Wednesday, February 25, 2009


The Druid City lies along the shoals of the Black Warrior River at the convergence of 19th Century trails used by Muscogean-speaking tribes led by Chief Tuskaloosa. When I arrived in the fall of 1983 the city had become home to 80,000 frenzied members of the Bryant tribe, typified by packs of crimson and white-painted devotees of the Church of Saturday Football. They arrived by recreation vehicles in the middle of the week, posted up revelry headquarters in the parking lots astride Bryant-Denny Stadium, and got their barbecue on.

For the rest of us--yankees and interlopers of confounded cultural identities--the pilgrimage resembled a tent meeting of elders from stratified sects as disparate as Birmingham (decked out in duck-head pants and expensive loafers) and Cottondale (casually attired in blue bib overalls, huntin' boots, and bright red ballcaps). Sunday you went to church. Saturday you prayed at the Shrine of the Everlasting Bear.

To fully attend a football game at Bryant-Denny you had to drink the Coach Bear Bryant kool-aid amidst a horde that doubled the city population for an afternoon. Not everyone was liquored-up to their Dixie gills, but most were. Certainly the sorority goddesses in their pastel formal gowns despite the raging heat and bone-melting humidity had a little bourbon at breakfast. By halftime, many would sport patches of sudden vomit at their breast. Fraternity lads, dressed in Sunday go-to-preachin' finery, would leap across sections of rooting fans to rip the dress tie off a real or imagined foe. And locals would craft clever stadium totems, such as the red and yellow box of detergent and toilet paper mounted on a staff of wood, a tale told by an idiot signifying: Roll Tide!

Along University Boulevard at dawn the merchants had already set out tables of iced beer and red and white pennants, the crackling loudspeakers playing "rama-jama, yellowhammer, give em hell, Alabama". You could dine from plates of biscuits in red-eye gravy (a tincture of ham fat and coffee), breakfast slices of pepperoni Bamabino pizza, trays of iced donuts, quadruple-shot tumblers of Long Island iced teas, throat-cauterizing delicacies from Wings n' Things, or purchase celebratory Bear Bryant effigies on coke-cola bottles and license-plate frames that read: "American by Birth, Southern by the Grace of God". Say, hallelujah!

At kickoff time, you could drive 80 miles an hour down the deserted city streets, hearing only the sound of squealing tires and a cresting roar from the stadium. Tables were deserted with Bryant relics and platters of ribs still sitting on them, the merchants departed for their own stadium seat or tucked back into their shops where they listened to the game on the radio. Rag-pickers walked along under the hot fall sun in near solitude, plucking up recyclable cans, or sitting on the curbs under the hackberry trees with their scavenger's bounty.

We writers, out-of-towners, grad students with portfolio typically met up for cheese grits and eggs, then strapped plastic flasks of bourbon to our calves with duct tape, pulled down our cuffs, and walked undisturbed past distracted guards into the brilliant sunlight of the stadium, heat shimmering from the grass, all in a blur of crimson bunting and plastic pompoms. Loudspeakers blared "Sweet Home Alabama" as wave upon wave of footballers took their drills across the turf.

It is simply impossible to over-write the splendor, the fanaticism, the crowd rising as one to the kickoff with a growl that began in your belly and rose like the scream of some freshly pole-axed hog as the ball was struck. Roll-Tide-Roll. Stand up, my brothers, rise up sistern, feel the recollection of the blood of the lamb, see the bright parallax of angels guiding you skywards, light-headed in the blood-red sauce of barbecue and sweet nectar of warm bourbon in God's own humidor of fun, the smiting of foes, the crushing of heathens, the urpage of slight cheese-grit bouquet on the back palate of a scream, waves of helmeted seraphim a-flow across the turf where the ghastly visage of Barry Krause is forever staunching the goal-line plunge of Penn State, where the shadow of the Bear, dearly departed, still prowls the sidelines, frowning Gibraltar in his houndstooth hat...

... and in the end, you had a brutal headache.

You walked with friends in silence--no matter the outcome--having tithed more than you earned. Cars began to stir again along Bryant Drive, then the Tuscaloosa bars and cafes once again swelled to life and patrons burst out onto the sidewalks. But along Hackberry Lane or 10th Avenue there was just the sound of fall leaves crunching underfoot and the pulse of your heart pounding into your temples, and the hope of cool weather someday coming to the South. And that night, if you stayed awake, the line of lights from vans and campers still streamed toward the interstate en-route to Thomasville, Demopolis, Alabaster, and Selma. You could hear car horns blaring the Bama fight song, then the final whoops of desperate revelers and, much later, just the sound of cockroaches as they marched beneath the dried up leaves in the windless night. But you would have to sleep soon enough, dreamless toward Sunday, when the chimes rang from the steeples of Tuscaloosa and the rest of the world was deep in prayer.


Char said...

awww yes, the church of the Bear lives on to this day. I bleed crimson and white.

tangobaby said...

I kind of lost it a little at the vomit/pastel prom dress part, but that's the Dorothy Parker in me combined with some wickedly dysfunctional biorhythms at this time.

I read these posts and am always amazed at how you paint these perfect images of places that I will never see. Sometimes I think that California has ruined me. Or spoiled me at least. I don't think I could have such a wide and honest eye as you do.