Tusk to Tail: A drink to remember, another to forget
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"This blows," read the first text.
"Somebody call Bielema's room."
It was 4 o'clock Saturday morning, and Tusk to Tail was waking from a short night's sleep throughout hotels and the Little Rock members' homes. In little more than an hour, the gang would board a chartered mini-bus from Little Rock Tours to head to Oxford, Miss., for the Ole Miss game. Bielema and his team were still two hours from what the Head Hog called an "early wakeup call" in Memphis.
I had set two alarms in two rooms, a backup to ensure that I didn't snooze past our designated meeting. My dog, a twelve-pound charged electron bouncing around the house most mornings, lay still at the foot of the bed and groaned. Her message was clear. "You've got issues, dude."
The bus was booked this summer, long before the 11 a.m. kickoff was announced. This week we began to call it the "short bus," because it takes a special class of fans to awake before dawn and commit 15 hours of their day to see a Razorback team riding a six-game losing streak into Oxford.
You would think the early departure would alter Tusk to Tail's mobile party plans. You would be wrong. A cardboard box filled with bottles of vodka, sweet tea vodka, and whiskey was carted on board along with three coolers full of beer, sodas, water, and various cocktail mixers. I was asked if I would like a drink shortly after boarding.
"I think I'll wait until after sunrise," I replied. The men of Tusk to Tail have standards.
Soon the seal was cracked, and red Solo cups were filled with Bloody Marys and our signature John Daly blend of sweet tea vodka and lemonade by the time the short bus rolled past Brinkley. A DVD of photos shot by Mark Wagner during the Hogs' 2010 run to the Sugar Bowl played on the bus's dropdown screens. The DVD may have contributed to the drinking.
On one hand, the stroll down Memory Lane reminded us of the euphoria a successful season brings. When we win, everything just feels better, including the long trips home from Dallas and Athens, Ga. Each game recalled specific memories, ranging from heroic efforts by Greg Childs and Jake Bequette against Georgia to weather delays and Joe Adams's 97-yard punt return against Ole Miss.
But reliving those feelings really highlighted the void in which we are currently mired. "One drink to remember, then another to forget," as the Dave Matthews Band song says.
Once the DVD ended, I began playing a compilation of various songs I had downloaded at home, featuring a little something for just about each of the 21 passengers. Sean Casey enjoyed the tracks by Radiohead and Jack White, while Kara Cullins expressed her appreciation for the Black Crowes and 80s hair metal songs of Skid Row. Sam Atkinson got some pep in his step for Merle Haggard, and Scott Audrain laughed when I dedicated B.B. King's "The Thrill is Gone" to this season of Arkansas football.
The short bus was rocking and rolling as we crossed the Mississippi state line. It truly felt like we had attached wheels to our tailgate tent back home. All of the essential food groups were represented on the luggage rack-turned-buffet table, most notably vodka and donuts. Good music, good friends, good times.
There was just one problem. We had to pee. All 21 of us.
Our driver took an exit featuring multiple gas stations and restaurants, so that we could divide and conquer the toilets of the Magnolia State. While most of our crew went into the Circle K or Waffle House next door, my son and I chose another fast food restaurant nearby. Upon returning, we laughed as we noticed several cups from our bus lined atop the video rental kiosk outside. It appeared that the gang got all the way to the front door before remembering that the rest of the world did not carry cocktails with them while shopping at 9 in the morning. Short bus, indeed.
The lack of sleep and abundance of alcohol had left our mobile party rather groggy by the time we were dropped off at the tailgater's holy land known as The Grove. So of course I ran into just about everyone I knew at the game. I saw old friends from high school and church, and parents of my son's friends from his school. Someone called my name across the crowded stadium concourse, but I wasn't sure who it was, so I replied with the most heartfelt "Hey, man!" I could muster.
I knew that a friend from college named Rob Jarrett was going to be there, but the early kickoff was making it difficult to meet before the game. Imagine my surprise when I walked to my seats and found him sitting directly across the aisle. Rob had some extra seats available in front of him, so my son and I joined him to catch up on what had been happening the past twenty years since graduation. I told Rob about everything I've done as the game unfolded before us. Several of the neighboring fans seemed quite interested, as they often turned around and stared while I talked throughout the first quarter.
The game itself had its high points and lows. The Hogs fought hard, and kept the game fairly close, but the resulting seventh loss sets a record of Razorback futility. Whereas conventional wisdom had formerly suggested that Bielema did not have the quantity or quality of players he needed to win in the SEC, it seems the pendulum has begun to swing toward blaming coaches for some of the game's blunders. The failed halfback pass attempt designed for Jonathan Williams and the ensuing calls made during long second and third downs seemed particularly egregious.
During halftime, my son ran into one of his good friends from home, and asked if the friend could ride back with us and spend the night. I had no reason to say no, but I wanted to check with the boy's mother first. I told her about the short bus, and explained that it was a family-friendly environment.
"I didn't have my first drink until after sunrise," I said.
She was not as impressed as I had hoped, but she consented nonetheless.
The ride home was much more subdued as we drove through the darkness. Some visited, others slept, while still others checked their smartphones to see what they had missed during the day.
Most of our Northwest Arkansas natives chose to continue driving home once we debarked the short bus. The Little Rock contingent quietly drove home to watch the remainder of the Alabama-LSU game.
Though the money we paid to charter the bus may have been better spent on Memphis hotels, nobody seemed to regret going. And despite losing the past two games to former Arkansas State coaches, most of Tusk to Tail seemed optimistic about the future. We were reminded that when Auburn and Ole Miss hired their new coaches in the past two years, they were absolutely horrible. Now, each team could finish in the vicinity of 10 wins this season.
Will Arkansas ever bounce back like that? It remains to be seen, but one thing is for certain. Once the Hogs start winning consistently, Tusk to Tail is going to need a bigger bus.