Like many Southern women of my generation, I started life as a tomboy.
Like many Southern women of my generation, I started life as a tomboy. Skipping stones, climbing trees, and playing games with the neighborhood boys. I learned to carry a football long before I carried a bouquet. Learned to dodge boys who stood between me and the goal line long before I learned to dance with them.
It was the early sixties, a time when girls had no official league of their own, no showcase for their athletic abilities. When it came to public displays of coordination, the choices were clear, we could be Majorettes or cheerleader while the most fetching among us could occasionally become beauty queens.
The image of white-gloved little miss from charm school - the stereotype emblem of femininity - held no appeal for girls like me. We were not interested in playing Scarlett at the barbecue, what we wanted was action and plenty of it.
My own yearning for athletic adventure was fulfilled at the line of scrimmage in our front yard on early fall evenings. There, in the fading light of day, I regularly took my place beside the boys next door. I was eager to find what a young girl could accomplish with speed, cunning, and eye-hand acuity. On say, 4th and 20. With the score knotted at 6 to 6.
If I do not remember exactly when these tomboy days began, I can say with certainty, that they ended one late fall afternoon right around my 13th birthday. I had been told to go long by the quarterback, Eddie, a freckle faced boy with short, cropped hair that stood up in little spikes when he perspired. He was the oldest boy in the neighborhood, a fellow, who the next autumn, would actually wear the colors of our school's revered team. In the meantime, he was trying his best, he said, to show us how the game was played.
Eddie barked out orders in grudging praise. "Good fake, way to block, cut across the boxwood then go long."
That last was directed to me, his chosen receiver, the lone girl among a host of boys. Only there on the field of battle was I happy to be a skinny girl too tall for my age. I had not yet learned to curtsy, but I could catch a football just as easily as I could shimmy up a tree.
Everyone in the neighborhood knew that I could often beat defender Joe Haley to the boxwood. Joe was a fast kid and a classmate who like to sit behind me in the school and whisper "Beanpole" and other cheerful insults in honor of our rivalry.
I lined up against him on what turned out to be the final down, the last time that no one would look at me because I was a girl playing a boys game. No one was afraid to two-hand touch me head first into the rose bush at the end of the house. I was not adverse to bloodying my knees and elbows with a desperate diving catch if the situation called for such heroics.
The ball was snapped and now Joe was matching me step for step. I ran hard, head down, secure in the knowledge that I was just as good as anybody, confident I could get anywhere I wanted to go in record time. The football was slicing an arc towards to tips of my fingers. Just a half steps advantage was all that I needed.
I caught the ball that last play of my career. Spied it spinning true against the darkening sky over my house, as I had done so many times before. Eddie had given me just enough lead. As I reach for the ball, Joe reached too, but he fell short and spun away empty handed.
Touchdown! There in the makeshift end zone, I was finally tall enough to see my own reflection in the living room window, and I took a good long look. Instinctively, I put a hand to my hair, smoothing the sides just so. Then Joe was in my face. "LUCKY!" He shouted.
The all-purpose epithet had nothing to do with fate or ability, as any tomboy will tell you. It's said instead, that I was accepted at their games, and for a moment at least, scorned as a worthy, albeit female, opponent. I tossed the football down field, leaned into Joe Haley's personal space, and sang back, "Lucky? No luck to it."
It felt like a handshake, that last exchange. A bittersweet high-five offered at the very end of childhood. Of course, I did not know then, that my tomboy days had come to an official end. Nor could I yet articulate, what Scarlett herself knew all along, charm and spunk are not mutually exclusive. I only sensed that I was on the brink of something different, probably better. It was first and ten, the clock just starting to tick.