Like it never will again

As I was walking back to my car this morning, I saw a penny on the sidewalk. I picked it up, because I’ve always been more superstitious about this than I am with other things. I always look at the penny’s date, and try to give myself a moment to think about how old I was, where I was living, and what was going on in my life in that year. It lasts for a second or two, before the world I’m living in now comes rushing back in.

The penny I found today had the date “1980” stamped on it. The association that my mind made with that year was the U.S. Olympic hockey team and the “Miracle on Ice” game where we beat the Russians. I say “we” because, even though I wasn’t on the team, I felt like they were playing for me. And in a way, they were.

The Olympics in that year played out against the backdrop of the Cold War. Kids today might have read about that in their history books, but I’m old enough to know what that felt like. The Russians were intimidating, the Russians were different from us, the Russians were our rivals. They were Ivan Drago, before Stallone invented that character for Rocky IV.

In contrast, the Americans wore white, both literally and figuratively. They were college kids, not paid professionals. They were the underdogs, because nobody was supposed to beat the Russians. And yet, that’s exactly what they did. I watched the game on tape-delay on a Friday night, like everybody else, and cheered and went crazy when Al Michaels told us that the “impossible dream” had come true. It didn’t actually win the gold medal (that would have to wait until Sunday), but the feeling of beating the unbeatable enemy was better than a gold medal, anyway.

What I  didn’t realize, as an eleven year old who was probably wearing some sort of cheap polyester pajamas as I watched the game in my parents’ living room, was that a similar thrill wouldn’t ever come around again. When you’re a kid, the long view of these things isn’t yet available to you. It’s only after living a few decades that you realize how special a moment like that really is.

The Olympics are filled with professional athletes now, and so the nationalistic, idealistic, “U.S.A., U.S.A.” flavor of that time is gone. The millionaire athletes and their competitiveness are fine, and it probably makes the hockey better too, but those players aren’t playing for me anymore. Likewise, the absence of a big, bad enemy and rival like the Russians used to be has robbed the Olympics of some of their meaning, too. Nowadays, it’s we beat the Germans, or the Germans beat us, and it doesn’t really matter one way or the other.

So I’m not sure if another moment ever could mean what that victory did back in 1980. If ever the Cubs win the World Series, it will be a big deal to me as a fan, but even in my own city, the White Sox fans will shrug their shoulders and say “So what?” and I wouldn’t have a good answer for them. Chicago has won championships in other sports, and they were great, but they’re still professional athletes, who were never really playing for me, anyway.

As I was driving home, after picking up the 1980 penny, I heard Foreigner’s “Feels Like the First Time” on the radio. I started thinking about 1980 as the first time that I had ever experienced so much joy at anything. But the words in this post’s title were also true. Never again would something, much less a sporting event, mean so much to me, as the result of that hockey game meant to that young kid in pajamas in his parents’ living room.

I wish someone would have whispered in my ear that the elation I felt at the end of that hockey game was going to be a once-in-a-lifetime thing. Rather, it took 30 more years of living, and a penny on the sidewalk, and a Foreigner song on the radio to finally make it clear.

We all carry memories like this around with us, locked away in the recesses of our mind. It doesn’t cost anything to dredge these up from time to time, and examine them anew through the lens of our accumulated experience. We can’t go back and experience them again, but we can at least appreciate them in ways that were not possible when they were taking place. We all just did something similar with 9/11 two weeks ago, and we can do it with other, more uplifting things as well.

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