One Smart Decision

Those who spent any appreciable time in front of the television last Saturday were subjected to an onslaught of Vonage commercials which, though mildly annoying most of the time, did feature my favorite new advertising tagline: "One smart decision among many, many stupid ones."

When I collapsed facedown on my bed late Sunday night after traveling home to New Hampshire from the Notre Dame-Penn State game, I was pretty sure the phrase was tattooed in boldfaced type across my ass.

The smart decision had been made months earlier when my band of friends (former Carroll Hall Vermin) who regularly keep in touch and formally assemble once a year at various vacation locales had agreed to go to a Notre Dame football game for the first time in the gathering's 18-year history. We would stay at the vacation house owned by one of the group in Clear Lake, Ind., a little more than an hour drive from campus.

That particular decision was out of my hands, which was just as well. Because just about every decision I made last weekend fell firmly into the "stupid" category.

My choice of airlines was a disaster. Continental got me from Boston to Cleveland without incident, but when we got on our connecting flight to Detroit – a fifteen person prop job held together with duct tape and static electricity – and taxied out to the runway, we were pulled out of line and told to wait. After 20 minutes on the tarmac the pilot found a malfunctioning gauge and we returned to the gate and deplaned. Poof! There went another hour.

We buzzed over to Detroit where I went to retrieve my checked luggage (because God knows WHAT kind of concoction I could smuggle aboard in my contact lens case). Of course my golf clubs, which I planned to use the following afternoon, were left behind. No doubt they would have put too much stress on the rubber band that powered the plane.

The two-hour drive from Detroit to Clear Lake in far northeastern Indiana went smoothly except for the fact that I chose a mid-size rental car and the best they could do for me was a PT Cruiser. I'm over the whole retro thing.

It was getting on toward six p.m. on Thursday when I pulled into the driveway and walked across the street to the lake to join two of my group who had made it before me. They were enjoying a few beers on a pontoon boat, which we then took for a spin to catch the last rays of a simply gorgeous day on the water. As darkness fell I decided it was time to take my sunglasses off and sit them atop my head for the ride back to the dock. During the course of telling a story, I whipped my head around for comic effect and heard my sunglasses hit the water. I would learn later that the middle of Clear Lake is 109 feet deep. Those suckers were gone.

The next morning we were tossing around our options for what to do before golf and this phrase inexplicably came out of my mouth: "I haven't been water-skiing in a while. Why don't we do that?" Now, "a while" is actually a shade over a decade, and while I was a decent skier then, that was 30 pounds and many, many missed trips to the gym ago. Heavier and weaker is NOT a combo that will get you where you want to be on the water. I made five attempts at being violently yanked to my feet by a 200 hp engine. I came tantalizingly close on attempt number three, but it was apparent that that was it. I knew something was wrong when I tried to twist a cap off my first beer of the day and my rib hurt. I was gimpy and sore that day. The NEXT day I was pretty much incapacitated (when it hurts to sleep, you have definitely overexerted yourself).

Golf was fine (a 94 my first time on a nice course with lightning fast greens, rented clubs, running shoes, a borrowed glove, the aforementioned rib deal and plenty of beer – I'll take it). Unfortunately, my poor decision was taking an open container for the ride to the course. We, of course, were stopped for speeding. But, as Public Enemy once said, God takes care of old folks and fools, and our driver was stone cold sober. My share of a $138 speeding ticket is a small price to pay considering what could have happened.

On the flight home we were subjected to another deplaning. I also managed to snag someone else's luggage from the conveyor, only realizing my error on the shuttle to the economy lot. When THAT snafu was straightened out I got on the wrong shuttle. Back to the terminal. A 20 minute process to go from baggage claim to my car turned into an hour and a half.

But every bad decision and every adverse consequence, even the ones waiting for me on the return trip home, seemed to melt away on Saturday when we drove onto campus to park in Reserved Lot A, smack dab in the middle of what used to be the old tailgating Mecca of Green Field.

It's not that I felt immediately at home. In fact, on many of my trips back to ND for games I've remarked that it's always a little sad because Notre Dame doesn't belong to me anymore. Each year it belongs to a new crop of freshmen who are entrusted with it for four years. It's a gift, but one you have to give back.

But it's enough just to remember it. It's enough to remember driving up the winding road to Carroll Hall on my first day on campus 20 years ago (well before the Vermin began hanging the huge GO IRISH banner – how cool is that?). To remember Prof. Slowey's ridiculously easy Accounting class and how O'Shag used to smell in winter. To remember South Dining Hall and the funniest two-hour lunches you ever sat through (last three tables, right near the doors). To remember that we couldn't leave The Commons until we had one more pitcher of Watney's and heard "Brown Eyed Girl." Off-campus parties so full you could feel the floor sagging under the weight. Floor hockey in the ACC and a late-night steak-and-egg burrito at Naugles. Good people too numerous to count.

Even though it isn't mine anymore, and Green Field is paved and the on-campus Barnes and Noble makes a gameday purchase more than just a pipe dream, being back on campus opens me to the memories. I'm more receptive to them. I'm in a hallowed stadium, standing with my best friends in the world singing my alma mater and I'm so happy I can actually feel tears.

And it was all due to the "one smart decision." Not to come to this particular game at this particular time (although that was pretty sweet). It was the one I made 20 years ago to leave New England for college. To sink or swim a thousand miles away from home in a place that became home. I almost sank a few times but I managed to keep my head out of the water, dog-paddle a few laps and finish the race. One of the few truly inspired decisions I ever made.

Oh yeah. Continental STILL can't find my clubs.

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