I've been to Kathmandu and Timbuktu and even to South El Monte, but it wasn't until Nov. 5, 2016, that I attended my first tailgate party.
La Cañada is a town of endless football chatter. On a typical Sunday morning at Starbucks, the accounts of who did what and when at a UCLA or USC football game are deafening. In this town, it's sacrilegious to comment against the holy grail of football, but I'm from a different ozone layer because my attention span doesn't go beyond the first set of downs.
On any typical day, my friends gather at Starbucks and wait for their Flat Whites, Iced Chestnut Praline Lattes or Coconut Milk Mocha Macchiatos. (In my day, coffee was either black or black, and it was a nickel.) While my friends wait for their beverages, the conversations dissect the spectrum of the weekend's games. I can image what it must be like at the RAND think tank analyzing China's incursion into the South China Sea.
Although I'm typically pulled into the dialogue, my contributions are questionable. One friend might say something along the lines of, "Dr. Joe, what do you think of SC's fake punt in the fourth quarter?" I'm embarrassed to admit that I thought football season ended on Halloween. However, I say something witty like, "Guys, I was No. 5 when I played for the Golden Wakefield Bullets back in '63." After that comment, they know better than to ask me a question about football.
Since the line at Starbucks extends toward Trader Joe's, they have plenty of time to converse and often include accounts of the tailgate extravaganzas before football games. That's a topic that intrigues me. Tailgating, pregame partying staged around the back of a car or truck, is an American phenomenon. It embodies a kaleidoscope of subtleties that define a culture.
I like to know about "stuff." Some call it minutia. But did you know the first tailgate occurred July 21, 1861, at the battle of Bull Run? Civilians from Washington and Richmond traveled to Manassas, Va., to witness the first battle of the Civil War. They brought along chuckwagons and carried food and the means to cook it in the back of their horse-drawn wagons. Each side cheered as both North and South gained and lost momentum. The Southern fans went crazy when General Beauregard shouted, "There stands Jackson like a stonewall rally behind the Virginians." The myth of Stonewall Jackson was born at a tailgate party.
When it comes to tailgating, I've always been a bridesmaid and never a bride. That changed when I visited my friend Arman Manukyan at Penn State earlier this month. Kickoff for the game against Iowa was at 7:30 p.m. When we arrived at 2:30 that afternoon, we found an endless sea of tailgaters seemingly engulfing State's 5,448 acres. Food, games, music, booze and the spectacular fall colors weaved into one thematic experience: fun.
Arman is a law student, so we tracked down those students' tailgating site. I was an anomaly; the oldest tailgater they'd ever seen. Regardless, those kids accepted me as one of their own. Camaraderie is the essence of tailgating. Whether you were from Iowa or Penn State, tailgating that day was a shared experience.
Callie Hagen, a first-year law student from Michigan, dragged me into my first game of beer pong. Callie will one day work in Great Britain and become an expert in international security. Melissa Blanco, from Florida, danced the entire afternoon. She defined the core of passion as she spoke about child advocacy.
I lost at Flip Cup, couldn't shotgun a beer, and none of the playlists had any doo-wop. Regardless, the experience was great. It began to get cold, and daylight waned. Before the tailgaters left for the game or the bars at State College, I watched them come together for one last moment. "We Are Family," they sang. I wonder if they realized they were building the bonds that would last a lifetime.