Some of my fondest childhood memories revolve around my extended family traveling to Husker football away games inside a Buick that was pulling a camper.
This was back in the halcyon 1970s a few years after the Huskers had won back-to-back national championships and it was all but impossible to score tickets to home games without paying a guy on the street named Guido $400 for a pair of seats that may turn out to be fake. One sign you’d just purchased fake tickets from a scalper: there was a photo of Guido on the ticket. Another sign your tickets were fake: you’d buy nine and all nine would read “Row 22, seat 7.”
So my Aunt Helen, Uncle Bud and cousin Dennis did what any other die-hard, crazed fans would do: they packed up the family truckster and crisscrossed the country to watch their beloved Huskers play on the road.
I once asked Aunt Helen why they never flew and she looked as me as if I’d asked her why they didn’t travel by intergalactic moon beam.
There was something about the masochism of driving cross country and staying at a KOA (Campground of America - picture Guantanamo Bay with picnic tables) that was preferred to flying because it allowed you to prove your Husker love. If there was no family camper they’d have traveled by pack mule or perhaps hitchhiked.
Beginning in the second grade until I finished high school I tagged along on some of these Big Red road trips.
My aunt and uncle were not sightseers. They had almost zero interest in tourist attractions or even stopping along the route FOR ANY REASON. Requesting a bathroom stop could result in an icy stare with the intimation being that if you kept that up you could be dropped off at the nearest orphanage.
I could easily envision my uncle barreling past the Grand Canyon at 85 mph as the rest of us were too enthralled with the latest copy of “Huskers Illustrated” magazine to even look up.
I frequently skipped a half day of school when we traveled. (I just had to miss a half day on Friday afternoons because when you stop only for gas - and that stop lasts less time than an Indy 500 pit stop - you can drive almost anywhere in the continental U.S. in a day.)
In Nebraska missing school for religious holidays or to attend Husker games is an excused absence.
These trips were very enlightening as I got to observe local customs and interact with folks from different places and learn about their culture. We were spat at in Columbia, MO., pelted with snowballs in Boulder, CO., cursed at in Manhattan, KS., flipped off at Minnesota, and a guy in Miami Gardens, Fla. once tossed a cup full of urine at us. And we loved every second of it.
Husker fans make easy targets. They stand out wherever they go, dressed head-to-toe in bright red. It’s difficult to blend in with locals when you’ve got a rubber corncob on your noggin. I remember walking into a bar and grill near the stadium in Birmingham, Ala. full of 200 Crimson Tide fans. There were lots of steely glares. Picture the scene in “Animal House” when the fraternity guys walk into the bar where Otis Day and the Knights are performing. We were the frat guys. After being seated Uncle Bud, who liked to stir things up, loudly asked if there was “any Nebraska beef” on the menu. I was 13 and thought I wasn’t going to live to see 14.
Years later when an Alabama fan pleaded guilty to poisoning trees at Auburn’s Toomer’s Corner I shuddered to think that we actually ate the food inside a joint full of ‘Bama fans.
From our trips I learned that Americans are parochial in their thinking, highly territorial and generally dislike folks who are different from them; are jealous of others’ success, meaning the Nebraska football program at the time; and I kinda/sorta learned what it’s like to be in the minority in America - it’s uncomfortable at best and perilous at worst.
My favorite trip was the one to the 1974 Sugar Bowl. In addition to the four of us we brought along Uncle Bob and Aunt Fern from the small town of Sutton, Neb., which made for one crowded Buick.
But that was OK because the way Bud drove it didn’t take long to get to New Orleans. (He barreled through construction zones and at one point pulled around a road closed sign since it was faster than the detour.) We drove all night and I slept part of the way. By the time I woke up we were there.
Because of Bob and Fern’s presence instead of camping at a KOA we checked into a Quality Inn-type motel two days before Nebraska was to face Florida. I still remember dinner that first night - New Orleans staple turtle soup was on the menu and suddenly the Omaha Public School lunches didn’t seem quite so rancid, even the OPS mashed potatoes that could also be used to caulk your driveway.
The next day my all-time favorite memory of any road trip took place when my aunt and uncle broke their “don’t-do-touristy-things” mandate and signed us up for an early evening-into-the-night tour of New Orleans.
As we boarded the bus I noted the comparative prim attire and polite mannerisms of most of the Nebraskans and how that sort of made them stand out amidst the general Bourbon Street bawdiness.
There were perhaps 30 fans from Nebraska on the tour as we were ferried about the city. I remember stopping at a cemetery so we could see that people were interred above ground due to N’Awlins (how it was pronounced by locals) having a high water table. The tour guide said “If we didn’t do this you’d see caskets floating down the street after heavy rains” and I thought the city was missing a golden opportunity by not letting that happen.
Next the tour drove through the Garden District neighborhood featuring stately, enormous mansions, then made a stop at a Bourbon Street jazz place, and, the piesta de resistance - we ended up in, drum roll please...a French Quarter strip joint! This was not on the official itinerary and there were a few kids on the tour, but, hey, it was the seventies and it was N’Awlins. (In the seventies N’Awlins made Sodom and Gomorrah look like Provo.)
As several of the more uptight tour-goers grumbled we were seated down front. Directly in front of the stage. I was 12. Yeah.
A pall fell over the Nebraskans, who made up about 10 percent of the crowd, as a woman whose measurements I’d conservatively estimate at 65-34-40 walked out (under her own power), nude, and proceeded to climb into a giant champagne glass that served as her “tub” as she called it and applied soap to her body. This was heady stuff for my relatives from Sutton where ladies didn’t appear in public on Sundays sans white gloves. More heady stuff: each of this woman’s breasts were roughly the size of Sutton, Neb. I’m pretty sure the Huskers had linebackers that were smaller than this woman’s breasts. University of Nebraska dorm rooms...well, you get the idea.
A little perspective on how shocking this decadence was to my relatives: Sutton is the kind of place where a man can fall off a ladder and suffer a compound fracture of the leg and with the bone protruding through the skin shout “Gol-dang it!”
As the backup jazz combo played the busty bather began bantering with the crowd. I recall her asking my 18-year-old cousin if he was a doctor. Before he could answer she shouted, “I know you are a doctor because of your large instrument!” and the part of the crowd that wasn’t from Nebraska howled with laughter.
I sat back and quietly reveled in the fact that I got to miss school to partake in this “educational experience.”
When the busty bather asked for a volunteer to come on stage and rub soap all over her body my cousin began to stand and my aunt, who was outweighed by 100 pounds by her son, grabbed him by the waist and basically threw him over her shoulder and pinned him to the floor. It was sort of like those stories you hear where a mother sees her child trapped under a car and somehow lifts the vehicle.
A few Nebraskans began whispering that it was time to exit. Others, like Uncle Bud, insisted on staying because it’d be rude to leave, and besides he hadn’t seen anything like this since taking weekend leave in Oslo during WW II.
Pragmatists that they are, some of the Nebraskans tried to view the whole thing as a tutorial on proper bathing technique. Others were growing more upset by the minute. Bob got up and whispered something to the tour guide who walked up to a guy in a purple suit who was either A). the club manager, B). a pimp, C). the winner of a Randy “Macho Man” Savage lookalike contest. The manager/pimp/contest winner apparently signaled the naked bather - I think by pointing to a dude in the audience in a Husker shirt - because a minute later she roared in a heavy South American accent, “Go Ne-baska! Ne-baska is the greatest futball teeeeeem!”
And just like that, this naked woman in a giant champagne glass with her massive, elephantine breasts covered in soap who was spouting profanities and telling bad dirty jokes with her legs spread had won over even the most puritanical Husker fan.
One Husker fan yelled back at her “Go Big Red!” and the rest of us began applauding because, well, it just seemed like the right thing to do, sort of like standing when our national anthem begins playing.
So we stayed and reverently watched her do her thing, which consisted of washing every crevice of her body while shouting the f-word, which was much more entertaining that I just made it sound.
It was certainly something you’re not likely to see at the Sutton Chamber of Commerce talent show.
I remember thinking that if you put this act atop a float and pulled it down the street TV ratings for the Sugar Bowl parade would triple.
It was the first time I’d ever seen a nude woman in person. It was the first (and last) time I’ve seen a stranger bathe. I was truly impressed with this city where the dead are buried above ground and people take public baths inside enormous drinking glasses.
Way too soon the tour guide was ushering us outside into the controlled riot that is the French Quarter and back onto the bus. I recall some of the husbands having big smiles on their faces.
The next day, on New Year's Eve, we were to attend the Sugar Bowl which was sure to be a letdown after the night before. The final score could’ve been 79-78 and it would’ve been a letdown.
Because we’re from Nebraska, and Nebraskans don’t talk about such things, at least in my family, nobody said anything after we got back to the motel, although my cousin and I exchanged “Yeah, it’s not your imagination, that was the best thing ever” looks. I thought to myself that this was surely a million times better than my buddy Larry’s Christmas break trip to the Corn Palace in Mitchell, S.D. even if he did bring home a nifty Corn Palace snow globe.
Immediately after the game ended we drove back to Lincoln without really stopping, or talking, which was normal. To this day I recall every second of our tour of New Orleans. Oh, and Nebraska won the game defeating Florida 13-10. I know that only because I Googled it.