Whatever invisible demarcation between North and South exists – and the Wikipedia entry on Mason and Dixon’s line did nothing to help me decide where or what it is, though it did pique my interest in Thomas Pynchon’s novel of the same name which, in its defense, “makes no claim of being historically rigorous” - I passed it on Monday, September 17 on my way from Marion, Illinois to Murfreesboro, Tennessee. To celebrate I queued up Paul Simon’s “Graceland” and hummed along:
The Mississippi Delta was shining
Like a national guitar
I am following the river
Down the highway
Through the cradle of the Civil War
I’m going to Graceland
In Memphis Tennessee
Im going to Graceland
In Graceland, in Graceland
I’m going to Graceland
For reasons I cannot explain
There’s some part of me wants to see
And I may be obliged to defend
Every love, every ending
Or maybe there’s no obligations now
Maybe I’ve a reason to believe
We all will be received
I still haven’t been to Memphis, or Graceland. My understanding of Tennessee geography was, literally, short: the state can’t be that big, surely, especially to a Californian. The Humboldt County marijuana mules get leg cramps before they even get to the East Bay, let alone San Diego. Tennessee! I laughed at your physical stature.
At it’s longest the Volunteer State stretches 440 miles, with the cities of Memphis, Nashville, Chattanooga and Knoxville forming a loose parallelogram following the contours of the state itself. I lingered in the Nashville area for the duration of my stay in Tennessee. Why? Lookout Mountain – site of Rock City, the Three Battles of Chattanooga (of which the Third was the most important, signalling the true end of the Confederacy and the start of the Union’s advance into Atlanta) and the climax of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods – is near Chattanooga. The Battle of Shiloh Hill took place about a hundred miles east of Memphis. And Memphis! I tried explaining the significance of Memphis in my mind to a native, who could not come up with a single redemptive quality for her home city.
“Barbeque! The blues! Johnny Cash! Carl Perkins! Sam Cooke! Tennessee Williams! Beale Street! Barbeque! Martin Luther King’s last speech at Mason Temple! Barbeque!” I explained, somewhat quietly and with a strained candor. I had barbeque on my mind at the time, and didn’t want to excite anyone lest they they realize I had come, like a Hamburglar of smoked goods, to rob them of their most prized meat confections.
“Yeah, but it’s a shit hole,” she said. I left it at that, though even now the idea of Memphis pulsates in my brain and I don’t think I will be able to resist a walk along Beale Street. Hard to explain why I never made it there, considering that a few hundred miles were nothing to an odometer whose patience, having been stretched thin for three weeks, emulated the agonies of sainthood and transcended its mortal state to reach a perpetual beatification that said, simply, “Do whatever you must. I have a harp and cloud, and a halo.”
There was also the issue of Murfreesboro, home of the Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders and my de-facto headquarters for at least four days. The population of Murfreesboro has doubled since 1990 (46,000), making it – at an estimated 92,559 – one of the fastest growing cities in America. MTSU is the largest undergraduate university in the state of Tennessee. The locals were never hesitant to point out these two facts to me, but despite the growing evidence of Murfreesboro’s ascendance the general opinion of those communicating with me via the internet and text messaging was this: “You’ll run out of things to do once you park.”
So how did I manage to not go insane after four days away from the four big cities of Tennessee? Start with those same locals, who began, first, by intriguing me as the first representatives of The South I had met on my travels and moved to the simple acts of kindness, acceptance and blah blah blah that make my bleeding heart ache at the thought of the horrid cliche of it all: Southern hospitality at its finest, and no matter my will there wasn’t an ounce of irony I could wring from that.
(Also helping me not going insane was a tour of Lynchburg, home of the Jack Daniel’s distillery and essentially my Dome of the Rock. From smelling the 140 proof White Lightning to walking amongst thousands of barrels of whiskey, whiskey, whiskey everywhere, I was in heaven for the vast majority of the tour until the end. Moore County, of which Lynchburg is a part, is a dry county and has been for something like a century. The penultimate factoid – 75 million gallons of Jack Daniel’s whiskey in a dry county – erased the serenity imposed by bucolic Lynchburg’s gorgeous scenery and the peacefulness of a small town with one industry and no hurry. One local laughed at me when I asked him where the nearest bar was, which is one reason I returned to Murfreesboro like a man stranded in the desert would run towards ancient Baghdad.)
It started by meeting up with John and Chris, both members of an MTSU message board and both of them loonier than a cathouse full of Cajuns – which is a phrase I picked up at MTSU’s library, incidentally, and seems to convey a generally positive slant.
John contacted me at the beginning of my trip. He was alerted to my project by the miracles of Google’s search algorithms, which allowed him to track me down via the posting of my schedule and, in particular, the MTSU-Western Kentucky game. John extended an offer of tailgating, a spot in his box and a view of Blue Raider football; since then I’ve had more offers, but nothing as generous and earnest as that first. I was horrified.
Let me explain: internet users aren’t all pale, pock marked and fat/or twiggy. That’s just ignorance. And they’re certainly not all schizophrenic freaks mouth breathin’ their way through porn and World of Warcraft potion queues as fast as their right hand can scroll a mousewheel. That is also ignorance, and also maybe a bit of fun at the expense of people who like porn (who doesn’t?) and MMORPGs (might as well make fun of heroin addicts, the poor things). But internet college football fans? The kind who frequent message boards? You can take whatever preconceivied slander you have about internet “eccentrics” and throw out the quotation marks and also the word “eccentrics”, because bat shit crazy motherfuckers who don’t even understand the basic concept of pass protection but nonetheless like to criticize Orlando Pace simply because he was a Buckeye find themselves scared to death when in the presence of your Unrelentingly Awful Internet College Football Fan, and eccentric might as well be a compliment. Have you ever met a komodo dragon? Their saliva produces a virulent bacteria that will almost surely kill you if untreated after a bite, and it looks like they drool blood, and they eat lots of carrion. Komodo dragons would run screaming - at a twelve and a half mile per hour clip - into the warm Indonesian night if they ever came across some of the characters I have interacted with in my three or four years of internet-based college football discussion. And I have met the faces behind some of that interaction, and often times it is a process that leaves me white faced and shaking. This is the result of that internet-old fascination with holding get togethers to put faces to name and other, equally atrocious, behavior that most adults should know better than to partake in.
To put it bluntly, Unrelentingly Awful College Football Fans rule the night. And the day. And, sadly, large swaths of the internet. Particularly in Louisiana. So it was with a good deal of trepidation that I showed up to the Coconut Bay bar off of the Old Fort Parkway in good ol’ M’boro to meet John on Monday night to watch the Redskins lose to the Eagles, or vice versa. (No one present knows who won the game as it was so achingly boring the only consolation we had was that we weren’t paying attention.)
He didn’t arrive for a good twenty or thirty minutes, which gave me plenty of time to eye anyone with a bad haircut, false teeth or questionable genetics and wonder if I’d made a bad choice in casting my lot with Dr. Moreau’s bulletin board children.
John, some thirty minutes into our conversation: Can I be honest with you, Jon? And don’t take this the wrong way: I’m kinda relieved you’re normal.
By the time Chris, John’s compatriot in MTSU message boarding, arrived we were well into discussions of everything that happened to be interesting, which were: the 2007 college football season, past college football seasons, college football recruiting, college football politics, college football in the deep South, women, whiskey, oysters, tailgating, beer, the unsatisfying hole that is pro sports, drunk dialing, white trash jokes, Asian jokes and, during one memorable exchange, the proper way to respond to a text message involving a female proclaiming herself wetter than the hot tub she was in. By the time I left the state of Alabama on Sunday I had met a number of Internet College Football Fans and, without a single exception, they all proved to be exceptionally good at not being serial killers, pathological arsonists, closet playwrights, etc.
Some excerpts from our conversation:
John: You ever been to Woodbury [here pronounced "Wood-BURH"]? That’s country down there. You don’t wanna go there.
Chris: Yeah, that’s Deliverance country. They passed a town ordinance last week. It says divorcees can legally remain brother and sister.
John: You better learn how to pronounce things around here.
Chris: Yeah. How would you pronounce the word L-a-f-a-y-e-t-t-e?
Chris: Around here it’s La-FEY-it. And Shelbyville. We shorten that [quick slashing motion with both hands to indicate large to small, plus emphatic woosh! noise] to Shelville. Try it.
[Mild but good natured applause.]
John: And Knoxville, we shorten that to Assholes.
Chris, relating a story about the legendary MTSU coach James “Boots” Donnelly (140-87-1 in 20 years in Murfreesboro), after I had described my experience in Lincoln watching USC play the Huskers: We were up in Nebraska one year to, y’know, collect a paycheck: come in, get our butts kicked for the home crowd, go home and use that money. Well our coach Boots shows up on Friday for walkthroughs at the stadium at whatever time it was, probably four in the afternoon. He and the players wanted to get a good look at Memorial Stadium. Except [Tom] Osborne and Nebraska are already there. So Boots goes up to Osborne and says, “I’m real sorry, coach. There must’ve been a mix up. I didn’t know you’d be here at the same time practicin’ to play us.” And Osborne goes, “Don’t even worry about it. We were actually practicing for Missouri next week.” (Note: The only time MTSU and Nebraska have ever played was in 1992 [Nebraska beat the Blue Raiders 48-7], the week before the Huskers lost to Washington’s post-national championship squad in Seattle. This does nothing to diminish the awesomeness of the above story.)
Between the two of them they relate some amusing anecdotes, like the time MTSU beat the pants off of a Roger Staubach led Navy team – Pensacola Navy, that is, four years after the former Cowboy great won the Heisman and just months after a stint in Vietnam. Apparently John’s great uncle or grandfather or someone sacked Staubach, “and he wouldn’t stop talking about it.” Douglas S. Malan does an outstanding job documenting the game here.
John and Chris also segued from a discussion of game day tailgating fare into an explanation of Goat ala WKU, based on a story about a Hilltopper fraternity invaded by police who found a malnourished goat in the chapter’s house. What was the goat for?
“I dunno,” Chris said with the kind of defensive shrug that means Not only do I know, I revel in the knowledge because it is at the expense of my arch-nemesis. “They found, like, used condoms in the closet the goat was in.”
John chimed in: “They brought the goat to the vet and they diagnosed him – are we even sure it was a ‘him’? – they diagnosed him with anal bruising.” After my apparently obvious disbelief, he followed with, “That’s a fact. It’s on the internet.”
So, as Chris put it, “half our jokes involve goat fucking. You’re gonna meet a coupla Western Kentucky guys on Thursday, so don’t be surprised if we start baaaahing at them. I’m gonna cook a goat. They’ll eat it, too.”
John: “They better. You ever had goat? It’s damn good if you cook it right. No goat fucker can resist a properly cooked goat.”
The end of that night was a microcosm of my stay in Murfreesboro: after explaining that I spend most nights in my car, Chris did not hesitate to offer his home and the guest bedroom. He was even kind enough to lead me down a back route away from the main police patrolled streets because, as he mentioned, “I think we’ve both had a few beers.” (Hiccup.)
During the rest of my time in Murfreesboro it seemed there was a roving pack of ninjas whose sole purpose, as far as I could tell, was to wait until I had to move my bowels or leave a table or bar or whatever and, when I was gone, deploy shuriken, smoke bombs and grappling hooks to make my bill or tab disappear. I do not exaggerate when I say this happened to me at least once a day for four days, with some days seeing so many ninjas in the periphery of my vision I had to blink and wonder, momentarily, if I was The Tick.
I think much of the kindness was reinforced by the uniqueness of my story. More so than any other place I had been to, people were genuinely amazed and appreciative of what I was doing. They murmured with their appreciation, and it seemed as if they were constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop when I inevitably realized MTSU-WKU would be a waste of my time, and why not just spend a few nights in Knoxville with that checkered endzone, Rocky Top and all that? Locals found it hard to believe that I had picked MTSU, of all teams, to go see a football game. At one point I wished that it wasn’t a Thursday game, because inevitably I had to explain that it fit my schedule to be in Murfreesboro as opposed to an outright pilgrimmage to one of the great college football venues. This sort of made me feel like a prick, but they still threw hamburgers, beer, ribs, whiskey and the like at me for something like eight hours straight on game day. The surreal nature of our meeting – me, in my first southern state of the trip, them, confused and maybe a little bit happy that I had chosen Murfreesboro – culminated in my being interviewed by a live sports talk station and being featured in The Daily News Journal. It’s a good thing I wasn’t drinking whiskey at the time because a) I didn’t realize it was a live interview and b) whiskey makes me cuss/pee in public/injure my knuckles/etc.
I cannot explain how weird it was to be followed around by a cameraman. At one point I found myself genuinely interested in helping a kid play NCAA ’07 (as MTSU vs WKU, naturally) on a Playstation set up at our tailgate. He just wanted to mash buttons. I wanted him to go through his progressions and always check down to the safe throw if necessary. He was probably three. I nonetheless explained down and distance theory to him. Then I caught sight of the cameraman snapping photos and I wondered if this was indeed a good photo-op, but wouldn’t it look weird if I’m shot manipulating the kid’s hands while he has the controller in his lap, and do they take implied paedophilia as seriously as the British do?, and what the hell, why would you call a draw on 3rd-and-26?! Gimme that controller.
At that point the alcohol was probably peaking in my blood stream.
Next: Sororities, sundresses, and… ‘Bama.