Zinsser on Friday

Crash Through That Line of Blue!

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By William Zinsser


 

The earliest songs I remember are football songs. Specifically, Princeton football songs, sung to me as a child by my father. My favorite, in its entirety, went:

Wow! Wow! Wow, wow, wow!
Hear the tiger roar!
Wow! Wow! Wow, wow, wow!
Rolling up the score!
Wow! Wow! Wow, wow, wow!
Better move along
When you hear the tiger sing his jungle song!

The first lines were sung slowly and with due gravity, befitting a jungle beast. The final line was sung accelerando, with gathering speed and merriment.

My father wasn’t a rah-rah alumnus, but he often went to the piano after dinner and sang—along with the Schubert lieder of his German heritage—songs he remembered from his college days in the early 1900s. Some of them were from Princeton Triangle Club shows; others were student favorites, popular at parties. I can still hear him singing:

I see my love on the campus, look, look!
I see my love on the campus, look, look!
I see my love on the campus,
Look, you can see her now.

It had a beautiful lilting melody in three-quarter time. My problem was that I didn’t know what a campus was or what the girl was doing on it. But I had no trouble understanding the emotion that the song conveyed—the thrill of finally sighting a long-awaited girl.

My father also took us to Princeton football games. Ivy League football was then a potent religion. The Pennsylvania Railroad ran Saturday specials that deposited the faithful within walking distance of Palmer Stadium and brought them back after the game, often marinated in alcohol. It was in Palmer Stadium that I first came face-to-face with “Yale,” the archfoe I had known only through Princeton’s great football march, which my father also sang to me at an early age:

Crash through that line of blue!
And send the backs on round the end!
Fight, fight for ev’ry yard,
Princeton’s honor to defend,
Rah! Rah! Rah!

 

Of all the Princeton-Yale games I saw, one is still vivid in my memory. In the early 1930s, under the legendary coach Fritz Crisler, Princeton’s teams were a national power, undefeated in 1933, undefeated in 1935, and, with one exception, undefeated in 1934. That’s the game I remember. Sitting in Palmer Stadium on that fall afternoon, a small boy in an enveloping sea of raccoon coats and orange-and-black pennants, I could hardly wait for the referee’s whistle that would send my Tigers crashing through that line of blue to smite the hated Elis, especially their cocky and charismatic end, Larry Kelley.

The game began, and no progress was made by either team. Every yard was manfully contested, and well into the second quarter the game was a scoreless tie. Then, to my alarm, I saw Larry Kelley sprinting through the Princeton backfield. Feinting past the defenders, he broke to his left and came to a patch of open territory. He was all alone! When the pass came, it was well above his head. But with maddening insouciance Kelley reached up and tapped the ball down to his chest, where he hugged it and ran the remaining 20 yards to the goal line. The extra-point kick was good, making the score Yale 7 Princeton 0, and there it would remain. The same 11 “iron men,” as they would be immortalized by the press, played the entire game for Yale.

That afternoon formed my idea of Yale—a tribe of haughty warriors, playboys who played hard—and when I grew up and went to Princeton myself they were still the arch-foe. But those loyalties would shift. In my sophomore year the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor pulled America into World War II, scattering our class to places with names like Guadalcanal and Anzio that weren’t in any college history book; ultimately 82 percent of us went into the armed forces. After the war I pieced together enough Army credits to get my degree without going back to Princeton, and my ties to the university lapsed. Instead I found an academic home at Yale. I traded my tiger for a bulldog.

Football songs have always been the musical landscape of America’s fall Saturday afternoons. During the game our eyes are fixed on the field—the helmeted gladiators, the referee and his cabalistic arm signals, the scoreboard and its fateful clock. But our ears are cocked for halftime, when the gridiron is claimed by the bands of both teams, playing martial anthems that are long familiar as a musical form, whether or not we know the actual song. You don’t have to be Irish to thrill to the strains of:

Cheer, cheer for old Notre Dame,
Wake up the echoes cheering her name…

You don’t have to be a Badger—or a badger—to thrill to the pulsing drive of:

On, Wisconsin! On, Wisconsin!
Plunge right through that line!
Run the ball clear down the field,
A touchdown sure this time (U rah-rah)!

Exact rhymes and strict meters are not required. This is heroic balladry; exhortation is king.

For all the girls who came as dates at Ivy League football weekends, halftime must have been a merciful relief, enfolding them in the sheltering arms of recognizable music. On their own single-sex campuses, football was nowhere in the air—no goalposts, no pep rallies, no blackboard talks by coaches explaining the mousetrap play.

Huddled against the cold in a stadium of yelling males, they gamely tried to understand what in the world was happening down there on the field. From my own college days I dimly recall one such girl and one such afternoon in Palmer Stadium. Who she was I have no idea, or even a guess. But I’ll never forget the question she asked me. It was somewhere in the second quarter. Turning to me with beseeching eyes, she said, “Bill, what’s a down?”

William Zinsser is the author of 18 books, including On Writing Well.


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