By Wendy Hodge
It is a Friday night, and my best friend and I are in a local football stadium watching a small private high school team play football. To be more accurate, we are watching his daughter.
She’s a cheerleader for the Mighty Oaks. The whole family is here… clapping and waving and taking pictures. The concrete bleachers have baked in the sun all day, and they’re still warm to the touch as the sun goes down.
It is a typical September Friday night in the South. Families have brought children and grandparents. The concession stand is up and running, selling everything from nachos and Coca Cola to T-shirts and pom-poms. Behind the stands, little boys are tossing a football and rolling in the grass, imagining themselves where the big boys are down on the field. Down below us, right in front of the cheerleaders, is a cluster of grammar school girls with paint on their faces and bows in their hair. They are wide-eyed as they watch and imitate the cheer squad – arms and legs kicking and waving, clumsy but precious and completely unselfconscious.
The announcer asks, as they always do at every game in this proud country of ours, for everyone to stand for the national anthem. And we all do. Caps are removed. Hands are placed over hearts. This field is small and so is the flag. It’s held high by a trio of Boy Scouts, all decked out and solemn looking. Pre-recorded music fills the air, tinny and shrill, but beautiful and familiar nonetheless. Everyone sings, whether they know the words or not.
And then we are ready for some football! Both sides cheer at the kickoff, and we settle in to watch our team win…hopefully.
My best friend’s daughter is a flyer, which means every few minutes, we all hold our breath as she is lifted and tossed and returned to earth again. It’s exhilarating… and nerve wracking. Ten minutes into the first quarter, we realize we are famished, and so we send one of the children up the steps for food. She leaves with a small fortune in bills, roughly equivalent to next month’s car payment, and returns with just enough Coke for everyone to have a sip or two and a single nacho apiece. Seems fair.
Mid-way through the second quarter, not a single soul can feel their back side. Concrete has more powerful numbing properties than Novocain. The sugar high has begun to wear thin, and children all around us are drooping a bit. Crankiness is just around the corner.
And then it’s halftime. The cheer squads from both teams have a routine to entertain us. More tossing and breath-holding ensues. We all stand and clap, proud of their enthusiasm (and thrilled to feel the circulation back in our feet for a moment). There are no marching bands.
Both schools are small, and funds are limited. But there is music playing over the intercom. The Back Street Boys can be heard from one end of the stadium to the other.
The second half is about to begin, and the crowd is settling back in their seat. And that’s when it appears. A very large luna moth. The biggest one I’ve ever seen, as a matter of fact. It is so white it glows, and it is drifting above the field making slow and lazy loops above the 50-yard line. One by one, it catches the eye of everyone in the stands. Each time it dips, the crowd “ooohs” together. As if it can sense our attention, the moth rises directly above the bleachers, floats there for a moment, and then dives into the crowd. Never actually touching anyone, it swoops in close and then rises again. Children squeal and point. And as the second half wears on, the moth continues its dance.
The third quarter becomes the fourth, and fatigue has hit hard. Children are stretched across the laps of their parents. Middle schoolers are slouched low, staring at their phones, and grandparents are nodding off, oblivious of the score or the night around them.
Our team is losing, but the cheerleaders are still clapping and jumping. They are good sports and sweet girls.
Finally, the buzzer sounds, and the teams line up to shake hands. The moth is still hovering above us, as if he is watching the display of sportsmanship. As the teams exit the field and we climb the stairs to the exit, I look back over my shoulder and see the luna moth sail over the trees behind the stadium and disappear into the night.
Tomorrow, we along with the rest of the country, will watch as an eagle soars above a much bigger stadium. A band will play as someone famous sings the national anthem. Jets will fly over the crowd, and million- dollar marching bands will fill the stadium with well-practiced songs.
Everything about that game will be larger and grander than the game we just watched. But there are a few things that will be exactly the same.
We are just as proud tonight of our children and grandchildren who are athletes and students at “our” small high school as we will be tomorrow of those who attend a university. Tonight, we wanted our team to win just like we will tomorrow.
And the national anthem, with its timeless words, will unite us all. We will stand with our hands over our hearts and sing the words we’ve all heard our entire lives. And, just like tonight, and every other time the anthem plays, I will choke back tears. I can’t help it. Look at that flag and hear those words “Oh, say, does that star spangled banner yet wave… O’er the land of the free… and the home of the brave!” How can you not be moved by the decades of sacrifice, of one brave person after the next, down through our history who was wounded or captured or never came home at all so that we could gather here on this star-spangled night. No matter who you cheer for or what color you wear on Saturday, you are a citizen of this great country.
And that is priceless.
Wendy Hodge is an Opelika native, an empty nester and lover of all things Opelika. She previously had a column titled A Word or Ten, which was featured in the Tennessee Star Journal and is currently awaiting release of her first novel with Harper Collins Publishing Company.