As I scooped the last lumps of chocolate ice cream out of the bottom of my milkshake glass, my grandfather slid a napkin to me across the diner tabletop. It was covered with inky Xs and Os, but it wasn’t a game of tic-tac-toe or an affectionate note ending in hugs and kisses. He was explaining the rules of football to my elementary-school self, in preparation for The Game.
Before I saw my first Yale/Harvard kickoff, a coming-of-age moment in my grandfather’s eyes, he wanted to make sure I understood the plays of the helmeted heroes on the field. The symbols and arrows he used puzzled me then — I was completely unfamiliar with the sport. They looked like illustrations of battle strategy or an elaborate ritual dance. I would later learn these weren’t terribly far-off associations.
So, that diner day, I finished my sugary bribe with a slurp, and in return for the chocolate fix (I was a shameless, twelve-year-old addict), I did my best to follow along as he explained downs and quarters, touchdowns, and field goals. As we sat in our cozy booth, he quizzed me on the players’ positions and finished off the educational date with a rendition of the fight song, signing the check and serenading me simultaneously in his deep baritone.
But my grandfather was not singing the Bulldogs’ brave bow-wows that autumn afternoon. Instead, he was trumpeting the Crimson boys, the Harvard men.
My grandfather went to Harvard Business School on the GI Bill in 1947, and he was a Harvard man through and through. At holiday dinners, he would tell and retell the ancient tale of how he talked the ear off his admissions officer and relate the collegiate antics he and his fellow denizens of Cambridge got up to. For a number of years, my grandfather and some friends of his bought a set of seats to The Game. And finally, one year, he took me along.
Of course I had little to no understanding of why this athletic event carried so much weight or what was so important about that specific shade of red. But I sensed there were mystical, magical reasons for my grandfather’s singing and teachings, so I held my tongue and waited for the day.
That Saturday, we piled into my grandparents’ Volvo for the drive to Cambridge. My grandma relayed the directions, my grandpa disputed them, and we ended up good and lost someplace between Riverdale and Boston. My grandfather had bet, stubbornly, that we were going the wrong way, but he was the picture of a gentleman.
“Cora, with your grandmother, I always bet a kiss, because that way, I can never lose,” he would say, as my grandmother paid him no mind (she’d heard it a million times before) and puzzled over the maps, finally navigating us to the ivy-covered campus and the stadium where the epic struggle would take place.
To be perfectly honest, I can’t recall who won The Game that day. I remember a happy group of gray-haired alums greeting my grandfather and kissing one another on the cheeks. I remember tweed and elbow patches, blue blazers and bow ties, and lots of crimson scarves and chipper, red-flushed cheeks in the cold.
There were terrible, if decorous, jokes at Yale’s expense (they were from another generation, after all, before the Rumpus and Lampoon shirts were quite so raunchy) and picnic blankets spread out on stiff grass. Hot dogs were consumed and cider for me — something stronger for my merry, aged companions. But the spirit of the day was good-natured, not bloodthirsty, despite the red clothing. Toasts were made, songs sung, backs clapped. And the clashes on the field below felt far away, an afterthought — background noise, an excuse for the gathering and good cheer.
I didn’t end up attending my grandfather’s alma mater, although it certainly wasn’t due to the events of that day. I don’t know what he would have thought about my cheering from this side of the stadium, decked out in blue and extolling a bulldog, not a Cantab. But I think that, most likely, he knew the color of clothing didn’t really matter, or even the X’s and O’s, the fight song, or the final scoreboard verdict.
I suspect, in fact, that he would be just as proud to have a Yalie in the family, a granddaughter of Eli. And I can imagine him joining me in the stands, rubbing his hands together and making fuzzy old puns to keep warm, meeting my friends and embracing the new traditions I’ll pick up Saturday. And I can hear him maybe fudging that old elementary-school saying about sportsmanship, revising it to suit our conflicting college loyalties: “It doesn’t matter who wins or loses, but that you attend The Game.”
For more Harvard-Yale coverage, visit yaledailynews.com/thegame.