By John Thomas Tuft
Once upon a time, in the mythical, fading coal country of southwest Pennsylvania there was a place called Tipple Town. It’s a small place with people with big hearts. There’s an old drug store, an abandoned Five and Dime, Taylor’s Groceries, and a gas station. Where they pump your gas, check the oil, clean the windshield. Going to the doctor means going to Uniontown. Anything more than that means a trek to Pittsburgh. The Baptist Church anchors one end of Main Street. The Real Baptists are further off in hill country. The Presbyterians anchor the other end, the Methodists proudly own the middle, Episcopalians are on a shady side street, and all the good Catholics belong to the four county Southwest PA Parish. Every fall, come hell or highwater, everyone turns out for high school football. Everyone. In 1969, that means coal miners, mill workers, deck hands from tow operators on the Monogahela River, yard crews from the railroad. And their families. Having a boy on the football team is a point of particular pride.
One of the local pastors had a son named Jack. At 16 years of age he is Chip Hilton handsome, six feet tall and 180 pounds of star quarterback, destined for a scholarship at Pitt. One day his mother came to him and said, “Jack, there is a family down the street who need someone to babysit their boy, Joey. He’s 12 and he has leukemia.” Jack protested, “But Mom, summer camp starts next week. I’ve got to get my reps in with the guys in the weight room.” But his mother persisted. Then insisted. As mothers in Tipple Town are wont to do. So it came to pass that in the summer of 1969, with too many of the good sons of Southwest Pennsylvania fingering their draft cards as Vietnam played in the background, Jack, with much fear and trepidation, began to spend a couple of hours in the evenings with Joey.
The treatments had left Joey bald. As a cue ball. As no 12 year old, no matter where they live, should be. In fact, that’s what he insisted Jack call him, Cue Ball. And Jack obliged, as boys are wont to do. (Look it up, it’s an old word.) “So, what do you want to do?” Jack asked with practiced nonchalance. Quarterbacks are like that. Joey shrugged. “Wanna play checkers?” He looked small, pale, always wrapped in a colorful afghan crocheted by his mother. As mothers baffled by their children facing their mortality are wont to do. When they aren’t walking as far away from the house as they can so their boy won’t hear them screaming through the tears.
So the big strong quarterback with a future mapped out for him, sat with the pale, weak Cue Ball with numbered days, and they played checkers. And talked. About nothing and about everything. Sports, fishing, hunting, cars and the promised land of driving, food, gross things they enjoyed doing to freak out their moms, the inscrutabilities of dads. And girls. Lots of talking about girls. And the promised land. As boys are wont to do. Summer football camp started but the good coach of the regional high school let Jack leave camp in the evenings for a couple of hours to spend with Joey, the Cue Ball.
Football season started. The Tipple Town boys were a good team. In contention for the playoffs for the state single A championship. The whole town was abuzz. Jack was a hero. But Cue Ball had to go up to Children’s Hospital in Pittsburgh. So the Sunday before the last game, the one where everything is on the line, Jack used his newly minted driver’s license to follow the Mon and see his friend. In a cold, too brightly lit hospital room, too far from Tipple Town, the two sat and played checkers. And made a secret pact. As two friends are wont to do.
It’s the night of the big game. For all the marbles. The team from Freedom, PA, a railyard town north of Pittsburgh, where tows of coal glide by in silence on the Ohio River, is an equally good team. Jack is in his element. Every so often he glances at the sidelines. Where a small figure huddles against the cold in his wheelchair, wrapped in a colorful afghan. The game is close, the lead seesaws back and forth. Fourth and goal, ten seconds on the clock, Tipple Town team driving to score. The crowd is going wild. Jack rolls out, heading for the end zone for the winning score. Joey the Cue Ball leans forward, cheering with all his failing might.
Suddenly Jack veers to the sideline. The other team crashes toward him. Jack stops. Puts the ball in his friend’s arms. Picks him up out of the chair. Stumbles toward the goal line. Trips on the colorful afghan. Falls to the ground. The ball comes loose… The next day there is a picture on the front page of the Tipple Town Tribune. There in the foreground is Jack, on the ground, covering his friend, Cue Ball, in the end zone. In the background is a huge defensive lineman from Freedom who goes by the nickname, Congo. He is kneeling, arms stretched out. In one hand is the football. That he’s extending toward Jack and Cue Ball’s hands. In the background is the stunned into silence crowd. Above the picture is the headline: TOUCHDOWN JESUS
So on a clear autumn night, if you’re in Tipple Town, and it’s the last home game of the season, make your way to the high school football field. Just come prepared. Because at the end of the game, as the Hunter’s moon shines bright, casting moonshadows through the beams of the old coal tipple at the north end zone, the crowd stands in silence, makes their way to the field and when they walk away it is covered. Covered with cue balls. As the good folks of Tipple Town are wont to do.
Words are magic, and writers are wizards.