It’s football season again. I love football. Born and raised. Something about how the air inside a stadium suspends everyone’s voices while the quarterback, the quintessential warrior, calls out those mysterious numbers just before the ball is snapped along the line of scrimmage.
“Twenty-four! Forty-eight! Sixty-one. Hut!” A prophecy from Zeus himself, his baritone voice showering down upon our heads from Mount Olympus, a god arm bending back as bow launching mighty arrow.
“Is he saying: Hike?” I asked during one game, sandwiched in the middle of a line of cousins ranging from eight years old to twelve. It was my turn to be squeezed to death. They start from both ends at the sound of another one of my annoying questions.
“He is saying: Hut!” Sue, the oldest girl, answers me. She was always generous of spirit.
“Hut? That makes zero sense. That’s a mud house.” I insist. More squeezing. “Ouch!”
“You know, like Ten-Hut from the army?” Scott offers, the oldest boy, also trying to be helpful.
“That doesn’t make any sense either. Ten-Hut? What?” I press onward.
“Who cares?” Terry says. “It means: GO!” I sense Terry rolling his eyes beside me. I inflate and pop a Bazooka bubble. We all get a “shhhh” from our grandfather who is seated behind the grandchildren row of Scott, Sue, Tammy, Terry and me. Terry and I are almost the same age. I am the youngest of the lot.
I found that the key to watching Penn State football is to cross your eyes. Plunked onto an ice-cold Beaver Stadium bleacher, this discovery made the movements of distant combat appear surprising or orchestral: a school of glittery, tropical fish in a feeding frenzy, bees making amber honey inside their hive, unfortunate creatures being stirred by a witch’s spoon dipped into a bubbling cauldron of lime green stew. Of course, I did this under the terror of my eyes staying permanently crossed, as the voices to my left and right warned might happen throughout all four quarters of every home game.
Our row in Section EF of Beaver Stadium believed that by the age of five, all children had to attend Penn State football games with their grandfather who expected them to pay attention. We were a united front. We would survive together and reach the promised land of a warm ham dinner prepared by our grandmother. There was no reason to feel too sorry for ourselves, even when we ran out of riddles and knock knock jokes and grew tired of I Spy and Rock-Paper-Scissors near the end of the second quarter.
In the effort to make the game clock count down minutes and seconds faster, I often daydreamed of us falling sound asleep like we did at camp during the summer, but not only was it northern mountain frigid during many late fall and early winter games, our grandfather’s winter coat smelled strongly of mothballs. He served as smelling salts for the row of the fidgety bored.
There were pluses. One of the aunts always remembered to stuff our coat pockets with tiny tootsie rolls and some bubble gum with comics to read and share.
“Here’s my fortune: ‘Let nature take its course and hope it passes.’” I read.
“Mine says: ‘Someday you will becomes Miss America. A good fortune if you are a girl. A bad fortune if you are a guy.’ Figures. Just great.” Terry isn’t pleased.
“Well, I got: ‘You will be a fine swimmer and make the Olympic Team.’ You guys have seen me swim. What a joke.” Sue says.
“Okay, but mine is the worse: ‘Keep your shirt on.’” Tammy adds.
“Mine is dumb too: ‘Expect unexpected visitors.’ Hey, pass those down here.” Scott said.
Scott was responsible for gathering the Bazooka Joe and the Gang comics and sending away for the FREE prizes offered. If you sent 250 Bazooka comics or 50 cents and ten comics to an address in St. Paul, Minnesota, some mysterious person would mail you a “real” camera, perfumed heart necklace, Dare Devil ring, exploding battleship, or a camp knife with a can-opener.
The Blue Band’s halftime show was a highpoint. Tammy was the best at math and according to her; it was a statistical certainty that the drum major would not land his running forward flip eventually. We waited for this, for him to fall on his head and maybe break his neck, holding our collective breath.
“I don’t think he should even try this dumb thing. This is a death wish.” I whisper as the drum major begins his sprint from the back of the band, up through the middle row, preparing to fly into the air once he reaches the front. “He doesn’t have enough speed!” More squeezing.
The high-stepping, whistle-blowing drum major never fell. We clapped and cheered with the rest of the crowd. He saluted. We saluted him back. His aerial feat was even more amazing, because of the tall, Buckingham Palace guard hat he always had strapped under his chin. He never lost the hat either.
The white-gloved Blue Band marched and played, changed line formations effortlessly, spelling letters sometimes. On sunny days, the brass section glittered silver and gold: trumpets, trombones, French horns and tubas. The percussion instruments roared like thunder through the valley of the Nittany Mountain. Those musicians didn’t hold back. It was a sound you wanted to be as loud as humanly possible, and it almost was. We were mesmerized.
Terry hogged the binoculars. He never had any idea what was going on down on the playing field, who had possession of the ball, what down it was, why there was a yellow flag on the grass. He kept the binocular lenses focused on the student section.
“A girl in a puffy purple coat just puked on the guy in front of her,” Terry announces.
“That makes 13 since the beginning of this season,” Tammy chimes in.
“You just have to tell us this stuff every game, don’t you, Terry,” Scott says good-naturedly.
“What color?” I ask. Worst squeezing yet. I almost stand up to save my ribcage, but our grandfather is directly behind my shoulders. He wouldn’t want to miss a second of game action.
“What, the puke?” Terry asks.
“Yes! What else?”
“Please don’t answer that,” Sue pleads.
“Bright orange actually,” Terry responds robotically. He has dropped his focus to the cheerleaders performing in front of the puking section.
It’s football season again. A late October snow is sifting down; floury flakes so fat and slow I follow their whole journey to earth. Walking through my family room, I pause near the television: a marching band in uniform, jammed stadium stands, color guard flags whipping, trumpets echoing, warrior drums stomping the rhythm of a college fight song. My heart pounds along with the cheers that follow the last note.
My son switches the station to the beginning of an NFL game. The Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders are strutting onto the sideline, coming to cheer on their men of the pigskin. Their uniforms: white cowboy boots, white shortie shorts with wide, silver belt buckles, skimpy blue halter tops, about half the size of Daisy Duke’s halter tops. They proudly show plenty of breast and stomach and ass. A whole row of dolled up, longhaired dance hall girls, only worse. Let’s face it: sex objects, pieces of meat.
It’s a free country. Women are certainly free to do what they want with their own bodies. Right? It’s not for me to judge. The truth is, I don’t know what to think of the cheerleaders. I didn’t know what to think of them either during all those years I sat inside Beaver Stadium with my cousins. When Terry relinquished the binoculars, I would always take a peek at the squad, girls shaking their hips, guys flipping them into the air, their skirts lifting high in the wind.
Then, I became one.
I did the whole bit from seventh grade to high school graduation, the short skirt, tight letter sweater, splits, cartwheels, dance moves, leg kicks, hip sways, shoulder shimmies along the sidelines of my high school football team. Inside, and not too deep, there was something that troubled me about being a cheerleader, of course there was, but I wanted to be one just as much as most every girl I knew. When I was selected, I was thrilled.
For six years, my love of that identity never waned. It was a blast. It was exciting. I felt special. I was captain of the cheerleaders twice during my tenure. The squad members became close friends. We spent weeks at summer cheering camps together. We entered competitions. We marched in our town parades. We got a lot of attention, pretending it was mostly for what we did as athletes, which we were, but really, it was mostly for what we looked like.
So, it’s football season again. In my family room, the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders roll their glittery pom poms, smiling their bleached teeth. They wink sparkly eyelids, false lashes and wave. I swallow and stare. I don’t know exactly what I think about cheerleading. It is sexist, demeaning. Women have fought long and hard to make the gains in our society they have made, and there’s still a long way to go. Cheerleading should probably become a thing of our darker past. I know that’s what I should think.
I know I’d do it all again.
Virginia Watts is the author of poetry and stories found or forthcoming in The Burningwood Literary Review, The Brushfire Literature and Arts Journal, Temenos, Halcyone Magazine, Green Briar Review, The Moon City Review and The Florida Review. Her essay “Marti’s Father” was nominated for a 2018 Pushcart Prize by the Ponder Review. She received honorable mention in Passager’s 2018 Poetry Contest. Virginia was born and raised in Chocolate Town USA, Hershey, Pennsylvania, and currently resides near Philadelphia, PA.