On learning the difference between ribbing and a shot to the ribs

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The writer at SoldierField, Chicago, Nov. 28, 2015.
The writer at SoldierField, Chicago, Nov. 28, 2015.

I worked a lot when I was working for the newspaper, and when I left I was paid for 2 1/2 of the three weeks that remained of my vacation for 2015.

So, after a month of recharging and fitful attempts at housework (I did get the gutters cleaned out in the fall so the maple seeds won’t have anything to germinate in next spring), I began to travel. The time is right, and when I get back it will be nearly Christmas.

Here’s a travelogue:

Thursday: Drive to my sister’s house for Thanksgiving. Didn’t catch “Alice’s Restaurant” on the radio this year, a song radio stations present as if it’s some kind of reward for us to not have to listen to “Stairway to Heaven” for the next 21 or so minutes. Nap on my sister’s couch before dinner. Conk out after dinner while watching the Lions. Miss Big Sean’s halftime performance. Google “Big Sean,” because it appears as though I really am getting old

Eat pie. Fall asleep on the couch again. Niece’s dog, while I am asleep, performs close inspection of my face to check for crumbs and edibility. Negative on both counts.

Friday: Drive to Chicago to meet my brother and nephew for Northwestern-Illinois game at Soldier Field. Nephew is an Illinois student who is active in the Block I group, which gets students to hold up cards for entertainment at halftime. He’s pretty passionate about Illinois athletics and, as the chief Blockhead (as they call themselves), he had enough contact with then-coach Tim Beckman that he was upset when Beckman got fired just before the season began.

Bill Cubit, who replaced him, spoke at an Associated Press sports editors meeting in Gaylord a few years back. I try to show my nephew the high road. “Bill Cubit seems to be a pretty good guy,” I told him. “He’s a heck of a golfer, too.”

This is not considered helpful, for some reason.

They get in at 9:30 p.m,., we walk into the teeth of the wind to a restaurant for Chicago-style pizza, then walk back and sleep. The room has a sleeper sofa for my nephew.

SATURDAY: My brother looks as his son, sleeping on the sofa. The bed part of is it still tucked away. When you’re 21, anywhere is a comfortable place to sleep, I guess.

We drive to a parking lot near Soldier Field his friends from Chicago recommend near Soldier Field. A group of fellow Blockheads are to meet us at some point. We walk up the sidewalk and they emerge a few yards ahead of us.

The fans, and my nephew, are grumbling about Cubit being signed to a two-year contract extension. My impression of his personality and golf game are met with now-familiar disdain.

After handshakes and introductions we resume walking. Near a bus stop, both feet catch on the sidewalk. I go down like a tree, landing on my stomach and driving my elbow into my ribs. I thought I was going to face-plant into the concrete, but I don’t.

It’s much like the time I was curling with the parents on the Brighton hockey team up in Calumet. I was sweeping, and somehow found a slick spot and landed on my back. I laid there a second, mentally checking to feel if anything was broken, then got up before the guy running the curling rink could warn me that my body heat was melting the ice.

I got up and a parent starts performing a concussion protocol. “I didn’t hit my head,” I said. “Are you sure?” he asked. I show them the back of my head, no blood (that would have warmed the ice, too, I suspect), and finally assure them I did not hit my head. Other than a feeling of having my bones rattled, I am fine and do not sweep any more that day.

After hitting the concrete, I look up and see several pairs of shoes. “Are you all right?” my brother asks. “I think so,” I said.

A few minutes later, I try to take a deep breath. Pain. Must have pulled something. We press on.

My brother had asked if I wanted to get standing-room seats before the trip. Um, I said, I think I’ll need to sit.

“How about club seats?” he said. “We can go inside at halftime.” Well, duh,

So while the college kids created memories on a chilly day in Chicago, the old guys were inside, watching the rest of Ohio State’s demolition of Michigan.

I think of my former reporter, Sarah Eberspacher, a Northwestern grad, and send her a photo of the empty upper deck just before game time. “Looks like the Northwestern fans stayed home,” I texted. Sarah, undoubtedly still thanking her lucky stars she only gets occasional texts, sent “#goCats” and said no more.

Northwestern won the game, and the seats were good ones, behind the Northwestern bench. Illinois scores on its first drive, then scores on a pick-6 late in the game, but loses 24-14 to fall out of eligibility for a bowl spot.

This year, however, there aren’t enough teams at or above .500 to qualify, so maybe the Fighting Illini will play a postseason game after all.

“I sure hope they get to play Central,” I say to my nephew who rolls his eyes in semi-mock agony. “I think my Chippewas would like to beat Bill Cubit again.” Cubit previously had coached at Western Michigan, a game that is always a red-letter day for a Chippewas fans worth his salt. And for the Broncos, too.

Another aside: About 20 years ago, a close friend’s daughter was attending Western. We had had plenty of back and forth, and this particular year, Our Chippewas went 2-9, beating 9-2 Western in a pretty big upset.

At their family Christmas party, she came up to me, smiling broadly. “Hi, Tim,” she sang out. “How was your football team this year?”

“We were 1-0 in the only game that counted,” I said.

Her face fell and she walked away.

Her dad laughed. “She waited two weeks for this. She was so looking forward to rubbing it in,” he said.

Back in Chicago, my brother and I bid my nephew farewell and we begin to drive to Kalamazoo.

I tell him about the funeral of our aunt, who had died at age 90 following a long, full life and a short bout with cancer. He lives in Virginia and wasn’t able to make it. I tell him about our six-week-old grandniece, whom I finally got to hold and feed a bottle for an hour, and our aunt’s great-grandson, who at three months old is 20 pounds and guzzles milk like a frat boy on a Saturday night.

We talk throught the night until we are stopped on the freeway just outside Benton Harbor, where all lanes are blocked by police. After a half-hour, an officer tells us of a detour around the blocked off area, and we are off again.

My rib is pretty painful by now, but I think of the accident that had stopped us and figure this was comparatively minor. The next day, I read a man died after his car was hit by a suspected drunk driver.

This is the first of several parts. How many, I’m not sure. It should add to the suspense, no?