The summer duck circled. It was a canvasback. Silhouetted against a cloudless July sky, it was gliding, rocking confidently from side to side, coming down toward the surface of the water.
It met the surface of the warm Texas lake in a shower of silver droplets, then came to rest. The duck was more than 1,000 miles from where it should have been. A little like myself, I thought—far off course. I was caught up in a middle-years crisis, an unpleasant mixture of family and career problemsF. Things that can send a man out to the edge of a lake to sit quietly and sort them out.
Before the arrival of the duck, I had been silently occupied with the subject of happiness. Now the duck had pushed me back in time. The blind was always a cold and silent place in the dawn. I recalled how it felt to be crouched down on the frozen ground, with the cold stinging my fingers and feet. But somehow it came back as a happy recollection.
I let my mind wander on through the past, collecting other memories that seemed to fit into the category of happiness. And then, suddenly, my mind served itself a question. "What was the happiest day of them all?" Ask yourself sometime. You might be surprised at the answer. I was. It took a few minutes to locate and bring back the happiest day. Actually, I wondered if I had ever dwelled on it before. I couldn't recall.
It had its prelude near an old wooden footbridge that crossed Granite Creek, between the practice field and the high school gym in Prescott, Ariz., 1946. We had moved there a year earlier. Prescott was a pleasant community to grow up in, but at the time I didn't think so. I didn't care much for myself, either, and that was the real problem.
I was entering my sophomore year in high school. I stood two inches over six feet—and weighed 119 pounds. I was pale, lonely and frightfully skinny. But nothing would stop me from going out for the football team. I had always wanted to play football.
However, in my first season of football at Prescott High I never got into a game. I was the only member of the team who never played a single minute. Faithfully, I attended practice every weekday afternoon. Nobody paid any attention to me. The head coach was always across the field where the first and second teams were butting heads. For that season I held an embarrassing distinction: I was the one player on the team who never had his game jersey washed even once.
There was another thing that bothered me. My dad came out for every home game. But he never asked me why I wasn't playing, and I appreciated that. At the end of the school year—and it had been a lonely and miserable one—he announced that he had found me a summer job. I was to work as an axman on a crew that would be surveying for a new highway.
Axman. I had a rough idea of what the job was. My dad explained it to me. But he didn't tell me what it was going to feel like. In the beginning, it was torture. Pure, unadulterated purple agony.
The job of my cutting crew was to move ahead of the surveyors, clearing a six-foot path on each side of a set of preliminary stakes. We cut pine, juniper and heavy oak brush. Each day left me painfully and desperately exhausted. My hands were a mass of raw and ugly blisters. For the first few weeks, I truly thought I was going to die.
But finally I began to catch on to the job. It required technique as well as muscle. The blisters were becoming calluses, and I felt I was holding up my end of the deal.
On one hot and cloudless day we were working our way out of a rocky canyon when I heard the transit man shout, "Hafford, get that limb out of the way!"
I grabbed a brush hook with both hands and laid into the juniper. I came at it from the underside on the first blow. Then, one overhand. The third swing from the underside severed it. I grabbed the branch and tossed it aside. I was mad at being singled out while others were flaking off. I yelled back, "Anything else you need?"
"No, that's just fine."
Suddenly I knew why my dad had put me in this heat-drenched wilderness with a brush hook in my hand. This was to be my training ground. I worked harder. Then I started running. I ran everywhere, and in the evenings I did push-ups and sit-ups on the dirt floor of the tent. I ate everything the cowboy cook put in front of us. And at night before I fell asleep, I created football scenes in my mind.
One of our axmen was a big Mormon who played football at Utah State. He was on the crew for the same reason I was, only he knew it from the start. I never told him I was a football player, but he must have guessed. We went home every other weekend, and one Monday he brought a football back to camp.
He worked with me, tossing passes. I wasn't any good at catching the ball. Finally, he laid it on the line. "You can't be an end," he said. "You haven't got the hands. You can't be a back. No moves, no speed. You've got to play on the line. You've got to be a mean football player. That's all you've got."
We decided I would try out for tackle in the fall. "It's not how big you are," the big guy told me. "It's how hard you hit, and I'm gonna show you how." He did his best.
Summer ended and fall was in the air. Football time again. We had a new line coach, Mr. Cantrell. He didn't know me, and that was good. Our first contact exercise was interior linemen, one at a time, against an end and wingback. I got into the waiting line, but not up front. I wanted a chance to watch what was going on. Up ahead, bodies were tangling and dirt was flying. I told myself, "You've got one chance, that's all. One chance, that's all."
My time came. Across from me were Kelly and Coffee. Kelly was a big end, maybe 190. My weight was up to 155. Coffee was an All-Northern halfback. Fast. Kelly was tough. But I had a feeling he would dog it. He'd remember me from the year before.
I watched for the snap out of the corner of my eye. As I guessed, Kelly moved at me lazily. I caught him under the chin with my forearm and moved him back. We went at it three times. Second time it was a dogfight, but I got through again. On the third, I lost my footing and tripped over Coffee's leg. I went face down in the dirt. As I started back toward the end of the line, Mr. Cantrell barked out, "Hey you, stay in there!" He hadn't done that with anyone else.
Now I was up against Converse and Urias. Converse was a good end, but Urias was a cream puff. I worked on Urias, and he was easy.
Cantrell called out, "What's your name?" I told him. He nodded and I walked away.
It was a long practice. At the end I saw Coach Miller, our head coach, standing by the wooden footbridge that ran across the creek. As I approached, he looked up with just a touch of a smile on his face. "Coach Cantrell says you were getting in some pretty good licks out there today." I shrugged. His smile stayed there. "Going out for tackle?" This time I nodded. "We've got some pretty big tackles," he said.
I don't know what made me say it, but I felt good when the words came out. "Powers is fat and Martin's dumb."
His smile broadened a little. "Well, we'll be watching you," he replied. I walked on across the old bridge.
Two weeks later we were out at the rodeo grounds where we played our home games. Late in the first quarter, they helped Martin off the field. He was dazed and had blood running from his nose. Then I heard that one magic word. Coach Miller was calling my name.
My dad was up there in the stands, while across from me a moonfaced farm boy got down into a crouch. We looked at each other. "I'm gonna beat you," I said softly. And that was when the clock started ticking on the happiest day.