Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Coral Reef

The coral reefs around the small island of Tolandono, Indonesia, extend for 100,000 square miles and encompass one of the largest protected marine parks in the world. The Wakatobi Dive Resort is situated on Tolandono, one of a circle of islands called Tukang Besi, southeast of the large island of Sulawesi, and southeast still of Malaysia. Wakatobi gets its name from the first letters of each of these islands. From the air, the coral reefs around these remote islands look like a glass marble, swirls of turquoise, green, and blue. Reefs are all that can be seen from the tiny window of the charter prop plane as we fly toward Tomia, the closest air strip to Wakatobi . The scuba divers who stare from the air are awestruck. It is reassuring that coral reefs such as these exist, and the excitement is tangible. This is why we have traveled so many hours to be on the other side of the globe. As we watch, uninhabited jungle islands pass below us. The round dark tops of palm trees form a thick unbroken mass from shoreline to shoreline. There are no huts or roads to break the lush green vegetation. We feel lucky to be visiting a place that few tourists find.

The plane lands at a tiny airport where a dozen people wait under the awning of a single square hut. We are loaded into several ramshackle vans and driven through narrow island dirt roads past cinderblock style houses. It looks like laundry day. Every house has t-shirts, children’s clothing, and towels hanging on lines throughout the front yards. Small children run to the road to watch the vans pass. We hike down the stone steps to the dock where we will go by boat to our final destination. We were told of the sea gypsies, the Indonesian homeless who live on the water through the archipelago. We see the men and naked boys swimming by the boats moored at the dock. Boats in various stages of disrepair line our way. Children group at the end of the dock to watch who has come to their island. We board the Wakatobi IV and are handed pink welcoming drinks. It is hot on this island, and we are happy to feel the cool ice of our fruit cocktails. Iced towels are handed out to wipe the sweat from our faces. The children wave to us as we slip away into the darker blue water.

Wakatobi Dive Resort looks like the set from Gilligan’s Island. We are greeted at the hut at the end of the dock, which doubles as the bar in the evenings. The waves lap against the narrow white sand beach where tall palms curve down and back up again, reaching for the sky. Small dark bungalows are nestled between the palms, and wooden beach chairs with white umbrellas line the shoreline. The smell of sea salt and jungle fill the air. The dock begins at an open-air building named the Longhouse. It is the resort gathering place and where dive briefings are held. It houses the library, computer room and boutique. Tea, cakes, and Indonesian treats are available for hungry divers. We put down our drinks and find our way down sea shell lined sand paths to our bungalows. We have barely arrived, and it is time for our first dive of the trip. We rush into our swimsuits and wetsuit liners, and learn where our gear will be stored. This will be a shore dive. We will explore the house reef, one of the best in the world.

We need only swim a few meters when the underworld magic of this coral reef is revealed. We release our air and sink below the surface to have a closer look. Like an underwater garden, the reef blooms in color, shape, and texture. Everything is alive with activity. What appears to be a feathery green and black fern is an animal reaching for food in the passing current. What seems to be a sediment rock is a deadly stonefish waiting for prey. Anemones of pink or orange shelter fish of matching colors. Camouflage and color is the way of life for creatures beneath the surface of the sea. Schools of dazzling striped or spotted fish swim around us. Some fish are both striped and spotted, as if the decision made at their creation was a jumbled error. I am amazed and gasp in my regulator, not for air, but in joy for the viewing the reef for the first time. I have been at Wakatobi for a matter of hours, and I have seen incredible things.

Wakatobi Dive Resort is helping to preserve the reefs around their island. They produce their own power which they give to the native villagers. In return, the fishermen do not fish the reef. Now their fish, caught beyond the protected area, are larger, and everyone wins. And, the reef flourishes. Our vacation will consist of three dives a day, exploring different areas of the reef. Each site will be as unique as the special animals that find shelter in the coral.

During some of our dives, we will float with the current in front of coral walls rich with fans, barrels, and tubes of large proportion. The names reveal the treasures we see. Two foot bat fish weave in and out of Bat Fish Wall. We dive sites above coral at Table Coral City or The Zoo, where diversity is compressed into every area we explore. Animals appear as plants, growing in a garden, rich in florescent blues, yellows, reds, and orange. Schooling fish of matching color swim above and below, unaware of our presence until a fin flips. At the top of coral ridges, venomous banded sea snakes and green turtles surface for air.

Divers seek tiny creatures like a treasure hunt, peering under ledges on rocks for brilliant blue and yellow nudibranches. We hover beside pink fan coral with magnifying glasses in search of pygmy sea horses, and patiently scan the coral for tiny multicolored shrimp. We strain our eyes at the sand looking for crocodile fish and flounder, buried for protection. The garden eels pop from their holes in candy cane shapes, curiously looking at us before they sink in a blink from view. But the lion fish hold their ground with their featherlike fins splayed in the water. They follow divers in groups, daring to be touched on their poisonous spines. The moray eels yawn their jaws to display their teeth as we float by their hiding holes in the coral. All the while the goby fish watch as enlisted shrimp dig their holes. Life continues nonstop in the ocean while we, for as long as our air will allow, watch and learn.

Beauty is everywhere, the bougainvillea that grows in pots by the Longhouse, the red and purple of the setting sun, the smile of the Indonesian people, and the colorful fish. But nowhere is there a more beautiful place than a dive site named for ancient Rome. In Roma the giant barrel sponges look like the ruins of Pompei. At the bottom of a ridge, a giant cabbage coral grows in the shape of an enormous pink rose. As we swim in humble respect for the underwater landscape we are experiencing, a school of large silver snapper swim by. Then quickly to our side, a regiment of bright blue fusiliers dart in formation across the rose.

I am sad to see my dive computer warning that my time at depth is nearly over, and I must ascend to the surface. There are so many animals left to see, and I am eager for the next dive. I will search for cuttlefish, a blue spotted octopus, and striped mandarin fish. As I rise above an anemone, I watch the false clownfish swim back and forth, hiding in its living home. Little Nemo, I see you, and you are amazing. I will see you again on the next dive, in the turquoise waters off Tolandono, southeast of Sulawesi, southeast again of Malaysia, in the middle of the most beautiful coral reefs in the world.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Arriving in Bali

We boarded our plane in Seattle for San Francisco at 7 pm on a Tuesday. We flew through a night, a day, and into another night. By the time we arrived in Indonesia, none of our Silent World dive group knew what day it was, or what the time was. We had flown across the Date Line to arrive at dinner time on Thursday on the island of Bali.
The flight had been quite comfortable, thanks to Singapore Airlines where economy passengers are treated with luxury. I practiced Lesson 1 of Indonesian with the Berlitz Course at my seat television. After several hours, I had mastered thank you, good morning and good bye. Lesson 2 was much harder and would only have helped, if in fact, the shopping center was actually located on the corner of the street to the left. I gave up and promptly forgot how to say hello. I slept for eight hours, watched a couple of movies, and felt good when I stepped into Asia for the first time. After deplaning, our Seattle group made a bee line to the Hong Kong Airport Starbucks, grateful that the comforts of home could be found worldwide. It had been 15 hours since anyone had enjoyed a latte.
We headed off again for Singapore. I practiced my Indonesian, Lesson 1. We had a four hour flight and a four hour layover. Asia is my place. I looked around and realized for the first time that I am not short in Singapore. I have never felt short. I think of myself as 5’8” tall, that is, until I look at anyone else. But here, in the Singapore Airport, I am just right. Average. This feels good.
Flying into Singapore is fascinating. The waterways are packed with cargo vessels, barges, and tugboats. There are so many container ships, that you could walk across the bays and inlets from ship to ship without getting wet. The empty ships are heading into the harbors, and the filled ones are leaving for export to the world. Singapore is a busy place. The property along with water is lined with perfectly manicured golf courses covered in flowers and palm trees. Beauty and order are important here. Even from the air, you know there is money to be had in Singapore.
The Singapore Airport is amazing. There is a pool, hotel, orchid, sunflower and cactus gardens, music studios, Tiffany, and even a Mercedes Benz store. The Mercedes store is closing in June. Perhaps there were not enough travelers purchasing S-types on their layovers. After exploring the high end stores and photographing ourselves in various gardens, we were off again. This time to Indonesia. More language lessons. Terrimacassi Cambali. That’s not spelled correctly, but it means, thank you very much. And it only took me thirty some hours of practice.
I had fallen asleep on this final leg of the day, and I use that term liberally. When I awoke, it was night again. Oh god, what day is it? I was seated by the window. When I looked out over the wing, I saw what appeared to be large fireflies passing in formation over the wing. They were beautiful. I had never seen anything like this before. In reality, they were the stars of a constellation that resembled Orion, an organized pattern of light in the black night sky. In the darkness, our plane appeared stationary, which created the illusion that the stars were flying past us. Below I could see the lights of Bali. We had finally arrived.
The Bali Airport at Denpasar is typically tropical, with the addition of carved stone and wooden decorations throughout the terminal, and large signs that warn if you bring drugs into the country, you will receive the death penalty. Ok, this isn’t Kansas, Dorothy. I am laden with drugs, Sudafed, Imodium, and malaria meds. I am safe. Bringing these in is not a death penalty offense.
Our drive south of Denpasar in our tour bus takes us through narrow roads lines with open air shacks, parked motor scooters, men sitting outside talking, and dense vegetation. There was no highway. Our guide introduces himself as Marta and rolls the r for quite a while. He states that Marta is a Balinese man’s name. Marte would be the female equivalent. I have been told there are only a few names in Indonesia. A mother may name several children Marta. When calling for a son, she may say, “No. Not you. The other Marta!” It must be a way of keeping life simple.
Marta laughs at the end of each sentence, and his voice rises high in a near squeal with glee while explaining the details of his culture. He is missing a tooth, and another in the front is gold. He enjoys smiling and showing us his teeth. Indonesian people smile all the time. Like a baby, who smiles at the sight of any face, this is how you are greeted everywhere in Bali. Iced towels and bottled water are handed to us. Sweetly scented plum aria leis are placed around our necks, and we feel refreshed for the moment.
Marta tells us what Bali means to him. B, he explains, is for beauty. He points to the window through the darkness. A is for Artistic. Everything he says is decorated, and we noticed that the shacks we pass are ornate with carving and painted surfaces. L is for lush, and yes, green lush landscape surrounds us. The I is for imagination. Artists have come to Bali for years. I know I am in the right spot. Marta continues, as he laughs beneath his batik cap. Bali will take on its own special meaning for everyone. To some people, it is a place of magical spirits. We have to decide what Bali will mean for us. We are tired and quite, and think of Marta’s words as we watch the shops pass by through the bus windows. Marta continues in a giggle. “We are known for our white bitches.” Now everyone is laughing. I have been looking forward to sunning on those white sandy bitches! We have arrived at our resort.
Amy is my roommate. The welcome basket in our room from the hotel has a card: to Tula Holmes and John ? So Amy, where is John! John, not withstanding, I am grateful for Amy. We have a lot in common and have come to Indonesia for similar reasons, even though we may not know how to express those reasons. We have a nice relaxing dinner of prawns in an open air restaurant listening to live Indonesian music. We change into our swimsuits and while the others of our group are sleeping, we go to the pool and glide in. The stars shine above us, and the water is dark. We swim around the flowered islands of the resort pool without rippling the cool water. We are balanced in the water, relaxed, and at peace. We have talked throughout dinner like sisters, and have shared memories that were painful. We are now smiling and quite.
This is our first night in Bali. I cannot explain why, but I feel that I know why I have come. Perhaps the words of explanation will come as the days pass. Bali is Hindu. The inhabitants are religious. They pray to the good spirits three times a day, making offerings of flowers, food, and animal blood. They pray to the evil spirits as well, not to destroy them, but to turn them into allies. They believe in Karma, and that actions have consequences. They live so that their actions will insure good Karma. It is a place of happiness and peace.
I am writing from my window seat of our charter plane to Wakatobi on my first Indonesian morning. The flight attendant began our flight with a prayer for our safe journey. I photograph a florescent turquoise atoll for you to see when I post it on facebook. It stands out against the deep blue Pacific Ocean. Dark green islands dot the water, each encompassed by electric light blue lagoons and coral reefs. We are nearly at our destination. We will have dive tests today, and settle into our beachside bungalows. I have been waiting for that white bitch. I hope that the next time I settle in to write on my laptop, I will be in a rope hammock suspended between two palm trees. I will keep you posted. And remember, good karma to you all!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Beginning the Journey to Indonesia- Day 1

I am on the plane to San Francisco. It’s the first portion of my journey to Bali, Indonesia. Our dive group is wonderful. They are friendly, and relaxed. Each person has traveled the world in search of experiences that cannot be discovered above the surface of the water. They talk of places in Micronesia, the Philippines, and Thailand. They reminisce about World War II wrecks, of three foot fan corals in florescent colors, and of shy, brightly colored schools of fish that can be seen only at night. I am entranced, and know that I soon will have the bug. The intoxication of wanting to see what lies beneath the waves has begun to take hold. I want to photograph the fish, the coral, and the wrecks. Where we are heading is the best of the underwater world.

Until a few days ago, I barely knew where Indonesia was located, somewhere above Australia and below China. This group of islands, some large and some small, to the west of the Indian Ocean, is 90 percent Muslim. It will be completely different from any place I have traveled. The island of Bali is our first overnight stop on land. Our first night will be spent winging our way to Hong Kong. It will be a fourteen hour flight. I am not worried. I have Ambien. Everyone has already asked for pills. I have plenty of drugs to sedate the entire plane. I am prepared. I was a Girl Scout. I could probably live in Bali for a week with the supplies in my carryon “purse.” In fact, my purse is a back pack stuffed like a Rubik Cube. The pockets of my raincoat hold my books, glasses, and extra power bars. I look like Captain Kangaroo, if you are old enough to share such memories. My carryon bag has clothing and enough necessities to allow me to move to Bali. With what I have brought in my suitcases, I can apply for citizenship and set up a boutique. I am keeping my options open. It’s my new mantra for living.

I am excited about the trip. After all, I am on my way to Bali! I have been joking around with the passengers and crew. I told the man taking our boarding passes, that I was stripping down to my bikini in the bathroom at the back of the plane. Several male passengers thought this would be a good idea. The blond gate agent on the microphone told me that she was jealous of our trip, and knew I would have a great time. Of course, my smile is as wide as the jet. The stewardess did ask me to be quiet, while I was running a monologue for my new dive friends. I think we were laughing too loud. Heck, I am not even drinking champagne. TSA wouldn’t allow me to bring my saber on board. I am drinking water so that I will be hydrated. I have to get sixteen glasses of water in before we arrive in Indonesia.

Legalities are far away now. The ocean is ahead, with all the brightly colored fish, and the white, white sand, and the swaying palm trees, and the fluffy drinks with umbrellas, and a wonderful group of welcoming divers. We are infected by the same bug for which the only cure is a plunge beneath the surface of the ocean.

We are getting ready to land now in San Fran. I’ll report again when I wake from my Ambien induced sleep. I will be dreaming of Indonesia, the Wakatobi Dive Resort, and wishing you were here to see it with me! Sweet Dreams!

Friday, April 9, 2010

The Big Game

I looked around and discovered that I was sitting in a sports bar of the Denver Airport. I had passed several places to dine, but was drawn to the place where televisions flashed scores of basketball, baseball and soccer. I was halfway to Kansas City, the first leg of my journey to the final game of March Madness. My blue team buttons which were pinned to my shirt, purse, and raincoat, denoted my loyalty and my status as a sports fan. There was no beer to accompany my meal, the only detail that distinguished me from the travelers at the surrounding tables who riveted their attention to the New York Yankees baseball game. I rooted for the Red Socks. They were playing at Fenway Park. I like an underdog. Everyone does. The mighty Yankees scored two home runs in the first inning. Their players in grey flew around the bases, nearly at a basketball pace. The watching young men stared at my buttons. The NCAA women’s basketball scores ran along the bottom of the television. I paid attention, as if it had been a stock ticker on the day that Citi announced thousands of layoffs. I actually cared about the basketball and baseball scores. Even with an earthquake in southern California that had barely ceased trembling, I was glued to the game scores. I laughed to myself that I was morphing into a man, and took a sip of my water. I had been seduced this March with madness, and my burning desire was for the success of my alma mata, Duke University.

Nine years had passed, since I had traveled to a college basketball championship. In 2001, my oldest son and I flew to Minneapolis for the final four games. Maryland played Duke in the semifinals. Duke University Development provided free tickets in return for years of generous giving. I was confident that our star studded team would win. From opposite coasts, my son and I to met in the center of the country for the showdown. We rented the last room in the city. I had never been to Minneapolis. It was freezing cold. We could care less about the weather. We were at the big game.

Our Iron Duke connections enabled us to attend the pregame donor festivities. We sat in a hotel banquet room while the pep band blared the school fight song, and grey haired fans politely clapped. I bounced to the rhythm, shook the pompoms that I had packed in my suitcase, and sang out my loved for Duke. My son was mortified. He would have preferred to have been in a bar with the student Cameron Crazies, painted in blue and preparing for the game by becoming intoxicated. When I begged for him to snap photos of me hugging the Blue Devil, he balked. He reluctantly recorded the moment on my camera.

When the team finished their dinner in an adjacent dining room, we gathered by the exit to cheer them on. Their next stop would be the stadium. As Shane Battier made his way through the crowd, I called out my admiration and to give Maryland hell. He stopped, turned, and smiled. Then, to me alone, said thanks before walking out of the double doors to the waiting bus. I was in love.

It was a dream team. I was not the only fan who knew they would take down the Maryland Terrapins. Battier, Carlos Boozer and Jason Williams were magic on the court. The win was not easy, and the game went into overtime. As the team fired three point shots, my voice disappeared in the cheering. The victory was sweet. Maryland was an easy team to hate. Shane, the classical pianist and brilliant student athlete, had been hit by bottle thrown by a Maryland student before at an earlier game. There was no crying for the Terrapins who went home without the trophy. Two nights later, Duke defeated the Arizona Wildcats by ten points to win the title as the best collegiate basketball team. Shane Battier was named the Most Outstanding Player. It was my first national championship, and we had won. The winning was seductive. I knew that I would be back to see it happen again.

Nearly a decade later, the feeling returned. We were not slated to win. When interviewed, Coach K never described this as a great basketball team. Good was the best adjective he would use when referring to his players. Even though it was a different team, I was convinced that we would go all the way. I had to be there to see it. I did not know when Duke would take the title again. A few months before, by the side of the road in South Dakota, I promised myself that I would never miss another opportunity. In truth, I knew that there would be opportunities in life that would slip by. Sometimes, there would be situations that seemed like opportunities that would better left behind. As I sat on a rock in the Badlands, watching the sun set over a vast landscape of colored canyons, I refined my self-promise. I would watch closely for all opportunities and grab or the good ones.

The time had come. I felt the pull to Indiana. It was weeks before the championship and sixteen teams remained in the battle. I had never been to Indianapolis. My poor knowledge of geography, coupled with my Badlands promise, had given me the boldness to jump into adventures that might give pause to a more thoughtful traveler. I posted on my FaceBook that I would love to have a friend go with me to Indiana for the final game. Gloria said yes. She lived in Kansas City and was also an A D Pi in college. I immediately purchased airline tickets for Kansas. There were no free University Development tickets this year. We found our seats on the internet. I asked if Gloria would drive us to Indy. She said yes. This became our sorority road trip. Gloria had never driven east of St. Louis. It never occurred to me, that we would be traveling from Kansas through Missouri, Illinois and a time zone to reach Indianapolis. Geography was not taught at Duke. All I knew was that my team would win, and I had to be there.

Gloria and I spent the game day driving in rain and wind through the prairies of the heartland. We passed the Arch in St. Louis, Missouri, the world’s largest cross in Effingham, Illinois, poultry processing plants in Indiana, and miles and miles of farmland. We never stopped talking, as we relived several years of memories, tragedies, and adventures for each of us. We laughed our way across the Midwest comparing stories of dating, men, and romance. We made promises that time would not slip away so quickly again without another road trip. We arrived in Indianapolis just before dinner. We had missed the Iron Duke festivities.

Indianapolis is a smaller city than St. Louis. The skyline is dominated by the giant Lucas Oil Stadium. I would have thought that an oil sponsored stadium would have been found in Texas, however this stadium is Texas sized. The structure reminded me of a huge extended stay Holiday Inn, completely inappropriate for its function. Perhaps it was the architect’s attempt at a heartland homey appearance on a grand scale. Gloria and I laughed, but we had barely stopped laughing during the eight hour drive.

I changed into my sparkly Duke blue top, and Gloria into her purple Kansas State colors. She was loyal to her team. I had cheered for the Wildcats in a Whidbey Island bar as they defeated Xavier in double overtime. It was a great game. They suffered a heartbreaking defeat to Butler who, now at the final match of the tournament, planned to win tonight. I pinned Duke buttons around my shoulders and held my blue and white pompoms tightly in my fist. We headed to the game by cab. The rain poured down in buckets. I was grateful for my Duke blue and white flip flops. I was prepared.

With plenty of time to spare, we circumvented the Oil Stadium cheering the students with their blue and white signs, knocking fists with older fans, and looking for familiar faces. The spacious outer halls were filled with spectators clad in blue. Butler blue and Duke blue. The game began at 8 PM. Thirty minutes to go. The tension called for French fries. No beer was served. I washed the fries down with a veggie burger, and we took out seats in the middle of an enclave of Butler fans. The battle was about to begin. We sat in the middle of the lower section behind the basket. The court felt like miles away. Gigantic television screens above the court and around the stadium displayed the action as players from both sides warmed up. Basketballs flew into the net with ease. Above us, the word read, “The Road Stops Here.” And we were here. Everyone around us had their BlackBerrys and I Phones at the ready. Friends were being tweeted, texted, called, and emailed. The airwaves were buzzing with communications. The news commentators sat on a platform below us under hot yellow lights, speaking into microphones, commentary that we were missing. We discussed our ticket prices and our purchase dates with the Butler fans beside us. Who had had the greatest faith in their team? I had. I was not a local fan excited about a national basketball championship. I had been waiting for weeks to see Duke walk away as the winner. I answered another email, called another Duke Alum, and posted another message on Facebook. The game was about to begin.

We were on our feet. The teams were being announced. “We are Duke,” yelled our players posed together on the television promo add. Kyle Singler, Brian Zoubek, Nolan Smith, Lance Thomas, the Plumlee brothers and Jon Scheyer. Not the 2001 team. A team of students who felt like my sons, ready now to play basketball. Coach K was announced, and the crowd booed. Gloria told me they were yelling for “Dook”, but I could hear. The jeers had begun. Emotions were already high. The local fans wanted tiny Butler to beat the Devils. They had forgotten that we were a Cinderella team too. They talked about how wealthy we were, how we always won, and how they only cheered for an underdog. Everyone cheers for an underdog. We were ranked number one, but it had not always been so. I looked over at Gloria. She was cheering for Butler!

“Go Devils,” I screamed and shook my pompoms. Then I smiled at the red-headed man in front of me, and told him that I liked Butler too. I was sorry that they were going to lose. He laughed. He knew I was right.

“What are they doing now?” the butler fan inquired. He was staring courtside at the Duke students, the Cameron Crazies who had followed the team to cheer them to victory. They bounced up and down without pause, and the game had yet to begin. The Crazies had become famous in sports magazines, newspapers, and on television for their creativity and enthusiasm. Now they were bowing in homage to the right side of the stadium. Sections of Duke fans through the arena were bowing in the same direction, hands over their heads. I looked.

“Its Crazy Towel Guy!”

I had been at the Duke Tulsa game in Cameron Indoor Stadium just a month before. Crazy Towel guy had sat a few seats from us on the same row. As the students began to bow in homage in my direction, the spotlights turned and illuminated a man my age, who stood and swung a white hand towel round and round above his head. The Blue Devil mascot had come to our row to knock knuckles with the oldest of the Cameron Crazies. Crazy Towel Guy was a Crazy grown up. Now he had traveled to Indianapolis to swing his towel in support of his team. I bowed in homage and shook my pompoms. Perhaps I could be Crazy Pompom Gal. I was crazy for Duke Basketball too.

The game had begun. The large digital clock on the balcony of the highest section of the stadium had taken forever to reach the start time. Fans in the upper decks were barely visible in the darkness, details blurred by the bright spot lights. I strained to watch the action below on the court from behind the tall red-head fan. I was here. I could watch a television screen from home in my living room. Duke was in white. Butler in black. Both teams were good guys.

The game was a battle. Butler’s Gordon Hayward and Shelvin Mack were not about to give Duke an easy victory. Thirty-three year old Brad Stevens looked more like a student fan than the coach of a team playing in a national championship. Who couldn’t cheer for him? He looked as if he was about to ask Coach K for an autograph. The Butler fans continued to boo the Devils. The noise never subsided. Fans screamed, the bands played, and the horns blasted timeouts.

I lost track of which band was playing for which set of fans. The tunes were the same for both sides. I shook my pompoms for both sets of blue. Our section of the stadium stood and yelled for most of the game. We yelled for defense or offense. We yelled for the blue. We were both blue. I knew that a Bulldog could not best a Devil. However, I can only relax in a Duke game when we are fifteen points ahead. We never pulled ahead more than five points, and those leads were fleeting.

“Rip ‘em up, Tear ‘em up, Give ‘em hell Duke!” Blue and white plastic strips were falling from my pompoms. The red-headed fan and I slapped hands and congratulated each other on our team’s three point baskets. The score went back and forth from the first half to the second half, and the digital clock continued to click away the seconds. No team was dominating. No one relaxed.

At the half, my confidence was still strong. I went to the t-shirt vender and asked if I could purchase my winning shirts early before the lines formed, and sizes were sold out. She stated that no shirts would be sold before the end of the game. I asked what would happen to the Butler shirts when they lost. She informed me that the shirts of the losers, printed for a victory that never happened, would be sent to Haiti. Poor Haitians. They should be sent the winning Duke team shirts. Why should they be made to wear Butler shirts!

The second half was a cacophony of time out horns, pep band trumpets and drums, cheers, yells, and the curses of fans. Back and forth the teams battle. We remained on our feet the entire time. The Crazies jumped and swayed courtside below us. The Devil paraded before the crowd. The cheerleaders shook their metallic blue pompoms above their heads. Coach K sat on his chair inches from the edge of play. Basketballs flew in the air and many missed. Each attempt to score felt like a game winning shot. The digital clock continued to count down. The fouls mounted. I worried for my boys. Would someone foul out? Then, for a brief moment, I feared we would lose. Oh God, my Duke t-shirt would be sent to Haiti.

Zoubek stepped to the free throw line. The Crazies formed their hands in the shape of the letter Z above their heads. The Butler fans yelled to break his concentration. The Duke fans yelled their encouragement. I yelled, “Zoooo.” The Butler fans beside me yelled, “Boooo.” Gloria yelled, and the red-headed fan in front yelled. The ball released and fell into place through the net. We were two points ahead. Z bounced the ball on the free throw line, took aim again, and shot. The pompoms of the Duke cheerleaders shook in the air. The Cameron Crazies waited to scream “Woosh.” The shot missed. The ball did not fall through the net. The Butler fans went crazy too. We were still ahead by two points, and although seconds remained on the clock, although Butler had possession of the ball, I knew we would win.

My hands were above my head. I was screaming. In a matter of seconds, we were going to be the national champions. Hayward had the ball. When he paused and took aim at the backboard, I could swear that the digital clock stopped. When the ball released from his hands, with time standing still, the arena went silent. I am sure that the fans were screaming, but in my memory of those last seconds, all was muted. I remember no noise, no bands, no uproar. The ball flew toward the basket in slow motion. A three point shot. The players on the court stopped moving and stared at the ball. The fans from the highest balconies watched the ball. The coaches held their breaths and watched the ball. The refs stood motionless and watched as well. The pompoms stopped shaking. The ball continued to travel slowly through the air toward the net. It was long. It hit the rim and bounced away. No basket. The noise returned. I could hear myself screaming. We were the champions. We were two points ahead, had possession of the ball and only seconds left to play. The horn blasted the end of the game. It was over. The Butler fans stood with their arms by their sides. Some cursed, and others talked about what a great game we had all witnessed. I continued to scream and jump up and down. Oh my God, what a great game! And I was there!

There would be nets to cut down, awards to be given, and speeches to be made. The court was a crush of players, fans, and cameramen. I rushed for the t-shirt vender. My winning Duke shirts were not getting shipped to Haiti. Next week, Haitian children would think that Butler had won. I knew the truth, that Duke that has the best collegiate basketball team in the country.

So what does it take to go to a basketball national championship? The answer is simple. Faith and balls. Basketballs. And, of course, a friend willing to drive you all the way across the Midwest. Next time I have the feeling that my team will be the national champions, call your bookie and place your bets. We are going to win! Thank you Coach K, thank you great team, and thank you Gloria. It was a wonderful experience! “Go Duke!”