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Apocalypse Cow

Finding the press box at Reliant Stadium proves to be a journey into the heart of darkness

I was going to the worst place in the world and I didn't even know it yet. -- Captain Benjamin Willard, Apocalypse Now

By the end of the night, the press box at Reliant Stadium was starting to seem something like the unholy grail. It hovered there, high above the rest of the stadium, shimmering in the dark with a malevolent, mocking glare, much like that shining off Marlon Brando's bald dome at the end of the trail in Apocalypse Now.

My assignment was to get a quote from Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo assistant general manager Leroy Shafer, the event's longtime spokesman and public face, and the Colonel Kurtz of my mission. I soon discovered that I lacked the right stuff, that I was no Captain Willard. In the end, I learned, you just can't get there from here, wherever here happens to be.

The whole appalling operation began pleasantly enough with Racket and a friend -- we'll call him Kilgore -- knocking back a few beers at the West Alabama Icehouse. "My superiors want me to write about an event that has gone insane," I told him. "They've heard rumors that the parking's a nightmare, that the acoustics in the new stadium are horrific, that the fans are getting restless." I should have considered it an omen when the Doors' "The End" came wafting out of the icehouse juke, but I paid it no mind.

Parking was going for a mere $14 plus $3 in Ticketmaster "convenience" fees, so we decided to ride the Minute Maid Park shuttle service. As it happened, that lot was full. We drove about ten blocks away to Kilgore's place of work, where we stashed his Mercedes. Once we had hoofed it back across the wasteland that remains the baseball field's immediate neighborhood, we discovered that plush charter buses were leaving Minute Maid every five minutes on the dot.

But then, the navy gunboat in Apocalypse Now left Saigon on time, too.

Minutes later the journey ended. We were "in country" now, Strait country…Also, Shafer country. I knew I was getting close. I could practically smell Shafer's trail. Fear set in, and something else as well. Like Willard said, "Part of me was afraid of what I would find and what I would do when I got there. I knew the risks, or imagined I knew. But the thing I felt the most, much stronger than fear, was the desire to confront him."

And the farther we walked, the more I wanted to confront him. We disembarked from the bus somewhere east of the Astrodome, about a mile from Reliant Stadium. We soon discovered that this was a ploy of Shafer's: All of the travelers were forced to walk through the entire length of the rodeo carnival, even though -- since it was windy, rainy and about 40 degrees -- few were in the mood to throw darts at balloons.

Because I misspent a few childhood days every summer at the Tennessee State Fair, carnivals have come to remind me of grotesque images: various and sundry severed limbs in the haunted house and the freak shows, drunken magicians too incompetent to pull off even the simplest card tricks, rickety rides that haven't passed a rigorous safety inspection since the Carter administration. Perhaps Shafer hoped we'd lose his trail among his oddball tribesmen and foul machines of death.

But we were made of sterner stuff. "You smell that? Do you smell that?" I looked over at Kilgore, who was suddenly starting to look more like Robert Duvall. "Funnel cakes, son. Nothing else in the world smells like that. I love the smell of funnel cakes in the evening. The smell, you know that grease and sugar smell, the whole carnival. Smells like…victory. Someday this walk's gonna end…"

Eventually it did. Once inside the gates, Kilgore and I decided to split up. He would go to the seats, and I would go it alone the rest of the way.

I flashed my media badge at the first kid I saw wearing a Reliant Stadium suit and asked him how to get up to the press box. He looked at me blankly. He pointed vaguely up some ramps. I trudged up two of them to the next floor, found a window marked "Customer service," and asked again how to get to the press box. I could feel Shafer up there, taunting me from afar.

"Go around this corner and take the elevator to the eighth floor," I was told. I found an elevator, but the eighth floor was not one of its options. So I rode to the seventh. This was the rodeo committee member floor. I shouldn't have been allowed in there, but a flummoxed usher saw my media badge and waved me past the velvet rope.

Shafer had really slaughtered the fatted calf for his inner circle. There were several free buffets up here -- corn, potato salad, cole slaw, fatty brisket preslathered in sauce, garlic chicken, sausage links. I raided one of them just as the night's entertainment began -- not with George Strait but with, horror of horrors, Lee Greenwood, who struck up the band for his jingoistic ditty "God Bless the U.S.A." The JumboTrons flashed images of U.S. warplanes and the space shuttle rocketing through the sky. After this little orgy of patriotism, I half expected a Blackhawk chopper to swoop down and whisk Greenwood back to wherever it is the Man keeps him on ice, but then I looked up and saw that the roof was closed.

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