A football memory 1966: A smoke filled vortex rose above the masses

Even as a child I knew that the life my parents were providing me was sheltered. However, it wasn’t until I went to my first professional football game, at the age of eight at New York’s Yankee Stadium, that I realized just how sheltered my reality was. On Saturday nights we were allowed to watch TV, bed time was 8:30. One Saturday night, just before heading up to bed, we were all watching Wild, Wild, Wild West. My dad asked me if I wanted to go to the Giants game the following day. It of course meant that we would have to go to church earlier than the rest of the family as game time was 1:00 and we would need some time to grab lunch and get to the stadium. Without hesitation, I said, “Yes!”

Sunday morning came, my dad and I attended the 8:00 mass and drove into New York City, something I had never done before. Dad drove us in his Oldsmobile Cutlass 442 on unfamiliar highways that were largely deserted at 9:00 AM on a Sunday morning. We listened to the radio; his station of choice was WNEW 1130 AM. It was also the station that broadcast the Giants games. Ironically, that spot on the dial is now the home to Bloomberg News. Driving through the Lincoln Tunnel was surreal. It felt dreamlike with two lanes, no traffic, bright lights and a sense of speed that only comes from being in a confining landscape. No sooner had I begun to get accustomed to the tunnel that we popped out the other side in New York City, 42nd Street.

Back in the sixties, 42nd Street was famous for its colorful inhabitants, burlesque theatres and decidedly worldly flare. That in and of itself was a bit of a shock to my senses. The bright lights, unfamiliar sights and crude reality of my introduction to NYC is impossible to forget. We drove a few blocks across town and parked in the street next to the corner of 42nd and Lexington Ave. I asked my dad what we were going to do next, while getting out of the car. He turned and pointed his finger at a storefront that had signage reading “Horn and Hardart” in bright red lettering. As we walked into the place, I was mystified. I had never seen anything quite like it. Before me was a cafeteria of sorts but not like the lunch room at grade school. It was a lunch room for grown ups. We walked up to a wall with many small glass doors roughly 4 inches square. Inside each of those little glass doors were individual pieces of chocolate cake, cherry pie, brownies and everything I ever wanted to eat, but couldn’t. My dad let me have whatever I wanted. He said, “This is your day son, have whatever you want.” I didn’t hesitate, though I could hardly believe my good fortune. After a quick bite to eat of cherry pie with whipped cream and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, in that order, we headed out – but not to the car. We walked past dad’s familiar car parked in a very foreign setting.

My dad grabbed my hand and led me down some stairs on the corner into a subterranean station. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a couple of coins that he referred to as tokens. We slipped them into the turnstile and we pushed our way onto the platform. No sooner had we arrived that a loud steel rail car arrived with the PA system blaring inaudible messages. Quickly, my dad grabbed my hand and we jumped on. The doors slammed noisily behind us and the train lurched forward. My eyes were wide open. There was not a single familiar sight, person, smell, noise or sense in my head – other than my dad’s familiar smile looking over me.

After a series of starts and stops, the train started traveling above ground on elevated tracks. To my amazement, we were moving on train tracks above the streets through the city – towards Yankee Stadium. After 30 minutes or so the stadium emerged before us. It was huge, the biggest building I had ever seen. By this time the train had become crowded with noisy men full of either entirely too much enthusiasm or drink. As the train came to a screeching halt in front of the stadium, we all piled out. The crowd moved with furious purpose and enthusiasm to the entrance of this enormous building with a level of fraternity and familiarity that was foreign to me. Once inside we walked hand in hand through the throngs of men. Men of all ages, shapes and temperaments. But all men. There were no women or girls and nearly all the men were rather nicely dressed – most sporting fedoras. I was wearing a navy blazer and tie. After stopping at the refreshment stand for a box of Cracker Jacks we climbed a long series of cement stairs, turned left and squeezed into the row. My dad’s seats were in the bleachers in the end zone. It was a snug fit as I remember it. Everyone seemed very familiar, friendly. Men were slapping each other on the back, laughing and tilting shinny metal containers up to their mouths with frequency. It seemed the more they drank from those metal containers, the louder and happier they got.

Before long, I looked up and out over the stadium. Just above the thronging crowd was a visible vortex of rising smoke. The smoke was coming from the cigarettes and cigars that were being smoked by the thousands by these men freed from the customs of civilized behavior. This was my first glimpse at a man’s world. There was a familiarity, fraternity and element of childish abandonment that I was thoroughly unfamiliar with. The New York Giants beat the Minnesota Vikings that day for one of their only victories of the season. After the game was over everyone left the stadium en mass. We got back on the Lexington Ave line subway, hopped into the car parked on 42nd Street and drove home. I was asleep before we got to the Lincoln Tunnel. In my dreams I heard the radio playing as sports commentators reminisced about the game and its unlikely outcome. The Giants won.

Program Photo: Eric Kennedy