The “sea of red” at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Nebraska holds just enough magic that one single visit, on a bright, clear game day, could sway even the most resistant football hold-out, namely me. The stadium, seats brimming with scarlet sweaters, is exponentially more impressive in person than on television. It is a spectacle that should not be missed, should one live in the area, as I did in the late 1990s.
I worked for a telecommunications company based in Omaha, and I fell on the mercy of some college friends’ parents as I tried to navigate a strange city. As I’ve written before, I was mean to Omaha, and I regret it. The kindness extended to me by these self-appointed guardians, Speedy and Hermene, was a squandered gift. They invited me to dinner in their home, introduced me to their friends, rolled up their sleeves to help me find my place – all to no avail.
One of their friends was the late Steve Simon, a warm, funny and gentle man who with his brothers ran their family’s food business. Steve was a sales guy, and he wanted to sell me on Nebraska, to convince me that it was a pretty terrific place to live. As part of his sales pitch, he invited me to join him and his son, Jim, for a ‘Husker game. I’ve never been much of a football fan, but Steve’s description of the experience was too much to resist.
On a Saturday in mid-September, 1997, we drove from Omaha to Lincoln, Steve, Jim and I. During the ride down they gave me a primer on the university, the stadium, the game forecast and their predictions for the rest of that college football season. We arrived and made our way to our seats, Steve pointing out bits of trivia here and there along the walk. With a perfect view of the field, we ate warm pretzels and drank cold beer. Under a crystal blue sky, we watched the ‘Huskers bring home victory, amid impressive roars of delight.
A few weeks after that game day I was in Memphis for a wedding and a birthday party and to see my family. My father had died the year before, and we were all still adjusting to his absence. While I was in town a friend invited me to a cocktail party at her parents’ house. She knew I was unhappy in my Nebraska exile and thought I might do some career networking while I was in town.
It was a lovely fall evening, still warm enough for gin & tonics on the patio. We were outside, grouped in little clusters, making cocktail party conversation, carefully steering clear of politics and religion.
I was with a group of fishermen, most of them, I learned that night, acquaintances of my father’s. Over the four or five years leading up to this particular evening I had logged many hours on rivers and in cars on the way to or from rivers. More than twice I had spent the night in shared quarters of a dank fishing camp, changed clothes in a copse of trees, always in the company of men and sometimes also in the company of other women.
The men with whom I most often went fishing were dear to me. They were all, each and every one of them, crusty and gruff on the surface but deeply poetic underneath. Also, they drank good scotch.
So on this night, in my hometown, at this very Southern cocktail party, I was standing with a group of unfamiliar men, talking about familiar things: the hidden treasures of Arkansas, casting wooly buggers on the Spring and sow bugs on the Little Red. One man had fished in Nebraska and suggested a few places I might explore; another had been fishing in Argentina, a destination on my November travel schedule.
We were in this relaxed discussion when we were joined by a newcomer who gave a hearty pat to one of the other men and immediately changed the topic to football, saying, if I remember correctly, “Who’s it going to be, Florida or Tennessee?” And since we’d been in easy conversation, our little group, sipping our gin & tonics, and since college football was relatively fresh on my mind, I added: “Don’t forget Nebraska,” feeling a sudden, unexpected swell of pride for the sea of red that had swept me up.
There was a brief pause. The man who’d had his shoulder clapped, looked straight at me and said, “Now, honey, it’s fine for girls to do a little fishing and all, but when it comes to football that’s men’s talk. You need to leave it to the men.” It took a minute for me to realize he was deadly serious; I had been dismissed.
The ‘Huskers would go on to end that season 13-0, win the Orange Bowl in a decisive 42-17 defeat over Tennessee, and split the national championship title. Although football is a sport I could easily live without, I watched that Orange Bowl game from start to finish, in the solitary comfort of my rented guesthouse in Omaha. The triumph of that victory remains in my mind a cosmic affirmation of a certain type of man, completely at ease in day-long conversation ranging from the history of the Cornhuskers to the characteristics of food scientists and sommeliers. We even discussed politics and religion.
I will never forget the Simons’ open, genuine, generous welcome to me – two ‘Huskers to a Volunteer, two Jews to an Episcopalian, two men to a woman – absent any lines of demarcation or implied requirements.
In the Western Christian world, today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. Lent is a time of preparation. For the observant, Lent is also a time of penitence, fasting and deprivation. Some will abandon chocolate or wine, others social media or television. There will be fish instead of red meat. No Alleluias spoken in church. This is the solemn season, for the observant.
I have all but given up on church in my old age. There are things I believe and things I do not; and while this has always been true, it is more clearly true the older I get. Save for the fact that my daughter serves as an acolyte some Sunday mornings, I don’t know that I would seek out a seat in church these days.
Except on Ash Wednesday, the day of the physical sign that we are but dust, and to dust we will return. It is the work we do in between that makes the difference. This, more than anything, I believe.
At the end of Lent the Church will celebrate the triumph of Easter, the victory of good over evil, life over death. In this year’s calendar, as is often the case, the week prior to Easter will mark the celebration of Passover, testament to the strength of enduring faith.
If nothing else, these are stories of spring renewal, world rebirth, for both the devout and the heathen. The time between now and that second week of April might be, then, a call for contemplation, if nothing else.
I’ve been weighing what to do with my faithless self during these 40 days, Lenten discipline having become quite a habit over the years. The decision came to me in the middle of the night, as decisions like this often do: I will, each and every day during Lent, consciously acknowledge, by specific name, those among the living and the dead who have proven to me, time and again, that there is more good in the world than not. There is more inclusion than exclusion. More encouragement than restriction. More reason to move forward than to surrender.
Today that name is Simon.