Lose the wrap-around shades and Guinness t-shirt, cloak him in a long, white robe, and Shawn Burdick is a dead ringer for Diogo Morgado from the sparsely attended 2014 movie Son of God. While he’s not had to hang from a cross outside the gates of Jerusalem, capped in a crown of thorns, he’s had a tough go from day one. Born with an atrial-septal defect and schistosomas reflexus, if he’d been a dairy calf, Shawn would have never been weaned.
I sat across the family table from Shawn in June 2015, at the wedding of Erika Edmonds to Handsome Joe Hefler. Erika is the eldest daughter of my friends, Gary and Diane. She and her sister are beautiful, mature, and polite.
Owing partially to his demeanor, and largely his appearance, Shawn was known to folks around Pittsfield as “Jesus”. Being born with his intestines everted and a heart murmur were challenging, but the last ten years had been really rough. He was still aching after a divorce from a woman who was anything but divine. Even though the dance floor looked more like a tryout for the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, he sat quietly sipping Mountain Dew, periodically checking his watch. It was a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Peoria back home to Pittsfield, and he was looking to save the expense of a hotel.
Motivated by pride, divorce debt, and medical bills, he worked as an auto body technician, landscaper, and property manager. Scrubbing the religious allusions for this one sentence, Shawn was my friend Gary’s savior.
Then came a revelation.
I call my adolescent Midwestern diction “Central Illinois Mushmouth.” Either Gary had tipped him off, or I let a few Norwegian “Ooo’s” into the conversation. Though standardly polite to a fault, Shawn phrased a question as a statement, “So, since you’re from Wisconsin, you are Packers fans.”
Shawn was born and raised ninety minutes from St. Louis, and had never crossed the Cheddar Curtain. Yet, The Pike County Jesus was a Packers fan.
Shawn was living the old adage about nice guys. We HAD to get this man to Lambeau Field. I do not have the means to absolve his debt, but an afternoon in the south end zone, surrounded by 78,000 green and gold brothers and sisters, could make him forget for at least three hours.
Wedding reception resolutions often don’t make it past the hangover. This one we were going to take to the foot of the fourteen-foot bronze statue of Vince Lombardi. Not to mention, I’d always dreamed of going to a Packers game when the high temp was in the double digits.
The date was set. September 25th vs The Detroit Lions. There are occasions to look for a blue light special from the scalpers outside the Resch center during the last verse of the National Anthem, and there are times to hold the ticket in your hand before preseason even kicks off. In hindsight, if I’d waited until after the Packers rolled over and wet themselves in the second game of the season against the Vikings, I could have saved a week’s worth of grocery money.
It took several hundred dollars and my car-wash quarters, but I secured seats nineteen through twenty-three, row 42, section 136. When they arrived, I snapped a photo and sent it to Gary. I filed them neatly next to the tax payment on my desk where they would remain, until minutes before player introductions on September 25th.
When Shawn crawled back under the ’59 GTO he was restoring to original factory imperfection on Monday the 26th, it was not going to be without the full Lambeau experience. For insurance, I called in a specialist.
Catholics facing their confirmation have sponsors. Jess O’Connor was by my side the first time I entered the hallowed halls of Lambeau. He taught me when to stand, sit, kneel, and yell “GO PACK GO!”
I didn’t ask if he was going, “Jess, when you leavin’ and where are you tailgating?”
“I’m not sure, Bill,” he replied with the urgency of a CEO to his Board of Directors. “Let’s go to The Grist, have a beer, and figure it out.”
In the time of two Nebraska Brewing Company IPAs, we had a plan. Jess, Ken, and Al would lead the way. It’s a two-hour-fifteen-minute drive, and a noon kickoff. They’d leave at 5:45, in order to stake a claim for two vehicles. Shawn, Gary, Diane, and I would trail twenty minutes behind. The meeting was adjourned at 10:00 PM, and we all dispersed to get some rest.
Like a six-year-old boy on Christmas Eve, sleep would be broken at best. By four-thirty, I gave in. Silent as a two-hundred-pound mouse (with ataxia), I loaded the cooler, chairs, and the Easy-Up. The Coast Guard had issued a small craft warning on Green Bay, and Accuweather.com had a 90% chance of rain, beginning shortly after kickoff. I placed my displaced uterus repair kit (Helly Hansen Alaskan Fishing Boat Issue rain gear and rubber farm boots) under the topper for easy access.
I worked with Gary on the hog farm for three years; he was never a minute late. I feared the years in the insurance industry may have softened him, so at 5:45 I rattled some pans and hit the button on the Mr. Coffee. By 6:00 there were four plates of road-kill brisket omelets on the table. Just as I drew breath to give a John Humphries mountain-man-coffee-call, light appeared beneath their door.
No Lambeau pilgrimage is to be attempted without an obligatory pit stop at Kwik Trip for a 24oz. Cafe Karuba and a Wisconsin State Journal. Three quarters of a tank would surely get us there and back. In my first premonition of the day, I topped off the tank anyway.
There’s nothing like a plan that comes together. We turned north off County Road A and I regaled my three dozing passengers with a Cliff’s Notes version of the soap opera which is As Highway 26 Turns. The imminence of torrential rain traded a spectacular magenta sunrise for a black and grey three-dimensional diorama of cumulonimbus clouds and towering thunderheads roiling above the bean field horizon.
By 8:30 we were just past the Kaukauna exit when the phone rang. I yelled at my headset to answer the call. “Hey, Doc, we’re in the First Bank parking Lot, just past the Shell station on Lombardi.” Thirty years in the cockpit of 747 jumbo jets had left Jess deaf as my dad.
Jess had squatted a spot next to theirs. We set up camp chairs, fired the grill and poured our first Bloody Mary. This was no amateur operation. By 9:00 Jess was best friends with our neighbor with the snow-white goatee and matching number sixty six Ray Nitschke jersey. Ken was telling decidedly non-Catholic jokes about the ancient Egyptians, and sheep.
We had three solid hours. Just enough time for Gary and Diane to show Shawn the full Lambeau pre-game ritual.
And for me to figure out how to get them inside the stadium.
By age fifty, every man comes to expect that, in relatively predictable intervals, he will make colossal miscalculations. He thinks, plans, and strategizes to minimize the impact and frequency, but to think they will not happen is denial. It is more an adaptation to aging than concession to plan his response. The young man reacts with fury, the elder with resignation.
The Jetstream curling through Northern Illinois escorted a chill off the bay, just ten blocks to our east. Before I had taken my second sip of vodka and tomato juice from my red Solo cup, I returned to the truck for my fleece and windbreaker.
As I rifled through the pile of foul-weather gear came a realization:
The four tickets that cost enough to trigger a fraud warning call from MBNA were still in Lake Mills.
On my desk.
I didn’t even have to scramble through the glovebox and above the visor.
My first thought, I was surely not the first. Here in 2016 there has to be some technological end-around that can, to some extent, negate my blunder and get us to section 136 by noon.
My next thought was what would Sheila do. She doesn’t make mistakes of this caliber; she helps clean up mine.
With the efficiency of a teenager on Snapchat, I pulled up the emails that congratulated me for logging on to Vivid Seats, thanking me for my order, surveying my customer satisfaction, assuring me they were processing the order, and they had shipped. A half-dozen emails later, I had the order confirmation. Thinking ahead as I had, the tickets themselves were of the old-school paper variety.
The Vivid website emphasized how important it was I was completely satisfied with my transaction. I dialed the twenty-four-hour courtesy line. While I was on hold, they offered me tickets to everything from the Chicago Blackhawks to Celine Dion. They did not mention $250.00 worth of handling fees.
In minutes that seemed like hours, the uber-friendly agent asked, “How can I help you?”
Customer service can fix anything. I felt a fleeting moment of relief. Then, reality. Though she was looking at my order on her computer, the most she could do was email the original sellers of the tickets. I had visions of ninety-year-old season ticket holders, in a condo in Boca, playing Pickle Ball. Somewhere in the corner was a Radio Shack TRS-80 and a dial-up modem.
It was time to launch plans B, C, D, and E.
I paced the parking lot, Googling and making phone calls.
Plan B: Sheila and Sarah were going horseback riding in Mountain, Wisconsin. They were to leave near 10:00, and would be only a half hour away, I looked to arrange an intercept. The more potential solutions I launched, the better our chances.
News had spread back to the tailgate. Sipping on apple cider and moonshine, Ken weighed in from the Department of the Obvious, “You know, Doc, what we say before we ever get in the car?”
“YOU SHOW ME YOURS, AND I’LL SHOW YOU MINE!” the entire parking lot responded in unison.
I was so focused that the urge to strangle him did not even break my stride.
There are friends, and there is Jess. On this day, he really came through. No matter what, the pickle was not going to be resolved from the First Bank parking lot. So, Plan C, we headed for the ticket window at Lambeau, still calling and emailing on the way. We were in line as they lifted the shade behind the bulletproof glass. I was practically on my knees, figuratively and literally. I bowed to speak into the microphone. I owned my ignorance and pleaded my case to Irene.
“My friend, The Pike County Jesus, has come from seven hours south to see the Packers for the first time.” I began as if she knew Shawn from birth.
Marge was not amused.
“My friend, Gary, was run over by a tractor in June (it was really a spray rig); the only thing that got him through was the promise of this game”.
She was still with me, but bound by rules.
Maybe another layer. “After the accident, they didn’t have enough money for a lift or a high-rise commode, and Gary’s wife Diane tore her hamstring picking him up off the toilet.”
I pointed to my Samsung S-7. “I can have pictures of the tickets sent to my phone, the ushers can scan them, no one else will be able to use those tickets…”
The first hint of expression, Marge excused herself to fetch her supervisor. “This guy has a bunch of cripples from Illinois and he forgot their tickets,” she condensed my plea.
Irene stepped up, “The problem is, sir, we need the paper so that if you misbehave, security can mark it and eject you.”
I stepped back and removed my hat. “He looks like he’s on leave from assisted living himself,” I heard them say from behind the glass.
“Sorry, next,” were her final words.
I was feeling both poor and stupid.
As he relieved himself of his first IPAs of the day, my nephew, Sam, called. He’d let himself through security at the clinic and was holding the tickets, ready to text the images to me.
“They won’t take the pictures, Sam,” I relayed.
Sam has had an infatuation with flying since grade school. He once built a plane from conduit and two motors re-purposed from a weed trimmer. Ned thought it would be safer to buy him lessons.
“That’s no problem, Bill, I’ll just fly them up,” he said as if he was walking a cup of sugar across the street.
Having heard my half of the conversation, Jess wasn’t sure Sam could get clearance at Austin-Strobel Airport among the corporate jets on game day.
Plan D: “Alright Sam, let me know with a solid ETA.”
For the Illinois contingent to miss a single play as a result of my ignorance was not an option, so long as Jess didn’t run out of money.
We weaved through the blacktop on the east side of the stadium. The motorhome and Mercedes crowd was in full-throat. We grabbed samples of the sweet potato and curry chicken mini-quiche and goat cheese samples as we sprinted like OJ through an airport. We ducked between the trombone and tuba player, spray-painted green in the Packers Backers New Orleans Brass Band, as they blasted Roll Out the Barrel to a contingent doing the Polka with abandon.
We waited for the rent-a-cop to signal, and crossed. The corner of Oneida and Armed Forces Drive is the Packers equivalent of Maxwell St meets The Salvation Army. I thought, “It would be fascinating to know how many times a ticket changed hands.”
Vendors had recycled cardboard signs, hanging from US Navy lanyards. They had “Want Tickets/Need Tickets” front and back, in thick, black marker.
Plan E: Our intention was to secure Shawn’s seat, and see how much money we had left. Individual tickets are often a bargain. We were able to get him in row 37, on the 45-yard line.
I was pretty sure the helpful lady back at Vivid Seats was taking a nap or filing her nails, a lame horse had delayed Sheila’s departure, and we hadn’t heard from Sam.
I had $60.00 to my name and was ready to head back to the tailgate. Jess is nothing if not persistent.
“Hey, Doc, I found an extra thirty bucks in my left pocket. Let’s just see what we can get for Gary and Diane, just in case Sam can’t get clearance to land.”
We learned a valuable lesson in ticket economics. The first three vendors hawking pairs laughed, and the next two just turned to keep selling. Finally, a haggard gentleman in a Goodwill Patriots jersey selling two tickets in the north end zone paused.
“C’mon man, I gotta have another twenty,” he agonized.
I everted both pockets and offered him thirty-five cents, and a handful of freeze dried liver treats I’d been training Tugger with.
“Damn,” he relented.
Seventy-five minutes before kickoff, we made tracks back to the lot. I was feeling indebted to Jess and foolish, but relieved. The flatland Packers fans would get in the gate.
I grabbed a naked brat from the pile on the endgate as the phone rang.
“Hey Uncle Bill, it’s Sam, I couldn’t get clearance into Green Bay, so I’ll meet you in Appleton in forty minutes.”
I threw Gary and Diane their raingear and fired up the Dodge. With the window rolled down, yelling “’scuse me, pardon me,” I scattered Weber grills, Easy Ups, and bean bag games like Bo and Luke in the General Lee, doing the Gemuetlichkeit Parade… backwards.
There is no outbound traffic on Interstate 41 before the game. Satisfied there was nothing more I could screw up, I listened to Mark Tauscher do the pregame for the thirty-minute drive to Appleton.
If the Healys’ plane were an Oldsmobile, it’d have collector plates. As I turned off Prospect Avenue into the Platinum Flight Center I looked skyward to see the green and yellow underbelly of the forty-year-old Cessna growing larger.
Either Homeland Security isn’t an issue at the Appleton International Airport Field Base Operations, or there are goons having tickets flown up for every home Packers game. I screamed through the circle drive in Dad’s fire engine red, half-ton Dodge pickup and left the door wide open. I did my Herman Munster hop-and-run toward the tarmac. The security guard waved me through without taking his eyes off the screen.
Little brother Vincent on his skateboard drew a wide arc across the cement and did a tail-drag to slow just enough to put the elusive envelope in my hand like a relay baton, “Have fun, Uncle Bill.”
Northbound once more, the clock read 11:20. I called Gary.
“Sell the tickets back and meet me at the corner of Lombardi and Oneida in thirty minutes.”
There was little traffic eight minutes before kickoff. Being the youngest and fleetest of foot, the Pike County Jesus stood on the corner. I rolled the passenger window and passed the envelope to him.
I watched the first two Packers touchdowns on the Jumbo Tron from Lombardi Avenue as I approached the stadium. Having surrendered my last scrap of cash to the scalpers, I swiped my MasterCard for a Leinenkugel Oktoberfest en route to the bleachers.
The monsoon hit just as we merged onto the southbound. As the wipers tried in futility to keep up, Gary asked, “So, Willy, how do you decide what to write about?”