Excerpt: The Forever Year

Excerpt: The Forever Year

Historical Fiction

Chapter One

December 1920

Iris Mary Margaret Trippeer came barreling down the two-lane in her father’s Studebaker, challenging every rut in her path.  If there were a speed limit in 1920, she’d have been thumbing her nose at it.

But she wasn’t aware of her speed.  Or the growing swirl of flurries.  Or the way the engine’s noisy rumble was scattering a flock of sparrows into the bleached white sky.  The only thing on her mind was her destination — ninety miles of dirt road away.

With grim determination, she steered the big black sedan with one hand while praying on her rosary with the other.  “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.  Amen.”

Then, debating whether seventy-four Our Fathers were enough to ensure the outcome she needed, she offered up a personal plea.  “God, I’m begging you.  Please get me there in time.  I’ll do anything.  Teach Sunday school.  Volunteer with the Sisters.  I just have to see him.  One more time.  Then, maybe, by some miracle…”  

Feeling a tug of resistance, Iris looked down to see that her rosary had become tangled in the spokes of the steering wheel.  She pulled gently on the well-worn beads, respectful of the fact that they once belonged to her mother.  But when they refused to budge, she figured her mother would forgive her under the circumstances, and gave the holy string the unholiest of yanks.

Bad idea.  The rosary flew apart in a stinging shower of unanswered prayers.  Worse yet, when she looked up, she discovered she was veering into the path of a horse and buggy.  Stifling a scream, she turned the wheel hard right, but the Studebaker’s rear end spun out on the slick surface.  As the car skidded sideways out of control, the horse reared up in her path, his eyes ablaze with terror.

Doing her best not to panic, Iris began pumping the brakes like her father had taught her.  The car slowed a bit, but continued fishtailing toward the wide-eyed steed.

Closer and closer.  A brutal convergence of mammal and machine seemed inevitable.

Then, by some miracle, the Studebaker shuddered to a stop, mere inches from contact.

Iris barely had time to thank God before an ancient farmer leaned out of the buggy and shook a fist at her.  “What the hell is wrong with you?”

Determined not to cry, at least not in his presence, Iris took a fortifying breath and offered him a smile.  “I’m sorry.  I’m really sorry.”

Not good enough for the angry mug staring back at her.  “The one who oughta be sorry is the man who gave you the keys.  Only thing a woman should be driving is a baby carriage.”

And just like that, her remorse evaporated.  “And a horse shouldn’t have to pull a horse’s ass!”

With a silent apology to the horse, Iris mashed the accelerator and took off down the road.  It was only then that she let herself release the full weight of her circumstances.  First, with a sigh.  Then a few tears.  And finally, a chorus of chest-heaving sobs.  How did I get here?  How did I let this happen?  A little over a year ago, she was working at her father’s law firm, enjoying the attention of a perfectly appropriate suitor.  And now, she was racing across the state to get to a man even her own dear mother would’ve described as a rake.  A man who just a few months ago tried to slink away because he sensed her getting dangerously close to penetrating the fortress he’d built around himself.

She pounded her hand on the dashboard.  “Damn you, George!  Damn you!”

That’s it, she decided.  No more tears.  Anger is better.  And Lord knows, she should be angry at him, for a bucketful of reasons.  He broke her heart.  At least a dozen times.  Got her to do things that, well, should be saved for the honeymoon.  Made her cry almost as much as she’d cried over her mother.  What kind of man does that to a woman? 

Which led her to another question:  And what kind of woman lets him?  Then risks her life and the well-being of a fine automobile to get to his bedside?  Why, I should turn around right now, head back to Indianapolis and try to reclaim the life I had before I met him.

Except she couldn’t.  Because she knew what kind of woman she was.  A woman who was hopelessly, desperately, irretrievably in love with this beautiful scoundrel.  And if she didn’t get to him in time, then she’d surely die, too.

So she drove on, past endless acres of farmland and monotonous plains, stopping occasionally to wipe away the tears she couldn’t seem to will away.

And in the heavy December skies, the snowstorm gathered strength.


September 1919 

It began, oddly enough, at a football game.  Odd, because Iris couldn’t fathom football.  Seriously, who in their right mind wanted to spend a sunny Saturday afternoon watching two squads of savages bash each other up and down a field till someone ended up bruised and bloodied and borne off on a stretcher?  And for what?  The privilege of parading around with some sort of modified pig’s bladder?  At least the Romans had horses and pretty chariots.    

Yet here she was, trudging up row after row of weatherworn bleachers in a burgundy dress she’d last worn to the opera, on the heels of her cousin Violet, a rotund ball of energy whose stated goal in life was to find a man savvy enough to appreciate a girl with ample gifts.

“The teaching assistant in my chemistry class definitely has an eye for me,” Violet declared.  “But he only has three fingers on his right hand.  Then again, one of them is a ring finger.”

Violet let loose an earthy laugh and continued leading the way past a mostly male crowd in shirts and ties, who occasionally looked up from the pregame festivities to admire the duo.  At this point in the Matterhornian climb, Iris found herself cranky, out of breath and in serious danger of breaking a sweat.  What had she been thinking when she accepted Violet’s invitation to join her for a weekend at Saint Mary’s?  Shouldn’t it have been obvious from past experience that her cousin was boisterous, boy-crazy and worse of all, tireless?        

“Violet, are our seats even in this stadium?”

Two rows from the top, Violet directed a finger at a microscopic patch of bench about halfway down, earning a dubious look from Iris.  “Two of us are supposed to fit there?” 

Feeling an unwelcome tug on her skirt, Iris peered down into the eyes of an impish fellow with an unruly mop of hair and a fatal overbite.  “You can sit on my lap, doll,” he said.  “It’s heated.” 

Iris gave him an icy stare, but Violet promptly thawed him out with a squeeze on the shoulder.  “Go easy on my cousin, Eddie.  She’s up from Indianapolis for the weekend.  Not used to hooligans like you.”

“Hooligan?” he replied, a wounded quiver in his voice.  “Last week, you said I was a sheik.”

“Last week, I needed popcorn and a pennant.” 

Violet gave him a parting wink and maneuvered past him, dragging her cousin along with her.  When they were safely out of earshot, she whispered conspiratorially in Iris’s ear.  “If you can get past the choppers, Eddie’s quite a catch.  His family’s big in meatpacking.”

Iris cringed.  Is that what this invitation was about, fixing up poor pathetic Iris with a college boy?  When was it going to occur to her scheming cousin that she could make her own choices — when the time was right.  And the boy was right.  But sadly, it wasn’t even worth confronting Violet about it.  Years of experience had taught Iris that such actions inevitably led to long lectures about living life and sucking marrow, after which she’d often do her cousin’s bidding just to shut her up.  She could attribute a dozen disastrous dates to this phenomenon, as well as one broken arm — courtesy of a challenge to roll off a roof. 

After what seemed like eons, they reached their seats.  Violet plopped right down, while Iris studied the bench with the critical eye of a draftsman.  Then she untied her paisley scarf and spread it over her spot, earning an “Are you kidding me?” look from her cousin.

Iris hesitated for a moment, then decided in matters of personal hygiene, one must always speak out.  “I paid twelve dollars for this dress.  God knows what’s been on that bench.”

Without a blink of hesitation, Violet plucked up the scarf and returned it to her.  “Thousands of butts before yours.  None of which had sticks up ‘em.”

With a sigh as deep as the blue autumn sky, Iris wedged her way into the seat.  Then, as Violet and five thousand others cheered the introduction of the home team, she made use of her vantage point high above the Notre Dame campus.  Iris had to admit, it was a beautiful place.  Founded nearly a century earlier by an ambitious young priest from France, the university was a testament to the Victorian Gothic style of architecture, with some two dozen buildings sprinkled over fifteen hundred pastoral acres.  Most prominent was the Administration Building, a stately congregation of pointed windows, storybook turrets and gables, culminating in a shimmering golden dome graced by a regal statue of the Virgin Mary that was rumored to weigh more than four thousand pounds.  Rising majestically a few yards away was Sacred Heart Church, whose towering spires resembled worshipful fingers reaching heavenward.  The cross-shaped basilica also featured more than a hundred vividly detailed stained glass windows, the largest collection of 19th century French stained glass in the world.  Elsewhere on the campus were two glistening lakes, a rock grotto modeled after the shrine at Lourdes and a glorious statue of Jesus spreading out his arms as if to say, “I dare you to look upon all this beauty and doubt the existence of a higher power.”

Iris could certainly see why Catholic parents considered this place the Holy Grail of higher education.  She could also understand why lovesick girls like Violet paid such steep tuitions to attend Notre Dame’s sister school.  After all, just a short hop from Saint Mary’s was this hotbed of marital potential — an all-boys school whose graduates went on to become doctors, lawyers and all-around providers.  Any girl who could say she was attending Saint Mary’s for the education — and keep a straight face — was either a world-class liar or an old maid in waiting.

Iris’s reverie was interrupted by a tap on the shoulder from Violet, who like everyone else, had risen to her feet.  Iris reluctantly joined her, expecting perhaps a benediction from the bishop.  Instead, a Notre Dame player wearing the traditional blue and gold sprinted to midfield carrying two footballs, earning an ovation no bishop could ever conceive of.  After a nonchalant nod to the crowd, he dropkicked one ball some fifty yards through the north goalpost, then turned and dropkicked the other through the south goal.

As he crossed off the field, a chant rose from the bleachers.  “Gipp!  Gipp!  Gipp!”

Unfamiliar with the ill-sounding syllable, Iris turned to Violet for enlightenment.  “What in the world is a ‘Gipp?’”

“It’s his name, silly,” Violet replied.  “George Gipp.  Best player on the team and a real rascal.  Gambler.  Carouser.  Lady-killer.  He letters in all the major sins.”

Iris shook her head.  What was the world coming to when a fine university like Notre Dame was forced to generate revenue by way of ruffians like George Gipp, whose contributions on the field were most likely offset by the damage they inflicted on the institution’s spiritual backbone?

“And what might a scholar like Mister Gipp be majoring in?” Iris asked her cousin with a healthy dollop of sarcasm.

The answer came swift and sharp.  “Honey, you’re looking at it.”

As though to illustrate, Gipp took the booming kickoff and followed his blockers up the sideline before making a slashing cut to the left at midfield, breaking two tackles and sprinting untouched into the end zone.  The crowd’s cheers grew so earth-shattering as to threaten the old stadium’s foundation.  Gipp’s teammates swarmed him with similar adulation.  But he brushed it all off and trotted over to the bench, where he removed his helmet and casually lit a cigarette.

Iris watched him with disdainful intrigue.  “They’re allowed to smoke here?”

Violet chuckled.  “Iris, he’s George Gipp.  He could light the bench on fire if he wanted to.  Gotta admit, though, he’s mighty easy on the eyes.”

Iris harrumphed.  Again, with the boy talk!  Nevertheless, she borrowed Violet’s binoculars so she could draw her own conclusions.  George Gipp was tall, she’d give him that.  With a swath of brown hair that seemed unmolested by the tight helmet.  And good-looking, she supposed, in a roughhewn way.  Like a man who might otherwise be working yearlong stints on a cargo ship.  But what gave him the right to be so cool?  So annoyingly above it all?

Still peering through the binoculars, Iris ventured an opinion.   “My father has a word for men like him.”

Violet’s only response was a pointed “Iris.”

Ignoring her cousin, Iris forged ahead.  “Zeppelins.  They float above it all, making lots of noise.  But sooner or later, they all come down to Earth.”

This time, Violet invoked her name even louder and punctuated it with a tug on the arm.  Frustrated, Iris lowered the binoculars to find out what her cousin could possibly want.

“Game’s back on,” Violet said with a casual sweep of her hand. 

Iris looked around to see that indeed, every pair of eyes save hers had returned their focus to the field.  She grudgingly joined them, but not before stealing another look at the Zeppelin. 


For the life of him, Hunk Anderson couldn’t get a read on his buddy George Gipp.  Sure, George was the best player on the team.  He also took it to the bank in baseball, basketball, billiards… Is that a sport?  Whatever, anything involving a round or roundish object.  But did he get a rise out of it?  Hard to say.  Unlike Hunk, who salivated at the rare opportunity to scoop up a fumble and lumber downfield, George could haul a hundred yards’ worth of ass, untouched by the most Goliath of tacklers, hit the end zone to a hallelujah chorus of cheers, and just shrug it off.  

In many ways, Hunk figured, George was one big shrug.  Sports… shrug.  School… shrug.  Women… sure, he liked them, and he definitely got mileage out of the way they threw themselves at him.  But did any of them really get his heart racing?  Shrug.  As for friendship, every last guy on the team idolized George.  Hunk himself would jump through fire for his friend — and often had, at great personal cost.  Mary Pat still hadn’t forgiven him for losing two teeth saving George’s butt in that East Lansing bar brawl.  But in the thick of things, would George stand tall for him?  As much as Hunk wanted to believe it, there hadn’t been a whole lot of evidence.  Sure, it was George who helped him get into Notre Dame, but sometimes Hunk wondered if that wasn’t just to ensure he always had a drinking buddy at the ready.     

Oh, hell, why am I mooning over this stuff?  Hunk thought.  We’ve got a victory to celebrate.  

Indeed, all around him, his teammates were snapping towels, screaming their butts off and otherwise savoring the sensation of sending another opponent home scoreless.  Pete Bahan, the cocky quarterback, was boisterously reliving the game, giving the usual marquee value to his own contributions.  Johnny Mohardt was proudly showing off the bruises he’d sustained blocking for George all day, including one on his thigh that bore a squinting resemblance to the Great Smokey Mountains.  Norm Barry was dabbing on the aftershave in anticipation of a big score with the ladies.  Yeah, the gang was all here.  All but George, of course.  

“Heartley, front and center!”

Hunk flinched, partly at the mention of his emasculating given name and partly at the source — Coach Rockne.  Known as Knute to his peers and Rock to his players, he was a balding, diminutive Norwegian who nevertheless owned every room he entered.  Right now, he was exerting dominion over the locker room, knee deep in reporters and relishing every cigar-chomping minute of it.

What Hunk couldn’t fathom was why Rock was waving him over.  As a lineman, Hunk was one of several faceless players who routinely performed their duties but rarely merited a quote in the paper — or God forbid, a photograph.  In truth, he’d always found the newshounds a little off-putting.  They covered the game well enough, but they always seemed to have a chip on their scrawny shoulders — like every athlete they came across reminded them of the guys who used to beat the crap out of them in high school.

But the heck with all that.  Rock had summoned him.  Could it be, at long last, the reporters were calling for him?  In truth, he had played a pretty good game today.  Maybe after three years of anonymity and a cornucopia of injuries, he was finally going to get his due.  He took a quick check of his towel to make sure nothing was in danger of flopping out, then hustled over and nodded amiably at the newshounds.

Rock pulled him in close and started banging the drum.  “Fellas, you all know Hunk Anderson, the lifeblood of our offense.  Let me tell you, the reason George Gipp can sing his way down the field is because of unsung heroes like him.  And you can quote me on that.  Just remember, when you describe me, I’m six-foot-two with a full head of hair and enough charisma to choke a horse.”

As usual, Rock earned big laughs from the reporters.  But they weren’t scribbling in their notepads the way Hunk would’ve liked.  Hell, they weren’t even doodling.  Hunk felt a bead of sweat trickling out of his armpit and slapped it dead before it could dribble down his torso and embarrass him.

After what seemed like four reels of silence, Rock stepped in.  “So, fellas, anything you want to ask the big man?  First five questions are free.”

“Yeah, I’ve got a question.”

Hunk gave the reporter a casual smile, careful not to show the tremendous sense of relief he was feeling.  Not just relief, a sense of fraternity.  Of actually belonging to the same species as the grizzled old fart.  Why, he could wrap the man in a bear hug right now and—

“Any chance you can round up George Gipp?” the reporter asked him.

Hunk’s mighty shoulders sank, sending shadows dancing across the room.

As cries of agreement swelled among the assembled, Rock spun the situation as best he could.  “You do that, Heartley.  See if you can find the Gipper.  I’m sure he’d love to shed some light on your backbreaking sacrifices today.”

With that, Rock clapped Hunk on the back and sent him on his way.  Moments later, Hunk secured his towel and stepped out into the alley to find George leaning against the building smoking a Marlboro, sporting a uniform that looked as crisp and immaculate as it had at game time.  Recalling his own uniform — a battlefield of grass stains, bloodstains and human tissue — Hunk smiled anemically and took a place alongside him.

George gave him the once-over and chuckled.  “What happened to you?  Take a wrong turn on the way to the showers?”

“Actually, I’m on a mission,” Hunk replied.  “Reporters are looking for you again.”

George responded with his trademark shrug, then grabbed a dinged-up flask off the windowsill and passed it to him.

Figuring the soul-crushing scene with the newshounds earned him a temporary pass on good behavior, Hunk took a swallow.  “I don’t know, George.  A picture in the Chicago Trib?  Gotta mean something to you.”

“Why?  I know what I look like,” George replied, as if it were the only sane answer.  “Besides, they’re always trying to get inside my head.”  He summoned up his best impersonation of a probing reporter.  “Mister Gipp, what was going through your mind when you made that sixty-yard dash down the sidelines?”  Then, reverting back to himself:  “I don’t know, sir.  The sooner I got to the end zone, the sooner I could take that wicked piss I was holding?”

Although he’d never be able to fathom George’s nonchalance, Hunk couldn’t help smiling.  “So we won today on the strength of your bladder?” 

George gave him a wink.  “Remind me to start every game with a beer and a bratwurst.” 

Instead, Hunk reminded him about the big event taking place that evening at Saint Mary’s — the annual fall mixer with the men of Notre Dame that Mary Pat and her dance committee had been laboring over for weeks.  “You’re coming tonight, aren’t you, George?”

“Yeah, sure,” George mumbled.

Hunk didn’t bother telling him how shamelessly Mary Pat had been begging him to ensure George came along, insisting that the presence of the “football god” would guarantee the evening was a success.  

Well, for everybody except the poor, random girl destined to get her heart broken by the football god.