Wednesday, July 16, 2014

NY Jets #70 - Part 1

The other day I was listening to "This American Life" about the twisted identities of Asa and Forrest Carter, two men who were in fact the same person, the latter resurrecting himself from the vanishing act of the former. Asa Carter was a violent, viciously racist would-be demagogue from Alabama who wrote George Wallace's inauguration speech of 1963. A radio personality with hatred for anything other than what he called "Anglo-Saxon" culture, Carter was so racist that when Wallace cooled on segregation and race-baiting, Carter decried him publicly, ran against him and then disappeared.

In 1976, Forrest Carter - a self-proclaimed storyteller of the Cherokee people - published his second book, The Education of Little Tree, a memoir of the care and teachings he received from his Cherokee grandparents and the lessons he learned about the "Way" of his people. It quickly became a staple of high school English classes. The novel preaches the importance looking toward nature to learn life lessons, and it teaches about the kindnesses that ordinary people of different backgrounds can show one another. It took at least two decades for the country to finally accept the fact that Forrest "Little Tree" Carter never actually existed. He was in fact Asa Carter - thinner, tanned, with a mustache, a cowboy hat and a softer, gentler demeanor. Forrest Carter was in fact no more full-blooded Cherokee than my dog. Asa/Forrest Carter died in 1979 as news was just starting to get round that he was, in fact, a fraud. After Oprah picked the book as one of her favorites in the 1990's, it went back on the nonfiction bestseller list, but the Times moved it over to "fiction." It continues to sell to this day.

I recognize that using Asa/Forrest Carter as a prelude here is not really appropriate at all, but that's never stopped me from making convoluted associations. In doing crack research on Gene Cockrell #70, I discovered two men with that name, roughly of the same age, living in Texas, and I wondered while studying their very separate existences if they were in fact the same guy. Both Gene Cockrells seem like fine, accomplished, good human beings, and unlike Asa Carter, the Gene Cockrells have nothing to hide. But one of the things about Asa/Forrest was his extraordinary talent at personal invention, and in this, the two Gene Cockrells seem well suited. Might they be one Gene Cockrell?

What is Gene Cockrell doing?
First, the player, the Gene Cockrell in whom we have the greatest interest. He was drafted out of Hardin-Simmons by the Browns but ended up playing all three of his NFL years with the New York Titans, which means that he also played at both tackle and defensive end for all three years of the Terribles' existence. In the football card to the left, he's approaching us with what looks like a tackle dummy. Was this a common routine at Titans' practices? Is this something from his college days? He looks almost as if he isn't taking no for an answer, and he's going to knock down the door himself. I want to believe that this was somehow Gene Cockrell's idea, this pose, though knowing how card manufacturers insisted through the ages on specific and ridiculous poses from their subjects, I doubt it.

It's a tea party. Get it?
Then there's this gem, taken from Tales from the American Football League, which shows five Titans planted next to the goal post of the Polo Grounds, overseeing the seeping of a giant cup of tea. One of them is Gene Cockrell #70. Can you guess the historical allusion at work here? According to Todd Tobias above, it's a tea party, and, if you follow the thinking of the guy who staged this amusing and slightly awkward photograph, there's a team coming to town to play the Titans that might be associated with an historical tea party:

The caption on back reads, “October 10, 1960 – The Boston Patriots will have no tea party these New York Titans players say as they gather in the “tea formation” to brew special plays for their Saturday night game, Sept. 17th, with the Patriots at the Polo Grounds.  

Tea formation! Tobias suggests that what we see here is the "simplicity" of the old league, but to be honest, I find the strangeness of the image to be the best part of it. It's not simple at all. Football players are sitting around having tea like something out of Lewis Carroll. Do each one of them get a sip? It's surreal. I understand it would be difficult to post something like this today without it being derided on Deadspin, but who thought this up? My money's on Harry Wismer, but some part of me wishes it had been Gene Cockrell.

Deeper questions remain, though. Where did they get the props? For a team like the Titans, whose expenses rarely ever met the basic needs of running a football team, the extravagance of a giant tea set seems shocking. The fellas up there appear to be good sports, and it's nice to know that despite worrying about whether or not their paychecks will clear, the Titans' players are still upbeat. It's still 1960 - very early in the Titans' existence - so the cash for big tea place settings and historical metaphors may not last much longer.

After his football career was over, Cockrell returned to Texas. He went into rodeo and then became a rancher, and a successful one at that, owning ranches in the US, Australia, Brazil and a gold mine in Costa Rica. In an article in the Amarillo Globe-News covering his induction into the Pampa (Texas) High School Hall of Fame, Cockrell speaks kindly of Titans coach Sammy Baugh, and adds, "I've thoroughly enjoyed my life."

I've thoroughly enjoyed my life. I'm still amazed that anyone can say that, and I'm slightly horrified by the notion that I've never heard anyone say it before either. I don't imagine being able to do so myself. I've thoroughly enjoyed my life. The other day I was chatting with a colleague about trying to quit smoking, and she said that what kept her from doing so was "the psychic pain of living in this world." I don't know what precisely she means, but in spirit, I know exactly what she means.

But then there's another incarnation of Gene Cockrell. There's a man bearing a resemblance in age and appearance to the rancher and rodeo man. This is Gene Cockrell who lives in the town of Canadian, Texas, known for his remarkable roadside art. His most notable work is a one-ton sculpture that sits atop a hill overlooking the road that leads in and out of town - a yellow-spotted brontosaurus dinosaur named "Audrey," named for Cockrell's wife, a love token as grand as the Taj Mahal, as one writer put it. As the Roadside America site notes in the above link, he has also created renderings of all sorts of animals, space aliens, statues of Jesus and Cowboy cheerleaders, most of which adorn his Canadian (Texas) home.

Looking at the images of the two Gene Cockrells in the different stories above, I see similarly wrinkled, sunlit faces, square chins, smiling eyes, and the long gangly ears of old Texas men. A little closer, though, and I see that the sculptor is probably ten years older than the rancher, and so the rancher alone is our man. There are two Gene Cockrells after all.

The questions that survive Asa/Forrest Carter are about the contradictions in his own words - how could one man preach such a different messages about tolerance and intolerance? That he made himself into an entirely different person suggests (as Allen Barra says in the link above) that Fitzgerald was right and that there are no second acts in a single American life. It's why, like Don Draper, he needed to create an entirely new persona. The most optimistic (and probably most simplistic) interpretation of Asa Carter is that he saw the error of his ways, and he found a platform that allowed him to be a gentler human being.

Is this why I want so much for the two Cockrells to be one person? I want to believe that Gene Cockrell, a self-taught artist of large and small proportions, is also the rancher who has traveled the rodeo circuit and dug for gold. I suppose I want to believe that there are no limits to the possibilities of our lives, no boundaries to the human experience, regardless of how much time is left to us. I want to know what it means to thoroughly enjoy one's life.


Whenever I dwell on these kinds of things, I know it's also time to bring up yet another member of the NFL Strike "replacement" squad for the Jets in 1987. In this case, it's Tony Garbarczyk #70. Drafted out of Wake Forest but then cut by the Buffalo Bills in 1986, Garbarczyk answered the call the following season for interested persons to replace the starters as scabs in the middle of one of the worst seasons the NFL has ever known. He is on record as playing two games at defensive end and that's all, though considering that Mark Gastineau and Marty Lyons both crossed the picket line, it's hard to say how much starting time he got. Originally from Hauppague, NY, dead center of Long Island, he was a Jets fan, and it was only a ride along the Long Island Expressway, through the tunnels, onto the Garden State Parkway, and then to the Meadowlands to get to his dream.

In one article I found on Garbarczyk's college days there's one snippet suggesting that he was so enamored of Mark Gastineau while at Wake Forest that he wore a black glove over his hand after he broke his thumb, just like Gastineau. How surreal it was for him - if only for two weeks of the strike - to suddenly be in the locker room with Gastineau himself, and potentially playing at the same position. One wonders if the Long Island boy took one look at Gastineau, who at the time was a fashion casualty, and saw everything he could dream of being. Or, instead, did the scales fall from his eyes, and suddenly all he could see was everything that's wrong with pro football?

No comments: