Ode to the oaks

Posted by on Feb 20, 2013 in On The Record | Comments Off

A fourth generation Alabamian, Wayne Flynt taught history at Auburn from 1977 until his retirement in 2005 and has written 11 books—most recently the memoir Keeping the Faith: Ordinary People, Extraordinary Lives (University of Alabama Press, 2011). His research focuses on Southern culture, Alabama politics, Southern religion, education reform and poverty. Auburn Magazine guest contributor Winter 2012.

I’m a historian by trade and a preacher by avocation. Wearing either professional hat, I come to the same conclusion: All living things die. What counts is memory. As the historical/theological saying goes, “As long as anyone alive remembers a person or thing, it continues to live in memory.”

Alive or dead, there is one memory of the oak trees at Toomer’s Corner that will live as long as I do and probably as long as my grandson does. If I remember accurately, the year was 2007, and the opponent was Kansas State. It was a typically humid, miserable September evening made worse by a thunderstorm that blew in just before the game.

Six-year-old Dallas was in town without his dad, a proud Auburn University graduate and software designer who couldn’t get away from his job in Seattle. It was Dallas’ first live Auburn football game, and I planned the full Auburn experience. We parked near College Street north of the railroad tracks. That way, after the game ended, we could walk from the stadium to Toomer’s Corner, where he could roll the oak trees, then we could continue north on College Street to our car.

It never occurred to me that Auburn might lose. But as the game took a perilous turn and we trailed most of the evening, I began to suggest that we might want to leave early to beat the traffic. (I hadn’t bothered to tell Dallas that we don’t roll the trees when Auburn loses, a vital detail grandfathers sometimes keep from innocent children.)

Fortified by a wad of cotton candy, a bag of popcorn and a large soft drink (grandfathers often also ignore nutrition when alone with their grandsons), Dallas was by then on a sugar high and in no mood to discuss a losing option. So we remained, Auburn mounted a patented comeback, and we won.

That began a long streak of victories for the Seattle whiz kid that included three more home games, two Atlanta bowl games, one Southeastern Conference matchup and a national championship game. Not until five years later did Dallas witness in person an Auburn defeat. In fact, the family joke became a proposal I whimsically contemplated sending to Auburn’s coaching staff: They should send the team jet to pick Dallas up in Seattle and fly him to every Auburn game, because he had never seen them lose (a sort of Seattle good luck charm on two legs).

Anyway, it was not so much the victory that night that I will always remember. It was the aftermath. After the game, we walked hurriedly to Toomer’s Corner, where the oaks were already covered with tissue paper, clinging, wet, sometimes sagging off the trees.

Dallas could only reach the bottom rolls that bounced off the wet limbs and leaves but managed to scurry between the forest of big folks’ legs until he carried a full armload of soggy tissue clinging to nearly every inch of his body. Little more than a huge grin and sparkling black eyes distinguished the little boy from an Egyptian mummy.  Shreds of paper clung to his hair, stuck out from his shoes and trailed him down the pavement.

Fans wandering down College Street and meeting us as we strolled hand-in-hand toward the car could not contain a smile, pointing to the cute kid encased in wet toilet tissue, sometimes even snapping his photograph. When he called his father in Seattle after we arrived home, he strolled from room to room, never stopping his pacing or rapid-fire recital of every moment of the evening (whether from the victory, the excitement of rolling the oaks or the sugar high, I cannot say).

When Dallas returned to Seattle, his mother, Kelley, told me that crinkly, dirty toilet tissue from the oak trees took up most of the space in his carry-on. Upon reaching his house, he packed it away in the upper drawer of his dresser among his other childhood treasures.

When I decided to describe this magical evening with my grandson, I called him to fact-check my memory and to ask if he still had the tissue in his dresser drawer.

“Yep,” came the reply, still right where he put it that evening.

For Dallas and me, the oak trees will someday be gone. But that memory? Never!