More than Scores and Dome Dogs

This article appeared in “Texas”, a Sunday magazine in the Houston Chronicle when the last Astros game was played in the Dome in October, 1999.

The first time I saw it was from the back seat of a car.

My father and two of his buddies drove their sons almost two hundred miles from our little town of Oakwood in East Texas to see it, early in its inaugural year. We got lost and had to turn around in the parking lot of the Shamrock Hotel. And then it was suddenly just there, filling up all of the front windshield.

I don’t remember whether the Astros won that night, or even which team they played. My dominant memory is of the place itself, splaying out forever so high above my young eyes. On the way down from Oakwood, one of my father’s friends told us he had read in the newspaper that the inside was so big that if the air conditioner went on the blink, clouds might form, and it might rain.

A couple of years later, Oakwood High School’s Future Farmers of America chapter went there for the livestock show and rodeo. Vocational agriculture was not an elective for boys in Oakwood, any more than homemaking was for girls. So all of the boys in the high school went, riding on one school bus with plenty of seats left over.

At least one of those boys had never, until that day, ventured farther from Leon County than to Palestine, less than twenty miles away. I watched him as he walked slowly into the mezzanine entryway, more of the massive ceiling coming into his view with each step. When he got to the handrail, he clenched it hard enough for his fingers to turn white while he slowly drank in every inch of the place from top to bottom. It was full that afternoon. Roy Rogers, Dale Evans, Trigger and the Sons of the Pioneers were to perform, and there was standing room only. My friend let his gaze scan every section of filled seats.

“Good God Almighty”, he finally said, as much to the air in front of him as to me. “There’s bound to be five hundred people in here.”

I must have visited it five hundred times over the next thirty-five years. I saw the best football game I’ve ever seen there, when Southern Methodist University snatched a victory from the University of Oklahoma in the final seconds of an Astro Bluebonnet Bowl on a New Year’s Eve in the late ‘60s. Saw the Ringling Brothers circus there. Saw four rodeos while I was in high school. Roy and Dale the first time, Jim Nabors the three after that. The year after I graduated, the FFA got to see Elvis. Such is life.

When I was a young single teacher I took some dates there. Fed them Dome dogs and tried to dazzle them with my baseball knowledge.

For it is baseball that ties my memory so tightly to the place.

I paid sixty dollars for a ticket to the 1986 All Star Game, a substantial chunk of a young teacher’s salary. I watched Nolan Ryan get his 3,000th strikeout. I watched Jose Cruz lose his cap every time he caught a long fly ball. I found Lowell Passe in the broadcast booth with my binoculars. Then Gene Elston. Then Milo Hamilton.

A group of friends and I sat in the same seats for years, in the front row of the second level so we could prop our feet up against the rail while we ate peanuts and drank beer.  We played “Guess the Attendance” every time we went, each of us putting up a dollar for the pot. The winner bought the next round, losing money in the enterprise.

I went there a number of times with a fellow teacher from Lake Jackson who was so frugal he refused to pay the three bucks parking fee even when I was ready to stand good for half of it.  So we always parked at the Astro Village Hotel and used a room key he had gotten somewhere to gain admission to the free trolley that ferried us across Kirby to the ticket booth.

I spent the best afternoons and evenings of all way out in the center field pavilion seats with our oldest daughter Kara. We arrived early so we could sit down by the rail, where we would have the best chance at any balls that might wander way out there during batting practice.  She was in junior high school then and could rattle off the batting averages of most of the Astros. She had posters of Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio on her wall where the New Kids on the Block had once been.

I stood hundreds of times during seventh inning stretches and belted out Take Me Out to the Ball Game, swaying with the multitude, knowing that as long as that many people will come to their feet and sing a song – twice – one that they all know the words to, then there is hope for civilization.

That first night I saw it, all those years ago, I saw my first home run hit there. A Houston player named Chuck Harrison slammed one over the right field fence. My friends and our fathers came to our feet; I almost dropped my hotdog. The entire curved side of the building erupted into dazzling lights and smoke. What had been dark dots on a wall became a cowboy on horseback roping a calf. Whistles blew, horns honked and things popped. Even the two giant Gulf Oil signs on either side of the scoreboard seemed brighter than they could possibly be. I wondered if they too would explode.

And in the middle of all of it, during all of the hoopla and the noise and the cheering, my father looked down at me and squeezed my neck with his fingers. This man who had been born just a couple of years after the Wright Brothers took to the air, who had survived the Depression and had been to war whispered into my ear. A secret.

“You may never see anything like this again,” he told me.

He’s long gone now. And, as so often has proven to be the case, he was right.

2 thoughts on “More than Scores and Dome Dogs

  1. I have such great memories from those games with you in the Dome! That early 90s team is still etched in my memory, and I can likely name all the players on that roster.


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