Monday, October 12, 2009

Hail Alma Mater Dear…

Sitting here at my desk this dreary Monday morning, I get the uncanny feeling that a bunch of aliens came down in a space ship, abducted me, performed experiments on my brain, and dumped me right back here in my chair. I’ll try my best to tap out my recollections of events of the last 72 hours with my hands still afflicted with a bit of the ole shakes.

After a prefect flight and uncharacteristic early arrival at Conan O’Brien’s favorite airport, I lugged my golf clubs and bags up to the tram that took me out to the rental car lots where I was to find out upon my return I inadvertently snaked some other dude’s car and stuck him with my POS sub compact (sorry random dude). Friday golf being rained out not withstanding, this bit of luck was to follow me the rest of the weekend and may very well have been contagious. For the first portion of my stay I was the guest of Ms. Fairy Godmother’s and her lovely daughters who only grow more impressive with each passing visit. They treated me like a king during my stay and I can’t thank them enough for putting me up. It was great to see them all for the brief time I was actually there, but promise to get back with the family in tow very soon.

While golf might have been a scratch, Friday was not a wasted day by a long shot. After breakfast at The Park Restaurant and a quick tour of all points of interest on post, I met my long time friend Rod Wilson for lunch at the West Point Officer’s Club. Conversation was heartily pleasant, and despite the rainy weather, you could feel that familiar West Point football weekend vibe that only those who have lived there know. It’s just part of what makes the place so special and drives my desire to one day return on a permanent basis. After lunch, Rod was gracious enough to give me a tour of the new library (simply magnificent building especially when lit up at night) and use his DoD credentials to shop at the Cadet Bookstore. We went back to his place for some sofa chat, share a couple of beers with his wife, and catch up with their son Tyler who is fastly becoming THE lady killer of Highland Falls Middle School.

The evening was spent in the company of long time family friends the Fishburnes (both Senior and Junior contingent the West’s) at the Army sprint football game (formerly called the 150 lbs. league). What is just as impressive as watching Mark’s team go 4-0 with a win over a favored Penn, was watching Holly get her FOUR kids, her house guests, plus a ton of tailgating gear, AND me into her minivan in a matter of ten minutes for the ride down to Shea Stadium for pre-game tailgate (that’s right, tailgating for Sprint football Friday night!). Cell phone in her ear talking to her mother Pat, putting rain coats on the kids, walking the dogs, being a gracious host to her out of town guests, etc… No wonder the Army wants her there at West Point. She could teach the cadet’s a thing or two about rapid deployment in stressful situations.

Mark West's sprint team is quite a sight to see. He runs a balanced offense that makes very few mistakes and a defense that punishes an opponent's backfield for stalling to think for even a microsecond. It was a close one and the weather was lousy through most of it, but victory would be Army’s in the end. While the sky’s were clearing and as the final seconds ticked off the clock, I was again drenched in that West Point pride and humility as we walked onto the field to congratulate Mark on the win. He and his staff coach a hellva game. Sprint football at West Point is a great game to watch and I would highly recommend it to anyone in the area.

After a game like that, it would be easy to think that that same momentum could some how be carried over to the next day’s Div 1A match up against Southeastern Conference Vanderbilt, but as any long time Army football fan knows, this thinking is wrought with traps and foibles that will have you chomping antacid tablets like popcorn after the final gun goes off. That is precisely why there is no better way to prepare for an Army football game than to be invited to join the Fishburne clan for their pregame tailgate. Why you ask? Is it the pleasure of their company and the way that they treat all guests like family? Is it because of the fantastic food that is bountiful, or perhaps the location itself at the foot of the Lusk Reservoir dam not 50 yards from the stadium gate? It is ALL that of course, but the real reason is they figured out a long time ago that the only way to dull the pain of a decades worth of Army losses is ply oneself with enough booze to not remember any of them. AH HA!!! I say to all you Navy and Air Force fans and general Army football haters. THAT would not be the case on this particular Saturday.

I passed by Col. (ret.) Fishburne’s place on my way to the beer store at 0830 (that’s 8:30 AM to the non-military readers) to see if I could be of assistance setting up tents at the tailgate site and found Gus where you can always find him at that hour on game day: sitting in a lawn chair in his garage, smoking a cigar, and drinking one of his famed big gulp sized bloody Mary’s (see Army game prep above). He waved me off with the “no rain” call and I went on to the store, filled a banana box with ice and case of beer, and headed up to the site to be joined by all shortly after 0930 and two beers consumed by your humble narrator.

About 30 minutes later, we were joined by the motliest of motley crew to ever over indulge and skip a college class: Dennis Bulger, Bitchin’ Richie B Berardi, and John “Stain” Lally. After having moved around the country all my life, I’ve managed to either maintain or rekindle most of my relationships with my friends from just about everywhere, but must admit to neglecting those amongst my St. Thomas Aquinas College days a bit. That ended this past weekend. My friends were as funny, smart, and engaging as they were when I last saw them 20 years ago. While they’ve all gone on to great success in their own lives individually with families, careers, etc… I was relieved to discover that they certainly did not forget how to consume massive quantities of beer in a very short period of time and before the hour of 11:00 AM.

We all took to our usual seats in Michie Stadium as we last did two decades ago which goes something like this: fake looking at our ticket stubs and sitting in random empty seats right on the 50 yard line until booted by by actual ticket holders, lather, rinse, repeat. We watched my beloved Army team hang on to a much bigger Vanderbilt for most of four quarters. The Black Knights held Vanderbilt to a tie field goal from the red zone during their last drive as the final seconds ticked off in regulation play. Army won the toss and wisely elected to let Vanderbilt go first on offense in overtime play. I began chucking those before mentioned antacid tablets into my mouth one by one like peanuts as Vanderbilt easily move the ball inside Army's ten yard line right before on third down they ran the ball into the end zone as the visitors side of the stands erupted in cheers. But WAIT!!!… there seems to be some confusion on the far side of the field. The officials have signaled that the Vanderbilt player fumbled the ball over the goal line and recovered it himself. Replay confirmed it, touchBACK Army! Army takes over on the 30 and as typical in situations like this, promptly loses 6 ½ yards in three plays. The guy who missed a game winner last week in front of a homecoming crowd from 30 and change is trotted out to kick a 40+ yarder at which point I’m ready to just gobble the whole god damn roll of Tums in my hand all at one time. The kid’s kick bounces off the left upright and almost hit the cross bar on the way down before finally tumbling to the turf. IT’S GOOD!!! Only one option remained at this juncture (I think my buddy Kevin back home knows what comes next), one that is preserved for the rarest occasions only, and that is to jump the wall and join the merriment on the field which is exactly what we did. After joining the Corp for the playing of the Alma Mater, it was time for me and my band of jolly good fellows to saddle up and move our base of operation to Rockland County for the commencement of the college reunion activities. So with hoarse voices and increasingly squinted eyes, we bid a fond farewell to the Fishburne tailgate crew. On behalf of me and the boys we cannot thank you enough for having us and hope our juvenile behavior doesn’t exclude us from doing it again sometime soon.

It didn’t take long to bump into long lost fellow St. Thomas Aquinas alum while checking in at the hotel. As with my reconnection earlier with the three guys, one after another, smiling face after smiling face, greeted us at every turn. I’ll be honest here, I really thought this get together would, despite the best of intentions, be fun, but ill attended based on my involvement in past like minded events. It’s an occurrence as rare as an ice age, but I was actually wrong. With all credit due to the dedicated organizers, Billy Vanson, Carey Wazaney, and Maureen Gallagher, as I’m certain all who attended would agree this thing was a massive success. Billy, Carey, and Maureen with crystal clear intuition knew that all that was needed to attract a big crowd of aging former STAC dorm students was a metric ton of alcohol, parsed with great food, 80’s hair metal music cranked to eleven, and a late hour closing time. Check, check, check, and check. I think the only bad vibe I got came to me in a nanosecond of sobriety when I realized how much better everyone else has held up to age compared to me.

Once the official party ended at midnight, most of us moved directly to the hotel bar which, much to the dismay of the bleary eyed bartending staff, was forced to stay open another two hours or so to accommodate us. After nightcaps back at the room over an iTunes driven crap and bull session the night came to an end at last with guys sleeping in chairs chins on chest still clutching their last half empty beers (I sort of remember the glowing clock display reading 2:30 AM).

With a hangover that reduces it’s suffers to a Milkshake Grimace like idiot stupor, a number of us fellow alum ate our fill of Sunday brunch buffet, funneled some coffee down our throats, and said our goodbyes to each other. As I drove down the Palisades Parkway wondering why I ever doubted for a minute making this trip, I was thankful to my wife for green lighting the whole event for me at a time when fear of possible pending unemployment and economic uncertainty is running at an all time high in the Phillips house. She knows me well enough to understand that there is no distinction between my family and those whom I call my friends. Let’s make sure it’s not 20 more years before we do this again.

Big thanks again to Mary Jo Blackmon, Rod and Karen Wilson, Holly and Mark West, Pat and Gus Fishburne, all the wonderful guests at the Army football tailgate, Billy Vanson, Carey Wazaney, and Maureen Gallagher. It was a weekend I will not soon forget.