Chapter One: Hallways on Wheels
Does anyone know where I might be able to locate a pic of the New Bama Logo? I want a pic large enough to print and use for a tattoo that would be about 6 to 7 inches tall. —Bulletin board post from Ed Hames, aka "Bamafanforlife"
So I have a mission, but there are certain logistical issues I have to work out. How exactly does one join an RV caravan? I could always simply show up at the parking lot of the first game of the season, against Vanderbilt in Nashville, and impose myself. I have a trump card in the form of that photograph of Bear Bryant and me, which I figure for Alabama fans might act as a kind of press pass to the soul. There is another strategy more enticing than simply crashing the party: trying to get invited to it, on someone else's RV. But resolving to get invited aboard a stranger's motor home and actually getting invited, I learn in short order, are two very different things. Absent an attempt to track down a specific RV like the Reeses', I find that in the summer months it's oddly difficult to locate any RV-ers at all. The RVs that fill the highways and stadium lots in the fall seem to disappear without a trace in the warmer months, perhaps parked by their owners in backyards in a kind of inverse hibernation, or perhaps driven out west to tour the national parks. There are no Alabama fan motor home associations to contact; there is no Bama RV Club. Perhaps the whole point of RV-ing is to disconnect from the grid to chase after one's passions; to such people, the inability to be organized—or even found—could be a kind of virtue. So I go to the one place where even the least organized and most elusive people are sure to have a presence: the Internet.
There are literally hundreds of Alabama fan sites—TiderInsider.com, BamaMag.com, BamaOnline.com are the biggest, along with countless personal pages, the cyberspace equivalent of bumper stickers, where fans declare their love of the team for anyone who happens to click by. None, though, are devoted to RV-ers. I sign up for an e-mail listserv called Bamafan, a kind of live wire into the collective unconsciousness of Alabama fans, and within minutes of my signing up, e-mails begin to appear in my mailbox at a machine-gun rate from people with names like Bamadog, Krymsonman, Crimson Jim, and the Alabama Slamma. I've tuned in to to a kind of philosophical debate: Are there any circumstances under which it is permissible for an Alabama fan to pull for Tennessee? A fan named Tommy e-mails the group that when a Tennessee win would benefit Alabama, he actually finds himself humming "Rocky Top," the Tennessee fight song.
"You certainly don't know what it's like to really hate Tennessee if you pull for them AT ALL," a poster named Tiderollin' responds. "I'd cheer for Florida, Auburn, Notre Dame, Russia, and the University of Hell before the words 'rocky top' would ever come out of my mouth."
I send the group an e-mail of my own explaining my mission and asking, with the sort of straight-forwardness I expect someone like Tiderollin' might appreciate, if anyone would be willing to offer me berth aboard a motor home. Within a few hours, responses begin to trickle in. A woman replies offering to tell me the story of how she came to have the word Bama tattooed on her leg. Another offers the use of some photographs he thinks might go well in a book about Alabama fans:
My family are all BAMA grads . . . and we all made a trip in '95 to China. I have a shot of all of us holding a large BAMA flag on the Great Wall of China just outside of Beijing. If you are interested in using this photo in your book we could probably work something out.
I get a number of other encouraging e-mails, wishing me luck, but no invites on RVs. Eventually, Bamadog writes to suggest I contact Tide Pride, the booster office of the University of Alabama. "They may or may not have information on the people you're looking for," he writes helpfully, before signing off, "Dawg."
It turns out even University of Alabama officials are at a loss to name the people who crowd their campus on game weekends. A man named Wayne at the school's booster office laughs when I explain my mission, then quickly tries to dissuade me. RV-ers, he says, can be disagreeable people. "They show up on Monday and park where students are supposed to park," he says. "We tell 'em, 'You gotta wait till Friday afternoon to park there,' and they just get upset with you. Some of these people feel like they deserve everything. It gets too much sometimes. They's people who go too far." It seems significant that a university official charged with inciting fan zeal believes the RV-ers are too zealous. I sense that Wayne is reluctant to help me; something like 95 percent of the RV-ers, he says, never attended the university—they simply like the football team. The implication is that while the university had no role in shaping these disagreeable people, it has to answer for them. I press for names.
"You could try a fellow in Clanton," Wayne grumbles before hanging up. "Name is Skeeter Stokes."
Skeeter Stokes answers when I call and is happy to talk. He's the semiretired owner and manager of the Clanton Chevrolet dealership and has been going to Alabama games for thirty years. He still attends most home games, he says, in an Allegro motor home, typically with a Chevy Blazer in tow—a kind of escape pod once the mother ship is fully set up in the lot. Stokes is eighty-five years old and, at least on the phone, sounds every bit his age. The image of an eighty-five-year-old man on the highway in a vehicle the size of a Greyhound—with an SUV in tow—is sobering. Perhaps this is what Wayne means about going too far.
The rest of our conversation yields two bits of valuable information. The first is that there is no way in hell—his words—that I'll be invited to spend a weekend with Skeeter Stokes aboard his RV. Second: Over the years Stokes has compiled a list of names and phone numbers of RV-ers he's met at Alabama games.
"It's out in the motor home," he tells me. "You welcome to it."
So I spend the next few days working my way down Stokes's list. My first call is to a man named Wayne Snead of Snead, Alabama, the owner of a $400,000 Bluebird motor home. Mr. Snead of Snead isn't into the hard-drinking life around the stadium; he and his wife prefer to be near the team, so they stay in the parking lot of the team's hotel. I speak to a man named Rudy Valley, whose job—leasing beach furniture to a significant portion of the Florida panhandle—neatly conforms to the seasonal rhythms of football; he closes shop just before the first kickoff each year. Valley puts me in touch with a moderately coherent man known to me only as "The Night Mayor," because of his insomniac tendency to wander the lot into the morning hours. When pronounced with an Alabama drawl, the name is a pun on "nightmare," a fair description, I'm told, of this man after a few drinks. The Night Mayor gives me the number of a friend, a motor-homing Bama fan who, by coincidence, happens to own a bar. And so on.
Whatever alarm these people feel at having a stranger ask details of their personal lives is offset by the flattery of encountering a stranger who is interested. Each has a story about going too far, a story or bit of personal data they report with an ambivalent mixture of shame and pride. Wayne Snead tells me about the time he drove to an uncle's wake in his fully provisioned RV, ready to hit the road as soon as he'd paid his respects. Rudy Valley boasts that he has $200,000 worth of Alabama football memorabilia in his home and that his motor home cost him more than his actual house. A man in Delaware named Jeremy tells me of his hard-fought but ultimately successful effort to convince his wife to name their daughter Crimson. And these aren't social misfits, at least not exactly. Wayne runs a successful farm supply business in Snead. Rudy Valley's beach furniture leasing business is among the most successful in Florida. Jeremy has a Ph.D. in molecular biology.
Besides being zealots for the Crimson Tide, most everyone I speak with shares something else in common: a belief that the world does not understand them. Each has a story of mockery at the hands of spouses, coworkers, or friends. Each has in his life the equivalent of the Reeses' daughter—someone who has tested, provoked, and frustrated them, someone who didn't just not understand but who actively agitated against their obsession, who made the frustrating (although perfectly rational) argument that a lifetime's outlay of energy and emotion for a sports team was not recoupable, no matter how many victories or championships.
I figure this feeling of being unappreciated may be my in. What we fans need, I argue, is for a reporter to tag along in one of their RVs for a season and to translate the experience for everybody else, to make them understand. With this, everyone heartily agrees. There is certainly no more deserving subject matter for a book, the fans say, than fans themselves. And when I suggest that I should be that reporter and my interview subject should be that Alabama fan, and that we should spend a few months together on an RV, the reply is always the same: Not on your life.
I'm near the end of Skeeter Stokes's list when I place a call to a man named Corky Williford from Dothan, Alabama, who as quickly as anyone lets me know that I will not be riding with him and his wife at any point during the football season. Williford nevertheless seems friendly enough—he tells me I'm welcome anytime to visit his RV at the stadium, to eat barbecue and "drink good booze," as he puts it. So I ask, based on his knowledge of the convoy, what the chances are of my getting a single invitation.
"Not good, son," Williford says, not unsympathetically. "There's a saying: no matter how big a motor home is, it's only built for two. Once you get in one, no matter how big it is, it's just a hallway on wheels." My best bet, Williford says, is to get a motel room near Vanderbilt Stadium on the first weekend of the season, and then to glom on the RV scene there. I thank him for the insight and resolve to begin my reporting on foot.
Two days later, I receive the following e-mail:
Saw your post on Bamafan . . . we live in South Carolina, but you're welcome to join us from here. ROLL TIDE!!! —Chris & Paula Bice
Chris and Paula Bice, I learn in subsequent e-mails, live in Simpsonville, South Carolina, outside Greenville, and travel to games in something called a Winnebago Warrior. Chris Bice e-mails a photograph; if the typical motor home is a hallway on wheels, as Williford said, this is a linen closet. It's short and boxy and looks more or less like the Crimson Express cut in half. I'm in no position to get uppity about the make and model of motor home I'll stoop to travel in, so I find myself in an interesting position: doing everything I possibly can to join two perfect strangers for a weekend in what amounts to a modestly large car. Bice tells me to call him at work, so on a weekday in early August I oblige. He answers in a deep, edgy baritone, and seems excited to hear from me.
"Hey, Roll Tide," he says when I introduce myself.
"Roll Tide" is Alabama's battle cry, but among fans, it's the ultimate all-purpose phrase, like prego in Italian or namaste in Nepali, an acceptable substitute for hello, goodbye, nice to meet you, and Amen.
"Roll Tide," I say.
We chat for a few minutes about the team—Bice has high hopes, mainly because of Shaun Alexander, the Tide's star running back. I ask how many games Bice expects to attend.
"We're going to all of them this year except the away game at Florida," he says. "Florida is where I might end up killing somebody."
Bice leaves me to mull this comment as he tends to a squawking radio in the background. I hear him blurt a string of unintelligible numbers and commands—he's obviously a dispatcher of some kind. He picks up the phone again, and I get a few biographical details: he and his wife Paula are in their midthirties and are both originally from Birmingham. They've been Alabama fans since childhood; their first date was to the 1983 Alabama-Ole Miss game, which Alabama won 40-0. The Bices started RV-ing to games in Paula's parents' Winnebago Brave, and later in their thirty-three-foot Itasca Windcruiser, a "lap-of-luxury type thing," Chris says. Paula's father died in a car fire in 1991, and they got rid of the Itasca. A few years later Chris and Paula began to peruse the classifieds in the Greenville News for their own motor home. They bought the Warrior, used, for twenty-five grand.
About my invitation, Chris says, there's just one thing. He's hasn't exactly cleared it with Paula. "I'm fine with it," he says. "But she said, you know, 'What if he's a weirdo or something?' I said, 'Hey Paula, that's the whole point: we're the weirdos.' " Apparently Paula was unmoved by this line of thinking. So Chris and I agree to a tentative plan: I'll drive from New York to South Carolina on the Thursday before the game, go out with the Bices to a local farm league baseball game, and if I don't register code red on Paula's internal serial killer detector, we'll leave for Nashville on Friday morning. The radio squawks and Bice asks me to hold. I hear him chattering into a microphone, then distinctly, the words "Clear to land."
"What do you do for a living?" I ask when Bice picks up the phone.
"Air traffic control."
"Do you need to go?"
"No, it's pretty slow right now."
Later I ask Bice if he'll be taking his Winnebago to all the games or if he'll fly.
"Oh I don't fly," he says.
"It's not safe," he says, and hangs up laughing.