CHAMPIONS IN GOD’S EYES: The Ironmen of Eagle River (Part 5)

AUTHOR’S NOTE: For those who miss high school basketball and love an inspiring story, I am serializing the first chapter of my novel, “Champions In God’s Eyes: The Ironmen of Eagle River,” on over the first five days of July. If you missed the beginning, click on PART 1. I hope you enjoy it (and if you’ve already read it, please leave a review on AMAZON).

PREVIOUSLY IN PART 4: Cameron Carpenter continues reading the journal he wrote in 1974 to deal with the loss of his father. Chronicling his freshman basketball season, he writes of getting in a fight while trying to fit in at his new school, how much he misses his dad, and the mysterious reason why his mother and his grandfather are fighting.

Cameron Carpenter’s Journal (1974-75)

Monday, December 2

You can go ahead and congratulate me, Dad. They announced the cuts today, and I made the high school team. Just like my old man. I didn’t want to disappoint you. Looking at who else made the team, I don’t know why I was so nervous. Now I’m thinking maybe I should be on the varsity.

After the freshmen and sophomores finished practicing and after I made my ten free throws, Luke and I watched a little of the seniors’ practice. It was a lot different than ours. We just do the same old boring plays. They push and shove like they were playing on center court at Bloody Omaha.

Luke told me which guys to watch, but I’d already done my scouting, just like you told me. I don’t remember their names except for Joe Perfect and, of course, Frank Purpino. I guess everyone in school knows those two. Joe is the ASB president, football quarterback, best basketball player. Blah, blah, blah. That’s why I call him Joe Perfect. Okay, he is pretty good. They set up plays for him, and he knocked them down. Purpino is a gorilla, pushing guys, playing dirty. He’d have fit in at Bloody Omaha—at least until he started to get pushed around by the brothers.

Luke said Eagle River should go to the playoffs, maybe even to state. It would be the first time in…twenty years? Thirty? He told me, but I forgot. I don’t know, though. They looked like they’d get toasted on the playground.

Then there’s Van Stoop, the varsity coach. He looked like a tired old man. The gray hair, the sad eyes. He didn’t yell when a player made a butthead play. Not like Wartman, who screams from the minute you walk into the locker room to get dressed until you leave to go home. I can’t stand it. Maybe that’s another reason to make varsity.

Luke asked about hanging out tonight, but I wasn’t in the mood, so I lied and told him my family was doing something. Now I’m just sitting around bored. Maybe I’ll study. Yeah, right. How about another Star Trek rerun? Better yet, I’ll write in my journal.

Whoopie! Fun times in Eagle River.

Tuesday, December 3

Wartman. I just want to beat the living S out of him. Dad, I know the shrink said I have to deal with my anger issues, but if I have to deal all season with my Wartman issues, I’ll blow like Old Faithful.

They announced the varsity and JV teams, and guess who is stuck on JV. After practice, I went into Wartman’s office and asked why Luke and I didn’t make varsity. I know—gutsy, or maybe stupid, but I wanted to know. Instead, he started reaming me out!

“You’re all show, like those colored boys on TV,” he said. What a jerk! 

Afterward, Luke told me why no freshmen made varsity. He said Coach Van Stoop has to keep a bunch of seniors on varsity just because they’re seniors. Senior stiffs, maybe. If they can play, let them stay. If not, hit the asphalt. That’s the rules of the playground. Oh, and one of the seniors is Wartman’s little brother. Luke calls him a punk because he’s always talking big and pushing underclassmen around.

Great. Another Wartman.

Well, we scrimmage against the varsity tomorrow, so the punks better be ready. I will be.

Wednesday, December 4

I don’t know if they did this when you played, Dad, but I guess it’s a tradition here. Before the real games start, the varsity has a scrimmage with the junior varsity. Luke said the JV players call it the Civil War. You know, brother versus brother, and everybody dies in the end. I didn’t think it was that big of a deal.

I told Luke not to worry, since he was as good as any stiffs the varsity has. But I was getting a little nervous the more he talked about it—until we started playing. Wartman put me on Little Richie—he’s the starting point guard—and that was fine by me since I wanted to show him who was better.

The first couple of times down the court, he started trash talking, calling me names. He was slapping, playing dirty like they do at the playground until they do it to the wrong guy and he shoves a fist in their face.

I wasn’t going to do that since I’d already gotten in trouble for one fight. I remembered what you said about playing a hotshot: “Find their weak spot and stick in the knife.” I could tell Little Richie didn’t like going to his left, so I got in his face and made him go left. Richie boy shut up after the third traveling call. Even Van Stoop was getting on him.

Sometime in the second half, I got the “feeling” again.

Little Richie didn’t look like he wanted to be there, and I started taking him one-on-one. I hit three straight in his face, but I didn’t do any trashing. When Coach Van Stoop called time-out, I thought Wartman would slap me ten or at least five. Instead, he told me to “quit showboating.” What did he want me to do, let us lose by twenty?

We cut the gap to about ten with three minutes to go, and we were rolling. So what’s Wartman do? He calls time-out and takes Luke and me out. We lose by twenty. Whose side is this guy on?

It didn’t count in the books, but Luke and I felt pretty good. And even though Wartman was yelling at us, he still looked pretty happy. I can’t say the same for Coach Van Stoop. Hope he’s not mad at me.

Thursday, December 5

Dad, I guess it got around that we’d done all right in the scrimmage. That felt good. Then during lunch, some people came over to sit with Luke and me. And when I say “some people,” I mean some girls. Just don’t tell Mom. One of them said, “Nice game, Cameron.” I didn’t think she even knew my name, but I definitely know hers. Barry Manilow is singing it on all the radio stations: “Mandy.”

She sits four seats away in math, right behind me in history, and in the front row in English. She looks like the cute girl in American Graffiti. Not the blonde in the T-Bird but the high school sweetheart. She doesn’t have long straight hair and wear tight skirts like the other girls. She has short, dark hair and wears sweaters and bell-bottoms. It’s like she knows she doesn’t have to show off. Luke said she could have been a varsity cheerleader if she wanted, but she was more into being the freshman class secretary.

I didn’t say much to her, but I couldn’t keep my eyes off her. Was that the way it was when you first met Mom? Of course, Luke was soaking it all in. He told Mandy and her friends how we’d be starting on varsity next year when the senior punks graduated.

Things were looking pretty good at practice too. Wartman didn’t get on my case much and even ran some plays for me. Afterward, Coach Van Stoop called me into his office. He said if I kept my nose clean and played up to my potential, he might move me up to varsity in a week or two.

I was jammin’ on Cloud 9 until I got out of the office. I should’ve known my luck would run out. Some of the seniors—Purpino, Hitman Warden, Little Richie, James the shooter, and Wartman’s kid brother—were still hanging around the locker room and surrounded me. They got in my face and said some things. None of it was, “Nice game, Cameron.” I wasn’t feeling very good about my chances right then. The only one my size was Little Richie, and he made sure to stand behind Purpino.

I could see the headline in the weekly paper:

Freshman scores 22 in scrimmage;

body found next day in Eagle River

After having my head shoved a couple of times against a locker, I was getting ticked. It was time to kick somebody where it hurts and punch a few faces before I got sent to the hospital. Then I heard whistling, and Jonah the manager came walking in carrying a bunch of dirty towels. The punks put me down, and Purpino said to him, “Hey, boy, go find somewhere else to be.”

I don’t know if Jonah saw my pale face or heard my heart thumping across the locker room, but he came over and said, “Hey, Cameron. Saw you in church last Sunday.”

Man, just what I wanted to talk about. I wish his dad was a cop instead of a preacher. But he pushed his way over to me with all the towels, and the punks broke it up. Purpino let me go but had a parting shot for me.

“Watch your step, creep, or you’re dead meat.”

Jonah sat down with me, but I was out of it and don’t remember much of what he said. My heart still felt like I’d played four overtime games at the Beach. I was trying to decide whether to quit the team, quit the school, or quit the human race.

“See you in church on Sunday,” Jonah finally said. Yeah, it would probably do me good to go to church. Then I could pray for lightning to strike those punks.

Mom asked where I got my bruise. I told her I got hit with an elbow going for a rebound.

Friday, December 6

Dad, my shot was off all day. So was my head. I couldn’t remember anything in my classes—even history. Mr. Guggenheim asked if I was in another world. I wish the starship Enterprise could get me off this one.

Practice was terrible. Wartman was my personal backpack. I’m not sure which is worse, going up to varsity with the punks or staying on JV with Wartman on my case all the time. Luke kept asking what was wrong. I kept telling him it was just a bad day. I saw a couple of the senior punks watching me with big grins on their punk faces.

After practice, Luke invited me to a party at his house later. I felt like just crashing tonight, but he kept bugging me until it was easier to say, “Sure.” So I’m heading to Luke’s in a couple of minutes. I didn’t tell Mom it was a party. (And please don’t rat on me.) She’s just glad I’ve met a friend. Catch you on the flip side.

Saturday morning, December 7

Dear Dad. Owww! (How’s that for a greeting?) My head feels like Purpino is pounding on it with a baseball bat. No, that would probably feel better. I’m staying in bed until Mom goes to get groceries because I don’t want her to see me. Why did I go last night?

I remember Luke’s party was fun for a while. Some of the freshmen and sophomores I know were there. There was some dancing and beer…I know, I know, Dad. But it was no big deal. I told Luke I didn’t want to do any drinking, but he said everybody does it in Eagle River because there’s nothing else to do. Dad, I know you always told me drinking and ball don’t mix, but I wasn’t feeling so good about life anyway. I figured it couldn’t hurt. Sorry.

Mandy was there, too, and she sat down with me. It wouldn’t have looked cool drinking a Coke, so I had a Coors. Or two. Or three. I don’t remember. I do remember getting up the guts to ask her to dance even though the best dancing I’d done was on the playground showing off my hoop moves.

She said yes, and I felt like I was jammin’ on Cloud 9.

Unfortunately, that’s about all I remember, except puking once and trying to be quiet when Luke helped me sneak back into the trailer. I didn’t feel so good. Owww! I still don’t feel good. Dad, you were right.

Luke just called. I’ll talk to you later.

Saturday night, December 7

Dad, I’m back. I’m beat. But I’m stoked.

I never realized how happy she makes me. Oh, Mandy. (I know, I’m no Barry Manilow.) I wonder if she knows that I really, really like her.

When I got home tonight, Mom told me we’re going to church tomorrow. I think she was waiting to see if I’d make it home in one piece. (Maybe she figured out what happened last night. You always said you could never fool her.) It’s not cool to be a momma’s boy, but it’s nice to know she cares. Luke said his folks don’t care when he comes home, even if he stays out all night. If I stayed out all night, Mom would care. Then she’d ground me for life.

So why am I stoked? First, Luke called at noon and asked how I was feeling. What did he think? Sick as a dog if the dog was out drinking all night. He suggested going to lunch, and I asked him if he wanted me to blow my lunch? He said to meet him at Barney’s Burgers. The guys call it Barfy’s. Oh, great. Just what my stomach needed. But, hey, it was something to do.

We walked in, and who’s a waitress at Barfy’s but a certain beautiful, green-eyed brunette. Luke is such a funny guy. We said hi, and Mandy kind of smiled at me. I couldn’t tell if she was smiling just to be nice because she smiles at all the customers or because she…I don’t know…might like me. We stayed for two hours! I was so busy trying to watch her without her catching me that I didn’t pay any attention to Luke and Taylor. Luke thought that was so funny.

Then when Mandy came over to see if we needed anything for about the twentieth time, Luke asked if she wanted to go out with a bunch of us tonight to Mount Vernon. She smiled like she knew he was playing a game and just brushed back her hair.

“I don’t know, maybe,” she said.

Luke grinned and said, “Cameron’s going to be there.”

Oh, great! I turned tomato-faced and wanted to put my straw up Luke’s nose until it hit his brain, what little there is. What was he trying to do? But Mandy said sure and for us to pick her up at five-thirty. Then she made her exit like she’d played the game before. She even looked back at me and smiled.

Oh, my heart. I think I’m in…whoa! Slow down the Cam Express. After I punched Luke about ten times in the arm, I told him thanks.

Mom said it was okay to go, but she did ask if there would be any girls. I know better than to lie to her, so I told her there were six of us: Luke, Taylor, and me, and Mandy, Tami, and Lucinda. It wasn’t like we were three couples or anything. I know Luke likes Tami, but Lucinda isn’t into any dating stuff. Her big glasses and long straight hair remind me of an uptight librarian. Taylor’s a big lug, a heavyweight on the wrestling team, but he’s a sophomore who can drive, so he’s nice to have around.

And Mandy and I aren’t a thing exactly. But I got to sit next to her in the car, next to her in the pizza place, and next to her in the theater. Murder on the Orient Express was okay, but I wasn’t paying that much attention. The pizza was okay. (Mandy likes pepperoni and pineapple. Weird.) But the car ride was great.

The only trouble we almost got into was at the pizza place when some guys from Mount Diablo started checking out the girls. I didn’t know who they were except they had basketball lettermen jackets with MD on them. Luke said to watch out for them because they were studs. One of them started eying Mandy, and I stood up—all five feet, nine inches—and told him to back off. Taylor kind of grabbed me and sat me down. The Mount Diablo guy just laughed.

“See you on the court, chump,” I said. He grinned like, “Right, kid.” Luke told me later Mount Diablo took third at state last year with a bunch of juniors. They figure to kick the varsity’s tails from the top of Mount Diablo to the Eagle River Bridge.

Great. I can’t wait.

I thought I’d made a fool of myself, but then Mandy put her hand on mine and said, “Thanks.” She let me hold it the rest of the night.

Jammin’ on Cloud 9!

Luke wanted to go out after and find a party, but Lucinda didn’t want to, and Mandy said she had to go home too. When we dropped her off, she kissed me on the cheek. I was tomato-faced on the outside, but I was feeling pretty good inside. Luke razzed me all the way home, but it was worth it.

Dad, it was a really good day. I haven’t had that many here. I hope that’s all right. 

Sunday, December 8

Dad, you know I used to hate Sundays because the next day was school. But now I get to see Mandy tomorrow. I can’t wait! I wanted to call her today…maybe a zillion times, but I didn’t. Why? Because I’m chicken.

I always thought I was fearless. I drove to the hoop even against the goons from the projects. I’d stand up to guys twice as big on the playgrounds. You taught me you can’t back down or you might as well not show up. I never told you, but a guy pulled a piece on me one time. But I wasn’t scared. You always said, “We all have to die sometime, so you might as well die with your boots on.” I don’t know what that means, but it sounds good. Maybe it means you watched too much Gunsmoke.

But since you’ve been gone, it seems I’m more nervous than I’ve ever been. Tonight I was even scared to call a girl. C’mon, gutless! But I couldn’t.

Speaking of scared. I was even a little afraid in church today. Pastor Jackson was talking about the path to hell. It didn’t sound like a very inviting place. Of course not, nimrod. That’s why they call it hell. He said the usual about having to be good and believe in Jesus. But how will Jesus help me with Mandy? How will He protect me from the senior punks? How will He bring back the man who means the most to me?

Jonah came over after church and wanted to talk. He’s cool, I guess. He’s a junior, so I don’t have any classes with him. We mostly talked about hoops and laughed about the punks. But when he wanted to pray with me, I told him I had to exit stage left. It just didn’t feel right.

One weird thing: I saw Jonah pushing the girl in the wheelchair out of church. She must be his older sister. I wonder what happened. Anyway…

I didn’t bother shooting at the gym tonight. Mom wanted to know if anything was wrong. I said everything was fine. But what’s the point? I don’t need to practice to play JV. And if I play better, I’ll have to face the senior punks on varsity.

Basketball used to be more fun at Bloody Omaha.

End of Chapter 1

For a signed copy of the book, e-mail or click on SIGNED COPY. You also can order it online or find it at your local book stores.

Jim Carberry of Whatcom Hoops

Jim Carberry is a former Bellingham Herald sports editor and author of several books on Whatcom County prep basketball. Follow him on Twitter @whatcomhoops and visit the Whatcom Hoops Facebook page.

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