Homecoming, plus the View from Under the Bus

Note: a version of this essay appears in Episode 000 of the PeteBrownSays podcast.

Homecoming bonfire, marching bands and crisp autumn nights

It’s the first day of fall in Central Ohio as I write these words. This weekend is homecoming at my kid’s high school. Earlier tonight, I drove them to the school and dropped them off for the homecoming bonfire and pep rally.

Did your high school have a bonfire during homecoming week? It’s usually a controlled fire, with the fire department standing nearby, and often effigies of the upcoming football game’s opponent are burned while the crowd cheers and the band, as they say, plays on. Sometimes there are speeches from coaches, players and students. Cheers from cheerleaders. And when its over, everyone goes home with their clothes smelling a little bit like smoke.

Homecoming in the united States is an odd amalgam of traditions. While several colleges and universities lay claim to having the first homecoming game, both Trivial Pursuit and Jeopardy give the nod to the University of Missouri, whose athletic director Chester Brewer invited alumni to “come home” to Mizzou for their border war game against the University of Kansas in 1911. And the alumni arrived by the thousands. Other schools claim to have had homecoming games that predate Missou’s 1911 game, including Southwestern University, Baylor and Northern Illinois, but it was around the 1911 game that schools began to see the value of having a homecoming weekend each year.

And in the 106 years since, you can see how different traditions grew up in connection to the weekend. A big dance after the game seemed like a no-brainer. And as long as you’re having a dance, might as well pick a king and queen. And homecoming royalty, of course, needs a homecoming court.

What I really like about homecoming is how it looks both forward and backwards in time simultaneously. For the students experiencing their traditions for the first time, it’s a full week of fun, punctuated by a football game under the bright lights on Friday night and a big dance on Saturday. Their eyes shine as their whole future spreads out before them, brimming with potential.

And we who come home for these events, we get to remember those times in our own lives, to connect, ever so obliquely, with our past. With happy memories of crisp fall nights smelling of smoke.

I’ve not been able to find out who had the first homecoming bonfire, but its easy to imagine how it came to be a part of the tradition for many schools. My guess is a group planning a pep rally thought it would be cool to do outside, with a big old fire to light up the night.

Some colleges today have massive, engineered bonfires, including the University of Arizona, Dartmouth and quite famously Texas A&M, whose 59 foot tall, 5,000 log bonfire structure collapsed as it was being built in 1999, killing 12 students and injuring 27 more. I was a cub reporter in central Texas when this happened, and was sent out to talk to the Aggie alumni in the area for their reactions. To a person, they all grieved the tragedy, and all said the tradition should go on. A specially appointed Texas A&M committee studying the collapse came to the same conclusion, and the bonfire continues to this day, although — as Wikipedia notes — many schools have discontinued the bonfire tradition for being too dangerous.

Our local high school, where my kids go, is just over 12 years old now, so there’s not a ton of Alumni to come home for this weekend’s game. The bonfire, too, was a well-managed affair, and much smaller, my Freshman daughter tells me, than she thought it would be. Still — effigies burned, speeches were made, cheerleaders cheered and the band, including my 16-year-old son on Baritone, played on.

My high school, in the western suburbs of Cleveland, had a mid-sized bonfire on the Thursday of homecoming week when I was a student. It was accompanied by a junk car smash-up, which was about what it sounds like. A junker was procured, the homecoming opponent’s name was sprayed all over it, and for fifty cents, you could take a swing at it with a giant sledgehammer. I don’t know if other schools do this, but my assumption was always that we had this activity so that our more wound-up students could burn off some of the pent-up energy all of these pep rallies created.

Around the bonfire, a trailer bed served as a make shift stage, the marching band and the Demonettes surrounded the fire. Students came and cheered. Each student organization was invited to say a few words. Most we’re quick and to the point, things like “The Key Club wants you to CRUSH THE COMETS” and then people would cheer and someone from Key Club would add something to the fire.

My junior year, I was a sportswriter and photographer for our newspaper, the Green and White. I was at the bonfire shooting pictures, trying to figure out the tricky lighting the event posed before I ran through all 12 shots left on my roll of film.

I was surprised when I heard them announce the editor of our paper, a senior named Scott. Usually the paper covered these kinds of events; rarely did we take part. But Scott got up on the trailer bed, took the mic and said “I want to read you all something from the Green and White…”

I stopped taking pictures, because I suspected what was coming. Our football team was struggling that year, and had lost a game a few weeks earlier in part because of a missed extra point. In writing about the game, I had said something to the effect of “…as the crowd in the stands chanted “Two! Two! Two…our conservative coaching staff chose to go for an extra point and overtime, disregarding the momentum that the late score had given our squad.”

Now I had friends on the football team, some of whom grumbled to me when I first wrote that story, or who couldn’t wrap their minds around a student questioning the coaches. But we agreed to disagree on it, and the truth is that now, 30 years later, I think I’d probably make the same call that the coaches did. But 16-year-old me was far more bold and naieve, and the thought of going for anything less than two seemed inconceivable.

This was indeed the sentence that Scott read to the crowd. The booed. Heartily.

Now those few sentences were certainly not the only things I wrote in the paper that got people grumbling at me; in truth, they were fairly tame compared to the criticisms I flung once I was a senior and an editor. Still, I wondered what Scott was getting at by reading these lines to the crowd.

Then he said “Tonight, I’m burning all remaining copies of this issue of the Green and White,” and added “Crush the Comets!”

Then he climbed off the trailer and flung about 50 copies of the paper towards the fire. I remember that while most of them went in, a handful of pages were blown back out of the fire. In my mind I can can see the white pages fluttering in the night, the yellow glow on Scott’s face as he saw this happen, and then him running about trying to gather up these freedom seekers and put them back into the flames. The crowd loved this, by the way. Every tiny bit of it.

And that’s the story of the very first time I was ever thrown under the bus. I didn’t use that phrase at the time — in fact, in researching this piece, I learned that many online sources indicate that the phrase ‘under the bus’ wasn’t in use until the early 1990s, a few years after that bonfire occurred. We use it all the time now, especially in business and politics. And while it ma ybe tempting to say that the phrase means blaming someone for doing something wrong, I think it’s a bit more acute than that. It’s blaming someone who’s ostensibly on your side for doing something that reflects poorly on you.

Either way, it’s a crumby thing to do, but I’m sure we all have, or at least have been tempted, to do it in our lives at least once. I asked my friend Chip if he could dig up his old Green and White’s from that year so I could be sure to get the wording of that sentence straight, but he wasn’t able to do so in time for this episode to air. See? Just like that. Under the bus.

In many of the stories I’ll share this season, my memories are triggered by something happening in my present. A word or phrase overheard, a smell, something seen along the path of my life. And as you’ll learn, buses come up a lot in these stories. I rode a school bus for almost two hours each day from first grade until eighth, and the school bus, as you may know, is where all sorts of growing up fast has to occur. It’s a rolling thunderdome, with minimal supervision and no Tina Turner; it’s where you hear about things in the adult world that confuse and fascinate you at the same time — starting with the validity of Santa Claus and moving quickly into firecrackers, and where babies actually come from.

And the school bus is where you will learn, for the first time, that for better part of your life, you’re going to be on your own. That most standers-by (or sitters-by, I should say) will simply turn away and pretend not to see whatever beat down may be happening in the back two rows. It’s every man for himself.

So, even if I had had the phrase “thrown under the bus” to describe the feeling I had walking home from the bonfire that night, it still would have felt far more survivable and preferable to being on the bus itself. And I learned, at age 16, and in the years to follow, that you don’t go into the business of writing to please people. You do it to chase down a truth. To argue your beliefs. To pose and deepen important questions, often uncomfortable questions. And you do it because honestly, at the end of the day, there’s no way you can simply not do it. As if it has chosen you, and not the other way around.

And that’s why these 10 stories in this season of the PeteBrownSays podcast are here. They won’t let me rest until they are told, which I have endeavored to do in the best way I can.

You are welcome, if you are so moved, to print them out and take them to the nearest bonfire. I do not mind being thrown under the bus. I have, as they say, been there before.

Good times, everybody. Good times.