FINISH THE GAME
“I hope to have God on my side,” President Lincoln wrote in 1862, regarding the Union’s chances for victory in the Civil War, “but I must have Kentucky.”
That independence of spirit that you might call the nation’s soul is alive and well in the farming communities of central Kentucky.
My tiny town of Columbia might be considered poor by some standards. We don’t look at it like that. We enjoy being on our own, making do with what we scratch out for ourselves. The land is the reason people stay, generation after generation. If you drive through Columbia, you’ll see modest homes and trailers on slab foundations, set near the road. Fields stretch out where cattle and horses graze. Nowadays, farming provides only a supplemental income for most families. Commutes of twenty to sixty miles are common to hold down day jobs. But the land keeps people returning to their homes at the end of the workday—this feeling of space that comes with owning the acres outside your back door.
I’m not saying it’s always wonderful. My home life growing up was like tumbling inside a washing machine as I shuttled around the middle of Kentucky with my mother. She was never content to stay in one place, or with one man, for too long. She was as smart as she was independent, though, and always landed some job that brought in a little money.
Summers provided stability because my mother let me stay for weeks at Mike Meyer’s farm. Mike was briefly married to my mother, and he legally adopted me when I was born. As for my biological father, I had no contact with him. I learned early on that just because you come from the same blood as someone doesn’t mean they are family. Big Mike Meyer was my real dad as far as I was concerned.
Big Mike, a University of Kentucky graduate, owned a threehundred-acre farm in Greensburg. He worked for Southern States, a farmer-owned cooperative, and brought in extra cash by raising beef cows. He lived in a plain house surrounded by open fields, with no curtains on the windows or pictures on the walls. He came home each day, put on his overalls, and tended to chores. Big Mike liked a steady routine, hunting, and the satisfaction of a well-run farm.
His dad, Dwight, owned a bigger farm on the other side of the creek. Dwight had served in the Marines and had later been an engineer. He held himself and others to rigid standards, as if he could see the proper ways of living by looking through his surveyor’s scope. He was, and still is, a fair but hard-to-please man. Despite my falling short fairly often, he always seemed to think I was someone worth having in the family. If you can feel that from your family, nothing can touch you.
When asked to describe my nature, Big Mike likes to tell the story of the ATV. Big Mike kept his all-terrain vehicle in the shed next to the house. Consisting of a motor, a seat, and three or four wheels, the ATV is the twentieth-century horse on farms across America. It goes anywhere on a few gallons of gasoline and you don’t have to shovel out the stable afterward. It can speed across fields, splash through creeks, and claw up hillsides. Without the ATV, life on a farm would be pure drudgery.
As a four-year-old, I was obsessed with it. I’d perch on the seat for hours, begging Dad to take me for one more ride. Finally, he decided to teach me a lesson.
“Ko,” he said, which was my nickname, “I have work to do. No more rides. When you’re big enough to start the machine yourself, you can drive it yourself.”
Since you had to kick-start it like a balky motorcycle, Dad thought it would be a year or more before I could do that. He’d sit on the stoop after work, smiling as I pushed my little legs down, time and again. This went on for weeks. The angrier I got, the more I tried. The thing would not budge. We are both pretty stubborn.
Big Mike was in the kitchen when he finally heard chug-chug and rushed outside to see me smiling brightly. I’d figured out how to climb up on the seat and jump down on the kick lever with all forty pounds of me until that damn ATV started. So he let me take it for a spin.
When I was eight, Dad brought me to his favorite tree stand on a cool October morning before dawn. He was brushing leaves away to climb up into the stand when a deer walked into the open behind him, not fifty feet from us.
“Dad,” I whispered, “there’s a deer.”
He squinted over his shoulder in the thin light. “If it has horns,” he whispered, “shoot it.”
I let go with a shotgun. The deer leaped straight up in the air and crashed down on its side without quivering. I had killed an eight-point buck.
When we butchered the carcass, I was so excited that the warm guts and the heavy smell of the blood didn’t bother me. In the years after that, hitting moving animals and birds gradually became second nature. Cutting up fresh kills, ugly as that sounds, accustomed me to what I would encounter a decade later on the battlefield.
I had been in grammar school only a few years when my mother called Big Mike to say it seemed best if I stayed with him permanently. One short phone call and my life had changed for the better.
When I was eleven, my school held a contest for the best public speaker in each grade, and Big Mike encouraged me to enter.
I wrote down what I wanted to say, and Dad and I practiced my lines at least ten times a day.
“Slow down when you speak,” he said. “Think about your main message and say it clearly.”
Each speaker had three minutes. When it was my turn, I talked about Tinker Bell, the Cowboy Cow. We had no horses on our farm, so I picked out this big old cow and petted and talked to her every evening. When she learned to come to my voice, I rewarded her with peaches and Dr Pepper. Eventually, I was riding her to herd the other cows and lasso them. I concluded my speech by declaring that Tinker Bell and I could win any cow race in the county, maybe in the whole state.
My little speech won first prize for the sixth grade. From that tiny victory, I developed a confidence in speaking up that would later exasperate Marine sergeants (and cause me some grief on occasion).
Each year, Dad gave me responsibility for ever more serious chores. When I was in the seventh grade, Grandfather Dwight—Dad’s dad— came by one fall day while I was driving the big tractor, spiking balls of hay. This meant I was constantly shifting in the seat to look down at the steel forks and keep them aligned. Grandfather Dwight lit into me with his booming voice. He thought I’d tip over the tractor and be crushed.
When Dad got home an hour later, one glance told him what was going on with the tractor and me and Grandpa. I was trembling and shaky. Dad put his arm around me and looked at his father.
“He knows what he’s doing,” he said. “Ko, you go finish moving in hay.”
When I was in the eighth grade, we were still growing tobacco on our farm. In summer, when the broad leaves on the tobacco plants reached as tall as a man, you’d hack off the stem and thrust a wooden pole through the leaf. When you’d speared ten stalks—twenty or more pounds—you’d stack the load in the patch for a few days, or toss it onto a trailer to take and hang in the barn.
Mexican itinerant workers came to do the cutting. The pay was ten cents a spear. I asked Dad to hire me. I would work for an hour and then collapse for two. The Mexican workers stayed in the fields ten hours a day, hoisting sixty spears an hour. They were the hardest-working men I’ve ever seen.
You could wear long-sleeved clothes, gloves, and a mask or kerchief to protect yourself while cutting. I chose not to, so all that tobacco would rub in through my sweat. After work, I’d vomit until I had retched out the nicotine poison. One night I couldn’t stop throwing up and Dad rushed me to the hospital. Even after they pumped
fluids into me, I was so dehydrated I couldn’t pee. The nurses were about to put in a urinary catheter when my dad, laughing at my expression, persuaded them not to. Most small farmers quit raising tobacco after the legal settlements in the late ’90s. I often wondered what became of those tough, cheerful Mexican workers.
I did all right in school, especially in math. Dad did not let up on me. When I left the laundry half done one day—I had stayed out too late and, for once, got home after he did—he had tossed the laundry out onto the lawn so I could start over and do it right.
But he didn’t do stuff like that often because he didn’t need to— I was listening and learning.
Grandfather Dwight helped me with math and geometry as I went further in school. Being an engineer, he showed me that a formula is just like a little machine you needed to figure out.
“It’s all simple logic, once you can see it right,” he told me. “If you put it together right, it runs. If you don’t, it won’t.” I liked the fact that math was black and white, yes or no, right or wrong, with no bullshit gray zones.
In high school sports, I wanted to be a running back. I was too big to dodge around quickly, though I could smash into the opponents just fine. To improve my agility, I put bales of hay out in the fields and practiced dodging through them.
Coach Mike Griffiths became a third father figure for me. By my sophomore year, I was the starting back in junior varsity. For me, football was a game of high-speed chess—you are looking for holes, thinking a few moves ahead, exploiting weaknesses, and looking for cover. You are zigzagging into the fight or out of it toward the goal.
I dated girls and enjoyed high school life—I tended toward tiny brunettes—but my life was mostly a gladiator school of, by, and for three demanding men—four including myself.
All that testosterone made me a little rough around the edges. I tried to have some sensitivity around sensitive people, but generally, I would rather have punched a guy and gotten punched back. I have a sweet cousin, Jennie, who is my age. We were in the same high school and I said something to her that was a little mean. It wouldn’t have been anything if I had said it to her in our own backyard, as she would have just given me a face and thrown something at me. But around her friends, it came off differently. She went home upset.
Her dad, Uncle Mark, drove her over to our house and asked me to look at how upset she was—“Ko, if you don’t stand up for your family, you’ll never have anything worthwhile in life,” he said. Dad was there, too, arms crossed, nodding his agreement. I apologized to her and decided I would have to work on that side of my brain. I would get sensitive.
Dad didn’t want me to get carried away with that, however. In about the eighth game of the season, we were playing a team that shut down our passing game. Coach Sneed, one of my favorite coaches, had me run the ball a dozen times in the first quarter, mostly power plays straight ahead into the line. Carry after carry, a pile of big bodies drove me into the dirt. We scored once, with me buried beneath a thousand pounds of sweaty, swearing hulks.
By the next quarter, everyone in the stadium knew what every play was going to be. Grind it out, gain three yards, keep possession, and above all, don’t fumble. Time after time, I’d tuck the ball into my chest and slam my ramming arm into three or four speeding refrigerators.
At halftime, after twenty-three carries, I staggered into the locker room, my left elbow so banged up that I couldn’t bend it. I sat down in agony. Coach walked over with a bucket of ice, placed my elbow in it, and led the team back on the field for the second half.
A few minutes later, Dad burst into the locker room.
“Get out there and finish the game,” he said, and stormed out. When I walked out to the field a few minutes later, Coach looked at my dad up in the stands and put me back in.
I was driving my four-wheeler out to the end of my road when my cousin Jennie came speeding by. She hit the brakes and backed up, and we chatted. As she left, I told her she needed to slow down. She laughed and said she was always in a hurry. The next day, she crashed fifteen feet from where we had spoken the night before. She was in a coma for a time in Louisville. I would go visit her and, just sitting there and looking at her, I got some work done on the sensitivity thing. I even whispered, “I love you, everything is going to be all right,” and she squeezed my hand. It took her a long time and a lot of work, but she has now graduated from college and gotten married. One thing I can say is, the Meyer family is not one for giving up. They don’t let you.
That winter, I started in on basketball, practicing like a madman, but I wasn’t right for it. After a few games, Coach Curry let me know that I had set a new school record for turnovers. I decided it was my time to go into retirement to help the team.
That kind of jock community was all I knew about, however, so until football started up again, I helped the coach and did some motivation stuff for the team, just to be around my friends and feel useful.
My sensitivity thing was going pretty well, too, until I got into an argument with a girl and she stuck a pair of scissors into my chest. It
sounds worse than it was. We were hanging decorations in the gym for a big dance. I made some stupid remark to her—I was actually attracted to her. It sure didn’t come off well, as she threw her scissors at me without thinking, and they somehow just stuck in my chest. They didn’t go deep, but I had a lot of muscles there that just held the tips, so there they were. People screamed as though I had been murdered, but I just plucked the scissors out and went for some Band-Aids. Since I had started the altercation, I got suspended. Until then, I thought I was doing well on that front, but I had a ways to go.
Dad said I had better get it figured out before I met a girl with a gun.
The school guidance counselor, Ann, was a friend of our family who had known me all my life. When I needed social coaching or some tips on talking to girls without getting stabbed, I’d troop into Ann’s office and sprawl on a chair while she explained the basics: be honest and upfront, care about what others are doing and what they care about, don’t tease, listen, listen, listen, and take people’s emotions and worries seriously. Special reminder: do not make fun of people in public. Write that on your hand.
I was okay talking to guys. If we had disagreements, why, we could just start fighting. I was a typical heavyweight in that department. I’d paw with my left, then plow in with my right, using it like a pile driver, hammering away. Most times, the other guy and I would end up grappling for a headlock while banging away, usually ending up on the ground with torn shirts, scraped elbows, and bruised faces— hoping, by the way, that our friends would please pull us apart. I figured as long as my win/lose ratio was at 50 percent, I was doing okay.
When I was fourteen, my best friend, Mike Staton, tagged me with a roundhouse that knocked me off my feet. A dazzling white light exploded behind my eyes. At the hospital, the doctor confirmed I had suffered a serious concussion and should take up another hobby. For quite a few days, any sudden move sent an electric shock of pain around my skull.
In my senior year, a football injury ended my dream of playing college ball. I was the stereotypical cocky jock who had fizzled out. True to form, I tested how far I could push the buttons of some of my teachers. I got into the habit of leaving school in my Dodge truck at lunchtime and not returning. Dad didn’t know I was screwing up.
Somehow, I got involved helping a teacher, Mrs. Rattliff, who was working with autistic kids at the school. Maybe the way they stayed to themselves made me relate. I asked Mrs. Rattliff if the autistic kids could use any help.
Well, those kids were amazing. They picked up fast on everything. I liked seeing them improve. I enjoyed horsing around with them when lesson time ended. We’d walk down the corridors together, our own little group of happy misfits.
But, in terms of a football scholarship, I was pretty screwed. I was walking through the cafeteria in May of my senior year with no idea where I was headed next. My knee had been stitched up twice and I’d had three concussions. I had one vague scholarship offer from a vague college, but even if I faked my way through the entry physical, I knew my knee wouldn’t last another season. I was washed up as an athlete and I hadn’t developed strong study habits—I was bored by academics. I sure didn’t want to waste Dad’s hard-earned money drinking beer and cutting classes at some college.
I walked by a table with brightly colored brochures set up opposite the serving line. A rugged-looking sergeant with a crew cut stood behind the table. He was wearing dress blues. He looked like he owned the state of Kentucky.
“Have you been in combat?” I asked.
“Yes, sir, that’s what Marines mostly do,” he said. “Fallujah, Iraq. It was a shit hole when we got there and worse when we left.”
My granddad didn’t talk much about the Marines, but he was proud of his service. I knew they were tough.
“Yes, boot camp is rough and not everyone makes it through,” the sergeant told me. “The pay isn’t bad, seeing as we pay your room and board and ammunition.”
I asked him some questions. No, he didn’t like the M4 carbine—not enough stopping power. He preferred the 7.62.
“So do I,” I said. “The .308 can put down a big buck.”
My obvious reference to hunting fell on deaf ears. He wasn’t impressed with shooting something that couldn’t shoot back.
I felt I was taking an interview and failing. The sergeant was no more talkative than I was.
“So what are you planning to do?” he concluded, signaling he had given me enough of his time.
“I don’t know. Probably go to school. Play some college ball.” He shifted around the brochures.
“Yes, you do that,” he said, “because you’d never make it as a Marine.”
I knew he was baiting me. He straightened his stack of brochures, letting the fishing line play out. Right, I couldn’t ride that big ATV. No sense in even trying. I actually left the cafeteria before turning around and walking back to his table, his silver hook in my cheek.
“You have the papers to sign up?”
“You’re seventeen. Your father has to sign. You’re not grown up yet.”
“If I’m going to be in the Marines, I want to be in the infantry. I want to fight, not sit behind a desk.”
In 2006, our country was in two wars. We had been attacked on 9/11. I was thirteen when I watched on television as the Twin Towers caved in. I was more than willing to fight the bastards who had murdered three thousand Americans.
“I’ll guarantee you a tryout at boot camp,” the sergeant said. “If you make it through, you can become a grunt.”
An hour later, he followed me out to our farm, where we sat around the kitchen table and he told me about the fighting in Fallujah.
“A lot of shots at five hundred meters,” he said, “straight down the streets.”
“I could hit at that range,” I said. “Uh-huh.”
I don’t know whether he believed me or not. We sat without saying much more until Dad walked in after work. He looked at the two of us.
“Ko,” he said, “what have you done now?”
The three of us talked for the next hour. There was no hard sell. The recruiting sergeant and my father left the decision up to me.
“I don’t want to go to college, Dad,” I said. “And I don’t want to stay here herding cows. I want something better.”
“Well, Ko,” he said, “I don’t disagree with your choice.”