Friday, September 5, 2008

Reeling in the Years: Going Home(coming) Again

by Jeff Zbar

My wife and I graduated from college back in the 1980s. We’ve been back at least once a year since – and sometimes twice, if our football team’s doing well and I can, um, secure tickets at a reasonable cost. We go back so much, it sometimes feels I’m on campus more as an alum than I was as a student.

We’re what some would call chronics. We wear our alma mater’s colors, sport its state-sponsored license plates on both our cars, and have layered our kids in so much orange and blue that they used to think those were the primary colors. They’ve been donning the attire since before they could walk (we bought kids’ apparel before we even had kids, and even videotaped our oldest as I dressed the then-infant one Saturday before a game against our arch-rival).

Thinking back to me as a college student, I would have thought my older self “pathetic.” Frankly, I would have loathed my alumnus self. I hated how those old folks came onto my campus, took all my choicest parking spots every weekend during football season, clogged my favorite restaurants (when I wasn’t feasting on mac-n-cheese or cold, take-out pizza), and generally made the campus a congested mess. It was supposed to be a place all my own. The campus was for me and my partying, I mean, academically-focused school mates.

My weekend at the college, as Steely Dan called it in Reelin’ in the Years more than a generation ago, lasted almost five years. It certainly turned out as I’d planned, with a degree (and a dog, an eventual spouse and even a job post-graduation) – but apparently in retrospect wasn’t quite long enough to satiate my needs. My wife and I go back every year, bringing the kids and taking in all our old haunts.

And although I realize some students still feel as I did 20 some years ago – that the campus is for current students, alumnus and fogies be damned and banned – I long ago learned what “homecoming” is all about. Our school (the University of Florida) is the place of old and new memories. It’s where I met my wife and some of my/our closest friends, formed our fondest recollections (some of which I’m sure I don’t even remember – and I’m sure it’s probably better that way), and celebrate to this day.

Now, we traipse the live oak, palm and pine-lined campus with our kids, telling them about how I used to wait for their mom outside this classroom when I was courting her, and showing them the sidewalk in which I carved my initials and fraternity (BZAR AEPi 84) in the wet cement. Heck, we’ve gone so many times, they now show me the site, and coax me to lie down beside the etching so they can photograph my aging self beside the scribbling.

Time Magazine recently wrote about the popularity of tailgating before football games. Whether it was Yale, Auburn or the annual Florida-Georgia game in Jacksonville, what it called “a multiday bacchanal of feasting and booze-brag that they conceived the ultimate innovation of making the football a mere footnote to the party outside the stadium” (or what we call the “world’s largest outdoor cocktail party”), tailgating is just another trip home for many alums. We’ve gone back in RVs. We’re planning to tailgate – with BBQ and beverages served up from the back of the minivan – next year.

Tailgating, homecoming, buying more school apparel than I can reasonably wear – this is not what I would have expected from Jeff Zbar back when I was in college. Our football and basketball teams were lackluster, as was my pride for them. Sure I was a Gator. But I didn’t bleed orange and blue. But it was my campus, dammit, and I wished those alums would just stay home and leave the choice parking and Burrito Bros. to me.

Well, here we are, 20 years hence, and we’re taking all the parking spots, and eating the burritos with our kids, and buying UF-Tennessee tickets from students for, well, enough for them to enjoy some libations thanks to my largesse. I long ago realized what “homecoming” – on any weekend, not just Gator Growl weekend – is all about. It’s about remembering good times with lifelong friends. It’s about memories, old and new. It’s about seeing young coeds walking the same grounds, learning in the same classrooms, living in the same dorms and apartments, as we did a generation ago – and older alums did generations before me.

It’s about growing older with those friends, and my wife, and our kids. It’s about acknowledging the passage of time, reelin’ in the years, and trying to recollect all the good times from our weekend at the college. Because that weekend doesn’t have to end just because we’ve been handed the parchment.

No, the weekend never ends. As long as there are burritos, ample parking and a campus we can walk beneath the live oak, palm and pines, we’ll be going back home again…

Jeff Zbar ( is a writer and speaker – and 1986 University of Florida graduate.

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