In the Beginning
Called the “Eighth Wonder of the World”, this first indoor, air-conditioned sports stadium suitable for both baseball and football was opened in 1965. Your Humble Narrator was almost one of the first to see the new Wonder. As a Cub Scout, I sold tickets to the Scout Fair, where Scouts would demonstrate things like rope-lashed towers, camping and cooking skills, woodwork (axe handling – they were manly scouts, back then) and semaphore communication. Parents. Grandparents and Corporate Donors bought the tickets as donations, but few actually attended. But, this year, somehow, the newly completed, but as yet unvisited Astrodome was designated the site of the Scout Fair. And – not surprisingly – all the ticket holders suddenly wanted to attend the previously ignored Fair. This writer was taken to the Astrodome that opening night by his parents. Parking attendants – attired in spacesuit costumes – charged the unheard-of price of $5 and we walked toward the Dome – from far away since the lots were near-full – only to find that the Fire Marshall had forbidden more guests. We returned to the car and left. As Steve’s Mom observed, the parking attendants, in their space suits, had “Blasted Off” and were not available to refund the $5.
The dome was called “Astro…” for the astronauts who were to be trained at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston and the Baseball team name was changed from “Colt 45’s” to “Astros” to follow suit. I suspect the whole, new and exciting subject of space travel was more appealing to the “powers that be” than an Old West weapon name – even if it was “the gun that won the West.”
I saw Evel Knievel jump a motorcycle over 14 cars. He had to start outside and come roaring into the Dome through the big door at the endzone, where the Football teams run out – and behind the Baseball outfield. He appeared, hit the ramp, flew over the assembled cars, hit the landing ramp and went zooming out another door. Spectacular!
Once, I worked as a teenage first-aid volunteer for what was called the Thrill Show. There was a destruction derby and a World War II era “re-enactment” that included a “bunker” that was attacked with flame throwers. Suddenly, a man ran out of the “bunker” on fire! The ambulance was called into the Astrodome floor as was the Fire Truck. After the man (in the flame-retardant suit) was extinguished, the announcer revealed that this was all a part of the show. There had been only so much room on the floor-plate bumper of the ambulance for hangers-on (there was a handrail at the top) and I missed out on the bit. I was glad later when the ambulance refused to start as the crowd looked on and the announcer kept saying, “Please remove the ambulance from the arena!”.
After that, one of the Officers of the Houston Harris County Emergency Corps (Charlie Hocker, if I remember correctly) found me and said, “Steve, come with me.” We went up to the highest level of seats where Charlie greeted a security guard who allowed us to go and sit down in the back row of seats. “But, just be very quiet!,” he warned.
There I saw that a cable had been stretched across from the other side. The announcer said that Karl Wallenda would now walk this tightrope. Below us and in front of us we saw Wallenda’s entourage, including – I was told – his wife. All of us watched as Wallenda slowly and carefully approached us across that cable with one of those long poles he used to help with balance. Meanwhile, Hocker was snapping off pictures with an expensive-looking camera.
At last, Wallenda was approaching the end of his walk. He was now walking uphill on the sagging cable. The stadium was very quiet. We could hear Wallenda call out to the entourage.
His wife said, “Don’t fall now!” Just at that moment, Hocker’s walkie-talkie suddenly burst out – at extreme volume – with, “Say, Hank, I see a guy over there to the left of you that looks like he might have hurt his arm. Why don’t you go check him out?”.
Charlie was frantically reaching to turn off the radio and the Security guard was desperately making “shushing” signals and I was sweating bullets! A few of the entourage looked around for intruders but we were both in semi-official-looking uniform shirts and they couldn’t see the blue jeans we wore with ‘em.
Wallenda survived and Charlie got his pictures and the security guy hustled us out shortly after.
I was there for the Billie Jean King vs Bobbie Riggs “Battle of the Sexes” Tennis Match in 1973. Somebody gave me the tickets. They played the rivalry up as a big deal for “Women’s Liberation” and Riggs portrayed the perfect “Chauvinist Pig”. That was all showmanship. As someone pointed out to me, “Look at this crowd! If they split five percent, they’ve both made a fortune!”
Riggs (55) lost in three sets to King (29) and the former vaulted the net to congratulate the latter – his alleged “hated rival”. According to Riggs’ son, Billie Jean said, “Bobby, I want you to know that I love you, a lot.” And Riggs said, “Billie Jean, I love you, too. And we did something great together.”
I was in the stands with a college roommate on April 12, 1980 when this pitcher with an unprecedented 4-plus million-dollar contract (Nolan Ryan) got his Houston years started. We were sitting just in front of a pair of “mature” ladies who – as avid fans -expressed doubts about the value of this guy. They also derided me for commenting that his batting average was listed as .000 – it was his first at-bat with the team, you see. Well, when Ryan hit a three-run homer, the Geritol Twins had to admit that Nolan might be worth it and Ryan’s average went to 1.000! I seem to remember that game went way into extra innings and Jim Clarke and I wound up moving down to the “good seats”.
After a long and varied career that saw Baseball, Football, Basketball (and Tennis), as well as Music, Daredevilry and Rodeo, the Harris County Domed Stadium (as it was originally named) has been “mothballed”. The place is in a weird “purgatory” state of existence. It will cost way too much to bring the structure up to modern building codes and to tear it down would also be quite expensive. So, it just sits there – a melancholy memory of Auld Lang Syne.