I grew up in a small Texas town. Our house was one mile from the park through which a sometimes murky, sometimes beautiful, river runs. Growing up, the neighborhood kids would roam in bicycle gangs, testing the boundaries of authority. The park was the outer limit. I spent my entire childhood in the same house, down the road from the river that tumbled through the park. It was the only big park in the whole of our small town and it was the center of our entire community. If you grew up there, it meant that some, if not most, of your major life events might somehow include the park. My earliest memories of the place involve first grade parties – cake and ice cream and hot dogs - the inevitability of some poor little soul getting sick on too much sugar and the ants that always found the food spread across the concrete tables built under pergolas. Mom’s got the pictures of me and my sister racing through obstacle courses for elementary school field days, the river sparkling in the background. First grade, second grade, third grade. The kids looked bigger each year but it was always the same scenery, same location, same people. Growing older, the park was where we went to exercise our autonomy – going to the pool without the parents, eating a popsicle with your best friend at the river bank, toes dipped in the water and bikes tossed haphazardly on the ground behind us. In the middle of the place stands an old white gazebo (is it still there?). It’s where awards were doled out and where high school punk bands played to crowds of anti-establishment, angst-filled teenagers on weekends (we weren’t anti-establishment enough to stay out late on school nights).
A road runs through the park and separates the green space from the community places. An old community center’s been there forever. It’s where the Texas A&M University alumni hold their annual fish fry and where the rock and gem show came each spring (and yes, it’s true, I went). Next door is a small arena with acres of stalls and stables for the annual rodeo and ag fairs. Even when empty of animals, if the wind’s just right, the park fills with a faint perfume of manure and saddles.
But the crown jewel of this park and our town was the high school football stadium. It sprawled out as the western boundary with a dusty parking lot along a busy road, and the stadium side visible from almost everywhere. The football stadium was the beating heart of the entire place. In my memory, it’s a behemoth structure of cinder blocks and bleachers. Growing up, it was the only stadium in our town and was where high school students graduated each year since the beginning of time. Poorly attended soccer games were held there too, but the stadium only filled for one sort of event, and only in the fall. And only on Friday nights.
There’s something about this sacred season that will always transport me back to Friday nights at the football stadium. Although I was definitely one of the more anti-establishment members of the audience listening to the high school punk band at the gazebo, I was still the girl who wanted to be under the bleachers on Friday night. Fall, for me, will forever be tinged with the memory of pep rallies and the torment all day about whether certain friends would meet me at exactly the agreed upon time by the ticket box. It will forever be tinged with the memory of hoping some clueless guy would accidentally brush past me on his way to the concession stand for nachos. Underneath the bleachers, with the stadium lights seeping through the old slatted wood, where spilled cokes dripped down onto hair and shoes, where the “bam, bam, bam” of the school band pulsed out from the edge of the field, the thunder of feet stomped above and the crowd cheered ecstatically - the cheerleaders chanting the simple cheers I absolutely hated but inadvertently memorized so I inadvertently chanted along, and tapped my feet, and twirled my hair, amidst the bustle of families and anxious teens trying so damn hard not to give a damn. And just when I wondered why the hell I showed up again, this Friday, just when I wondered why I was compelled to come to this spot each Friday night to meet a group of friends, just when I started tugging awkwardly at the nonchalant outfit I wore (that took one hour to decide on) – just then – that first, cool puff of fall air would come howling over the hill. It kicked up a dust devil in the parking lot, it whirled past the ticket booth, picking up crumpled wrappers and torn up tickets, it swirled towards the impossibly tall bleachers, and it smacked me and my friends at once so the hair I spent so long fixing tangled wildly. Our cheeks were rosy and we giggled with the intensity of anticipation and youth – for no reason other than being 15 years old . And we could not know it yet but those smells and that cold air, and those French horns, and the squealing cheerleaders, and the stomping fans above – they would forever represent fall. The town I once was sure trapped me, and the park I always thought was too small, and the little stadium I used to outwardly mock (but secretly loved) – it’s what’s beautiful about being from a place so tiny.
When the seasons turn, it’s good to be in outside spaces where the change is visceral and conjures sense memory. God bless cool breezes and front porches. God bless those fall Friday nights.