A breeze sweeps across the field. On the fifty yard line an honor guard stands three strong, in full regalia, with muskets and flags held upright. A loudspeaker echoes, “Will you please rise for the national anthem”. It seems half the population of Botetourt (pronounced Bot-Ta-Tot) County Virginia rises. There is a long silence.
The football field of Lord Botetourt high School lies at the bottom of a woodsy dell between two mountains and at dusk looks like the bottom a dark bowl. A velvety circle of darkening sky sits on top like a lid closing out the last strains of light. A railroad track rounds the oval at one end of the field and runs the length before disappearing off into the valley. But where is the national anthem? Silence. More silence. The crowd gets impatient. Then more silence.
The voice on the loudspeaker comes on again: “Well… everything is apparently ready for the national anthem except, it seems, the musicians”. Laughter. Then, suddenly, three disheveled teenage boys still buttoning and securing their band uniforms run onto the field towards the honor guard. One is still limping while pulling up his trousers; they all clutch cornets while trying to keep their hats from flying off. Finally, nervous, but in place, the three put the horns to their lips. Too late. Before they release a single note, a freight train circles the field drowning out the sound of the horns. If you came to this game to hear the national anthem, you went home disappointed.
You wonder why they ever built bleachers here. The hills surrounding the field provide a natural amphitheater. This is where the school’s students roam – the ones not on the team or marching band. Watching the game is the last thing on their minds. They are looking for dates or trying to show off new clothes. The bleachers are filled with parents and young children with hot dogs, popcorn and sodas.
This is the battle of the county’s only two high schools and the electricity in the air is discernible. In the first half, Lord Botetourt’s offence consists of rushing plays by the star quarterback. Apparently this team is short on receivers and running backs, but the quarterback is so multitalented he makes the team look dominant. James River’s game plan is to throw interceptions, perhaps in an attempt to wear down Lord Botetourt’s defense, then get some late scoring in the second half.
The half time show is breathtaking. James River Marching Band performs selections from Fiddler On The Roof. This is a major production. A set is constructed right on the field – a small Russian village. The women are dressed as little babushkas and the men carry rifles; but most conspicuous is an outhouse. Two fans in the crowd discuss the meaning of the outhouse. One says that since large sections of Botetourt are in Appalachia, the outhouse is a symbol of the common bonds of poverty in other cultures. The other agrees but feels the piece as a whole is an olive branch to the Jewish families (both of them) in the county. Either way, the kids are terrific, though off key and out of step. Equally as talented, and equally unable to keep a symmetric formation, the Marching Band of Lord Botetourt performs valiantly. Their program is called “Gino Vanelli: The Sound of Jazz”. I have only recently come to remember the singer of “I Just Want To Stop”, but that night I thought the announcer said there is a tribute to Dino Danelli, the flashy drummer of The Young Rascals. How the heck could anybody or any teenager in this rural outpost know who Dino Danelli is? Pretty obscure. A student conductor, a young girl of fifteen or sixteen, in the throes of womanhood, drops her cape midfield, strides to the post with her chin proudly up, climbs high above the others, waits a dramatic silent moment (demurely aware all eyes are upon her) and begins to flail her baton with an enthusiasm and speed for which stage frightened teenage band members are not prepared to march. I didn’t recognize the music and tried to make out “Groovin”. I thought maybe I heard strands of “Good Lovin’”. The band weaves and files in multiple formations as best they can but get tied up in knots along the way. One little fellow doesn’t move at all. He waits at the giant kettle drum, his eyes fixed on the conductor. Nothing is going to distract his concentration. He is the most serious musician on the field and this could be a big moment. He waits patiently, ready for his turn in the limelight. Finally, the flailing conductor turns to the boy and points her baton at him with a flick of the wrist. He pounds the kettle drum and makes thunder clap in the valley. The crowd is heady from excitement.
In the second half, James River, no match for Lord Botetourt, scores their only touchdown on a trick play – a bomb thrown by the halfback. This is the game’s most exciting play – that is, until Lord Botetourt’s halfback comes right back and launches a TD strike to the star quarterback (who has already run in four touchdowns).
I was raised in D.C. Small town life is alien to me; Richmond is the smallest place I ever lived. Perhaps I’m deluded, but I can’t remember having this much fun in the bars and nightclubs friends dragged me to in Manhattan last summer where everyone talked about how much money they make and how many hits their web site took. Last year I was in Big Sur teaching a workshop at Esalin Institute. At dinner one night I asked if anyone had heard if the Yankees had gotten into the World Series. There was a dead silence and one woman chastised me: “Oh. Are you one of those?” One of those what? Sports fans? East Coast meat eaters? Which “those” was she accusing me of being? Everyone was in concert with her on this point and I became the villain because of my baseball query.
On a football field, on a crisp September night, I watch James River High School lose gracefully to Lord Botetourt with a happy crowd enjoying the simple pleasures in life. I am one of “those”.