The Battle of Grays Pasture by George L. Teeple

... You will find no such "Normalities" nowadays. The old breed is gone. The greenest I see look quite correct and starched and tailor-made. No originality of costume now. No "high-water pants," such as refreshed the eye in the old days. No pitifully insufficient coat, stretching its seams across some great fellow's back, button struggling with buttonhole to hold in his expanding chest, showing by its very insufficiency what a Hercules he was. You will see none of these now. They have disappeared; the old sap and individuality quite, quite gone.

There is no such spirit in the school today. They have a football eleven, it is true, and it holds its head well up among its mates; a little above 'em, too, most of the time; the old school's the old school yet, I tell 'em; but, after all, it isn't the old game, nor the old spirit. I go out sometimes to watch them, and think: "Well, it's a queer game they play now, and call football!" They trot out in such astonishing toggery; padded and guarded from shin to crown—welted, belted, strapped, and buckled beyond recognition. And there's no independence in the play; every move has to be told 'em. It's as if they weren't big enough to run alone; and so they hire a big stepmother of a university "coach," who stands around in a red sweater, and yells, and berates them. Not a man answers back; he doesn't dare to. They don't dare eat plain, Christian food, but have a "training table," and diet like invalids. I've seen 'em at a game not dare to take a plain drink of water; when they got thirsty they sucked at a wet sponge, like babes at the bottle!

It was not so in our day. No apron strings of a university coach were tied to us. We were free-born men. When we wanted to play we got together and went down to the old pasture, to the big oak tree that stood near the middle of it; and there we would "choose up," and take off our coats and vests and neckgear, and pile them round the oak, and walk out on the field and go at it—everybody—not a pitiful dozen or so, while the rest stood with their hands in their pockets and looked on—but everybody! And it was football: no playing half an hour without seeing the ball in the air once; we kicked it all the time—except when we missed it, and then we kicked the other fellow's shins! And when we got thirsty we went down to the spring and took an honest drink out of an honest tin cup.

And what a fine, free, open game it was—the old game! What art you could put into its punting, and running, and dodging, and creeping, and drop-kicking! And what a glorious tumult in the old-fashioned scrimmage, especially the scrimmages in the old ditch. It was a rather broad and shallow ditch, and into it the ball would often roll, a dozen excited fellows dashing after it; and there in the ditch bottom, in mad mÍlee, frantic foot to foot, naked shin against sole leather, we would fight to drive the ball through the opposing mob. There might the rustic Normalite, with implacable cowhides, the bigger now the better, sweeten his humiliation with revenge, and well I remember the fearful devastation he sometimes wrought among our Academic shins!

But we were used to that. Indeed, we youngsters gloried in it. It was a spot upon your honor not to have a spot upon your shin. We compared them as soldiers brag of their wounds in battle, and he who could exhibit the largest and most lurid specimen was the best man. Those discolored patches were our "V. C.'s" and "Crosses of the Legion of Honor"; seals attesting our spirit, stamped with a stamp of good, stiff sole leather, painfully enough, it was true, but who cared for that? We were only sorry we could not exhibit them in public. To be obliged to carry such decorations under your trouser leg was hard.

Football Night at the "Lincolnian Literary," and Laury Thompson's speech there I must tell about. If any of the old boys ever read this—and it is for them I am writing it—they will wonder if I leave that out. For it marked an epoch in the Normal preparation for the game. And coming from Laury Thompson it was so unexpected. He always looked so cheerful in his high-water pants. His clothes were such a harmonious misfit. And he got off his absurdities with such a grave, humorous-innocent face; only the veiled twinkling in the eyes to show that it was not the most solemn matter in the world.

He "wore his pants high-water a-purpose," he told us; "had 'em made so for hot weather; coolin', ye know; refreshin'; lets the air in; breeze of heaven playin' up and down your pant-leg." And when one of the boys cracked some joke on his big shoes, he gravely remonstrated, assuring us that he "had those shoes made sort of in memoriam; hide of a heifer calf of his'n that got killed by the cars: a rosebud of a little critter; he kind o' wanted something to remember her by; tarnation good leather, too." He had "writ a poem" on that calf, he said, but refused to recite it; "felt delikit about exposin' his feelin's."

The old Lincolnian Literary Society is dead now, and its room has been turned into a shop for the Manual Training Department. It is a long, narrow room on the third floor, and was crowded that night to the very door. The meeting, called "to rouse public spirit in the matter of the coming game," grew spirited and hilarious as the speaking proceeded, and when Thompson was called on, and his tall, odd figure rose up in the midst, there was great thundering of boots along the floor.

"Boys," he began, "our Academic friends, raised, most of 'em, in this proud metropolis, seem to 'a' got the notion that because we haven't just stepped out of a fashion plate we can't play football. They tell us to 'thrash the hayseed out of our hair,' and to 'slack off on our galluses, and see if we can't get some o' that high-water out of our pants;' they've been 'tryin' to figure out our combined acreage o' boot leather,' they say, 'and had to give it up; Arabic notation wa'n't equal to it.'

"Well, let 'em laugh. I reckon we're duck-backed enough to shed whole showers o' that kind o' stuff; and when the game comes off they'll find that what wins a game o' football ain't pants, nor hair, nor shoe-leather, but what's in and under 'em. They'll find men's feet in those shoes, and men's legs in those trousers, and the brains o' men under that hair!

"For I tell you, we're goin' to win that game; and we're goin' to win it just because o' what gave us the hayseed an' the high-water and the boot-leather; because we've got on our side the men with muscle hardened on the old farm; men who've swung an axe from mornin' till night in the wood-lot, and cradled two acres of oats a day, and who'll go through 'em in a scrimmage like steers through standin' corn!

"Yes, boys, it's true; we're 'hayseeds' and 'country jakes.' All the better for that. Grass don't grow down, and go where you will, you'll find the hayseed at the top. Why, what was he?"—he turned and extended a long arm and forefinger toward a picture of Daniel Webster that hung behind him on the wall of the room,—"what was he? A hayseed, and son of a hayseed!"

Yes, there's a hayseed in our hair;
Proud it's there!
And our boots are big an' square;
So they air!
And when you hear 'em thunderin'
On the Academic shin,
Back them cowhide boots to win!
Academs, beware!
Hooray then for hayseed hair!
It gits there!
And for cowhides big and square;
Every pair!
And when you hear 'em thunderin'
On the Academic shin,
Back them cowhide boots to win!
Academs, take care!

But the morning of the great day came with a broad, red sun rolling and tumbling in mist, which blew away with rising wind and let the sun in to dry the field.

And we were the heroes; the great observed of all observers. We trod the earth with a large, heroic tread. I, the smallest, last, and youngest of the company, walked with the lordiest stride of all. The season long I had fought for a "place on the team," and I had won, and Annie was there to see. Never mind who Annie was. I am telling now about a football team.

"Look at Banty, here," I heard a Normalite say, "captain o' the team, ain't he? Hull thing, an' dog under the wagon."

Even Annie smiled, and just then my cousin Teddy came up.

"What are you lookin' so red an' savage about?" says Teddy.

"Achin' to jump into that Normal team," says I.

Under the big oak Rob Mackenzie and Tom Powell, with the big fellows around them, were settling the last preliminaries. The referee pitched the coin.

"Heads it is," called Tom quietly. "We'll take the north goal." The wind by this time was stiff out of the north, and the Normals had won the toss.

Now, too, we saw the meaning of the mysterious practice in Normal Hall. Along the lower edge of the pasture, and forming the eastern side-line, there ran a "tight board" fence, and next it, the entire length of the pasture, the shallow ditch I have already spoken of. In that ditch we used to fight half of our scrimmages, and in that ditch the Normals concentrated their strategy and strength. In massive formation, the ball in the midst, protected by the fence on one side and by a moving stockade of stout legs and sturdy shoulders on the other, down the ditch they would drive, sweeping away our lighter fellows like leaves as they went, on and on, to what seemed an inevitable goal.

But right there the weakness of the play developed. The goal posts stood, as in the modern game, midway the ends of the field. No "touch-downs" counted, only goals; and to make a goal they must leave their ditch and protecting fence and come out into the open. And there Rob Mackenzie gathered his heavy men for the defense. With Whitty, and Nic, and Jim Greening, and the others, he would ram the Normal formation until it broke; then unless someone had done it before him, he would go in himself, capture the ball, and with Whitty, his team-mate, rush away with it toward the Normal goal.

The second half began, and the Normal pace grew faster. Those endurin' muscles, "hardened on the old farm," that "had cradled two acres of oats a day, day in day out, under the July sun," were beginning to tell. Like a sledge-hammer at a shaking door the Normal formation pounded at our defence. When the door should fall seemed but a matter of time. The Normalite roar along the side-line grew louder. Again and again, while the scrimmage thickened, with John Hicks and Scott and Simpson hurling into it, would burst out their thundering refrain:

Hooray for our hayseed hair;
It gits there!
An' our boots so big an' square;
Every pair!
And when you hear 'em thunderin'
On the Academic shin,
Back them cowhide boots to win!
Academs, beware!

And only for Rob Mackenzie we should again and again have gone down. How through our darkening fortunes shone the unconquerable spirit and energy of his play! Like that kind of ancient Bedouins who, "when Evil bared before them his hindmost teeth, flew gaily to meet him, in company or alone!" Again and again the Normal formation rolled along the ditch sweeping our out-fighters before it, and again and again, as it reached the critical point and swung out into the field to make the goal, would Rob hurl against it his heavy attack,—Whitty, and Rhodes, and Limp, and Jim Greening, and big Nic, and finally himself,—till the Normal mass went into chaos; out of which, through some unguarded gap, the ball would come tumbling, Rob and Whitty behind it; then down the field together they would dart, the ball before them, we youngsters yelling madly in the rear, the battle-fire in us, which had flagged with fear, bursting up again in yells of exultation like a flame.

Yet not to score; again neither side could score. The second half approached its end, and it seemed as if the game would remain a tie. As the two sides suddenly realized this, there came, as if by common consent, a pause. The Babel-roar along the side-line dropped into a hum. Then a voice called out,—it was Tom Powell; you could hear him all over the field:

"How much more time?"

And the answer came clear and clean-cut through the dead silence:

"One minute and a half!"

The Academics yelled with joy; no hope now of winning, but in so short a time the Normals cannot score; we escape defeat; it will be a drawn battle. Then they stilled again, not so sure.

For the Normal "sledge-hammer" was uplifting for a last blow. One chance remained, and Tom Powell staked all on a final cast. He left only Van Lone to guard his goal. Every other man of his team he would build into the breaks of his formation in a last determined attack. Wave after wave he had hurled against us; now this last, "a ninth one, gathering all the deep," he would hurl.

The attack came on, and our out-fighters as usual went down before it. In practically perfect order, with Simpson and John Hicks in flank, and Tom Powell himself at the centre, it turned out of the ditch for the goal. Whitty and Jim Greening went down; then big Nic. The Normal uproar gathered and swelled and burst, and swelled and burst again as they swept on. In front, Rob Mackenzie, with a last handful, stood yet. He spoke a few low, sharp words, and they went forward, not in mass, but in line.

The cooler heads looked and wondered. What did it mean? What could a thin line do against that massive-moving squad of men? but just wrap round it like a shred of twine, and like twine again, break, while the mass swept on.

So the line moved forward; but just as it was on point to strike, it stumbled apparently, the whole line together, and went down. The Normal yell rose again. But it rose too soon; the line was not down, but crouching there, a barricade across the Normal path. The stroke of strategy was too sudden to be met. Driven on by its very mass and the blind momentum of the men in the rear, the Normal formation struck our crouching line, toppled momentarily, as a wave topples over a wall of rock; then, self-destroying, its van tumbling over the Academic line, its rear plunging on over its broken front, it crumbled, broke, and stopped.

Then, while the Academics along the side-line went mad with exultation, the fallen chaos struggled to its feet, a wilder chaos than ever, a score of boots slamming for the ball at once, which bounded back and forth like a big leathern shuttlecock in the midst.

So, for a long-drawn moment, then it leaped out clear and free, and a player after it like a cannon-flash, down the field toward the Normal goal. Well may the Academics yell! It is Rob Mackenzie,—fastest man on the ground, and away now with a free field! Hard after him John Hicks, with every sinew at the stretch, and teeth grim-set, and the whole Normal team streaming in a wild tail of pursuit behind. The side-line, which, until now, had held the surge of spectators, burst like a dam in flood, and poured a yelling torrent toward the Normal goal.

There stood big Van Lone, sole guardian bulldog at that gate; an honest bulldog, but terribly bewildered, all pandemonium storming in on him at once. He started forward, but what could he do against Rob Mackenzie? The ball rises over his head, hovers an instant at top flight, or seems to; then shoots forward between the goal posts. The game was won!

And who that was there will ever forget the celebration that followed? Rob Mackenzie tossed skyward on a hundred shoulders, with mighty shouts, till the old pasture rocked and swam; the great, ruddy face of John Hicks, shining through the press, undimmed by defeat, as he came to greet his victorious foe; the meeting and hand-grasp of the two heroes, amid tremendous tumult, all lesser yells upborne on the oceanic roar of Nic; the wild processional through the town, tramping tumultuous to the roar of John Brown's Body, with Rob in triumphal chariot, rolling on down Main Street toward the west, where the clouds of sunset flamed into bonfires and the firey sun itself seemed a huge cannon's mouth hurling a thunder salute in honor of the event.

Well, all that happened years ago. Those old days can never come back. Even the old pasture I cannot see as I saw it then. It was only the other day, drawn by old thoughts revived, that I walked out to see it, through the still summer afternoon, down the old familiar road, so well known but so strangely quiet now, with its few scattered old white oaks and maples, that seem to nod sleepily in a kind of old friendliness, till you come to the turn by the burr oak grove where the pasture opens.

There they lay,—the long, tranquil slope, the green level that had been one field, the ditch along the fence,—under the quiet sunshine, in sleep and silence. Great, peaceful-looking white clouds, like great white cattle asleep, lay along the blue heaven overhead. The old oak where we were used to choose up stood motionless, as if it dreamed over the old days. Could this be indeed the old pasture, scene of our stormy uproar, this field asleep? I turned away with a half lonely feeling.

The old boys are gone, too, most of them, scattered I don't know where. Do they ever, I wonder, after the day's work is done, sit in the evening by the warm firelight, while the soft pipe-smoke wraps them in its tranquil cloud, and dream foolishly, as I do, over those old days? I like to think they do.