I’ve found one question that’s a little off the beaten path, and sometime serves to break the ice: “If you had to go into a completely different line of work, what would it be?” I’ll never forget using that one when I had the good fortune, many moons ago, to spend a day with Gene Stallings, when he was coach of the Alabama Crimson Tide. He had taken a break from the practice field to go to his office and check his messages. Not surprisingly it was a very classy office, and the feature I remember most is a giant jar of jelly beans on a side desk: they were only in the colors red and white.
When Stallings was done returning phone calls and looked to me for more questions, I asked him, “If for some reason you couldn’t coach football, what kind of work would you have done?”
To my surprise, he didn’t hesitate: “Career military, sir,” he said, in that no-nonsense growl of a voice that can make one believe in the reincarnation of Coach Bear Bryant, but with better enunciation. As unexpected as the answer was, it fit perfectly with two facts I’d turned up while doing research on Stallings. His goal, growing up, was to join the military. But a childhood accident essentially made him deaf in one ear and unable to pass the physical. So football was his second choice.
The other fact was a quote from Tom Landry, Stallings’ former boss when he worked for 14 seasons as secondary coach for the Dallas Cowboys, including the year they won Super Bowl XII.
A reporter once asked Landry for a comment about Stallings, and Landry said, “If I had to go into combat, and could only have one person with me, I’d pick Gene Stallings.”
Driving home from Tuscaloosa that spring day in a haze of yellow pollen and great happiness, two things kept running through my mind: For one, the coach had called me “Sir” throughout the day. At one I point I thought of correcting him, but Stallings does not have the sort of face and voice that one would choose to take issue with on any subject. Besides, I guessed that the salutations “Sir” and “Ma’am” were forever branded by his parents into his deepest nerve cells, the same way they are into mine.
The other thing was, how fortunate I am to have made a living (of sorts) from writing and photography, over the years, despite two major handicaps: a paralyzing shyness when meeting strangers, and being essentially blind in one eye from a birth defect that was never corrected. Years ago I took a job with The Birmingham News, and at the time, they required a pre-employment physical. The doctor looked me over in great detail, inside and out, and finally asked what my duties at the newspaper would consist of. I told him writing and photography, and he was aghast. “Photography? Impossible!” he said. “You’re half blind.”
I told him I’d been earning a living as a photographer for a little over 12 years. He grunted, sighed, stared at the wall. Then he scribbled something unreadable on my exam report. It must have been the medical equivalent of “Whatever,” because I got the News job.
But, back to the point: if I had to do something else for a living, what would it be?
Astronaut was my first choice, growing up in the years of the Mercury space program, until I discovered that astronauts have to pass a vision exam. Who knew?
That left my second choice: rock star. But that career requires being able to sing and play an instrument worth a hoot, and I have about as much chance of doing that as I do of playing quarterback at Alabama. (My third choice.)
But if the day ever came when I was for some reason prohibited from writing and taking pictures, my fallback choice would be (drum roll): industrial product design. I studied engineering in college (long story, best forgotten) and one of my required courses was Engineering Drawing—colloquially known as “drafting,” which I always thought was ironic because the only reason I was studying Engineering instead of my preferred English was so I wouldn’t get drafted.
I fell in love with the class, and it was the only one I ever made an “A” in. Taking a three-dimensional object and drawing two-dimensional versions of it along multiple planes became for some strange reason the most fun I could legally have at a Baptist college. I was enthralled by the idea of someday doing the process in reverse: doing the same kind of drawings from scratch, from pure imagination, and then seeing a manufacturer turn those drawings into a three-dimensional object you could (a) hold in your hand, and (b) charge money for.
That was the point at which the Army decided my draft deferment had reached its sell-by date, and my engineering career was put on hold for a stint in the military. (Short story, best forgotten.)
Which is why one particular short book stays in my bedside stack, and means a lot to me. It’s a novella by Nicholson Baker called “Mezzanine,” and it’s completely about a man on his lunch hour, sitting in the mezzanine of his office building and thinking about the history of industrial product design.
The fact that such subject matter could be both engrossing and laugh-out-loud funny seems dang-nigh impossible, until you read it.
Reading! I’d forgotten about that possibility. Is there a job somewhere that pays you just for reading stuff? If so: Put me in, coach.
Dale Short is a native of Walker County. His columns, photos and radio features are available on his website, carrolldaleshort.com. His weekly radio program “Music from Home” airs each Sunday at 6 pm on Oldies 101.5 FM, streams live online at www.oldies1015fm.com and is archived afterward on his website.)