July 7, 2007

Saudi Summer, Part II

The Geo Storm pulled out of the parking lot, and my girlfriend from Minnesota was on her way back to her base in Idaho.

On the other hand, I had a few days of leave remaining to kick back, relax, and just chill. The following weekend my parents were driving out from New Jersey, on their way to a family vacation in Grand Canyon. It had been over a year since I had last seen my parents, and my then ten and seven-year-old little brothers probably forgot that they even had an older brother in the Air Force. I guess every American middle-class family does the ol’ "Drive-Across-County with the Kids" vacation, and in ’97 it was my parents turn.

The following evening (a Friday), I called-up Rich-Dogg to see what he was up to. Rich-Dogg was "The Man." He worked in the adjacent shop and since I was incompetent at my designated Air Force job – and as such, essentially worthless to my assigned unit – I began to spend more time working with Rich-Dogg’s crew, doing odd jobs around the flight line and whatnot. (Basically I was killing time, until my enlistment ran out.)

Rich-Dogg was an Air Force "lifer," in his late-30s with a wife and two kids. I never actually got to meet his family, and he preferred not to talk about them. The life of an enlisted man isn’t exactly compatible with a normal family. He already had ten years of service in, and with another ten years, he'd be eligible for his pension. Like me, he was merely killing time.
We lived for the weekend. On weekends we’d hang out and drink. We’d go to bars off-base and drink. We’d go to the NCO club and drink. We’d watch pro wrestling on Monday nights and drink. We’d drive to Kansas City to see a Royals game and drink. I’m sure you’re getting the idea. (Among Air Force enlisted men, overindulgence in alcohol is considered acceptable behavior. I would even call it a hobby of sorts.) My dorm room became our mutual sanctuary. Many times, Rich-Dogg would crash at my place, rather then go to his government issued on-base home and face the woman he called "the battle axe."

Rich-Dogg hailed from North Carolina -- just outside Elizabeth City, if I recall correctly -- and when I lived there (about five years ago) I always meant to look him up. I never got around to it though. Last I heard he was in Honduras. That seems to be the story of my life when it comes to friendships and why I have such a difficult time retaining them long-term.

Late May 1997

Before I continue, let me hit the rewind button to tell you this story. The weekend before my girlfriend from Minnesota’s visit was the opening weekend of the College World Series. The "CWS" is kind of a big deal in Omaha, so me, Rich-Dogg, and a few other mutual friends/drinking buddies decided to check it out.

The College World Series is Decadent and Depraved

You know what I said about not taking your girlfriend to a sporting event? Well, there is an exception to every rule, and the CWS is one of them. The CWS is one of those events that transcend mere sport. Kind of like the Super Bowl, just not on the scale of "The Super Bowl." When my me and my dad went to Super Bowl, there were noticeably more females in Jacksonville then you’d see at your typical Eagles home game. And they weren’t all that hard to find either in those annoying pink Eagles jerseys. (Memo to all female Eagles fans: If you want guys to take you somewhat seriously as a football fan; then never, ever be caught dead in a pink Eagles jersey.) It’s pretty much the same thing in Omaha for the CWS. Oh sure, there are baseball games. But the real action takes place in the parking lot.

The College World Series is nothing but a ten-day long kegger, and, oh yeah, there just happens to be a few baseball games. It all begins when the first convoys of RVs arrive on the Wednesday and Thursday before the tournament begins. Since most of the dominant college baseball teams hail from the Deep South and California, it takes a few days for them to make the drive out to Nebraska. But when the RVs arrive at the Rosenblatt Stadium parking lot, the area becomes transformed.

The surrounding neighborhood only adds to the atmosphere. Rosenblatt Stadium is located in a working class area of southern Omaha the locals call "The South-O." (For the record, the band 311 is from this part of town.) Plenty of Czechs, Poles, Irish, Germans, Italians, and (in recent years) Mexicans abound. Think of it as the Omaha version of Northeast Philly. During the CWS, South-O reminds me a lot of Fenway Park before a Red Sox game. But South-O is just not a dense as The Fens, and there’s a heck of a lot more parking. About the only negative is that the Omaha Zoo is located right next door. Normally, this is not a problem, since the prevailing winds are out of the west. But when (not if) the wind changes direction, it smells like, well, the ballpark smells like a zoo!

One of the schools that made it to the College World Series in 1997 was LSU and a guy in Rich-Dogg’s unit – Cajun Joe – grew up just outside of Baton Rouge. Everyone in his family all went to LSU, and after his hitch in the Air Force was up, he’d be joining them. They were all big time LSU fans (then again, what LSU grad isn’t), and with the Tigers being the defending CWS champions, Joe’s family packed up the RV and drove up to Omaha.

I had a bit of a rooting interest with the Tigers as well. There was this guy who went to Audubon High School that I played against named Brett Laxton. He was, arguably, South Jersey’s best high school baseball prospect, and was selected in the 4th round of the ’92 baseball draft by San Diego. The Padres offered him a six-digit check to turn pro, but he turned them down to go to LSU on a baseball scholarship.

In the 1993 College World Series championship game, Laxton (a true freshman) pitched a complete game, three-hit shutout, striking out 16 Wichita State Shockers in the process. (Got to love a school that has the nickname "The Shockers.") Yes my friends, Brett Laxton could BRING IT! Then midway through his sophomore season, he blew out his arm and was never quite the same again. He eventually made it to the Majors with Oakland and Kansas City, but was out of the big leagues by 2001. I distinctly remember him pitching for the Camden Riversharks for a while, and when I Googled his name, I found out that he’s still pitching professionally in Taiwan.

The Six-Man Beer Bong and my Induction into "The Century Club."

The Series began on a Saturday afternoon, and LSU’s first game wasn’t until that evening, so when we arrived, Cajun Joe, Rich-Dogg, and myself made a bee-line for Cajun Joe’s RV.
Let me tell you something, college baseball fans have made tailgating into a science. It was hard NOT to find acts of public drunkenness and full-frontal (female) nudity. It was almost like I was transported back to Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras! Technically, all this debauchery was against Omaha city ordinances, but the cops – what few of them I saw on patrol – could care less.

On the way to Joe’s RV we ran into a group of Mississippi State fans that had the most amazing, and ingenuous, piece of tailgating equipment I’ve ever seen. A six-man beer bong! Picture this: Take a run-of-the-mill Rubbermaid wash pail, similar to what you’d find in the household cleaner aisle of the supermarket. Now take said pail, drill six holes in the sides and super glue six flexible tubes into the holes. Now, tie a rope to the pail’s handle and attach it to a pulley that’s on top of a small "flagpole." Presto! You have yourself a six-man beer bong. A triumph of Redneck engineering if there ever was one.

After viewing six MSU Bulldog fans take a mutual hit off the big beer bong, we finally made it to Cajun Joe’s RV. Before he could introduce me to his friends and family, a big mountain of a man throws us all cans of Natural Light. The next thing I know, this mountain of a man comes up to me and Rich-Dogg and says in a stereotypical Cajun drawl, "Hey you! Yeah, you two! You in `The Club’?" To which I replied, "Umm, no sir." "Well, guess what? Today’s your lucky day!"
Before I knew it, Rich-Dogg and I were seated across a folding card table. Cajun Joe and "Mountain Man" (who I am later told is Joe’s father), open up four sleeves of Dixie Cups and spread out a couple hundred of them on the table. We were both about to be inducted into The Century Club.

One of the few things I actually learned at Rowan was this drinking game called "Power Hour." The object of the game is to drink a shot glass full of beer every minute for one hour. The Century Club is the same concept, except instead of 60 shots in 60 minutes, you drink 100 shots in 100 minutes – hence the name. Whereas Power Hour is all about getting fucked up, Century Club is a matter of survival and sheer will. If you can accomplish 100 in 100 without throwing up or passing out, congratulations, you’re in The Century Club.

Cajun Joe and his dad then brought out four 24-packs of Natty Light from out of their RV, and began to pour their contents into the Dixie cups. With Cajun Joe manning the stopwatch, we begin.

I have absolutely no recollection of anything that happened after the 70th minute. The next day I’m told that, yes indeed, I made it into The Century Club.

Arena Baseball

The next day, May 31st, was two days before my 23rd birthday. Rich-Dogg’s "present" were a pair of $5 general admission bleacher seats, to see Pat Burrell and the Miami Hurricanes take on UCLA.

As soon as you enter the grounds of Rosenblatt Stadium, you'll immediately know why there so much partying in the parking lots. No beer allowed. Would you believe that those fascists at the NCAA don’t allow alcohol to be sold any ANY NCAA-sanctioned events? Whoever heard of a ball game without beer!

But the lack of adult beverages is not the only difference between college baseball and "real" baseball. PING! The use of aluminum bats make a mockery of the game of baseball, and with the winds blowing out (as it usually does), there’s home runs a plenty. PING! College baseball is to "real" baseball as Arena Football it to NFL. In fact, with all the home runs and artificially inflated ERAs, until they switch back to wood bats, they ought to call it "Arena Baseball."
For the record: LSU would eventually defend their national title. In fact the day of the Championship Game was the evening of the Minnesota banana pudding adventure I described in part one.

The Biggest Surprise of my Life

Mid-June 1997

Now, fast forward back to my girlfriend’s Geo Storm pulling out of the parking lot. I had a whole weekend to do nothing. And since nothing is what I do best, nothing is what I did. Sloth may be one of the seven deadly sins, but dammit, if it ain’t the best!

On Monday morning, leave was over and I reported back to duty. Back to the ol’ 6:00-to-2:00 grind (that’s 6:00 AM to 2:00 PM, for you civilians). At about five-after-six on Monday, my supervisor Airman Troy gave me the bad news.

Airman Troy: "Airman Harris."

Me: "Yessir?"

AT: "Congratulations, you’ve been volunteered."

CH: "Volunteered for what?"

AT: "Well, we got orders to send someone to Saudi Arabia for a 120-day TDY. Guess what?"

CH: "What?"

AT: "We volunteered you! You’re shipping out on Friday."

And with that, my Summer, and my life, took a most unexpected turn.

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