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Hockey with Nancy Reagan

Steve Nowell and I met by chance at a self-help meeting. We turned out to be neighbors. Soon we were close friends. We both loved to entertain in our very nice houses in a heavily wooded area of southern Prince George County, an area which was very near a marina just off the Potomac River. We both loved water skiing and boats. We were both self-employed. And we both did a lot of story writing. Anything which I wrote I would immediately show to Steve, and he would carefully read it and often make extremely helpful suggestions for improving it. I of course studied Steve's stuff and did my best to help him with suggestions, although I don't think I helped Steve as much as he helped me.

Another thing which made Steve interesting to me was that he came from a working class family. Steve and his brother began their working lives as tile and carpet mechanics. By the time I met up with them, each had his own business selling and managing tile and carpet jobs. Steve had begun his entry into the middle class when, as a Vietnam-war soldier, he was sent to the Army's language school at Monterrey to learn Russian. Steve was extremely intelligent, with a mind which was highly developed. But you had to get to know him a bit before you were aware of the fact, because he was also very humble.

Steve was also a hockey fan as well as a fairly good player. He always had two season tickets for the Washington Capitals games played in those days at the Capital Center in Prince George County, Maryland, and he would often invite me to come with him to a game. By the time I was going with him to the games, there was a Plexiglas barrier in the stadium between the rink and the seats. I called it the Steve Nowell Memorial Barrier. The reason was this. One night Steve dropped his wallet on the floor in front of his seat. He bent down to fetch it, and, just as he was easing back into the seat, one of the players mishit a pass and sent it flying into the audience. The puck headed straight for Steve and caught him square in the front teeth and knocked out the two uppers. The Capital Center, of course, paid for all of the dental work and a good deal more, I suspect, for Steve's pain and suffering. Thus, my name for the Plexiglas barrier in the Capital Center.

Steve had another adventure at the Capital Center which included me. One night, we arrived in the place to find a placard perched on each of the folded seats in the 18 thousand or so seats of the Center. On each of the foot square placards was a letter. Looking around, we found that the placards spelled over and over again, "JUST SAY NO TO DRUGS!". That was in the seats which were still empty. In the seats where people had already seated themselves the situation was a bit different. In most of those seats people were yelling to the people around them things like, "Who's got an 'A'?" Then we saw that some people were holding up their placards and moving them around so that others could see them. In the seats across the rink from us we could see that the placards were spelling out words quite different from those intended by Nancy Reagan, who in her campaign to combat drug abuse had devised the slogan, "Just say no to drugs!". People were also putting letters on the back of the placards with lipstick and magic markers in order to increase their showy vocabulary. By the time the game started, the stands were decorated with a sea of obscenities and slogans supporting drug abuse.

You have to understand something about most of the people who came to see those games. I got part of my idea of them one night during a stick fight on the ice. "Why do they allow them to fight like that?" I asked Steve, rather loudly in order to make myself heard over the screaming and yelling among the fans. Suddenly a gaudily-dressed matron in front of me whirled around and yelled, "Because if they didn't allow 'em to fight, no one would come!"

Then there was the night when the women got tired of waiting in line to pee. During an intermission they took over one of the men's bathrooms. In order to prevent any men from getting into it, two very tall and muscular women with motorcycle jackets on their backs and heavy boots on their feet (and not much else on the rest of their bodies) were standing by the doorway.

During the first period of the game, I wondered whether Mrs. Reagan would appear during the halftime show. (Yes, that's what hockey fans call it, "the halftime show", despite the fact that a hockey game is divided into three periods, not football's four quarters.) Knowing the defiant nature of her husband, and her wish to please him whenever she could, I strongly suspected that she would. And indeed she did appear on the ice during the halftime show with great affection in her voice as she addressed the audience. Although I didn't at the time have much respect for Mrs. Reagan, I did admire her that night. And of course she did not ask people to hold up those placards so that the television crews could scan them for the message which she was wishing they would show. Frankly, I felt humbled by the woman. But I also felt contempt for her staffers; if I had been one of them, I would have warned her that (1) ever since the Civil War Maryland has been a rabidly anti-Republican state (as in, for example, the breeding ground for Booth's assassination of Lincoln) and (2) most of the people who went to hockey games at the Capital Center in those days were rednecks and hill Williams who until the trumpets of Judgement Day will always delight in ridiculing the rich and the powerful.

Tom Arnall
April 14, 2019