4th Quarter Hail Mary From Grandpa’s Smoking Porch
In the long lost wardrobe of childhood memory, the old man who smelled of Brut and Old Spice, Brachs butterscotch and Big Red gum. Chick O’ Stick and Beemans. Whisker burns and piggyback rides. And hand rolled cigarettes with Kite tobacco by the big green can and toilet paper filters, rolled for fun by a grandson while the two watched Nebraska-Oklahoma football games and waited for smoke break commercials to run endless fly patterns off the front porch. Because grandma didn’t allow, “that stinking nastiness,” in the house. And bless her heart for that.
For there it was, by day or night, dark or bright, in the heat of Nebraska summers or in the deep freeze of 1980’s winter that those trips to the smoking porch became an unspoken agreement between an old man and the boy who loved him. Time to play catch. Time to show off and be shown. Time to dream of being Jarvis Redwine or Irving Fryar or Todd Brown or Shane Swanson. Nebraska boys catching rarified passes in a legendary offense built to plow fields and plant corn in three yard rows until the other team gave up and went home. Or, broke our hearts with 4th quarter Sooner Magic while we shouted and yelled for Keith Jackson to sit down and shut up.
Both of them.
Damned number 88 in the Sooner crimson and the “cocky lockus,” southern boy ABC announcer by the same name who always seemed so pleased when Nebraska’s heartbreak moments arrived. Whoa, Nellieeee.
“We’ll get ’em next year, Shadow,” the old man would say. Gathering himself stiffly and sadly from the old green La-Z-Boy recliner that smelled just like him in every way and made a good stand-in for afternoon naps and quiet retreat when he wasn’t around, or jungle gym antics and hide and seek when the rest of the cousins came to town.
Win or lose, snow or sleet, Husker heartbreak or jubilation, there was always the smoking porch and a race against timed commercial break to see how many pass patterns and one handed catches could fit into three minutes of wind sprints and a handmade cigarette burned down to the filter and deposited in the old milk can next to the door.
And the old man never missed. Whether lofted arcing corner routes for over the shoulder grab, or in stride, on the money bullets over the middle and “in traffic,” the Rawlings Pro with the tattered laces arrived as if delivered by the mailman, followed by a cheer and a holler for the skinny kid with speed to burn and hands full of Elmer’s glue. “Quick as a cat you are, Shadow,” the old man would say, tousling a headful of hair at the completion of the cigarette game, before returning to preassigned seating to see if the Huskers could do just as well.
And then it happened. On the boy’s 14th birthday, his only grandpa gave him the one and only gift he’d ever asked for and had pestered for repeatedly since he was old enough to walk and talk and know that there was more to cigarettes than seeing how uniformly they could be rolled up and deposited in grandpa’s silver cigarette case. Hushed family silence for a piece of big news. “I gave up the ciggies for you, Shadow. Happy birthday, my boy.”
Over carrot cake and homemade vanilla ice cream with a hint of rock salt, the old man beamed and the boy cried and hugged and held on, hopeful that even after 50-years of cancer sticks and coffin nails, a late decision would mean more years with grandpa and rounds of golf without the old man doubled over coughing by the fifth hole. More years with grandpa. Overtime.
Ten years later, the grandson stood at his grandpa’s funeral, reading a poem and singing the old man’s favorite hymn to a packed church of family and friends. 24 years of memories swirled and wheeled and spinning like a roulette wheel filled with the magical fragments of captured time that our hearts collect for safe keeping and give back to us in ways we never expect, coming to rest on a single one.
Nebraska-Oklahoma 1986. Grandpa in his recliner. Grandson nervous as a cat, twitching on the carpet nearby. Cans of Kite tobacco and rolling papers and the antique cigarette roller now replaced by Rubik’s cubes and Rubik’s Revenge and packets of Nicorette gum. Damned biased Keith Jackson announcing the first quarter break. A pause.
“Guess you better grab your football, young man. Let’s go have us a catch, or two.”