Like I have done a hundred times before, I walked to my rental car in the airport. I put our luggage in the back, punched my destination into Google Maps, and drove to the exit of the car lot to give them my driver’s license. It was cold and raining and the man made quick work of checking things off the list. Then he said, “Have a good trip, Dan”.
For an instant, I was surprised that the clerk called me by my first name, then I recognized him. Richard Calhoun, a classmate of mine from Dothan High School. One thousand miles from home and the first person I met in the airport was an old friend I had not seen in twenty years. It was an omen of the good times yet to come.
Kansas City, Missouri is an easy two hour flight from Atlanta, yet Mary Lou and I had never visited it together. We were eager to check out the famous Kansas City BBQ and steaks, visit a couple of attractions, and to cheer our Auburn Tigers on in the Midwest Region Tournament. Auburn was in the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Basketball Tournament and we wanted to experience March Madness as fully as possible.
We visited the National World War I Museum on the first day. I was quite a student of both world wars while in school. The museum was extraordinary, easily earning its standing as one of the 25 best museums in the country. The exhibits helped explain why the First World War was not the last.
The memorial, a tower standing 246 feet tall, was finished in 1926 and dedicated by President Calvin Coolidge in front of 150,000 people.
The next day we made the short trip to Independence, Missouri to visit the Harry S. Truman Presidential Museum. Mary Lou and I are well on our way to achieving our goal of visiting every presidential museum. This one did not disappoint as it did a very good job of conveying the issues that Truman faced during his unlikely presidency.
We also drove by Truman’s home which sits on a corner lot on a short side street. I visited that same spot 51 years ago as a teenager, when Harry and Bess Truman still lived there. It looks exactly the same except the trees in the yard are much bigger.
That evening the Auburn Tigers took on the North Carolina Tar Heels. Facing the second blueblood team in a row, few prognosticators expected Auburn to duplicate its drubbing of Kansas in the previous game. Like many in the basketball world, including some Tiger fans, they sold this group of scrappy, hustling players short. Auburn put North Carolina down dramatically by a score of 97-80 and earned only its second trip ever to the Elite Eight.
Once again, the professional pundits did not expect Auburn to be able to handle Kentucky in the Elite Eight game, despite having taken down both Kansas and North Carolina. It was a tough game, made even more so by the injury to star player Chuma Okeke.
Auburn was quickly behind and you could feel the entire arena filled with 17,000 people start to think that the Cinderella story for Auburn was about to be over. Slowly they fought back to within five points at halftime. The lead changed several times over the second half. The Tigers tied the game with 38 seconds left and the game went into overtime.
In the five minute overtime period, my blood pressure managed to reach a peak equaled only by the play of Auburn’s players. The final score was 77-71 and Auburn was headed to the first Final Four in its history. In a rare bit of confidence, we had already made our reservations for Minneapolis.
As we took our rental car back before departing, we happened to see our high school friend again. Ten thousand employees working at the airport with almost 12 Million passengers a year passing through its gates and we see a long lost high school friend not once, but twice in the space of four days. It was that kind of special weekend.
Fats Domino’s legendary lyrics, “I am going to Kansas City. Kansas City, here I come”, were on my mind as we arrived last week for an extraordinary weekend in a really nice city.
We can only hope we have such a good time in Minneapolis this coming weekend as we follow Auburn to the Final Four. War Eagle!
Dan Ponder can be reached at [email protected]