Majella, Queen of the Homecoming

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Last weekend saw us enjoying another particularly fine American college tradition – Homecoming weekend. This is an annual event when alumni return to their old school and are warmly welcomed by faculty and students. The highlight is the football game on Saturday, but the whole weekend is an action-packed extravaganza. Typically such weekends are worth about $2m to the Lafayette economy as hotels, motels, retailers, and restaurants share in the action.

This year the weekend also coincided with the rescheduled “Discover Purdue” weekend which had been been set for mid-September, but was overtaken by larger circumstances at that time.

Celebrations commenced with the Homecoming Parade which was held on Friday night. This long-held tradition had been abandoned here for many years, but was re-introduced in honour of the 80th birthday of the Big Bass Drum. Peter and I donned as much warm gear as would enable us to still fit into the car and headed out to get a good vantage point.

We arrived in plenty of time and were able to wander among the few floats and cars (to carry the Homecoming King and Queen entrants) and chat with marching band members and the cheer leaders/baton twirlers. The latter were sensibly dressed in track suits but assured me that tomorrow at the game they would have to wear their skimpy outfits. I decided then and there not to try out for the cheer squad!

We were also able to talk to the guy who had the honour of playing the big drum and he was kind enough to allow me to have a photo taken banging the drum. That was pretty exciting.

We also got a photo of (reluctant) Peter with the team mascot “Purdue Pete”. “Purdue Pete meets Purdue Pete” has a good ring as a photo caption!

The parade was fun. The marching band and their instruments were bedecked with fairy lights, the twirlers’ batons were tipped with glow sticks, and the effect was magical. Paraders distributed candy, pom-poms, and flags, and Peter and I stuffed our pockets with goodies, cheered and thumped our hands together (it’s hard to clap with gloves on), then headed for the warmth of home.

Next morning we had an early start as Peter had volunteered to work at the School of Education Alumni Hospitality tent, which was situated near the entrance to the football stadium. I decided to go in with him and help him be sociable. The game was due to start at about 11 am and we went in at 9. The weather was cold, but the bitter winds of the preceding days had mercifully abated. Hospitality consisted of bagels and cream cheese, apples, hot popcorn, hot coffee and hot chocolate, and lots of Purdue regalia, stickers, etc.

Our job (after having our fill of bagels, etc) was to welcome visitors, and hand out the goodies.I had a great time distributing popcorn and yellow Purdue pom-poms. Crowds streamed by, mostly in Purdue colours of gold and black. Occasionally a handful of NorthWestern supporters would pass by in their bright purples. We didn’t have tickets for the Homecoming game but have been given tickets for next week. Once most of the crowd had passed our tent, and the popcorn supplies were depleted, we took our leave and wandered around to the main entrance to watch the band enter the stadium.

As we walked around, we noticed a few people waving tickets for sale. Being more impulsive than a lover of football, I persuaded Peter to buy two tickets from a guy who assured us he was honest. I wished he hadn’t said that because I immediately felt sure he wasn’t and that we had done our dough, but we nevertheless scurried around to our allocated gate and happily found the vacant seats waiting for us.

The atmosphere was electric. The marching bands had already completed their pre-game performance and had taken up their positions at either end of the field. The All-American Purdue Marching band has about 300 members, and they were joined on this occasion by the Alumni band which also consisted of over a hundred players. They don’t just play, they perform – waving their instruments wildly and playing with extraordinary skill and enthusiasm.

The crowd surged to their feet to welcome the teams onto the field. And on they came – and on and on!!! Hordes of guys in slinky gold lycra pedal pushers, black shirts, and gold helmets, their bodies strangely distorted by masses of padding and armour on their legs and upper body. Then came an equally large battalion for the opposing team. Later during the less scintillating parts of the game I counted about 70 on each side! I gasped aloud: “Are they all really going to play?” The guy beside me looked down disbelievingly. I apologised to him and confessed that this was my first game. He patiently explained that most of them would actually play. At any one time, there were only 11 on the grounds, but there was one group who played offence, another who played defence, others who had specialist roles, and others who were reserves and replacements. I did a quick calculation and wondered how, with all the band members, cheer squads, coaches and their assistants, game officials, and media personnel, there was any room left in the stadium for spectators!

I have never enjoyed football (except maybe soccer), and this game did nothing to disabuse me of my detestation. This particular version (Grid Iron) is a very complex game, but I soon learned a few basics. For example, the commentator’s frequent announcement that “Hance’s pass is incomplete” was not a cause for celebration. Some of those guys can really throw the ball though and one fellow was on the receiving end of a bullet from Hance. He stood there stunned, removed the ball from the cavity in his chest and held it aloft. On that occasion, Hance’s pass was complete. I waved my yellow pom-pom. Another move that impressed me was by a huge guy who puffed himself out to almost double his original size, planted himself with shoulders forward, and held this position while an opponent thrust at him. The hapless attacker bounced back and landed in an undignified shattered heap. The giant stood tall, did a high-five with his mates and lumbered off the field. I don’t think he even got to return for the rest of the game. He was obviously one of those “specialists”. During all this on-field action, there was plenty to distract me. The cheer squads led cries of “Go Boilers!” and their acrobatic feats were a delight. The band would also burst into life every time the action was going Purdue’s way, or if there seemed to be a bit of a lull, or if the band felt like playing! At last half-time arrived, and I could enjoy the real entertainment of the bands and baton twirlers (dressed in skimpy outfits as promised) as the main event rather than as a side show. The Big Bass Drum was rolled out maniacally by its enthusiastic handlers. I loved their reverent irreverence as they played see-saw with the carriage, alternately lifting the front and back bearers several feet off the ground. The coup de grace was when one of the original bass players, now 96 years old, walked jauntily (well as jauntily as a 96 year old could manage) onto the field to have another historic bash at the big drum. The band was great. I could have watched and laughed at their passionate enjoyment for hours – forget the football, this was much more fun!

Other half-time excitement included the crowning of the Homecoming King and Queen. It wasn’t Peter and me, what a pity! There was also a presentation to the couple who donated $30m towards the cost of the new nanotechnology centre. The alumni Band then played and a number of former twirlers returned to relive their glory days.

Then it was back to the football. By this time, I just wanted them to finish and go home. I felt particularly sorry for those guys shivering in their lycra suits who never got to run on even for a moment. The good news is that Purdue won, and I have to admit that the 67,119 other people in the crowd appeared to be much more enthusiastic and knowledgeable about the game that I was. Peter was able to pick up on a few of the rules and has shared some of his insights with me. After next week, we should be absolute experts!

We wandered back through the university to find our car, and noticed lots of tail-gate parties, and parents being invited into the residence halls. Homecoming continued. We went home.

Due to popular demand (mostly from Robert who keeps getting the correct answers), I will finish with another trivia question. This one might be a bit harder, Robert. What four October weather records have been broken here in Indiana this year?