We shouted this to our friends as we temporarily parted ways after school on Friday afternoons in the fall, only to be reunited a few hours later at Memorial Field where the town would gather to watch our Boys of Fall in the hometown football game. The hill was the gathering place – close enough to the parents sitting in the stands, yet far enough out of the way to offer a small taste of freedom. It was steep—you could roll down it at a pretty good clip if you started at the top. But, you could also spread a blanket out on the ground and chat with your girlfriends. If you were the social type, you could stroll around to see who else was hanging out. The flat area at the top was the perfect width for a pick-up football game between middle school boys who dreamed of one day wearing the maroon and white jerseys and playing under the lights themselves.
When you grow up in a town of 5,000 people, the town’s social life revolves around the high school athletic calendar. Not much has changed since the autumn days of my youth. Friday nights in September and October are still reserved for football games at Memorial Field. The kids who used to roll down the hill are now the parents sitting in the stands, occasionally glancing over to check on their own little ones. That’s the thing about a small town—the more things change, the more they stay the same. There is a comfort in that though. It is satisfying to know that you can leave town for ten years and then show up at the field on a brisk Friday night and spend the next three hours cheering for the home team and catching up with your old principal, your old flame, your old buddies, and everyone else in between. And when you finally do manage to sit down in the stands, you make a bee-line for your family’s “spot.” You know you’ll find them there, cheering on the home team just like they have been for the last thirty years. Small town folks are creatures of habit.
Three generations of my family make the top right corner their own. This is the spot where my Grandpa sat to yell for my Dad and his buddies on the field back in the late 70s. It is the place where my Mom sat to cheer for that same guy, her high school sweetheart. This corner has played host to an endless supply of aunts and uncles, cousins and friends, all here to hoot and holler for whatever kin of ours was out on the turf for the night. It is from these bleachers that my parents watched me jump and fly down on the track with a cute bow in my ponytail, singing out the lyrics to the fight song. They even got to leave these seats one half time in 1997 to escort me down the field as Homecoming Queen. And now I return to this corner, to cheer on my students on the field while keeping an eye on my own Little Bucks rolling down the hill.
“Do you see that flag right there? That is a flag that many men—your own grandfathers and uncles—have fought to honor and sacrificed their lives to defend. That flag represents freedom. That flag is the symbol for the greatest country in the world. When the anthem is played, you’d better stand and look at that flag. And when you look at it, I want you to think about all of the people who have fought to protect our country and keep us safe. I better not see you talking during that song ever again.” Message received. And a good one it was.
It is at Memorial Field that I learned another lesson—to work hard for a lofty pursuit. A group of 15 friends popped enough popcorn in the concession stand to pay our way on a school trip to Washington, D.C. A trip that would inspire me to return to the city years later to work and live—the country mouse in the big city.
I’m sure many others can trace lessons and stories back to this sacred ground. With charismatic coaches pacing the sidelines and colorful announcers in the press box, there has always been quite the cast of characters to offer up lessons on camaraderie, loyalty, and heart. Coaching legends such as Karpinski, Foster, Pops, and Mucha are household names in our hometown and sure to come up in discussion at post-game celebrations or high school reunions. I always love listening to my Dad and his buddies tell old football stories with these guys as recurring characters. My favorite story is the one my Dad tells about the time that he broke his arm during the season. With a cast on his arm, he walked into Foster’s classroom the Monday after the game to inform him that he probably wouldn’t be able to play in the next one. Foster’s response – “You know Dodson, I broke my arm back when I was playing high school ball too. But I wanted to play so badly, that I went home and had my brother saw off my cast.” I bet you can guess what my Dad did after that conversation. Let’s just say he was in uniform and on the field the very next Friday—no cast in sight.
The current coach, Reid McBeth, will surely find his own way on that list of legends in the years to come. He is leading this current crop of Bucks to a series of victories, each one more impressive than the last. The boys who currently don the maroon helmets with the big “B” on the side are a living testament to the hundreds of men who came before them. Every time they throw on their jerseys, every time they make their way down the long stairs, cleats clicking on the cement, they play for an entire town and a way of life. They are our gladiators—our keepers of the good old days.
So, if you ever find yourself in our neck of the woods on a crisp Friday night in the fall, look for the lights of Memorial field and follow the throngs of adoring fans dressed in the colors of the Buchanan Bucks. Come and feast on a dinner of hot dogs and popcorn, and enjoy the sounds of our small but mighty band. Walk on the bricks of our main entrance, engraved with the names of alumni and teachers, coaches and fans. For good luck, touch the sign honoring our #88, a gladiator who played with a full heart both on and off the field. Take in the sights and sounds of a small town Friday night in all of its glory.
I’ll meet you on the hill.
(Photos courtesy of Caryn Defreez Photography (field picture) and Buchanan Football 2015)