It did not take much to make me see that an adult's offhand largesse can have a big impact on a child. For when you mix an extra Redskins ticket with the ceaseless energy of a 9-year-old, you're going to get more than you bargained for.
Two tickets to a recent game had floated down to my place in the editorial food chain, and I snapped them up. A few days later I was rolling along the Beltway listening to Christopher G., the only child of my closest friend, explain in detail the varied characteristics of his Pokemon cards. He has 550 of them and has seen the feature movie twice.
"Pikachu is a great actor," Christopher said, referring to the yellow ovoid that has made its way to the cover of the New Yorker. He proudly held up a card from the backseat, where he was wedged in amid his Calvin and Hobbes paperbacks, his GameBoy and an attachable reading light he planned on using if we got caught in traffic on the way home.
Clearly, I was moving into unfamiliar turf. I had fumbled around in kayaks and skied ungroomed mountains, but I had never felt so strangely off-balance as I did right then. He was in his world and I was in mine, one that had not included much one-on-one with a 9-year-old in the place his mother wryly calls "Kidland."
Christopher was ready to party and he was going to the grandest outdoor spectacle in the county. We had arrived too late to fire up the pregame cookout he had wanted, but as we approached FedEx Field, he had moved on to other thrills. We bought a program and a mass of cotton candy, then found our seats. We were ready to be entertained.
He had gone to a Redskins game once before, but he sat way up in the nosebleeds. On this day Christopher and I were about a dozen yards behind an end zone, near the opposing team's tunnel. The electric atmosphere of the New York Giants and Redskins, of Redskinettes and booming music (Queen's "We Will Rock You," etc.) was absorbed as enthusiastically as the sphere of pink candy that he had half-eaten within minutes.
"Let's start the Wave," Christopher suggested. He stood and threw his arms over his head. I joined in, but my impulse was to yoke him to his seat. The 78,000-plus who were there with us did not take our cue. Christopher tried again by himself, to no effect, and sat down.
Perhaps there was too much going on between the sidelines to be part of a Wave. For me, the muscle-driven collisions looked more orderly and easier to follow than the antic freestylings tumbling out of the next seat. Another improvisation had Christopher spelling "YMCA" with his arms and chest. He danced in the aisle and waved his hands over a fan in the next row. I pulled Christopher back like a true killjoy, and watched his smile briefly disappear.
The cotton candy was gone, its paper spindle tossed under the seat. In its place came a pretzel and a hot dog. With his thumb, Christopher scraped the excess granules of salt off the pretzel and tore a piece to share with me. But I wasn't hungry just then. I wanted to watch the damn game.
One thing about televised football is the abundance of down time. The 78,000-plus spent part of their day watching the teams wait for the official's signal to line up after a commercial break. But Christopher had little trouble keeping busy. He slid the miniature Redskins football, acquired at halftime, into the arm of his jacket to form a cartoony biceps. After that he positioned it as a mound on his back and creakily mimicked a line from "Young Frankenstein," one of his favorite movies.
"Walk this way," Christopher said, oddly transformed by his hump. Who was this cheerful goblin sitting next to me?
It was dark. The planes trailing advertising banners had disappeared and a full moon curved above us. Christopher wolf-howled. I glanced around to see if anyone noticed.
The pretzel and hot dog went the way of the cotton candy. Christopher picked up speed heading into the game's late stages. The crowd, homed in on a tense game, stood and went nuts when Marco Coleman returned a fumble 42 yards for the decisive touchdown. Christopher, dwarfed by ecstatic adults, could not see the field. When the scoreboard ran the play again, he watched and slumped next to me.
"I missed the play of the game," he said.
There was yet another break in the action. The Redskinettes, listed by only their first names in the media guide, trotted in and danced through a sequence to the arrhythmic beat of a heavy metal song I had not heard in years. A few of the pompon waves were slightly off-time, not unlike the cheerleading scene in "American Beauty." It didn't matter. They had drawn the attention of the end zone crowd. Especially Christopher.
"One, two . . . I count 15," he said.
I mentioned there were more in the far end zone.
Then the game was nearly over, the Redskins had it in hand. Christopher had no intention of leaving early. He moved to the edge of our section and pushed his arm through the fence that bordered the Giants' tunnel. The losing team filed past. A middle linebacker in the early stages of male pattern baldness scowled for no one in particular. There would be no high-fives from the players, but a skinny assistant wearing chinos jumped up and slapped Christopher's palm.
Outside, the shuttle buses were jammed. I promised Christopher an ice cream if he made the long walk to the car, which was parked in a dirt lot behind USAirways Arena. He agreed and playfully staggered downhill, still trying hard to make me laugh. We were getting thirsty. At one point he said "I'm hungry," but was quick to add that it was a joke, not a complaint.
We crossed over the Beltway and passed into a half-lit parking lot, above which floated a haze of bus fumes. A woman and child were selling red-foam Indian headdresses by the side of the exit road. I bought one and Christopher silently put it on, visions of chocolate ice cream and a glass of water surely dancing in his head.
And then, like childhood itself, Christopher was gone too soon. The boy who ran through Pokemon and a Mel Brooks movie, who danced to the Village People and howled at the moon, has long since returned home. The Redskins played another game with others watching from our seats. The foam headdress and the tiny football joined the taekwondo trophies and Harry Potter books in his room, where once we listened to a taped version of Kipling's "Jungle Book" that I had given him for his birthday.
That day, Eartha Kitt was the star. Her voice had captivated me when I was a child with a mania for "Batman." It has been decades since she vamped as the Catwoman, but as her sound filled Christopher's room the years dropped away. I turned to say something about a television show made long before he was born, but Christopher was transfixed by another story. I did not break his spell.
Questions? Comments? Do you know of a special place in the outdoors? We'd like to hear about it. Get in touch with John Mullen by writing him at: The Outsider c/o The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington D.C., 20071. Or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org
CAPTION: A youngster can get a good view of a Redskins game from end zone seat, at least until all the giants stand up in front of him.