Thursday, September 25, 2008

A numbered series of true stories from an Auburn road trip, part 1 (pregame)

1. It's last Friday morning, about an hour before our little motley crew is due to depart Ann Arbor for the 700-plus-mile trip to my brother's place in Birmingham, and I'm carrying my backpack, camping chairs, and a couple grocery bags' worth of chips and other assorted tailgating supplies out to my car.

Man, I think to myself. If after all this, we show up and Todd throws two first-quarter picks and Auburn loses 35-3 and we only don't walk out of J-Hare in the fourth quarter because we've gone to this kind of effort to be there, it's going to seriously suck. It could happen. We looked like 99.4 percent pure crap last weekend. This whole trip is a kind of gamble, a roll of the dice, the best shot we've got but still just a shot in the dark. Maybe not the dark. A shot in the twilight.

So it's with a low-level ripple of butterflies in the stomach that I crank my car and pull out on my way to my buddy's place, where we're meeting up. The radio automatically picks back up where I'd left it off, on track 8 of the Hold Steady's CD Stay Positive, a track also titled "Stay Positive." A few seconds go by, and the chorus blasts in:

Whoa-a-ho-ho! Who-a-ho-ho! We gotta stay positive!
Whoa-a-ho-ho! Who-a-ho-ho! We gotta stay positive!

I turn it up, roll down the window, notice there is quite literally not a cloud in the sky, and remember that the alternative to this weekend is not going to watch the Auburn-LSU game at my favorite sporting venue in one of my favorite cities on Earth. And that Tommy Tuberville will be coaching my team as an underdog against the No. 6 team in the country.

Hell yeah, I'm gonna stay positive.

2. Every single summer as a kid and well into my teens, my family would make at least one trip down AL-highway 59 to Gulf Shores, where we'd spend a week or possibly just a long weekend hunting intact sand dollars and making housechore-centric wagers over games of putt-putt. But the best part of those trips was always, always spotting the little signs that you were getting close, that the beach was just a few short miles away and waiting: the Bay Minette water tower; palm or palm-like trees growing beside roadside seafood shacks; and my favorite, the driveways paved with bleached seashells instead of gravel.

So it's the little things that get the weird nostalgia/anticipation mix going as we head south, past Dayton, past Cincinnati, past Louisville and Nashville and on into the Heart of Dixie: the Chick-Fil-A logo and the still-disappointing "Closed Sunday" warning on the blue exit signs; the cardboard cut-out of Dolly Parton alongside the Dollywood display in the Tennessee Welcome Center, which prompts a few seconds of failed brainstorming in the men's room on how we might successfully steal her away with us; and of course the giant roadside rocket just after crossing over the Alabama border, so any visitors to our fair state immediately know better than to question the manhood of the residents therein.

We find our collective favorite mile marker in Louisville, though, at a bar called the Grandville Inn just off the U-of-L campus (where, the Interwebs tell us, we can find good burgers). We're waiting for a plate of jalapeno poppers when out of the kitchen pops a young woman with copious tattoos along her arms, wearing a wife-beater, black jeans, and--in the capper--a Tennessee Vols hat. (EDIT: I cannot, cannot believe I forgot to mention this the first go-round, but she was also stunningly pregnant. Like, eight months' worth. I swear.) She would be an Internet legend already if my friend--who I'll call "Dave"--had succeeded in snapping a cell-phone pic rather than fumbling around as she wrapped up her conversation with the bartender and walked out.

And even as we mocked Dave for the lost opportunity and have our cruel chuckle at Anonymous Female Vol Fan living up every inch to the nation's preconceived notions of Anonymous Female Vol Fans, the Southern SEC fan in me can't help but think: Yeaaaaaaaah, these are my people.

3. We get into Birmingham just early enough to head out with my brother to the Hoover On Tap, where it's Sweetwater 420 all around ... except for me, because I got hooked on the On Tap's "Snakebites" (1/2 Guinness, 1/2 Woodchuck) back in the day and need my nostalgia fix. (I'm lame. I know this already.) Eventually we have a round of Alabama Slammers and upon finding out three of us are from just a bit out of town, the bartender tells us a joke.

"How do you know they invented the toothbrush in Mississippi?" he says. "Because if it had been invented anywhere else, it would be the teethbrush."

I'd wager I've heard it before, but still: jokes about Mississippi, a cloud of cigarette smoke in the On Tap, a round of Southern Comfort mixed with something sweet, and of course a brother who's ready and willing to help breakdown what we can expect from Auburn the next day. It's damn good to be back.

4. Tempting as it is to tote a WAR BLOG sign down to Gameday and elbow my way into the camera angle (just think of the hits! oh, the glorious traffic!), no one including me is interested in waking up that abominably early. We leave around 9:30ish, taking Highway 280 down because, well, we wouldn't be able to stop at the Chelsea Winn-Dixie for our beer and tailgating food otherwise. And seeing as how the first thing that comes to one of my friend's minds when I mention Winn-Dixie is the dog movie, this is obviously a necessary move.

We buy our burgers and sausage and Miller Lite and plastic cups and plates and Winn-Dixie-brand buns and we're set, though as a group three of us make a collective mistake when we overdo the joshing of friend No. 4 when he grabs a four-pack of the fascinatingly horrific-looking Bud Chelada. He puts it back. Nuts. That would have been entertaining, almost as much as the Tide fan in crimson Crocs and camouflage pants.

Don't think that's not to say I'm not happy to see him, though. I missed the Tide fans in crimson Crocs and camo pants, just as I missed the cashier's far-side-of-Shelby County drawl, so thick I almost hug her.

5. Unless I'm mistaken, I've never mentioned my hometown by name before on the blog. It won't matter for anyone not already familiar with East Alabama/Lake Martin geography, but it's Dadeville. I'm from Dadeville, DHS class of 1997.

So naturally we turn off the highway. We drive past the house I grew up in, past the county courthouse where I failed my first driving test, past the Piggly Wiggly and the old Hardee's (long since having suffered the same fate as the empty KFC out on 280, soon to be a Mexican joint according to the sign) and the high school, where I see they've named the band room for an old family friend who taught both my brothers and whose daughter I graduated with. Good for him.

A lot of little things like that have changed, and maybe it doesn't appear quite as vibrant, shall we say, as during the proverbial good old days. But at a glance the city still looks more-or-less the same as when I left it--not that in rural Alabama this is the least bit surprising. It's reassuring. I've come back to enjoy the same game day, the same Auburn, the same 10-9 sort of victory I enjoyed the last time I watched these two teams play in person. Change would be a bad omen.

6. As Paul Simon once sang, truly "these are the days of miracle and wonder." He was sort of being ironic, but I'm not, not with the set up we've got going at our tailgate (at the lot on Donahue next to the railroad tracks). True, it's not nearly as sweet as one of the 42-inch HDs we see scattered across the tailgating landscape on our walkabout later, but as I mentioned Friday, we do have a fancypants portable WiFi router and a buddy with a Slingbox--so we wind up watching Troy battle Ohio State over the Internet as we grill, drink, etc. Miracle and wonder indeed. (Here's some irony for you: because the Slingbox is connected to a cable box back in Ann Arbor, we're sitting smack in the heart of JP/Lincoln Financial/Raycom country and can't get the Alabama game. Not that after the halftime score we'd want to.)

As the game goes to commercial, a voice intones that "This ... is the Big Ten Network." We feel 99.9999 percent certain this is the first time those words have ever reached human ears within the city limits of Auburn, and very likely the first time in the entire history of the state of Alabama.

7. Appropriately full of beer and grease and assorted other food-like substances (Mmmmm ... Ranch Wavy Lay's), we head off for the obligatory tour of Auburn, and the tour--if you are me and you haven't stomped around the ol' stomping grounds for a couple of years--is wonderful. Toomer's. Samford Hall. Haley Center. The mandatory photo op alongside the Auburn University sign on College. There's also a quick peek at the Gameday set, where the cordoned-off area for sign-carriers that looks an acre wide on TV turns out to be no more than about 25 yards square. Huh. Squeezing in there would probably feel like going to a sold-out show at the Variety Playhouse, but with the band weirdly facing away from you the whole time.

Although outfitted with shakers so as to prevent any confusion about where their allegiances for the weekend lie, my buddies are each wearing Michigan shirts. This results in a handful of "Go Blue!-War Eagle!" cross-conference exchanges and welcomes, some (mostly) good-natured ribbing along "Hey, you guys at the wrong game!" lines, and unfortunately a couple of chants of "O-H!" in their direction, which is understandable because of the longstanding beef between Auburn fans and Michigan fans. Oh, wait. Scratch that. It's understandable because tools are going to be tools whether you're in Auburn, Ann Arbor, or anywhere else.

The majority of Auburn folks we meet are friendly, though (of course). And it could certainly be worse: as we sit down to plow through a couple of combos at the Chick-Fil-A (because they are closed on Sundays, after all, and this our Last Chance) there's a couple of LSU fans calmly eating their own meal in the restaurant. "If you're a Michigan fan in Columbus," one my friends says, "you can't do that. You just wouldn't want to." O-H!

On our way out of the Chick-Fil-A a conversation strikes up with an Auburn fan who asks why my friends would wear Michigan gear to an Auburn game. It's a fair question, but: wouldn't you wear your Auburn gear to a Michigan game? (I would. And have.)

8. On our way over to Tiger Walk we find the ESPN Radio stage, complete with Scouts, Inc.'s Todd McShay and Chris Fowler his own self:

who's definitely rocking the dressed-for-radio look. Which I can totally dig--who wants to spend their entire college football Saturday in a starched shirt and tie?

9. I've been to Tiger Walks that resembled a mob scene before, but Saturday's proves to be the mobbiest one of them all, so mobby the most I can see of the players as they go by is the very tops of their heads. I miss Tubby completely.

I couldn't care less. There's a guy in a tree with a hanged stuffed tiger (an LSU tiger, as it clearly states in marker on its side) leading cheers. There's the band. There's a thousand other screaming fans in orange t-shirts and Bo jerseys and gameday buttons. I've got my shaker going and I'm yelling Give 'em hell! and Kick 'em in the butt Big Blue! and A-U-B-U-R-N! at the tops of my lungs, and it's not an exaggeration to say that after three years away, it feels like some small puzzle piece of my soul has been pressed back into place. War Damn Eagle.

Seriously: War. Damn. Eagle. As we chant our way through "War Eagle" one more time (GO GO GO!), I'm still not ready to guarantee an Auburn victory. But I know it's not going to be an LSU blowout. It can't be. Impossible. Not today. Not after this. Glory, glory.

10. As Tiger Walk breaks up, we pass a guy wearing a t-shirt that reads "LSUCKS." That's OK. Maybe even cool if I'd had more to drink. What's not OK is that this t-shirt is purple and printed in gold letters. Dude. No one cares what the t-shirt says if it's printed in the enemy's colors. Come on.

11. After Tiger Walk breaks up we meet up with none other than the esteemed Will Collier, who's been kind enough to provide a couple of our tickets to the game. Even if I'm stuffed already, I have to help myself to a quick helping of the Colliers' bucket of Guthrie's. Outside of the likes of Applebee's and such, there's no such thing as chicken fingers in Ann Arbor, so I feel a bit like a bear readying for hibernation: I've got to stock up before the long, cold, harsh chicken-finglerless Michigan winter.

12. The sun is fading and finally, finally, it's time to start heading towards Jordan-Hare Stadium, that giant looming Christmas present I've had to wait all day to unwrap. We're probably about 50 yards from the west entrance when we fall in behind some dude in his 50s wearing an orange collared shirt and screaming weirdly at what appear to be random Auburn passersby.

"Get fired up! Fire up!" he yells at some guy who gives him an odd look and keeps moving. "We need you! We need you!"

Part of me goes: Whoa. Dude. But as I hand over my ticket, and start walking up the ramp to our seats, and feel that old anxious thump of the heart that only comes in the last few minutes before kickoff of a big Auburn game in the Loveliest Village, and walk out of the little tunnel and take in the sea of orange and the green of Pat Dye Field stretched below us, echoing with the saber-rattling noises of warm-ups and half-overrun with my heroes in navy blue, I think: This is it. He's right. Fire up, Auburn. Fire up. We're here. We've made it. Let's do this. Come on, Auburn. Come on, Tigers.

War Eagle.

(Part 2 coming later today.)


Ell said...

Seriously, I'm a Bama guy (I run a Bama blog) - but the Car Wash here is having an epic week. Two really long great posts (not that there's anything wrong with the others). This one and the one about the game and the loss itself.

Nice work...

J.M. said...

I'm loving every word of this road trip recount. War Eagle!

Anonymous said...

Great work Jerry!

I really hope you discuss your Michigan boys' take on the JHS crowd noise, compared to, you know, jingling their keys.

IJRAU said...

Saw you and your Michigan friends on my walk to the stadium while y'all were visiting with Will Collier. The Michigan Law t-shirt actually goes well with the Auburn hat. It looked like your gang was having big fun. Good that you could make it and here's to net time and a better result.

nixforsix said...

Ironically, there were many a Directv setups turned to the Big 10 network last year for the App State victory over Michigan. I watched the end of that game at three different tailgates in the library lawn on my walk to the bathroom.

CD said...

Fantastic. I'm damn near tears sitting here in my drab cubicle in the quasi-government agency where I work in Atlanta.

UofM Grad '08 said...

Made my way over from mgoblog and saw this, felt compelled to share:

I'm a UM grad who went to the '06 game in Columbus. About an hour before kickoff (my tix fell through), my friend and I went to a Wendy's on High St, the main drag of campus.

As we waited in line, everyone booed. Everyone - even employees from the back came out to yell at us. You couldn't make any of it out, but there was a lot of it.

Suddenly, out of God knows where, a chicken nugget hits my friend square in the forehead. We got smiled and waved until they got tuckered out and gave us our burgers.

In short, that's being blue in Columbus.

Hostpph said...

Wow, It is a huge amount of people preparing to watch the game. I would love to be there.