A yellow noodle in the abyss

Around one score ago, I ventured back from Bloomington, Indiana, bringing several of my fellow Hoosiers who had heard of, but never experienced, the Derby. I was approximately 21 years old, but a seasoned veteran who could play Fearless Leader to Boris and Natasha. Up at 8 a.m. we began the familiar festivities with a breakfast bar comprising Bloody Mary’s, screwdrivers and anything else that went with vodka.
The first step toward the infield feels much like the quote from “Wall Street,” “Man looks in the abyss, there’s nothing staring back at him. At that moment, man finds his character. And that is what keeps him out of the abyss.”

Before venturing into the unknown, I reminded everyone that this might be the last day they wear or see anything they currently possess; the infield demands prudence.

Upon arriving at the track, drinks in hand, we began the long walk through the parade of patrons, through the bag-liquor-cooler check and into the darkness of the tunnel. Should I be so unfortunate to one day see, the tunnel to the infield feels much like I envision the gateway to hell: dark, noisy, filled with screams and a blazing light at the other end. This is my favorite part. It is a rush of excitement and adrenaline I can only imagine parallels the feeling the jockeys have as they round the final turn and see the homestretch — a quarter mile to the finish line, roses and immortality.

The day was perfect: no more than 70 degrees and sunny. Until the squall hit midday. A storm as dark as night, with frightening shades of green and blue came thundering through Churchill Downs like the bulls of Pamplona. While some people ran, seeking refuge, I could tell there was no hiding from this evil.

Within minutes the entire infield was transformed into a pit of mud, trash and a filth that even Andy Dufresne could not have survived (“Shawshank Redemption” … just imagine the sound of Morgan Freeman’s voice). The people who took shelter in the bathrooms found themselves standing knee-high in a pool of … water. Yeah, water.

For the rest of us, we had to embrace the horror. If you were the unfortunate soul to be struck by lighting among the 100,000 fish in the barrel, it was just your time to watch the race from upstairs.

But the amazing thing about Derby is that out of horror comes beauty. Derby is that special lover who wears you out, beats you down, and just when you are ready to call it quits, surprises you, lets you know you are special and keeps you coming back. On this day I speak of the noodles — the pool, floaty toys. I grabbed a bright yello one and it never left my side.

As a Derby veteran, I knew that if you did not make a conscious effort you would never see a horse, and I always made sure to watch the Derby.

So as race time approached, some of my first-time friends and I journeyed to the fence, hoping to get just a glimpse of the horses as they rolled by. Upon reaching the gates we discovered an old picnic table, where once people ate … before the rains. My friends and I gathered on top, allowing us a view above the masses. There was the call to the post, and horses brought on to the track. We sang “My Old Kentucky Home,” and I wiped the tears away with the rain.

“They’re at the post” was called over the loudspeaker, and they were off. The crowd roared before quieting to watch the race. As the horses made their way around the track, the crowds screamed and cheered, which provided us with a wave of commotion letting us know they were approaching. We peered out and saw them — 20 of the greatest athletes in the world storming our way. The crowd erupted around us. I threw my hands in the air and whipped that bright yellow noodle around like a helicopter.

That was it. The horses were gone. I’m not sure I ever found out who won, but it didn’t matter. I was a part of a something that had been going on for over 130 years.

That night I returned home, wet, muddy, exhausted, and I had my noodle. Unknowingly, my parents were having a party, and to say I was slightly underdressed would be a criminal understatement. Upon seeing my parents I asked them, “Did you see me?”

My dad responded, “See you? What the hell are you talking about?”

“Did you see me on the broadcast? I was the one waving the yellow noodle.” I responded waving the yellow noodle at him.

Back in the olden days, there was something called a VCR, where you could record television, but before re-watching something you had to rewind it. My dad rewound the tape of the race, and the party gathered to watch. As the horses came around the third turn, lo and behold, streaking across the bottom of the NBC broadcast was a bright yellow noodle, whipping across the screen. The party erupted in laughter and applause.
That is my journey into the abyss.