It’s a little chilly outside and cuddled up with D, I’m quite cozy. I know I’ll be cold and uncomfortable when I get out of bed, but on this Saturday I don’t mind so much. Today is one of life’s massive milestones. Today I’m taking my oldest for his first trip to Tuscaloosa and his first Alabama-Auburn game. By the time I’m up, Spence has already woken, brushed his hair and teeth, and donned his favorite ’Bama jersey, the #8 once worn by Julio Jones. Despite the fact that I HATE shaving, I shear me whiskers, have a quick shower then don a pair of hound’s-tooth trousers and a crimson sweater. I look good, he looks great. Time to roll.
iPad? Check, iPhone? Check. Tickets? Check. Car charger for the phone? Check. Out the door, in the car, off to breakfast. A quick croissant for both of us at Neidlov’s and we’re on the road. The drive from Chattanooga through Birmingham to Tuscaloosa takes about three hours. Aside from the unfailingly appalling condition of I-59 between the Georgia line and Gadsden, the drive is pretty uneventful. This is a stretch of road that enables my mind to wander a bit.
When I was growing up, the family didn’t often go to college football games. One of my earliest recollections, however, was going to an Alabama game with my father and brother – I suspect I was four, maybe five. I remember three fuzzy snapshots in time: arriving at Denny Stadium and walking in with the crowd; sitting in some nosebleed seats looking down at the field; and questioning why we were leaving before the game was over. Despite the fact that we didn’t often attend games in person, Alabama football (and in the case of one of my brothers, Auburn football) was as important as school or church. Of course, I was no exception; most of the people I knew also felt the same way about either the Tide or Tigers.
I don’t hate Auburn (except in 2010, the whole $Cam Newton thing did my head in). I have a graduate degree from there, and I’m member of the Alumni Advisory Council for the Planning Department. As it relates to my personal and professional development, I can’t overstate the importance of the six quarters I spent in Lee County. I actually love Auburn, and it has a special place in my heart. I found, however, that as it relates to football, six quarters on the plains could not trump twenty-four years of living and dying with the Tide.
It’s about ten in the morning as we roll into the Magic City…
“Hey Spence, look, it’s downtown Birmingham.”
“Cool…. There are a bunch of big buildings, all jumbled up.”
“Yeah, that’s kind of what a downtown is.”
“Do a million people live there?”
“Less than that, a few thousand.”
“I bet a bunch of stores are there. If a thousand people live there, that’s where I would open a store, those people have to shop somewhere.”
“Yep, cities are economic engines.”
“…And I bet it’s a lot easier to have sleepovers with your friends if you can just walk over to their house…”
After that exchange I can tell he’s paying more attention to what’s outside the car window. A few more miles and we’re into old Rushing territory. “Hey Spence, this is Bessemer… where my dad is from.” Fortunately, he doesn’t seize upon that particular morsel (I think he senses it’s not a happy subject). Instead he opines “there aren’t many big buildings here, and they’re all spread out. I bet they have to drive all over to shop. I like downtown better.” Attaboy. The rest of the drive passes relatively uneventfully – except for old man Rushing rocking to Gangnam Style during minor traffic jam. This act that causes young Spence great embarrassment, but provides a level of entertainment to our fellow travelers. We’re almost there.
Dreamland is a station of the cross for bar-be-que enthusiasts and a Tuscaloosa institution. Surely, on Iron Bowl Saturday, the place will be mobbed. I can’t not try to go though- it’s Spence’s first trip here. Jug Factory road is, as usual, a bit sketchy- but as we pull up, I am greeted with a front row parking spot. A police officer opens the door for us, and directly escorts us to a booth beneath a poster of Coach Bryant. Our server approaches the table and tells us that we will be splitting a slab of ribs and asks what we would like to drink. Who knows if it’s the gameday day ambiance, Spence’s face-splitting grin, or the food, but the combination of pork, smoke, sauce and company is better than anything I’ve ever tasted (sorry Charlie Trotter).
Pointing a signed picture on the wall, Spence asks “Dad, who’s that?”
“George Teague. I went to high school with him. I didn’t know him well but he was in my computer class with Ms. Daniel’s when I was in eleventh grade.”
“What’s he doing to that guy from Miami?”
“Stripping the ball from him. That’s one of Alabama’s famous plays. We beat the ‘Canes in that game to win the National Championship.”
We park at Central High, and join the throng headed toward the stadium. Spence is about to come undone- he’s hopping, skipping, holding my hand and asking questions as fast as his little mouth can form them. “How big is the stadium? Why is it called Bryan-Denny? Where are the players? Why is he called “Ears” Whitworth? Can I have an Eddie Lacy jersey? Where are the Auburn fans? Can we meet Nick Saban? I like the way the cars are parked in places all around – that beats a big parking lot where everyone has to walk all day.” Attaboy.
As we approach the quad, the questions stop and his mouth drops a little. Thousands of our brethren are cavorting in tents, hugging, dancing, high-fiving and enjoying each other’s company. A cheesy as it sounds, I feel like I’m home. Alabamians… dressed like me, talking like me, loving what I love. I can’t help but think that Spence picks up on it. We make our way through the scene, soaking up the atmosphere, and I point out elements of interest: Denny Chimes, the Library. “I like it here, the buildings and the trees make it feel like a big room.” Attaboy. We reach our destination: a tailgater thrown by one of my fraternity brothers from New Mexico who has moved to Birmingham and adopted ‘Bama as his own. After a hearty round of hugs and introductions, they proceed to stuff us with food and drink. Thankfully, Mr. Garcia refrains from telling any stories that start with “I remember when your dad…”
We make our goodbyes and head toward the stadium to take pictures with the Statues of our beloved coaches. “Dad, can we go to our seats? Dad, can we go down on the field? Dad, I want popcorn… no, I want nachos…no, I want a hot dog… no, I want a pretzel. Where’s A.J McCarron? Who’s Mal Moore? Why isn’t that guy wearing a shirt?...
Standing in front of Coach Bryant’s statue, I make to have a stranger take a picture of us. OH. SHIT. How can I have made this schoolboy error? My… Phone… Is… Dead. Did I really just drive for three hours without plugging my phone into the charger? Yes. How will I be able to tell all of my Facebook friends how much fun we’re having? How will I be able to post pictures to Instagram that illustrate said fun? How will I be able to tweet the details of our fantastic adventure? In that moment, I realized that this is best gift Spence could possibly be given- the full and undivided attention of his father. Obviously, I wasn’t planning on using my phone to work or check email, I was going to use it to let family and friends know what we were up to. But from his standpoint, what’s the difference- his dad still would have been fiddling with technology on and off throughout the night. Now, its just me and him, and his experiences and memories trump all the likes and retweets in the world. This is our game- what happens here, between us is not for our family or friends (whom we love dearly). What happens here is for him and me to share to the exclusion of everyone else (yes, I’m selfish like that).
The third quarter ends, and over the P.A. an acoustic guitar gives way to familiar lyrics…
Rollin' down a backwoods Tennessee byway, one arm on the wheel…
“Dad, are you crying?”
“Uh, er, no son….uh, the wind is uh making my eyes water… I love this song”
I am no country music fan, although, I do have a pair of boots and a cowboy hat to show for my time in New Mexico. Dixieland Delight, however, is one of those songs that has been with me my entire life. It was the soundtrack of beach vacations with the Turners and Voltzes when I was small boy. It was a go-to when I got homesick in Albuquerque. It’s been the backdrop for a number of cherished moments with D (notably the stormed delayed Riverbend concert of 2000). It was cause for a drunken square-dance with Matt Winget and Johnny Hardaway at Hannah’s before this year’s UT game. In this moment, it’s perfect once again. With ‘Bama up by six touchdowns, and my son by my side, a hundred thousand happy Alabamians serenade one another at the top of their lungs. When the chorus I arrives, I join in full voice (…except for the unofficial lyrics that aren’t really appropriate for seven-year-old ears)…
Spend my dollar; (ON BEER!)
Parked in a holler 'neath the mountain moonlight; (ROLL TIDE!!)
Hold her Uptight; (AGAINST THE WALL)
Make a little lovin', (ALL NIGHT)
A little turtle dovin' on a Mason Dixon night. (F*** AUBURN)
Fits my life, oh, so right: My Dixieland Delight.
The song ends, the game resumes, and the elderly gentleman sat in front of us turns and says “You and your son look like you’re having so much fun, would you like me to take a picture of you two?” I replied with a wink, “ Thank you sir, I appreciate it, but fortunately my phone is dead”
“Oh, by the way, do you know who sings that last song?”
“Yes sir. It’s Alabama.”