I usually go back to my high school’s reunions and homecomings—not to relive my glory days (they certainly weren’t), but to remind myself that high school really happened, that it wasn’t just some book I read a long time ago about a little inner-city Catholic high school lined with what the art teacher described as “shit brown” lockers.
Thus it was that a couple of weeks ago, I pulled on my letter jacket—still in pretty good shape, as it damn well should be given how much baby-sitting money I paid for it sometime in the early 90s—and drove up to Midway Stadium: an athletic field lodged in an industrial section of St. Paul with a fire-training tower just beyond center field and train tracks ringing its outer periphery.
This was the last homecoming game my alma mater played at Midway Stadium: the stadium’s being torn down, and the resident minor-league team is moving to a newly-built field in an up-and-coming (the mayor crosses his fingers) corner of downtown St. Paul. A couple of yesteryear’s victorious football teams were being honored on the occasion, but nobody seemed particularly in thrall to nostalgia when I showed up to find a long line of people waiting for their turn to be served hot dogs and tortillas underneath a pop-up tent in the parking lot. It was unusually cold for early October, but there were still several weeks to go in the season, so everyone just dressed like it was a month later: winter coats, knit hats stitched with the school’s name, mittens and earmuffs and track pants for the cheerleaders.
I’d arranged to meet a couple of classmates there, and ran into a couple more. The mom of one of my friends was also there, and not only did she still remember me, she still remembered my birthday. I talked for a few minutes with the woman who’d been Eliza to my Col. Pickering in our senior-year production of My Fair Lady; she introduced me to her young children. My friend who’d been the first in our class to get his driver’s license mentioned that he’d just turned 40, and I felt like I’d been handed my 40-something learner’s permit.
From the stands, the kids on the field looked like they were made of matchsticks. When points were scored—and points were scored pretty frequently, since we were running roughshod over a team from a school with a name even more pious than ours—the score went up and down uncertainly, until some kind of consensus was reached around the scoreboard control panel. The cheerleaders yelled the school cheer, which I’ve managed to remember word-for-word mostly because my dad likes to have everyone do their high school cheers around the campfire every summer. Our mascot came out—now wearing a full bull costume, not just the oversize head that was all we had when I was in high school—and did the same signature toro-toro charge our mascot’s done every year since someone decided that a raging bull would be a cool avatar for a school named after a 12-year-old fourth-century martyr who’s the patron saint of virgins and rape victims.
22 years ago, I had a major role in the homecoming festivities. As vice-president of the student council, I organized the assembly and was tapped to escort our class’s freshman-year princess—each class elects a princess each year, and senior year the previous years’ royalty all get to share a victory lap—down the runway and, later, around the field in the back of a pickup truck. 22 years seems like a hell of a long time to me, but it’s hardly a blink of an eye for a school that’s still coming to grips with Vatican II: they still do the pickup-truck parade, and the king and queen still wear robes that look, and may actually be, identical to the ones my classmates wore circa the George H.W. Bush administration. As the trucks passed the stands, one of the princesses leaned back and took a selfie.
Once the game’s second half began, I said my goodbyes and left, pulling my hat down against the cold. In the parking lot, I passed a group of guys who’d graduated shortly after me disembarking from the back of their pickup; they played on one of the winning teams being honored, and they were the only other alumni I saw who’d hung on to their letter jackets. A lot of current students were wearing theirs—only slightly different in design, and marked by the sleeves-full of participation patches you can easily rack up in a tiny school where you can pretty much join in any activity you want as long as you’re the correct gender and you have a pulse.
As I walked out to my car towards the back of the lot, I was passed by the pickup carrying the homecoming king and queen. I waved as they disappeared towards the stadium, laughing together at some joke they’ll probably mention in their yearbooks next spring. I pulled out my phone and took a photo of the stadium lights reflecting off the rows of cars, standing tall and illuminating the skinny kids in thick pads, the shivering cheerleaders with red-and-white ribbons in their hair, the confused scorekeeper, and the diligent parents for one last homecoming game at the old field.
It would be wrong to say I didn’t feel anything at all, standing there, but what I felt was diffuse and hard to describe—a vague echo of conflicted emotions that faded into the darkness like the stadium lights in my rearview mirror.