THANK YOU, LOWELL COBBIT
by Carl Fritz ©
I was reminded recently of the time when Lowell Cobbit broke my collarbone during a football
game. That guy was a real son of a bitch. I hadn^łt thought about him in a very long time.
Lowell was, for just a moment, a true protagonist in the saga of my growing up. Now it's
been awhile since I last read "The Bear," that wonderful coming-of-age hunting tale by
William Faulkner. There's a character in his story named Major de Spain who I believe played
a similar role for the young boy.
And therein lies my story.
Early in the second quarter of that football game our opponents, Fairview Junior High,
scored a touchdown. On the ensuing kickoff they got penalized 15 yds because Lowell Cobbit
clipped me. It was a gross and dangerous clip that sent me spinning through the air. I
landed on my right shoulder and broke my collarbone in half. The shoulder folded in like a
bent hanger toward the center of my chest.
"Time Out" was called and the team doctor ran out to check on me. Then the coach ran out.
And following him, embarrassingly, my dad ran out. The three of them conferred for what
seemed like forever while I tried not to look like the low-pain-threshold chickenshit I
truly was. When they broke their huddle, Coach said to everybody around: "I knew how to
deal with this." He came over and told me to get up on my knees. Then he got behind me, put
his knee in the middle of my back, grabbed both shoulders and pulled them back in a quick
motion that snapped the bone back in place.
I didn't cry but I come close. After that the stretcher guys ran out and loaded me on their
board. And our cheerleaders did one of those "He's a wonder, he's a dream, he's the captain
of our team" kind of numbers. Which made the pain almost worth it. Actually, it made the
pain totally worth it because how often in a whole lifespan do you get a bunch of pretty
teenage girls in short skirts chanting your name?
So I felt almost like a hero in the back seat of my Dad's old Olds all the way to the
Baptist Memorial Hospital. Until we got there. Because "there" is where I had my first, but
certainly not my last, encounter with the Grinning Skeleton character whom I had yet to meet
in my circumscribed and parochial young life. The same one who rides the cart to cemetery on
El Dia de los Muertos down here in Mexico.
So even if it took awhile for me to realize it, the line from that emergency room in Memphis
ran down to a grenade range at Fort Polk, Louisiana and ended at a point where i turned down
a commission that would have sent me to a field office in Hue, South Vietnam from the 511th
MI in Nueremberg, Germany just in time for the Tet offensive. That line was a straight line,
a direct line, a shortest distance between two points kind of line. And I did and still do
understand that it was El Senor Muerte, the grinning skeleton, who came stealthily slipping
into the Emergency Room that Fall afternoon in a Memphis, Tennessee where Elvis was already
a local celebrity but not yet a crowned King with his Sun Records contract bought out by
After they put me in a cubicle on a hard table and pulled the curtains around me and my dad,
the doctor came in and started asking me questions about my injury. But he was interrupted
before he could bind up my injury (broken collar bones don't get casts so there would be no
badge of courage for showing off at school the next day), by a loud page that called him
away to deal with a real emergency, one brought in from the wailing ambulance I heard pull
up outside the ER.
That real emergency turned out to be a young crop duster whose landing gear had caught a
telephone wire at the end of what were for him some very long rows of short cotton. He had
"crashed and burned" as we used to say many years later about bad drug trips. But I didn't
know any of this at that moment. It was my dad who told me on the way home that day as I sat
beside him in the front seat. The factual account of what I remember was only this.
I heard the poor guy moaning as they brought him in. It was a low, guttural and I guess I'd
have to say, spiritless kind of moan. Then I smelled him. It was that smell which truly
stuck with me. The next time I smelled it, more than a decade later, was on that Fort Polk
grenade range when the idiot in front of me managed to blow off part of his own body. And I
truly believe that I somehow caught an imaginary whiff of it coming from a small village of
hooches outside Hue when I decided to turn down that commission and flee back to civilian
life ASAP in late '68.
And years later, with no great effort, I could still imagine smelling it while smoking dope
or snorting blow in Taos many, many years later. I even think I could smell it right now if
I tried while sitting here in my house in Barra de Navidad. That smell represents the
beginning of my adulthood. I don't think Biggs Street in Memphis, where I lived in a
neighborhood typical of that era's mental and emotional brown out, was quite the same ever
again. Or high school, or football that I continued to play as soon as the collarbone
healed, or french kissing which I wouldn't get to do for at least another six months, or
copping a feel from the girl I was dating that year.
Weirdo me, what I did was start getting drunk on a regular basis. And strangely enough, it
was soon afterwards that I began developing a lifelong passion for serious reading. Good
fiction in the beginning. Graham Green and Faulkner and Hemingway and Steinbeck. But also a
biography called "The Seven Story Mountain" by a brilliant radical monk named Thomas
Merton that one of the teachers at school handed me before I went on summer vacation.
And within a year I had "run away" to a monastery myself to see if there was any real
meaning or even legitimate mystery to it all beyond what the priests, brothers and nuns had
figured out. Only to decide so many years, bottles, pills, pipes, bongs, bindles,needles and
beautiful, wounded women down the line that a courageous, half breed tracker named Boon
Hogenbeck (who is the real protagonist of Faulkner's story) was my true life hero.
Now not many fourteen year olds understand that the deeper one gets into reality the more
numerous will be questions not so easily answered. But that day I surely did. So, as much as
I'd like not to, I'm going to say this anyway. Because that was the beginning for me.
"Thank you Lowell Cobbit."