Friday, September 22, 2017

A chapter from TUSKERS, the sci-fi novel about Nebraska football's winning decade


     On the same Saturday game day morning that Jack Alexander’s alarm awakened him with band music, Arly Hockrood’s fake video Sooners sang the praises of their campus artists and scientists, and Nancy lay beside the snoring George and listened to the sound of Chuck’s tuba inside her head, an alarm also went off in the bedroom of Sam Bangham and his wife Dolores. But instead of a cheerleader, or trumpets, or University of Oklahoma academicians, Sam’s alarm showed a calm, dignified, grandfatherly gentleman who radiated warmth, even over the television screen.
     “Think, Sam, think,” said this man quietly. And Sam Bangham lay there for an hour, listening to Dolores breathe, and thought about every possible offensive play a football team could run. Then he thought about all the plays he’d ever seen run on video, all the history books he’d ever read and all the plays described in them, then about the same vast number of plays but run with all the different players he’d known in the past thirty years. Sam Bangham was the Tuskers’ defensive backfield coach. Today’s game was his last on the home field; he was retiring after the bowl game. But the Tuskers needed to win this last one against the University of Oklahoma. And a rumor was out to the effect that the Sooners had come up with an ultimate weapon: a quarterback who could throw passes with either hand.
     Sam hated the thought of playing the obnoxious and creative Sooners. The Tuskers were between a rock and a hard place, and had been for several years, ever since they’d won their third national championship in a row. If they won the conference title, they got to go to the Orange Bowl. But Miami in January wasn’t the fun it used to be when Nebraska winters were cold and bitter. Now, New Years night in Miami was so hot and humid, the Big Eight had agreed to consider a flag game so the players wouldn’t have to wear helmets and shoulder pads. Sam wasn’t sure he wanted to play flag football in a major bowl.
     Sam Bangham agreed with the general philosophy that it was better to play than not to, but the flag techniques were unfair and largely indefensible. He hoped the NCAA would act on a proposition to keep flag creativity out of real college football. But in the meantime, his job was to hold the explosive Sooners to less than fifty points. He felt confident the Tuskers’ offense could score at least sixty. If his assessment was correct, Nebraska should win, and the Winning Decade would go into the record books as a feat never before, and never likely again to be, accomplished.
     Sam had worked out his defensive schemes based on the assumption that while the entire OU backfield could, and did, throw everything from tracer bullets to intercontinental missiles, they only threw with one hand. He didn’t have enough time to work out plans based on an ambidextrous quarterback. Furthermore they couldn’t practice a defense against one, because the Tusker scout squad had no such weapon. But by the end of the week, before the big game, Sam was beginning to see in the videos the kind of subtle hand movements that had led the brilliant Arly Hockrood to ask, at Monday’s Quarterback Lunch, a most embarrassing question:
     “What are you guys going to do if their quarterback can pass with either hand?”
     The head coach had responded not only with tact, but also with caution.
     “We’ve studied the videos and think there’s only a small chance Finney can throw left handed. But we’ve been working on that possibility.”
     Then he looked over at Sam and smiled. The kindly visage, the smile, posture, tone of voice, reassured the Monday Quarterback Lunch audience. Confidence flooded the room, except for three chairs that remained high and dry. Arly Hockrood sat in one; his skepticism kept him safe. Jack Alexander occupied another; ignorance and fear kept his nose above the confidence level. Jack thought, if Finney might be able to throw with either hand, why not Tillard, McIlheny and Sanders, the rest of the OU backfield? He shuddered; it was such a stupid question he would never have asked it in front of all these people; yet the specter of four ambidextrous passers in the Oklahoma backfield filled him with terror. The third person immune to the confidence was Sam Bangham. He knew his coach was lying. Nobody on the staff had even imagined the Sooners might be two-handed.
     Sam lingered in bed longer than usual for a game day. He reviewed his entire life, his playing days, coaching career, marriage, and the disappointing fact that their son and daughter-in-law had not drawn a child permit. Thus Sam and Dolores were the last of their genetic line. Of course the social changes that had taken place in the past thirty years made the Bangham’s lack of a grandchild somewhat easier to accept. But looking back, Sam didn’t see the kind of life he’d thought he’d have, when he was a young man, peering into his future.
     As a linebacker at the University of Nebraska, Bangham had earned the nickname “Slam” for his clean but devastating hits on opposing runners. He’d been big enough to move up into the line, fast enough to fake a blitz then drop into pass coverage. Sam and Dolores had met during their sophomore years at NU. He was drafted in the tenth round by the Chicago Bears. “Slam” Bangham turned out to be one of those diamonds in the rough, a true nugget that once in a while surfaces in professional football. He made the Pro Bowl each of his first three years at Chicago. Then a crushed pelvis ended his days on the field. He still walked with a pronounced limp.
     Sam had coached in high school before being called upon to help his alma mater, the ailing Cornhuskers. The University of Nebraska experienced a long string of losing seasons, and the coach, whose name is mercifully relegated to the obscurity of a Tusker Trivia card, had been fired. He was only the latest victim in a long series of men who’d tried to fill the legendary shoes of the almost god-like duo that guided NU to the top of the college football heap during the last part of the 20th Century. Each of the would-be successors came to the job confident and rather innocent; each left a loser. The Cornhuskers routinely went 7-4, 6-5, for nearly twenty years. When the Huskers were not invited to a bowl game, it was the first such ignominious event an entire generation of Nebraskans could remember. Very old people sat around and talked about the 1950s, but young businessmen scoffed at the talk. They’d heard about the Great Depression, too. Suddenly all the talk became real.
     One coach who was hired before Christmas was fired before spring practice. The belligerent fans thought the new recruits were of low quality, and the fans turned out to be right. “If he doesn’t have to get ready for a bowl game, at least he ought to have the time to get out there and recruit!” went the local logic. One lighting-footed running back from Omaha signed with the Kansas State Wildcats. A year later as a freshman, the kid shredded the NU defense for 352 yards rushing, including two 80- yard punt returns, in a 56-3 romp.
     The psychological climate began to deteriorate. A faculty sociologist commented, in a learned journal, on the history of Nebraskans’ will to be mediocre. In the subsequent rounds of editorials, public pulse letters, and radio call-in shows, the citizens, starving for a winner, or at least someone who wanted to be a winner even if he was a loser, bashed one another unmercifully.
     It was into this atmosphere, heavy with scorn, hostility, aggressiveness, anger, and self-flagellation, that Sam “Slam” Bangham was called by a man named Billy Boy Peebles, a man whose fame was destined to eclipse even that of the most hallowed pair of coaches in Nebraska history. At the time, the Regents had not only fired the coach, but they’d also swept the entire football program clean from the top right on down—Athletic Director to the student tutors. The Chancellor at the time, Elmer Steinacher, former agronomy professor and long-time football fan, went immediately to the alumni office and asked for a printout of all former players who were heads of large corporations. As a bright kid in school, he’d read all of Lee Iacocca’s books and thought he’d discovered the key to victory: find a successful corporate executive. If you could run a business, he reasoned, you could coach football, especially if you were given lots of money and freedom.
     Unfortunately the short printout revealed no latter day Iacocca-type tycoons. In his frustration, Steinacher succumbed to what is now known in psychiatric medicine as the “Iacocca syndrome.”  The Chancellor appointed himself Athletic Director. This act, of course, put him on the lecture circuit among alumni organizations.
     “We’re going to solve this football problem or die trying!” said Steinacher to an alumni association party in Grand Island. “We’re going to get the Huskers back in the Orange Bowl!”  There were about a dozen people at this party, including an ancient couple celebrating their seventieth wedding anniversary. This old couple sipped on their corn slime prune juice, looked at one another, then over at the large table heaped with uneaten corn slime crackers and corn slime cheeses and undrunk bottles of corn slime Chablis.
     “What’d he say?” yelled the man into his wife’s ear.
     “He said we’re gonna die before the Huskers get back in the Orange Bowl!” she shouted back, causing him to begin hyperventilating. His biggest disappointment in life was that none of his children, grandchildren, or great grandchildren were fighting over his football tickets the way he remembered doing as a boy. This product of The Good Life dreaded dying and not being remembered as the man who left his family a pair of Cornhusker football tickets.
     “Well you tell that son of a bitch he ought to hire Billy Boy Peebles!” he screamed back at his shaking wife. “Billy Boy Peebles is the only smart kid ever played for those goddamn losers!  Tell that son of a bitch to get a smart coach!  Tell that son of a bitch to bring in Billy Peebles!”
     “I think he heard you,” she answered.
     “Who’s Billy Peebles?” Steinacher asked the president of the alumni association.
     “I don’t know,” replied the president, irritated because he was the Husker All-Sports Trivia champion of all time and should have known. “But I can find out.”  He pulled out his pocket computer and called up the association files. “Billy Boy Peebles was a third string offensive guard walk on about fifteen years ago,” said the president after watching the little screen for a few seconds.
     “What’s he doing now?”
     “Best I can tell he’s designing computer viruses to use as vectors for cloning computer genes so they can be inserted into computer bacteria. He owns his own company.”
     “He’s an engineer.”  Steinacher worshipped engineers.
     The president of the alumni association shrugged.
     “What’s he worth?”     
      With a few more commands, the president got into the association’s financial records.
     “Peebles’ net worth is about three and a half billion dollars.”
     “I want to see that man tomorrow morning!”

     The president of the alumni association called Billy Peebles first thing the next morning.
     “Chancellor Steinacher is looking for a Lee Iacocca to save the Cornhuskers,” he said.
     Peebles answered with a long laugh.
     “Chancellor Steinacher wonders if you’d be willing to come to town and at least give him some advice.”
     “When?” asked Billy Boy, almost curious. He’d made so much money in the computer virus business that he was bored, but he remembered football players and coaches as monumental bores. All they ever talked about was football. At least that’s how he remembered them.
     “Now,” replied the president of the alumni association.
     Why not? thought Peebles. He was rich, right in the middle of his mid-life crisis, and a widower as a result of a tragic accident, with no children, or for that matter, no child permit. He didn’t know what to do because everything he tried he did well, except play offensive line. Although he didn’t know how low the Cornhuskers had sunk, and didn’t much care, he looked around his office and said to himself, yeah, why not? He was the sole employee of his company and all he provided his clients was a silicone card about an inch long and a quarter of an inch wide.
     Basically Peebles’ business consisted of buying these card for $2 each, writing his viruses on them, and mailing them to his clients. His office contained a computer terminal, a box of cards, and a box of envelopes. Peebles worked about one hour a day. The rest of the time he spent looking out a gigantic picture window at the birds around his private lake and reading good books or listening to classical music. What the hell, he said again to himself, maybe I’ll meet some interesting people.
     Billy Boy Peebles locked up his office, drove to the airport, and chartered a small plane. An hour later, as the plane banked for a landing, Billy Boy gazed down over the vast fields of slime corn, the herd of elephants, and the State Capitol of Nebraska standing like a gargantuan erect penis with its metaphorical statue, The Sower, casting its symbolic seeds into the prairie wind.
     The scene brought back a flood of truly miserable memories. He’d hated sitting on the bench through thirty straight games without a victory. He’d hated practicing in the hot weather. Most of all he’d hated having been born so big he’d felt obligated to play football. He felt sorry for the baby mammoth romping around happily in the pasture below. He felt sorry for all big smart animals locked into stereotyped life roles that they couldn’t get out of. Suddenly as the wheels touched the runway, Billy Boy Peebles made up his mind. He’d be the coach of the Cornhuskers, he decided, and we’ll win with brains. This is going to be the most intelligent football team in the history of the game.     
But it wasn’t a very rewarding experience to be a smart football player if you were also a loser, Billy knew well from his own career. So when Chancellor Steinacher and the president of the alumni association met him at the gate, Billy Boy loosened his tie and said
     “Gentlemen, you have yourselves a coach. Now, locate Slammin’ Sammy Bangham and pay whatever it takes to get him here as defensive coordinator.”
     “Yes, sir!” said Steinacher and the president in unison. Then the Chancellor added “but Mr. Peebles, we haven’t even talked salary.”
     “I don’t need a salary,” said Billy Boy, “but I do need an office in addition to my football office. I need a secretary, a computer, two hours a day free from coaching, in a very private place, isolated, with a big window that looks out over beautiful scenery.”
     “We got just the place!” said Steinacher. “The top floor of the biotech building. In fact, you can have the whole building.”  Corn slime had been a hard act to follow and one by one the biotech scientists had wandered off into business.
     “Great,” said Peebles.
     “Hey,” said the Chancellor, “where are you going?”
     “Back to get my stuff,” replied Billy Boy. By “stuff” he meant his virus cards, envelopes, and mailing lists.
     “Don’t you want to meet the team?”
     “No. I’ll be back on Monday. Just have Slammin’ Sammy here by then.”  He paused out on the runway as his chartered plane engines whined, and called back to Steinacher. “If Sam Bangham’s not here on Monday, then I resign.”
     As the jet screamed off into the western sky, the president of the alumni association said “I hope his office view is beautiful enough.”
     “Should be,” said Steinacher, “it looks out over the mammoth pasture.”
     And an hour later, the telephone began to call for Sam “Slam” Bangham.
     All these events happened years ago. Beside him in bed, Dolores stirred. Her hand sought his. Sam Bangham, now the most successful defensive coordinator in the history of the game, on the morning of his last appearance before a home crowd, where they faced the unpredictable Sooners in the Game of the Winning Decade, smiled, closed his eyes, and thought about football.

TUSKERS is available on all e-readers and as a nice paperback from amazon.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Here is a writing exercise, in this case a draft of a speech for Ben Sasse to give when announcing his candidacy for President.

Draft of a speech for Senator Ben Sasse:
My fellow Americans: My name is Ben Sasse, Republican Senator from the beautiful state of Nebraska, and I am announcing my candidacy for President of the United States in 2020. Our nation is in deep crisis, a distinctly un-American crisis, in which our finest attributes, those exceptional qualities that we have brought into the world for so many decades, are now buried in an avalanche of hostile rhetoric and the actions precipitated by that rhetoric. You have all heard the old saying that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me.” Well, our major accomplishment the past ten years has been to disprove that accepted wisdom.
I am an historian. I was a college professor and a college president. For all who are, at this very moment, disdaining the fact that I have college degrees, belittling my academic background, and about to reject the ideas you will hear in the next few minutes, you are dead wrong. This nation needs to be smart, well-educated, perceptive, aware of the historical events that have shaped the fate of other nations, and unafraid of science. Get over your fear of the facts, ladies and gentlemen; get over your fear of research into our most pressing problems and the data that research provides; get over your fear of those whose circumstances of birth have provided them with adequate schooling; and get over your fear of science and technology because this nation’s economy requires it.
A nation does not become great by endorsing ignorance and fear. A nation becomes great by erasing ignorance and fear. A nation becomes great by acting on the basis of knowledge, not political rhetoric that stirs up deep-seated passions, including hatred and fear. A nation becomes great by acknowledging its problems and addressing them in ways that empower as many of its citizens as possible. America has the capacity, the human resources, and the natural resources, to be a model for the rest of humanity around the world. My goal is to tap those resources. My goal is to bring the American dream home to all our people, not just those at the higher economic levels of society.
If I have learned anything from being an historian, it is that nations in which personal income becomes increasingly unequal do not survive. Income inequality is our most pressing national problem, and it is the one I will work very hard to solve. Your taxes pay for the things that only governments can provide: transportation systems, educational systems, military preparedness, law enforcement, and the cultural institutions that sustain our humanity, and yes, I include the arts in that last category. My goal as President is to ensure that we are all fairly taxed, and in a way that maximizes the disposable income of those now struggling economically. Lower income families spend a vastly larger portion of their financial resources on basics: food, shelter, transportation to jobs, and clothing, than do those who are more fortunate. In an America that is truly great, these families are saving for the future, not struggling to put even a peanut butter sandwich in their children’s lunch boxes.
The real question facing the United States of America is how we solve this most pressing problem of unequal income, but at the same time retain our respect for the enterprising minds so characteristic of our nation and especially our business community. We already have income distribution experiments showing us that money funneled into the hands of those in the higher economic classes does not trickle down into the lower economic classes, and does not recirculate into the national economy in a way that benefits all. My neighboring state of Kansas has demonstrated this quite convincingly, and that state’s elected representatives have finally recognized what Kansas policies taught them and acted accordingly to save schools and the state’s infrastructure.
I do not propose over-taxing the more fortunate. I am not going to simplify an exceedingly complex problem by yelling “tax the rich!” I do not propose a socialist society. I honestly believe that any American ought to be able to make a fortune through his or her talents and entrepreneurial skills. Nor am I going to try to buy your votes by giving away free stuff like college tuition. But I do propose a serious consideration of all possible ways to increase the buying power of those who are currently struggling, and to open the doors of economic opportunity for those eager and willing to step through them. I want Americans out there in American cities and towns buying goods and services with money earned, with adequate wages paid, and I want Americans sending their children to good schools that provide education so that we as a nation can meet global challenges of next century with intelligence, rationality, and dignity.
If you have not figured it out by now, I’ll remind you of this fundamental principle: a nation that is sick, poor, and uneducated cannot be made great, now or again, by political rhetoric. A nation that is sick, poor, and uneducated cannot be made great by actions that make the fortunate even more fortunate at the expense of those locked in a cycle of poverty and illness. A nation that is sick, poor, and uneducated cannot sustain a military establishment capable of defending its shores. And a nation that is sick, poor, and uneducated cannot compete with those nations that are healthy, wealthy, and wise, on either the social or economic fronts. My fellow Republicans have simply failed to acknowledge this fundamental principle. My goal is to help them remember what they learned in college, namely, that when statistics that are readily available to the general public tell us that millions of our citizens are sick, poor, and uneducated, we cannot be a great nation until that problem is fixed.
In 1960, John F. Kennedy was elected in part because of his idea that there was a missile gap, a significant difference between the intercontinental ballistic missiles in American silos vs. those in Soviet silos. My fellow Americans, I’m going to draw an analogy: we now have a massive credibility gap that is destroying our ability to engage other nations in ways that are of benefit to our citizens. I am a registered Republican. It is now time for us all to recognize what has become so glaringly obvious to so many of my colleagues in the political arena, namely that we need an American president who speaks the truth as we know it to the American public.
We need an American president who is comfortable with American citizens voting, regardless of the color of their skin or the derivation of their last names. We need an American president who is not afraid to admit that our incarceration rate is shameful and that our prison system is among the most brutal in the world, producing more criminals than productive citizens. We need an American president who is serious about immigration, who will find a way to help American agriculture through a rational system that provides guest workers. And we need an American president who does not take smug satisfaction in sending American youth to be killed and maimed in foreign interventions that are not in our national interests.
I don’t promise to be a miracle worker. I don’t promise to solve all of our nation’s problems in my first hundred days in office. I do promise to be honest, to rely on honest and well-informed people, to surround myself with experts instead of cronies, to freely admit the cause and sources of our most pressing problems, and I do promise to learn what has worked to make life better for citizens in various parts of this country, and learn what has not worked, and act on the basis of valid information rather than my own personal insecurities.  
Yes, I am running for president of the United States. In the coming weeks and months, I will put forth some ideas that may seem strange coming from a Republican, but please remember that I am focusing on our problems and the difficult task of solving them. I ask your help in this daunting task, but I also ask for your understanding, that unless we both recognize and attack our problems of poverty, sickness, and education, we will never be great again and we will end up losing all that has made us the envy of the world for so long.