The effort to avoid a “sissy” label went beyond just defending my right to wear glasses. It meant that I had to try to play football, softball, basketball and other sports even though I was terrible at them. I would have preferred to do other things, but even if you were the last one chosen when sides were being picked, you still had to make the effort.
Guns were a part of life in the mountains. I had my Daisy air rifle, my rubber guns and, when I was about 11 or 12, a .22 rifle. I also was well-educated on gun safety, thanks to my dad. The .22 was mostly for target practice and occasionally forays with other guys to the city dump at night to kill rats. We would stand on the road by the dump in the dark. When we heard a lot of movement below, one of us would turn on a bright light. The others would shoot the huge rats momentarily stunned by the glare. One guy would have a shotgun in case a wounded rat tried to charge up the side of the dump.
Daddy was a hunter, and he introduced me to the sport when I was about 12. He bought me a single-shot, full-choke, 20-gauge Browning shotgun. We hunted almost every Saturday that season, but, to Daddy’s increasing disappointment, I never hit a bird. Finally, on the last day of the season, we flushed a covey of quail. I raised my shotgun and fired. To my surprise, I hit the bird I was aiming at, but instead of fluttering to the ground as did the birds the other hunters hit, mine just disintegrated in mid-air. Daddy watched in amazement. We found only some bloody feathers. He later checked out the “pattern,” the distribution of shot, and found that at 200 yards the pattern of my shotgun was so tight that it was like shooting a rifle. No wonder I hadn’t hit any birds. The next season, I got a brand-new Remington pump gun with a modified choke. I had far greater luck, although I was never what you would consider a good shot. Again, the problem eventually would be traced back to my eye problem. I am right-handed, but my right eye, even though it was no longer crossed, was “lazy.” That meant that it didn’t move in tandem with the left one. As long as I was using both eyes, I had no problem. But if I closed my left eye and used only my right—to aim a shotgun, for example, my eye would drift. I discovered just how big a problem this was in the Army. We were on the rifle range qualifying in the M-1, then the standard infantry weapon. I happened to be in the last position on the left-hand side of the firing line. I fired off my rounds and got “Maggie’s drawers”—the red flag signifying a complete miss—on a every shot. But afterward, the firing officer in the pits called up to ask the officer on the firing line who was shooting on the target immediately to my left. Since no soldier was firing at that target, it should have been intact. My eye had drifted to the left and I had sent my bullets into the wrong target. My lieutenant, who wanted his company to get high marks on the range, got the firing officers to agree to count my pattern, even though it was on the wrong target. Thus, I earned a marksman’s medal.
After the Army, I never again went hunting.
In retrospect, neither of my parents was very supportive in my seemingly unending battle against sissyness. Mother constantly reminded me, particularly when I was smaller, that she had hoped for a girl the second time around. She used to dress me up in girl’s clothes and paint my fingernails and toenails, and had me help her in the kitchen doing “girl’s things.” She encouraged me to play with dolls and paper dolls. I think I even enjoyed some of those things. I remember one Christmas that Emma Jo and I were taken by our mothers to a big building on South Main that was being used as a toy warehouse. We were told we could each pick out one toy. Emma Jo, of course, chose a beautiful doll, and convinced me to take a matching doll with a white silk dress. Mother kept the doll until long after I left home, and eventually gave it to my niece, Mickey.
Mother also was overly protective of me, a trait that lasted all her life. As a child she had suffered terribly from asthma and avoided any direct contact whenever possible with the elements. Anytime she went out in the cold, she was thoroughly bundled up. Riding in the car even on the hottest days she didn’t want the window open to allow the wind to blow directly on her. She tried to instill these same fears in me. I got the impression that getting cold was tantamount to getting a cold. I think I finally got over that fear one night when Sheffy and I had gone ’coon hunting one bitterly cold winter night with Daddy, Uncle Kyle and a group of men. We must have been 6 or 7 years old at the time. At one point the dogs apparently had a raccoon treed and the men took off running to see. I was behind everybody else and when I ran across a frozen creek, the ice broke and I fell in. The water wasn’t deep but I was soaked through. I got up and kept going. Later we sat around a campfire and I gradually dried off. I didn’t get a cold and had no other ill effects from my soaking in the icy water. That convinced me that Mother was wrong, and I never paid much mind to her strictures again.
Daddy would constantly taunt me that I was “throwing like a girl,” or “running like a girl.” This did little to bolster my self-esteem or my masculine image. He kept pushing me into things he thought boys should be doing—hunting, fishing, playing baseball, working on construction jobs. Some of them I liked; others I didn’t. But I didn’t really have much choice. Hunting wasn’t my favorite pastime, for instance, but I did enjoy it more than fishing, which I decided early on was a crashing bore. What I liked about hunting was watching the dogs do their work, being outdoors in rugged country and enjoying the beauty of nature. I particularly liked the hunting when we did it on horseback in southern Georgia where we sometimes went when the Tennessee season ended. Daddy, who had been an accomplished amateur baseball player, eventually gave up on trying to make me follow his footsteps in that sport.
Last to be chosen
Still, I loved sports, particularly football, and I tried them all. In softball, I was always the last one chosen when we would “choose up” sides. Touch football was a little better, because I would play with my glasses on and could manage pretty well. Even though I weighed only about 100 pounds and was nearly blind without my glasses, I went out for high school football my junior year. Of course on the high school team, I had to take off my glasses. I couldn’t play in the backfield because I couldn’t see, so Coach Webb Lindsay made me a guard, a pretty ridiculous position for somebody as small as I was. Actually, things went pretty well during the first part of the season. I faithfully went to practice, going through the drills with the other guys. I usually didn’t see much action even in the practice scrimmages, must less on the playing field. I did get into a game briefly one night when Jellico was far ahead of a team from Kentucky. Later in the season, we traveled to Jefferson City to face a team that I believe went on to win the state championship. By the fourth quarter, Jefferson City was leading about 60-0. Our players had taken a beating and several had been sidelined with injuries. When our star guard, Dickie Davenport, came limping off the field, Lindsay looked around his dwindling subs and spotted me. “Ed, get in there!” he cried. The last thing in the world I wanted was to go into that mayhem, but I dutifully ran onto the field.
On the first play, I was mousetrapped. The opposing guard, instead of blocking me, just stepped aside and let me go charging through. The only problem was that by the time I realized what was going on, the runner had gone through the hole I had left open in the line. On the next play, the runner just ran over the top of me. I kept looking at the sideline hoping Lindsay would pull me out. But he didn’t. I kept trying. Somehow I survived and even began to hold my own against the heavier Jefferson City linemen, actually making a few tackles. I was tremendously relieved when the game finally ended. I took off my uniform in the locker room, knowing full well that my brief football career was over. I hadn’t counted on actually having to play!
I think my biggest disappointment in sports was in not being able to play tennis. The parents of Jim Bealle, one of my kindergarten friends, built him a tennis court on a vacant lot next to their Fifth Street home. It became the center of our existence during the summer, attracting not just the boys but also the girls, in whom we were taking a greater interest. I tried, but it was obvious from the beginning that I especially could not play tennis. I would swing before the ball got to me or after it had passed, much to the amusement and laughter of my friends. So for the most part I avoided the tennis court that summer and felt separated from my friends.
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