whatever it takes
There are many ways that young kids grow with their college experience. If you go away to school, when you’re a freshman, you can’t wait to get back home. Fall break, Thanksgiving, Christmas, spring break, summer vacation … They all mean the same thing. Home. If you don’t have a car, you try to arrange a ride or you check the bus and train schedules. Whatever it takes, you’re bound for home and your old bed in your old room. You dream about your Mom’s cooking and, if you’re honest, giving in to her demands to do your laundry for you. Home is your security blanket. Home is your Woobie.
After a few years though, for some college students, home isn’t quite the pull it used to be. Breaks from school are a chance to explore. As the late Ellie Fredricksen exclaimed to her husband, Karl, in “Up” … “Adventure is out there!” And during the 1978-79 winter holiday break at the University of Virginia, eight college kids were about to embark on an epic adventure.
Our football team at UVA sucked back then. I mean, really sucked. The only bowl games we went to were next to our showers. But Virginia did have a scrappy underdog basketball team that played their hearts out. We weren’t as talented as the big boys but we played hard against them all game long. And us UVA students loved our Wahoos basketball team. Every game was packed and hot and loud. We didn’t care if they weren’t great. We cared because they were ours.
Back then, just like today, college basketball coaches liked to take their teams to winter holiday tournaments. And so during the last week of December 1978, the Virginia basketball team travelled to the city of New Orleans, Louisiana to play in the 1978-79 New Year’s Eve Sugar Bowl Basketball Tournament.
New Orleans + New Year’s Eve + College kids = Road trip.
First, a little background. That was the year the Sugar Bowl football game was the biggest game on the college bowl schedule. No. 1 Penn State vs No. 2 Alabama. Joe Paterno vs Bear Bryant. The two best teams in college football that year and one game for the unanimous, undisputed college football national championship. January 1, 1979. The Louisiana Superdome. And we had no interest in that game. None at all.
There were seven of us to start. We met in northern Virginia a couple days after Christmas and divided up into two compact cars along with bags and luggage. And yes, we were jammed tight into those small cars without a lot of room but a lot of miles to cover. We each had enough cash to cover gas, snacks, fast food and one dinner at an expensive New Orleans restaurant. One of our fraternity brothers who had graduated the year before was going to law school at Tulane but he had gone home to Texas for the holidays and so he let us use his small apartment to crash.
And each car had a CB radio. These gadgets were a source of both anger, frustration and comedy. 10-4, good buddy, and we were off to Nawlins to see our basketball team.
The hijinks began almost immediately. You put seven college kids into two cars with two CB radios and you’re just begging for an endless string of mom jokes, fart noises (real or otherwise), inquiries as to whether we’re lost, and requests to stop for bathroom and meal breaks. Our car decided to prank the other car by rejecting every request the other car made. 10-4, how about McDonald’s? 10-4, no, Mickey D’s sucks. 10-4, how about Burger King? 10-4, you mean Burger Thing? Pass. We kept this juvenile game going for a hundred miles or more through the I-85 North Carolina wilderness. Each time we turned down their suggestion, they got madder and madder while we giggled even harder. Yep, we were off to a great start.
Obviously, we had to stop somewhere. They boiled out of their car in a bad mood so we had to assure them we were done messing with them. Totally worth it though. Soon enough, we were back on the road and making time through peach country in upstate South Carolina and down through Georgia, around Atlanta and into Alabama. Back then, I-85 was really remote. Today, it’s lined with massive truck stops and rest areas, factory outlet malls, fast food stops at every exit, and lots of cheap overnight motels. Back then, it was a Stuckey’s every 100 miles or so, a few gas stations and lotsa trees.
We stopped in Auburn, AL, to pick up our eighth intrepid road tripper, a cousin of one of our two drivers. So now both compact cars were each jammed with four obnoxious, raunchy, juvenile, college males headed for New Year’s Eve on Bourbon Street. We were two weeks past our fall semester finals and we had two weeks to go before spring semester classes started up. From college kids 100 years ago to college kids today, that is the sweet spot. That is party time and the French Quarter is the party zone.
As we double motored on down I-85 South, we soon discovered that our dual CB radios were both blessing and curse. 1978 was long before cell phones and GPS apps of course so the radios did help our two cars mostly stay in touch. But as you can guess, they were also the source of comical frustration. Comical now, that is. You would think that driving on an interstate highway wouldn’t be an anger challenge but that doesn’t factor testosterone into the equation. Not at all.
Our exit is five miles away, 10-4.
Yeah, we know, 10-4.
You need to be in the far right lane, 10-4.
Yeah, we know, we’ll get there, 10-4.
Now would be nice. We don’t want to miss our exit, 10-4.
We’re not gonna miss the exit, 10-4.
You missed the last one, 10-4.
That was your fault, 10-4. You wouldn’t shut up, 10-4.
You just missed the exit, 10-4.
God damn it, 10-4.
Eventually, somehow without killing each other, 10-4, we made it down to the Gulf Coast and got on I-10 heading west through southern Mississippi and on into the Crescent City at night. Most travelers want to stretch out and rest up after such a long trip. Nope, not us. We ditched our bags in our frat alum’s Tulane apartment and headed straight for Pat O’Brien’s on Bourbon Street. It was Hurricane time. If you’ve never had one, it’s just 4 oz of good rum plus some other red sugary stuff topped by an orange and a cherry. If you have had a Hurricane, or in our case 4 or 5 each, it’s a future date with a sidewalk. More on this later.
Somehow, we staggered back to our crash pad and passed out for the night. And then woke up with “Hurricane Hangover” which they don’t tell you about at the legendary Pat O’Brien’s. Now keep in mind that the entire mainstream sports world was in New Orleans for the national championship Sugar Bowl game. The Big Easy was stuffed full of rowdy Alabama fans decked out in crimson and boisterous Penn State fans decked out in blue and white. But not us, no, we were in the football center of the universe wearing our orange and blue to see some Virginia basketball.
And so there we were in our nosebleed seats at the Louisiana Superdome watching our Cavaliers play the first of two games in two days. We beat Providence in that first game. The big highlight was one of our popular bench warmers got in the game late and scored Virginia’s 100th point. Later that night, we headed back to the French Quarter for more partying with the heathen football hordes. Only this time, instead of getting hammered again, we decided to see what the famous Bourbon Street drag queen shows were like. And that idea didn’t last long. No, thank you. A check on the bucket list and that was that.
Next day we were back in the Superdome for our second basketball game. We lost a close one to Alabama’s basketball team which might just be the least appreciated college sports team in the entire country given the success of Alabama football. But the highlight of our day was still to come. As mentioned earlier, we each brought a coat and tie and enough cash to dine at a fancy New Orleans restaurant. We had made reservations at the world famous Commander’s Palace serving Creole cuisine in the Garden District. They put us at two adjacent tables and, for once, we were actually stone cold sober and on our best behavior. I don’t remember what I had but I’m sure their notable turtle soup, a seafood etouffee and bread pudding were at least considered. Anyway, big bucket list check mark. Big one. Huge.
One thing I distinctly remember that I’d never seen before … After we were first seated, our waiter, dressed in his finest livery, served us our individual bread rolls. Being hungry college kids, we wolfed those down pretty fast but then he came back and somehow magically made a six-inch gold ruler appear in his hands as he deftly and wordlessly scraped and cleaned our table cloth of any stray bread crumbs. I know that’s no big deal but, to a 20-year-old college student, that was a distinct notch above macs and cheese in a dorm room hot pot. Way above.
So the next day is December 31, 1978. New Year’s Eve. Next to Mardi Gras, this is the biggest party night in New Orleans. And I wake up sick. No idea what was wrong but all I wanted to do was curl up in the fetal position inside my sleeping bag and die. Here’s my home phone number, boys. Call my mother and tell her I love her. But like sympathetic boys the world over, they just laughed and left me to go get drunk as skunks. Later that evening, still sick, I decided to play hero. Sick or no sick, I needed to be with the boys in the Quarter partying too. So I staggered outside and hopped a ride on one of New Orleans famous “A Streetcar Named Desire” trolleys.
Now as if this saga isn’t strange enough, here’s where it gets a little weird. I very well could have been having Robitussin hallucinations but I’m 99% sure I heard a rifle shot take a healthy chunk of wood off the top of our streetcar. Everybody else seemed to hear it too. And that’s when we rode past an insane asylum along the road and saw a guy in a white hospital robe running around trying to avoid capture by the orderlies. Again, I might’ve been delirious from the all-day crud but that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. And yes, that takes care of the “Were you ever shot at?” bucket list check box.
Okay, so I finally reach Bourbon Street and now I’ve got a big challenge. The French Quarter is jammed packed and I need to find my guys. On one side, there are thousands of drunken Alabama fans singing and yelling “Roll Tide Roll” and, on the other side, thousands of hammered Nittany Lions fans counter-yelling “We are … Penn State!” I’m all alone in the middle of this rabid football mob looking for six UVA guys and one Auburn cousin. May the odds be ever in my favor.
But lo and behold, as I stagger in sickness up (down?) Bourbon Street like a lonely nomad in a crimson and blue desert, I hear a faint but familiar tune. Could it be?
Now all you girls from Mary Wash and RMWC
Don’t ever let a Cavalier an inch above your knee
He’ll fill you full of liquor and fill you fill of beer
And soon you’ll be the mother of a bastard Cavalier.
Oh, I think we need another drink …
It’s them! It’s gotta be them! No one else here knows that song. That beautiful, wonderful song!
And soon I see one of the most beautiful, most comforting, most heartwarming sights these eyes have ever seen. My roomie is bent over and blowing the prettiest, most gorgeous bright red Hurricane chunks all over the Bourbon Street sidewalk. Like Odysseus finally made it to Ithaca, I had found my boys. God love ’em, their Hurricane heaves were just the siren call I needed to locate them. Laissez les bons temps rouler.
The next day was New Year’s Day, Monday, January 1, 1979, our last full day in the Big Easy. We also knew an older fraternity brother, a native New Orleanian, who had invited us all over to his mom’s house to watch the big game. If you know your Louisiana traditions, you know what Monday is. That’s right, the traditional Creole lunch of red beans and rice. And the eight of us were in Ground Zero for authentic homemade red beans and rice. And our older brother’s mother had been making it every Monday for decades.
Let’s go slow here … If you’re in Boston, you’re going to have the best New England Clam Chowder you’ve ever had. If you’re in San Francisco, you’re in the center of the Sourdough bread world. Same goes for North Carolina barbecue, Maryland blue crabs, Texas chili and so on. And if you’re in New Orleans, you have reached the pinnacle of Cajun and Creole cuisine.
So the oil painting looks like this … Eight mildly hung over but famished, high energy, college boys with their older frat brother and his 100% genuine New Orleans mom watching the best college football game of the season on national television being played about 1/2 mile away while devouring huge bowls of the finest homemade red beans and rice ever made. I’m sorry I cut short my winter break at home, Mom. I know you wanted me to stay the full month. But if there is a heaven on earth, that afternoon was about as close as it gets.
We packed up and left the next morning again jammed elbow to elbow and butt to butt in our two compact cars. We had long ditched the CB radios. Truthfully, we thought they’d be fun but they weren’t worth the hassle. Besides, silence was golden at that point in the trip. We made our way back up I-85 North slowly but steadily without too much adventure. My foosball partner, Lester Leonard and I peeled off to go see another UVA basketball game but that’s a story for another day. Otherwise, we all made it back safely to Charlottesville to get ready for spring semester.
Many years later, as an adult, I had the fortune of returning to New Orleans for a week long, business trip using the corporate credit card for everything including flights, a rental car, a single room at the Doubletree Hotel, fancy restaurants every night and tickets to premier entertainment events. I’m still not sure which trip was better.