Inside we collapsed by the fire where our father was sleeping next to Freckles, the dog, and would continue to do so for hours. Master and dog liked to roll toward each other for heat and then away when they got too warm, just like spouses.
Aunt Sal announced that she couldn’t understand how family members could do the things we did to each other out there on the football field.
“Because Will wore spikes,” Uncle Joe said, giving me a shot to the ribs.
Many years have passed since then. The Moores’ backyard, impeccably groomed and green long into the fall, is silent on Thanksgiving afternoons. What is legendary to my generation, now in our 40s and 50s, appears inconsequential to the new one, no matter how much we attempt to indoctrinate them in family history. The dog is long gone. Our father sleeps now in a cemetery not far through the woods from our old playing field. The new generation, small in number, prefers theater and gymnastics and baseball and games on the computer to playing football on Thanksgiving. They barely humor us when we start talking about their aunt Annie and their cousin Elizabeth double-teaming their father, John. “Don’t be mean to Daddy,” my niece Anna says.
On those Thanksgivings when Uncle Joe makes it to my mother’s house from Huntersville, he eases himself into a chair, removes his spectacles, and tends to remind me of the afternoon I had the nerve to wear track shoes at the Turkey Bowl. “Spikes!” he cackles. “Spikes!” Just that one word, expressed in some sort of high-pitched West Virginian dialect of outrage. And then I change the topic and try to get him talking about the time he nearly dropped into Cuba during the Bay of Pigs and how close he came and how different things might have been. Our lives in retrospect seem oddly fictional and at times, even glorious. So many things we experienced seem now as if they might never have happened. But they did.
Will Blythe is the author of the national bestseller To Hate Like This Is To Be Happy Forever, an account of the Duke-UNC rivalry. He is the former literary editor of Esquire, and has written for The New York Times Book Review, The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, and Sports Illustrated.