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Kicking It with high school football players

Looking back, some of my happiest years were living on a farm just six miles west of town. Every day during the school year, a yellow county bus stopped at the end of my gravel drive. Weather be damned, especially during Kansas winters, each round trip became a bodacious endurance test of self-preservation.

Monday through Friday, the bus rumbled to a halt just inches in front of me. As the accordion doors screeched open and the tires skidded to a rolling stop, passengers had to scramble up the two stairs before the driver popped the clutch and surged into first gear.

This momentum was enough to throw anyone still standing to their knees.

I always believed the driver kept a daily score. Today his actions would be considered passive-aggressive, but at the time, we all thought it was funny to watch the little kids being banged down to the floor.

Now as any school bus riding kid will acknowledge, there is a seating protocol for riding a school bus. This was ours. First, to sit at the rear bench a guy must be at least a junior. If younger, he must be a member of either one of the two football teams. It didn’t matter which, either varsity or junior varsity qualified as an entrée to the back seat. Naturally, the most successful football player lounged in the center of that bench. The other guys sat according to their team jackets which were their ticket to sit there.

Second, well of course, the girls had their own pecking order. Varsity cheerleaders were at the top of our social order followed by the junior varsity squad. My girlfriend Marianne and I got voted on to the JV squad early in our freshman year, so we both qualified.

I mean with a campaign slogan like “Jolly gee-whiz, come on kids, vote for Liz,” how could I lose? It was the same slogan I used later that year when running for secretary/treasurer of the Class of ’63.

Looking back, apparently I was as shallow then as I am today. Here is why I know this to be true. After all, sitting near the popular kids in the rear of the bus meant that every day of every school year I arrived with a whopping case of motion sickness.

Even so, I was undeterred. I always sat at the back. Which is exactly where I was when Thad Meyerhoff asked me on my first date to his Junior Prom. Of course, he was a varsity player. My heart raced all the way to school until I could get there and tell my girlfriends. It so happened I was the first one in my class to be asked to the Junior Prom. As freshman girls, we all adored the junior boys, after all, they were so mature.

It also happened in our county in southeastern Kansas, that no one ever missed a football game. Even the away games. All of our neighbors would complete their farm chores in time to join the caravan to nearby towns. Friday night football was the biggest event in our entire community.

Which is why every fall, the high school coach scheduled a special preseason practice game between the junior and senior varsity teams called “The Soap Game.” The entrance fee to that game was one bar of soap per person which usually turned out to be enough to keep the boys in lather all year.

Naturally, my entire family was proud that I was a cheerleader. Even though my first time in front of the bleachers was just a soap game, even grandma wanted to share in the family glory.

I was 12 when I first met Grandma Shelton. Remembering back, she is the only woman I have ever known to be courted on horseback. She and her new husband Robert loaded up a covered wagon and drove their team of oxen across the Kansas prairie to homestead in the southeast territory of Colorado. For years, they lived below ground in a dugout with their four boys and without either running water or electricity.

By the time I was introduced to Grandma, the family had relocated to a 200-acre farm along the Osawatomie River in southeast Kansas. But even in the 1950’s, she was still cooking on a wood stove and used lamp oil for light.

We are told beauty is in the eyes of the beholder and this woman started every day by twisting her waist-long-gray hair into a knot before slipping on a waistless cotton dress. Then she would roll her garters down to just below her knees to hold up her woolen hose. By the way, she and grandpa were married for over 70 years.

But back to the soap game.

Grandma wanted to come to the football game to celebrate my new celebrity as a JV cheerleader. Which to this day is the only reason any of us figured why she did it. As we entered the game, we all dropped a bar of Lifebuoy into the entry box. Except grandma. She dropped in several bars of her homemade soap.

Now what the family knew was that grandma’s homemade lye soap was not for just anyone’s body. It was course and robust.

As best I remember, here is how she made it, although never privy to her exact recipe. Assuming she ever had one. Watching from a distance, her routine remained the same. The men would start a campfire and lift a huge blackened caldron over the pit. Once the water boiled, she added a gob of lard and stirred until it came back to a rolling bubble. Then she’d dump in an unspecified amount of lye. This was blended until the mixture gurgled and grandma was satisfied with the consistency.

Next, she’d ladle the goop into a dented, rimmed pan to harden. Once hardened, she would cut the soap into blocks and store them until she boiled the washing in the same caldron with a block of soap.

To this day, over 60 years now, even after attending my 50-year high school reunion, I have never had enough nerve to ask any of the guys if they ever used a bar of her soap. It was always our family secret to imagine how many of them must have gotten rashes.

I can still recall her crinkly-black eyes as she sauntered into the stadium to find her seat in the bleachers.

Elizabeth Youngman-Westphal can be reached at [email protected]


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