Thursday, October 30, 2008

Gridiron Red Carpet: NFL world to become a reality for Graham Harrell Graham This Harrell article from the Ennis Journal also appeared on the front page of the Waxahachie Daily Light

ENNIS — Who knew?
When Sam and Kathy Harrell recently moved into a new home in Ennis' Oak Creek subdivision, Kathy ran across her son Graham's favorite poster from his childhood days.
It was the shape of things to come.
At the bottom of the huge picture of Joe Montana, the fourth-grader and future Texas Tech record-setting quarterback had stuck a home-made label that read: "Graham Harrell – the next Joe Montana."
"I remember thinking, 'Bless his heart, he thinks he can play in the NFL!' I didn't want to burst his bubble, but I kind of felt a little hurt for him," Kathy Harrell said, unconsciously putting her hand up to her heart.
That was a dozen years ago.
Little Graham Harrell is all grown up, standing within reach of that boyhood goal.
He's the nation's leading passer with 393.4 yards per game, moving into fourth place on the NCAA career passing yardage list with 13,829 yards. He has set school career marks in touchdown passes (117) and career touchdowns responsible for (129) and is the nation's active leader in both categories.
The Walter Camp Football Foundation's National Offensive Player of the Week, Graham Harrell accounted for six touchdowns in Saturday's win in Kansas, leading the Red Raiders to a 63-21 win.
Long-time family friend Bud White of Ennis has watched his adopted grandson's football career with pride.
"He's so underrated, it just makes me furious," White said with a chuckle that belied the intensity of his words. "Of course, I'm biased. … He's my Grahamster."
White was in College Station three weeks ago when Graham Harrell scored to win the day with 59 seconds to go.
He cites Graham's modest demeanor as one of his best assets, right up there with the eye and the arm of what could be one of college football's best products ever to go into the draft.
When a trash-talking Aggie fan sore about the loss bitterly started in on Harrell, Bud White got his attention.
"I looked him in the eye and said, 'You're talking about my grandson,' " he recalled, remembering with a grin the Aggie's flustered and apologetic admission that Harrell was the best college ball player he'd ever seen.
Not that any of the Harrells are slouches. Winning at football's a celebrated and hard-earned blessing – but a familiar one – in the Harrell household.
Dad Sam coaches the Ennis High School Lions, where each of his three boys cut their teeth on the pigskin – and where he coached three teams with three different quarterbacks to state football championship glory in 2000, 2001 and 2004.
Oldest son Zach coaches receivers at Denton-Ryan High School and youngest son Clark plays football at Abilene Christian.
"Every week, I have four teams to keep up with," Kathy Harrell said.
Good thing she was a cheerleader in high school.
"I've been a cheerleader my whole life – I'm still a cheerleader. I just don't wear the short skirt," she said with a grin.
Jerry Maguire moments
Already technically graduated, former Ennis Lion Graham Harrell is currently enrolled in graduate-level courses at Texas Tech while breaking Red Raider records.
Meanwhile, the annual football clock is ticking louder and louder. Marking its time, a succession of sports agents have found their way into the Harrell family scene, hoping that maybe Graham Harrell will become one of the stars in their firmament, perhaps even the brightest one.
Red carpets have come rolling in from all directions.
"Numerous ones have contacted us, but we didn't want to meet with them all," Sam said.
"The first time someone called and started talking to us, I thought this was crazy – it was surreal," Kathy said.
In the Metroplex for a Cowboys game for some other client or prospects, an agent will call to say they'd be in town for the Friday night lights of an Ennis Lions football game.
In many ways, many of the agents have come across much like the big screen prototype, Jerry Maguire.
Not too "salesman-y," if they know what's good for them in a town where an ounce of pretension is worth a pound of manure.
Kathy said she's had to work on being guarded – easy-going, the Travis Elementary reading recovery teacher's first instinct is to trust everyone.
"I assume off the bat that people are sincere," she said ruefully.
Together, the Harrells maintain an attitude of tempered enthusiasm. It would be easy, they say, to get star-struck by the flattery of it all – and easy to focus on short-term rewards instead of Graham's long-term prospects, which must include a post-game plan.
What they're looking for is someone with integrity, someone who has their son's future – not just a possibly-fleeting NFL career – at heart.
"The average lifespan of an NFL career is three years," Sam said. "He has to be prepared for that."
"The little span of an NFL career is not reality. No matter how good you are, it's going to end," Kathy said. "There's going to be life after football."
THE way to see America
The middle child of the Harrells' three boys, Graham has demonstrated a strong aptitude for being able to negotiate his way without a lot of guidance. That's a character trait that should help him in the NFL, his parents hope out loud as they thumb through glossy presentation books that feature their son as the star.
"The 2008-09 Quarterback Market" gives them the scoop on what the NFL has going on, right now, this week.
Who's a quarterback, who's on the bench. Blue is for rookies, red for free agents.
Who's about to retire.
Who's a rising star.
"Preparing for the NFL" is a personalized roadmap from December 2008 to May 2009. It takes a prophetic tone.
"Come January, Graham will embark on a wild, four-month journey that will culminate with him being selected in the 2009 NFL Draft. Before the end of his collegiate eligibility arrives, Graham should begin to prepare for the next stage of his football career," the caption under a picture of a bearded Texas Tech No. 6 Graham Harrell reads.
The path to the draft is care- fully metered out: There are the critical bowl games of January where the recruiting starts in earnest; Graham is expected to head out on a whirlwind winter tour.
There's the NFL Pre-Draft Combine in Indianapolis, a series of meetings for draftees from the end of February to the beginning of March.
There, Graham will be subjected to everything from drills to drug tests to the fast-moving Wonderlic test, designed to assess his aptitude for learning and problem-solving. NFL quarterbacks need to be able to think on their feet and then some.
He'll return to Texas Tech to work out. Come early April, after NFL owners' meetings, a handful of teams are likely to bring Graham to their cities so he can check them out and interview with various team officials.
Media interviews in mid-April will show his ability to – once again – think on his feet.
It all leads up to one thing on April 25 and 26.
The "Draft."
There, his agents will go to battle for him in the war rooms of the NFL to procure a deal, so he can use May to transition into his new team and new home, along with the other rookies.
If nothing else, it's certainly a fabulous way to see America.
Surreal blessings
Sam and Kathy Harrell have never been ones to speculate on their son's NFL prospects, preferring to cautiously enjoy the blessings he has reaped at each and every step of his football career.
"I know his passion for the game and I know he's worked really hard, so I assumed he'd play in college because of that," Kathy said.
But being courted by agents and hearing that general managers are watching their son's last college games?
"I call it a blessing; Kathy calls it surreal," Sam said with a smile.
The acorn doesn't fall far from the tree. The same modest, measured approach Sam Harrell takes when he's asked about the Ennis Lions' successes has been picked up like a sure-thing pass by his son, who's not known for talking smack.
"He doesn't have an air of 'I'm all that,' " Sam said.
There was the spring game, Graham stood with coaches, patiently signing autographs into the wee hours from around 8 p.m. to after midnight.
It's enough to give a cheerleading mom pause.
"Seeing him sign autographs, seeing so many kids wear his jersey – it makes me a little nervous … he's just my little boy," Kathy Harrell said Monday night over salad at Wendy's on Ennis Avenue.
"It's exciting, but, when you put people on a pedestal, they're going to get criticized and, even if it's favorable attention, that adoration makes me a little uneasy," she said.
But that uneasiness takes a back seat on the brand new big screen TV in the Harrells' new home, where college and high school games have been front and center, but broadcast NFL games hold a whole new significance.
Meanwhile, on the cusp of NFL Draft greatness, Graham Harrell remains a good ol' boy from Ennis, Texas, whose favored ways to pass time range from shooting hoops to pest control patrol at a golf course in Lubbock, where he and his buddies hunt rabbits with blow darts.
"He's leading the nation in passing calls and he's talking about hunting rabbits on the golf course," Sam said with a chuckle. "That's just Graham."
Editor's Note: ESPN College Gameday will broadcast Saturday from the Texas Tech campus. The show will air prior to Texas Tech's showdown with in-state rival No. 1 Texas. Saturday's game marks the highest combined rankings of Tech and an opponent to play at Jones AT&T Stadium. Both teams are 8-0 overall and 4-0 in Big 12 Conference play. Texas Tech defeated No. 18 Kansas, 63-21, in Lawrence on Saturday, while Texas knocked off No. 8 Oklahoma State, 28-24, in Austin.
E-mail J. Louise Larson at

Saturday, October 18, 2008

An hour well-spent on O. Henry's porch

When I decided to spend an hour on O. Henry's porch, I think I was hoping to acquire by osmosis some of that magical irony and those delicious twists so present in the work of the famed Austinite who earned his place in the pantheon of authors as America's most beloved literary felon.

He died, the docent at his home at 409 E. 5th Street tells me, not rich - but popular in his own time. Not such a bad epitaph, I think, hoping just a bit of that spirit will waft my way on the late October breeze, finding its way to the dilapidated wicker chair I sit on and into my writer's brain. Surely, I thought, William Sidney Porter once perched on this porch and sipped lemonade, calling on the view of old downtown Austin for inspiration for The Gift of the Magi.

And certainly he was nowhere near as ADD as me. My inner observer was at its crowy, distractable worst, noticing anything at all that made a sound or sparkled. The passing blue taxi, a succession of orange-clad UT fans hurrying to the crucial game. Dogs - an elderly golden retriever, a short-legged and cocky mutt of dubious dachshund parentage, a white shitzu leading his owner on a leash.

But it was the squirrels that held my attention best. Muscular, big for a member of the Sciuridae lineage, built like a very small quarterback. All that was missing was a tiny orange helmet with two holes for his alert ears. He stepped onto the porch, his black eyes like what Stephen King would call two oil drops, his shiny gaze fixed on mine. He stood upright on his hindquarters just eight feet away, his athletic heart pounding visibly, rapidly in his chest - but that must be normal for a squirrel, because this was one cool cucumber. It occurs to me, if only for a fleeting moment, that maybe he's preternaturally calm because he's rabid, and I look at his neatly-groomed and pointy snout for the froth of hydrophobia. It wouldn't do for my literary excursion to turn into Old Yeller.

Next yard over, at the family home of Alamo survivor Susannah Dickinson, a derelict stone chimney can be seen through a glassless window. I see what appears to be the diminutive quarterback's Mrs. She's timid, or perhaps just reserved, and she hangs back before hurtling to dig for acorns at the base of what appears to be an oak of some sort. I note the difference between Mr. and Mrs. Squirrel - while she bolts from one place to another, he seems to saunter. Not in a hurry, no place to go, rather just watch. And I think that maybe, on this treadmill of life, we're either bolters or saunterers, and that while physically I may saunter, mentally I bolt.

It occurs to me that the non-chalant way the quarterback squirrel claims his place on the gingerbread-clad porch might mean something. Mr. and Mrs. W.S. Porter reincarnate, perhaps - William and Athol, watching over their charming restored golden-hued Victorian rancher, barred from entering their old digs but planning perhaps to attend the evening's outdoor O'Henry Film Fest to see what's been made of the pieces O'Henry penned, well, in the PEN on embezzlement charges. He wrote some 14 stories in the clinker after returning from abroad to see his dying wife - and to face charges he'd denied but fled earlier.
I remind myself - not aloud, lest the furry author think I talk to myself, that I'm a Christian and believe in the opposite of reincarnation - that we get but one bite of life's apple. Not that it kept me, while scattering my dad's ashes at a fish hatchery, from saying, a bit loud and defiant like a child who's safe enough distance away to taunt a bully, "If you come back, next time be nicer to people!"
I try to look a little closer, to see if the squirrel is wearing the wire-rimmed glasses typical of turn-of-the-century authors.
No, sometimes a squirrel is just a squirrel.

My time on O. Henry's porch passes too quickly for me to read even a few pages from the collection of his short stories I bought inside (around the corner from his Original Drafting Table and Drafts of Old Austin Composed By William Sidney Porter Himself).
But I feel a sense of energy from being where one of my favorite writers wrote, and I think, "I will do this again." And a sort of resolve not to repeat his mistakes - sloppy accounting, drinking yourself into cirrhosis. And I review a mental list of his better ideas: Making good use of time in one place. Coming back as a squirrel.
And I saunter off to my class at the Writer's League of Texas, where my mind bolts once again.
There it goes now.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Gritty, oddly-named Vietnam memoir would make a good movie

The Ennis Journal / The Waxahachie Daily Light

Not war, not miles, not even years can break the bonds of friendship for two Vietnam veteran Ennis High School grads.

Ray E. Jackson of Emery, Texas has chronicled his experience in the military – and that of his best running buddy Jimmy Swindell of Ennis – in a new memoir just out.

Self-published by Jackson through Bloomington, Indiana-based iUniverse, the book’s deceptively plain name, “Military Police Protection in Southeast Asia,” just skims the surface of both the tragedy and comedy of war found in its gritty pages.

An Ennis native, Jackson graduated from Ennis High School in 1967. “I went into the military in October of 1967, along with about half of my senior class,” he recalled.

He went to Germany and then to Vietnam, arriving in country July 4, 1969.

Rising to the rank of sergeant (E-5) in the Army’s military police, Jackson had more than one “worst moment.” “There were several close calls. I got hit by a concussion that threw me into a building in a mortar rocket attack, and I had a 45 shoved in my face involving one of our own troops,” he said in an interview Monday.

But the most devastating and lingering wound of all was the horrific after-effects of Agent Orange, which was only recognized years later for the lasting damages it did to U.S. troops. “It was a mixture used to kill the foliage, but there was something in that chemical that affected us. They sprayed it out – sometimes in choppers, mostly from C-131s,” Jackson recalled.

Both in the Army’s 101st Airborne division, 10,000 miles from home, unbeknownst to each other, EHS running buddies Jackson and Jimmy Swindell were stationed within a few miles of each other. Jimmy was at Camp Eagle, and Ray at Phu Bai – and never knew it until Swindell, on leave in Australia, heard from his mom, who was in contact with Jackson’s mom. Jimmy hitched a ride into the MP operation at Phu Bai and went to see his friend, who was nodding off at the time. “I shook his toe a second time, and he sat up like he was going to hit me,” Swindell recalled with a grin. When Ray realized it was one of his best running buddies from home, the friends had a big reunion. “Jimmy was more like a brother than a friend,” Jackson said.

Swindell agreed.“I can’t explain to you how it felt to see him there, in the jungle. We were best friends, we played baseball together when we were kids, we ran together – and there we were,” he recalled.

Jimmy’s Story

Almost 40 years later, Ennis resident Swindell’s account of Vietnam became part of author Jackson’s book.“There’s quite a bit in the book about Jimmy,” Jackson said. In fact, a whole chapter is devoted to a frank recollection of Swindell’s R&R hijinks. If it was a movie – and it might make a fine movie, in the tradition of M*A*S*H – Jackson’s book would be rated R. “It was pretty informative about things that actually happened – but it’s got some personal stuff in it,” Swindell said. “He talks about going to massage parlors and all kinds of things. Ray just wrote the truth, and that’s what people want to read, I guess.”

Swindell doesn’t talk much about his “365 glorious days” (his words) in Vietnam. He was drafted in 1969 after dropping out of Abilene Christian after a year. "When I first got over there, I was in a platoon of 30 guys, and until I got used to the country and what went on over there, I was scared to death. I was just a kid,” he remembered. “Then they asked for volunteers to be snipers, and I volunteered.”

Considered special ops, the snipers went out in five-man teams in the jungle for a week at a time. They would rappel down lines dangling from helicopters, disappearing into elephant grass that was as deep as they were tall. Their assignment: hunt down the enemy, the Viet Cong, who sympathized with the North Vietnamese. If they found a group of less than five, take them out. More than five, call for support. And stay alive. “It was kill or be killed. You had to have that kind of attitude or you wouldn’t make it home. You couldn’t be passive.”

One time, it rained down on his unit, huddled under their rain capes pitched as tents, for 11 days, straight, non-stop. They might go for days or even a month without spotting the enemy – and then all hell might break loose.

Swindell believes the move to the sniper unit actually saved his life. “The company that I had been with were up on a mountain and I could hear people talking on radios.“They got into a fire fight, and I started recognizing voices – that was the platoon I was in. You could hear the sheer terror – they were screaming for more body bags,” he remembered. Across the valley, Swindell’s sniper unit watched, thunderstruck, as Phantom jets zoomed in to drop barrels of napalm – on impact, they split open and the gelled gasoline burst into long-lasting flames. There were American casualties dying in agony under that American napalm. “It burnt up some of the guys. I would have been close to the front of the squad, in a position where the napalm hit, and the first five guys got burnt up,” he said soberly.

Exactly 365 days after arriving in country, Swindell headed back to America.

For all its terrible loveliness, even in wartime, he has mixed emotions about Vietnam. “It was one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been – I’d never want to go back,” he said.

Four decades later, now a Union Pacific railroad engineer back home in Ennis and married to his sweetheart Nancy, when he sees a returning soldier in uniform, he has a singular response: “I shake their hand and tell them ‘Thank you,’” he said, a tear welling up.

Swindell found that while his buddy Jackson’s book exposes some of his own rawest and most personal memories of the war, it was still fascinating. “For the most part, the book is pretty true to life … it captivated me once I started reading it – it kept me going … I like the way he wrote – he skipped back and forth, from different stories at different times, and then he’d come back to the story later,” he said.

Ever After

Jackson lives with his wife Barbara in Emery, Texas. His life to date has been good, but not perfect by any means. He is fully disabled because of health conditions attributed to Agent Orange, including permanent damage to his kidneys from uncontrolled diabetes. “We lost our baby in a car wreck in 2006,” he said. “I dedicated the book to him, to Kyle.” He still has his oldest son, Todd, and daughters Courtney and Tonya.

A first-time author, Jackson is experiencing the joys and travails of publishing with “Military Police Protection in Southeast Asia.”“It was my first book, so I was going to make a few mistakes … To make those words mean something takes a while. You have to revise it, and edit it, and read it yourself, before it makes sense to you or to someone else,” he said.

He started in January, finished in June; the book was published in September. “Military Police Protection in Southeast Asia” is finding a welcome in his home town. The American Legion in Ennis is going to sponsor his book and a book signing, Jackson said. “This way people can drop by and I can visit with them,” he said. “Any exposure I can get will be well appreciated.”

And once again, his own experiences are taking him toward writing – this time about loss and survival. “The book I’m writing now is based on a true story about family love, from happiness to heartache,” he said. “It’s about when you begin a family, how happy you are, and when you add kids to equation gets even better – they’re the apple of your eye. Then one day, you wake up and you start losing them, or something happens. It’s a challenge that a family has to overcome, to lose that loved one. You have to be very close to God, and keep that loved one in your heart. You never get totally over it – you get through it, but you never get over it.”

Author to sign book at Autumn Days SaturdayVietnam veteran and Ennis native Ray Jackson will be at Autumn Days in Ennis on Saturday from 10 a.m.-12 noon to meet friends and visit about his book.Military Police Protection in Southeast Asia by Ray E. Jackson, $22.95, 316 pages, perfect-bound softcover 6x9. ISBN: 978-0-595-52301-6 For information about buying Ray Jackson’s book, e-mail him at or leave a voice message at 903-473-8092, or order it at

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Karen Joy Fowler: Writing Porch Author Q and A

Note from The Writing Porch's J. Louise Larson: Although Karen Joy Fowler came to Mesquite to talk about Ray Bradbury and Fahrenheit 451, this piece is an author profile, so it's about Fowler. If Bradbury will respond to my emails, I'll interview him, too. Now THAT would be science fiction ... jl

Meet Karen Joy Fowler, whose book 'The Jane Austen Book Club' was turned into a movie with Emily Blunt and Jimmy Smits.

Karen Joy Fowler, author of The Jane Austen Book Club, the newly-released Wit's End, and tw0-time Nebula award winner, is not Gwyneth Paltrow's favorite author.

At least, she doesn't think she is.

Once introduced as being cited as favorite author on Paltrow's website, Fowler was distracted for much of that presentation as she tried to figure out how she had come to be the famed actress' favorite author for her book 'Sarah Canary.' The short of it? She realized it was a mistake - she is cited on the website of Gwyneth JONES as favorite author - and only shame for her own distraction kept her from coming clean about the mix-up mid-presentation.

"Gwyneth Paltrow does not read my books, as far as I know. Sadly, and oddly, the whole thing made me think less of Gwyneth Paltrow. I feel like there's bad blood between us," Fowler deadpanned with a sort of wounded sigh Tuesday night at a presentation sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, The Writer's Garret and the City of Mesquite.

One of the rare few authors who have succeeded in both literary fiction and science fiction, she was in town on an NEA-sponsored tour of Fahrenheit 451, talking about Ray Bradbury and science fiction and censorship and dystopias and the McCarthy era and the year 1953.

But the Q&A after Tuesday's event gave an audience heavily salted with writers an opportunity to pick Fowler's writer's brain.

While she credits her long-time editor for making everything she does better, Fowler grins as she recalls her literary-fiction editor's recoil at the news that Fowler's science fiction work had earned a prestigious Nebula award. It was as if, she said, there was a "don't ask, don't tell" policy in place - and the perception that a writer had to choose between the two genres, not slip from one to the other and back.

"It's as if my editor spends her whole life trying to clean the science fiction off me, and I just head straight back to the trough," Fowler said. "(Of the first Nebula win) she said, 'Is there any way we can keep that quiet?'"

By the time Wit's End was published, Fowler won another Nebula -- and the more than grudging respect of her converted editor.

Karen Joy Fowler recalls a longing from childhood for the promised Jetson future of space-pack travel and robotically-driven vehicles and heads that evolved to accommodate larger brains.
"The future is just not what it used to be, in my opinion," she said, evoking chuckles from the group in what felt like a writing salon. "We were told we were moving into a time of enormous leisure ... I was quite looking forward to that ... and if you think I'm bitter about the jetpacks, you have no idea how bitter I am about the leisure."

Her own childhood, she admits, was a particularly flawed background for a writer in that it was a remarkably happy one that didn't lend itself to "tortured artist" status.

Something of a role model for other women who put their professional life on hold to concentrate on raising a family only to prepare to jumpstart it when the kids reach school age, Fowler recalled breaking the news to her husband that instead of becoming a breadwinner, she was going to become a writer.

Like her favorite character in children's literature, the mournful Eeyore, her husband took her announcement in stride. "Like Eeyore, when you tell him his hopes and dreams are going to be crushed, he's not surprised, because he never really thought it would work out anyway," she said. The one fly in the ointment? The classic work-at-home dilemma - people think you have time to spare.

Fowler talked frankly about the writer's tendency to self-censor out of fear that a beloved parent will read harsh material and think less of their adult child. She recounted presenting her busy 31-year-old son with an audio version of her "Jane Austen Book Club." He declined to finish listening to it, telling his mother that while he was aware writers sometimes drew from their own experiences and he hoped she'd never experienced sexual abuse like her character in the opening pages, as his mother's child, he wasn't ready for it. "I really don't want to think you'd make something like that up," he said, apologetic.

Although she showed early promise in publishing, throughout much of her formative years Fowler was a "runner up," a not-quite-good-enough status she turned to her own emotional advantage. "It made me so angry and so determined to be successful," she said, recalling how stacks of rejection letters became a sort of badge of honor. She brings them along sometimes when she speaks to writers, she said. "Look at how many people tried to stop me," she tells herself.

So this writer's favorite book? "The Once and Future King," by T.H. White. White's ability to swing from one kind of writing voice to another pleases her - and helps her as a writer when she wants to follow intuition instead of tradition. "Every (writing) rule I've ever been told has been broken by White in my favorite book of all time," she said.

Other advice for fellow authors? Every book gets harder and harder to write. And just because it's "done," doesn't mean it's done. "When I turn (a manuscript in) I think it's done. It's not. I get a 7-page letter that says it's not,"Fowler said.

That's just the beginning, and where the writer digs in and makes decisions, she said, noting that she accepts just a percentage of those perceived problems and works around many of the others. "Workshops and editors are good at telling you it's a problem, you're not very good - they're not good at telling you how to fix it," she said.

As the event organizer headed toward the stage, Karen Joy Fowler amused her audience with a paraphrase, and I will use it as well:

"In the words of Jane Austen, it appears I have delighted you long enough."