February 2009

James Robert Campbell


James Robert "Bob" Campbell is a native of Amherst, Texas, where he grew up working in his father's blacksmith shop. He took a degree in English at West Texas A&M University and has been a reporter, photographer and editor at nine newspapers in Texas and Colorado. He covers courts and politics at the Midland Reporter-Telegram in West Texas.

Coach Arnwine

Jimmie Arnwine had been running most of his life and was good enough to get through college on a track scholarship. Running hurdles takes a lot of tenacity and toughness and he had these in abundance. He had dinged himself up plenty of times hitting hurdles and falling but mastered his form and excelled with less talent than many of his teammates and opponents. He was now teaching history and coaching football and basketball as an assistant and track as head coach in a small but oil-rich school in the Texas Panhandle, Destry. All the coaches were in some kind of shape, but Coach Arnwine was in by far the best. Times taper off with age and less intense training and the sixty seconds in which he could still run a quarter-mile would have been slow three years earlier at Hill Top University at Sandstone in Central Texas. But his ability still to do it at twenty-five years old was impressive to everyone.

His running earned respect but not affection because of his vexatious personality. It was a time when coaches were expected to be tough or even a little mean, but he went overboard and seemed to enjoy it, zooming around the track with a paddle and hitting runners he thought were not working hard enough. He'd come up behind them before they knew it, yelling, "Move your ass!" Running so fast, he hit harder than a coach or an administrator could from a standing position. It carried over into the classroom, where he kept his paddle leaning against the desk and used it often, sometimes even on a girl if one were particularly sassy.

Five foot-ten and one hundred-seventy pounds with short blond hair and whitish blond eyebrows over perpetually flashing blue-green eyes, he would occasionally just beat the daylights out of a boy and call him back for more if he said anything on the way to his desk. One day he had whipped a smaller boy and then called him back. This one had taken all he could take, staggering as he came to his desk and grabbing it to keep from falling. He did not mean any disobedience but emitted an involuntary exclamation, "Damn!"

Coach Arnwine smiled and crooked his right little finger for the boy to return. "Brewster?" he demanded.

Bill Crenshaw, the biggest and toughest boy in school, a two hundred-fifty-pounder, got up and moved between them. The coach's plaintive response was odd in retrospect: "But I'm not through yet."

"Yeah, you are," Crenshaw said. The boys sat down and the coach laid the paddle on his desk and resumed teaching.

That was an exception, though. The in-class paddlings and running track zoomings, although somewhat subdued in Crenshaw's presence, continued for another year until a school district fifteen miles away noticed the number of athletes Coach Arnwine took to the state meet and hired him for more money.

Seven times bigger, Terkel was much different than Destry. The students were faster-living and more cynical and the principal stopped him from doing his own paddlings. Zoomings would have been too gauche, so he was reduced to writing reports and trying to get students punished by the principal or head football coach.

Coach Arnwine was by now ten years older than some of the track boys and they thought it funny that he ran with them. He managed to get some swatted, fomenting their antipathy to go with the bemusement. He couldn't stay with the faster ones, but three or four were about his speed. They were having a workout one spring afternoon with a P.E. class, more playing than exerting themselves. He nonetheless had redemptive qualities. He sometimes showed affection for the more dedicated athletes, especially those with few other advantages, and never evinced any racial prejudice.

"Hey, coach, let's you and me and Young and Collins run a quarter for time," a medium-speed boy said. "If you beat us, we'll each give you five dollars. If we beat you, you give each of us five."

"So whoever I beat pays me five and I pay five if anybody beats me?"

He had not been working out as much in Terkel as he did in the Destry Dust Devils' more unbridled environment and he knew they were baiting him. The P.E. boys were coming and a crowd was forming. "You three, huh?"

"Just us."

He had grown nearly mad, he felt, with his buttoned-down life and the students' insolence. Unmarried, he was also between checks and needed the money. "Let's go."

Coach Arnwine went to the locker room to put on shorts, track shoes and a purple and gold Terkel Tornadoes T-shirt, came out and slow jogged the cinder circle. The boys stood around laughing until he walked up to them and a group of spectators that had increased to around twenty, including a couple of coaches.

He gave his starter's gun to a coach and got into a crouch. The boys took a standing start because the money was nothing to them and they just wanted to press him. He knew he was not ready to race and wished he hadn't let them sucker him; but he felt the old fury flooding in and was enjoying that. These little punks aren't in my class, he thought. They'll never run in college!

He was still in good enough shape to go fast, if not very far, and he burned down the back stretch like a racehorse. It was too fast, but it felt good to be embarrassing them. He could only hear one boy behind him. Yeah, I'll beat them, he thought—use their audience against them!

Face, neck, arms and legs chalky but knees churning furiously and high, he careened into the home stretch. He felt funny, weak, though still flying, in the last fifty yards. The quarter-mile is a taxing distance run close to sprinter's speed. Even top four hundred meter men sometimes collapse, and Coach Arnwine had never been a very good one.

Hurting badly and barely able to breathe, he pushed his body far past the point he should have made it go. All he could see at the finish, with the closest boy two yards behind, was bright white light. The boys laughed when he stumbled roughly to his hands and knees and threw up; then he rolled onto his right side, shuddered and started kicking convulsively with his tongue out and his eyes rolled back. With some yelling and screaming, the teenagers gathered closely around but were scared to touch him. A coach's mouth-to-mouth resuscitation had no effect. An ambulance pulled up and the technicians tried heart paddles. The colloquial story was that his heart had burst, but the truth was that it went into fibrillation and would not come out.

It was disturbing: a young man flying down the track one moment and in his death throes the next. The people in Destry were surprised but not shocked. After a well-attended service in the Terkel High School gymnasium, Coach Arnwine was taken home to Fulcher in Central Texas. His time, fifty-seven-point-two seconds, was repeated each time the story was told. A coach had gotten it precisely in deference to the effort he was making. All the spectators had been transfixed even before he collapsed, watching him run in paler than anyone they had ever seen but with his form unbroken.



James Robert Campbell: Poetry
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