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Friday, September 12, 2003
Updated: September 15, 12:45 PM ET
Headin' to Huck's home

By Jim Caple
Page 2 columnist

HANNIBAL, MO. - It's hard to avoid Mark Twain in his hometown, even though he's been dead 93 years.

Cheerleaders
Hannibal cheerleaders (l to r) Amanda Hayes, Mackenzie Hufty, Crystal Coons and LeAnn Kaszynski are ready to cheer on the Pirates.

The Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum. The Mark Twain Hotel. The Mark Twain Cave. The Mark Twain Riverboat. The Mark Twain Book & Gift Shop. The Mark Twain Dinette. The Mark Twain Travelodge. The Mark Twain Amoco station. The Mark Twain Counseling Center. The Hotel Clemens. The Huck Finn Shopping Plaza. Sawyer's Creek Fun Park. The Injun Joe Campground. The Becky Thatcher Cafe. And, of course, Mark Twain (Beer) Distributing.

Naturally, the Hannibal high school students get so they can hardly stand to have the old man around.

"We get sick of it," Hannibal Pirates senior running back Jamie Nemes said. "We study it all the time in school. We hear about it all the time."

"We read 'Tom Sawyer' in seventh grade and 'Huckleberry Finn' when we're juniors," senior tennis player Susan Greger said. "In elementary school every year, we visited the Cave and the museum and home downtown. It's fun the first couple times. But it gets old after awhile."

"I don't even know why people want to come to Hannibal," football player Jim Howe said.

Not all the kids at Hannibal are tired of Twain, of course. Seniors LeAnn Kaszynski and Crystal Coons said they really liked reading "Huckleberry Finn." But then again, they're cheerleaders. They're supposed to be enthusiastic.

Jim Caple at Mark Twain's house
Jim Caple stands in front Mark Twain's boyhood home and the fence that Tom Sawyer painted.

I understand the boredom. I love Twain's writing. He was one of our best, funniest, most fearless and most influential writers. Forget his better-known works. His sublime "Diaries of Adam & Eve" reads as fresh as if written yesterday. (Adam's Saturday entry on his puzzling, long-haired new companion in the garden: "I wish it would not talk; it is always talking.") But I can see how teenagers aren't so keen on stories about exploring caves and rafting down the Mississippi River written more than a century before TRL.

They live in a different world than Tom Sawyer did. I saw a Hannibal football player with a tongue stud (what would Aunt Polly think?). A girl at a tennis match wore her jeans so low that anyone walking by could see that she was wearing thong underwear (what would the Widow Douglas say?).

If Twain wrote "Huckleberry Finn" today, it would have to be a much different book.

You don't know about me, without you have played "Tom Sawyer 2002." That game was made by PlayStation and it's wicked good, mainly, though it's not as cool as "Grand Theft Auto 3." That is nothing. I never played any video game as good as "GTA3," except maybe "John Madden Football 95," which I haven't played since Jim learned me all the cheats. I wound up getting so good that Tom and us won the state tournament and tooked home $6,000 in prize money. Well, Judge Thatcher, he took it and put it all out on WorldCom stock, so now we got nothing, except for our most prized possessions, the Gale Sayers and Wes Unseld replica jerseys that done got Jim suspended from the team. Only my pap, he still wants the money and is fixing to sue the Judge, just as soon as he gets out of rehab.

SO FAR SO GOOD
Check out Jim Caple's stops along the way:
  • Lake Itasca, Minn.: At the headwaters
  • Collegeville, Minn.: The greatest coach ever
  • Bloomington, Minn.: The Mall of America
  • Dyersville, Iowa: Field of Dreams
  • Twain included a short passage about baseball in "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court" (the knights insisted on playing in full body armor, much like Barry Bonds does today), but he didn't write much about sports. It just wasn't a part of everyday life in the 19th century the way it is now. For one thing, there were too many chores. For another, they didn't have mini-vans to carry the kids to soccer practice.

    Hannibal kids don't much sneak dead cats into graveyards at midnight anymore. As with everywhere else in the country, they are too busy playing sports in this city of 18,000 that calls itself America's Hometown.

    When my sports tour down the Misssissippi River brought me to the high school in the late afternoon, the volleyball team was beating Payson High School for its first victory. The softball team was shutting out Macon. The JV soccer team was winning 10-0. The girls tennis team was losing to Quincy-Notre Dame. The cheerleaders were running through their routines.

    MIGHTY MISSISSIP TRIP
    Here's a breakown of Jim Caple's journey down the Mighty Mississippi:

    Miles: 270 (Dubuque to Hannibal)
    Total Miles: 884
    Moving violations: 0
    Hours driving: 5
    Diet Pepsi: 3 units
    Road kill: 1 cat, 1 rabbit, 1 squirrel, 1 possum and 2 too decayed to tell.
    Weather: Continued hot and sunny in the upper 80s.
    Huckleberry Finn tape: Huck and Jim meet the Duke and the Dauphin, who fleece the yokels with theatrical productions of the Royal Nonesuch: "For One Night Only on account of imperative European engagements.''
    Miles to go: 1,100 (approx.)

    The heart and soul of the town, as with most Southern towns, is the football team (the Hannibal Courier-Post refers to the fans as Pirates Nation). The Pirates lost their season opener last Saturday against rival Helius due in part to a busted kickoff coverage, and coach Mark St. Clair was determined to win this week's game against Marshall as he ran the team through its paces. "I hope last weekend was a lesson that if you don't do your job, bad things happen," he told the team.

    Watching the practice from a lawn chair was 76-year-old Martin Sauer. Other than his years in the military and at college, Saurer has lived here all his life. He and his wife, Sarah Jane, met in church when they were about the same age as Tom and Becky. He was the first in what is now a three-generation Hannibal football family. He played for the Pirates in the 1940s, his son played for the Pirates in the '60s and his grandson, Jamie Nemes, plays for the Pirates this season.

    "My class started high school in 1942, right after the war started,'' Sauer said, "and I remember sitting in the kitchen reading the newspaper and the front page headlines about Hitler, who was really running through Europe. And when I read it, it just hit me. What if we can't stop him? I asked my mom, 'What if we can't stop him?' I remember that. The possibility hadn't really occurred to me until that moment.

    "But that was just the way it was then. You just accepted it. You knew that when you graduated, you were going into the service. I didn't want to get drafted, so I enlisted in the Navy when I still was in school and I went in after graduation."

    It was a different era. When Sauer played for the Pirates, Missouri schools still were segregated. There were no blacks on Hannibal's team.

    "Blacks played for Quincy, though, which is just across the river in Illinois,'' he said. "They had a great running back who was black and we went over there and played them my junior year and they beat us. Then they came over here my senior year and they wouldn't let him play here."

    Joshua Williams
    Hannibal player Joshua Williams looks tough in front of the team's schedule.

    Times change. The school and the nation has been integrated for decades, long enough for African-American linebacker Joshua Williams to run off a long list of relatives who played football here before him.

    "My dad, Wentric Williams, played here," Williams said. "My brother played here. Lydell Williams Sr., Lydell Williams Jr., Rodney Williams, Michael Williams, Ellsworth Williams. It's a big tradition in my family. My daddy trained us for football.

    "I remember the first game I saw here. We lost to Helias by a touchdown. I remember it like it was yesterday."

    Twain wrote, "When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant that I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years."

    They may be tired of him now, but Hannibal kids will grow to appreciate Twain and how special it is to grow up in a town that was home to the most quoted author in American history -- where grandparents not only proudly watch their grandchildren's games but also their practices, and where high school students can wander down to an historic waterfront, look out upon the Mississippi and wonder how far that river might take them.

    But there's plenty of time for that. Tonight, they just want to beat Marshall.

    Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.