OXFORD, MS - SEPTEMBER 15: Ole Miss Rebels fans gather at The Grove prior to the start of their game with the Texas Longhorns at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium on September 15, 2012 in Oxford, Mississippi. (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
"Y'all ‘bout to be damn happy."
Yes, yes we were. The jolly man with the white beard and the Texas shirt was on his way out of Gus's Fried Chicken on Front Street. Longhorn Santa's two word verdict proved prophetic. Damn happy indeed. Of course, I was already damn happy. Clean shirt, beautiful wife, pristine day, fine company, college football to come...a superb circumstance even without the life-affirming spicy crisp of the Memphis yard bird. Did I mention the clean shirt? Damn happy, certainly a damn sight happier than putting on day-old clothes in the Embassy Suites at the Minneapolis Airport.
Did I mention the dead body in the lobby?
"So they lost your luggage then."
You can never tell whether a Minnesotan is asking a question or making a declarative. Vern Den Drunkensen was called from the bar to drive us in the shuttle bus over to the Hilton to pick up some contact lens solution. I was just hoping that disaster wouldn't strike in the quarter mile from one parking lot to the other. I thought the Swedes were a risk-averse people who gave humanity the Volvo and really thin pancakes? No matter, he brought us safely back to Woolley's Steak House, which, given that it occupies one corner of an Embassy Suites with the major selling point of its ready access to Mall of America, is a far better restaurant than it has any right to be, especially the local beers on tap, washing away a memorable travel day that started with cancelled flights and the twin realizations that, yes, Austin to Memphis by way of Minnesota makes perfect sense and that, no, American Airlines has no real interest in ensuring your bags accompany you when they pass you on to another carrier. Why do you ask?
The next morning's wake-up call brought with it the need of ibuprofen and the promise of a new day, if not new clothes. The shirt got the quick self-smell test. I pronounced it good and buttoned it up; the alternative was the paper thin Delta Sky Team tee, helpfully included in the emergency toiletries kit. I wasn't that desperate. Yet. My phone rang. It was one of the Atkins, our travelling companions. They met at St. Mary's law school. Winn was the gregarious and comradely lobbyist for Diageo, the enormous UK-based spirits producer. Sara was the whip-smart, charming and exceedingly patient better half. They were perfect complements.
"Our trip just got a lot weirder."
"Weirder" was a funny adjective. Another cancelled flight would just be aggravating, not weird. This was Sara on the phone, an even-tempered and formidable Texas woman. She was more shocked than angry, more nervous than despondent. I had little idea of what she would say next, but was secretly hoping maybe we had a baggage mix-up with a Chicago mob boss, hijinks would follow and Kyle Chandler would play me in the madcap straight-to-video movie version.
No such luck. Some unfortunate soul had gone Greg Louganis into the atrium, missing the pool by a wide margin, especially considering that it was outside. The resulting crime scene tape blocked off most of the first floor and brought with it an abundance of cops, CSI and a highly compromised breakfast buffet. The patrons were rewarded with free lattes.
I thought this was a nice gesture, but it is actually standard operating procedure in the Embassy Suites manager's handbook, section 34.45 (b) Tragedies and Natural Disasters, which specifically authorizes free coffee drinks. Of course, Embassy Suites is a Hilton value property. Free latte does rank ahead of bonus cinnamon roll icing (Hampton Inn), but well behind mimosas (Doubletree) or chair massages (Hilton).
We skipped the omelet station (too many moving parts) and hit the airport. Memphis awaited. God Bless Delta.
The Atkins were reunited with their luggage at roughly 12:15, Memphis time. Did the handlers somehow sense that these were the bags of the litigious? Because the Jones luggage remained trapped in the Purgatory of American Airlines. Apparently the fifty dollars worth of baggage fees was an inadequate tithe to salve the bloodlust of the travel gods. Traveling with two lawyers on retainer is helpful, but they cannot make bags appear out of thin air any more than they can make a ticket disappear in a South Texas courthouse...wait, bad example.
In a remarkable show of traveler's solidarity, our friends stayed in the clothes they put on 24-hours earlier. The four of us took John Hiatt's advice.
If we could just get off-a that beat little girl
Maybe we could find the groove
At least we can get a decent meal
Down at the Rendez-vous
The Rendezvous is a giant underground red brick bunker accessible only by alley. If money was never laundered there-and I can't imagine that it wasn't-then it should have been. They use red beans and rice as a palate cleanser, followed by a cheese and sausage appetizer, then enough ribs and pork shoulder to give Chris Farley a coronary...wait, bad example. They also serve Michelob on tap. I kept ordering them and singing, "here's to good friends, tonight is kind of special" then stopping before the bridge because that's actually the Lowenbrau song. In any case, it is always 1974 when you are drinking Michelob on tap. What Michelob is not, however, is a Diageo product. You know what is? Guinness. But drinking Guinness at 2:00 in the afternoon with a 3000 calorie meal would have led to, well let's face it, a very pleasant nap. But we would have missed the ducks at the Peabody.
The ducks are overrated. What's not is the immense buying power of Longhorn nation. For an afternoon anyway, the Peabody lobby bar might as well have been the Adolphus, with enough Rolexes to stock every pawnshop in Memphis. Trust me; that's a hell of a lot of pawnshops.
Back at the hotel, still no bags. Our companions dressed for dinner. I removed my shirt, waved it around the balcony awhile, realized Beale Street fresh air smells far more offensive than me, and put it back on. Now for the third time.
We ate at Sweet Grass. I harbored orderer's regret for passing on the shrimp and grits. The other mistake I made was assuming I could wait out the opening band across the street and take in The Reverend Horton Heat late night. In any random group, I am rarely the "fun one" and this was clearly an overreach on my part. A check of my watch showed that I was half past 45 and a long way from the Continental Club, circa 1988. When the Reverend opened his show, I was in a cab on the way back to a hotel. And I still didn't have a clean shirt. At least that was a fair reflection of my college days.
The cab driver enjoyed our travel story. "You say you went to Minnesota? That's cray-zee, man. What you gonna do on the way back, go through Seattle?"
Our new friend James looked a fair amount like the post-incarceration version of Steve Earle. He was a little bit bug-eyed, a lot skittish and made me wonder if somewhere he didn't have a "momma never loved me" tattoo. What he did have were two long lost bags and they sat before me only because of his heroic efforts to unload and reload his van to put our stop first. I took out my money clip to make it worth his while and he looked at me like a goat looks at a new gate. He hesitated, then took the money.
American Airlines may hate college football fans, but there is still good in the world. I raced the bags up stairs.
And on the third day, we arose, and sitteth among the genteel in the raiment of burnt orange. Erin and I might as well have been dressed for the prom. I was starched, pressed and booted. E went with a short dress and a sweet pair of Tony Lama's. This was Ole Miss, after all, not a t-shirt and shorts crowd. We brought it. Just in time for Gus's Fried Chicken and two seats on a pimped-out Sprinter bus, complete with strobe lights and stripper's pole. Because what fourteen 40-something Texas fans really need is the means to go 1:00 am hip-hop burlesque show on the way back from a football game.
The Grove lives up to its billing. There really is very little to add to the praise chorus; the only surprise is how close the tents are, literally wall-to-wall. The grid is precise; everyone has their place and finding anyone in this place borders on the impossible. People compare it to a quilt from above, but that's the wrong image. With each pointed top carefully centered on a square and bordered on all sides, it must resemble sorts on an old printing press form. Some giant typesetter in the sky could just take thumb and forefinger and switch the tents around and suddenly the Harrisons from Tupelo are over by the Nelsons from Jackson, who've been swapped with the Carters from Natchez.
How any Longhorns managed to crack this secret society is beyond me, but there we were, in a finely stocked tent (Did I mention we were traveling with a liquor lobbyist?) right in the middle of the well-heeled sons and daughters of Mississippi. We navigated by hanging a left at the Theta tent. Winn lamented that he had lost his "rush captain" t-shirt long ago. We broke out the whiskey, took it all in and not a harsh word was spoken. These are good people, the Ole Miss faithful.
Folks came and went, including Longhorns Cameron Rupp and Brooks Keischnick. For a moment there, I hoped a crew of drunken Ole Miss frat boys would challenge our tent to a friendly (or not) game of softball. I explained to Erin that Mr. Keischnick had his name on the stadium. There's a picture of the two of them on my i-Phone. They're an attractive couple, I must admit. I could have resorted to the lament of the jealous: "What's he got that I ain't got?" But that would have only resulted in: "Uhm, shoulders?" and gone downhill from there. I know my limits.
The actual contest was anti-climactic, which was just fine for Texas fans. Look, I've written about hundreds of football games at this point of my life and folks far more talented than me have already described this one. Here's what happened. Every Texas drive either ended with a breathtaking touchdown play or a mercy-killing touchdown at the end of a brutal extended series of plays. Every Ole Miss drive ended with a breathtaking touchdown play or a turnover, roughly in equal amounts. Texas played offense like Oregon half the game and Wisconsin (hum, last year's version) the other half. They pretty much played Oklahoma State's defense throughout, not what we were promised, but a beat down nonetheless.
It made for a sweet walk back to the disco bus.
We arrived back in Memphis and went to bed at 2:20. We would awake at 4:40 and take our last cab ride. In the intervening two hours, I dreamed of fine friends, whiskey and fried chicken. Of perfect late September days and southern hospitality. Of youthful memories and road trips and rock and roll. Of rivals and anticipation and girls in sundresses. Of college football and everything that surrounds it...
And if that isn't heaven, then I don't know what is.