For the first time in the last 23 years, the Big Eight Skywriters Tour bus pulled away from the conference office in downtown Kansas City this morning without me.
I feel a little bit like an ailing pioneer forefather left behind on the trail with an old flintlock and the encouraging words to shoot as many critters as possible before the end.
If there's anything I learned from two decades plus on the Skywriters Tour, it's that it's no place for someone coming off abdominal surgery. The Tour is a grueling daily routine of lugging suitcases, interviewing, pounding out words, eating irregularly and squirming in the seat of a motor coach.
THUS, IN MY place, went assistant sports editor Gary Bedore as a fresh-faced innocent, a rookie who must learn through experience how to survive the Tour's two most dreaded horrors coaches and players who have nothing to say, and the smoke from Topeka sports editor Bob Hentzen's cigars.
Hentzen, who reportedly made his first Skywriters Tour when the conference was known as the Big Six, and I have shared a room on the Tour most participants go solo for the last several years.
Every once in awhile, it isn't good to have a double room, but usually that's only in Stillwater when the Tour stops at the Student Union Hotel, as it will this year.
One time, for instance, Hentzen and I had a room in the Oklahoma State hostelry that I'll swear was a converted elevator shaft. It was so tiny that if somebody knocked at the door, I'd open it and ask: "Up or down?"
ANOTHER YEAR, I stepped into a shower stall at the OSU inn, turned on the hot water and nothing happened. The faucet was broken. So I called the front desk. They were very apologetic and said they'd send up a plumber.
Soon the plumber arrived and began working to correct the problem. Meanwhile, Hentzen and I had forsaken showers because it was nearly time for the bus to depart.
As we left the room, carrying our luggage, we heard an exclamation from the bathroom, so we rushed in there and saw hot water blasting out of the busted pipe like a horitonzal Old Faithful.
Eventually, we heard they fixed that bad pipe even though I thought they should have left it running. Stillwater could use the tourist attraction.
I'll also never forget the morning a couple of years ago when the Skywriters bus headed north. Iowa State was our first destination, and we were due in Ames around lunch time.
AFTER ABOUT an hour on the road, however, I happened to look out the window and see an I-29 sign. Hmmm. It should have been an I-35 sign. So I beckoned to Tim Allen, then the tour director and now an assistant commissioner, asking him if Nebraska-Omaha had replaced Iowa State as a member of the Big Eight Conference.
Sure enough, the driver had goofed. After detouring through miles of back roads in northwest Missouri invariably a double consonant BB or VV or TT we arrived only an hour or so late for our appointed first stop.
Once upon a time, the Skywriters flew in a chartered piston aircraft to just about every Big Eight campus. Then the cost factor each media outlet pays full freight proved prohibitive, and now the only flights are commercial to Colorado and back.
TODAY THE Skywriters tour format is almost extinct. A dozen or so years ago, most conferences had them. Now the Big Eight is one of only a couple remaining.
In other words, this year could always be the last year. If it isn't, though, I'll be back in 1992. . .if the critters don't get me.