A Safe Distance
October 20, 2004
At Concordia College in Moorhead two weeks ago I was called upon to go and check out the Homecoming football game, which would be over just as our show was due to go on the air; its outcome would be of interest to our fieldhouse audience.
A campus policeman named Vic gave me a ride to the Jake Christiansen Stadium, outdoors, on grass. I was introduced to security there as “a reporter from public radio.” Two concrete stands of bleachers stood on opposite sides of the field; the visitors on the north, looking directly into the low sun, and the home team on the south, under which seats the Scandinavian Club had hung a hand-lettered sign reading: “LEFSE - $1.00.” There were three options: “White Sugar - Brown Sugar - Plain With Butter.” They’re made with potato flour, Scandinavian cousins to the flour tortilla, which also might go good rolled up with sugar and butter. Not much that doesn’t, but as a little kid I thought lefse was the only thing you could eat like that. I asked a guy if he knew who Jake Christiansen was and he said, “Oh ya. He was a head coach here. Head coach for a long time.”
It was a gorgeous day; the campus trees in fall colors, the air warm, the sun bright. Banners reading “Go Cobbers” and “Cobbers Rock” were draped along the stands. My reporter status allowed me unabridged access to the sidelines, right there among the officials, and down on the field it’s not like it is on television, or even up in the stands. On the tube the game looks strategic, a tackle made like the tipping of a chess piece; from the chalkline along the field of play it’s loud and sudden, breath forced out of the gladiators with a grunt and a whoosh, like an airbag rupturing; pads thudding like the hooves of cattle. The ground shakes from all the necessary roughness.
As I stand immersed in appreciation of the battle along the line of scrimmage the ball spirals abruptly out of the ruckus right at me, like a smart bomb seeking my unfirm and unplated form. I duck just in time, reading the spinning stitches as it whips by, and wonder if a receiver missed his route or if the quarterback just targeted me out of humor.
I sat a few games behind the goal at the old North Stars hockey games, trying to see incoming pucks delivered by slap shots forty feet away; I could have just as well been trying to track little oncoming cannon balls. I’d see the stick go back, the shooter loading up, and then the puck was there, instantly, like lightning in a storm. BANG! On the plexiglass, a foot away. Never saw the flight of the missile, and goalies routinely snatch them out of the air like horseflies. Players crash into the boards in front of you like cars hitting retaining walls; you expect to see a fender lying there afterwards.
Once, during the warmup for a pickup hockey game - myself the worst player on the ice - a hotshot ringer from South Saint Paul High School fired one past the goal so hard the impact on the boards boomed through the empty arena like a dynamite shot. It echoed for a long time. We looked at each other ruefully, skating slowly, and nobody said anything. On the benches in the locker room after the game we shed our pads and skates, jollier than usual, grateful without saying it that the kid had the class to not unleash that weapon on us mere ordinary fellas.
A fighter jet flies over the football field; I later see a motorcycle road race on television. What it’s like forcing that bike nearly horizontal through a hard bend at a hundred and twenty miles an hour with your toes skinning pavement, or crammed into a cockpit and pulling a fighter out of a dive at 1100 mph, is impossible to feel. You can strain your imagination but you know you can’t approach the incredible reality of it. Standing next to college football made me want to be in there, inside the lines, inside the rough details and the violence, to experience the hitting and the trash talk. But not to actually get any bones broken, which of course would happen on the first play. And with both rosters full of small-town Minnesota boys, trash talking would probably not be a big part of the experience either. I was as close to the essence of it as a guy would need to be. It wasn’t necessary to get to the part with the Ace bandages and the crutches.
Industry has given us the gift of safe distance. In the old tribal days, most anything people saw off yonder they would very likely at some time feel close up; herds, mountains, waterfalls, storms, forests, enemy warriors. Most of what they came onto they put their hands on and went into in the tightest detail, be it skinning a carcass or making a vase from mud. They were hands-on cultures.
It’s different today. A lot of what I see is mystery, about which I only imagine the inside experience. Flying that plane, erecting that bridge, snaking that string of barges down the Mississippi; some things we can arrange for ourselves to get that inside detail but most of it we can’t, unless we really make an effort. What’s actually happening inside this computer when I hit the italic icon and press the shift key and this key right here, this X? A disc is spinning beneath the keyboard, coded with on and off signals, I’ve been told, and from that smooth motion come enormously complex routes through fabulously small circuits directing teeny bits of electricity. The screen is altered; there’s the X, and other letters move over and make room for it. The electricity powering the little miracle comes from a huge fire, boiling water through a steam turbine in a plant eight miles away, from coal a million years old and hauled here from Montana by a train of a hundred cars. I get to witness just the X go up there and have to picture all the rest.
It’s great. I wouldn’t want to be expected to go out into the cold wet tomorrow morning with a few of my tribesmen and try to track down a deer and get close enough to put an arrow through its ribs, and then cut it up and haul it back and find wood and somehow get a fire going. Or eat it raw. Spend an entire cold and freezing day, or days, in the hope of finding food. It’s something a person might do for the challenge, but it’s real nice not to have to do it to survive. We can read about it from a warm dry distance. And we can communicate from afar and see images of impossible feats, see the bottom of the ocean and the very surface of the moon. We just can’t touch it, is all. Can’t feel the texture, smell it, walk on it. But the fact that some of us have done that means that a lot of us could have, and in a small way then we too have done it.
We lose something at the safe distance but the tradeoff is a world beyond the imagination of even Leonardo da Vinci. I enjoy the rough and the finesse parts of driving truck, the feel and the sound and the jostling that you can’t get from watching it go by, but I don’t mind it when I’m not doing it, either. I don’t need to be at the inside details all the time. This modern age is highly underrated. Sitting with this vast cornucopia of possibilities at one’s fingertips is pretty fabulous, when you get right down to it. I’ll be at the World Series again this year, watching those fastballs coming in and not having to worry about getting beaned. What ancient king or emperor could ever have had this kind of fun?
The Everly Brothers were on our show some years back and Don told about how in an informal group of musicians in Austin, Texas, a fellow had asked brother Phil if he’d mind if he played Phil’s guitar. No problem. The guy held it carefully across his knee and plucked strings and moved his fingers here and there, all to no musical effect. Everyone stopped and watched. Finally Phil said, “Are you sure you can play that thing?”
The man had a quizzical look. He said: “. . . Well, I thought I could; I’ve seen it done so many times.”
And the Concordia Cobbers remained undefeated, beating the Hamline Pipers 42-0 that day. It may have looked easy from the stands, but they worked hard for the win and there were a lot of tough details to take care of in there. Take my word for it.