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Can't Go Back

Friday night lights. canstockphoto18858009

In 2007, my elder son graduated from high school and rode a partial football scholarship into his first year of college. As proud as I was, I hated to see him go. We had been spoiled by the cozy, autumn-colored spectacle of high school football. Our hometown version of "Friday Night Lights" had allowed us to rekindle that warm, fall feeling my wife and I had both known so well as teens. I began to realize in his last year that our addiction to that autumn-in-Ohio atmosphere was only partly about football. It definitely included the sounds of marching bands, the crisp, clean air, the fall colors and the inescapable fountain of youth, the familiar confines of the old high school football stadium.

So it was disheartening when my younger boy showed no interest in football. He liked the games that were even rougher. He was a rugby guy (just when his mother had begun sleeping better with number-one son done with football). And so it was that I resigned myself to the fact that I had enjoyed my last trip in the time machine and the high school football years and all that went with it were behind me.

But wait. Number-2 son indeed loves the rugby but what's this? He wants to play his horn in the marching band. And so it was! My return to the hallowed high school stadium was beginning to get legs. Yes! I was back in the saddle. We rolled up our plaid flannel blankets and re-rolled our slickers and sat back among the brethren waiting for halftime to see the boy march. This was great. This was even better because I didn't have to watch the wife bury her head in her hands through the whole game waiting for number-one son to get up slowly from the pile of tacklers (he was a running back).

No indeed--except for an occasional sliver from an errant reed, the woodwind injuries were highly unlikely. We went to every game, home and away but alas after two years, I was abruptly cut off again. Number-2 boy decided to quit band as he needed to work out more to open the potential for rugby scholarship offers in this his final (senior) year. I was crestfallen but undaunted. The boy began a strong body-building regimen and indeed the calls have begun to trickle in (albeit a rugby scholarship is rarely more than a few bucks and a promise of a job in the college dorm cafeteria).

So now here sits dad on Friday nights. He has the face of the kid on Home Alone when he realizes his whole family has left for Paris without him. The season starts. I am aware of it. I feebly mention to number-2 boy that if he changed his mind I was sure the band would let him back in now. He defers. I tell him I'd heard the offensive line needs big guys like him and he shakes his head. "I'm a rugby guy, Dad. No football."

I sulk. I ponder. I leave work on a Friday afternoon walking slowly and begrudgingly to the truck. I come home. The boy is eating, indifferent and dressed for the game. He is going with his friends. I drop them at the gate, close my eyes to take a deeper whiff of the popcorn mixed with school bus fumes aroma and blink back the tears.

I get home and my partner of now more than 25 years looks at me and shakes her head sympathetically. She sighs. "Why don't we go to the game tonight?" I immediately brighten. "Really?" My puppy tail wags happily. "You really wanna go?" I ask again. You know that thing we all do when we're excited and we ask and re-ask questions we already know the answers to? She smiles benevolently; we dressed and got in the truck.

As I parked, I could hear the band warming up; the thud of the bass drum, the trumpets doing scales; and whistles--coaches and refs blowing whistles. The visiting team's band bus rumbled by--the heavy diesel fumes welcomed by my nostrils like the aroma of freshly cut summer grass. "I'm back, baby, I'm back."

We crossed the street and came to the ticket booth. "Six bucks each," the man said grumpily in the booth. "Perfect football weather," I say to him energetically. He looks up, unlit cigar dangling from his crusty lips, the faded Nike logo that says "Just do it!" is only partially visible as his left man's breast has curled it under and out of sight. He says, "Gonna rain." My wife squeezes my arm and jerks her head. "Let's go," she says.

As we enter by the goal post, we are elevated at the top of the stairs and the band is coming our way below. I tell Significant Other to stop. I want to see and hear this. However, the drummers are playing a cadence with a sort of reggae beat. I never heard such a thing. It’s like rhythm to drag your feet to. The kids are clearly unable to march to it so they are kind of sashaying in unison. I'm not liking this at all, but the conductor is strolling along like this was his “way hip” choice. I sigh knowing that John Phillip Sousa is spinning in his grave like a lathe. I began to doubt if my comeback visit was the right decision.

And then “he” came into view. He was in line with about 20 adorable little high school sweeties. They were the flag-bearer drill team. The colors were soaring, the flags were flying, and for the first time the flag-bearers had a young man on the squad. He was snapping the flag and was in perfect rhythm, but he was about 2 feet taller than the biggest girl. A male flag-bearer. I know, I know he has every right to be there and every few years you read a story about a girl that joins one of the football teams but man, I gotta tell you it just looked out of place. Exactly why, I wasn't sure but it was just not working for me.  How did this happen?

I stopped at the concession stand and the stale popcorn I bought for $2 was half the size I bought a few years back for $1. I said nothing. I figured since they went to all the trouble of packing the corn into the box sometime back in July it was the least I could do to choke it down. Truly it was all but inedible. I pay. Significant Other wants coffee. She opens the lid to add cream and it looks like weak tea or a specimen from an ailing kidney.  We 86 the box and the cup throwing caution to the wind by ignoring proper recycling etiquette and as we turn around there is a very small, meek looking man with a rainbow-painted home-team face. He is wearing a T-shirt that reads, " I go from zero to gun waving lunatic in 1.5 seconds ." I can't help but stare at the words as I wonder, "who would want people to know that or better yet think they need to clear that up with people?" Plus he looked like if he had a gun it would be too heavy for him to lift. He betrays his T-shirt warning as he mildly says to me, "How's it going?" I smile, step in front of Significant Other to take any stray bullets and move on--not wanting to get to the .5 part of the 1.5 seconds.

We sit. Others soon fill in behind us. A mother and daughter duo sit on the far side of each of their husbands so the men are squeezed in the middle. The ladies proceed to have a 2-hour conversation about the doctor, the granddaughter's weight-loss program and this homemade wreath the elder lady is hoping to finish for the holidays. It's September.  Never once do the men speak up and say, "Let's move so you two don't have to talk over us." They just sit there like gargoyles in matching home team baseball caps while these two People-magazine-reading, Two-for-one-pak-of-socks-at-Wal-Mart-buying, did-you-try-the-Kaopectate jabbering ladies run their mouths like a couple of auctioneers on 5-hour energy drinks (also available by the case at Wal-Mart, aisle 6). At one point, I bravely complete a 180 degree turn-around to which both men stare right back at me with "Save-me" eyes, but the ladies never break stride as they yammer away.

Now it's halftime. The away band is awesome. They have like 40 girls on the drill team and they are all in shimmering gold. Their energy is contagious. Lady one behind me says, "I suppose it's nice if you like that kind of thing ." Significant Other stares straight ahead and snickers audibly. Says to no one in particular, " What kind of thing? Talent ?'" I jab her ribs.  She smiles never breaking the stare-ahead gaze.

Now our school takes the field. They play the alma mater. They have low energy--they get the crowd going but comparatively less than their predecessors. Now they come together in a semi circle and the drill team forms a small circle in front of the band's semi circle and the announcer tells us the band will now perform ..."The Girl from Ipanema."

"Oh," I say, "The Girl from Ipane- Ipaneeem.... ARE YOU KIDDING ME?" And it starts, right from the elevator at Macy's department store. I'm sitting in a football STADIUM hearing the "Girl from Ipanema." The girls in the circle start strutting from one side of the circle across the diameter to the other. They're doing all of these sexy "walks" as if they are the girl--from--Ipanema. The Girl . Then it hits me. The male flag-bearer is going to have to do this too. And he did. Yet the irony was lost on everyone. He didn’t strut or camp it up, he just walked like it was part of the routine. And no one batted an eye. Not a snicker, not a reaction at all. To his credit he took his role seriously and performed as well as anyone; the problem ... was mine. I could feel the eyes of Significant Other watching me watch. I looked down at her, smiled a tight-lipped smile and nodded. She patted my back.  Clearly my time has passed.

We won the game. A good way for me to go out. It has been a great run. All those years of junior high school and high school--never missed a game. And then my boys and a whole rebirth of that Friday night thing. And now ... I think that's enough.

But did I mention I have quite a few grandsons?

Ron Ciancutti is the Director of Procurement for Cleveland Metroparks. He is not on Facebook, but he can be reached at rdc@clevelandmetroparks.com.

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