Post Oaks and Football

I always wonder how we know what we know about Robert E. Howard. As Damon’s recent post regarding Howard’s birth shows, sometimes there is more than one way to interpret information, and we may only be seeing one side—the side a particular writer wants us to see. So, whenever I run into a statement that makes a claim, I always want to know what evidence supports the conclusion. If none is provided, I like to try to find it myself.

For example, we’ve all heard that Post Oaks & Sand Roughs is a “semi-autobiographical” novel; the characters may have different names, but they do many of the things that real people in Howard’s life actually did. Howard uses the name “Steve Costigan” for himself; Clyde Smith becomes “Clive Hilton,” and so on. The first I ever heard of the book was on the old Barbarian Keep website, which states that Post Oaks “relates events that occurred in Howard’s life sometime between 1924 and 1928, when REH was 18-22 years of age.” Well, I wondered, how do we know that? Of course, that was many years ago, and at the time I just didn’t know enough about good ol’ Bob to even begin to try to see how accurate that statement was. Times change.

On a recent trip to the Brownwood Genealogy Library, I actually came prepared. This was no spontaneous, spur of the moment trip: it’d been planned for several months and I had a checklist of things I wanted to research. One of those things was the 1924-28 timeline suggested for Post Oaks.

It’s pretty easy to arrive at the end date, 1928. Toward the end of the novel, page 133 to be exact, we learn that “Hubert Grotz” has died. “Grotz” has been identified as Herbert Klatt, and all the evidence suggests that that identification is solid. Then we have Howard’s letter to Tevis Clyde Smith eulogizing Klatt; the letter is dated circa May 1928. As the novel only runs to 161 pages, and with everything after page 142 entirely fictional, the1928 date seems to be a good one.

The start date took a little work. The novel begins at a football game between Gower-Penn and Semple Universities. These have been identified as Howard Payne and Simmons (Hardin-Simmons today). Bob attended Howard Payne, so that ID is a no-brainer, and “Semple,” as stated in the novel, is “from Abilene,” which is where Simmons is located. The game is played right at the beginning of the Thanksgiving break. So, how do we know it’s 1924? Wouldn’t Howard Payne face off against Simmons every year? Read on.

There are several elements in Howard’s description of the football game which allow us to determine when it was played. Howard wrote that “the Association title [was] in sight” and that “Gower-Penn” wins that title. He also says that the team’s captain, “Joe Franey,” was playing his last college game. “Franey’s” exploits are described in some detail: he “stepp[ed] back under the very shadow of the Gower-Penn goal posts, he caught the soaring sphere and raced like a ghost down the field. [. . .] he had run a full hundred yards through the center of the entire Semple team for a touchdown!” In the back of Post Oaks, Glenn Lord identifies “Joe Franey” as Joe Cheney. That provides another little nugget for our search.

So, to find the exact start time of the novel, all one has to do is find when the game between Howard Payne and Simmons was played in which Howard Payne wins the Association title and the captain of the team (Joe Cheney, or at least someone) runs the length of the field for a touchdown. And it would also be nice if it were that player’s last game. No problem.

Before leaving for Texas, I did a little “internet archeology” and found the College Football Data Warehouse. As near as I can tell, it lists the scores for practically every college football game that’s ever been played. I found the Howard Payne Yellow Jackets and had a look at their records. From 1920 to 1929 they beat Simmons six times; they tied once and lost the other three. The Howard Payne versus Simmons game was the last game in each of those seasons. The Yellow Jackets were the Texas Collegiate Athletic Conference Champions three times in that ten year span: 1924, 1928, and 1929. Interestingly, the coach for those last two wins was one Joe Bailey Cheaney. Hmm, might that Joe be a former player who had run the length of the field in 1924 to win the conference title? The spelling of the last name notwithstanding. Good enough; now I needed to be in Texas.

Once in Brownwood, I took a trip to the offices of the Brownwood Bulletin and checked out a couple rolls of microfilm. The microfilm viewer is at the genealogy library. From there it was a simple matter to scroll the microfilm to November 28, 1924—the day after the game had been played—and see what I could find. Paydirt.

Under the page five headline, “HOWARD PAYNE CINCHES CHAMPIONSHIP OF T.I.A.A.” is the smaller heading “YELLOW JACKETS BEAT SIMMONS AT PARK HERE BEFORE BIG CROWD.” A few paragraphs later, I read the following:

Captain Joe Bailey Cheaney, the light half of the Yellow Jackets, the signal-calling, line-plunging, passing and kicking captain of the Jackets, playing his last game in the Texas Intercollegiate Athletic Association, was the star in the game.

A little later, with tongue firmly in cheek, we learn that “the best [Cheaney] could do [. . .] was to run 100 yards in the early part of the first quarter for the Jacket’s first touchdown.” True, Howard says the run occurred at game’s end, but I think we can chalk that up to Howard wanting to make the win more dramatic. Everything else fits: the Jackets win the title; it’s the captain’s last game; he runs the length of the field for a touchdown; the game is played at the beginning of the Thanksgiving break, which the college’s catalogue says began on November 27, 1924, the same day the game was played.

Another little note about Cheaney (at left): In Post Oaks, Howard says that “Gower-Penn worshipped the youth with a blind passion.” To confirm that, one need only look at the Howard Payne yearbook for the 1924-25 school year. Cheaney’s accomplishments are legion: he was the president of his class for each of the four years he attended; he was captain of the track team his first three years and captain of the football and basketball teams during his senior year, and even tried out for the Olympics in Boston. He was a member of the Press Club—which was affiliated with The Yellow Jacket, so he may have known Bob Howard who had a story published in the paper in September of ’24—he was on the B.S.U. Council, in the Glee Club and the H Club (a letterman’s organization), and served as Athletic Editor for The Lasso yearbook. To top it all off, he was selected “Best All-Round Boy.” I wonder what his grades were like?

Anyway, I think it’s safe to assume that the time period covered in Post Oaks and Sand Roughs is indeed 1924 to 1928, but we can be a little more specific than that. The novel begins on November 27, 1924 around 7:00 p.m.—the newspaper says, after all, that the Simmons Cowboys were boarding their homeward bound train around 8:00. I love it when things work out.

Oh yeah, the score was 23 – 6.