October 15, 2008

Getting to the seat of the problem

Somewhere this fall, probably in Palm Beach, Fla., the inventor of aluminum bleachers is lounging poolside, a gin and tonic in one hand and a fistful of large bills in the other, getting a hearty laugh over the good one he put over on everybody above the 42nd Parallel. It is roughly along that divide that chilly autumns get vengeful, turning aluminum bleachers into icy instruments of torture.

There's a forumula North Country school children learn early: The enjoyment of a soccer game is directly proportional to the wind chill.

If you like to sit, the aluminum bleacher is the worst invention since the whoopee cushion. While the whoopee cushion speaks for itself, the aluminum bleacher stands as a silent menace to anyone in the North Country who dares to take a seat after Labor Day.

Soccer games, typically starting in late afternoon, linger cruelly into early night, when the bleachers can inflict their most vicious assaults. As my friend Tim Carter put it, "They suck the warmth right out of you."

Clearly, metal bleachers were a colossal mistake. They were invented, then manufactured, then sold, before anybody had a chance to actually sit on them. Sales were all consummated in the months of May and June. Then the sales people went South and threw their cell phones into the ocean.

Summer on the metal bleachers may also have its liabilities. Unless you've ever tried sitting on them in shorts on a sunny, 90-degree day, it's hard to know whether you'd wind up sitting on salve that night.

Apples like warm days and cool nights, but even apples wouldn't go to an October soccer game by choice. Why the kids can't play during lunch break has been the subject of many sideline discussions over the years.

And there is almost no chance one of these sets of bleachers will wear out in the next three generations and have to be replaced by a more accommodating appliance. In short, we're stuck with them well into the next century. The grass on the field can die, the artificial turf can shrivel up and rip at the seams, the concession stand can burn to the ground, but the metal bleachers are here for the duration, mocking athletic directors and school boards forever.

Several of us fathers of players in Plattsburgh usually stand, teeth chattering, so a line of five guys standing there sounds like the percussion section in a Cuban dance number. But we are downright cozy compared with our wives, who insist on contending with the aluminum bleachers. "Soccer moms" means something, but to soccer moms up here, it means survival.

All the women have several layers of clothing and are balanced on and under piles of blankets. Still, these accouterments are no match for the aluminum on a breezy, 30-degree evening. By the end of the game, trained members of the custodial staff will ascend the steps with special shovels to pry the rigid spectators from their seats.

Those experienced bleacherites typically walked into the grounds grim-faced, as they surveyed the aluminum bleachers, much as they would view the dentist's chair when they had a toothache. The difference was the lucky sore-jawed patients had some hope that the dentist could finish the job in a tolerable amount of time. That game, on the other hand, was going to go on for a minimum of 80 minutes, with another 10 for a halftime talk (when the players would have the luxury of sitting on the ground as opposed to the benumbing metal), and the most dreaded contrivance man has yet devised: overtime.

Overtime itself is a minimum of 20 agonizing minutes, followed, in some cases, by "sudden death" -- so called because of the potential effect on spectators.

One chilly afternoon recently, a group of Plattsburgh parents braced themselves against the wind as they trudged stoically, like prisoners of war, into the Ticonderoga athletic complex to watch their daughters play soccer. Their mood, as always, was apprehensive: Would their girls play up to their ability? Would they outscore their opponents, avoid injury and conduct themselves with sportsmanship? In short, would they make us proud to be their parents, and would we act appropriately and not be tempted to yell insults? These are all grave responsibilities for everyone involved.

Upon entering the field, the group glanced up and their visages suddenly brightened. Through their watery eyes, they espied an oasis in the desert, and smiles actually creased their chapped lips. They stopped, as one, rubbed the tears off their cheeks, knelt down and involuntarily muttered something indiscernible, possibly a prayer.

There, in the distance, stood something they hadn't seen in some time and promised a respite from their misery: wooden bleachers.

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