As we get ready for Super Bowl LIII, I wanted to share this short story with you. It was written by a long time friend of mine in Mississippi, Michael Hewes. It is a true story of about friendship, those high school days, and how some events from back in the day can stay with us forever. Michael calls it The Greatest Super Bowl Party Ever, and after all of the drama we’ve seen leading up to the big game this year, you may agree with him.
And his children's novel, The Tempestuous Trial of Mabelline Meriweather.
The Greatest Super Bowl Party Ever by Michael Hewes
It was reported this week that Americans are expected to spend $14.1 billion on the Super Bowl for food, decorations and libations. That breaks down to roughly $1.5 billion for beer, $500 million for chips and just north of $80 million for chicken wings. It is also estimated that 48% of American adults will either host or attend a Super Bowl party. That means about 150 million of your closest family, friends and/or coworkers will raise a glass to the game, to the commercials, to the host or hostess or to the dog that patrols underfoot hoping for a dropped sausage. Yes, the Patriots and Rams are playing, but if it is not your home team on the gridiron, do you really go to the party because of the game? Especially this year? Can you even remember won the Super Bowl three years ago or where it was played? Five years ago? Ten years ago? Probably not. But I bet you can remember whose house you went to, what you ate and who was there with you.
While I have never attended a Super Bowl in person, I have had the pleasure of attending many Super Bowl parties, some better than others. I have celebrated with hundreds in college, with more intimate groups back home, and I even had an impromptu Super Bowl party in a hotel room with work colleagues in the middle of a case I was trying in New Jersey. I have laughed at the commercials, yelled at the play calling and even watched silently during a particularly poignant and patriotic post-9/11 tribute in the Superdome by my favorite Irish band.
While all of those experiences have been memorable in their own right, there is one Super Bowl party in particular that always stands out for me. We didn’t spend gobs of money, we had zero beer, and there were no decorations, but it didn’t matter. It will go down – forever in my mind – as the greatest Super Bowl party ever.
One of the most intense arctic outbreaks of the 20th Century took place January 18-22, 1985. We can blame the Canadians for this, of course. A building ridge of high pressure from our northern neighbors was so strong that it pushed the jetstream on a looping path southward across the United States. The polar vortex dropped into the Great Lakes Region on January 19th, which accelerated the movement of the arctic air down south. It reached the Carolinas by the morning of January 20th and by that evening, it had made it all the way to Florida. It was so cold that the inauguration for President Reagan’s second term set that weekend was cancelled after wind chills in Washington, DC registered -10 degrees. Florida’s Secretary of Agriculture termed it the “freeze of the century” after the Sunshine State’s citrus industry took a $2.5 billion hit due to the weather.
In South Mississippi, the temperature plummeted to 4 degrees. You would have thought the world had come to an end.
An apocalyptic drop in temperature was not, however, the most newsworthy event that weekend. On the evening of Sunday, January 20, 1985, Super Bowl XIX took place in Palo Alto, California – one of the few places in the country that was spared the chill. The San Francisco 49ers were playing the Miami Dolphins and remarkably, ticket prices that year averaged a whopping $60 a pop.
For me, a sixteen year old high school student, they might as well have played the game in China and charged $6000 a head. California was as remote and distant as any foreign country, and I needed every cent I could scrape together to finance my budding social life. I had to put gas in my old Suburban a/k/a the “milk wagon,” and a date back then (assuming one was available) could run me anywhere from $10-$20 – if we went to a movie and got something to eat. That was big money, and as my old man was keen to remind me, it didn’t grow on trees. So I had to work, and my chosen place of employment was Lawler’s Feed and Seed, where I got paid four dollars an hour.
Lawler’s was a metal warehouse building on the highway that serviced the agricultural, and, to some extent, the hydration needs of northern Harrison County, Mississippi. One side of the building operated as a convenience store, selling beer, soft drinks, chips and more beer. The other side had fifty pound bags of dog food and horse feed stacked on pallets, row by row.
I worked as the stock boy and feed mule. A customer would come in, order one or more bags, and I would load it in their truck bed, or in the trunk if they had a car. I also restocked the cooler when it needed it. Most of the time, though, I sat on top a stool made of two milk crates stacked one on top of each other, watching my 4pm to 10pm shift tick by minute by minute.
The entire building was open, with rollup doors on the feed side and no divider separating the retail side other than a counter. There was no central heating or air. The only heat source, other than my own body, was a propane heater that sounded like a jet engine, and Janet, the girl that ran the register, kept it pointed directly at her with no intention of sharing.
Super Bowl Sunday was one of the coldest days I can remember and a large metal building with bay doors pulled all the way up is not known for its heat conduction properties. I wasn’t too happy about being there in the first place – who was going to come in during the big game anyway? My dismay was exacerbated by the realization that the only thing between me and subfreezing temperatures were my dad’s old Army field jacket, a Southern Miss toboggan hat and some woolen gloves. To say I wasn’t exactly dressed for the clime would be an understatement.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, deliverance was but a few feet away. In addition to carrying livestock chow and cold beer, Lawler’s also, on occasion, sold potatoes by the sackful. Since potatoes are perishable – and obviously much more valuable than a lowly, freezing, stock boy – the management team thought it proper to preserve the spuds from the arctic winds by storing them in a temperature-controlled truck about the size of a large U-haul. So there they sat, shielded from the elements in 48-degree tropical bliss while I sat, exposed, trying to get the feeling back in my fingers.
As I predicted, we had no customers that night. Zilch. I thought I could pass the time by listening to the game on the transistor radio we kept between the pickle jar and the Slim Jims. Lo and behold, about ten minutes before kickoff, a beat up 1978 Camaro with a faded maroon paint job pulled in. Driving it was my best friend and high school buddy Jeff Mallette.
In one hand, he held two sacks from Burger King. In the other, he carried a small black and white television. He raised them both up, giving the signal for a touchdown.
I was going to watch the game after all – and I knew just the perfect place for it.
Sacks of potatoes, arranged just right, can make a fine couch, complete with custom armrests and ottomans. They also make a great TV stand, and with a little maneuvering, we had that 12-inch screen set up just right in front of our tuber sectional. It took a little time to run an extension cord into the potato truck, but we did, and by the time we were done, we had lights, a working television and a cozy, if not unorthodox, spot to watch the game.
Shortly after the National Anthem, we tore into our food and feasted on cheeseburgers and onion rings slathered in ketchup, washing them down with Barq’s Root Beer and Dr. Pepper procured from the store coolers. It was a game of epic proportions – San Francisco vs. Miami, the teams coming into the game with 15-1 and 14-2 records, respectively. For the next three hours, two legends of the gridiron – Joe Montana and Dan Marino – slugged it out, and Jeff and I watched it in the way only high school teenage boys can. We burped. We scratched. We talked about the game, we talked about the plays, we talked about the cheerleaders, and we talked about what it must be like to visit California. We also talked about so much more.
Important stuff like the teachers we liked and the teachers we hated. Where we were going to college and what we would major in when we got there. Where we would live one day and who we would marry. Who in the class was starting to look good and who was off the radar. Whether our parents would actually get MTV one day or whether we would be relegated to watching Billy Idol on Friday Night Videos. The world was our oyster back in 1985, and by golly, we knew it even then. We covered a lot of ground, and I suspect we could have solved some of the world’s problems had they only presented themselves.
Of course, all good things must come to an end, and after the final whistle blew (the 49ers dominated), we high-fived, and Jeff left. I cleaned up the trash, restored the potato truck to its unsullied state, wrapped up my shift and went home - full, warm, and content for having had the company.
This Super Bowl Sunday, my 18-year old son will host a party for his friends at our house. We do it every year. We order pizza, do squares for prizes and pile in the den to watch the game. They go outside during breaks and throw the football and by the end of the game, the room smells like you would expect it to smell with a room full of sweaty teenagers. The essence is not quite like a potato truck, but close. It happens to be one of my favorite nights of the year – not because of the game – but because I can see in Holden’s eyes the flickering that was in Jeff’s and my eyes that Sunday night some thirty-four years ago. It is the feeling of having your best friends around you, and the whole world ahead of you. It is the feeling of companionship, of collegiality, of comfort in a shared and trusted environment. It is an unspoken understanding that these, indeed, are some of the best days of your life, while at the same coming to the bittersweet realization that soon, things are going to change radically.
Jeff and I graduated from high school in 1987. We went to the same college, pledged the same fraternity, and roomed together briefly. We both served in the military and we stood in each other’s weddings. We still talk frequently, even though we now live several hours apart. Super Bowl XIX is often the subject of conversation, especially during this time of year, but we hardly ever talk about the game. It is never about the game.
What we always talk about is the party.
The greatest Super Bowl Party ever.
About The Author - Michael Hewes
As an undergraduate at the University of Southern Mississippi, Michael Hewes shared the hallways of his dorm with a chicken named Maybelline. Ever since, memories of the old banty have popped up now and then. Michael went on to pursue a career in law, and on the way home from a deposition he began to wonder what would happen if a chicken were put on trial for stealing another bird’s egg. By the time he got home, the first two stanzas of this book were written. Michael is the author of the novel Watermark and has been featured in numerous journals and periodicals. A retired JAG officer, Michael practices law in Gulfport, Mississippi, where he lives with his wife, three boys, two dogs, and a cat. No chickens though.
And his children's novel, The Tempestuous Trial of Mabelline Meriweather.