I used to look forward to those Saturday afternoons in autumn, when the air was crisp but the sun warmed the body such that a jacket was not needed, only a long-sleeved shirt. There was a comforting feeling that the leaves were changing, leaving the hot, sticky months behind.
It was during these days I would wander almost unconsciously through the back door of my parents' house, to play or just amble through the neighborhood streets.
A couple blocks away, I could hear the Wootton High School band pounding drums and blasting horns, and it lured me to the football game across Ritchie Parkway. From the stands, completely full, confetti floated and tissue paper cut the air in an arc, coming to the ground beside high-kicking cheerleaders.
I was only in the sixth grade, but I still could picture myself playing against boys twice my size. With football in hand I would stare through the chain-link fence, imaginatively placing myself in their uniforms, feeling the handslap of a teammate or enduring the sting of a head-on tackle. One day, I thought, I could wear one of those white Wootton helmets that glowed spectacularly in the bright sun.
And when the game was over, the stands strewn with confetti and the only sounds those of passing cars on Ritchie Parkway, I would go out with my friends and repeat the big plays of the game. I was Ralph Lary or Bob Milkovich, all-Met Wootton players at the time, rolling out and passing for a score or meeting a runner head on with an impact that shook him suddenly and lifted his feet off the ground. The stands were empty, but we would gesture in that direction and acknowledge the silent cheers.
As we played, we noticed the panoramic view: the great hill across the creek that led up to Robert Frost Junior High School, the pines that partially blocked the view of Ritchie Parkway at the other end zone, and another hilltop beyond the press box where the baseball diamond sat. The field blended into the surroundings, seemingly a wasteland where two teams decided to meet every week or two.
A few weeks ago, on an autumn day just as brilliant and bracing as those Saturday afternoons 11 years ago, I jogged by the football field, hoping my senses would remind me of lovely days past. The same scoreboard was there. The stands were unchanged.
But there was something noticably different, something so obvious it forced an immediate stare. A long, hard stare. Upward. Into the clouds.
The school had installed lights! Lights. Lights at the top of massive, concrete poles. Poles that made one's head spin to follow from bottom to top. It had been done. Night football had been created. Day football appeared to be extinct (I cringed at the thought) at Wootton High School.
I kept jogging and climbed the hill leading to the baseball field. At the top, as I began to run wind sprints, I glanced over into the distance where at one time the football field was hidden. Now, there were large antenna-like poles that reached for the sky. They appeared so tall that perhaps they could light the baseball field as well. They were alien.
At the bottom of the hill I heard my high school football coach yelling at his JV players, his voice echoing sharply off the school walls. It inspired thoughts of my high school years, when I played JV football in the morning on grass still touched with moisture. Although I could not see him, I could hear his distinct voice.
It was as penetrating as those Saturday mornings, when he paced before us, the sweat dripping from our brows to our baggy eyes. By the game's end, we had awakened, and with the sun near its peak, we pulled off our pads and walked to the locker room in our cut-off undershirts. After taking a shower, we packed into a teammate's station wagon and went to a restaurant and wolfed down a burger or two.
In the afternoon, we wore our jerseys to the varsity game, and, with whatever strength we had rationed in our voices, we cheered our upperclassmen. Near the end of the game the sun had moved closer to that great hill leading up to the junior high school, and our voices were hoarse. The football game was coming to an end, beneath a blinding sun.
Now, I suppose, children will look through the chain-link fence, with football in hand, and dream of wearing a high school uniform one day. And when the game is over and it is perfectly quiet, the lights having been turned off and the background scenery black, they will go out onto the field and repeat the big plays. And wave to a nonexistent crowd.
That is, if parents let their children stay out that late.