House of the Tomato

If a woman wants to be a poet, she must dwell in the house of the tomato. -- Erica Jong

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Game Day

I made a rookie mistake and took the highway to my folks' house to meet my pop for the game. I should have known better. I considered an earlier exit, but since the traffic was sailing along I took a chance. Immediately I ran into a long line of vehicles waiting to get off the highway at the Lombardi Avenue exit. I tamped down my impatience and stop-started with the rest of the fans. Eventually I, too, reached the intersection and could make my turn.

Pop was ready, drinking the dregs of his weak coffee and wearing a Green Bay Packers striped Oxford and Green Bay Packers baseball hat. He was 78 but still fit, although overfreckled by the sun. There was faint scarring on his face where he'd had patches of skin cancer removed. I wore a Packers half-zip fleece I had rescued from my daughter's laundry basket. Mom, roused from the bedroom, suggested my pop wear a lighter jacket, a newer windbreaker with bright gold stitching.

"Yes, dear," said pop, pushing up his old-fashioned heavy glasses with which he stubbornly refused to part.

Pop drove the back roads to my husband's childhood home on Raleigh Street where I had arranged for us to park. My sister-in-law Deb and her husband Mike bought the home after my in-laws had passed away. Ostensibly an investment in their retirement years, the house came in handy during regular trips to Green Bay from Arizona to visit family. Handier yet for parking on game days since it was only blocks from Lambeau Stadium.

I had also grown up a few blocks from Lambeau, although on the other side of the stadium. Downsizing, my parents had sold our family house but ended up buying another one in a nearby neighborhood. In fact, as children my husband and I had lived within a mile of each other, each game day dodging traffic and listening to the crowd cheer. However, because Lombardi Avenue separated the school districts, we didn't meet until adults and ironically in a neighboring state.

My pop and I were early. Kickoff wasn't for another two hours. Mike made us both a spicy Bloody Mary with vodka from a fancy glass bottle, measuring drops of lime into tall glasses like an alchemist. Both of our families had acquired season tickets to the Green Bay Packers games in the 1960s. Coordinating who got to go to what game was always a lively discussion. My brother handled it for our family, and Deb handled it for hers. Today was a rare treat for me. My brother had had something come up at the last minute and wasn't able to make the trek from Minneapolis. It had been a few years since I'd attended a game with my pop. I'd forgotten how special it was. As a kid, I only got to go to games that were too cold for mom. Pop and I would huddle on the bench seat in our Nanook-of-the-north ski gear. If it was below zero Pop would let me take a sip of his flask, filled with syrup-y blackberry brandy. Pop and I were now years older, mom was too frail for games, and blackberry brandy has given way to shelves of designer spirits.

"Cheers," said Mike.

We clinked glasses. I could taste the lime, tart on my tongue. It was early October, and the weather was unseasonably warm. We debated whether or not we would wear jackets. We could already hear music blaring from the stadium. We are the Champions. My pop was anxious to get to our seats in time for the flyover, two supersonic jets soaring the air space over Green Bay.

Raleigh Street was in an older Green Bay neighborhood. As we walked the short five blocks, mature trees spread their branches over a teetering sidewalk while leaves drifted down. We could see the outline of Lambeau over the roofs of houses, bold and brick and stepped to the sky. Fans and neighbors were out in their backyards and sideyards, grilling, drinking beer and hawking yard space for a parking fee that ranged from $5 to $20, depending on proximity to the stadium. We passed a young couple and their friends playing a game called "Square," heaving square-cuts of wood like horseshoes. The young wife wore jeans the color of goldenrod. Mike stopped to learn more about the game, towering over the young husband and asking questions in his deep baritone.

"He'll catch up," said Deb. She was slim and silver, with deep-set eyes the color of blue zircon, a family trait from their Dutch heritage.

We were waved across Lombardi Avenue, recently expanded to three lanes going in both directions. The section of street in front of Lambeau was partially barricaded on game days to make it safer for the many pedestrians converging on the stadium. Unlike other stadiums located in development parks on the outskirts of town, Lambeau Field was located smack dab in the middle of Green Bay suburbia in a village called Ashwaubenon. When Lambeau Field had needed renovating and it went to referendum in 2000, the voters voted to not only fund the renovation with a county tax but also to keep the stadium in its original location. 

As we got nearer the stadium, pop started to walk faster. "I'm never early with your brother," he said.

We waved to Deb and Mike, dawdling, meandering in between the tailgaters. Fans would start to arrive the night before, setting up camp in the parking lot with tents and grills and unique constructions off the backs of pick-up trucks. It was definitely a party. But a party on low boil as the Packers had a strict "no tolerance" policy on misbehavior at games, and absolutely nobody I knew wanted to lose their tickets over stupid excess.

Pop and I were pulled along in the throng of fans moving towards the Atrium, the spectacular glass-fronted main entrance to the new Lambeau. A bronze statue of Curly Lambeau, American Football Hall of Famer who founded the Green Bay Packers and coached the team to six NFL championships, pointed in the field's direction. Our tickets were scanned, and we were patted down. The crowd converged at a single door in the Atrium's entrance. I took in only my smartphone and cash in the back pockets of my jeans.

The Packers were recognizing Breast Cancer Awareness. Two volunteers inside the Atrium handed us a premium pink golf towel. We bumped into other fans looking up. The open-ceilinged Atrium was a huge, cavernous space, housing a pro shop, a restaurant, a museum, administrative offices, meeting rooms and more. The Atrium floor mirrored the field, yard line by yard line. Pop headed for the concourse doors on one side of the Atrium. We exited the echoe-y polish of the Atrium for the breezy, scuffed cement of the stadium concourse, entering the mill of fans walking at a clip to reach their seats.

Our seats were in the South End Zone, one gate over. Pop yelled back at me. "Let's get closer before we get a beer." I was fine with not sloshing beer on myself as we fast-walked the chilly tunnel. I was beginning to regret the lack of jacket. "It'll be warmer in the sun," pop added, seeing me shiver.

We both grabbed schedules from an attendant. I reached back to return mine while pop got in line at a stall for beer. We were at our section entrance. I followed pop up the slight incline to the bowl, stopping at the top with a full beer. The field was bathed in the golden light of autumn, the grass and yard markers and yard posts luminously backlit. I felt a bubble in my chest: hometown pride allied with football fandom. The teams were practicing. Cheerleaders were already working the crowd. Beer guys were yelling, "Beer here." Fans were chatting with their seat neighbors, garbed in green and gold scarves and spangles and face paint.

The bowl design once traditional in football stadiums was now exclusive to the Green Bay Packers. Each renovation before and after 2000 provided updates but did not modify the stadium's essence. Seats were added, but the original bowl structure was preserved, creating a surround-sound of football and a close-knit experience.

Pop and I hiked up the gigantic steps to our seats. For me, being petite, they required small lunges. I was glad to finally get to our aluminium seat and tuck my beer underneath. The stands were still filling. Pop talked to the couple next to him as if he'd known them for years. He turned back to me and hugged me spontaneously. "This is great," he said, "being here with my daughter."

A dad and two sons sat down in front of us. The dad was bulky and filled up some of the space in front of my shins. A distinguished gentleman in pressed jeans with an uber-coiffed wife sat to my left. The gentleman held himself away from me, reserved, but gave me a sidelong smile. A row of young guys sat down behind us. One announced to nobody in particular. "I'm from Chicago. I can't help it."

Pop piped up. "Good thing we're not playing the Bears."

"Yes, good thing," agreed the young guy.

"Are the Packers your second team at least?" asked Pop.

The young guy dutifully responded, "Yes, sir, they are."

Pop turned back around and tapped my knee. "Try and get a picture of the flyover, okay?"

I looked up at the bright blue sky dubiously. "I'll try."

People were gathering on the field in a telltale formation, preparing for team announcements. We peered forward to see. Packers emerged from the tunnel at our lower right as each player's number was announced over the loudspeaker. The stadium erupted in cheering, louder for players like Randall Cobb, Eddie Lacy and Clay Matthews, but another decibel level altogether for #12 Aaron Rodgers. 

Packers won the coin toss, which was some off-field excitement as we passed a beer along our row to a seatmate. I sipped my beer. I only wanted to go to the bathroom once, if I could help it. The bathroom situation had improved since the renovation but lines outside the women's could be long and arduous. Even with the expediter at the head of the stalls keeping us moving.

Kickoff created a ripple of excitement with fans trilling and stomping their feet. The game had begun. With each play there was a hush, expectation, and pent-up breath. Then clapping, words of encouragement.

"Come on, Aaron." "Come on, Pack."

I drummed my fingers on my knees when it was third down and seven. Pop nearly chewed through his inner cheek. Aaron through a touchdown pass, and everyone bounced out of their seats and hopped in place. Pop squeezed me in a bear hug that lifted me slightly off my feet. He high-fived his seatmates so boisterously I saw him stumble a little, but he covered by patting the bulky dad on his back. Still, pop's smile stretched as wide as the scoreboard, which flashed Touchdown over and overThe house song played at high bass, Bang the Drum All Day. We clapped and sang along. Pop did a little two-step, and I was glad to see his Big Band dancer's center of gravity reassert itself.

The game didn't go all the Packers' way. In fact Aaron turned over the football, a rare occurrence. The young guys behind us expostulated earnestly, almost as if they believed their sideline coaching would actually be regarded. Thankfully our defense prevailed. Clay in particular made a spectacular sack, which occasioned almost as big a roar from the crowd as a touchdown. The two boys in front of me mimicked Clay's signature sack move to each other until their dad motioned for them to sit back down, throwing me an apologetic look.

At the two minute warning the Packers were ahead by two touchdowns. The crowd started up the wave, standing up by turn by section, creating a riffle which gathered in momentum around the bowl of the stadium. As spontaneously as it started it ended, piffling out with a fan or two. An announcer warned about consequences if any fan had the temerity to run out on the field after the game. The crowd counted down the last ten seconds of the game. 10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1. The sidelines collapsed in a sea of players, coaches, attendants and Packers family members. We could see reporters inching towards key personnel. The opposing team trudged to the away tunnel.

"Great game," said pop. He shook hands with his seatmate, the young guys behind us. He gave me another, more decorous, hug. I drank the last of my beer. Pop plucked at my sleeve. "Let's wait until it thins out a little." I felt every ridge on the aluminium seat but watched as the stadium emptied, fans streaming out to the concourse. It was a good game. We won. Fans were happy.

Pop waited for me in the windy recesses of the concourses. He tucked my arm beneath his own. We walked at our own pace, emerging from one of the main gates into late afternoon. The silhouette of trees, leafless and not, lent a stark contrast to the brilliant sky. Watching the Packers play at Lambeau Field in its one-of-a-kind bowl was like witnessing our own football version of the circle of life. We grew up going to games. Our children grew up going to games. We met friends, neighbors and business associates. We cheered and cried. Game Day was in our collective unconscious, contributing to our lifestyle. I looked at pop striding determinedly through the crowd and felt truly privileged. I hoped my brother would change his plans again soon.

© 2019 House of the Tomato