Welcome to the Machine (Prologue)
“Welcome my son,
Welcome to the machine.
Where have you been?
It’s alright, we know where you’ve been.
You’ve been in the pipeline.
And you didn’t like school,
And we know you’re nobody’s fool.
So welcome to the machine.
Welcome my son,
Welcome to the machine.
What did you dream?
It’s alright, we told you what to dream.”
Dad never pushed me; of that, there is no doubt, just like no one pushed him. We became parts in the machine via similar, yet different paths. It would be convenient to this account to claim we were pushed, but that wouldn’t be quite accurate.
No, I can’t say that any specific person ever pushed us toward the thing. It was more subtle than that. It wasn’t overt and direct, yet it was unseen and somehow more coercive.
Dad grew up in a southern Arkansas town, just north of the Louisiana border. When he was born in 1943, El Dorado had a population of just over 16,000, and it was growing. The discovery of oil in the 1920s under the sandy, pine-covered hills transformed El Dorado from a sleepy little agricultural hamlet of 3,800 to a bustling boom town of nearly 30,000 by the time he was in high school.
There were likely innumerable boom towns just like it in states like Ohio, Illinois, and Pennsylvania, for example, dotting the so-called Rust Belt, where men worked in the steel mills and the coal mines; strong, hard men who worked with their hands.
But in southern Arkansas at the time, the industry was oil and energy. And the work in the oil fields attracted strong, big, quietly powerful men to the area.
Some people called them roughnecks. And in the short span of a few years, the sons of these roughnecks would put south Arkansas on the sports map. A cluster of men the likes of which had never been seen before — and haven’t been seen since — grew up and became some of the best athletes in the history of the state. Some of them came from athletic families, and some didn’t.
The first group came to it inevitably; the second group came to it by happenstance.
My father was not from an athletic family, and as it happened, he was literally pulled off the playground when he was in the 8th grade.
Picture it. You are born and grow up in a small southern town. Your parents are blue-collar workers. Your father works on the railroad and your mother works for a telephone company.
It is a family burning with love; close-knit, God-fearing, church-going, good neighbors, hardworking, and content.
But you live out on the “other” side of town. Your family is not a prominent or an affluent one. There is sort of a chip on your shoulder about this. You go to school with the kids from the “right” side of town, the ones whose families are members of the country club. They wear better clothes, they have money in their pockets, and they drive sleek cars in high school. You don’t know what you want to do when you grow up, you just know you don’t want to work on the railroad — the hours are too long and it’s too damn hard on your father.
Your father could be classified as one of the aforementioned roughnecks, though he does not work in the oilfields. His railroad work is the hands-on variety, outdoors, long days, emergencies when cars wreck or derail, and at times, it is dangerous. He stands 6 foot 4 and weighs about 280 pounds. And he has never lifted a weight or played a sport in his life. He passes his genes to you. Eventually, you will grow even bigger than your father. And by junior high, you are taller and bigger than most of the other boys. You go to the local Boys Club and play in pickup basketball games.
Then one day, a confluence of things happens, paths cross, people meet, and in a single afternoon, entire life trajectories are firmly set.
The local high school football coach is at the club. He goes there to recruit, of course. He needs new bodies for the program. And he looks out on the court and sees this one kid dominating the other boys. This one kid is taller, bigger, faster, quicker, and stronger. He can out-jump the others and gets almost every rebound. He has better hands than they do. He is more graceful in his movements. And he makes almost every shot he takes. And he does all of this naturally; he is uncoached. It’s a basketball court, but the coach knows that someone this gifted can easily be taught how to play the sport of football.
The coach looks over to the man who manages the club and asks him, “Who is that kid? I’ve never seen him before.” The manager tells the coach the kid’s name. The coach doesn’t know it. But it doesn’t matter. After the game is over, the coach calls the kid to come over and talk.
And that’s how it happened. Just like that. That’s how my father became part of the machine.
He would be a part of the machine for his entire life thereafter.
There were a few years where it appeared he may have finally escaped, but near the end, the machine sucked him back in. And after he was gone, I realized that brief interlude in the middle of his life was just an illusion: He had never really ever escaped it; he was part of the machine from that first day they pulled him off that court until the day he died.
My story would be different, but although I was able to escape it so many years before, the machine was so powerful that no matter where I went, no matter where I lived, it was still able to pull us all back together one last time, for one last vigil, to bear witness to the destruction the machine had wrought.
Glen Hines is the author of five books, including the recently published Of Time and Rivers, and the highly-regarded Bring in the Gladiators, Observations From a Former College Football Player Who Was Never Able to Become a Fan, all available at Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble. He is the writer and producer of the book and podcast Welcome to the Machine, available on most podcast platforms. His writing has also been featured in Sports Illustrated, Task & Purpose, and the Human Development Project.