Smile Politely



We’ve seen our future in the past, in relics of times, places, and lives once vibrant and now hanging on by their fingertips. Tonight our future is present.

Here we are in a downstate town that is growing. That has money. A large state university. An airport on its outskirts. Though in fact, it is two towns, with two separate governments and all attendant administrative services and institutions—the product of a local revolution regarding the direction of development, taxes, and funding, as much as an accident of history.

Facing off against a town that is and has much less. The VA hospital. Good for after the World Wars, but not much since.

Where in other towns and other stadiums it’s the hollowed out shell, the symptom, the first glimpse of the ruins of our civilization, here the disease is burning bright at a professedly healthy 98.6 degrees fahrenheit.

And this isn’t the big city. Not even close. Here too, we are tucked away, nestled into our bed of endlessly unoccupied and hyperproductive lands.

5 minutes here and I’m already longing for the sad comfort of life away from “the city.”


Throughout this decade, the path to a Big Twelve title has run through the other twin cities—Bloomington-Normal. A team from that metropolis has won or shared the conference crown each year, with 2006 state champion Normal Community having risen to league prominence most recently.

For the Danville Vikings, the Normal Ironmen in particular have represented a significant roadblock as of late. Conference nobodies since the mid-1990s, Danville has elevated its football program under the direction of fifth-year coach B. J. Luke. Still, the Vikes have dropped a dozen games to Normal Community in the past three years—half in-season, the others post-season. But with a 7-0 record, a #3 ranking in Class 6A, and the Big Twelve championship in plain view, Danville headed into its Friday night fight with 6-1 Normal as a team on a mission.


The mournful cry of Giallr-horn shall shatter the peace and shake the foundation of heaven.


What are these traditions? What are these strange rituals—lining up in uniform, sweeping flags, marching in formation? What are these arm and leg movements coordinated in time and what is their correlation to the rhythmic chants of urging and longing? What is their cultural significance beyond their ubiquity, beyond the fact that people are gathering in this place on a Friday night, in a thousand different places, all the same?

Eat your heart out Carlos Castaneda. American cheerleader. American shaman.

Why do we continue to participate in these rituals? Do we have any idea? Are we all unwitting outcasts in a country that’s moving ever closer to the margins?

These are the traditions that maintain inertia.


The field conditions could not have been worse. Nary a blade of grass stood intact between the 30-yard lines, where most of the game’s action takes place. In the trenches, true footing was nonexistent. But Danville somehow found its way amidst the muck, trouncing the Ironmen 301-78 in total offense.


I don’t pretend to know the hearts and minds of these people, and individually they are likely as beautiful as the smile lighting up the face of the grandfather in the FS cap as his grandson approaches. But these individual scenes of humanity don’t alter the course of a diseased monster, consumed with the denial of its own ugliness, caused by that sickness.

I’ve been a football fan most of my life, with the exception of the time I was actually enrolled in high school and college. A time where I was probably too near the people that actually participated in these games, with none of the safe distance of the television.


Football is a touching game, filled with intimacy and whispered conversations.

These past few weeks have made me profoundly grateful that I’m not a teenager. And certainly not a teenager right now. Though this is not about how much better it was in some past decade. It probably wasn’t that good. It’s just that I want little part in this culture, and nothing says 21st century America more than the sanctity and elevation of teenagedom.

I’m projecting, yeah. Everyone does. This is not objective. It never is. We tailor all our experiments to arrive at the results we want.

One (or two) against the multitude. It’s the same impulse that causes people to romanticize spies and desperately believe in conspiracy theories. To believe that one has some world-saving mission or esoteric knowledge that sets us apart from the crowd. The crowd that just has to be different. Somehow less, more ignorant, sadder than I.

I began to wonder what made this self-imposed assignment even remotely intriguing for me in the first place.

Then we switched sidelines. The game tightened, and brought with it the hyper-tension and focus that sets in when there are two minutes to play. It was a reminder, a distraction. And it worked—brightening a ridiculous and laughably dark outlook.


A 6-6 tie was forged just before halftime, and remained until the final minutes of the fourth quarter, when Luke made a brilliant call that placed the game’s outcome into the hands of his Vikings. On a fourth-and-one at the Normal 8-yard line, Danville fooled the bunched-up Ironmen defense with a touchdown pass to a wide-open Cameron Ford. The tight end had just one man to beat at the line of scrimmage, and slipped into the end zone untouched. The resulting 12-6 margin held up, and the Vikings could celebrate a first-ever season sweep of the three McLean County Big Twelve schools.


Still, at the end of the night, I was happy to do exactly what I would have done had I actually been in high school. Retreat from these people. Retreat to safety and another world. That is, to jump in the car, put on Husker Du at full volume and drive away. As fast as possible.


But the end is always just the beginning. We’re coming back, but we’ll be armed to the teeth with beautiful weapons. When collapse comes, we’re taking over one of these towns.


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