Sunday, December 13, 2009

A cold day in hell

“I’d like to wait inside a little longer. I lost my dad,” I explained Thursday night to the security guard attempting to herd straggling Cleveland and Pittsburgh fans through the stadium exits. Probably because it was 14 degrees outside (the news said it felt like six below with the wind), the bundled enforcer had mercy on me.

I circled the stadium concourse, hoping to find my father who had come to the game almost completely prepared: long underwear, two pairs of pants, two jackets, a shirt, a Hines Ward Super Bowl replica jersey, gluten bread, a blanket, his Terrible Towel, scarf, hat, gloves, and video camera. One thing he lacked, however: his cell phone.

I was similarly cloaked but still felt especially vulnerable to the 40 miles-per-hour wind ripping through the stadium after an unimaginable 13-6 Browns victory. I had brought my cell phone, but it was worthless in locating an off-the-grid father. One moment, I had been standing next to my dad and on the phone with my mother to coordinate a stadium pick-up. The next, I had hung up to find that Dad had wandered off, distracted by some flashing lights or tantalizing mirage of warmth or bratwurst.

I circled the stadium in the opposite direction, still unable to find my dad (or a suitable replacement). My phone rang. It was my wife. She was crushed by the Steelers’ loss. “I can’t talk,” I interrupted her. “I lost my dad!” I shouted over the rumpus of rowdy Browns fans (class of the Midwest) chanting “Pittsburgh sucks!” and other assorted non-bloggables.

I was tired and cold and inexplicably carrying two commemorative Cleveland Browns travel mugs that Dad and I had received with the hot chocolate we bought during the third quarter. “I don’t want to keep this,” I had said to my dad at the point of sale. “I want to save them,” my dad insisted. “I’ll cover the Browns’ logos with Steelers’ logos!” Against my better judgment, I acquiesced, and now I was wandering the halls of Cleveland Browns Stadium clutching two Browns’ mugs. Enthused Brownie lovers attempted to high-five me, assuming I was a rank-and-file member of the Dawg Pound. “No thanks.” “No way, man.” “I’m not celebrating.” “No high-fives for you.” And so on.

My phone rang again. It was my mom. Having attempted to meet us at the stadium entrance, she had found herself inextricably locked into the flow of exiting traffic with road closures and police officers directing all vehicles away from the stadium and onto the highway. “I’m on the interstate heading to Erie!” she shouted. “I have to go!”

“I’m in no hurry,” I comforted her. “I lost Dad.”

I returned to the spot where I last saw Dad and waited for several minutes, hoping he might appear there. He did not. I scanned the faces of the now thinning crowd of football patrons. None belonged to Pops. Mom called again. “I’m on the highway heading back to the stadium. Have you found Dad?”

“Not yet,” I reported. “Call me when you get closer.

Another ten minutes elapsed. My phone rang anew. It was Mom. “Good news. They found Dad.”

“Found Dad? Who found Dad?”

“The police. He’s in the West Third Parking Lot.”

“Isn’t that where you were parked before you tried to find us?”


“I’ll meet you there.”

I found Dad, blanket-swaddled in a police car, his gluten bread nestled snugly in his lap. Oh, God, they’ve arrested him, I thought. When I got closer to the car, Dad rolled down the window and said, “You left me! I had to fend for myself! Get in the car.”

I got in the backseat of the car, and Dad explained that when he lost me, he began to wander through the stadium concourse. After a few minutes of searching, he aggravated a previously pulled groin muscle and fell to the ground, where he sat for several hellish minutes, sans cell phone, unable to call either me or my mother. Not a single good Samaritan was to be found among the Browns fans (big surprise) to help him to his feet. Finally, a stadium employee came to his assistance. Dad told him that his ride was waiting for him in the West Third Parking Lot (though, unbeknownst to Dad, his ride was actually heading away from the stadium toward Pennsylvania in a sea of traffic). The employee fetched a wheelchair and pushed Dad around the stadium to the indicated lot, whereupon he deposited my father saying, “This is as far as I can go. I need the wheelchair back.” Dad stood up, and the man and wheelchair were gone. Dad, believing that Mom was somewhere in the West Third Parking Lot and not on her way out of state, limped pathetically to find her. After several minutes, a police officer had mercy on my father and offered him the use of his cell phone and warmth of his car.

About ten minutes after I found Dad, Mom showed up (fortunately, she thought better of skipping town). The only reason my mom had even come to Cleveland was to make the adventure a little simpler for Dad and me. The plan had been for her to drive us to the game (which she did), deposit us at the stadium before the game (which she did), work in the heated car during the game (which she did), and retrieve us near the stadium after the game so that we would have minimal time walking to and from the stadium in the bitter cold (which she did... not). Altogether, Dad and I spent nearly 90 minutes post-game wandering the streets and stadium of Cleveland and were among the last few fans to escape the elements on one of the coldest nights of the year.

Thanks to Dad’s friend Jeff who let us use his season tickets for this game. Thanks to Dad for braving the cold. And thanks to Mom for attempting to make our lives a little easier.