Feelings from the fairgrounds

For many years, our high school was located on 2nd Avenue. There were no adjacent athletic fields, so buses transferred athletes to the fairgrounds for football practice and for baseball and track practices and competitions.

This spring, I returned to the fairgrounds. I walked across the old athletic fields, to where a cinder quarter-mile running track once existed, its lanes marked by lines of white chalk. All the chalk has faded away, and, though some cinder remains, most has settled into the sod.

I kept moving along — across the outer half-mile oval track where snowmobilers raced and trotters used to run — squeezed through the rails of that oval track’s perimeter fence into the RV camping area, on through to the river’s edge. I took a seat on the bank there, watched the river flow, and let the memories roll.

There were minnows in the shallows, a red-winged blackbird’s nest evident in the cattail reeds. A measure of life’s jetsam came floating by. Then I noticed Mel Leeck. Mel was standing at the top of the bank, looking down at me, wearing that Leeck smile.

Melvin came along in the memory’s roll — he’s been gone from this space awhile. We had taken a break from track practice and were out of bounds, being there by the river. I suspect that’s why Melvin was smiling so — our being out of bounds.

Other memories came: During my pre-adolescent years, my friends and I would ride our bikes to the fairgrounds. We played on the ball fields, swam in the river, fished from its banks, and would check out the horses in the horse barn.

In season, we watched high school teams practice and compete. Those high school athletes were our heroes.

I was an avid hero-watcher in those years, between 1952 and 1956, and remember individual faces though their order of appearance has blended: Dave Kaiser, Hans Mercer, Dick and Wayne Socia, George Melville, Dick Oles, Tom Straley, Herb Gamage, Roland Lee, Ernie Mousseau, Bob Rohn, Jim Park, Bill McConnell, Harley MacKenzie, Ken Meggert, Delton Ableidinger, Roger Smith, Pete Dant, and others.

I remember coaches Bob Devaney, Art Ross, Vic Knowlton, and Stan Bjornstad — the later two I knew later as teachers when, in 1957, my turn in high school came.

In 1952, in Bob Devaney’s final game as Alpena High’s football coach — at the end of an 8-1 winning season — a combination of those heroes went downstate to Keyworth Stadium and beat Hamtramck 28-19. In 1956, our fullback from that Hamtramck game, Dave Kaiser, kicked the field goal that won the Rose Bowl. That same year, Pete Dant ran the 100-yard dash in 9.7 seconds, setting a new state record. The world record then was only 0.4 seconds faster.

These were great years to be a watcher.

Later, in 1961, the Arrowhead Conference championship was decided on the old cinder track. I watched as teammate Ralph Weise won the half-mile run. Ralph, a superb athlete, maintained himself at less than full potential by employing an array of teenage discipline avoidance tools.

Ralph ran on grittiness and spirit, not conditioning, but won, as people with that combination often do — for awhile. He ran upright on the old cinder track until, totally spent, he collapsed at the finish line — but not a step before. Things like that you remember. I think I can come close to picking out the spot in the cinders and sod where Ralph Weise fell, spent — winning.

When I exited the fairgrounds, society’s polarizing issues and contrived disinformation met me at the gate. But memories of Pete Dant’s speed, our boys’ Keyworth Stadium 28-19 victory, Ralph Weise’s overcoming, and Dave Kaiser’s Rose Bowl field goal, blocked them. The old memories won again.

I wonder who the heroes of tomorrow’s pre-adolescents will be, and if they will be deserving of those innocents’ adulation.

I wonder if they will have teachers like Stan Bjornstad and Vic Knowlton to help guide them through their transition years. I wonder what life’s current will bring in their yesterdays’ flow, and if red-winged blackbirds will still build nests in the river’s cattail reeds?

Doug Pugh’s “Vignettes” runs biweekly on Tuesdays. He can be reached at pughda@gmail.com.


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