My brother in law glances over at me from the passenger seat. Grinning from ear to ear as we inch past the white columns and red brick of the Fraternity Row entrance grandly announcing that we're almost there. The sultry aroma of bourbon from our red solo cups mingles with the citrus undertones of vodka tonics wafting from the back seat where our wives giggle and point at coat and tied, shabby haired freshman making their way to "the house" to receive their marching orders. The Pride of the South playing softly under our conversations of predicted outcomes, possible ex-girlfriend sightings and our expectations for a perfect fall afternoon. It's game day baby.
After what feels like a thousand Christmas mornings, we're parked near the union. We casually yet expeditiously unload the coolers, two hot tub sized bags of glass bottle delight and a few serving necessities and begin the slow, glorious trek to our tent. It's early, 8:00 am. It feels like it's 5:30 due to the late night pre-game celebrations on the square the previous evening. Larry's, The Grocery, hell even the Library, how I adore thee. The sun is peaking through the oaks, casting shadows at our feet that have remained unchanged for a hundred years. As I lumber through the dewy grass, I wonder if those first Rebel celebrants from the late 1800's felt this same rush of subdued enthusiasm. The feeling of childish excitement combined with mature serenity. There is no other place on earth that makes me feel this way. I ponder about the depth of this realization. On earth. This huge planet. Millions upon hundreds of millions of square miles of surface area, and I long for this. One. Place. Granted, I've never taken in the Himalayan mountains. I've never been to the Australian outback, and I've never seen the tallest water fall on earth. But as beautiful and serene as those places probably are, they will never stir my soul into this level of peace and joy. They'll never inspire me to poetry. They'll never make me wish that should I die, let it be here, now.
Having stopped repeatedly to chat up old friends, make a few new ones and admire the local flavor to the chagrin of our "dates", we find our tent, unfold some chairs and take our positions while the girls unpack bags and discuss the finer points of food service, Grove fashion and collegiate young men. I graciously accept my refill of breakfast sauce, eaaaasssseeee back in my chair, lower my shades and sink comfortably into the most relaxing position known to mankind. I am completely at peace. 100% relaxed, happy and content with just a hint of expectation which seems to be flirting with possibility. We have 5 hours till game time and I'm going to soak in every single second. Missing nothing.
Ahhh, the spectacle of the Grove. There are other tailgating venues in the SEC. Some may even come close to rivaling the Grove in beauty and tradition. But nothing can come close to capturing the feeling and ambiance of game day like the Grove. This isn't some concrete parking lot littered with tents, chairs, warming beer and stale chips. It's not a last minute attempt to accommodate a few hundred people with nothing better to do on a Saturday afternoon. It's an event within itself. But at the same time it doesn't feel rehearsed or fake. It doesn't feel antagonistic and pretentious. It feels inclusive and warm. It feels welcoming and forgiving. There are tents with sterling silver chandeliers and white gloved servers next to a simple table and four plain chairs. It's a 700 dollar sun dress walking with a 20 dollar tie and 30 dollar khakis. It's the multi-million dollar trust fund hero tossing a football with a kid who'll never attend college. It's Ole Miss fans offering LSU fans a drink poured under a table and with a subtle wink. It's a wide open, yet classy party with no invite lists, no exclusions or prerequisites. Other schools tailgate, we Grove.
We enjoy, ney revel in the pomp and circumstance. It's almost tongue in cheek. It's an unwritten rule that we class the joint up a bit for the visual and contextual benefit of all, knowing full well that the wheels come off after a victory. It's a party at the Bunny Ranch with everyone dressed in black tie. We all know it'll be insane later, but for now, we'll remain calm, classy, subdued. There's an inherent nobility about choosing the difficult and restrained route. Other schools proclaim their decision to be comfortable and footloose on game day. They proudly sport their tank tops, jorts, babyphat t's and crocks. Exclaiming that they prefer to be casual rather than "snobby". It's a party, not a funeral they profess. I couldn't disagree more. They take the easiest, cheapest, most available route to tailgating. Nothing has ever been gained from taking the easy road. Tailgating in the SEC is a journey across the Atlantic, The Grove on game day is a round trip to the Moon. The Grove is a bit more refined, more gentile. It's the church of the south. It's spiritually nourishing, inviting, friendly and accepting. But show the proper respect. Know that you are part of something special and act like it, for now (wink). The Grove is a warm fuzzy blanket. It's Hotty Toddy echoing through ancient boughs, it's Yale blue and Harvard red banners, bunting and signage proclaiming Ole Miss the Gentleman's Harvard of the South. But most of all, and perhaps most encompassing, it's the great Satchmo professing... "What a Wonderful World".
Hotty F'n Toddy