Time is at its crudest when it diminishes remembered things. Only memory adds stature to the past, for nothing seen again is ever so formidable. But how easily deceived we are by the mirror of the mind.
In memory, the school building is a medieval fortress, with labyrinthine corridors and enormous rooms presided over by impatient giantesses. For those of us who in childhood moved from town to town and school to school—doomed forever, we feared, to dwell in the special limbo reserved for "the new kid"—a first day in school was the stuff of recurrent nightmares. Familiarity soon shrinks classmates, even teachers, to size, but the school, scene of so many embarrassments, triumphs and disasters, remains in memory a gigantic place, an Elsinore on dark days, a Camelot on bright ones. Seen today, however, the school building is absurdly small, scarcely more than a large house, a sad, gray place occupied by tiny strangers.
The hometown undergoes an even more curious metamorphosis. In fact, it will have grown larger. There will be newer and taller buildings, sprawling shopping centers, rambling subdivisions, broader streets, even suburbs. But it will never be as big as it once was when its three-story buildings reached to the heavens, towering above the heads of children.
Much the same transformation takes place within ourselves: outwardly, we are larger, but there has been shrinkage inside. Our possibilities become limited, our vision narrowed, our imaginations, once boundless, restricted by the barriers of harsh reality. It is not only the world that grows smaller with each passing day; so do we.
Reflections such as these may be triggered by the most trivial of happenings, the least consequential of encounters. Mine came after a football weekend, a "Big Game" odyssey that took me to Louisiana, Oklahoma and Michigan. The cities, the stadiums, the people were all strange to me, but the circumstances were hauntingly familiar, for there was a time when football games and football stadiums seemed so much bigger. Of course, they are big. A good-sized stadium can accommodate the population of a small city; its value, once measured in thousands of dollars, now can exceed a hundred million. And yet, stadiums, too, have undergone the melancholy process of diminution.
Each of us in his time has his own stadium. Mine was the University of California Memorial Stadium in Berkeley. Seating nearly 80,000, it is certainly no smaller now than it was three decades ago or even when it was completed in 1923 as a monument to the soldiers of World War I. But it can never be for me what it was when I first entered it as a nine-year-old, marching with mock solemnity in the traffic boy platoon toward the section reserved for our gang in the south end zone. To me, then, it seemed to be the biggest thing I had ever seen. Never had so many people been assembled in one place; never had so many voices been raised at once; never had I been made to feel so small. The Cal players, who were then as, regrettably, they are now, of quite ordinary proportions, seemed Brobdingnagian. It was, you will note, "Cal" then, never " Berkeley," as it has become today. To the children of that Berkeley long ago, there was but one real university, and that was the one up on the hill. Oh yes, that and something called Stanford.
The Cal Marching Band would rehearse Saturday mornings, then march quick-step to the giant stadium, trailed by us town boys, captives of those uniformed pied pipers. We sprinted to the campus at the first drumbeat, a sound fully as exciting as the final school bell in May. Since we either sneaked in or entered for free in the traffic boy brigade, we never paid for a game. And we rarely missed one. There was but one day of the week—Saturday. Though I would move from Berkeley several times as a boy, those golden Saturdays would stay with me forever. It was all so big.
I cannot say precisely when it was that I lost interest in college football. It was certainly not while I was an undergraduate—a "Cal man" at last—and not immediately after I returned to the Bay Area from military service. No, I would say my interest simply eroded. As a very young man, I had decided to put aside childish things in the false belief that abandoning the past gave certain entry into the promising future. College football seemed to me then a mindless activity pursued only by schoolchildren and incurable Old Blues who were incapable of severing the academic umbilical cord. I was still a football fan, but my team now was the San Francisco 49ers. Berkeley was behind me. That door was closed. You can't go home again.
Then time played another trick. As I grew older and the distance lengthened between the undergraduate me and the supposed man of affairs, I felt a compulsion to close the gap, to rediscover what I had been, to look again at a past that could not be abandoned. I was no longer a stranger in the big stadium on the hill.
It is perhaps the essence of college football, then, that for so many of its followers it should represent a journey through time nearly lost. The past can never truly be recaptured, only sought. The pieces will always be too small to fit old conceptions.