Joining the Iowa Ironmen
Remembering a chance encounter with Al Couppee
“Let’s give a warm welcome to the quarterback of the Iowa Ironmen of 1939, and now the sports director of KRNT radio – Al Couppee.”
The booming voice of the stadium announcer caught my attention, but not nearly as much as the name “Al Couppee.” I only knew the Hawkeye hero by name. But now I viewed the real man, a square-shouldered figure who stepped from the Bruins’ dugout and waved to the assembled baseball players.
Awe-stricken to the core of my fourteen-year-old frame, my eyes stayed riveted on Mr. Couppee. He stood only thirty feet away from my seat behind the backstop screen at the Pioneer Memorial Stadium in Des Moines, home of the Western League Bruins.
The 170 miles from Guthrie Center to Iowa City seemed a light-year distant in those pre-interstate highway days, nor had television yet arrived by that June of 1952. My only link to the Hawkeyes was the raspy, enthusiastic voice of WMT’s Tait Cummins delighting me through the earphones of my homemade crystal radio. Thanks to Tait’s broadcasts, I became a dyed-in-the-wool Iowa Hawkeye fan.
The amazing Iowa team of 1939 became known as the “Ironmen” when they battled through a rugged schedule with a small squad. Only fifteen members of the short-handed Hawks played in the victory over top-ranked Notre Dame, and seven, including Al Couppee, remained on the field the entire sixty minutes.
At the end of the season Iowa ranked ninth in the country, halfback Nile Kinnick won the Heisman Trophy, and Couppee went on to play for the Washington Redskins.
With my eyes glued on the Hawkeye legend shaking hands and slapping people on the back, I almost forgot my original intent of watching the Chicago Cubs tryout camp. I had accompanied Larry Towne, a star pitcher for Guthrie Center High School and big league aspirant, to Des Moines. I wasn’t old enough to participate in the camp, but perfectly happy to take advantage of a trip to Iowa’s capitol city with its tall buildings, many dime stores, and palatial movie theaters. Now I sat by myself in the nearly empty stands, scrutinizing Al Couppee’s every move.
The great man turned my direction. We made eye contact. He approached and spoke: “Hey, kid, could you hand me the telephone receiver.”
“Uh, Uh, yes, sir,” I stammered.
A dial telephone sat on a narrow ledge before me, presumably for the use of an official during a game. Such state-of-the-art equipment didn’t exist in Guthrie Center. Indeed, I didn’t know the meaning of “receiver.” I assumed he meant the detachable part of the phone we called an “earpiece” at home. But how could I hand anything through the backstop screen? I looked hard. Time moved on, and I didn’t want to appear as star-struck and befuddled as I felt.
“There’s a little opening here,” my hero advised in pointing at a narrow break in the screen.
I shoved and twisted what he called a receiver through the tight opening and into his awaiting hand.
Mission accomplished! Or so I thought.
“Would you please dial a number for me?” he asked. “Forest Evashevski is in town and gave me a number to call.”
Thrilled at playing a role in connecting the Ironman with Iowa’s new football coach, I faced another dilemma: I had never dialed a telephone.
Our phone at home consisted of a black box on a kitchen wall with a mouthpiece in front and an earpiece hanging on the side. To make a call I lifted the listening device from the hook, placed it against my ear, and waited for the friendly voice of Joyce or Gladys who asked, “Number please?”
If I wanted to call my friend, Bruce, I would say, “1-3-3-M.” Then I heard a ring or the operator might advise, “Oh, the Thomas’s are out of town visiting relatives in Traer. They won’t be back ’til Monday.”
A dial telephone seemed so mechanical, so unfriendly in comparison. I watched people operate dial phones in movies, but became suspicious of their method. It looked too easy. Humphrey Bogart, with a cigarette in one hand, could dial a number with a few flicks of the other.
“The number is Cherry 3-7-1-3-8,” Couppee requested.
I leaned over the phone so close I could have dialed with my nose. Yes, tiny letters appeared above larger numbers in the finger slots. Did I need to dial the whole word and the numbers? In the movies the dialer moved a finger clockwise. But how far? Should I leave my finger in the number slot until it touched the half-moon metal stop between the “1” and the “0?” That seemed logical, even though Humphrey Bogart didn’t bother with such details.
I studied the phone before making my move. “Just dial ‘C – H’ for ‘Cherry,’ ” Couppee advised with a chuckle.
I set to work. The slot in the 3 o’clock position included a large “1” and tiny “ABC.” I pulled the slot downward until my finger hit the stop in the 4 o’clock position, a short trip. The dial turned backward to its original position – all on its own. Amazing!
I found the “H” in the “3” slot and repeated the maneuver. “Your doin’ great, kid,” Couppee encouraged. “I’ll give you the numbers again, one at a time.”
And thus Al Couppee quarterbacked me through the phone numbers as if calling a play in a huddle. I knew we had scored when he began talking. “Hi, Evy, it’s Coup,” he said. “I’m at the ballpark watching the Cub’s baseball camp. I found a phone and was able to call with the help of a little buddy.”
Did I hear the Ironman right? Did he say “buddy.” I swelled with pride. It seemed Coup and I had become teammates.
• Carroll McKibbin is a native Iowan who now lives in San Luis Obispo, Calif., as a retired Cal Poly dean. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org