Every Friday night in almost every community across the U.S. and on most college campuses each Saturday afternoon in the Fall, history repeats itself. I invite you to travel with me to the stadium. Feel the brisk, fresh fall air. Hear the noise and excitement. Somewhere off in the distance a drummer and a coronet player are just hitting some notes to a rhythm, no reason. The ticket takers are in place. The concessions stand is open, manned by overworked yet mostly willing booster club members.. The time is perfect especially if you are young and strong, part of all that is going on.
Your first step in making our trip is to be yourself. Not the self which is frustrated by the small event yesterday or the ache you were getting last night as you tried to sleep. You cannot let homework or a work assignment which is eating away your duodenum with an ulcer which is growing .5 mm a day interfere either. Rather, just be you. Be the you which you have been since you can remember being you. This is easier for the senior citizens in the reading audience. Usually by the time we reach ‘senior’ status, each has usually been able to detect the seemingly unageing part of ourselves which feels the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Okay, now we can go to the football game. It is there we will find our friend, the old man in the stands.
If you are currently in high school or college just be your you-you. The you which is you today. If you are beyond college age for any number of years, be the you who was at that game every Friday night as a teenager. You all have your part in mind. Think back and see your hometown crowd. There is always one, at least one, an old man who comes to mind.He never misses a game, no matter what sport. He is faithfully there in all kinds of weather and you know exactly who you are looking at. He is almost always in exactly the same seat.
Here it gets a little tougher because we have to be honest with ourself. The good part is you do not have to tell anyone. What did you think about that old man when you saw him – if you thought about him at all? Allow me to guess… ‘there’s that same cranky (weird, odd) old man. Why does he come all the time? Is he going to stare at the cheerleaders or is he just being anywhere other than home for something to do? Unless he came with someone, very few people talk to him. He doesn’t react to the plays just watches, same with the halftime show. In fact, he barely moves. Sometimes, our particular old man in the stands would be in a cranky mood and take it out loudly against the referees but usually, he just sat. If, by now, you have no recollection of such a man, maybe you were so caught up in all that was going on around you, you simply never even saw him. Maybe you found you so important you missed other things. That is a legitimate answer.
On Friday of this week, I was in the stands watching my grandson play football. I had a few other family members there but mostly it was just my nephew and me near the aisle, just watching the game. I took a moment to look around at the crowd and that is when I noticed it. I was the old man in the crowd. I realize 65 is not that old but in this particular crowd my age was skewing the median by its uniqueness for this crowd. My white hair and beard added to the picture and the oxygen type of tank I wear on my back with a hose up my nose certainly added to my appearance of aged. Because of multiple surgeries I walk slowly more like Lon Chaney’s stand-in than a human being so again it draws attention. I had one nice lady sitting on the aisle as I was making it up the steps caution me to ‘go slow and be careful’ in her most ‘how to talk to the aged and infirm voice’. I could not shake off the image that I must portray to those around me, particularly the teens either there as spectators or players and cheerleaders. Several I knew but for the purpose here, I’ll focus on those who did not know me. To them, I was that old man. I wondered if they thought the way we had thought as teens and I’m pretty sure they did.
There was a difference, of course. My granddaughters came up to me during the game and we laughed and talked. They are cheerleaders so that helped my image greatly. I don’t recall ever seeing that with the old man in the stands I remember. That would change some views but still, that perception, expectation, or maybe that prejudice when we see a person who is older, if we are younger, then we seldom take time to imagine them when they were young, vital, involved in the same activities with which teens at this game are now. He was then what they are now. However, they don’t realize how quickly what he is now, they will be then.
But what about our old man? Remember, the caveat if we are reading this as a senior person, we are not remembering how long it took us to get out of the car and into the stands because of our arthritis, surgeries, shortness of breath, or any other malady. We are remembering our real person the one that doesn’t age but is, I believe, who we are in our soul. That timeless person, who doesn’t think about the white hair and wrinkles but feels the same, is our eternal self. That is who we are in heaven for eternity. So, what about him, our old man in the stands?
He may be remembering his Friday nights or his Saturday afternoons. He may be feeling the same spirit, the same rush of excitement at the big play as if he were the one crossing the goal line like he did for records long forgotten at his school. Maybe he recalls the thundering crash of bringing down that huge Tight End during the state finals and how as he hit him it was like every bone in his body reverberated at once and all he saw was stars until halftime! Perhaps he remembers the night at halftime when he was featured as a coronet solo and how scared he was, only a sophomore and doing a solo. The horn may be put
away now for decades but that night is as fresh in his mind as ever. He sees the student section and remembers the bon fires and pep rallies. He remembers going to Homecoming with the prettiest girl in the school who, much to his surprise not only said ‘yes’ to Homecoming but said ‘yes’ to marrying him. He saddens for a minute thinking how she’s been gone now these ten years. All of it seems like only yesterday. None of these students he watches on the field have any idea about the game he is playing in his own mind, a game that was picture perfect forty or fifty years before.
I wrote at the beginning that the old man in the stands you recall may have sat emotionless, maybe with a partial smile detectable, or maybe as stern a face as can be made. I suspect the only difference is contentment. As he sits watching the game with memories flooding back as if they are held in the stadium seats and when all the people arrive, those memories are unchained and they flow easily back to the ones occupying that seat. If he believes his life to have been well-spent, then likely he is content. If the opposite is true, he may be overcome with regret for actions not taken, decisions made, hurts caused… too many things of which he cannot let go. Even though those hard memories come inside this magical place, he comes each game religiously to be stirred again to action or perhaps he sees it as his penitence. How sad.
I have found, as it is my turn to play the iconic role of the old man, lessons learned. First, this time to play the old man comes much too quickly and second, we never notice life’s youthful moments are gone until they’re gone. More importantly, I have two choices evident to me each time I go to the stadium. I am the only one who can choose whether I am coming to be rewarded with wonderful memories of my past or to expect pain. With great memories I can spend an hour or so both enjoying the feats of this young generation and to regale myself with youthful memories that make me smile. This is because I have chosen contentment. The other choice is to come expecting pain and receive penitence. Still, though one seeks penitence, he chooses to never forgive or forget. Such is a discontented soul. It seeks solace in the pain and it never comes.
For those who know Christ, there is still this decision to make because regardless of how great it is that Christ has paved the way to contentment, Satan puts up Road Closed and Detour signs everywhere to try to make us forget. So, if you are younger and want advice from the old man in the stands… enjoy every moment and live so you won’t face regrets.
For most of my years I could mimic the line from the Sinatra song, ‘regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention…’ That is until recently. Under the scourge of a terminal illness I have let slip from me what is perhaps the thing which is easiest to lose and the hardest to regain. I have not held up as well as I should and it is difficult to still see in the eyes of some who mean so much to me such disappointment. This is a regret one cannot shake off like Sinatra might sing. So, I must learn that even with regrets I must seek contentment even if it never comes. If you are where I am and you battle these choices, again get to know He who is Christ. Once you have accepted Christ’s forgiveness… chose memories – no regrets, just right! If regrets remain, reclaim the good memories for claiming the regrets will lead only to a lonely and dark place.
It is here I must tell you the story about the man I met and became friends with almost immediately in the men’s restroom at the Wayne County Fair Grounds! I realize how completely odd that sounds. We were, at least, not near the sheep barn. This man I found amazing. Here is how it began. I saw him go in at the same time I did. He was wearing a U.S. Air Force veteran shirt and hat so already we had a connection. As I left a high school age young man went in who apparently knew this other gentleman and they talked inside for a time about the younger man’s thoughts about joining the military and the elder man was attempting to steer him toward the Air Force. Eventually the young man left and soon after the elderly man came out. I introduced myself and told him about Legacy of Honor. Then the best part happened… we talked. This gentleman is 88 years old. He was in the Air Force at the end of the Korean War and was assigned to the crew of a B-29 bomber. By the time he was twenty-two he had been promoted to crew chief of the aircraft and then the aircraft’s engineer. He laughed and said, ‘not bad for a farm boy from Wayne County’.
Had I never taken the time to wait for him to exit the lavatory and strike up a conversation he would have been just another old man in a veteran hat and shirt. Instead I met a new friend who had incredible adventures flying the B-29 thousands of feet higher than it was supposed to be able to fly and so low that the icy waters near Thule, Greenland got sucked into the engines directly of the ocean. I met a new friend who was content with few regrets. Just because one is content with where his lot in life is currently, it doesn’t mean he’s glad those younger days are gone. He is glad the memories are intact.
The old man in the stands will probably always be part of our lives. Maybe it’s time we notice him and learn something from him. It will do both sides good. And if we are the old man, maybe we need to be willing to share our contentment and how we found it and learn the way for dealing with regrets.