On a dog-day Monday in the middle of August, practice for the 1988 season begins. No matter what the fantasies of the players, it all seems possible this day. On the wall of the field house, every player who had made All-State during the last 29 years is immortalized in a four by six inch frame. There are proclamations honoring State Championship teams. The color black reflects everywhere from the black and white cabinets to the black rug in the shape of a Panther. It is more historical and enduring than anything Odessa, the town could proclaim.
Odessa was settled in the 1880’s by a group of men from Zanesville, Ohio, who wanted to attract people to the land they had bought. But the land was virtually impossible to farm anything, because of the difficulty of getting water, so it eked out a living from the livestock trade. Then, the droughts came and raising livestock became impossible. Fortunately, the town was sitting in the midst of the Permian Basin, a geologic formation that would ultimately produce roughly 20 percent of the nation’s domestic oil and gas. Then, it became inundated with men simply known as boomers, because the town’s fortunes now became entwined with the oil cycles of boom and bust. It gained a reputation for a hearty, hair-trigger temperament and earned the distinction in 1982 of having the highest murder rate in the country. By 1987, Money Magazine ranked it as the 5th worst city to live in in the country out of 300. Nonetheless, it was “a place rooted in the sweet nostalgia of the fifties - unsophisticated, basic, raw - a place where anybody could be somebody, a place still clinging to all the tenets of the American Dream, however wobbly they had become.”
Whatever else Odessa had or didn’t have, there had always been high school football. Everyone knew where they had been when the team won a State Football Championship, so it isn’t unusual that expectations are high at the beginning of the 1988 season. No one can see how Permian could miss a trip to State. Coach Gaines hates the assumptions, because it creates more room for anger and disappointment if the team doesn’t get there. For the moment in the field house on this first day of practice, the team belongs to no one. But all too soon they will be unveiled to the public, and then they would become the property of those so desperately devoted to it. The great unveiling will take place in late August at the Permian Booster Club’s Watermelon Feed, when the excitement and madness will quickly move into high gear.
This chapter gives the reader a historical background to the town of Odessa with all its cycles of boom and bust, more bust than boom. This history is significant, because it helps explain how the town came to depend so much on high school football to take away the disappointments that came with living in a town like Odessa.
The Watermelon Feed takes place in the high school cafeteria. On this night, the boys of the Permian football team will come before the crowd to be checked out and introduced. Then, two weeks later will come the glorious start of the season. People come to the Watermelon Feed with their children as if they feel it’s important for the little ones to see this spectacle at a young age and be awed by it. They come dressed in black, the major Permian color, and they come with the 1988 Permian football yearbook to be autographed by their heroes. The “grand dukes of Permian,” men in their 50’s and 60’s who are hooked on Permian football and treat each game with reverence, are also there. They are the people who were dubbed “football crazy” on ABC’s Nightline by Ross Perot. They responded with letters telling him to mind his own business and not disturb a way of life that had thrived for years and brought the town a joy it never could have experienced anywhere else.
Playing for Permian, however, involves great sacrifice for the players: some play with broken limbs, one lost a testicle; vomiting was routine; others took shots of novocaine to mask the pain of their injuries. In contrast to the pain, there are the perks: the black jersey worn only by “privileged children,” the Pepette who takes care of her player with candy and other treats, signs in his yard, and his number on the white shirt she wore. They are the special ones of the school all through the season.
The Watermelon Feed begins with a prayer and film of past great games. The boys are then introduced and Boobie Miles is introduced as the player who will take the great Shawn Crow’s place on the team. Shawn has been the object of the film they have just watched. L.V. is as proud as he can possibly be unaware that everything will change at a pre-season scrimmage with the Palo Duro Dons.
This chapter is particularly poignant, because the reader already knows that the season is not going to be the perfect one the people envision at the Watermelon Feed. Their hopes and dreams are still fresh and new and the Midland Lee game is weeks in the distance. What’s more, it’s a poignant chapter when we see how alive the dreams of Boobie Miles are and how far we know they will fall.